Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An NBA Valentine's Update

It’s the loveliest time of the year.  A new, flying gentleman is making everybody fall in love.  Old mates with transcendent chemistry continue to astound through injury and through health.  A new budding relationship- an experiment of sorts- is starting to sprout into maturity in sunny South Beach.  I’m not talking about Cupid, Bill and Hillary, or whichever pair of celebrities just hooked up in Miami less than one minute ago.  I’m talking about Blake Griffin, the Spurs and Celtics, and the Miami Heat big three of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. 
Griffin is truly having a historic rookie season.  He has given the “other team” in L.A. an exciting and marketable player, something the Clippers never, ever, ever get.  The question isn’t whether Blake deserves the Rookie of the Year award; it’s how far did David Stern go to woo Blake to be his 2011 valentine.  Griffin’s explosiveness off the floor when pulling off one of his exciting, made-for-YouTube dunks is only rivaled by the youngest, healthiest versions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Kemp, yet his play is most reminiscent of a young Charles Barkley.  His penchant for grabbing offensive rebounds off his second-jump has been Round-Mound-of-Rebound-like, his ability to handle the ball in the open floor and pass well as a power forward compares to Sir Charles, and his strength is Barkley-esque.  Unlike Barkley, Griffin has yet to use his well-earned money to play the role of Charley and the Krispy Kreme factory.   He is one of the fittest players in the league and has a strong work ethic.  Barring injury, Blake has a great chance at reaching the maximum of his considerable potential.
What about the league’s elderly power forwards- Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan?  Garnett continues to be an intense leader, howling at opposing players smaller than him and burning with as much passion for a February regular season game against the Sacramento Kings as most couples on Valentine’s Day do before- err, you know what.  Despite constant injuries to key players, Garnett’s Celtics continues to dominate, leading the top-heavy Eastern Conference with a record of 39-14.  Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo are possibly the best, most battle-tested core in the league.  Add the league’s elder statesmen, Shaquille O’Neal- aka The Big Valentine- to the mix, and this old group is still a favorite to win the NBA title. 
 Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich are another battle-tested championship core.  San Antonio is a league-best 46-9 this season thanks to great health and a change of scheme offensively.  Timmy and Pop (Sounds like the co-captains of a ‘50’s stickball team on your parents’ block, right?) have given the keys to the offense over to Ginobili and Parker, who have opened the offense up.  With a perimeter-oriented attack modeled perfectly for the modern era, San Antonio is having arguably the best regular season success in its history.  Though the defense needs work, the Spurs are back on the radar as legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. 
And how’s the South Beach experiment working out so far?  Though they’ve been streaky, the Miami Heat is currently second in the Eastern Conference at 39-15.  They’ve been strong offensively, but what is impressive about them is how menacing they’ve been on defense.  They are currently third in defensive rating (measures points allowed per 100 possessions) as James and Wade have proven to be effective co-anchors within a sound defensive scheme.  James, Wade, and Bosh- “The Superfriends”- have been productive together, but they will need players like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem to help them in the playoffs if they want to consummate their South Beach-honeymoon season by winning a championship.

Meanwhile, King James’s old beau, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is on the rebound in the worst way.  Wait, scratch that.  They aren’t on any rebound.  Ever.  Cleveland just ended their NBA-record 26-game losing-streak.  They are 9-46.  Their best defender and rebounder, Anderson Varejao, is out for the season with injury.  You don’t know half their roster anymore.  Cavs owner Dan Gilbert definitely felt like the most scorned lover in the history of the world on Valentine’s Day as he remembered the good times his team had with Lebron.  Or maybe he reveled in his millions and took a trip to a warm tropical location.  No, I definitely got it right the first time.

Kobe Bryant’s Lakers have been dominant, yet disinterested with the regular season; you can find them sleep-walking until May.  Orlando’s Dwight Howard has added moves to his post arsenal; hopefully he is comfortable using them in the playoffs.  Derrick Rose has improved by leaps, bounds, jumps, and hydraulic-induced hops and is leading the Chicago Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference.  Dirk Nowitzki is having another MVP-like season for Dallas.  The Phoenix Suns have struggled a bit, but 37-year-old Steve Nash could not be more vulpine (Dictionary.com word of the day, baby!), cerebrally toying with younger, more athletic players.  And Stoudemire is playing like a superstar for the Knicks despite not having Nash around to create for him, proving he is a dominant offensive player on his own.            

The NBA all-star game and the trade deadline are right around the corner.  Be prepared when Griffin rocks the slam-dunk contest.  Maybe he reads this article and gets inspired to don a cape and be Cupid to fellow big man Dwight Howard’s Superman.  (Wow, even I hope he doesn’t do that.)  Be prepared to be bombarded by talks and rumors of Carmelo Anthony heading to the Knicks. 

There were six decent games on last night.  Unfortunately, the Cavs weren’t playing, so you weren’t able to watch a comedy with your significant other. 

