Friday, October 24, 2014

Southeast Division

At RealGM, my series on internal improvement candidates on every NBA team concludes with the Southeast Division.

Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol: Top 10 Players?

I hate even writing about this thing because it's pretty pointless. Calling someone a "Top 10" or a "Top 25" player is a pretty arbitrary distinction, especially when you are comparing guys across positions. For the most part, media sites tend to run these player rank features as a way to kill time in the off-season and stir up some content. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see what these lists reveal about the way we view certain types of players.

Two good examples of that are Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, who are pretty widely acknowledged as two of the best C's in the game. They are both in the prime of their careers and they are both centerpieces of high-level teams with a chance to go far in the playoffs. No one is going to argue that these guys are not really, really good basketball players. Here is where the various off-season lists have these two ranked:

- SI: #17
- CBS: #11
- Slam: #14
- NBA Rank: #12

- SI: #16
- CBS: #16
- Slam: #23
- NBA Rank: #14

While there's nothing necessarily wrong with where those guys are ranked, it's worth unpacking a bit. Just because they don't score a lot of points doesn't mean they don't have a tremendous effect on the game - if anything, scoring is a bit overrated since almost every guy in the NBA can do that. Marc and Noah bring so much else to the table that they help a team win more than most guys who dominate the ball and pour in 20+ points a night.

You can start on the defensive end of the floor, where having a big man who can control the paint is still the foundation of almost every elite defense in the league. A C who can slide his feet, cut off driving lanes and protect the rim serves as a second-line of defense for everyone else on the team, allowing them to be more aggressive. They have to protect the defensive glass and they have to prevent the other team's C from scoring at the front of the rim, the easiest shot in the game.

The Bulls and the Grizzlies are two of the best defenses in the league and that is in large part because they are built around the unique skill-sets of their C's. Marc and Noah are just as important on the other end of the floor, where they are facilitators out of the high post who move the ball and create easy shots for everyone else. And while they aren't great individual scorers, they still function as highly effective release valves around the basket.

Everyone understands this, but they don't quite make the connection when it comes to translating impact on the game to value to a team. When Marc went down last season, the Grizzlies plummeted in the standings, barely holding onto a playoff spot. When he came back in, they pushed the Thunder to the absolute limit in the first round, looking more like a 3/4/5 seed than a 7/8 seed. He makes everyone on the team better on both sides of the ball.

Conversely, everyone thought that Derrick Rose was MVP of the Bulls four seasons ago. Yet, even with Rose out of the line-up, Chicago was still competing for home-court advantage in the first round in each of the last few seasons. My guess is if Noah had missed the last three seasons, they would have been fighting just to get in the playoffs and Rose would have been like Carmelo last season, jacking up a bunch of shots and wondering what the fuck just happened.

Always, always keep this in mind: Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Noah and Gasol aren't great scorers, but if you are going to make a fair comparison, compare their O with the D of most PG's. Their ability on O is just something extra they bring to the table! A good number of elite PG's, in contrast, are moved off their position on D and hidden on that side of the ball as much as possible.

Big men are like the offensive linemen of basketball - you don't really appreciate what they do until they aren't there. If they are doing their job, the average fan doesn't notice them. Everyone wants to worry about the guy with the ball in his hands who puts up all the stats but that guy can only be as effective as the guys in front of him let him be. Here's another way to look at it - are QB's more important than the O-line?

The NFL is a QB-driven sport for the same reason that the NBA is a PG's league - those guys, like dead rappers, get better promotion. We are told that you have to have a great QB to win a Super Bowl just like you have to have a big-time scorer to win an NBA title. Who is going to be the guy who leads his team on a 2-minute drill? Who is going to take the last shot of the game? What people miss is a lot has to go right just to get that far.

What's a QB without a good offensive line? Pretty much nothing. What can an offensive line without a QB do? A lot. They can open up holes in the running game and force the defense to play 8 men in the box. Any QB is going to look better behind a good offensive line because they make their jobs easier. The same goes for all skill-position players. A good O-line is like a ghost in the box score, silently raising everyone else's stats.

