Category Archives: NBA

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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 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.

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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.

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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.

Is James Harden overrated?

Happy New Years everyone!

October 28, 2012. A tremor encompassed the entire league. Transactions involving a star usually occur when he is disgruntled and desires to play elsewhere. Stunningly that was not the case here. Following a coming to age Finals appearance, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young core seemed to be as cohesive and tight-knit as Ted Mosby and Marshall Eriksen. Yet a lack of future financial flexibility forced Thunder General Manager Sam Presti to sadly dismantle its promising foundation by trading away bearded super-sub James Harden. Oklahoma City proved its mettle in the upcoming season though by capturing the number one seed in the Western Conference. But what about the team who received the services of the former Arizona State star?

The Houston Rockets were desperately searching for a captain to command the ship ever since Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming’s skills started to deteriorate. After wheeling and dealing to accumulate enough pieces and cap space to be able to provide an appealing offer to Orlando for Dwight Howard in the 2012 offseason, the Rockets fell short once again. Although they possessed cap space to chase an alpha dog in the 2013 free agency, it seemed like Houston would have to traverse the depths of a rigorous NBA season without a superstar for yet another year. Then came a gift straight from the sky three days before the commencement of the new season. James Harden would be stylishly sporting the red and silver for the following five years. He then started his Rockets tenure with a bang louder than any gunshot in the Matrix, as he averaged 39 points, 7 assists, and 6.5 rebounds in his first two games. So Houston finally attained their commander, right?

Surprisingly all evidence points to the contrary. Yes, Harden is a superior offensive talent who absolutely thrives at the rim. James has the 2nd highest field goal percentage out of the 15 guards who shoot the most within 5 feet of the rim. His ability to circumvent defenders with his exceptional ball handling and capability to finish around a plethora of bigger bodies make him an absolute terror in both penetration and in fast break. Also this skill forces the defense to collapse when Harden’s on the move, which he exploits by dishing it out to his open teammate. But unfortunately this is where the positives end for the bearded one.Harden Blow By

20131225_193328(1)Here we see Harden’s agility and ball handling allowing him to get around superior on ball defender Kawhi Leonard.20131225_193350That forces Tim Duncan to leave his man to cover Harden, and James is able to find the open Terrence Jones.

For as incredible as Harden is on offense, he possesses some glaring flaws on that side of the ball. Harden is certainly effective off the dribble, but is an overrated shooter. He doesn’t launch all that many shots from mid-range and is porous from beyond the arc. Harden is successful on only 31.3 percent of his attempts, good for 125th in the league. His misery from deep doesn’t do many favors for a team attempting to take advantage of the double teams sent to Dwight Howard. In addition if the ball is not in Harden’s possession, he is uninvolved in the play. His off ball movement is absolutely nonexistent. Lastly, Harden’s not the closer the public makes him out to be, as he shoots a ghastly 37% from the field in the last 5 minutes of a contest. Even still his offensive deficiencies do not begin to compare with his inadequacy on defense.

20131225_191500Harden is planted all the way in the back and is making no impact on this offensive play since he doesn’t possess the ball.

With Harden on the floor, the Rockets allow a miserable 101.5 points per every 100 possessions. This stems from his tendency to constantly allow ball handlers to drive right past him. Harden has a terrible habit to relinquish on his defensive assignment a little too soon when the ball handler is on the verge of blowing past him. He stops shifting his feet and just swings at the ball with the intent of knocking it out, something that is highly ineffective. His off ball defense is just as shoddy. On several instances, Harden is caught watching the ball and has his back facing the player he is guarding. Thus his man is able to break free and spring open with Harden unaware of his whereabouts. Keeping an eye on both the ball and one’s man at all times is truly basketball 101, and it’s absolutely ludicrous that a NBA talent like Harden fails at something so fundamental. Both of these breakdowns derive from a complete lack of effort. Harden is seen walking and watching his teammates battle for loose balls too many times. I think it’s time to start considering James Harden as a true one-way player.

Harrison Barnes gets right around Harden, and James employs his futile “swing at the ball” technique.

20131225_190744Harden’s back is facing his man Kawhi Leonard as he’s watching the ball handler.

Last year, there was a strong notion that Harden has finally attained the throne as the league’s best shooting guard over both Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. In addition, the highly controversial NBA Rank, which is a ranking of NBA players from 500 to 1, listed Harden at number FOUR, right behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. This is tremendous praise for a player whose performance doesn’t deserve so much merit. If Houston desires to transcend their middling stature in the Western Conference totem pole, they need to hope Harden improves and becomes a much more well-rounded player.

The 11-game Eastern Conference Finals between Indiana and Miami

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The last time the Pacers suffered a devastating seven game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the eventual NBA Champions led by the world’s most dominant player in 1998, the prospect of future battles with this opponent didn’t linger in Indiana’s mind. Michael Jordan had retired, and the Chicago Bulls had disbanded after losing Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as well. This time around, there was no dissolving of the threat that denied the Pacers from their first Finals appearance since 2000. The Miami Heat and their perennial MVP candidate LeBron James still remain as the biggest hindrance to Indiana’s quest to dispel the notion that tanking is the sole strategy for a team to transcend from mediocrity to being a conference champion (George was a late lottery pick, Stephenson was a 2nd round pick, Hibbert and Granger were both mid first round picks). Thus every time these two powerhouses are scheduled to enter the ring together, one better expect the gloves to be irrelevantly lying on the ground. But just as the Knicks’ two victories over Miami in November and December 2012 are seemingly currently insignificant to the NBA landscape, I will disregard the outcome of these affairs. Rather I will dissect the advantages and deficiencies for both teams that will play an integral part in this match up moving to their inevitable showdown in late May.

