Super-Conductors, Super-Teams, and You: An analysis of where the mega-squads stand and are constructed

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The Knicks don’t make sense.

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Every team’s fans are defensive of their squad. I like to single out specific fanbases for sport, but in reality, it doesn’t matter the locale or composition. Teams fans will react similarly in most cases provided the writing is not on the wall in gigantic stenciled block letters that they are doomed. Portland fans will talk about Nate McMillan getting the most out of the players and LaMarcus Aldridge not being respected and how deep their team is despite it not being deep at all. Because the Blazers are good. Lakers fans will plug their ears, point to the championships and scream “La la la la I can’t hear you, we still have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol,and Andrew Bynum.” Again, because the Lakers are good.

But the superteams in the NBA create something wholly different in fanbases. They react as if any critique of the two-to-three collections of star power is in fact some sort of dogmatic disrespect of those players’ abilities and/or their own parents’ lineage and social behavior. It’s deeply personal. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the excitement that a team’s fans feel upon finding out about the team-up. How do you not get excited to find out that not only is Dwyane Wade staying, but he’s bringing Chris Bosh and the MVP LeBron James to town? Wouldn’t you be so thrilled that anyone trying to take away that parade would be seen as an enemy to your very happiness? You just found out Carmelo Anthony is joining your playoff team and you have the best frontcourt in the NBA. Wouldn’t questions about their cohesion and defense seem like such a buzzkill that is rightfully yours after enduring the Isiah era?

So I understand the reticence, the defensivenes, the outright anger. But Knicks fans, Heat fans, Laker fans, please understand that before we continue, this is not about how good your team is. It’s about how they fit.
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If you’re putting together the perfect meal, you’re going to select your menu and ingredients carefully. It of course depends on what you want to do, but there are still certain rules. And you’re going to want great ingredients to be sure. You want high quality meat, vegetables, spices, sauces, etc. But you still have to be consciencous of the meal itself. You can’t throw down a plate with chicken and three starches and say “Look! The rice and potatoes and potatoes are all of the highest quality! Best meal ever!” It doesn’t work like that.

And if you’re looking to create the perfect basketball team, well, first off, you’re going to fail because it’s impossible, but you’re also not going to say “I’m going to get the best scoring small forward and best scoring power forward in the league, and then we will triuph!” It’s just not what you would say. This isn’t to say that the Knicks’ acquisition of Melo was a bad move or that it can never work. At all. Because it wasn’t and it can. It’s just not ideal and it creates a tension between two very prominent lines of thought in regards to these collections of mega-talent.

1. Talent wins, and the more you have, the more you can overcome strategic, trending, or matchup disadvantages thanks to sheer overwhelming ability.

vs.

2. The right combination of talent when employed effectively is greater than a superior combination of sheer talent.

I’m not going to spit at you platitudes about the team effort of how the Mavericks’ righteoust triumph over the Heat or whatever proves this. The Mavs have somehow become identified as some sort of mutant Bad News Bears and in reality they featured multiple award-winning players all of whom have been stars at one point or another outside of J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson. But the fact that the Mavericks’ system and collection of stars did have a cohesive and explainable blueprint should be noted. Veteran game-managing, (suddenly) consistent outsdide-shooting point guard runs offense with few mistakes and key smart plays centered around Hall of Fame 7-foot Power Forward with exceptional range and shot-creation ability, anchored by All-NBA low-post, weakside, and at-rim defender capable of finishing alley-oops and converting putbacks alongside veteran combo forward with unique scoring ability and well-rounded combination of skills on both sides and a classic bench pure scorer.

That makes sense.

A veteran gunning point guard with decision-making and injury issues or an inexperienced young combo guard without pure playmaking skills or rookie shooting guard who is a pure scorer without handles supports a high-usage, all-range small forward who is most comfortable in ISO sets from the elbow or on the perimeter and a devastating power forward who also operates best from the elbow on his own and who needs a playmaking point guard to achieve his maximum efficiency backed by a veteran All-NBA low-post defender and at-rim attacker who can also score clean-up.

Not so much.

There’s no playmaker for the Knicks. There’s a lot of talk about Carmelo Anthony playing point forward, and who knows, maybe it will be effective enough. Maybe he’ll rack up the assits and it will be beautiful if odd. It still cannot be more effective than a playmaking point guard in a system built around maximizing offensive weapons, particularly unorthodox ones, and a strong set of consistent rebounders and pick and roll players who are more effective without the ball. It’s just not. If the Knicks are to succeed, it will be on account of simply having more talent than the opponent, that Melo and Amar’e are able to synthetically produce something resembling a cohesive plot for offense and Chandler is able to simply alter the course of all defensive strategy to accomodate for weaknesses from every other player on the roster. And it’s possible! That’s how important star power and talent is.

Just take a look at the Heat.

A mega-scoring, high-rebound-rate, gamble-defending shooting guard. A prolific do-it-all and rarely do enough, lock-down defender, brilliant vision in a Hummer-like body small forward. And a whisper-thin, mid-range joltin’, defensively adequate power forward.