We are seeing that this season with the Dallas Cowboys, who have one of the best offensive line's in the league. They are opening up holes for DeMarco Murray, they are giving Tony Romo more time and letting him use the play-action pass as a weapon and they are keeping the defense off the field. They make every guy on the team better in a lot of subtle and non-obvious ways. It's the same thing with big men.

A good example is how playing through the post affects the tempo of the game. If you can throw the ball into Marc Gasol every time down the floor, he holds it for 5-10 seconds, everyone takes a deep breath and then he creates a shot, it really limits the number of possessions when you face a team like the Thunder. Check the scores for that series - even with the OT games, they were lower than the ones against the Clippers and Spurs.

The Grizzlies don't really have the perimeter talent that the elite teams in the West do, but they punch above their weight all the time in the playoffs. They beat the Spurs and lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2011, they lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in 2012, they beat the Clippers and the Thunder (w/o Westbrook) in 2013 and they lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2014. No one wants to see Gasol and Z-Bo in a seven-game series.

People always say guys like Noah or Gasol "do the little things" that help a team win but there's nothing all that little about playing defense, rebounding and scoring around the basket. If you look around the league, I don't think it's a coincidence that there are not many good C's on bad teams. It's funny that good C's are A) extremely valuable and B) extremely rare, yet you can find so few ranked among the best players in the NBA.

Everyone wants to stick PG's on Top 10 lists because they have the best stats, but that's just because they have the ball in their hands the most. What people don't realize is those stats all come with an opportunity cost. Plenty of guys can put up good stats playing next to good big men - there are more good PG's in the NBA than ever before. If it's really easy to find a good PG, than by definition, good PG play can't be that big a deal.

A good rule of thumb in basketball is the farther you play away from the basket, the more replaceable you are. PG's are the smallest guys on the floor and you can always find small guys somewhere. The ones you can't find anywhere are the 7'0 monsters who occupy the prime real estate on both sides of the floor. If you tried to trade any PG in the NBA for either Noah or Gasol, their teams would hang up on you really quickly.

Russell Westbrook is one of my favorite players in the league, but what would happen if you traded him for Marc Gasol? OKC would slide Reggie Jackson into the starting line-up and then they would have a front-court of KD, Ibaka and Gasol. The floor spacing that KD would have with those two + Gasol's ability to score and pass out of the post + the absurd D they would have + Jackson is a really good PG? FOH with that team.

* Another way to think of it: Would you rather have Jackson and Gasol or Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins? 

The reality is that if you put Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol on just about any team in the league, that team is going to get a lot better, really quickly. Those guys flat out aren't going to be on too many bad teams because their ability to raise the games of everyone around them means that, all of a sudden, that bad team isn't so bad anymore. I don't know about you guys, but that sure sounds like two of the 10 best players in the game to me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The 76ers Have Already Won

A year after they began their much discussed rebuilding process, the Philadelphia 76ers are essentially an expansion team. They only have two NBA vets on their roster - Luc Mbah A Moute and Jason Richardson - and Richardson will probably never play for them. Their highest paid player is a rookie (Joel Embiid) who may not play all season. Everyone else is an under-25 player looking to make a name for themselves.

They have taken the slash-and-burn process of rebuilding a team to its logical conclusion, thumbing their noses at many of the conventions of building an NBA roster. They haven't made many friends in the process - if they aren't violating the letter of the law, they are certainly violating the spirit of it. The decision to change the mechanics of the lottery is widely believed to be a direct response to the 76ers attempt to game it.

Instead of just the first 3 picks, the new lottery would determine the top 6 picks, meaning the worst team in the NBA could slide all the way down to No. 7 overall. The idea is to give teams with as little incentive to tank as possible - a team that slashes and burns its roster only to get picks 7-10 for three straight years would be in a lot of trouble. For the most part, outside of the Top 3 picks, it's hard to find a game-changing prospect.

