All posts by siddharthravindran824

Why is Philadelphia Suddenly Winning?

If Sam Hinkie was a stand-up comedian, he would have been ushered out the venue with the stench of tomatoes emanating from his body. The general consensus was that the infamous creator of “The Process” was deservingly axed. These nay-sayers did boast a rather compelling argument: Golden State is 6 wins away this season from matching Philadelphia’s victory total from the last 3 seasons COMBINED. However, 2017 seems to be the magic potion that allowed this much-maligned concoction to work its wonders. In January, the 76ers are 9-5, good for a tie of the 7th best mark in this time frame, with wins over the likes of CHA, TOR, POR, LAC, and MIL twice. So what has been the recipe for this seemingly miraculous turnaround?

“The D”, as Dwight Howard would say. After the turn of the calendar year, Philadelphia possesses the 2nd best defense. The insertion of un-drafted TJ McConnell into the starting lineup on December 30 was integral in spearheading this defensive emergence. The new starting 5 of McConnell-Stauskas-Covington-Ilyasova-Embiid relinquishes a gaudy 90.1 pts per 100 possessions, which would easily be the best mark in the NBA. McConnell’s an astounding individual defender. His lateral quickness and strong core allow him to stay in front of his speedy counterparts, while his comprehension of angles permit him to successfully fight over screens. In January, opponents are shooting 3% worse on 2-pointers and 1.1% worse on 3 points while directly guarded by McConnell.

McConnell stays in front of Lillard and forces him into a bad shot.

McConnell sticks with Walker and then fights over Zeller’s screen to contest his shot.

The former UofA guard isn’t the sole factor, however. Brett Brown has ensured that his troops thoroughly understand the defensive fundamentals and has implemented a progressive scheme. His defensive approach to the pick and roll screams unpredictability, as he throws the kitchen sink at opponents. They ICE (have the big man sag back), trap, switch etc. What does not change, however, is the precise coverage around the 2 defenders involved in the pick and roll, especially with regards to the former 2 strategies.

The remaining 3 move as if they’re connected by a string. When the ball handler moves further away from the roll man, the weak side defenders move closer to the latter. When the opposite occurs, they move closer to their man. This all takes place while the off-ball defenders maintain a straight line angle to their assignment, which allows for the easiest possible close out. When the close out does happen, Philadelphia has competent enough perimeter defenders such as the aforementioned McConnell and Covington to take away the space without allowing the man to blow past him. This helped the 76ers give up a 6th best 32.8 FGA that were tightly covered this past month.

Covington move towards his man, as the ball starts to come to his side. Luwawu-Cabarrot, on the other hand, begin to move towards the ball, as it goes away from him. This all occurs without any defender not being in position to close out.

When the ball handler traverses around the screen, the off-ball defenders have the luxury of staying closer to their man than usual. That’s due to the mobility of Philadelphia’s big men, such as Noel, Saric, etc. When sagged back, they have the ability to rapidly transition from covering the ball handler to covering the roll man if the former makes the pocket pass. This agility is the primary element that allows Brown to call on various, versatile defensive strategies, such as switching big men onto perimeter players.

Noel covers Ariza off the curl and then moves to guard Capela.

Philadelphia’s switches don’t break even in the most challenging situations. Although defensive malleability is vital, so is high IQ. Brown has instilled that in his guys. They switch a ton of off-ball action to perfection, which is a lot more difficult than switching on-ball stuff. With regards to the latter, it’s a lot more cut and dry as to when the switch should occur. They also switch action that involves 2 screens, another mentally demanding task.

Crawford uses 2 screens, but the 3 defensive players involved switch it perfectly.

With all this said, however, it really only takes 2 words to explain why Philadelphia’s defense has only been surpassed by Golden State this past month: Joel Embiid.

To me, Embiid is a lock to win multiple defensive player of the year awards. There is not a single offensive situation that one should feel uncomfortable letting Embiid face. With him on the floor, the 76ers have a defensive efficiency of 99.1, which would be the best mark by over a point. With him off it, Philly plummets to 108.1, which would rank a miserable 24th. Embiid’s already the best rim protector this season, relinquishing an incredible 41% success rate at the rim. This month, that already-impressive number drops all the way to 34.8%!! Embiid’s stifling rim protection doesn’t merely just entail having to travel from one side of the paint to the basket. He’ll shift from guarding on to the perimeter to immediately swatting a shot at the rim. His timing is just uncanny.

Embiid eliminates Batum’s airspace and then recovers to meet Zeller at the rim.

Embiid rotates over to block Parker.

Astonishingly, that number doesn’t even capture the immense impact Embiid’s paint presence has. If Embiid is allowed to stay near the rim, the 76ers’ defense becomes nearly un-penetrable. As mentioned above, Philly has a tremendously sound defense as is. But the few times there are chinks in the armor, Embiid is there to patch up the mess. Whether it be a perimeter defender giving the angle on a drive or losing his man off ball, Embiid will obstruct the offensive player’s path to the rim. This provides said defender with sufficient amount of time to recover.

This unbelievable mobility translates to several other defensive facets, as well. The ability to play a multitude of pick and roll coverages really begins with Embiid, as he’s agile enough to trap and switch onto guards. His size makes it difficult to get around him, while his lateral quickness makes it arduous for a guard to shake him with his handle. If the offensive player does get a step on him, Embiid utilizes his massive frame and length to continue to be a nuisance. He is hands down the best Philly big at moving from defending the ball handler to the roll man. Lastly, all of these assets allow Embiid to be an impressive rebounder as well. With him on the floor, the 76ers have a 51.5% rebounding rate, which would be 5th best in the league. The trend continues here as well, as without him, that number plummets to 47.7% (would be 27th).

Embiid’s able to move his feet and stick with DeRozan.

Embiid glides from guarding Brogdon, the ball handler, to defending Henson, the roll man.

The most optimal strategy to counter what’s going on with Golden State is to have a big man who can stay on the floor against the Warriors’ small lineup, while you have the opportunity to exploit their lack of size. Philadelphia has that with Embiid. When you pair that with their apt team defense and wide array of assets coming in, it wouldn’t be a surprise if after Cleveland, the next biggest challenger to the Warriors throne hails from the city of brotherly love.

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Who are the Eastern Conference All-Star Starters?

The vote to determine the All-Star starters typically ends up being a popularity contest. Whether it be Bryant from the past 3 years or Wade in 2016, the ten players who line up for the tip-off are usually not all there off merit. This should be acceptable. Since the power lies in the hands of the fans, no selection should be deemed as incorrect. However, with the legitimacy of careers and more importantly, player’s potential maximum earnings being determined by one’s number of all-star selections, there absolutely should be a more rigid process in deciphering who the 10 esteemed players are. We will see how effective the new process of allowing the media and players to chime in is. In the meantime, here’s my crack at the most deserving for the Eastern Conference. 

