Thursday, December 18, 2014

OKC and The Great Man Theory of History

My favorite play from OKC season 2.0 may have been a play that never even happened. Last Thursday, in the first half of a TNT game against the Cavs, Kevin Durant wound up in a switch with Matthew Dellavedova on the block. Jeremy Lamb has the ball on the wing, looks off Durant and then swings it to the other side of the court. Durant's reaction, which was nothing short of apoplectic, was something Kobe would have been proud of.



By the end, he seems as much incredulous as angry. Like, what does Lamb think this is? The whole point of OKC's offense is to get Kevin Durant the ball. When KD has a little buddy like Dellavedova (6'4 200) on his back, you can abandon whatever Plan A was and just give him the damn ball.

Of course, what's crazy about KD is that just about everyone is a little buddy to him. The first rule of playing good defense is to be longer and faster than the guy you are guarding. Durant is 6'11 235 with a 7'4 wingspan - there's no one in the NBA who is both longer and faster than him. Even Anthony Davis and his prodigiously long arms (7'5 wingspan) allow him to go reach-for-reach with Durant, not tower over him. KD, in contrast, can unfurl his arms from the bannisters and overwhelm almost any other perimeter player.

What makes the Thunder so dangerous is you can say the same thing about Westbrook. There are guys who are longer than Russ (6'3 185 with a 6'7 wingspan) but there is no one out there who is faster and more athletic than him. As Mark Jackson talked about on the telecast the other night, he played PG for a very long time in the NBA - 1987 to 2004 - and he never saw a PG with the athletic ability of Rose and Westbrook.

There's no one in the NBA who can guard Westbrook 1-on-1 and there's no one who can guard Durant 1-on-1. They may have lost the Finals to LeBron and Wade, but it wasn't because they weren't scoring at will on those guys. They were. When you have two guys like that, you don't need to have too complicated an offense. At the end of the game, the only play Scott Brooks needs to use is everyone get the hell out of the way so one of my guys can score. The Thunder can run the spread pick-and-roll as well as anyone else, but they might be the only team who can isolate their top scorers and be just as efficient.

They haven't won a title yet, but they've done about everything else:

2010 (21) - Lose to Lakers (eventual champs) in 6 games
2011 (22) - Defeat Nuggets in 5, Grizzlies in 7, lose to Mavs (eventual champs) in 5
2012 (23) - Defeat Mavs in 4, Lakers in 5, Spurs in 6, lose to Heat (champs) in 5
2013 (24) - Defeat Rockets in 7, lose to Grizzlies in 5
2014 (25) - Defeat Grizzlies in 7, Clippers in 6, lose to Spurs (eventual champs) in 6

The only teams that have been able the to beat the Thunder when healthy are those good enough to win the whole thing. Oklahoma City has to get better, but they are much closer to the top than teams like Golden State and Houston. The Rockets and the Warriors will get better if they win two playoff series this year. If the Thunder win two, it will be a disappointment. Here are the series records of the notable teams in the West since 2010:

Spurs - 10-4
Thunder - 8-5
Lakers - 5-2
Mavs - 4-3
Grizzlies - 2-4
Clippers - 2-3
Warriors - 1-2
Blazers - 1-2
Rockets - 0-2

I don't think the extra playoff experience (13 series) is a bonus in and of itself so much as it is an indication of just how talented the Thunder are. If you play 13 series in 5 years, you are sending good to great teams home on an annual basis. They have 2 nuclear weapons they can go off at any time in a series.

The scary thing is that OKC's role players are getting better right along with their stars. As long as everyone stays healthy and stays in town (two big ifs, for sure), they have the pieces to make the next 5 years even better than the last 5. For far too long, Scott Brooks insisted on playing aging veterans like Kendrick Perkins, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha way too many minutes in the playoffs, minimizing the advantage of the length and athleticism of OKC's stars.

With KD and Russ back in action, we are getting a look at version 2.0 of the Thunder. We are finally getting to see what happens when the they have length, shooting and athleticism at the other two spots on the floor next to their Big Three instead of age, age and more age.

They start Andre Roberson and Steven Adams and they bring Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison and Perkins off the bench. Perry Jones III had 31 points in an NBA game this season and he can't even crack their 10-man rotation. In my admittedly biased (#PJ34ever) opinion, that speaks to Brooks still not maximizing his team's potential, but the FO has at least made sure that his mistakes are nowhere near as damaging as in year's past by clearing out the end of their bench and not giving him any of his safety blanket veterans to cling too.

While they haven't had a tough schedule since their stars have returned, the plan has worked like a charm so far. The Thunder are 8-1 since Westbrook returned from injury on Nov. 28. If he isn't the MVP, he's definitely the M-E-P, most entertaining player.

If there's one reason to delay the coronation, though, it's the strength of the rest of the West. The Thunder may be better than they were over the last 5 years, but the West is too. That's why I think OKC is the most compelling team in the NBA - so much of the balance of power in the league depends on what happens to them over the next 1.5 seasons. Of all the great teams out West, the Thunder are the only one with a realistic shot at establishing a dynasty in the near future. There are great players on every other team, but the only one with a combination of two superstars in their prime is Houston and Dwight could be exiting his. In a world where the grand plan in OKC doesn't come to fruition, the Western playoffs are an uber-competitive free for all where every team has a chance and the eventual champion comes down to a few lucky bounces. In short, it's the world Adam Silver and David Stern envisioned during the last lockout.

