What will LeBron's game look like in Miami?

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Let’s play a game. Forget that LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat via an hour-long ESPN special was one of the biggest PR disasters in recent memory. Forget everything about how James’ choice to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago or New Jersey represented him taking “the easy way out.” Forget about how some of LeBron’s lackluster performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals caused people to question if he’s capable of performing in big games. 
Forget about whether he’s a man, the man, THE MAN, or whatever else on the Heat. I’m not saying those aren’t legitimate concerns, because they are, and have been and will continue to be addressed on this website and many others.
All I’m asking is this: for however long it takes you to read this post, put aside your feelings about LeBron James, the man, and think of LeBron James as a basketball player. Because if you can compartmentalize LeBron’s off-court behavior and his on-court performance, you’ll find some things worth taking a look at.
For just a second, think of LeBron James as he is on the court. He’s walked away with the past two NBA MVP awards, and he may be the most dynamic talent to ever play NBA basketball. And after seven years in Cleveland, he’s going from a supporting cast made up of role players and fringe all-stars who only existed to support his gifts to playing with one MVP-caliber player, one All-NBA(maybe 2nd or 3rd team, but still) caliber player, and a series of highly capable role players surrounding the three of them. Forget LeBron’s legacy for just a minute: how will LeBron’s “superfriends” cause him to change his game? Let’s take a look at some of the potential differences in LeBron’s game next season:
Difference #1: More Lebron off the ball

Most people think that LeBron James will score less next season, but might average 10 assists per game/a triple-double because he’ll have better teammates to pass to. But consider the following: In the 2007 FIBA Qualifiers and 2008 Olympics combined, LeBron averaged .183 assists per minute while surrounded by the best players in basketball while playing against non-NBA competition. During the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron averaged .221 assists per moment while playing with his teammates on the Cavaliers against other NBA teams. What did shoot up when LeBron was surrounded by elite talent was LeBron’s scoring efficiency: LeBron shot 65.4% from the field during his last two international stints, as compared to 50.3% over the course of the 09-10 season. 
For a long time, the conventional wisdom about LeBron has been the following: he’s darn good as he is, but he’d be unstoppable if he had a consistent jump shot. It’s true that LeBron becomes less stoppable with every improvement in his jump shot, but a consistent jump shot wouldn’t make him unstoppable. Why not? Since LeBron makes around 70% of his shots around the basket and 75-78% of his free throws, teams will always try to force him into taking long jumpers. And no player in the NBA makes over half of his long jumpers. Not one. When you consider that most NBA players take most of their long jumpers off of assists rather than off the dribble, it becomes even more apparent that LeBron will never be “unstoppable” in a one-on-one situation, because no perimeter player ever can be. 
Why do I mention this? Because when LeBron gets the ball on the weak side against a defense that isn’t loaded up against him, he’s as close to unstoppable as it gets. He’s 6-8, 260 pounds, his top speed is as fast as any other player’s, he can change directions at full speed, he’s completely ambidextrous around the basket, and he can change directions while going full steam. If he catches the ball in stride and the defense is looking somewhere else, they have no chance of stopping him. 
According to Synergy Sports, LeBron took 125 field goal attempts off of a “cut” last season, and converted 101 of those attempts. That’s an 81% conversion rate. That, folks, is the definition of unstoppable, and that’s how LeBron shot 65% from the field in international play. LeBron is great at scoring in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. He may be just as good at making plays for other in those situations. But he’s unquestionably at his most effective when he can build up a head of steam and attack the rim against a defense that isn’t waiting for him. 
If Wade and Bosh can put enough pressure on defenses next season to let LeBron spend significant chunks of game time lurking on the weak side and striking when one either Wade or Bosh demands the defense’s attention, his scoring/efficiency splits could look absolutely freakish — I’m talking about 25 PPG on 55% shooting from the field, or a 65-67% True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting% isn’t as sexy as averaging a triple-double, but making baskets while missing few of them is how teams win games. 
(PS — Don’t forget how good of a spot-up shooter LeBron can be. Because of the degree of difficulty on his three-point shots, LeBron has never had a great three-point percentage, but he’s a very good natural shooter who can be deadly when given time to set his feet. In the 2007 FIBA games/2008 Olympics, LeBron shot 36/65 from beyond the arc, a conversion rate of 55%. The international three-point line is shorter, but 65 threes is a significant sample size, and LeBron made over half of his threes in international play. LeBron off the ball is freaky, freaky stuff.) 
Difference #2: More playmaking from LeBron?