East:

Guards:

Kyle Lowry

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This is an absolute lock; Lowry has been the best guard in the East. Toronto is +15.6 per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to him off it, which is hands down the best mark for the Raptors. For perspective, that value for James is +15.7. This sort of an impact is also exemplified by the fact that Lowry is in 2 of the 5 best lineups to have been on the court for 100 or more minutes. The Lowry + bench unit (Joseph, Ross, Patterson, & Nogueira) is +23.2, and the Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Patterson, & Valanciunas lineup is +26.4.

Lowry is the engine, and his pull-up 3 point shooting is the fuel. Out of players who have participated in 15 or more games and have attempted 1.5 or more pull up 3s per game, Lowry is 3rd at 42.3%. This exemplifies why Lowry has the highest true shooting percentage among PGs, higher than Curry, Paul, Thomas, etc. And he maintains this efficiency at enormous volume: he possesses the highest percentage for all players with at least 2.6 pull up 3PA.This forces the defense to precariously pull their big man 25 feet away from the rim. Lowry exploits this with his tremendous ability to drive, as he’s 14th in drives per game, ahead of the likes of Irving, Butler, and Antetokounmpo. With the defense collapsed, Lowry exhibits his first class passing ability. The aforementioned lineups have respective assist rates of 57.1% and 58.7%. Comparatively, Toronto, as a team, possesses an assist rate of 47.9%!!

Lastly, Lowry’s malleable, which is why he’s an ideal complement to DeRozan. He’s shooting 48.8% on catch and shoot 3s, which is the best mark for players who have played 20 games and has 2 or more attempts. It’s a shame that Lowry’s currently 6th among guards; he’s a starter.

Isaiah Thomas

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This was the most challenging decision among the ten spots. Ultimately, it came down to Wall or Thomas. Irving’s lack of playmaking and defending and DeRozan’s deficient 3 point shooting and playmaking took them out of the running. Wall had a compelling argument. He’s converting 55.7% off drives, which would rank him 9th among players with 3 drives and 2 FGA. Washington’s +13.4 per 100 possessions better with Wall on the court than when he’s off it. He’s an otherworldly playmaker with the league’s 4th best assist rate.

However, Thomas’ play has been nothing short of brilliant, especially in the 4th quarter where he’s been scorching the nets. Thomas’ colossal 10.1 points in the final frame is the best mark in the last TWENTY-ONE years. His individual prosperity directly translates to team success, as the Celtics possess the 3rd highest net rating in the 4th and the 4th most potent offense in the clutch (defined as a score difference of 5 or under with 5 or less minutes to go).

What allows Thomas to be dynamite not only in the 4th but throughout is his remarkable efficiency. At 61.6% true shooting, Thomas ranks 4th among PGs. If there is a blemish on Thomas’ record, it’s his effectiveness off drives and near the rim, which are at a mortal 54.3% and 50% respectively. However, he compensates for this by his ability to earn a trip to the charity stripe. Despite his small stature, his fearlessness allows him to manufacture an astounding 13.2 drives per game (2nd in the NBA). This aids him in generating a 4th-leading 3.2 FTA/game off such penetration.

Further rectification comes from Thomas being a threat at both the pull up and catch and shoot 3. He’s nailing 38.2% on the former (8th among qualified guards) and 38.7% on the latter. However, Thomas’ most effective shot is also the most analytically shunned one, as he converts a cool 50% from mid range, which would place him at 5th in the entire NBA.

By all means the former last overall pick of the draft is a scoring guard. Nonetheless, Thomas has a higher assist percentage than all his competitors for this spot aside from Wall: Irving, DeRozan, Walker, and even Lowry. Thomas has exhibited a deep comprehension of how the defense shifts to combat his innate ability to foray in the paint and has frequently found the open man.

It’s going to take some innovative scheming to ensure that Thomas doesn’t get exploited defensively by the likes of James, DeRozan, and Antetokounmpo. But he absolutely should one of the 10.

Frontcourt:

LeBron James

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I’m going to keep this short and sweet. The best player in the game has upped his potency around the rim, with his efficiency metrics swimming back in the 70%+ pool. Furthermore, he has reverted to his Miami days with regards to his 3-point shooting, which makes him virtually unguardable. With defenders unable to lend LeBron with airspace, more help is required, which has resulted in a career high in assist rate. This is phenomenal for a guy in his 13th year in the league with as many miles under his belt as he has.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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Once LeBron enters the waning years of his illustrious career, IF he does, Giannis will usurp him as the pillar of versatility. The Greek Freak is an absolute monster in transition, with his gazelle like strides propelling him through any meek opposition with the courage to stand in his way. He’s successful on 67.3% on his attempts in the open court and is sent to the free throw line 29.5% of the time, which would rank him 4th. His efficiency shines through in general in the restricted area with a 66.2% mark.

Aside from his jaw-dropping slams in transition, his post up game helps pad that value, as he’s converting a whopping 52.1% of his attempts, good for 6th in the league. Giannis relies on his ferocious ability to enter the paint whenever he pleases and his potency around the basket, as illustrated by his 8.1 drives per game and the fact that 50% of his FGA is from the restricted area.

He pairs his capability to force the defense to bend at his will with his outstanding court vision to be one of the best non-guard passers. Parker, Monroe, Henson, Teletovic, and Terry all become drastically better shooters when Antetokounmpo is setting them up. Most impressively, Giannis’ able to harness his passing ability from a myriad of positions: as the pick and roll ball handler, as the roll man, from the post, and in transition.

His adaptability transfers to the other side of the floor. Opponents convert a low 45.5% around the rim with Antetokounmpo looming, a mark superior than that of Jordan and Howard. Giannis is also able to switch on the perimeter and has shown a strong grasp of pick and roll help defense. With him on the floor, MIL is allowing a sturdy 103.8 pts per 100 possession, which place them at 8th. Without him, they relinquish a ghastly 109.2, which would drag them down to 26th.

Antetokounmpo’s accomplishing this with a below average mid range shot and a non-existent 3 point shot. This certainly won’t be the last time the Greek Freak will be an all-star starter.

Jimmy Butler

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With Butler being the most potent floor spacer in Chicago’s starting lineup, their offense has flopped, and resultantly, so has the team. However, this shouldn’t inhibit Butler from finding himself on the All-Star starting lineup. With all the conversation revolving around who will be the leader of the Bulls, it is indubitably Butler. The Bulls are +13.8 pts per 100 possession better with Butler on the court. To put that in perspective, the next best is Mirotic, at +3.3!

Butler makes a living at the FT line, averaging 9.7 free throws per game, good for 3rd in the NBA. Albeit not incredibly efficient on any particular spot on the floor, this elevates several of his metrics, such as his true shooting percentage, which is at 59%. For example, Butler’s generates 0.96 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler and leads the league by drawing a foul on 20.9% of the time. In the same vein, nobody bests Butler at FTA off drives. A vital factor is Butler’s ability to manufacture 9.1 drives per game by utilizing his strength and advanced footwork to create avenues to the rim.

A la Thomas, Butler’s also a stone-cold killer in the 4th, producing a 6th best 7.2 points per game. What aids him in this regard is his shot creation and ability to knock tough shots. 60.2% of Butler’s FGA are unassisted. Additionally, he’s successful on an astounding 45% of his attempts when the closest defender is 0-2 away from Butler. When you pair all of this with his solid defense and playmaking, Butler should round out the Eastern Conference All-Star Starters.