In a world where the Thunder start racking up championships, our narrative about the last few years changes dramatically. All of a sudden, instead of the 2011 Mavs and the 2014 Spurs, the model for future champs is the 2012-2013 Heat. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's plan of slash-and-burn tanking becomes a lot more appealing while we have to hope that guys like Anthony Davis and Dante Exum can take the next step to superstardom and dethrone the Thunder in much the same way as they did the Spurs. The mass of power at the top of the West this season becomes our very own "vacation of history", as the great ring of power is passed from Kobe to LeBron to Durant.

If we look at things from that POV, we can turn basketball into tennis. The Spurs become Federer while the Thunder are Nadal - the aging champion trying to turn back the clock on the brash young challenger whose raw physicality forces us to change some of our assumptions about the game. Once that becomes the frame, the only real question is when Federer is passed by Nadal and whether there's a Djokovic or Murray out there who can beat him at his own game. Or will we need to wait for the next generation, for guys like Milos Raonic to turn the tables on today's great players?


That's the kind of thinking LeBron used when he made his infamous boast about the number of titles they would win in Miami. If Chris Bosh can open up the floor, then LeBron and Wade can play 2x2 against any other team's great players and they win that match-up. The grand experiment in South Beach didn't last, but you can't say it wasn't phenomenally successful in their time together - 2 rings, 4 NBA Finals appearance, the second-longest win streak of all-time and a cumulative mark of 14-2 in playoff series. KD and Russ (26) are the same age that LeBron was in 2010. Imagine how good the Heat would have been if LeBron and Wade were the same age, Bosh could block 3 shots a game and they had 3-4 young lottery picks slotted in as role players.

No matter who they face in the playoffs, KD and Westbrook are going to come into a series with a huge match-up advantage. If they face the Warriors, they are going to outscore Steph and Klay. If they face the Rockets, they are going to outscore Harden and Dwight. If they face the Blazers, they are going to outscore Lillard and LMA. That logic doesn't hold in every situation, as the Spurs were able to defeat the Thunder last season with KD and Russ going HAM, but it sure makes it awfully tough for the other team. Think of all the things that went right for San Antonio - they were playing about as high a level as could possibly be played - and all the things that went wrong for Oklahoma City - not just Ibaka's untimely injury, but that they were letting an NBA head coach dress in a uniform and play 32 minutes in Game 6 of the WCF.

There are a hundred factors that go into whether or not a team is going to win a playoff series and a lack of appreciation for those factors is why guys like Dirk and LeBron were so unfairly blamed for their lack of ringz for most of the last decade. You can always write playoff counter-factuals and there's no way to prove or disprove them. And if that's the case, are these broad narratives we tell about the rise and fall of great players nothing more than our attempt to find patterns and impose character arcs on what is essentially the outcome of chaos theory? Or do all these things sort of even out over a broad enough time scale? Is modern analytics looking too much at the trees and not enough at the forest? If the great players of history figured out a way to win multiple championships, should we expect the great players of today to do the same?

One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is that I was a big history buff growing up and I loved to read about the great empires of the past - the Romans, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British. One of the great debates in historical thinking is whether we can attribute the patterns of history to the actions of a few Great Men (and Women) - to the Julius Caesars, Mohammads, Genghis Khans and Queen Victorias - or whether they are contingent factors of historical inertia. In short, is a person solely a product of their historical times or can they stand above the tide of history and by sheer force of will change the tides?

The Great Men view of history says that we can study the life and times of guys like Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin (or more positively) Churchill, FDR and Lincoln, and from their actions and experiences, we can see how the world became what it is today. The more sociological view of history (which is more popular in the modern era - history majors can feel free to correct me on this if I'm wrong) is that we need to study the economic trends and the broader socio-political forces behind the rise of the Third Reich and Soviet Communism and that Nazi Germany was always doomed to lose WW2 because they didn't have the men, the money or the industry to knock out the US and the USSR at the same time.

At the risk of further belaboring this analogy, do we need to get into the weeds with all 30 teams to try and find a pattern through the noise? Or can we track the rise and fall of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, see how their teams win and lose in the playoffs and use a superstar-laden view of historical determinism to make more accurate predictions than a statistical one? We already know which approach is going to sell more sneakers.

If the Thunder become the next great dynasty, the march of NBA history will go on as it always does. If they don't, our vacation from history over the last few years could be extended indefinitely.

Monday, December 15, 2014

John Beilein

The match-up between Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris Levert, which I wrote about this week at The Cauldron, was about as one-sided as it gets when a few future NBA players square off. I like Levert and he looks like he could be a good player in the NBA, but it didn't look like he had any business being on the same floor with Johnson and RHJ, who may as well have taken his lunch money by the end of that game.

They are all seen as top-20 prospects by NBA scouts, but that wasn't always the case. Coming into college, RHJ and Johnson had already been pegged as future stars. They were the best of the best, five-star recruits and McDonald's All-Americans, the type of guys that don't stay in the college game for very long. Levert, on the other hand, was a completely unheralded 2-3 star recruit, a guy John Beilein signed without having ever seen live.

