Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kevin Garnett Still Has His Bite

After Kevin Garnett demolished Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves last night, two things were clear: The Big Ticket can still roll with power forward position's best offering, and Kevin Love still has work to do if he wants to touch the level that prime KG hit in the mid-2000s.

KG showing K-Love he's still the alpha-T'Wolve.
Kevin Garnett is 35 years old. He can no longer rely on pure quickness to take him from one side of the lane to the other to draw a charge, yet he gets there when he needs to. Like a right fielder who knows his corners and alleys through experience, KG finds himself in positions that hurt the other team's chances of scoring, positions no other player in the league, however young or quick, would reach.

This isn't a renaissance year for The Kid- more of a "keep plugging away with remarkable consistency" year. He's averaging 15.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, three assists, one steal and 1.1 blocks in 31.1 minutes per game, numbers with small deviations from what he has produced since 2009. Boston has finally taken over first place in the competitive Atlantic Division, and Garnett's consistent presence has been a huge reason amidst roster turnover, old age, the enigma that is Rajon Rondo, and injury to Ray Allen.

The Celtics lack length outside of KG in their frontcourt- 6'8 Brandon Bass gets major minutes at the other frontcourt spot- and defensive genius Tom Thibodeau isn't crafting their defensive schemes anymore, yet Garnett is still anchoring the third-best defense in the league. He's sixth in defensive rebound percentage (25.8). And he improves Boston's defense by more than four points per 100 possessions. If he were capable of playing more minutes, he'd be getting legitimate DPOY consideration. Maybe he should as is.

KG has been Boston's MVP this year.
His impact is felt on offense, too, particularly with Rondo leading the way for Boston. Because Rondo is such a putrid scorer, defenses ignore him when he doesn't have the ball; therefore, it's important that he plays with players who can capitalize off of Rondo handling the ball.

Enter Garnett, one of the best stretch bigs in the game. This year, Garnett is taking 5.4 shots from 16-23 feet and converting them at an astounding 49 percent clip. Roughly 90 percent of his makes are assisted.

And as Love can attest to, KG's mid-post iso game continues to be a weapon for him.

KG still has the bark to intimidate small, defenseless European point guards; more importantly for Boston, he can still summon the bite from his old T'Wolve days.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Russell Westbrook and Creating "Luck"

Russell Westbrook is an apex predator. Give him a straight line to the basket- even the slightest slit through a defense- and the alpha athlete of the NBA will lock in on the rim and ferociously attack, concluding his assault with a thunderous dunk.

That's the instinctual, aggressive side of Westbrook.
With RW, it's not just the dunks anymore.

But there's another, more controlled side of the point guard's game that has been in the works for quite a while now. Slowly but surely, Westbrook has been developing habits such as recognizing when his teammates are in rhythm, taking a patient approach to getting good shots for himself, and setting up the offense without the intent of gaining a stat (field goal, free throws, or an assist) for himself to conclude the possession. He took a statistical quantum leap in his third year but is taking an incremental yet no less important leap this year as far as providing what his team needs.

Kevin Durant is the Thunder's Constant, the consistent provider of efficiently scored points. Although Durant himself has made leaps as far as creating shots for himself, he isn't a primary creator. As a perimeter scorer, he belongs in the score-in-the-flow category, though again, he has made improvements.

Westbrook can be the wild card, the push-us-over-the-top creator of variance and "luck," the player whom the opposition plans for yet realizes that surrendering an explosive offensive performance isn't always in their control. He's always had a game tailor-made for being that type of player. It's an advantage of behaving with a "survival of the fittest, only the strong dunk" attitude.

But as great as Westbrook was last year, he had the propensity to shoot his team out of games as much as he had the ability to shoot them over the top. That's not creating "luck." That's gambling, and when a team already has a player as consistent as Durant, it's unnecessary.

What the Thunder need is what this calmer Westbrook has become. RW has upped his scoring volume this season from 21.9 to 24.2 points per game, all the while scoring more efficiently than ever before (55.2 percent True Shooting). His assists have dropped from 8.2 to 5.5 per game, but that's more a function of issuing the ball to James Harden and Durant to accommodate their respective ball-handling and improved iso scoring capabilities. He has improved his ability to play off of others.