Is Zach LaVine better than Andrew Wiggins?

Unfortunately, it appears that the dubious award for most consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance will continue to reside in Minnesota. With the gargantuan expectations that were placed upon Thibodeau’s arrival, this season may reek entirely of disappointment. However, one would be hard-pressed to believe that that same sentiment would persist in future seasons.

With precocious stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine, the starved Timberwolves fan-base should be able to fill their appetite with postseason fervor for years to come. When it comes to the amount of onus each of their nascent talent would have to shoulder, there is a perceived hierarchy. Towns would bear the most, Wiggins would be the 2nd option, and LaVine would essentially be a release valve when defenses hone in on the others. Containing a tremendously multifaceted arsenal of skills on both sides of the ball, Towns seems to have cemented his place in the Minnesota stratosphere. However, contrary to popular belief, has LaVine surpassed Wiggins in the food chain? 

A deep-dive into their respective seasons might paint a more muddled picture than one might have imagined. LaVine was heralded solely for his inhuman athleticism and jaw-dropping dunking ability. While he has morphed into a more well-rounded player (we’ll touch on this shortly), he has still found ways to harness this skill-set to benefit his team. He’s in the 88th percentile in transition effectiveness, while shooting a gaudy 67%. After he turns on the jets to exploit a team slow to get back, Rubio’s innate vision and full court passing ability help LaVine make the most of his cheetah-like speed. 

However, as mentioned earlier, LaVine has evolved into a complete, dynamic scoring threat. And it all begins with the shooting. LaVine shoots an excruciatingly hot 46% on catch and shoot 3s. On the other hand, Wiggins converts on an ordinary 34%. This allows defenses to cheat off him in order to crowd the strong side, and they have even explicitly chosen leaving Wiggins over LaVine while in rotation. The UCLA product also isn’t merely a spot up shooter, as he’s nailing 1.06 points per possession from off-screen action. A pet move LaVine has incorporated into his game is that he heads in one direction off the screen, dishes it back to the screener, gets the ball back after he traverses through the screen in the opposite direction and launches.

The easiest way to create a breakdown in the defense is by forcing the defensive big to press the 3 point line because the pick and roll ball handler can pull from 3. Well, LaVine is absolutely capable of doing so, as he’s converting 36% on the pull up 3 (which would rank him 12th among players with more than 2 pull up 3PAs). Wiggins is knocking down 35%, but that number shouldn’t carry the same amount of weight as LaVine’s accuracy. It comes from half the attempts LaVine takes and is actually inflated due to his exceptionally hot 3P shooting start. From December 1, Wiggins has converted an atrocious 25% on pull up 3s. 

Due to his inability to shoot from deep, Wiggins relies on drives, analytically-shunned pull up mid-range jumpers, and post ups to inflict damage. With regards to the latter, he’s tremendously effective, as he’s ranked 2nd among non-bigs at 45%. Wiggins makes use of a blindingly quick first step and adept footwork. However, Wiggins’ dependence on the mid-range is fairly puzzling. Despite being 7th in attempts in the NBA and having 64% of his shots come from here, Wiggins sinks in a mediocre 38% of them. Contrastingly, LaVine only operates in this space for 24% of his attempts and converts on 41%.

Lastly, Wiggins’ reliance on driving has translated into him foraying into the paint more than anyone else on the team. Yet, Wiggins is posting an inefficient 41.4% on FGA off penetration, while LaVine’s efficiency shines through in this element as well, as he’s at 47%. LaVine superior handle permits himself to escape scot-free to the rim more frequently. His arsenal includes a bevy of hesitation moves and crossovers. LaVine’s soft touch persists around the rim as well. His handle is also lower to the ground, which increases the level of difficulty to disrupt him. Additionally, his potency at the rim paired with his superior efficiency at pulling up from the mid range and the 3 helps illustrate why LaVine is averaging 0.88 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler. Wiggins, on the other hand, pales in comparison with a mere 0.77 PPP.

However, Wiggins’ entering the painted area more than his teammates do highlight a stark improvement in his game: his handles. His drives per game has ascended from 3.7 to 5.2 to now 6.8. His handle is a lot tighter now, as he’s able to zoom past his defender in one on one situations. Wiggins’ dribbling also effectiveness also translates in the pick and roll, where there’s more of a crowd, as he’s only turning it over on 13.5% of his possessions, better than the likes of Antetokounmpo, Wall, and Westbrook. Aside from first rate speed, he’s becoming more adept at manipulating his defender with his handle. He doesn’t possess as deep of a bag of tricks as LaVine does, but he really has mastered the semi cross-over where he fools the defender to think Wiggins will use the screen before he veers away from it.

This newfound development is key for Wiggins because he has sneakily become a good passer. He’s able to puncture the defense with penetration and his improved awareness allows him to understand where the open man is. Even sans driving, Wiggins’ able to comprehend when the defense shifts towards him and who they’re ignoring. Then he whips the pass to catch the closest defender as far as he was going to be and with his weight leaning in the opposite direction.

LaVine does, however, have him beat in assist % and potential assists. LaVine is certainly capable of creating for others. Muhammad, Aldrich, Dieng, and Bjelica all shoot better off passes from LaVine than from Wiggins. LaVine utilizes his controlled and advanced dribble to lure the receiver’s defender along with LaVine until he strikes with the pass. However, the assist discrepancy is more due to LaVine being off ball when the defense is forced to rotate so that Minnesota can make us of the space he provides and to defenders leaving others to close out to LaVine. Making the easy pass is skill, but Wiggins is definitely superior in inducing that initial defensive rotation, as exemplified by his higher secondary assist tally.

Defensively, they’re both traffic cones in 1 on 1 play. Neither contains the lateral agility to stay in front of ball handlers, and LaVine especially frequents gets out-muscled on the penetrator’s way to the hoop. Both struggle with off-ball defense as well, but LaVine exhibits an inferior grasp on the concepts. He frequently takes bad angles on close outs when the ball gets whipped over cross-court to his man. Sometimes LaVine even closes out to the wrong guy. He loses his man on backdoor cuts and over-helps. All of this directly factors into the offense being able to find a good shot. Wiggins is no stalwart by any means at off-ball defense, as he too has a lot of the mental lapses as LaVine. MIN’s defense is just as bad with both on the floor. However, there’s more promise. Wiggins portrays more of an understanding of when to help and whom to cover when the defense has shifted in one direction.

Given all that about Wiggins’ superior passing ability and defense, I’m going to have to conclude with LaVine being the better player now and for the future. Wiggins’ dishing and defense is not greater enough to offset the dearth in shooting in comparison to LaVine. Additionally, as we’ve seen with Klay Thompson, shooting opens up doors to all other elements of the game. Unlike Thompson, LaVine’s already ahead of the curve at the other facets of the game with a monstrous handle and above average passing ability. So once he learns how to leverage his shooting to make those other facets easier by adding pump fakes, attacking closing out defenders, and becoming more respected as a pull up 3 pt shooter, watch out.