Levert was clearly under recruited in high school, but three years of playing under Beilein have still elevated his stock massively. Michigan, despite not having a ton of All-Americans on their teams, has suddenly become an NBA factory under Beilein. All five of their starters from the 2013 NCAA championship game - Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary - are now in the NBA. Here's where these guys were rated in their respective high school classes by by ESPN:

Burke - No. 84
Hardaway - No. 93
Robinson - No. 18
Stauskas - No. 76
McGary - No. 27

McGary was the only shoe-in to make the NBA, because of his size. Ironically enough, the highest rated of the perimeter guys - GR3 - was the lowest picked of all of them. Before Beilein got his hands on them, no one was calling Burke and Stauskas lottery picks. They looked like two of the best players in the country when they were at Michigan. What I'm starting to wonder is whether that said more about Beilein than it said about them.

The first thing you might notice about that line-up is the incredible amount of spacing they have. Beilein is one of the first college coaches to take the spacing revolution to its logical extreme, playing dramatically undersized teams with the intention of spreading out bigger players and beating them off the dribble on defense. What Beilein realizes is that the vast majority of college big men can't hurt his smaller and more athletic wing players in the paint and the vast majority of college guards don't know how to slow the tempo and take advantage of a size advantage upfront anyway. Michigan lures you into playing their game and then picks you apart with pick-and-rolls, ball movement and three-point shooting.

The 2013 team, which lost to Louisville in the NCAA championship game, was a pure 4-out team, with GR3 (6'7 200) starting as the stretch PF. They were really fast and they could run pick-and-rolls with any of their three guards while the other two spotted up from the three-point line. Given the amount of space that Michigan's players play in, it's almost impossible to defend them 1-on-1. Beilein does a really good job of finding fundamentally sound players who can pass, dribble and shoot and letting them play in space. Even when he loses guys to the NBA, he plugs the next guy into the system and everything keeps rolling:

2013 - Burke - 18.5 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds on 44% shooting
2014 - Stauskas - 17.5 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds on 48% shooting
2015 - Levert - 18.5 points, 4 assists, 6 rebounds on 44% shooting

If history is any indication, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton are going to have big seasons next year. Most college guards don't have the luxury of playing in Beilein's peak spacing system. Arizona is a perfect example - Johnson and RHJ are having to fight and claw for statistics because of the way Sean Miller coaches the game. Miller is trying to win with defense, so he throws as many big and athletic guys on the floor as he can. The problem is that can often mean they don't have a lot of outside shooting, a problem which has affected them for two straight seasons. They've still been wildly successful, but it has meant their best players aren't in optimal situations to score the ball, since other teams tend to pack the paint on them. For the most part, you can't play off of anyone at Michigan. 

That's what struck a false chord with me when I heard people comparing Stauskas with a guy like Marcus Smart before the draft. Travis Ford and John Beilein are barely even coaching the same sport. You can't throw Beilein stats and Ford stats out there without recognizing that you are looking at the results of dramatically different processes. Given the way Ford A) spaced the floor B) ran offense and C) built the rest of his program, Smart may as well have been fighting Stauskas with one hand tied around his back. The fact that he almost won should have been a mark in his favor, not a knock against him.

If you really want to get into the gory details of the Travis Ford era, I wrote about it over at RealGM before the draft.

Basketball Twitter obsesses over minor tactical move that NBA head coaches make yet they don't even take into account the coaches and the program that surrounds NCAA prospects. A player's statistical output in college is a much a result of the game-plan of his college coach as it is his own natural ability. It all depends on how many minutes he plays, what type of players he plays with, what type of offense the coach runs, how many shots he gets, what type of players are guarding him and what type of defensive systems those teams run. Untangling all those moving parts is the real tricky part about scouting. Lining up all their stats in a spreadsheet and running a few regressions about them can tell you a few things, but it doesn't give you the whole picture. It can't.

It's obviously way too early to come to any conclusions about Beilein's NBA grads, but none of the five have really carved out a solid role for themselves in the league just yet. We will remove McGary and GR3 from the conversation, since they are rookies taken in the late first round and the middle of the second. Hardaway has gotten consistent minutes in New York and he has shown some flashes, but he's nowhere near the point to where he's a core player. Though, once again, as a guy drafted in the 20's, that's not a huge deal. The two lottery picks - Burke and Stauskas - are the real story. 

I'm not even sweating their numbers so much as I am looking at their rosters and not seeing many avenues for them to be long-term starters on the teams that drafted them. Burks is shooting 37.5% from the field in two seasons in the NBA and it certainly looks like he's keeping the seat warm for Dante Exum, who has star written all over him. Stauskas is way behind Ben McLemore in the pecking order in Sacramento and McLemore's length and athleticism means he's a better fit as a role player next to Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. When you eyeball Stauskas and Burke against guys like McLemore and Exum, the difference is pretty striking. Maybe there's a reason no one had heard of the former two coming out of high school and everyone was already waiting on the latter two? 

If you spend a lottery pick on a guy, you want to turn him into a player capable of starting on a good team. If you do that correctly and you pick guys who can play next to each other, a rebuilding effort shouldn't take particularly long. It's when you start missing on lotto picks that you end spending years in the cellar. 

The Kings are the perfect example of this. I still think Stauskas will be a good NBA player, but it's hard to see him having more value to this roster than Noah Vonleh, the 6'11+ athletic monster who was taken one pick behind him. Vonleh has been injured and hasn't gotten a ton of minutes as a rookie, but he would have been the perfect fit in Sacramento - an athletic power forward who could help DeMarcus Cousins with interior defense while being able to step out and knock down a perimeter shot. He was even adding three-point range by the end of his freshman season in Indiana, although that's probably a few years away in the NBA.

