Thursday, July 24, 2014

Harry Barnes

Four years ago, Harrison Barnes was the No. 1 prospect in the country. In terms of hype, he wasn't that far off from where Andrew Wiggins is now. That may seem hard to believe, but consider this tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski from June 2011:

Adrian Wojnarowski: An NBA scout gushing over UNC's Harrison Barnes battling KDurant at Chicago camp last night. "Top pick in the next draft -- by far," he says!/WojYahooNBA/status/85753066812485634

Barnes certainly looked the part. At 6'8 230, he was an elite athlete with prototype size for a wing scorer. He's a guy who could play far above the rim who also had range on his jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor.

He had an up-and-down freshman season at UNC, but he still showed enough potential to where he would have almost certainly been a Top 5 pick in 2011. After all, Derrick Williams went No. 2 in that year's draft and Tristan Thompson came off the board at No. 4. It wasn't until Barnes sophomore season, when he was unable to turn potential into elite production, that the bloom began to fall off the rose for him as a prospect.

Which brings us back to the Wiggins comparison. Take a look at their freshman seasons in college and tell me if you notice any similarities:


The two red flags that jump out to me for both players are the average three-point shooting numbers and the negative assist-to-turnover ratios. A perimeter player who can't consistently stretch the floor or make good decisions with the ball in his hands has a ceiling on how good he can be, no matter how athletic he is.

This doesn't mean Wiggins isn't going to be an excellent NBA player, but I say that as someone who hasn't given up on Barnes at all. After all, the guy is still only 22 - he played on the same high school team as Doug McDermott and he was competing at a significantly higher level of competition than the Missouri Valley Conference and the new Big East in the last two seasons.

After being force fed minutes as a rookie in Golden State, Barnes was stuck in a tough position in his second season in the league. The Warriors signed Andre Iguodala to play over him, sending him to the bench, where he struggled due to a lot of turnover at the backup PG position and the lack of a consistent playmaker who could create shots for him. Despite his struggles, he's still an elite athlete with great size who projects as a high-level 3-and-D player who could average around 15+ a night when he reaches his prime, which won't be until 2020, when he is 27-28.

If Barnes can't improve as a passer or shooter, though, it's hard to see him living up to the hype that accompanied him coming out of high school and his first season of college. That's something to keep in mind about Wiggins, who shot 15% from 3 and averaged 0.3 assists a game in Las Vegas.

And yes, this dunk is very impressive:

But so was this:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Daryl Morey's Philosophy

If one thing in the Rockets off-season from hell symbolizes the frustrations many have with Daryl Morey, it was during their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, when he put Carmelo in a jersey with Jeremy Lin's number on it. Under Morey, Houston has developed the reputation of a franchise that treats its players like commodities, assets to be accumulated and then flipped. Of course, that's the attitude of every NBA team on some level, but few take it to the extent of the Rockets.

If you take a look at their rosters since Morey came to Houston, the lack of continuity is pretty glaring. Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are their two longest-tenured players and they came into the league two years ago. The approach got them two stars in their prime in James Harden and Dwight Howard, but it may have showed its downside this off-season, when they lost Chandler Parsons and appear to have taken a step backwards after improving their win total in each of the last 3 seasons.

According to Morey, the Rockets didn't match Parsons offer sheet with the Mavs because it was one ofthe most "untradeable" contracts in the league. That's just how they view their roster - does anyone think Trevor Ariza finishes out his new 4-year deal in Houston?

However, there is some upside to being treated like a commodity. No one in Houston gets judged off their reputation or their personality - everyone gets a fair shake. Under Morey and Kevin McHale, the Rockets run a genuine meritocracy, where playing time is given out based on merit, not past performance or contracts. They may treat everyone like a number, but they also let the numbers speak for themselves.