Defending the Eastern Conference Crown

While champagne corks flew in the Warrior locker room last June, narratives of a valiant Finals performance flew around the runners-up. The popular reasoning for why the Larry O’ Brien trophy currently resides in Oakland is the obvious one: the title-deficient Cavaliers had the odds stacked up against them when 2 of their all-stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were deemed too wounded to participate on the NBA’s largest stage. However, a more dissentient narrative began to emerge.

The 2014-2015 Cavaliers were bogged down by ISO-laden mush over and over again. Against the versatile Warriors, who remarkably possessed several players with the uncanny ability to defend multiple positions, that sort of offensive strategy seemed doomed from the start. Instead due to injury, they trotted out a lineup focused on thwarting the Warriors’ offense by suppressing Curry at the 3 point line due to Thompson’s trapping ability and making the MVP work due to Dellavedova’s off-ball defensive prowess from Game 2 onwards. The unit of Dellavedova-Shumpert-James-Thompson-Mozgov allowed the 2nd ranked Warriors to score 93.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have placed them at 29th. Therefore, did this defensive oriented unit actually provide Cleveland with the better opportunity to come out victorious?

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While the anachronistic lineup provided GSW with a real scare, it ultimately didn’t possess enough offensive firepower. Obviously, that’s where the absence of Love and Irving plays a role. However, their defensive arsenals don’t contain the aforementioned skill sets that made Curry and GSW sweat. With a combined ~$32.5M allocated to them this year, if Cleveland desires to be considered a legitimate title threat, they need to construct a plan that allows them to executive at a top notch level defensively with Irving & Love on the floor. And they certainly have done that thus far.

After allowing a porous 104.1 points per 100 possession, which placed them 20th defensively, that number has dwindled to 99.1, which has skyrocketed them to 4th*. The return of Irving has not induced a decline in defensive play, as CLE’s DefRtg since the PG’s first game is 99.7*. In order to compensate for a lack of sheer defensive talent, the unit needed to operate as if it is connected by a string and to hinge on unpredictability by showcasing various schemes. Cleveland has mastered both of these elements.

When teams utilize screens, whether it be on or off-ball, in order to foster a 2 on 1 advantage, Cleveland has multiple strategies to snuff the threat. When a ball-handler accepts the on-ball screen, the Cavaliers’ most frequented counter-attack is to have the big man ice or sag back. Rather than allowing for this to be a 2 on 2 encounter, Cleveland has their off-ball defenders relinquish space from their original assignments in order to crowd the roller. This allows the 2 defenders involved in the pick & roll to swarm the ball handler without the worry of the easy pocket pass to the roll man. With the constant horde of defenders impeding the ball handler, Cleveland has only allowed said players to shoot 39% out of the pick and roll.

Thus, encompassing the roll men forces the ball handler to whip the rock to his shooters on the perimeter. If a pass is made, Cleveland’s off-ball defenders are highly cognizant of crowding the ball-handler’s space while maintaining manageable distance from and a straight-line angle to their original defender. Therefore, they’re able to recover and close out the airspace. This awareness has resulted in the Cavaliers surrendering only 21.7 3-point attempts per game, which is the 5th lowest mark.

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Irving and James both cover Green on his path to the basket and then recover back to their original assignments.

If the shooter is tremendously potent from deep and thus requires a strong fly-by to convince said shooter from pulling the trigger, the Cavaliers will throw another defender to thwart the shot or drive attempt. Cleveland’s magnificent at “helping the helper”, a huge reason why they give up the 3rd fewest wide-open shots (attempts where the closest defender is >=6 feet away). Not only do they flourish in these situations while orchestrating organized defensive maneuvers, they also provide timely aid for their teammate’s miscues for losing awareness of his man off-ball or surrendering a favorable angle to the offensive player.

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Dellavedova gets stuck on Pachulia in transition. But Thompson comes to his help, and Smith plays zone to cover both Matthews and Parsons. Once Pachulia makes his decision, Smith feasts.

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Dellavedova and Smith botch the coverage on the Curry back screen. But James picks Livingston up, and Thompson runs James’ original assignment off the 3-point line.

This ability illustrates Cleveland’s inclination to understand what the offense is prone to do and to thus swarm the next most likely receiver. That is also exemplified by how they execute another defensive strategy for the pick and roll: the trap. As mentioned earlier, Thompson’s agility allows him to be awfully effective at extinguishing the ball-handler’s path to the rim 30 feet away from the basket and therefore forcing the ball out of his hands. However, the Cavaliers additionally ensure that the only pass available is the most difficult one aka to the player furthest away from the ball-handler. With Thompson’s pressure, that’s a terribly difficult connection to make even for the most adept playmakers.

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Lastly, another defensive scheme that Thompson’s lateral quickness allows Cleveland to tap into is switching the pick and roll. Although Thompson’s not of Draymond Green’s caliber, he is competent enough where with some help, an area in which the Cavaliers have proven to be very proficient, the switch can pose to be tremendously effective. Not only does Thompson partake in switches, one will see Cleveland have their perimeter defenders, primarily Lebron James, switch off ball movement as well. It forces the offense to settle to isolation play when they were expecting to rely on ball movement to generate an open look, which again exemplifies why the Cavaliers flourish in forcing opposing offenses to hoist contested shots.

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Thompson switches multiple actions, which eventually results in this contested fadeaway from Porter.

If the Cavaliers are to return to the Finals and are healthy, they will naturally be deemed to have greater odds to capture their elusive championship. As we noticed against their pathetic performance against the Warriors on MLK day, there are certainly some large chinks in their defensive armor. However, the overall improved play on that side of the ball will still exponentially enhance those chances.

*Since written before MLK day, all stats are pertaining to play prior to the GSW game.

D’Angelo Russell: More Than Meets the Eye

A massive bubble encompasses the 2nd largest city in the US. Although the city of Angels houses eclectic principles, patience and context are unable to penetrate through. Naturally in such a world, the Lakers’ highest draft pick since James Worthy in 1982 was expected to instantly transcend into the league’s top tier of players and drag his team out of the cellar. However, 11 games in, with D’Angelo Russell averaging 9.5 points, 4 rebounds, 2.7 assists off of 39% FG% and the Lakers at 2-9, the aforementioned rookie has rapidly been labeled a “bust”. Has Russell’s uneven performance merited such categorization or is it time to receive some insight from the alienated parties: patience and context?

Whether Russell’s newly acquired title holds merit or not, there have certainly been some glaring deficiencies in his game. The flaw with the largest potential to drastically dampen his long-term ceiling is his inability to foray into the paint. His 1.7 drives per game place him behind the archaic Richard Jefferson and the drive-allergic Danny Green. This is reflected by his excruciatingly low 1 FTA per game. While he is more than capable, Russell is merely reluctant to put the ball on the floor, whether it be as the initiator of the pick and roll or as the recipient of a pass that collapsed the defense. This tremendously limits the extent to which he can force the defense to converge and really restrains him from showcasing his passing ability. Until he is able to traverse into what is seemingly unchartered territory, his game will be plagued with a predictability as the perimeter holds him at bay like quick sand.