Long-term, a core of Cousins - Vonleh - Gay - McLemore scares the hell out of people. If they had done that correctly, it wouldn't have mattered what ended up happening with Mike Malone. The pieces would all have fit together perfectly. Now they may end up trading for Josh Smith, just because they couldn't be patient on a guy they had drafted the year before and they got seduced by the numbers Stauskas put up in Beilein's offense. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that Stauskas probably won't be better than Zach LaVine, who would have put up jaw-dropping numbers in Beilein's pace and space system. 

At the end of the day, though, you have to judge every player as an individual. Caris Levert has a better combination of length and athleticism than either Burke or Stauskas and he plays way more under control than Hardaway, so there's definitely a chance he has the best pro career of any of Michigan's pro players. I don't think he will be drafted as high as his two predecessors at Michigan, but that may be more because of the lack of talent around him than teams wising up on how to judge statistics from a Beilein offense.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pellies Future

At RealGM, a look at why there's no reason to panic in New Orleans.

Orlando Magic

Given the number of injuries the Orlando Magic have suffered over the first quarter of the season, their tough early schedule should have buried them. Orlando has lost Victor Oladipo, Nik Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Kyle O'Quinn for significant stretches of time, yet they still have a 9-15 record. That number is more impressive when you see they are tied for fewest home games in the league (8) and most road games (16).

Take a look at their last seven games:

at Indiana (-15)
at Phoenix (+3)
at Golden State (-1)
at LAC (-28)
at Utah (+5)
at Sacramento (+9)
Washington (-2)

Their 3-4 record in that stretch is downright heroic. Last year's team could have easily went 0-7. The wins weren't even the most impressive part - they lost by 1 at Golden State. You can't go into Oracle and almost beat the Warriors if you aren't playing really good basketball.

The big difference in this trip has been the emergence of Kyle O'Quinn. With Vucevic sidelined with back spasms, O'Quinn has been starting and he is earning every minute of his playing time. He is only playing 18 minutes a game right now, but in those minutes, he is playing at an astonishingly high level of basketball.

Per Game: 9.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks on 52.9% shooting
Per-36 Minutes: 19.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.7 blocks
PER: 25.5

Keep in mind, per-36 minutes don't necessarily translate, especially for a big man as active as O'Quinn. For one thing, he is also averaging 5.2 personal fouls per-36 minutes of action. The point is that when he is on the floor, he has been about as valuable as any one player can be. In his first nine games of the season, 20 minutes of O'Quinn have been about as good as 20 minutes of anyone. You definitely want to see a little more of a sample size, but when a guy with O'Quinn's size (6'10 250 with a 7'4 wingspan) and athleticism is putting in work like that ... it raises a few questions.

1) How come we haven't been talking about him before?

If you go through his history, you can see how he slipped under the radar. Most potential NBA players get discovered in college, but O'Quinn spent four seasons at Norfolk State in the MEAC, as low a major as you are going to get. I never saw him play or had even heard of him before he lead them to a stunning upset of No. 2 Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. He put up good stats, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything when you are looking at a big man in a low-major conference. 

O'Quinn was drafted by the Orlando Magic in the second round in 2012 - his rookie season was their first without Dwight Howard. Unfortunately for him, it was also their first year with Nik Vucevic. O'Quinn has been stuck behind Vucevic, one of the best young C's in the Eastern Conference, ever since. His per-36 minute numbers were always pretty good - he just never played a lot of minutes. That, in turn, raises a few more questions. Is this another Marcin Gortat / Dwight Howard situation? And if it is, which one is Gortat and which one is Howard?

2) What does that mean for the Magic if he is anywhere near this good?

O'Quinn's on/off numbers are ridiculous. When he is on the floor, they have a 105.2 offensive rating and the other team has a 101.2 offensive rating. When he is off the floor, Orlando slides to a 101.2 and the other team bumps up to a 107.8. The Magic go from +4 with him to -6 without him. 

How sustainable are these numbers? If you look at his per-36 minute numbers for his first three seasons, the passing, shot-blocking and rebounding are all pretty consistent. The big improvement has come on the offensive end, where he is being way more aggressive in terms of looking for his offense and his shooting has improved. O'Quinn can score out of the high post and the low post and he's comfortable taking jumpers and attacking guys off the dribble.

When you watch him play, you certainly don't get the impression of someone who is playing above his head. He's big, fast and skilled and he has a really good feel for the game. Basketball isn't too hard for a guy like that. Even if his scoring numbers come down to earth, O'Quinn still profiles as a plus passer, shot-blocker and rebounder at the 5 position. It's not a very common skill-set. When you see big men who can do all those different things, you are generally looking at someone like the Gasol Brothers, Tiago Splitter, Joakim Noah. Those are the kind of guys that can have those types of huge swings on a team because they make everyone better on offense AND defense.

Is Kyle O'Quinn one of those guys? Is he really that good? It seems implausible, but it is theoretically possible. Long story short, if he continues to play this well, this could be the story of his summer:



Step into a world where O'Quinn is the building block at C and all the pieces start falling into place rapidly:



Size and speed for position?
Can he get his own shot?
Can he shoot?
Can he pass?
Oladipo (6’4 210)
?
Fournier (6’7 205)
Harris (6’9 235)
Frye (6’11 255)

O’Quinn (6’10 250)
?
?


* Oladipo is a better shooter than O'Quinn, but they are both question marks because the standards for shooting are so much higher at PG than C.