This will be interesting to see. There’s no doubt that LeBron has the ability to put up huge assist numbers if he’s trusted to be the primary playmaker — he averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, when Mo Willams was injured and LeBron was the de facto point guard for the Cavaliers. With Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller (the latter went 50-99 on “spot-up” threes last season) surrounding him, LeBron certainly has teammates more than capable of converting his assists. 
And with Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo, and Eddie House being the Heat’s point guards, LeBron will be relied as the primary playmaker for much of the time. I just wonder how things will shake out with LeBron and Wade as the playmakers; Wade may be as good or better than LeBron as a playmaker, and there’s no doubt that LeBron is Wade’s superior on the weak side. In short, LeBron could average a 10 APG with his new teammates, but it may not be in the Heat’s best interest to have him do so. And I’m not sure if LeBron is quite as stat-obsessed as Wilt Chamberlain was when Wilt passed up scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity because he decided he wanted to lead the league in assists. Also, don’t forget that the Cavs roster, while decidedly less talented than the Heat’s roster, was constructed of players who were supposed to be effective playing off of LeBron. 
Difference #3: More LeBron in the post?

This is another scenario that could go either way. On the one hand, Chris Bosh is a better post-up threat than LeBron has ever played with, and Wade initiating plays could mean less of James in the post. Additionally, LeBron needs to put in serious work on his footwork in the post to become as effective on the blocks as he is on the drive. 
In the past, LeBron spent his summers with Team USA or Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent working on his game. With LeBron’s free agency/Miami PR campaign this summer, he may not have put as much work into his game as he did in summers past, and his priority when he did work on his game may be assimilating his game with Bosh and Wade’s rather than adding new facets to his own. (At least LeBron postponed the filming of his scripted movie, which would have been a “decision”-level PR blunder.) 
On the other hand, there are two reasons why LeBron may go to his post game in Miami more than he did in Cleveland. First of all, Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams. After all, Riley did coach Magic Johnson, who utilized the post game beautifully. That fact won’t be lost on LeBron. With LeBron’s size, strength, explosiveness, and ability to use either hand around the basket, he’s a dynamo in the post waiting to happen — he’s just never seen a compelling reason to make post-up scoring a primary element of his game. Part of that is on James’ lack of faith in his teammates’ ability to be effective if he got fronted in the post and the ball didn’t get to him, and part of that is on his own lack of post-up fundamentals. The former won’t be a problem in Miami, so we’ll see if he’s willing to work on the latter. 
Second of all, LeBron did post up a fair bit in Cleveland, but he preferred to wait for the double-team and pass instead of try to go all the way and score. His Cleveland teammates usually didn’t convert when LeBron kicked it out, but that could well change in Miami. If James forces a double-team in the post, it’ll be awfully tough to stop Bosh or Wade if James kicks it out to them. LeBron’s always had the ability to be one of the best post-up players in the NBA if he wanted to be, and that will be just as true in Miami as it was in Cleveland. 
Difference #4: More LeBron on the break

The glacial Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Shaquille O’Neal were the starting centers during LeBron’s seven years in Cleveland, and Mike Brown’s defensive system didn’t encourage the kind of gambling that leads to fast-break opportunities. Because of that, LeBron got to show of his almost unprecedented ability in the full-court rarely, although he was highly successful when the Cavaliers did get a fast-break opportunity. With Wade and Chalmers being two of the most successful defensive gamblers in the league, Bosh being a great athlete for a power forward, and the small but fast Joel Anthony likely to start at center for the Heat, Miami should be a smaller, more athletic, and faster team than any of LeBron’s Cleveland squads were. 
It’s open to debate whether a relatively small lineup is the best way to match up against teams like Orlando, Los Angeles, or Boston, but the Heat should be much “faster” and give LeBron more opportunities to get out on the break than he ever received in Cleveland, and that will be a good thing for the fans. 
Those are about all the differences I can think of for right now. LeBron and Wade will be one heck of a tandem on defense, but that’s a whole different post. Also, I originally thought LeBron would spend a lot more time at the four in Miami than he did in Cleveland, but with Bosh and Haslem both on the roster I doubt that’ll be the case. Say what you will about LeBron, but there’s no arguing that it’ll be interesting to see what LeBron’s game will look like alongside Wade and Bosh next season.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: Keeping George Karl right move ‘for now’

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl reacts in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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The Kings reportedly planned to fire George Karl in the coming days.

Then, Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac met with Karl and changed course.

So, Karl must feel secure, right?

Divac on The Grant Napear Show, as transcribed by Sactown Royalty:

“For now.”

Oh boy.

If there’s a power struggle between Karl and DeMarcus Cousinsand there’s evidence of one – why would Cousins (or any players against Karl) let up now? Perhaps, Divac is more committed to Karl than that sounds, but by saying “for now” he opens the door to more campaigning for Karl’s ouster.

This is the worst vote of confidence I’ve ever seen.

As it has for months, Karl’s firing still feels inevitable before his contract expires.

