Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Has the small-ball fad passed?

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Sometimes, the NBA’s most important issues can only be fully understood when two college students talk at each other about them. It is in this spirit that we here at NBC bring you Pro Basketball Crosstalk, featuring Rob Mahoney and John Krolik.

Resolved: Contrary to earlier reports, the crackdown on hand-check rules that took place in the 2004 offseason has not led to small-ball teams finding success at the highest levels of play. 

John Krolik: It wasn’t long ago that small-ball teams looked like the wave of the future. The crackdown on hand-checking and the concurrent rise of the D’Antoni Suns made it seem like small-ball was taking the league by storm; stodgy old offenses built around feeding the post or setting up mid-range jumpers were being replaced by small guards and wing players flying into the paint to get a layup or draw a foul, kick the ball out on the break to an open three-point shooter, or find a hyper-athletic big for a resounding dunk. Nobody could stop ultra-fast guards with finishing ability like Tony Parker, Devin Harris, or Monta Ellis from getting into the lane and wreaking havoc. The freaking Warriors beat the Mavericks in the playoffs. (Sorry, Rob.) The winds of change were blowing. 
But here we stand in the year 2010, and not that much has changed. Both NBA finals teams featured a seven-foot power forward and an absolute behemoth at center. Only three of the ten “fastest” teams in the league made it into the playoffs, and only Utah and Phoenix made it out of the first round. Orlando has been the only Eastern Conference contender to run any sort of “progressive” offense, but they also have the best center in the league. 
Meanwhile, guys like Parker, Harris, and Monta no longer seem like the point guards of the future — Monta, in fact, has become the bane of the advanced statistics community. The best pure scorer in the league is, in the objective, non-basketball, sense of the word, slow, and isn’t a particularly good passer either — In short, Durant was a guy who was supposed to dominate the old NBA, but I guess sometimes a great player is just a great player. 
What’s weird about everything being more or less the same on a macro level is that everything seems so different on a micro level. Offenses built around feeding the post are all but gone — the Lakers won a championship without relying on post-up play, and they have Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe. Players like Rashard Lewis and Lamar Odom are now considered legitimate power-forward options. It’s still all but impossible to keep the quicker guards in the league from blowing past their first defender. Teams are shooting more threes than ever before. Yet it’s still the slow-it-down, defense-first, up-with-big-men teams who end up playing each other come May and June. 
One thing I’ll say before swinging it to Rob is that great big men seem to be as valuable as ever, just in different ways. For example, Dwight Howard doesn’t dominate games by getting the ball on the block and making a move every time the Magic have the ball, because that’s not how things work anymore. However, his ability to guard the paint has become invaluable, because there’s no way to stop faster players from getting into the paint without fouling them on the perimeter. Offensively, Howard’s ability to turn Jameer Nelson’s penetration into an alley-oop finish is more valuable than it would have been previously, because Jameer now penetrates more. (The best case study on this might be “MVP KG vs. Best player on a championship team” KG.) 
Rob, your thoughts on all this? 
Rob Mahoney: To say that small-ball teams haven’t found success at the highest levels of play is both indisputably true and an incredible disservice to the Phoenix Suns. 
If the criterion for success is to COUNT THEM RINGS, then certainly, the Suns and every team of their ilk have failed. The six NBA champions since 2004 have averaged a pace of 91.4 possessions per game, which is somewhere between plodding and the ideal habitat for moss. The kings of the hill tend to climb it rather slowly, and that’s as true now as it ever has been.
Still, if the Suns are the poster children for the small-ball movement, to say that they haven’t been successful is way off-base. In the six seasons since the hand-check rules were revamped, Phoenix made the playoffs five times, made it to the conference finals thrice, and the semifinals once. That’s in spite of an evolving and eventually overhauled core, two coaching changes, a season-long injury to a star player, and an owner looking to trim expenses at every turn. There were all kinds of factors working against the Suns, and yet they’re one of the decade’s quintessential teams, despite never hoisting the ol’ Larry O’Brien. 
If Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t have to go under the knife, if the league office didn’t issue some curious suspensions, if they hadn’t continually run into the Spurs, or if the Lakers hadn’t found Pau Gasol on their doorstep, we might not even be discussing this in such uncertain terms. Phoenix was that good for that long, and yet just because they never punched their title tickets doesn’t mean their style is invalidated.
From there, I’d offer this: the Suns (under Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry, not Terry Porter) did it right, and most of the small-ball elements you noted represent the idea in its impure forms. The Warriors had their day in the sun in 2007, but ultimately, their rosters have been mistranslations of an otherwise beautiful concept. Claiming that small-ball failed because teams like the Warriors stumbled is akin to pinning the Clippers’ failures on all moderately paced teams. Sure, other franchises were never quite able to replicate the Suns’ model, but Seven-Seconds-or-Less requires a steadfast commitment to counterintuitive ideals. Run off the make. Don’t foul. Trust the transition three. These are things that basketball players need to be taught to embrace, and that’s an insanely difficult task without a franchise willing to dive in headfirst. Not many are.
If you’d ask me to define why small-ball teams on the whole have failed to find success, I’d start there. Personnel is an issue, too — just because T.J. Ford is fast doesn’t mean he should be running your fast break offense. Additionally, I think a lot of people (fans, players, coaches, etc.) saw small-ball as some easy, as-seen-on-TV method of transforming a team overnight, and it’s certainly not. Like any other basketball system, it takes discipline and proper construction, and the hastily assembled copycats that have been touted as small-ball outfits are only so in form, not function.