That's the biggest problem with what the 76ers are attempting - you can't expect most young players, no matter where they are picked, to be able to step in right away and carry a franchise. The Oklahoma City Thunder are supposed to be the model for this type of rebuild, but what would have happened if Kevin Durant had went No. 1 in 2007 and they had wound up with Greg Oden? It's the definition of a high-risk, high-reward plan.

Even having multiple picks in the Top 5 is no guarantee that you can build a contender. Where would the Cleveland Cavaliers be right now if they hadn't won this year's lottery? Would the quartet of Kyrie Irving (No. 1), Tristan Thompson (No. 4), Dion Waiters (No. 4) and Anthony Bennett (No. 1) been enough to bring LeBron James back or would they have spent many more years wandering in the wilderness?

The real worry is that all that losing would permanently damage those young players, strangling their careers while they are still in the crib. Bennett looked like the prime example of that as a rookie, as he was woefully unprepared for the NBA and he seemed to regress amidst a very unsettled and chaotic situation in Cleveland. Tanking only works if you can hit a HR in the draft every season and that is a very difficult thing to do. 

In the first two drafts of the Hinkie era, the 76ers have been swinging for the fences, taking the highest upside pick regardless of their NBA readiness - there were huge concerns about Michael Carter-Williams' jumper, Nerlens Noel and Embiid were both projected to miss their entire rookie seasons and Dario Saric may not come over until 2016. That type of decision-making only fueled the negative buzz surrounding the team. 

If those guys don't live up to expectations, the 76ers are going to be a very bad team for a very long time, especially if they don't get any more chances to take players at the top of the draft. Being a solid 10-year starter in the NBA isn't enough - Philadelphia needs a franchise player. They need a guy who can be the best player at his position and a Top 5 player in the league because those are the only types of players that would really justify losing on that level.

If the goal is to get a few guys who could make an All-Star team, you don't need to initiate the full tank. A good drafting team can find those guys anywhere in the Top 10. The Indiana Pacers are the most prominent example of that, as they found the core of an elite team (Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert) from the middle of the first round. When you are bottoming out, you are thinking LeBron James or Kevin Durant. 

You need a guy who can carry you on both ends of the floor, who can be the centerpiece of an elite defense AND an elite offense. That's what a franchise player is and you aren't going to find guys like that in many drafts, no matter how high you are picking. There really wasn't a guy like that in 2010, 2011 or 2013. 2012 had Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond, although many would still argue about Drummond. 

Davis is the exception to the rule - 99 times out of 100, you can always find flaws in young players. 2014 was hyped as much as any draft in recent memory you can play this game with almost everyone at the top of it. Can Andrew Wiggins shoot and pass well enough to be a primary option on offense? Can Jabari Parker be a good defensive player? Will Dante Exum be able to shoot? Will Aaron Gordon be able to shoot ... like at all? 

The only guy without any obvious holes in his game is Joel Embiid and he's really the key to the whole plan in Philadelphia. Embiid is as exciting a prospect as has come into the NBA in a very, very long time. If he had been healthy, he would have been the No. 1 pick, no questions asked. Instead, because he already has a back and a foot injury in his file, he slipped to Philadelphia, who has to hope he's not the next Oden or Andrew Bynum.

There is nothing Joel Embiid can't do on a basketball court. He's 7'0 250 with a 7'4 wingspan and he's an elite athlete who can get down in a stance, play way above the rim and control the defensive glass. On offense, he is a very fluid player who can play with his back to the basket, step out and knock down a mid-range jumper and find the open man out of a double team. This is after starting to play basketball only 3-4 years ago.

Embiid is the rare 7'0 who projects as an elite offensive player and an elite defensive player. In my mind, he's the best big man prospect since Tim Duncan. He's way more athletic than Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum and he's more polished than Dwight Howard and Greg Oden. Most young big men have to adjust to the NBA - the NBA is going to have to adjust to him.* This is a guy who could be the best C in the NBA by the time he's 22-23.