There are examples up and down their roster. They brought in Patrick Beverley on a minimum contract and let him compete with Jeremy Lin for the starting PG spot, even though they signed Lin to a 3-year $25 million deal. Lin had the gaudier scoring average and the bigger name, but Beverley was a better defender and the more complete player, making him a better fit next to Harden. While some NBA teams give out backup PG spots based on name value and starting spots on tenure, the Rockets signed a guy off the street and gave him a fair chance to compete.

Over the last two seasons, Houston held an open competition at PF that featured five different first-round picks - Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jones and Motiejunas. Patterson, Morris and Robinson were all drafted higher than Jones and Motiejunas was a better fit with the Rockets 3's and dunks philosophy, but Jones proved he was the best two-way player of the bunch and earned the starting spot. That may sound like it the standard operating procedure in the NBA, but it's really not.

Just look at what happened in last year's playoffs, when Troy Daniels, an undrafted free agent from VCU, earned a spot in their rotation with a three-point shooting barrage. McHale had to bench Francisco Garcia, a well-respected 10-year veteran, in order to give Daniels a chance. Now, after scoring 17 points in a playoff game, including hitting a game-winner, Daniels has a guaranteed contract and a chance to stick in the NBA long-term. Not many teams would have been willing to give an UDFA like Daniels a real chance, especially over a locker room leader with intangibles like Garcia.

This season, after clearing out their bench, the Rockets will have plenty of openings in their rotation. That means a real chance for guys like Isaiah Canaan, Nick Johnson and Robert Covington. All three have a chance to stick in the league, but none has the talent to where it's any type of certainty. They don't have more talent than a lot of other guys who were taken in the second round, but they are playing for an organization with no compunctions about giving unproven guys a chance.

The playoffs were filled with teams and coaching staffs who chose to go down with their beloved veterans rather than divvy out playing time based on merit. Oklahoma City, where Scott Brooks fascination with Derek Fisher became a running joke, was the most egregious example, but they were hardly the only one. See: Battier, Shane and Haslem, Udonis in Miami. Those guys were no longer NBA players by the end of last season, but they received shot after shot because of who they were, not what they could do. That kind of thing would never happen in Houston, which is one of the reasons Morey is such a polarizing figure in the league.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

LeBron and Wiggins

When projecting players to the NBA, one of the leading indicators of future stardom is plus size and athleticism for their position. All things being equal, you want to be longer and more athletic than everyone you face. That's why Russell Westbrook plays as a PG instead of a SG - he has elite size for PG's and average to below-average size for SG's - and why Orlando tried to pull the same trick with Victor Oladipo last year.

The same holds true on the wings, even though the SG and SF are interchangeable in the modern NBA. No matter how they divide up their responsibilities on offense, every team in the NBA is going to start a longer (SF) and a smaller (SG) wing. As a result, the guy playing as a SF is going to face longer and more athletic defenders on a nightly basis. Here's a look at the starting wings in the East playoff teams last year:

1) Lance Stephenson, Paul George

2) Dwyane Wade, LeBron James

3) Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan

4) Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy

5) Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza

6) Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson

7) Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

8) Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll

Would you rather be guarded by the guys in Column A or Column B?

If Wiggins (6'8 200 with a 7'0 wingspan) is being defended by the guys in Column B, he's seeing guys who are just as long and who are elite athletes in his own right. If he's being defended by a lot of the guys in Column A, he's staring down at players who are much smaller than him. As he's shown in summer league, he's not the most skilled player in the world, so you can see why the Cavs would want to maximize his advantage in length and athleticism as much as possible.

However, that only works if he's playing with a SG as big and as athletic as he is. You can call him a SG, but if you start him with a 6'5-6'6 wing, he's still going to face the other teams SF's on a nightly basis. In other words, in order to maximize Wiggins, you want to play him with a wing player whose bigger, more athletic and more skilled than he is. Coming into the draft, I was worried about Wiggins because there didn't seem like many scenario where that would happen.

And then, LeBron.

Playing with LeBron is the best thing that could have happened to Wiggins. The difference in potential match-ups is staggering. Just a few more examples from this year's Western playoff teams - Wiggins is being defended by JJ Redick instead of Matt Barnes, Monta Ellis instead of Shawn Marion, Danny Green instead of Kawhi Leonard. As a rule, that would be the pattern for him for the next 5+ years.