The Pacers’ foundation lies in their impeccable rim protection. Out of the ten players who have faced the most field goal attempts per game at the basket including defensive stalwarts Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, and Deandre Jordan, it’s Roy Hibbert who has allowed the fewest of these shots to descend through the hoop. Against Miami who has the highest percentage of makes from within five feet and the second largest from five to nine feet, Hibbert’s usual defensive antics become tremendously significant. Throughout their most recent game, the Heat penetrators Chalmers, Wade, James, and Cole were successfully able to foray into the paint whether it be off of a screen or a quick first step. Unfortunately for Miami, they were met by Hibbert’s monstrous 7’4” wingspan, which forces them to swing the ball back out to the perimeter. Now the ensuing activity determines the Heat’s offensive mindset moving forward.

ImageImageHere we see Chalmers freeing up after the Battier screen. But he runs into West and Hibbert, as Hill and George collapse on Chalmers as well. Although James and Battier are open, Chalmers can’t get off a good pass

In the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Miami’s first two offensive possessions resulted in Bosh and Battier freeing up and drilling the open jump shot because of Hibbert’s tendency to help on the ball handler following the pick and roll. The Pacers are willing to relinquish the mid and long range shot to the Heat just like they did on Bosh’s open three that tied the game at 92, as long as nothing easy comes inside. But if Miami begins to convert those attempts, more onus is placed on the perimeter defenders to not get dusted. Also this insinuates that Indiana cannot continue to collapse on the ball handler in the post after a screen. Thus Miami continues to attack off the dribble, and this completely throws off the Pacers’ defensive schemes, and they surrender 30 points in a quarter like they did in the first quarter of this game.

ImageImageStephenson and West both double Wade after the screen by Battier. Shane then receives the pass and drills the open 3.

In the American Airlines Arena, the Heat started 0 for 9 from three-point range. That gives the Pacers all the incentive in the world to crowd the paint. In addition, Indiana hopes that their internal pressure prevents the Heat penetrators from getting off a clean pass, which gives time to the Pacers to rotate defensively once the ball returns to the perimeter. In this circumstance, Miami loses faith in their dribble penetration and resorts to jump shots in order to spread the floor. This is exactly the trap the Pacers want Miami to fall into, which is why they attained a 15-point lead in the third quarter.

While the Pacers rely heavily on their interior defense, they also depend primarily on their post offense against a smaller opponent like Miami. The Heat attempt to prevent Indiana’s strategy from coming into fruition by executing effective ball denial defense against West and Hibbert. Anderson, James, Bosh, and Battier all ensure passes to their respective men will not be clean. So once the post up is taken away, the Indiana offense becomes flustered. They struggle to obtain any opportunities through their minimal off-ball movement since James and Wade are extraordinary perimeter defenders. This leads to forced, contested jump shots or unsuccessful penetration for the Pacers. When they attempt to gain some wiggle room, Indiana’s guards run the pick and roll. The Heat choose to double the ball handler just like the Pacers, but Miami instills their double team immediately and thus traps the ball handler outside of the perimeter since they perceive the guard as the bigger threat. The Pacer big who set the screen is open, but fifteen to seventeen feet away from the hoop. Instead of rotating on to the open Pacer, the three Miami defenders stay with their man to prevent ball movement and Indiana from getting a better look. In the second quarter of the second game, Luis Scola received several looks from this but was unable to knock down enough jump shots to make Miami reconsider their defensive strategy.Image

Image        Luis Scola catches the ball wide open after setting the screen and rolling, but is unable to make the shot.

With both defenses seemingly indestructible, a few wild cards exist that could swing the fortune in one team’s direction. For Miami, they need to deviate from their half court offense and live in the fast break. Indiana has coughed up the ball an average 18.5 times against their arch nemesis, which resulted in a mean of 19.5 points off turnovers. For as stellar as the Pacers’ half court defense is, their production is somewhat wasted by the offense’s inefficiency and tendency to give away the ball. One other wild card is the Heat’s approach to force Hibbert to the perimeter by having Anderson or Bosh navigate around the three-point line, while Miami tries to attack the post on the other side with James or Wade. Just like in Indiana’s pick and roll defense, Hibbert cheats off his man and attempts to stay close to the paint. The success of this play also relies on James’ and Wade’s potent post games. With a quick enough move, they can either drain an easy lay up or get hacked by a late Hibbert.

Image      Chris Anderson is about 17 feet away from the basket, and Wade’s posting up Stephenson.

For Indiana, it’s simple: can Paul George make enough plays for the Indiana offense to stay afloat? It’s a superstar’s responsibility to bail his team out of stagnant, ineffective half court offensive possessions. But life has been challenging for him while the 4-time NBA MVP has guarded him. George shot 3 for 9 and obtained a mere six points while James defended him, but was 5 for 7 with seventeen points with anybody else on him. George will need to discover better opportunities against James for his middling offense to keep above water.

With only one other team in the Eastern Conference above .500, it becomes more and more difficult every day to envision an Eastern Conference Finals without both Indiana and Miami. Thus with nine remaining match ups between the two (a seven game series is imminent), there will be plenty of chances to see how both sides’ respective chess moves play out. But patience is necessary, as March 26 is the next time the Heat and Pacers take swings at each other once again.