* It's kind of like this line from Jay-Z - My new name is just the facts / While the rest of y'all just adjust the facts / Put words together, just to match / I say what I feel, y'all adjust to that. 

Put another way, it goes something like this - We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too and that's how things will sort out. 

Once he gets used to the speed of the NBA game, a 7'0 with Embiid's type of two-way ability isn't going to be on a bad team for very long. Everyone wants to talk about the culture that the San Antonio Spurs have developed, but it really isn't hard to build an elite team around a guy like Tim Duncan. It almost didn't matter who was on Duncan's team from ages 23-30, his presence alone meant they were relevant.

Unless you are going to get a player like Duncan, it doesn't really make sense to slash and burn your roster. The Charlotte Hornets are a good example of that, as it's not the high picks that are getting them back to contention, it's taking a chance on FA's like Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson. That's how good Embiid has the chance to be - he's one of the only players who is actually worth all that the 76ers had to do to get him.

Everyone else in their core has a chance to be a really good NBA player, but there's no guarantee they will be able to carry a franchise. MCW's jumper is forever a question, Nerlens didn't showcase a very advanced offensive game at Kentucky and Saric could be a 3/4 tweener. I like all three of those guys, but I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't become All-Stars. If Embiid can stay healthy, there's almost no chance he isn't one.

Embiid has no ceiling to how good he can be. That's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a very young man, but it's the reality. Some guys need the right context early in their careers to develop into good players - Embiid is not one of them. He is the context. He would have cracked the rotation of every team in the NBA last season and he would have started for most of them. This is a guy you clear out your roster for.

At this point, the biggest thing the 76ers have to worry about is him staying healthy. As long as he can stay on the floor, they have already won. If Embiid is entrenched at the 5, they can fit their other young players around him and they can draft almost any type of player and know that he can play off Embiid on both sides of the ball. If injury concerns were out of the question and you put a gun to my head, I'd take him over Davis.

I don't want to sound like I'm over-hyping the guy, but all the coverage of Wiggins overshadowed how absurdly dominant Embiid was at Kansas. His per game numbers weren't huge, but you have to look at per-minute stats with young players and his were off the charts - 19 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.5 blocks on 63% shooting. He was basically Anthony Davis with 30 pounds of muscle and the tie goes to the bigger player.

What I mean by that is while Davis can dominate more areas of the floor than Embiid, Embiid can dominate the only area of the floor that really matters. It's essentially the Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett debate all over again. Everyone talks about spacing the floor, but the whole point of that is to make attacking the 5 foot area around the rim easier. That's where games are won and lost at every level of basketball, always.

A 7'0 who can control the paint on both sides of the ball is the most valuable type of player there is in the game of basketball. That's why almost every dynasty in NBA history had a Hall of Fame 7'0 in the middle of it. From Russell, Wilt and Kareem to Shaq, Hakeem and Duncan, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Embiid is good enough to be the guy who takes the baton, which I admit is an almost blasphemous thing to say.

Once you get a guy like that, everything else will sort itself out in time. Regardless of what you think about the new lottery rules, they are essentially closing the barn doors after the horses have ran away, at least when it comes to the 76ers. They don't necessarily need to add another Top 3-5 pick to their roster anymore. The hard part is over - they already have the pieces to be an elite team in a few years. As long as Joel Embiid can stay healthy, they are going to look like geniuses.

This might be the most important 0:23 seconds of basketball you watch for a very long time. The only thing it's missing is Kenny "The Jet" Smith yelling "It's over! It's over!" Check out Embiid's facial expression at 0:10 - like, damn, even I can't believe how nasty I am sometimes.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kobe and NBA Rank

On the surface, Kobe's NBA Rank shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, Kobe is 36, he only played in 6 games last season and he didn’t look very good when he was on the court. If you put out a list of every NBA player’s statistical projections for this season, Kobe wouldn’t be very high on it and no one would really care. People would understand why the numbers were so low and they would feel free to accept or reject the assumptions behind them.