And that's why defenses are having a much harder time corralling him. Westbrook is shooting at career-high percentages from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet, all the while shooting the same or a greater volume from those spots on the floor compared to 2011. Perhaps most importantly, he's developed a potent 3-point shot. He's assisted on 45.8 percent of his 3's, but he has also more than doubled his volume of total attempts, meaning he's even more of a threat off the dribble from deep.

Oklahoma City is ranked first in the NBA in offensive rating this year, and Westbrook's change in behavior is a contributing factor in the team's offensive improvement. He's using his creative ability and energy not to gamble but to take responsible risks at appropriate times in games. It's a much more useful approach, especially come playoff time when he can create that "luck," that variance when necessary, and push his team over the top.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gauging L.A.'s Chances in May

It's been years since a writer had to clarify which L.A. team is the subject of an article with the above title. Unfortunately, the Clippers aren't laughable anymore, but they also aren't getting this article's attention. It's the Lakers. Even in a successful Clipper season- it's always the Lakers.

"What I'm saying is...I...want...shots."
The Lakers likely finalized their roster with deadline trades that netted them Ramon Sessions and future cap space in the form of Jordan Hill. The team's chances come playoff time will rest in the hands of Sessions, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant, as well as their double agents on competing contenders- Lamar Odom on Dallas and Derek Fisher on OKC (neither of whom are doing a good job of hiding that their missions are to cripple their current teams).

Even with the Sessions acquisition, L.A. is an old team in a condensed season, with a new coach who has broken away from the triangle offense in favor of a Kobe-centric offense that has seen the aging Mamba strike far too many times for his own good this season. How many more strikes does Kobe have left? The 40-point streaks are a testament to his skills and hard work, but I'm sure Laker fans would have been okay with surrendering a few regular season games for an invigorated Bryant late in the season.

Some of Bryant's stats have been trending downward: he's shooting below 42 percent since the start of February, and his assists have decreased since that point as well (5.4 to 4.1). Getting used to the presence of a point guard who can actually set Kobe and the others up is a point in L.A.'s favor, as hopefully, Kobe doesn't need to carry such a ball-handling/creating load for the team.

The Lakers are ranked 15th in offensive rating and are a horrendous shooting team (31.4 percent from 3-point range, 27th in the league), but they have efficient big men who will cause mismatches in the postseason. Bynum's career year- he's averaging 18.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game with a true shooting percentage of 61.4- is more impressive when you think about the lack of spacing L.A. provides him. If he can continue to handle his fair share of the scoring load, L.A. can be dangerous. Outside of Dwight Howard, there probably isn't a better low-post scoring center in the league today. Sessions and Bryant need to deliver him the rock.

Defensively, the Lakers rank 11th in the league right now and do a surprisingly good job of defending the 3-point line (4th in percentage against) despite having older wing players. Will that defense carry over into the playoffs? Last year, Dallas destroyed L.A. with the 3-ball by moving the ball faster than L.A.'s older legs.

The Lakers have a sturdy defense based around the length of Bynum/Gasol, and they'll have a steady offense if they can properly incorporate Sessions into the mix. An inspired surprise performance by a role player- perhaps rookie Andrew Goudelock- would definitely help in May.

More than likely, if L.A. is going to make the NBA Finals, they'll have to get through the Thunder. Defending the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden/James Harden's beard quartet appears a daunting task for an aging team, but Gasol/Bynum is a great counter, especially against a talented but underwhelming OKC frontcourt.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

South Beach Case Study: Miami Before the Stretch Run

Despite receiving less media attention this season, the Miami Heat get more and more intriguing from a historical perspective.  

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on the South Beach Case Study (SBCS), aka, the first-of-its-kind experiment that is the Miami Heat, led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  Never have three stars come together in the middle of their primes in hopes of winning a title.  Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce were grizzled vets with playoff scars.  Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain were the same way nearly 40 years before Boston's trio connected.

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.  
What, if any, transformation has Miami undergone since last season?   