Unfortunately, this effect is prevalent during another phase of the game as well. Defense was nowhere to be found in the list of Russell’s strengths prior to the draft, and what we are now seeing exemplifies that. Los Angeles is relinquishing an abysmal 110.2 points per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor, the worst mark of any Laker. While that metric unfairly paints too poor of a picture regarding his defensive ineptitude, which I will touch on later, Russell is not absolved whatsoever. Russell has lacked the lateral quickness to stay in front of his original assignment during drive attempts. When not involved in the primary pick and roll coverage, he often loses awareness of his man or side obstacles such as off-ball screens and thus forces his teammates to scramble.

With Russell not attending to his original assignment Napier, Shabazz is able to migrate from the top of the key to the corner for the game tying 3.

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Russell’s unable to shift his feet fast enough to prevent Bledsoe from gliding in for the layup.

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Russell gets caught by Hollis Jefferson’s off ball screen, which forces Bryant to scramble to the open man.

russell lack of d screen

Unlike defense, a skill set that was listed as one of Russell’s fortes was his outside shooting, as heralded by his 41% mark at OSU. Unfortunately, that 3-point shooting prowess has not translated to the NBA, as Russell has only been converting the long bomb at a 31% clip. However, if you look deeper, indicators of an able 3-point shooter arise, as Russell drains open 3’s (closest defender is 4-6 feet away) at 41% and wide open 3’s (closest defender is >6 feet away) at ~36%. Thus, that excessively low percentage can be chalked up to shot selection, which should improve given time. Finally some light! Russell’s also knocking down the mid range shot at 41.7%, which in isolation seems average. Yet, one of the deadliest shooters from this distance also possessed a 41% mark during his debut season: Chris Paul. Thus, peeling back a few layers and sprinkling some context helps reveal potential for future shooting success. This same process can expose some pieces about the rest of his game, that if placed together, can result in a high-quality NBA point guard.

Assists are the metric used to gauge a player’s passing competency. It is easy to deduce that with a mediocre 2.7 assists per game, Russell has not lived up to his billing of being a savvy, intelligent playmaker. This not be more misleading. At a closer look, Russell exhibits a comprehension of timing and exploiting defensive positioning well beyond his years. When the spacing allows for such reads Russell is able to whip a pass to his open teammate whose defender temporarily abandons him to cover or tag the screener. Unfortunately these opportunities are few and far between in Scott’s antiquated system. Russell manipulates the defense by utilizing a couple dribbles to the divert the attention to the strong side before executing a pass to the open man on the weak side. This either drastically increases the level of difficulty of the closeout to the recipient of the pass or forces a rotation, which opens up realms of possibilities for the offense. This threat will become more lethal when Russell is given opportunities to access more areas of the court.

Russell diligently moves left until Bjelica is far enough from Kelly. This strips Bjelica the ability to recover and forces Muhammad to cover Kelly, which leave Young open.

russell pass 3

Russell dribbles to the FT line, which forces Harris to veer closer towards him. As soon as Harris enters the paint, Russell whips a pass to Clarkson.

russell pass 2

Russell waits for the second World Peace is deep enough in the paint that it attracts Whiteside’s attention before executing the laser-like pass.

russell pass 1

Additionally, his excellent vision translates to the open court as he constantly finds the narrowest of chances to place his teammates in a position to score. There are times when Russell’s awareness of his teammate’s position surpasses the teammate’s own, which results in a turnover due to his lack of readiness to receive the pass. Lastly, not only is Russell a competent passer, he’s also a proficient decision maker, highlighted by his 10.7 turnover rate, which shines in comparison to fellow rookie Mudiay’s 17.1. This IQ will aid Russell in realizing how to circumvent some of his shortcomings in other areas.

russell transition

Two elements about Russell that are barely mentioned are his size and length as a PG and his handles. His 6’5” height and 6’10” wingspan are a major asset. As he continues to develop and understand how to utilize his fortes to compensate for his liabilities, he will begin to consistently rely on the aforementioned qualities. As of now, he has portrayed flashes of the potential of his length to remain connected to the ball handlers while fighting around screens, to disrupt a shot attempt if the opponent has already created a slight edge, and to impede a stationary opponent’s view of the court, resulting in steals. This is a similar defensive strategy to the one that Klay Thompson implements, and it has served the champion well.

Although Williams seems to have the step on Russell, the latter utilizes his length to block the former’s shot attempt.20151119_165133

Russell applies his length to fight around Gallinari’s screen and stick with Mudiay.20151119_165241

While he uses his length to bypass his lack of lateral quickness, his handle can help propel him into the paint. Russell has flashed a smooth crossover and change of pace dribble that has conned defenders and thus revealed a gaping hole for the PG to attack. With potential for a large arsenal to counter his flaws, the rookie needs to figure out his most effective ways of attack and hone in on them.

russell drive

On top of the weaknesses within his game, Russell has been dealt a bad hand. His headstrong head coach is adamant about instilling the Princeton and isolation-heavy sets, which induce stagnation and force Hibbert to be a playmaker. Sure, the Lakers are 3rd in pick-and-roll frequency, yet even those sets do not generate any movement. Rather than having the big roll and forcing the defense to converge, they require the big to stay back. Instead of initiating a motion heavy offense, Russell is watching Bryant, Williams, Young, and Clarkson create for themselves.This is indicated by his usage rate of 20, which pales in comparison to Mudiay’s 28.3 and Okafor’s 26.1. So is there a chance Russell undergoes tremendously limited development and ends up being the bust he is currently proclaimed to be? Possibly. However, taking into consideration the situation and his age (19) and pairing them with the signs of potential Russell showcases, patience is the only answer.

 

Switching Up the Size Game: Nothing But the Nets

Losing an aspect that’s integral to a team’s success forces tense change. It requires the team to search intensively for something to fill the gaping hole. Most attempts end up futile, as the majority of organizations don’t possess the extra “dirt” necessary to replace a vital feature. So in a league where size and dominating big men are hard to come by, the Brooklyn Nets looked to be out of answers when tantalizing center Brook Lopez was sidelined for the rest of the year. The sun seemed to be setting on the Nets who were already enduring a loss in 4 of their last 5 games. In searching for a solution, however, Brooklyn was still able to find a sizable response to their disadvantage.

Yes, the Nets had to pluck Garnett and Pierce out of their comfort zones and thrust them into the Center and Power Forward positions respectively. It did make them drastically smaller. Yet that lack of size also translated into tremendous versatility, especially on defense. According to NBA.com, Brooklyn was 28th in the league in defensive efficiency till the new years. In 2014 amidst their 10-2 stretch, the Nets are 5th. It certainly helps that the entire team is now willing to put in the effort to battle around screens and to hustle rigorously to close out on a shooter after converging in the paint. But there are several more pieces to this puzzle.

With Livingston, Pierce, and Johnson at 6’7” (Pierce and Johnson also possess uncharacteristic strength for a wing) and Anderson at 6’6”, Brooklyn contains 4 players who can at times guard any position from Point Guard to Power Forward. This simplifies their pick and roll and switching schemes. Unless the play involves Kevin Garnett and thus the opposing big man, the Nets are unafraid of forgoing the initial assignments and sending whomever is closest to the ball to guard the ball handler. That is for both the pick and roll and for off ball screens.