You might think that's a whole lot of check marks for a below .500 team, but that's where their A) tough early schedule and B) lack of continuity comes into play. 

From this POV, you can see why O'Quinn could be a better fit with the rest of the core than Nik Vucevic. The Magic have plenty of guys who can get buckets - what they need from their C is a guy who can move the ball, finish around the rim and protect the basket. Vucevic is bigger than O'Quinn but he's not as athletic and he's nowhere near the same level as a shot-blocker. On a team with so many young guys who are going to make mistakes defensively, you want someone who can serve as a second line of defense.

PG - Oladipo and Elfrid Payton (6'4 185)

The Magic have the biggest PG rotation in the league, with two recent lottery picks in Oladipo and Payton. When they drafted them, there were a lot of questions as to how these two would co-exist on the court, since neither is a consistent three-point shooter. Oladipo is the better scorer and Payton is the much better passer. Like most people, I figured that these two would spend most of the season learning how to co-exist and putting a firm ceiling on this team's offensive ceiling. Instead, the improvement that Orlando has gotten on the wings has made that a non-issue. 

What I wonder, given the current distribution of minutes, is whether it makes more sense for Payton to start and Oladipo to come off the bench. Oladipo is still primarily a score-first player, which is fine, but you would rather he take possessions away from some of the guys on the second unit. He does have a tendency to hold the ball - there was one sequence in the Wizards game where he dribbled it for all 24 seconds and then put up a fade-away. That can't happen with the number of weapons he has around him.

SG - Fournier (14 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2 assists on 44% shooting)


He doesn't have the pedigree of some of the other guys that Orlando has drafted, but he's playing way too well for them to even think about taking him off the floor. He just strokes the ball from 3 and he gives them the outside shooting this team desperately needs. Fournier passes the stats test and the eye test - he is a really smooth player with a high basketball IQ. Don't let his hairdo fool you. He knows what he is doing out there. 


SF - Harris (19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists on 48% shooting)

Last season, his 2nd in Orlando and 3rd in the NBA, was supposed to be when he broke out, but he struggled with injuries and never really got it going. He shot 26% from 3 and that put a real ceiling on his game. Without a consistent outside shot, Harris needed the ball in his hands and he had a hard time being as effective as a SF, since the defender could just concede the shot. He would still be a good NBA player as a small-ball PF, but it would severely limit the types of line-ups you could put around him.

This season, he is shooting 44% from 3 on 2.5 attempts a game. If he can maintain those numbers, he is going to be a serious problem. All of a sudden, there's no real way to guard him. At 6'9 235, he's really quick for a guy with his size and he's way too big for most SF's. He's always been very skilled, with the ability to handle the ball, finish at the rim and find the open man off the bounce. With a three point shot, he's a complete player.

At the moment, Harris is the closest thing to a star that Orlando has. What people don't realize about Harris is that he's still incredibly young for a 4rth-year player - he's only 22. He declared for the NBA draft after only one season at Tennessee and he was fairly young for his high school class. If he had been held back in school, his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks could have easily been his freshman season in college. That's the amazing thing about Tobias Harris - he's six months younger than Doug McDermott and he's a week younger than Mitch McGary. What kind of numbers would Tobias Harris have put up in the Big East last season? It's scary to contemplate.

PF - Frye

His numbers don't jump off the page, but he still provides two essential things for any winning team - good frontcourt defense and excellent three-point shooting. Frye is an ELITE shooter who has to be respected from the three-point line - he's opening up driving lanes for Harris and Fournier in much the same way that he did for Bledsoe and Dragic. Coincidentally enough, the Magic now have 2 of the most improved wing players in the league. Frye also has the size to slide down and play as a stretch 5, which really puts the D in a bind. The Suns are off last season's pace in large part because they haven't been able to replace all the things that he brings to the table.

That's what I was thinking when everyone was talking about how who could be this year's Suns. If Channing Frye was one of the real keys to their success, maybe you should check to see what team he is on this season? Everyone looks better when they can play with a PF who plays great defense and strokes 3's.

C - O'Quinn and Vucevic

Vucevic just got paid $54 million and he has been putting up All-Star caliber numbers, so it's hard to see him losing his starting job when he comes back. There's definitely room for both these guys in the rotation, though. All of a sudden, it looks like Orlando has two of the best C's in the Eastern Conference. Either way, my guess is that in the 4Q, O'Quinn's ability to impact more facets of the game will keep him on the floor.

Having O'Quinn out there just gives them so many different options. They can have him and Frye both operating out of the high post, creating acres of space around the rim for all their slashers. They can run offense through O'Quinn, who is one of the best passing big men in the league. They can play two-man game with him any of Oladipo, Payton, Fournier and Harris and they can have their other perimeter players spotting up, ready to attack the close-out. Most importantly, they can play much better defense, which allows them to go defense to offense and get out in transition, where their youth and athleticism becomes overwhelming.

The ideal scenario is that everyone gets healthy and they can use some type of 8-man rotation with Payton, Oladipo and Fournier at the guard spots, Harris, Aaron Gordon and Frye at the forward spots and Vucevic and O'Quinn at the center spots. For any extra minutes, they can throw Ben Gordon or Luke Ridnour out there for shooting or Andrew Nicholson and Dewayne Dedmon upfront.