Report: Hawks having ‘serious internal discussions’ about trading Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver

New York Knicks small forward Metta World Peace (51) shoots after drawing a foul as Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26), center Al Horford (15), and point guard Jeff Teague stand near during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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In the seven years between 2008 and 2014, 10 teams  made the playoffs at least five times:

  1. Spurs
  2. Hawks
  3. Celtics
  4. Bulls
  5. Mavericks
  6. Nuggets
  7. Lakers
  8. Heat
  9. Thunder
  10. Magic

Atlanta – which joins San Antonio as the only ones to reach the postseason all seven years – is the only team on the list not to reach even the conference finals in that span.

The Hawks: Often good, never great.

Until last year.

Atlanta won a franchise-record 60 games and reached the conference finals for the first time. (Its last comparable playoff advancement came in 1970, when it reached the division finals, before the league split into conferences.) The Hawks had four All-Stars: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver – all of whom returned for this season.

But Atlanta has fallen back into the heap of good, not great, teams in the East. The Hawks are 30-24 and fifth in the conference, 1.5 games from both third and seventh.

Where do they go from here?

Kevin Arnovitz and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The Atlanta Hawks are engaged in serious internal discussions ahead of the Feb. 18 trade deadline about the future direction of their team and their core players, including three All-Stars from their historic 2014-15 team: Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver.

Sources close to the organization emphasize that if the Hawks become active in the next week, it will not be to “blow it up,” but rather an attempt to exchange their existing players for commensurate, if younger, talent.

Those sources also said head coach/president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer isn’t inclined to dismantle a team less than nine months removed from a conference finals appearance.

So, Atlanta wants to trade it players for equally talented replacements who are younger (and, therefore, probably cheaper)? Good luck with that.

It’s instructive that the Hawks are thinking about a shakeup, and this article contains plenty of detail worth exploring. But it seems unlikely their line of thinking actually leads to a major move.

The most pressing concern is Horford, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Already linked to the Pistons, he will likely draw multiple max offers – projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years from the Hawks and $108 million over four years from other teams.

Arnovitz and Windhorst:

Sources say that while ownership has pledged to both spend and to entrust the Hawks’ basketball minds to make basketball decisions, that figure, along with the overall tab — which would be one of the richest contracts in the NBA — has the Hawks’ brass a bit skittish.

It’s reasonable to be concerned. Horford turns 30 this summer, and while he also has a high basketball IQ, athleticism influences his on-court excellence. This is a tricky time to have a star up for a big contract.

The Hawks could face a question many teams in this position must answer: Would you rather “overpay” him or not have him at all?

I’d lean toward biting the bullet and paying Horford. The cap is skyrocketing, and with many players locked into old-money contracts, teams will have plenty to spend on free agents the next couple years. Horford, a borderline All-Star annually, is a huge part of Atlanta’s success. It’d be too difficult to replace him.

Plus, teams too often overthink committing big money to single player based on financial hesitation (though it has been less of a problem lately). The Hawks will probably spend a similar overall amount the next five years, anyway. Who cares whether Horford receives a huge share of that expenditure or it’s split equally among multiple lesser players based on overal spending? You can put just five players on the court. Generally, I’d rather sink more assets into fewer players.

But it all depends what the Hawks do with the rest of their roster. If they trade Korver and/or Teague to take a short-term step back, Horford could leave. Losing Horford for nothing is the worst-case scenario.

Atlanta’s best bet for getting a significant return in a Horford trade is working with him and his agent to find a team where he’d want to re-sign. The NBA prohibits any under-the-table agreements, but they happen. If Horford pledges to re-sign with a team, it will – justifiably – offer the Hawks more in a trade.

Short of that, I doubt they’ll get enough to justify dealing him. It’s just not worth it for other teams to offer Atlanta much now when they can try signing him outright in the summer.

A Teague trade seems most likely, because the Hawks already have his younger replacement on the roster – Dennis Schröder, who has made his desire to become a starting point guard well known.

Arnovitz and Windhorst:

Sources say the Indiana Pacers have made inquiries and have dangled guard George Hill as a possible swap. The Magic are also potential suitors for Teague, sources confirmed.

I’m not sure what Hill – who’s older than Teague – accomplishes for Atlanta. Both players make $8 million this year and next. Hill is a better defender and capable of playing shooting guard, but neither fact trumps the age difference. The Pacers would have to offer more.

Teague would improve the Magic’s backcourt shooting, which they desperately need. More importantly, this could signal Orlando isn’t completely sold on Elfrid Payton as its point guard of the future.

The Knicks are also reportedly interested in Teague, but they’re linked to any available point guard – and lack assets to get one now.

Finally, there’s Korver, who’s sneakily old – 35 next month. With him shooting nearly a career-low 38.3% on 3-pointers – great for almost everyone else – this seems like a bad time to trade him. But if a team wants help winning right now and values Korver highly, the Hawks should listen.