20140130_18583320140130_185857Livingston was initially defending Ellis, and Johnson was guarding Marion. They both just switched on the other’s assignment.

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.08.49 PM Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.09.16 PMPierce starts guarding Lewis and Livingston starts guarding Allen. Allen and Lewis run an off ball screen, and the 2 Nets players peacefully switched instead of fighting to recover on their original assignments.

Jason Kidd’s trust in Brooklyn’s adaptability and athleticism is exhibited in plenty of his other defense schemes. They often send double-teams to opposing star players and trust their rotation ability if the ball handler is able to escape with a pass. In addition, the Nets frequently converge in the paint to aid Garnett in protecting them rim and play off ball defense relatively very far away from their individual assignment. All of these strategies hinge on Brooklyn’s ability to be agile and close out on the perimeter quick enough. They’re able to put pressure on the penetrator and to recover before relinquishing any legitimate opportunities.

20140130_19175520140130_191815Pierce and Livingston send the double team to Calderon. This doesn’t prevent Pierce from going back and contesting Nowitzki’s shot.

Offensively the Nets were required to replace the player they ran their system through. Initially their scheme was predictable and eventually not affective. Brooklyn attempted to penetrate off the dribble or via the pick and roll, create space for others, and then dish it out to the perimeter. Although decent, the plan required constant one on one attacks to stimulate the offense. Rather they began to desire to collapse the defense without any forced isolations.

Brooklyn became a smaller team overall, but still possessed a size advantage on the perimeter. Both quality post up wings, Johnson and Pierce pose the threat to score in the post against a relatively vertically challenged defender. Yet, it is Joe Johnson Kidd has decided to be the Nets’ primary option.

If the beginning assignments pit a smaller opponent on Johnson, Kidd attacks the match up and forces the defense to send back up help. If not, the Nets run a pick and roll with the PG where Johnson forces the opposing PG to defend him. The double-team appears to aid the smaller opponent, and Johnson delivers a crisp pass to the open player to evoke offensive activity. Since Brooklyn is very selfless and constantly ensures that the ball finds its way to the open man, they’re able to capitalize. This is illustrated by Brooklyn’s increase in assist ratio during this 12-game hot streak. The Johnson post up is significantly more effective and inclusive of the entire team than the harmful isolations Brooklyn found itself running when it was 11 games under .500.  The Nets were 25th in offensive efficiency in the first ten days after Lopez’s injury; they’re 13th since.

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.21.59 PMScreen shot 2014-01-30 at 7.22.12 PMJohnson posts up the smaller Allen. This forces Lewis to send help, which leaves Pierce wide open.

A lot of criticism and skepticism over Jason Kidd’s ability to coach spread like wildfire when Brooklyn was a miserable 10-21. But Kidd stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park with some of his tremendous chess moves. Utilizing his team’s newfound versatility with Pierce at the 4 and selecting Johnson as his primary play-maker in order to exploit Joe’s size certainly saved the Nets’ season. In the offseason, Brooklyn would have perceived a 20-23 start and a current 7th place ranking in the East as a colossal failure. Instead it is an ode to Kidd and the players’ ability to probe outside the box to discover the solution.

Rudy Gay, the King of Efficiency and Most Improved Player?

Rudy Gay was perceived as a game changer in Memphis. Yet the Grizzlies won their first playoff series in history in 2011 with Gay sporting street clothes on the sidelines. Following the trade that shipped the supposed superstar Gay to Toronto and earned Memphis just a feeble starter in Tayshaun Prince and a unproven prospect in Ed Davis, the Grizzlies stunningly benefited as they advanced all the way to uncharted territory: the Western Conference Finals. Unlike Memphis, the recipient of Gay’s services, the Raptors, sputtered in their tremendously short-termed affair. Instead of resurrecting Toronto, Gay led the team to a mediocre 24-30 record. All this insinuates that Gay’s inefficient playing style poses as basketball cancer. With the national belief that Gay can be an effective #1 option at an all time low, the desperate Sacramento Kings gambled on the turbulent UConn product. And boy, couldn’t both parties be any happier.

The criticism towards Gay has revolved around his inefficiencies. His numbers this season with Toronto highly reflected that. With the Raptors, Gay was 5th among Forwards in field goal attempts per game with 18.6. Yet Rudy was a whopping 81st in shot percentage at 38.8% per match. Gay’s high volume shooting stemmed from Toronto’s stagnant offense.

Toronto didn’t possess a legitimate pick and roll, shooting, or post up threat. Thus several times, the Raptors isolated Gay at the top of the perimeter and offered him no off-ball movement with the intent that Rudy can bail Toronto out of a bad possession. With limited ball handling skills, this play often resulted in a tough, contested Gay jumper. Rudy hoisted a ton of these discouraging shots, as he ranked 5th in field goal attempts 15-19 feet away from the basket. Toronto’s reliance on Gay to dig them out of an offensive hole is perfectly exemplified by his 4th ranked usage rate at 30.1%, only behind Anthony, James, and Durant. Even when Gay was able to smartly attack the basket, the predictability coming from Toronto giving him the ball allowed the defense’s rim protection to thwart his lay up attempt. Thus the Raptors relinquished their attempt to have Gay be their #1 option.

ImageImageHere’s Gay receiving the ball late in the shot clock with Jones right in front of him. Toronto gives him no off ball movement and expects him to bail them out of what was a unproductive possession.

Intelligently Sacramento understood the talent Gay offered and that his inefficient stats derived from how Toronto utilized him. Thus the Kings decided to resort Gay to their third offensive option, behind the pick and roll between Thomas and Cousins and the Cousins post up. Gay’s decreased usage rate at 24.9% and field goal attempts per game at 14.7 (a career low) illustrates Sacramento’s decision to not force the ball through him. He now rarely receives the ball isolated at the top of the perimeter with the intent to attack the defender one on one.

Instead the Kings desire to exploit Gay’s play-making ability. Sacramento posts him up on an island in the mid range area. The primary intent is for Gay to utilize his size advantage to draw in multiple defenders and then deliver a crisp pass to the open man. The Kings also exploit Gay’s passing capabilities by running the pick and roll with him and Cousins. As a result, Rudy’s assist ratio (number of assists per 100 possessions) has improved from 8.5 in Toronto to 12.3.

ImageImageThomas passes the Ball to Gay on an island. Love decides he wants to give help, which leaves Thompson open. And Gay finds him

In addition to his play-making, Sacramento still takes advantage of Gay’s scoring. Rudy has earned career highs in points and field goal percentage per game in the capital of California. This stems from Gay posing more of a decoy for when Thomas or Cousins lures multiple defenders. He benefits from the space created by those aforementioned prolific offensive threats and attacks the basket. That room has aided Rudy tremendously, as Gay’s converting a remarkable 64.4% within 5 feet of the hoop as opposed to a miserable 47.4% with Toronto. He’s also unafraid to foray into the paint and attempt a relatively easy shot when Gay’s unable to create offensive activity for others via the post up. In Toronto, Gay would have rather turned around and taken a challenging fall-away jump shot. Lastly his athleticism allows him to be a terror in transition offensively, and he always positions himself to get a good shot by hustling and running down the court.

