How good will the Heat be on defense?

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If the uber-talented 2010-11 Miami Heat want to win an NBA Championship next season, let alone break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 regular-season wins, it would serve them well to remember that those Bulls were nearly as dominant on defense as they were on offense.

The 95-96 Bulls were certainly a historically effective offensive team — they led the league in both offensive efficiency and points per game, despite the fact they played at a relatively slow pace. But again, their defense was nearly as good. The Bulls led the league in defensive efficiency and only gave up 92.9 points per game during the 95-96 season, which is fewer points than any NBA team gave up last season. (The Suns, Warriors, and Nuggets all averaged more PPG last season than the 95-96 Bulls, with the obvious caveat being that they played at a much faster pace.)

The Bulls didn’t just outclass teams on a nightly basis — with Jordan and Pippen on the perimeter, Ron Harper’s length on opposing points, and Rodman in the paint and glass, they bullied teams, took their strengths away from them, and ultimately broke their wills. If the Heat want to be nearly as dominant as they are talented, they’ll need to do many of the same things.

Over an 82-game season and a full playoff run, every team is going to have off nights offensively, even the Heat. Passes get sloppy, shots miss their mark, flow goes away, the ball stops, and the team just has an off night offensively. It happens to everyone. Whether or not the Heat’s defense, a function of system, ability, and effort, will pick up the slack on those off nights is what’s going to make the difference between the Heat being a title contender or a historically great team next season.

The Heat certainly have the ability to be an elite defensive team, at least on paper. And the Heat did finish 6th in the NBA in defensive rating last season, when James and Bosh’s roster spots were held by Quentin Richardson and Michael Beasley.

The key to the Heat’s defense will be whether or not James and Wade can suffocate teams on defense the way Pippen and Jordan did when they played for the Bulls. Both Wade and James have evolved into elite perimeter defenders over the last two or three seasons, but Pippen was a once-in-a-generation defender, Jordan was Jordan, and, most importantly, both players brought it defensively every single night.

Furthermore, when you consider how hand-check rules have changed perimeter defense since Jordan and Pippen’s time, it seems increasingly unlikely that James/Wade or any other duo will be able to replicate the defensive dominance of Jordan and Pippen on the perimeter. Jordan and Pippen’s suffocation of enemy guards and wings allowed them to be an elite defensive unit despite the fact that Luc Longley started at center and Toni Kukoc was Dennis Rodman’s backup at the four. Without the ability to bump and jostle opponents on the perimeter and keep them from getting into the paint, it’s much harder to field and elite defensive team without some great defenders on the frontline. Still, if any two perimeter defenders are up to the task, it may well be Wade and James. (It’s worth Kobe and Artest did do a pretty darn good job as a tandem for the Lakers last year as well, although age and injuries kept them from being a full-time lockdown force during the regular season — it boggles the mind to think about what those two could’ve done together with legal hand-checks and healthy knees.)

Defense was something of a weakness for James during his first few years in the NBA, but he improved on that side of the floor every year before emerging as one of the best defensive players in the NBA during the 2008-09 season. James was a complete defensive monster that season, both on the ball and on the weak side, and he earned a 2nd-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting as the Cavs finished 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

James, along with the rest of the Cavaliers, regressed a bit defensively during the 2009-10 season. He was still nearly impossible to score on in isolation or post-up situations and made some spectacular weak-side plays, most notably his signature chase-down blocks, but wasn’t as consistent of a defender overall, and his all-defense spot could easily have gone to another player.

Casual observation of James’ game would suggest that James is a weak-side dynamo who still has to work on being a lock-down defender in one-on-one situations. However, a closer look reveals that that wasn’t the case last season. As an individual defender, James has an awkward, duck-footed stance, and often appears slightly off-balance when trying to play one-on-one defense. Like most superstars, he also usually spent the first 7/8ths of the game guarding the lesser of the opposition’s two perimeter players, and also doesn’t engage in the pull up the shorts, chest-to-chest, chase-his-man all the way around the perimeter antics that make most elite perimeter defenders stand out in fans’ minds.

However, in order to score on James in a one-on-one situation, an opponent must shoot over him, go through him, or get around him, and that’s nearly impossible to do against a player as big, strong, and fast as James.

The numbers back this up — according to SynergySports.com, opponents went 48-138 against James in isolation or post-up situations last season. That’s barely one basket every two games, and a 34.8% field goal percentage, which becomes even more impressive when you consider that James almost never commits fouls. Granted, LeBron is usually facing weaker offensive players, but he’s also very successful at locking down the other team’s best scorer when’s he’s asked to late in games; in what 82games.com defines as “clutch” situations, the Cavaliers gave up an off-the-charts 84.9 points per 48 minutes last season.