The problem with NBA Rank is there are no metrics to evaluate - it’s a popularity contest where every player is graded subjectively. The only thing to argue is the validity of the opinions of the people doing the grading. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad argues with the Mandelbaum family about whether being “No. 1 Dad” trumps being “The World’s Greatest Dad.” As Jerry says, I don’t know how official any of these rankings really are.

The broader point is why exactly does it matter if Kobe Bryant is the 40th best player in the NBA this season? He is one of the biggest stars in the league and one of its only players who draws casual fans and brings them to the arena - the exact “value” of what Kobe does for the Lakers on the court isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. To put it another way, where would Derek Jeter have been in MLB Rank and why should anyone care?

Jeter’s final season with the New York Yankees was one of the biggest stories of the season, even though he was no longer near the player he once was. The Yankees weren’t paying him to put up All-Star numbers - they were paying him because their team wasn’t very good and he was one of the only reasons for fans to go to the ballpark and watch them on TV. Like Jeter, Kobe is an iconic figure who makes money for his team every time he plays.

The argument about whether Kobe is the No. 40 player in the NBA completely misses the point for the same reason that it doesn’t matter whether he is still the player he once was or whether he is “worth” his $25 million salary. If Kobe was making the minimum and taking 8 shots a game, the Lakers would still be terrible. The only difference in that scenario is their fans would have no reason to come to their games or watch them on TV.

Even if Kobe had taken less money, the Lakers would not have been able to sign any of the best free agents on the market. Only a year ago, Dwight Howard took less money in order to leave LA. Why? Because the only thing the Lakers could sell him on was playing next to a 35-year old shooting guard in the final stages of his career. Free agents aren’t coming to a losing situation - LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren’t walking through that door.

Kobe’s salary with the Lakers was partly a goodwill gesture, recognizing that he was underpaid relative to his production in his prime, partly a nod to his drawing power in the box office and partly a way to put lipstick on a pig. L.A. had nothing to gain out of nickle and diming Kobe and everything to lose - if he was going to take less money this season, he could take less money on a team that could contend for a title and how would they ever sell tickets?

A lot more goes into the decision-making process behind the Lakers payroll besides expected value for the 2014-2015 season. In that respect, they are no different than any other corporation in the United States. Are we going to pretend that there aren’t people at ESPN who are getting paid to be the guy they were 5-10 years ago? For all its ruthlessness, ESPN isn’t trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of its employees like blood from a stone.

That, unfortunately, is the mindset in which fans have been trained to view the modern player, as a result of a series of lop-sided CBA agreements which tilted things the owners way. In a league which just agreed to a TV deal worth $2.4 billion a season, the owners pleaded poverty and enacted a strict series of luxury tax penalties to reign in spending on player salaries. It’s a contradiction that Kobe himself pointed out on Twitter last month.

In the brave new world of the modern NBA, a player’s contract is as important as his skill-set. The most valued players are guys whose value exceeds their contract - young players on cost-controlled rookie deals and elite players on a max salaries. Being “overpaid” has become the worst sin in the NBA. Joe Johnson is still a very good player who won a lot of games for the Nets last season, but the only thing people can talk about is his contract.

Take a look at how the story is framed. The Hawks trade Joe Johnson, their best player, for a bunch of nobodies on expiring contracts and a future draft pick. (Also, keeping MarShon Brooks was a key objective for the Nets in the trade - these are the same people who told you Anthony Davis, MKG and Thomas Robinson were the only instant impact players in the 2012 draft) This, we are told, could help them acquire Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Never mind the fact that no big-name free agent is going to sign with the Hawks, precisely because they do things like give away their best player for nothing!

Look what happened to the first pick they acquired for Johnson. They drafted an interesting prospect, who may or may not turn out to be a good NBA player in a few years, and traded him to the Toronto Raptors for John Salmons (whom they promptly released)*. Go ahead and guess what the spin on that was. The move helped them open up a lot of cap room, which they used to give Thabo Sefolosha $4 million and not give Luol Deng $10 million because he had a little bit of African in him.** As for the pick swap? There's no guarantee they finish with a better record than the Nets this season, especially if they end up trading more players to increase their financial flexibility.