Last year, Miami won 58 regular season games and led the league in SRS (6.58), then blasted through the Eastern Conference before falling to Dallas in the NBA Finals.  Their success was mainly tied to James, Wade and Bosh doing incredible amounts of heavy lifting on both ends of the floor.  Considering the team had no depth, no point guard or center, and injuries to their best peripheral players, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, the fact that the three amigos were able to lift Miami to rank third in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating is a testament to their high-end talent.

Currently, Miami sits at 34-11 (Second in SRS at 8), which would be good for a 62-win pace in a traditional, non-screwed up regular season.  Rookie Norris Cole, an improved Mario Chalmers, veteran Shane Battier, and healthy Miller and Haslem have contributed to the improvement, as has a more open offense that isn't predicated on star monopolization of the ball.  The team ranks second in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating, although they haven't been defending the 3-point shot quite as well this year (36.5 percent this year vs. 34.5 percent last year).

What's scary for the rest of the NBA is how Dwyane Wade has seen a significant decrease in his minutes and raw box score production.  In 2011, Wade averaged 25.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 37.2 minutes per game.  In 2012, he has averaged 22.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in 32.9 minutes per game.  On a per-minute basis, Wade is actually more productive in most categories this season.

That Miami has been able to deliver an even stronger regular season than last year despite Wade doing less heavy lifting indicates the team is now much more than just a talented group of individuals- they are gelling as a team.  Being able to reserve energy stores for the playoffs is good for the 30-year-old Wade, and it should be able to extend his career longer, too.

What happens when Wade starts playing 38-40 minutes per game in the playoffs?  How does it change Miami?  Perhaps they are concealing an even higher gear?  

Miami is still a donut team- no, that's not a nod to Eddy Curry.  But the most dangerous current contenders are led by perimeter-oriented players, and that bodes well for a perimeter corps that shut down Jeremy Lin a few weeks ago and Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.

The Heat are in the stretch run now.  Come this postseason, we'll be able to observe the full potential of this core, and more SBCS questions should be answered.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Trade Deadline Deals

NBA message board servers rejoiced when the NBA's trade deadline passed without a blockbuster deal last week.  Instead of shutting down discussion forums as if they were the painted area, Dwight Howard pledged allegiance to Orlando for the rest of this season.  Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol will continue to share the five combined touches that Kobe Bryant allows them.  And the Boston Celtics are giving their Big Four one last ride.

But that doesn't mean the few trades that did occur were meaningless.  

  • The Houston Rockets gave up on the underwhelming young duo of Hasheem Thabeet and Johnny Flynn to obtain some length in the frontcourt in the form of veteran Marcus Camby.  Camby does indeed provide the squad with a shot-blocking presence inside and is a player who can help improve their below-average defense (ranked 18th in the league).
  • The Rockets also jettisoned Jordan Hill for a draft pick and Derek Fisher, whom they then bought out.  It's a solid trade for Houston because they get a pick, and it's a useful trade for the Lakers because they make room for...
    The Lakers will miss Derek Fisher's leadership. 
  • Ramon Sessions, a point guard who can actually handle the ball and set up the offense.  Defenses essentially ignored Fisher, who has shot less than 33 percent from 3-point range this season and has basically guaranteed opposing point guards a boost to their stats with his poor defense.
  • That begs the question: where will Fisher end up?  Miami and OKC are getting fanfare as possible destinations, but Boston is a dark horse.  The Celtics love old guys, and Fisher is like the anti-Rajon Rondo; Rondo can do everything but shoot, while late game 3-point shooting in the playoffs is why Fisher is still in the league.  Plus, you know Boston would love to stick it to L.A. by signing him.  
  • The Nets acquired Wallace, and everybody thinks it has something to do with Dwight Howard still, but nobody knows exactly what.  Story of New Jersey, 2012...
  • Stephon Jackson returned to San Antonio to be coached by Gregg Popovich, who had success channeling Jackson's energy into a positive for the Spurs in 2003.  With only a few more rounds left in their current core, it's a good move.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Player to Watch: Detroit Piston Greg Monroe

The Detroit Pistons, the guardians of the Eastern Conference Finals for nearly a decade, have been shipped down the line the last few years.  Their cushy term as pencilled-in Conference Finalist exhausted, they are the team even Miami Heat fans will likely skip watching when the team comes to South Beach.