ImageImageThomas gets into the lane and draws multiple defenders. Gay spots up at the corner 3, which leaves him wide open. Thomas gets him the ball, then Gay smartly uses the space to take it to the hoop.

Sacramento has been known for it’s inability to develop talent, exemplified by first round draft picks Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette plateauing very early in their career. Yet their approach to utilize Gay by treating him as a play-making decoy has rejuvenated his career, as his true shooting percentage has increased from 46.8% to 60.6% with the Kings. Add his suddenly efficient play to his above average on ball defense and superb ability to play the passing lanes, and Gay should certainly be considered as a top 25 player in the league and for Most Improved Player this year.

The Dynamic Duo That Makes the Oklahoma City Thunder Title Favorites

While the majority of Western Conference powerhouses were swinging for the fences in the off-season with acquisitions that shored up some of their largest deficiencies, Oklahoma City was looking at the loss of volume shooter Kevin Martin. Losing their sixth man was catastrophic for the Thunder who even with him struggled to provide any legitimate help for Kevin Durant. This missing link continued to be in serious scrutiny because of the cloud hanging over Westbrook’s future due to consecutive knee surgeries. Once the darlings of the NBA, Oklahoma City now possessed a stock that was nose-diving. Little did they know, the answer was already in their deck of cards.

Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have been sensational. After receiving minimal playing time last season, they have been interjected into the forefront of the second unit with hope that the bench can stay afloat while the Thunder’s starters replenish their fuel. Surprisingly this dynamic duo has in fact allowed Oklahoma City to thrive. Jackson and Lamb’s numbers gauged at 36 minutes of play per game average at roughly 18 points, 5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds and 17 points, 2.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds respectively. Both these men are recording comparable per-36 statistics to Kevin Martin last year. After relying solely on James Harden and Kevin Martin individually to carry the second unit, the Thunder finally have discovered its 2 to tango.

The Oklahoma City bench has the league’s best net difference between offensive rating and defensive rating. The offensive proficiency comes primarily from Jackson’s versatility coming off of a screen. He’s very unpredictable, as he possesses a plethora of weapons in his arsenal after utilizing an on ball pick and contextually selects which one to choose. One of Jackson’s main forms of attack is the penetration. He utilizes the attack often, as he’s 4th among bench players in drives per game.

Two methods of offense can be evoked from this. One is obviously a Jackson lay-up, which is very effective as Jackson’s shooting an efficient 53.5% in the restricted area. This pertains to Reggie’s unbelievable finishing ability even when surrounded by bigger bodies. Due to the heightened threat of Jackson attaining an easy lay up, the defense converges in the paint, which leads us to the second technique: the pass to an open Oklahoma City player. Frequently it’s sharp-shooter and slasher Jeremy Lamb receiving the rock. And every time this happens, Lamb’s eyes brighten as his diverse skillset makes him a terror when he possesses some space.

ImageImageJackson uses the Collison screen and then his dribble to draw in multiple defenders including Lamb’s. Reggie then dishes it out.

Lamb’s a scintillating talent when he has room to maneuver. Jeremy is converting 68.6% of his attempts within five feet of the hoop, good for 4th among bench guards. In addition amongst this group, he’s 7th in field goal percentage outside the restricted area but in the paint and 7th in three-point percentage. Thus after Jackson lures Lamb’s defender to shy off of him, said defender finds himself in a pickle. Not closing out hard enough prompts Jeremy to shoot from long range and rushing out to Lamb tempts him to attack and utilize his tremendous finishing ability.

One of the other approaches Reggie has up his sleeve post-screen is the pull up jump shot. It’s effective as a nice change of pace move to punish the defense from solely guarding against his drive. Lastly when the defense sends a double team, both him and Lamb when pitted in this scenario are very impressive at baiting the defenders to follow them and to diverge from the screen man. They then both do a great job at delivering a precise pass to the open man, allowing him to attack a collapsed defense.

ImageJackson just utilized the Perkins screen and pulls up on the jump shot once he notices Howard’s goal is to take away his drive.

ImageJackson’s baiting both Diaw and Green to cover him, leaving Collison open.

Defensively, the 2nd unit of the Thunder prefers to rely on the rim protection of their big men Adams and Collison. Yet Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense headlined by Jackson and Lamb applies a lot of pressure on ball handlers. They are slightly inconsistent and do relinquish the angle to penetrators at times, but are still sufficient at staying in front of their men. What they both thrive in is pick and roll coverage and off ball defense. Both guys barely lose track of their men on the weak side and are always in perfect position to provide help if necessary. And when the screen is set, both Lamb and Jackson are very quick to recover. Thus Oklahoma City’s big man can hold the fort and play under the ball handler, since he knows Lamb and Jackson will arrive very shortly. These two skills diminish the variety of attacks the offense can use.

Oklahoma City now has the ability to increase a lead when their superstars rest. Against the Spurs, the game was dead-locked when Jackson and Lamb entered the game. The Thunder possessed a seven-point lead when they left. One aspect that gets overlooked is the fact that the Westbrook injury separates Jackson and Lamb. I believe that’s one huge factor in Oklahoma City’s struggles. Jackson sometimes gets lost in the flow with Durant attempting to take over. Lamb also finds it harder to create without a pesky Jackson alluring the defense. When Westbrook returns, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson’s capability to guide the 2nd unit to put the Thunder in a more favorable position makes this team the Title favorites.

The Warriors Might Not Be What You Think They Are

Like Beyonce splashing on to the 2013 music scene with a stealthy and shocking yet illustrious midnight album release, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson erupted in last year’s NBA Playoffs. Their swift shot release and lack of fear to pull the trigger allow them to rack up gaudy point totals in minimal amounts of time. Nothing exemplifies this more than Curry’s 8 for 10, 22-point performance in the 3rd quarter in Game 4 against Denver and Thompson’s 6 for 8, 19-point display in the 2nd quarter in Game 2 against San Antonio. Because of their ability to capsize a game via their brilliant shooting from deep (Curry was 1st and Thompson was 4th last year in 3-point field goals made), the Warriors got classified as a “jump shooting team.” Yet that irreverent label usually implies that said team is devoid of much defense and interior offensive play. Rather I believe the style of play of Golden State’s two big men David Lee and Andrew Bogut should dictate how this team is identified.

A three-point shooting team often doesn’t possess any other offensive options and expects the long bomb to carry the scoring. Yes Golden State is #3 in the league in three-point shots converted per game. Yet they attain a majority of these makes by attacking the defense via their other threats. David Lee is an incredibly efficient offensive big man who’s averaging 53.4% from the field, good for 5th among forwards. In addition for all players with 1500 total touches or more, Lee accounts for the most points per every half court touch. Thus the Warriors love to go through the productive Lee whether via the post up isolation where he could exhibit his plethora of interior moves or with the pick and roll.