At least there was Blake Griffin on YouTube.  *Heart* 

Superstar Swingers

My post is in response to Doctor MJ's "Chamberlain Theory."   This was his general conclusion:

"There is more to judging the effectiveness of a scorer, or a player in general, than simply his most obvious related statistics, and pursuit of those obvious statistics without proper awareness for the rest of the court can erase most if not all of a scorer’s positive impact, even when those obvious statistics are as great as any in all of history."

In basketball, attacking the basket and scoring buckets efficiently occurs when the offense manipulates the defense. The offensive players always have to remember that not only are they a five-man unit with a singular goal, but that defensive players are a five-man unit with a singular goal as well. 

Building chemistry on defense is easier because the five pieces don't have an object- the ball- to fight over. There is less selfishness, and thus a greater desire to accomplish the common goal. The offense's advantage is that the defense is reactive to it. Generally, the offense always makes the first move. The more you manipulate the defense, the more chaotic the formation of the five-man defense becomes. Hopefully for the offense, the defense makes a mistake (in the NBA, before 24 seconds). Hopefully for the defense, the chemistry and combined effort of the individual pieces prevail, and the defense takes the ball away somehow without the ball going in the basket.

The problem for coaches is figuring out how to best manipulate a defense with his or her five pieces.

It's great when a coach says to pound the ball into Shaquille O’Neal and space the floor or let Lebron James create or let Michael Jordan iso or put the ball in Wilt Chamberlain’s hands. Yeah, that's fine. They are talented offensive players. We get it. If we get it, so will the defense. Cleveland fans have realized this the past two years. You can't just space the floor and let one guy do all the work, regardless of how efficient he is and how he creates for others. Ironically, Orlando found this out in the 2009 Finals, right after they took Lebron's team out. Orlando's plan was to spread the floor with 3-point shooters and let them play a give-and-take game with their dominant center, Dwight Howard.  I don't think Orlando lost because Dwight had limited post moves at the time. I think they lost because they couldn't manipulate the opposing defense enough with the strategy of spacing the floor with jump shooters. When L.A. took those 3's away, Orlando's perimeter offensive players seemed to have no idea what to do.  Mickael Pietrus and Rashard Lewis looked clueless as they put the ball on the floor and took awkward-looking floaters. 

This strategy of spacing the floor with a bunch of spot-up shooters is a dangerous trend in the modern NBA because it ignores the other facets of playing off the ball that are sometimes more effective in the long run at manipulating a defense. Cutting, offensive rebounding, slashing off of the cross-court pass/inside-out pass, simply moving without the ball to manipulate the guy guarding you- i.e. a piece of the defense, moving the ball unselfishly a la Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett in 2008, etc. These are all extremely effective ways of attacking a defense. 

A superstar making swing passes makes an effective offense. 

Look at Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the triangle offense. They were wing players who handled the ball and weren't elite outside shooters.  It doesn't seem like the ideal duo.  Yet, it worked.  Why?

They were great off-ball players and great offensive rebounders for their respective positions. MJ moved well without the ball. The triangle made it harder than ever to guard Jordan because instead of MJ creating with a defense able to focus on him and his effect on teammates, he was attacking at points in time when the defense had no clue the attack was coming. The triangle is a great offensive system because it rewards player movement and ball movement, instead of just standing around and watching your superstar go to work and simply playing off of him.

Look at Shaq in Orlando. The offensive strategy was to get the ball to Shaq and then space the floor with shooters. You can do so many more effective things with a dominant offensive player like Shaq. The triangle took advantage of that starting in 2000, and Shaq had his greatest team and individual success because of that. 

A more modern example is Miami. Dwyane Wade and James are underrated long range shooters, but that certainly isn't their strength. By my observations, they are doing just fine together though. Why? Because they take advantage of each other's presence on the court. A reasonable account of a good Miami possession goes like this:

Wade slashes from the top of the key and gets into the paint.  He passes out to Mario Chalmers in the corner, who swings it to Lebron on the wing. Now instead of Lebron driving into the teeth of a set defense every single time like he did in Cleveland, he is driving by a recovering defender and into the heart of an already chaotic defense (chaotic because they had to stop Wade). Miami will get:

1. Another series of passes resulting in another slash by a superstar

2. An efficient shot at the rim by James

3. Free throws for James

4. An open, in-rhythm 3-pointer from one of the spot-up shooters

All it takes is a little patience. Just manipulate the defense enough, and you'll get your efficient shot.

You don't manipulate a defense with one guy doing all the heavy lifting, regardless of his talent. He can be the key. He can be the base on which your offense is built. But he can't do everything. That's why in the playoffs, your fourth, fifth, and sixth plays/options/best players always make the difference. You can't make a difference if your role is to stand 25 feet away from the place where you want to put the ball. It makes things too easy for a defense. In a seven game series, those first few options will be taken away when it matters most.

You need a plan B. You need a plan F, too.

I totally agree with the Chamberlain Theory. Even what looks to be the most dominant scorer ever can have a net "blah" effect on his team's offense. Who better to represent that than the king of stats?