Be it bad contracts, injuries, or not meeting expectations, Detroit's core over the last few years hasn't exactly induced the sense of a 2000s reenactment.  But there is one player who gives hope to the Pistons: Greg Monroe.

Monroe has a knack for the bucket.  
Monroe is a 21-year-old sophomore NBA center on a bad team- a situation that claims the confidence of most players.  Inspiringly, Monroe has emerged and continued to meet the greater amount of responsibilities thrown his way.

Comparing year one to year two, Monroe's minutes, Usage rate, and shot volume have skyrocketed with no significant hit to his efficiency.  He's averaging 16.3 points on 55.6 percent True Shooting, and the majority of his scoring comes unassisted, which means he's creating for himself efficiently.

Monroe's scoring style is ground-based.  He's not an explosive athlete by any means, but he's a big-bodied southpaw who knows how to move himself into scoring positions on the interior and along the baseline.  An engine on the offensive glass (14.2 offensive rebound rate, fourth in the NBA), Monroe manufactures points.  It would be nice to see him drive up his foul draw rate; he's not Al Jefferson-bad at drawing fouls, and he doesn't have to be Dwight Howard, but he should look to draw more contact, especially since he shoots nearly 80 percent from the foul line.  He needs to learn how to mix his craftiness with his heft and some 'bows.  

Perhaps his best attribute is his passing.  He can deliver interior passes, high-lows, and passes from the mid-post to cutters in the lane- basically everything Pau Gasol can do.  Many of his assists result in close-range shots.  As he develops a respectable jump shot and Detroit improves their putrid 3-point shooting corps, Monroe should find himself assisting on more 3-point shots via swing passes from the top of the key.

Monroe only takes 2.1 shots per game outside of nine feet.  If he can improve that, it could be a big weapon, particularly in pick-n-pop scenarios with Rodney Stuckey.

Defensively, Monroe is gritty, but his relative lack of athletic ability hurts at times.  He's a big-time rebounder though, and Detroit is an above-average rebounding team; if they get the right players, the team could be a good defensive team with Monroe as a helpful piece.              

Detroit is finding itself.  After years of being in flux, Detroit is finally assembling a sustainable model, with Monroe as an anchor piece.    

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Jersey Nets: Injuries Cost the Front Line

The New Jersey Nets are a fortunate bunch.

They are currently 13-27, good for last in the Atlantic Division.  They have the worst defense in the entire league.  And they lead the league in total games missed: 11 players have missed 123 games as of this past Tuesday, and that number is sure to grow with Brook Lopez still out with another leg injury.    

Deron Williams has played like a top-7 player in the NBA this season.
But at least they aren't the Bobcats.  

At the core of N.J.'s problems is that Lopez has accounted for a large portion of those games missed.  Brook has played only 136 minutes over five games for a team that doesn't have another legitimate NBA starter in their frontcourt.  Without Lopez's interior scoring, the team relies almost exclusively on Deron Williams to create shots.  It's a credit to Williams that with all that pressure and with head coach Avery Johnson misusing him early in the season by putting him off-ball, he has still been able to elevate New Jersey to literally being at the league average in offensive rating.  

MarShon Brooks, who has had a stellar rookie season, has also missed time.  Brooks can handle the rock and act as a pressure-release for Deron, so having him in the lineup and healthy has been crucial.

The perimeter corps of New Jersey measures up quite nicely against most teams in the league: Deron is a superstar point guard, DeShawn Stevenson and Anthony Morrow provide toughness, length, and shooting at the wings, Jordan Farmar is a proven championship-caliber backup PG, and Brooks is a solid all-around rookie.  

But the frontcourt...oh, the frontcourt.  Kris Humphries is the team's frontcourt scorer, and he derives most of his points from Deron Williams.  Shelden Williams and Johan Petro are non-threats at center, and the frontcourt lacks the length and/or quick feet that it takes to defend the high-percentage spots of the floor.  The team is close to last in the league in blocks, eFG% Against, and defensive rebound percentage.  

Maybe their frontcourt fortunes change.  Maybe they sign Dwight Howard this summer and all is well.  If they do, they'll be contenders.  But for now...they're simply not the Bobcats.