The downside of dealing Korver for younger players and/or draft picks is sending a signal that causes Horford to leave in free agency. So, if the Hawks trade Korver, they should consider trading Horford. And if they deal Horford, why not get more of the roster on the same timeline and also trade Teague?

One of the Hawks’ best on-court attributes is their cohesion, and building their roster is similarly related. If one domino falls, others could follow. The more Atlanta disrupts this roster, the more additional moves could make sense.

But given Budenholzer’s attitude and the team’s newfound connection with fans – especially important with a new owner – my guess is the Hawks try to keep their core in tact.

Good, not great, isn’t so bad.

NBA to teams: No Hack-a-Shaq on inbounds passer

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NEW YORK (AP) — NBA teams need to keep Hack-a-Shaq on the court, not the sideline.

The league sent a memo to teams and referees Tuesday clarifying that intentionally fouling a player inbounding the ball will be a delay of game violation – and possibly a technical foul.

The memo, sent from league executives Kiki Vandeweghe and Mike Bantom and obtained by The Associated Press, comes in response to questions after San Antonio’s Danny Green fouled Houston’s Clint Capela as Capela was attempting to inbound the ball in a Jan. 28 game.

Citing a specific rule in the rulebook, the memo says that if a defender crosses the sideline before the ball has been thrown, a delay of game will be assessed. If it comes in the last 2 minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, a technical foul will be called.

A technical will also be called if referees determine there was “unsportsmanlike contact” on the inbounder, and officials could also rule it a flagrant foul.

Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol breaks foot, out indefinitely

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Just when the Grizzlies are making a move – they’re fifth the West despite dropping two straight games in overtime after winning 9-of-10 – they lose their best player, Marc Gasol.

Grizzlies release:

The Memphis Grizzlies released today the following statement on behalf of Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace regarding Marc Gasol:

“This morning at Campbell Clinic, Marc underwent a thorough evaluation by team physicians. During the course of this evaluation, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed a fracture in his right foot.

“Marc is a cornerstone of our franchise, and we are focused on getting him healthy. Marc will be out indefinitely and a further update will be provided after the All-Star Break.”

Gasol (7-1, 255) is averaging 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.35 blocks in 34.4 minutes in 52 games (all starts) this season.

Not only is Gasol the Grizzlies’ best player, he also plays their thinnest position.

Backup center Brandan Wright is injured, and Memphis has played parts of the season without a third center. The Grizzlies have been so desperate, they’ve signed Ryan Hollins multiple times – and that was with Gasol healthy.

Now, Memphis is in dire straights.

Here’s how the Grizzlies’ ratings change when Gasol is on the court to off:

  • Offensive: 102.8 to 99.5
  • Defensive: 102.9 to 103.3
  • Net: -0.1 to -3.8

And that undersells his impact. Gasol is the only Memphis player to start every game this season, so he has played with a variety of teammates – not just the team’s other top players. The Grizzlies’ dozen most-used lineups all include Gasol.

In other words, Gasol’s positive boost has also come with floormates who are typically backups. He’s not just along for the ride as his best teammates do the heavy lifting.

This injury obviously hurt Gasol, but it will also put several Memphis players in uncomfortable positions. The team’s next eight most-used players have all played a majority of their minutes with Gasol:

Gasol is an active and communicative defender and a good passer and screener. He’s easy to play with.

That’s a luxury his teammates will lose for a while.

Randolph will likely play more center and could even return to the starting lineup. He’s a nice individual defender, but needing him move quickly through rotations as the last line of defense is asking a lot. At least his low-post offense could work a little better with increased spacing if Memphis starts three wings between Conley and Randolph.

Another silver lining: This injury occurred before the trade deadline.

The Grizzlies could consider selling, but they owe the Nuggets a protected first-round pick. It’s protected top-five and 15-30 this year, top-five in 2017 and 2018 and unprotected in 2019. Memphis surely doesn’t want to convey the pick this year, which would guarantee a lottery selection. The ideal outcome is making the playoffs, guaranteeing the Grizzlies keep the pick this year, then remaining good next season and conveying a pick in the 20s.

It’s also unlikely they’d fall from they playoffs, though hardly impossible. They have a 4.5-game cushion over the ninth-place Trail Blazers

Plus, with Mike Conley entering unrestricted free agency this summer, Memphis surely doesn’t want to end the season with a poor taste in his mouth. It’ll be that much harder to secure a decent playoff seed and avoid the Warriors or Spurs – or even Thunder – in the first round. Heck, there’s no guarantee the Grizzlies have Gasol for the postseason.

Making a small trade for a serviceable probably makes most sense. Memphis will still rely on Gasol, once he gets healthy, for quite a while. He’s in the first season of a five-year max contract.

But the Grizzlies sure could use a little help as they enter this very difficult stretch.