The most encouraging part of it all for Orlando is that everyone is so young and they are all still brimming with upside. Payton is 20, Oladipo is 22, Fournier is 22, Harris is 22, Gordon is 19, Vucevic is 24 and O'Quinn is 24. While they have some old heads who are there for locker room stuff but probably shouldn't be playing too many minutes, the only older player who has a huge role for them is Frye and nothing ages better than size and shooting.

This is the ideal scenario for a young team - everyone grows together. They are all having to compete for minutes and they are all learning the right habits. For a team this young to be so competitive this early in the season is a very good sign going forward, both this season and into the future. Guys like Gordon and Payton may not get anywhere close to their ceiling until their second contracts, if for no other reason than there may not be a ton of shots or minutes for them. This same thing is happening to Terrence Ross in Toronto.

The Magic remind me a lot about the Raptors at this time last season. They were a young team who were still figuring out their identity and had been undergoing a lot of turnover after the trade of Rudy Gay. They hadn't gotten much publicity and none of their young guys had much of a reputation around the league beyond being a guy who could be good in a few years. Then, once they made the move that re-oriented their starting line-up (dumping Gay) and improved their depth (adding Vasquez, Patterson and Hayes), they started winning and they didn't stop until they won 48 games and got the No. 3 seed out East.

If the Magic can stick with O'Quinn and figure out a way to re-integrate Vucevic and Gordon into the rotation without disrupting anyone's chi, they can be a GOOD team this season. They can forget about playing for next season or trying to build for 2-3 years down the road. They don't need to worry about playing for draft picks either because they have high upside young players at every position on the floor. When guys develop fast enough, timetables for rebuilding get accelerated rapidly. That's what happened to Toronto and Phoenix last season and it looks like it could be happening to Orlando now.

It's time to buckle up because this thing could get real serious real fast.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jason Kidd: The Player Coach

When Jason Kidd took over as the coach of the Brooklyn Nets, the outrage was palpable. Unlike former players like Brian Shaw and Patrick Ewing, Kidd never paid his dues as an assistant. He went directly from playing to running an NBA team, almost as if he were thumbing his nose at the very idea of coaching experience. Everything he needed to know as a coach, Kidd seemed to be saying, came from his 20 years as an NBA player.

And while most new coaches are given young or rebuilding teams with little chance of winning right away, Kidd received the type of cushy job that veteran coaches think they are entitled too - taking over a 49-win team with a $100 million payroll that had expectations of winning immediately. 

The moment that everyone remembers from those first few weeks was the infamous soda incident, when Kidd was captured on camera telling reserve guard Tyshawn Taylor to knock over his cup during a stoppage in play. The Nets were out of timeouts in the final minute and Kidd needed to draw up a play, which the time needed to clean up the mess would allow him to do. He was eventually fined by the league and widely blasted for his unprofessional conduct:


It was something no other coach in the league would have done. Kidd was bending the rules in an almost ludicrous fashion, doing everything in his power to help his team win. As a Mavericks fan, my mind instantly went to a play he made against Mike Woodson in a regular-season game in 2010:



I've watched a lot of NBA basketball in my life and I've seen a ton of coaches walk onto a court, but I've never quite seen anything like that. Jason Kidd thinks the game at such a high level that he sees things no one else does. He's a ruthless competitor who will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means stepping on other people's toes - literally, in the case of Woodson.

With the Nets struggling to integrate all their new players in the first month of the season and the media circus around the team escalating, Kidd knew he needed to do something to let everyone know that he was the one in charge. Many people seemed to believe he was nothing but an empty suit being used by Mikhail Prokhorov to sell tickets while Lawrence Frank, his former coach with the Nets, was the one doing all the actual coaching.


That's where the infamous daily reports came from. Kidd felt that Frank was undermining his authority so he laid down the law and banished him from the team. However, Frank was still drawing a paycheck and Kidd wanted his basketball insight, so he made him write book reports about the Nets and other teams. Did he read all of them? Probably not. However, I'm sure he perused them from time-to-time and it's not like Frank could complain, given how much money he was making to be a glorified blogger.

For most people around the league, including the many who wanted Kidd to fail, this was further proof of his inability to manage people or handle all the demands of an NBA head coaching job, especially in a market like Brooklyn. What it reminded me of was a scene from the American version of The Office, when Jim becomes a regional manager and has to deal with an unruly employee (Ryan) who doesn't respect his new authority:



Don't get it twisted, Kidd was saying. Just because I got a promotion at a young age that you may not think I deserve, don't think I'm scared for a second to exercise my authority. I am the boss and you will respect my decisions or I'm going to have your ass writing daily reports too.

The Nets, meanwhile, quietly became one of the most interesting teams in the league over the second half of the season, finding a new identity without Brook Lopez. Kidd's fingerprints were all over the resurgence - there was no coach in the NBA who was more inventive and more fearless with how he deployed his line-ups, starting Paul Pierce at PF and running a ton of stuff through Shaun Livingston, even though he was one of the lowest paid players on the team. Brooklyn became a bizarre hybrid of a 4-out team, using waves of similarly-sized 6'6+ players around Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee at the 5. They had one of the best records in the league over the second half of the season and they wound up upsetting the Toronto Raptors in a tightly-fought seven-game series, a victory that looks all the more impressive considering how well Toronto has played this season.

Their run ended with a 5-game loss to the Heat in the second round. The Nets just couldn't close out LeBron James, who took over several games in the fourth quarter and sent them home. It was a disappointing outcome for a team that started the season with as many expectations as Brooklyn, but it was hard to pin any of that on Kidd, who had dealt with a ton of adversity and gotten the absolute most out of his players. For all the mockery he had endured, he had established himself as an NBA coach.