Off the ball, James’ defensive prowess is a just a touch overstated. With his size, speed, length, leaping ability, and instincts (he almost never bites on a pump-fake when closing out), he has all the tools to be the best help-side perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen, a healthy Andrei Kirilenko, or anyone else you want to name, and he often can be — after all, just look at those chase-down blocks. But LeBron would often get overconfident in his ability to recover on defense and/or take defensive plays off last season and get caught overhelping/ball-watching, which would lead to his man getting weak-side baskets in the half-court. According to Synergy, opponents went 131-315 (41.6%) against James when they spotted up or got the ball coming off a screen. That’s not bad, but it’s certainly not as good as it could be.

Like James, Wade has experienced something of a defensive breakthrough over the past two seasons. Since the Heat were so much worse than the Cavaliers, it didn’t get the same kind of attention, but it was no less impressive. Wade reigned in his gambling in 08-09, going from reckless on defense to “effectively wild,” and the impact on the Heat’s defense was profound and immediate.

Wade is still a threat to steal any pass thrown with a hint of laziness on the perimeter and perhaps the best pound-for-pound shotblocker in the NBA, having accounted for 224 combined steals and blocks last season. That’s good. What’s better is that Wade no longer ignores his basic assignments in order to chase the big play on defense. Opponents went 47-148 (31.8%) against Wade in isolation/post-up situations last season. When you consider that opponents had much more success pos
ting Wade than they did against him in isolation and James will likely handle the big players that Quentin Richardson couldn’t next season, those numbers get even more daunting for potential Heat opponents.

As a help defender, Wade was slightly more conscientious than James was — opponents went 145-383 (37.9%) in spot-up/off-screen situations against Wade last season. Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Wade isn’t the kind of late-game lockdown defender that James is. The Heat had a slightly better overall defensive rating than the Cavaliers last season, but gave up 109.8 points per 48 minutes in what 82games.com describes as “clutch” situations, as compared to 84.9 points per 48 minutes for Cavaliers opponents in the same situations. There are obviously a number of non-Wade/James reasons why that could have happened, but LeBron guarding the other teams’ best player worked very well during the 09-10 regular season while Wade doing the same did not, and that’s not data that should be entirely ignored.

Any way you slice it, the Heat’s perimeter defense is going to be scary. If Wade’s guarding the other team’s best player, he’s doing a good job and LeBron is lurking for blocks and steals. If James is on the other team’s best scorer, Wade gets to gamble to his heart’s content while the ball-handler has to figure out how to get around James. It’s not that one of them is a great man defender and the other is great on the weak side — they’re both among the best at both, and that’s a scary proposition for opposing offenses. (And don’t forget Mario Chalmers, a physical defensive point who doesn’t back down from anyone and has averaged 1.63 steals per game in only 28.6 minutes over the course of his career.)

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the Heat’s perimeter defense should be a more or less dominant unit, there are some serious questions about the Heat’s interior defense, which many see as more important in the post hand-check era.

First, there’s the matter of Chris Bosh. Bosh was the starting power forward on the worst defensive team in basketball last season, and that’s not a thrilling bullet point to have on one’s resume. Bosh hasn’t definitively proven that he’s a bad defender, but he sure hasn’t proven that he’s a good one.

The best precedent for those hoping Bosh will become an effective defender in Miami is the career of Orlando Magic power forward Rashard Lewis. Like Lewis, Bosh isn’t particularly strong or physical, and doesn’t do much to shut off the paint. And remember that Lewis played for some of the worst defensive teams in the history of basketball during his time with Seattle.

But just like the old adage that every quarterback is a system quarterback, to some extent every NBA defender is a system defender. A player can do all the right things and force his man towards where the help is supposed to be and look like he got torched when the helper blows his assignment. Likewise, good help can make anyone with good feet look like a defensive mastermind most of the time. With the Sonics’ interior defense being as horrible as it was, Lewis’ inability to defend the paint made him a liability. When he got traded to Orlando, his ability to get out on the perimeter and force players towards Dwight Howard made him a major asset on the defensive end.

Like Lewis, Bosh is at his best when he can use his athleticism out on the perimeter and force defenders into the paint, and actually did well against opponents in isolation last year. The problem was that when Bosh “forced” his man into the paint, the Raptors’ last line of defense was Andrea Bargnani. Forcing people into Bargnani isn’t a winning strategy, and the Heat hope that Bosh will go from a liability to an asset on defense with Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas behind him. Going to a team that values defense, as the Raptors clearly didn’t, could help Bosh to be a better defender as well.