Image

ImageThe Lee post up draws attention from Livingston, as he gets caught watching Lee. David then takes advantage and dishes it out to the open Thompson.

When Lee begins to drain several shots from backing his defender down and the defense thus sends a double team or is caught watching, David’s court vision allows him to find the open shooter. The ball also finds its way to a vacant shooter when Lee receives the ball wide open from Curry via the pick and roll since both defenders choose to cover Steph. Instead of hoisting from the mid-range (where Lee shoots an inefficient 36.3%), Lee utilizes his effective dribbling to infiltrate the collapsed defense. Either Lee uses his tremendous finishing ability to score or a defender helps and leaves a Warrior wing open and hence starts Golden State’s amazing ball movement. This is highlighted by their top 10 position in possessions ending in an assist. Lastly, Golden State also takes advantage of Lee and Bogut’s playmaking capabilities by having them pose as a de facto point guard in both transition and half court offense. This allows Curry and Thompson, who move and work phenomenally off ball as they’re in the top 5 in distance traveled per game, to create space and receive a pinpoint pass from one of the bigs.

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ImageThe double team gets sent to Curry, which leaves Lee open. He then receives the ball and drives to the hoop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Re2jV_XWjU

Bogut’s working as the de facto PG, which allows Iguodala to cut back door. Bogut’s great passing permits him to get the ball to Andre.

Defensively the Warriors rely heavily on Andrew Bogut. Golden State has the fourth best defensive efficiency in the NBA, but are doing this with suspect perimeter defenders in Curry, Thompson, and Barnes. Among defenders who face at least 6.5 shots at the rim per game, Bogut is 6th as he only relinquishes 43.7% of interior shots to go in. That’s better than Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, and Tim Duncan. The Warrior guards actually bait the ball handler to penetrate towards Bogut by taking away the opponent’s other side. Thus Golden State forces its opponents to shoot jump shots. These long-range attempts end up being bad looks, as the Warriors are 8th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 34.4%. This is fully demonstrated by Mark Jackson’s pick and roll defensive scheme. Bogut never plays up on the ball handler, giving him the opportunity to blow past Andrew right to the basket. He always plays down and protects the rim till the defender of the ball handler can recover from the screen. This obviously could sacrifice an open jump shot, but Bogut’s more concerned with not ceding open lay ups.

ImageImageHere Bogut plays really low after the pick and relinquishes the jump shot as opposed to the drive.

In order to thwart Bogut’s effective interior defense, offenses attempt to pull him away from the basket on one side while creating activity on the other with the hope that Bogut’s far away enough to be unable to impact the play. Yet Bogut’s agility allows him to cover the ground and defend the basket. A good barometer of this is Andrew’s 1.73 blocks per game, which amounts to 9th in the league. Lastly Golden State knows how to finish a defensive possession, as they are 2nd in defensive rebounds. Thus the Warriors certainly can hurt an opponent through more mediums than just the three-point shot.

In the last 11 games where Golden State is 10-1, Steph Curry has converted a mere 38.3% from the field and an inefficient 33.3% from 3. It’s David Lee who has carried this team offensively as he’s averaged 22.4 points and 10.1 rebounds in this span. The defense anchored by Bogut and Iguodala has only given up 41.6% of made field goals. The Warriors’ versatility gives them a puncher’s chance in the crowded Western Conference, and I will not be surprised if Golden State ends up as the #2 seed come playoff time.

What If Ray Allen Missed the Game-Tying 3-Point Shot in Game 6 of the Finals?

“Baaaaaaaang!! Tie game with 5 seconds remaining!” The shot that those words accompanied is hands down the biggest play in all of sports in 2013. Actually, let’s transcend that notion and make the claim for it being the most significant shot in the NBA in the last 15 years. As Ray Allen squared up to launch a potentially championship saving three pointer, little did he know there was so much more at stake. How about shouldering the legacy of his superstar teammate? So when that ball soared through the hoop to the delight of the 50,000 roaring fans drenched in white, Michael Jordan certainly had to relinquish the throne of player with recent most impactful basket in the NBA. That now belongs to the most heralded three-point shooter of all time. Ironically, it’s LeBron James who reaped the most benefit. So as we embark into the new year, I found it necessary to delve into the scenario if Allen’s right wrist had released the ball slightly off mark.

Shout out to Mike Breen for one of the best play by play calls I have ever experienced!

If the Heat locker room was immersed with devastation and grim silence after Game 6 as opposed to champagne following Game 7, the narrative would have taken a vastly different course. James’ two turnovers in the last minute that led to a couple of Manu Ginobili appearances at the charity stripe would have become a 4 course meal for the media. The perception that James did not possess the mental resolve necessary to guide his team to an illustrious title would certainly have been at the forefront of news articles all across the nation. James’ jump shot would have faced tremendous scrutiny as well. The Spurs were willing to allow LeBron beat them via the mid range and the three point shot by playing well off of him. Popovich never altered his defensive strategy against the Miami small forward since James did not convert enough jump shots to instill fear in the San Antonio coaching staff. These two aspects would have intertwined when James missed a potential game-tying three point shot with 15 seconds remaining. Every clanked mid to long range attempt that James had this season would have been proceeded by the media’s disapproval of James’ ascent to one of basketball’s greatest to have ever sported a NBA jersey. The fans’ demeaning nickname “LeBrick” would have strongly persisted, more than ever. But his game wouldn’t have been the only thing that had to endure constant questioning.

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 9.50.14 PMJames’ face when the Championship seemed out of reach couldn’t say it any clearer.

Currently, James’ free agent status seems as close to a done deal as can be. There doesn’t appear to be another organization with cap space this upcoming offseason that can offer LeBron the type of stability, personnel, and wherewithal to assemblequality pieces around James like the Heat can (As an avid Laker supporter, I really wish I could say otherwise). There would have been plenty of skepticism over that notion if Allen’s shot bounced off the rim. With Dwyane Wade’s knees becoming more of a liability as the days progress and the rest of the pieces aging drastically, most analysts would have wondered if Miami had it in them to spark another legitimate title run. Adding fuel to the fire would be Indiana’s transcendence to a title contender and Russell Westbrook’s return from knee injury accompanied by the emergence of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson which propels the Thunder back into the mix as well. Rather than the acceptance a two time champion has earned, the Heat would have had to deal with a negative buzz much like that of the tiny insects release by the game makers on Katniss and Peeta in the Hunger Games following the sort of losses Miami had against Boston and Sacramento. That would have caused the increase of the volume of the ‘LeBron is taking his talents elsewhere’ chatter. Boy does this year seem quiet in comparison.

I understand that there was an overtime period and an entire game to be played following that miraculous Allen shot. Yet that basket seemed to permanently tip the momentum in favor of the incumbent. It continues to give me chills every time I watch Norris Cole erupt on the bench and Dwyane Wade swing his hands up in the air in immense relief. Whether one’s allegiances lied with Miami or San Antonio during that classic NBA Finals, it has to be impossible to not cherish and value the magnitude of that three pointer. It will definitely be a story I will narrate to my kids. Hopefully they listen!