If he was any other coach in the league, Kidd would have re-dedicated himself to the Nets in the off-season, eager to improve on his debut. Brooklyn wasn't seen as a title contender, but they were returning more than enough talent to be a factor in the East and their size and experience meant few would want to face them in a playoff series. However, if you look at the actions of a lot of the veterans associated with the team this off-season, you can see that something was up - Paul Pierce left for Washington and Shaun Livingston left for Golden State.

It reminded me of something I heard during the 2012-2013 season, one of the only times the Mavs missed the playoffs in Dirk Nowitzki's tenure with the team - the players always know. Once you have played in the NBA long enough, you get a pretty good feel for what the guys on your team can and can't do, especially after a few weeks of practices. Cuban eventually told the media that Dirk called him very early in the season and told him that it wouldn't work, something we didn't figure out for a few months. Interestingly enough, Kidd had backed out of a deal to re-sign with the Mavs that off-season, almost as if he knew that the party was over. Jason Kidd is living proof of the saying that you can't shit a shitter.

When Kidd was traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks this summer, the story was that it was the result a failed power play for GM Billy King's job. Kidd, a habitual line-stepper, had finally stepped over the wrong line and was banished from the Big Apple to basketball Siberia for his trouble. Even worse, his machinations resulted in Larry Drew losing his job in Milwaukee, further sullying his reputation. Kidd was a no good very bad man that the Nets would not miss.


Six weeks into the season, it might be time for us to take a second look at what happened. Under Kidd's leadership, the Bucks have been one of the most surprising teams in the league, sitting at the No. 6 seed out East despite starting two under-20 players. The Nets, meanwhile, have been one of the disappointing, a game behind their old coach in the standings and hanging on to the No. 8 seed. It bottomed out this week, when Billy King announced that their three best players - Lopez, Williams and Joe Johnson - were all on the market.

Once again, Kidd was one step ahead of everyone else, getting out of town before everything went south. If he had stayed in Brooklyn, he would have had the thankless job looming ahead for Lionel Hollins, who will have to keep the team competitive as they try to rebuild on the fly. It's the type of situation that ends up getting a coach fired, something Kidd well understood. Instead, he gets to coach one of the most up-and-coming young teams in the Eastern Conference. It's almost as if he wanted to be fired by the Nets so that he could coach the Bucks!

Like Pierce and Livingston, Kidd could see the writing on the wall. The New York media had it completely backwards. It wasn't that Kidd needed a job from the Bucks because he was fired by the Nets - Kidd was fired from the Nets because he wanted a job from the Bucks. In essence, he had a better offer waiting him, but first he needed to get fired from his existing job. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was ripped directly off a plot from Seinfeld, when George Costanza is trying to get fired from the New York Yankees.


I really want to leave my mark. I want to walk away from the Yankees with people saying, "Wow. Now that guy got canned."

When you look at it that way, the stunt that Kidd pulled this summer was one of the most glorious moments in the history of employee-management relations. What would you do if you had to get fired from your job? Kidd told his boss (Billy King) what he really thought of him and he tried to get him fired. King isn't the worst GM in the world, but he isn't the best either and Kidd (like any coach in his situation) would have every right to believe that he would do a better job of picking the players. If you have ever had a boss whom you thought was kind of an idiot, how could you not appreciate that?

Once you look at things from Kidd's POV, everything else that happened this summer makes a lot more sense. What people in Brooklyn think of the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks matters not at all. What they think of the Nets management matters a great deal. Brooklyn could hardly afford to say that their coach got a better job, could they? When things are being leaked to the media, the first thing you want to ask is cui bono, who benefits?

Kidd has proved his worth to the Bucks almost immediately, as there was no one picking them to even contend for the playoffs, much less be ahead of a team with as many big names as the Nets. If you watch his teams for any length of time, you can see that Kidd has an intuitive feel for the game and he knows exactly what he is doing. How can you tell that? By looking at how he manages his rotation.

The Bucks made a big change in their starting line-up a few weeks ago, one that should benefit them both this season and going forward.

They went from this:

PG - Brandon Knight
SG - Jared Dudley/OJ Mayo
SF - Jabari Parker
PF - Ersan Ilyasova
C - Larry Sanders

To this:

PG - Knight
SG - Mayo
SF - Giannis
PF - Jabari
C - Sanders

They started the season with Jabari Parker at the 3, but it wasn't a great fit for his game. At 6'8 250, he's a huge guy without the quickness you would expect from an elite perimeter player. As a big SF, he was constantly having to create offense against smaller players or trying to put them on the block, which is not the most efficient way for a young guy to score. Instead, what Kidd quickly realized was that Jabari would be best as a small PF, spreading out the floor for other guys and using his advantage as a quicker player to try and get around slower big men.

That, in a nutshell, is what coaching is, at least on the NBA level. It's figuring out how to deploy your players in a way that allows them to succeed. From the POV of a player like Kidd, the main job of a coach is to figure out his rotation and get the best players on the floor. If you have the right mix, everything else will figure itself out. These guys are grown men playing a children's game - they know what's happening on the floor and it isn't rocket science.