Still, even the most optimistic of Bosh supporters would have to admit that his defense is a question mark, and that puts a lot of pressure on the aforementioned Anthony and Ilgauskas. If you could combine Ilgauskas’ height with Anthony’s athleticism, you’d have perhaps the best defensive center in the league. Alas, Anthony is undersized and Ilgauskas’ movements are glacial.

Anthony will likely be the starting center for the Heat, given his ability as a shot-blocker and the fact his athleticism will allow the Heat to get out and run more. Anthony’s complete lack of an offensive game has kept him from getting big minutes up to this point in his career, but he’ll be counted on to play a bigger role in 2010-11.

Anthony’s greatest asset is his shot-blocking, and he’s really good at it. Anthony averaged 4.1 blocks per 48 minutes last season — for the sake of comparison, Dwight Howard averaged 3.9 blocks per 48. Obviously, Anthony isn’t nearly the all-around defender or rebounder that Howard is, but those block totals are impressive. Anthony has also shown the ability to play excellent fundamental defense — he held opponents to sub-42% shooting in post-up, pick-and-roll, and spot-up situations last season, which shows both a prodigious ability to recover on the weak side and a surprising tenacity in the post for a man his size.

The catch here is that just like it hasn’t been proven that Bosh is a bad defender, it hasn’t been proven that Anthony is a good one. Anthony has been a great defender during his short NBA thus far, but he’s been a 17 minute per game player. Now he’s going to be the starting center of a team with a championship(s)-or-bust mandate both from within and from the general public, and will almost certainly face the likes of Dwight Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol at some point during the playoffs.

The two main knocks on Anthony as a defender are his low rebounding total and high foul rate — he averaged 3.1 rebounds per game and 5.82 fouls per 48 minutes last season. Like a lot of great shot-blockers, Anthony tends to miss caroms and find wrists on his way to getting block after block, and he’ll have to curb both tendencies next season.

It will be interesting to see how the Heat use Ilgauskas next season. “Big Z” was largely a forgotten man on the 09-10 Cavaliers because of the team’s crowded frontcourt of O’Neal, Varejao, and Jamison, and most think that Ilgauskas was brought on to help the team’s chemistry as much as anything else. However, Ilgauskas was the starting center on some very, very good defensive teams from 2006-09, and he wasn’t exactly moving fast during those years.

Ilgauskas may be the slowest player in the NBA, and his complete inability to guard Dwight Howard one-on-one in the post was a major reason the Cavaliers brought in Shaq. But Ilgauskas is still 7-3, smart, lanky, and knows how to grab rebounds and defend the rim without taking bad gambles or fouling. If Ilgauskas’ teammates can use their athleticism to funnel opponents into Ilgauskas the way LeBron James and Anderson Varejao did in Cleveland, he can still be a very effective defender. Then again, Ilgauskas is 35 years old, the veteran of many major surgeries, and could keep the Heat from running, so there’s a real chance he won’t play a major role for the Heat.

So how will the Heat be on defense? Wade, James, and Chalmers will be a defensive wrecking crew, provided the former two give enough effort on that end. Erik Spoelstra showed that he knows how to coach a defense when he spun Dwyane Wade, Jermaine O’Neal, and the NBA equivalent of straw into defensive gold last season.

Based on those factors alone, the Heat should be at least a top-eight defensive team next season. If Chris Bosh can turn his defensive weaknesses into strengths a la Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony can turn his per-minute production into 20-30 minutes of Ben Wallace lite every night, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can still use his massive frame to defend the rim, the Heat could easily play the kind of
shut-down defense that would allow them to achieve the success everyone expects — and maybe fears — that they could attain with the roster Pat Riley has assembled.

Report: Lakers asked LaVar Ball to pull back on criticism of Luke Walton

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There’s so much transparent marketing happening with LaVar Ball that it’s often not worth the server space to type up what he says and post it. The father of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is so breathlessly unexciting in his pitch for relevance in comparison to the actual happenings of the NBA, the irony of which is not unnoticed here.

Still, Mr. Ball has infrequently stepped out from his professional Uncle At a Barbeque cosplay to criticize the Lakers and coach Luke Walton. Mr. Ball has made it clear he thinks Lonzo should play more often, and in fourth quarters. That hasn’t been productive for either side, and it appears that the team has asked Mr. Ball to pull back on openly criticizing Walton.

According to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the team and Mr. Ball met to discuss their relationship in November.

Via ESPN:

The meeting, which took place within the past few weeks, was called by Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka.