It’s just not a perfect fit. It’s not even a good fit. None of us saw that when the Decison happened, though. It was just chaos and outrage and rainbows and pitchforks about the awesomeness or immorality of the move. But what we saw last year embodies everything about the super-team concept. Wade doesn’t know how to operate without the ball. James doesn’t know how to operate in the high or low post. Bosh is a stretch four. It’s like putting the best engine, tires, and stereo system together with a body shell and saying you have a car. You still don’t have a navigation system.

That team made the Finals.

But what eludes the Heat is that component to bring it all together. Same with the Knicks. If they’re going to succeed in being the NBA’s best, being more than that, being a truly great team, one for the ages, they are reliant on one or multiple of their stars doing things which they have not shown themselves capable of doing, or another player will have to fill that roll. Melo will have to become a centerpiece, the nexus, the docking port of the offense through wich all points run. James has to either become the low-post power forward they need or a pure passer, essentially surendering scoring duties. Stoudemire has to pass out of the low-post and defend, defend, defend. Wade has to be crafty and safe rather than explosive and dangerous. None of these things are intuitive. They’re possible. And with a little extra defense and some competent role play, they can win the title without it. But to be truly great, they still have to change identities, abilities, definitions.

Or have a system which naturally grafts them to those elements without actual transformation. You know, what the Lakers did.

Phil Jackson may have too often watched his team drown during runs, failed to instill any discipline whatsoever, and generally sit back and let talent do 90 percent of the work, but he did nothing if not put his players in a position to succeed. And the triangle is what made the Lakers great. By running that multiple post option, it put the players involved in areas where they were most effective. Bryant on the wing or elbow, Gasol in the low post or elbow, Odom on the wing or low post. The mostion meant that they were creating, but within zones, within flows, in a rhythm, a cycle, a structure. There was no improvisation, not in terms of what is to be executed, even though so much of the Lakers’ offense was in fact Bryant improvising offense.

This isn’t to say that Mike Brown’s offense can’t maximize the Lakers’ ability, it will simply have to be done inside of a different paradigm.

But the Lakers re-inforce the fact that if you want to be able to tackle anything, you need more than the firepower, you need a blueprint which makes the whole war machine operable.

Which brings us to the Clippers.

Think about what the critical arguments are against the Clippers’ possibilities with this new amalgam of star power.

“Well,they’re the Clippers.” This is actually a fair point but it has nothing to do with structural elements, only voodoo and a fairly consistent pattern of failure.

“They’re young.” Yes, but they have some experience. Chris Paul is not a spring chicken, Chauncey Billups is downright ancient, and DeAndre Jordan is young but not a rookie. There’s experience here. Furthermore, the Thunder are young. I don’t see folks running away from them.

“Vinny Del Negro.” Ah, and there’s the first real tactical elemeent specific to them. But to consider Del Negro, we need to consider the first super-team of this era, at least of those created artificially (as opposed to organically as in the Spurs; we have to set the era at one point or another), the Celtics.

The Celtics had a big question going into 2007-2008. “What about Doc?” Rivers had the respect of everyone in the league. Bu pundits and some insiders had serious questiona about his ability to manage rotations, to effectively build lineups, to do anything tactical. But the acquisition of the Big 3 meant that those concerns were covered. He didn’t have to manage Piece, Allen, KG’s minutes because they were veterans enough to say “I need a breather” or “I’m good” His work against Phil Jackson in the Finals was more of an impressive display of how Jackson struggles to adapt to anything he doesn’t anticipate than sheer genius by Rivers. Over the past three years he’s shown himself to be a master tactician and a brilliant in-game strategist and play-builder.

But that same experience in his first year is the same kind of thing that may allow Del Negro to excel. Because, quite simply, you can’t screw up Chris Paul – Blake Griffin = DeAndre Jordan. It’s just not possible. No one could screw that up. And in doing so, it means Del Negro’s abilities are heightened (development, for example), and his deficiences are covered.

Why? Because it works, organically.

A pass-first, pure point guard who also shoots exceptionally well, which means that any aggressive hedge or over-coverage of the roll-man means he can decimate the opponent with his mid-range and floater. A power forward whose biggest strength is catching well-timed and thrown passes, particularly out of the pick and roll. A clean-up man with sheer unadulterated force and athleticism. And shooters on the perimeter.

The Clippers make sense.

If the Clippers disappoint us, it will be on account of some failure in intangibles, defense due to inexperience and unfamiliarity, or injury. But it won’t be because the model is flawed. The model is nearly flawless. This is why the trade was worth it. Chris Paul puts the Clippers’ ceiling higher than any other super-team, simply because of what he does and what they do. There’s no nasty crossover, no stepping on each other’s toes.

The Clippers may not have good enough ingredients, good enough instruments, a good enough chef. But the menu itself is right.

Let’s cook.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

Jared Dudley: Giannis Antetokounmpo practiced mean mugging in locker room

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Game 3 dunk over Aron Baynes was great.

Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 dunk over Al Horford (seen above) is even better, because of the fantastic mean mug that followed.

The rise of Antetokounmpo is no accident. He worked hard to develop his on-court skills. And that includes all aspects.

Suns forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo on the 2014-15 Bucks:

This is the inside info we need.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.