JK: I’m a big opponent of the “History is the propaganda of the victors” construct, so I definitely hear what you’re saying w/r/t the Suns. They were a few bad breaks away from a championship, no doubt. You could, of, course, say the same thing about a number of teams: LeBron’s Cavaliers were two Rashard Lewis threes away from playing Kobe’s Lakers in the Finals. The Magic were one Dwight Howard free throw/missed Derek Fisher three, and Courtney Lee layup
from putting up a real fight against the Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain was a Frank Selvy mid-range jumper from taking a game seven from Bill Russell. They were a few good breaks away; so were a lot of teams. 
(My point about the Suns? The Marion trade absolutely devastated their ability to beat top-tier teams playing their style. Like I said about Howard/KG earlier, the hand-check rules have benefited great defensive reactors as much as great offensive actors, and Marion’s ability to cover ground and guard multiple positions was CRUCIAL to their success.)
My main point was how I’m disturbed that the Suns didn’t find anybody to take up their mantle. The Suns were a tremendously talented team; look at those rosters sometime. They had all the talent to win championships, even many of them — the year they did it without Amar’e was a testament to how good their system can be, but that was still a team with great talent at multiple positions perfectly suited to making that style work. 
Furthermore, what made the Suns special was Steve Nash, one of the most talented (and unique) offensive players we’ve seen in the last decade. The question of whether the Suns’ system is a blueprint for a team that wants to win a championship or the best system to utilize Steve Nash’s talents has yet to be answered at the highest levels, from where I stand. To make my point clear: the Moneyball A’s didn’t win a title either, but the Sabermetrics/big-ball/Value-on-OBP way of building teams swept the league in their wake. The Suns way of building teams has not. 
Here’s my small-ball thesis for the time being:
(Talent) +/- (Coaching/Chemistry) +/- (X-Factor) = Success
Assume “X-Factor” has more inherent variation than the former two considerations. If you accept that postulate, you see why small-ball is a good idea for “mid-level” teams but has trouble producing finals berths: The faster you play, the more you’re embracing variance and increasing the value of your X-Factor, be it positive or negative. (I realize that, theoretically, more possessions would suggest less possibility for randomness, but that’s not the way the NBA, a game of runs, operates.) 
The 2007 Warriors had a pantsload of X-Factor, and that was great for them: it allowed them to beat the Mavericks, but led to them getting beaten fairly handily by the Jazz. For an 8-seed playoff team, that’s something you’ll take every day. For the past few seasons, my beloved Cavaliers sought to limit their X-Factor as much as possible, because they had LeBron, and it led them to the league’s best regular-season record for the last two years. (It did backfire on them pretty badly when the Celtics had the matchups to bully them in the 2010 playoffs and the Cavaliers had NO answer for them.) 
Now that LeBron is gone and they’ll be an (at-best) moderately talented team, they’re going to play faster and up their X-Factor, and I support that. But at the highest levels of the game (read: Conference Finals/NBA Finals), relying on variance/your ball movement to be there/your shooters to be hot is generally a losing strategy against a team with a methodical gameplan and a lock-down defense. Great small-ball teams have a greater chance of beating teams with more talent than them as well as a greater chance of losing to teams with less talent than them. In the regular season, where things even out over 82 games, that’s a fair proposition. For elite teams, the ones that need to win 4 playoff series in a row, it’s not as favorable. 
I’ll return to the Suns/small-ball in general issue with one last metaphor before letting you run the anchor: David beating Goliath doesn’t interest me. An army trading in their crossbows, swords, and shields for slings would. 
RM: I’m with you in principle that fast breaking teams have greater variance in their performance at times (though I’d love for a savvy statistical mind to either confirm or deny that), but isn’t that what the playoffs are all about? Playing your best basketball at the right time and all that? Call me crazy, but I don’t mind betting on a well-constructed squad like the Suns, slightly parabolic though their play may be, over a team slogging through the season and waiting to flip the switch. 
Plus, it’s not as if the Suns were slacking in the post-season. Phoenix played well enough to win the damn thing during some of those playoffs, they just happened to run into their antithesis over and over again. Prior to this year, San Antonio was the death of them, and the only teams Phoenix had lost to in the playoffs were the Spurs and a team constructed in SA’s likeness (the Mavericks under Avery Johnson). Maybe that’s just another break that the Suns never got, but it’s also a pretty consistent obstacle that kept those Phoenix teams from consummate immortality.
It’s not about pace or style, really. It’s about reliability. That’s at the core of your X-Factor contention, but where we seem to diverge is in how that factor impacted the Suns. Good teams need reliable players as their foundation, and it doesn’t much matter whether that player is Tim Duncan or Steve Nash, as long as the roster around them is thoughtfully assembled and the system is fitting of their talents. The Suns may have more give to their game than say, the Spurs (do pardon the redundancy of that counterexample), but with a talent of Nash’s caliber at the center of the operation, they can still find success by almost any standard.
Oddly enough, that means that while I’d love to say that the game done changed because of small ball, it really hasn’t. Rather, it’s simply become more apparent than ever that teams need to embrace talent in all of its forms in order to pursue the exact same element (reliability) that has always been crucial to success in the NBA. In my eyes, the Suns have validated small-ball as a possible avenue through which to do that. No one has put down their swords and crossbows because it’s not about the weapons. It’s about how they’re used, and while the traditionalists have won battles aplenty by standing in formation, Phoenix wasn’t afraid to turn to guerrilla tactics.

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.