LaVar Ball confirmed the meeting took place, telling ESPN, “It was the best thing, man. Everybody’s going to try to make it an ego thing, like I’m trying to tell them what to do or they’re trying to tell me to tone it down. It’s not about that. It’s about coming together and to get a solution to this problem.

“It may sound crazy to other people, but I really just want the best for Lonzo, and the best for Lonzo is going to be what’s best for the organization. Because if everybody winning, we good.”

“I’m going to say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it,” Ball said. “And they said, ‘LaVar, come and talk to us first.’ So that’s fine too.

“But I am going to say, to plant a seed, ‘Let’s look for this now.’ They may not want to hear that, but it’s going to be successful if you listen to what I’m saying on that fact that I know what it takes for my son to run like this.”

Mr. Ball’s influence on his son is unique, but the team is far more than an avenue for Lonzo to play basketball. Indeed, Lonzo is not even one the best two or three players on the Lakers. The organization needs to function at a professional level and doesn’t need Mr. Ball to achieve that. Sidestepping any Whataboutism in the face of sketchy NBA decisionmaking — Phil Jackson, the Bulls front office, any Billy King trade, Isiah Thomas, etc. — it’s not immediately clear that Mr. Ball agrees.

It’s got to be a hassle for Walton to have to deal with this type of thing. The team started enforcing an existing rule a rule recently that stops members of the media from congregating in the same area where NBA friends and family are after a game, but it’s unlikely that will stop reporters from ambulance-chasing Ball any time soon.

Lonzo has remained in LA, which is exactly what Mr. Ball wanted when his son went to UCLA. The younger Ball has struggled a bit, but he’s part of an energetic young core that’s on the up in a tough conference. Lonzo is even leading the team in assists. But Mr. Ball persists in stepping where he’s unqualified, presumably as a means to continue his guerilla marketing campaign (or perhaps motivated by it). LaVar doesn’t realize his work is done — Lonzo is a Laker — and he should let 16 championship trophies in the No. 2 TV market in the country take it from here.

Instead, Mr. Ball produces the most boring and uninspiring stories week after week. This is the league where major free agents break their legs in the first five minutes of play with their new team, where MVPs sign with the best team of all-time after they’ve already won a championship, and where the best player of all-time gives you a crucial chasedown block in Game 7 of the Finals. Nothing Mr. Ball can do will ever be interesting in the grand scheme of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the Lakers and the New York Knicks actually played a pretty wild OT game on Tuesday. If only that were what we could all concentrate on.

Watch the Knicks and Lakers make every shot for 2 straight minutes of game clock

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Tuesday night’s game between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers was a good one, with the teams going-back-and-forth all night. In an OT game that came down to the wire, a sequence in the third quarter was perhaps indicative of the kind of contest it was in Madison Square Garden.

Starting with a little more than six minutes to go in the third the teams traded eight consecutive baskets while MSG rose to an accompanying fever pitch.

The whole sequence was pretty hilarious, and lent to that feeling you get sometimes while watching competitive NBA games of complete exhilaration.

Via Twitter:

The gap spanned from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s missed 3-pointer with 6:21 left to Brook Lopez‘s missed shot with 3:51 to go.

New York wound up winning in OT, 113-109.

Joel Embiid says he thinks people are about to start hating him

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Philadelphia 76ers have been the Twitter darlings of the NBA for the past few years. Thanks to former general manager Sam Hinkie and the tanking process, guys like Joel Embiid have become even more admired now that the team is in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Of course, players like Embiid are part of the generation that is always online, and the fact that they play in the NBA doesn’t keep them from participating in social media with their contemporaries. Embiid has a great Twitter feed, and is often out on it trying to get dates from the likes of Rihanna while trolling other NBA stars on Instagram.

Of course, as we’ve seen with players in the past, good fortune does not always shine forever. Indeed, conscious of this fact, Embiid as much to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne during a recent interview.

Via ESPN:

People love you at the beginning,” Embiid explains. “But at some point they’re gonna start hating you. LeBron. Russell Westbrook. All the superstars. Even Steph. He’s so likable. He does nothing wrong, but some people still hate him. It just comes with the nature of it. I’ve seen it.

“I feel like I’m about to go through it. I think it’s coming. People always want something new.”

The ups and downs of how NBA fandom changes the perception of certain players is fascinating, and some even try to directly manipulate that. And indeed, while Embiid is certainly hilarious on social media, the best thing to keep fans at bay will be him staying on the floor and playing games for the Sixers.

Let’s hope that keeps happening and nobody turns on him anytime soon.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.