The Cavs would have an overwhelming advantage in size and athleticism on the perimeter. Wiggins and LeBron could absolutely suffocate a team on defense and allow Kyrie Irving to play as little D as possible. They could be like a younger version of Wade and LeBron, using their size and athleticism to blitz the ball, protect the rim and force TO's.

Wiggins would not have a ton of offensive responsibility early in his career and could focus on playing defense, getting out in transition and cutting to the basket. Meanwhile, as LeBron got older, he would have Wiggins around to compensate for any loss in athleticism. They fit together really well and could form the best wing combo in the NBA in a short amount of time.

The Cavs are built a lot like the Heat in the sense that they aren't a very big team upfront. Anderson Varejao is an undersized C, Tristan Thompson is an undersized PF and Anthony Bennett is more combo forward than big man. And if you're going to be small on the backline of the defense, you had better be big up top.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bruno Caboclo

Bruno Caboclo's stats though his first three games in Las Vegas don't really jump off the page, but that's not really what Summer League is about. Summer League is about getting rookies acclimated to more of an NBA-type atmosphere, giving them a first look at the philosophy and play calls of new their team and showing flashes of what they could do at the next level in a few years. From that perspective, Caboclo has been a revelation.

When you watch him play, the first thing you notice about him are his physical dimensions - 6'9 205 with a 7'7 (!!!) wingspan. The Raptors starting center in Vegas, Hassan Whiteside, is a fairly freakishly proportioned player in his own right, with a 7'5 wingspan ... and he's not nearly as long as their SF! In essence, Toronto has two centers on the floor the entire game, except one of them is a perimeter player who can handle the ball and shoot 3's.

In the first few minutes of their game against the Mavericks this week, Bruno got his hands on a number of balls on the defensive side of the floor. He just cuts off a huge portion of the floor - when he's playing help-side defense, it's as if there's a whole other rim protector out there. Human beings are juts not supposed to be as long and athletic as Bruno. It's like the Raptors smuggled the NBA 2K14 create-a-player function into real life.

His offense is still very much a work in progress and you can see why Fran Fraschilla famously said he was "two years away from being two years away" on draft night. Nevertheless, you can also see the ball-handling and shooting ability for a guy his size and I even saw him drain a step-back 3 at one point. When you are watching a young guy for the first time, that's the kind of play that makes you sit up and take notice because there's just no way to defend it.

In terms of length, speed and athleticism, Bruno is as impressive as anyone whose come into the league in the last few years. From a physical perspective, the only guys who made a similar impression on me the first time I saw them play were Giannis, Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond. In a league full of people with top 1% athletic ability, those three are in the top 1% of the top 1%. And if you are going to bet on something, you can do a lot worse than that.

At this stage in his career, it's hard to say how good he will end up being and the "Brazilian Kevin Durant" stuff may end up unfairly hanging over him. You don't want to compare anyone to KD because that type of consistency as a shooter and ball-handler at 6'11+ is pretty much completely unprecedented. Here's the crazy part, though - Bruno is the first guy whose ever had the physical ability to contest KD's shot and play a step off him.

If you want to play good defense on any perimeter player, the first step is to put a guy whose longer and more athletic on him. There's no one who fits that category for KD in the NBA, at least until now. That alone makes Bruno Caboclo an incredibly interesting prospect - he's a SF with the potential to protect the rim like a C. The two most important things a team needs  in the modern NBA are floor spacing and interior defense and he has them in spades.

Even if Bruno's offensive game never takes a step forward, he's still going to have a long NBA career as a two-way frontcourt player who can give his team a ton of line-up versatility. He probably needs a lot of time in the D-League to refine his game, but there's no real ceiling to how good he can be. A SF with a 7'7 wingspan fundamentally alters the geometry of the floor. In and of itself, that's probably worth a Top 20 pick.