* If I really wanted to be cynical, I would point out they traded Lucas Nogueira before they ever had to pay his salary. On another note - is he really going to be better than Rudy Gobert aka the French Shawn Bradley?

** Take a look at the transcript of Ferry's conference call about Deng. Does it sound anything like this

 photo bobs_zps8d113200.jpg

In your own words, what would you say your win shares per 48 minutes were last season? 

It's almost Orwellian the way NBA teams have convinced fans and the media to internalize their corporate spin - the Bobs in Office Space were all about increasing IniTech's financial flexibility, I guarantee you that. So when a team decides to make a move that looks beyond quarterly profit reports, it defies explanation. The outrage about Kobe's contract was palpable - no longer worth the money! Never mind that Kobe is the public face of a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars last year and the goodwill he generates among their massive fan-base is worth at least $25 million. Not only is breaking off a tiny percentage of the profits to Kobe right thing to do, it's also the obvious business move.

The salary cap has turned fans into the unpaid accountants of unimaginably rich people who are making unimaginably large amounts of money and we become indignant when paying the employees eats into even a small percentage of the profits. Do not be distracted by the man behind the curtain. Donald Sterling made $2 billion for running the Los Angeles Clippers into the ground for 30 years, but the real story is whether DeAndre Jordan is worth a contract starting at $15 million a season. Kobe knows the deal - the players are overpaid, but the owners are too.

This season, Kobe is being paid like he is one of the top 5 players in the NBA, even though he probably isn't. Only at ESPN could making a few fairly mundane observations about an older player be turned into a bold exercise in telling truth to power. There's nothing new under the sun - while we may have more advanced statistics at our disposal these days, fans in the 1980's wouldn't have been shocked to find out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the same player at 36 that he was at 26. The only difference now is we are much more concerned with precisely monitoring the efficiency output of every player.

These days, a huge part of the conversation around basketball revolves around obsessively ranking the value of its players. Synergy stats? Let's use them to rank players. SportsVU cameras? Rank players. It's a twist on this famous internet cartoon about sports writing. The problem is that when we commodify human beings and judge them based on their output alone, we end up missing the big picture. At the very least, you should hope your boss thinks that way when he decides what he wants to pay you this year.

That's what Moneyball was all about and that's what this whole story comes down too. The same people who financialized every other industry in this country want to do to the same thing to sports and they want you to cheer along when they talk about how to Moneyball your office. That's why owners are constantly bringing Wall Street people into the front office - if you can figure out a few new ways to crunch the numbers, there is always more money that can be wrung from the players. We are going to streamline the operation, we are going to make it more efficient, we are not going to be wedded to the old ways of doing things.

Did you ever ask yourself why so many companies wanted Michael Lewis to speak to them about Moneyball? Michael Lewis is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell - they are smart guys who know how to follow the money and they know how to write the types of stories that the people in power (who have all the money) want to hear. They write modern-day morality tales with modern-day morals. Blink. The Blind Side. The Tipping Point. Liar's Poker. Outliers. Moneyball. Who is the big hero of Moneyball? The middle manager who assembled a competent workforce from a shoestring budget.

The Oakland A's may have been making a lot of money and they were planning on making a lot more money in the future, but that didn't mean they had any intention of spending any of that money on their players. What did Billy Beane find out? The best way to save money is to let go of all your older employees and hope that you could find a few younger guys who would do their job for a fraction of the cost. If this isn't the story of just about every company in the Fortune 500 over the last generation, I will eat my hat.

That's the way the world is going. Companies aren't trying to reward their employees and spread the wealth around a bit. Every bit of profit must go back to the owners - it is an iron law of business that must be adhered too at all times. Kobe Bryant must not be allowed to steal money from the Lakers, and if he does, the Lakers should be punished for that type of short-sighted management. There is only so much amount of money that a company can be permitted to pay its employees! Once we agree to that, all that's left is figuring out which ones are earning their keep.