There's a lot of time and energy spent on Basketball Twitter dissecting the minutiae of coaching, the arrows and the squiggly lines that indicate where a player is supposed to be in a given coaching scheme. There are a few certain philosophical underpinnings to how and why players should be on certain parts of the floor, but once you clear that bar, it becomes less about the lines on a diagram and more about the players running those lines.

That's why I hate this idea that certain coaches are "defensive masterminds". There are coaches who emphasize defense and who play defensive-minded players, but if they don't have the guys who can carry out their assignments, none of the other stuff matters. Personnel dictates scheme - scheme does not dictate personnel.

If you have the personnel of the Memphis Grizzlies, a coach better be able to have them playing elite defense. If not, he will get fired and the FO will bring in someone who can. Lionel Hollins, the guy who replaced Jason Kidd, is a good coach and he was a really good coach in Memphis. The Grizzlies fired him and the team went right on winning. Hollins is good at his job, but you can hire his assistant (Dave Joerger) and he can do about as good a job too. A coach either has the players or he doesn't and he can be fired at a moment's notice.

The most important thing for a coach is having the right players. If you aren't in a situation to succeed, you won't. That's what Hollins is finding out in Brooklyn - he may have just walked into a trap. It's hard to blame him for taking the job since he had had been out of the league for over a year, but if you wait for jobs until they are open, you may not end up with a lot of opportunities for good jobs. Kidd saw that he had a bad job and he went out and found a better one.


Sometimes, the only way to win is to put the pieces back in the box and play a new game.

At the start of every season, the front office gives the coach a bunch of pieces and tells him to figure it out. Most coaches will play the guys the way the front office wants them to be played and they will defer to older and more experienced players. Kidd takes the pieces, he throws them on the board and if he doesn't like them, he is changing them quickly. How many coaches would have tried Paul Pierce at the 4? Not many and they certainly wouldn't have done it as quickly as Kidd. Once you do that, you have done about all you can do as a coach.

A lot of coaches would look at an under-performing line-up and think it's a matter of getting the guys to execute better. That was one of my main take-aways from the 2012 NBA Finals, the first I covered for RealGM. After Game 2, I asked Scott Brooks whether he had any thoughts of switching his starting line-up, due to how much they had been struggling at the start of the game:
Yet, instead of focusing on the match-up difficulties Spoelstra's adjustment gave his team in the first quarter, Scott Brooks pinned their slow start on intangibles: "I just think we were missing shots. We didn't come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn't work, we'll think about [changing our starting line-up]".
Brooks is a former player but he thinks like a coach. He never changed the line-up - he just watched his team lose four straight games. His first, second, third and apparently fourth thought is always I can coach these guys better, we can tweak this or that or get them playing with more togetherness or whatever. I can do some coaching and make it work. Kidd still thinks like a player. He knows there's only so much good he can do for those guys on the floor. Sometimes, they just aren't good enough. If you have to coach those guys, you are going to lose.

This all goes back to Kidd being able to see the game at a really high level. He has developed a philosophical worldview about basketball, one that doesn't necessarily depend on results to validate it. He has models in his head for how the game will go and he can plug in new information to those models and come up with answers faster than anyone else. That's what allows him to be 2-3 steps ahead of most of the league, particularly the media. He can look at a roster and tell you what's going to happen before it does, just from his feel for the game.

How else would you explain him walking away from the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, the New York Knicks in 2013 and the Brooklyn Nets in 2014? The Mavs were coming off a first-round loss while the Knicks and Nets were coming off second-round losses. The next season, Dallas and New York missed the playoffs and Brooklyn looks well on their way too doing that, especially if they end up trading some of their best players. Jason Kidd knew the game was up before anyone else and he got out while the getting was good.

Where that rubs people the wrong way is that it shows a lack of loyalty to management. However, Kidd is well aware that management has no loyalty. The NBA is a bottom-line business and every coach and every player is constantly fighting for his place in the league. If you don't produce, you will be fired. Management doesn't owe you a damn thing.

The reverse, then, has to be true. If a player or a coach can get himself in a better situation, he owes it to himself to do it. If he wants to depend on the intelligence and kind-heartedness of management, he's not going to survive. Once management fires Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn, is he going to get another job as a head coach? Probably not. That's what he gets for being a good solider - to be run off at the peak of his success in Memphis and then given a much worse team so that everyone can blame him for their lack of success.

A guy with Kidd's basketball IQ knows full well that most basketball games are won or lost before the ball is ever tipped. That's what happened this summer - Kidd looked at the board and realized the only way he was going to win was to get new pieces. Maybe it means he's not the nicest guy in the world and maybe he owes an apology to Larry Drew, but owners and GMs fire guys all the time and no one complains. Billy King wanted to be able to blame Jason Kidd for whatever happened to the Nets this season and Kidd wasn't going to sit there and take the fall for someone else's mistakes.

Jason Kidd wins basketball games. It's in his nature. He has no time for losing and he's not going to be associated with a loser. He's a basketball nomad whose won, and won big, at every place he has been. And with Kidd coaching two guys with as much upside as Giannis and Jabari, my guess is the Bucks end up winning big too. Think of the difference in where his coaching career could be after five years with Milwaukee's two young stars than where it would be if he had to watch the Nets age in front of his eyes for a few years and then get fired. If you knew what Kidd knew, you would have to be crazy to stay in Brooklyn.

Everyone acts like being the first rat off a sinking ship is a bad thing, but rats know they can't stop a ship that be sinking. All they can try to do is try to survive. It's not their fault they can see the iceberg coming before anyone else.