Clippers' Paul sails to the basket as Lakers' players watch during their NBA preseason game in Los Angeles

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

12 Comments

The Knicks don’t make sense.

*****************************
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.
********************************

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.

Watch Kyle Lowry’s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler in USA win

1 Comment

There were a lot of ugly things for Team USA in its exhibition win over Venezuela — the 4-of-25 shooting from three comes to mind. There was more, it was not a strong offensive performance from Team USA.

But like usual, we can overwhelm teams with athleticism, and that means wins and highlights. Like Kyle Lowry‘s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler.

Or DeMar DeRozan‘s late-game windmill dunk.

Kyrie Irving helps USA to ugly 80-45 win over Venezuela

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Kyrie Irving #10 of the United States Men's National Team looks to make a move with the ball against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

CHICAGO (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 13 points, DeMarcus Cousins powered a dominant performance in the paint, and the United States pulled away from Venezuela for an ugly 80-45 exhibition victory Friday night.

Coming off three straight flashy victories in Las Vegas and California, the United States shot 42.4 percent from the field and committed 13 turnovers in by far its worst offensive performance of its five-city tour in preparation for next week’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But the Americans used their superior athleticism to limit Venezuela to 24 percent shooting and owned the interior with a 54-29 rebounding advantage.

Returning to Chicago for the first time with the U.S. national team, Bulls star Jimmy Butler was cheered every time he was announced at the United Center. He had four points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes in his first start with Team USA.

Butler had one of the few electric plays for the U.S. when he ran out on the break and dunked Kyle Lowry‘s tip pass in the fourth quarter. DeAndre Jordan also had a vicious dunk off a lob from Kevin Durant, and DeMar DeRozan drew chants of “USA! USA!” with a windmill jam in the final minutes.

Klay Thompson also scored 13 points, and Cousins finished with seven points and 12 rebounds. Durant had nine points of 3-of-9 shooting.

John Cox scored 14 points for Venezuela, which will play the U.S. again on Aug. 8 in the Olympics.

Irving and company were greeted with a round of hearty cheers when they came out for pregame warmups. Fans lined the side of the court where the Americans had their layup line, and Anthony and Durant posed for pictures with a couple of eager boys.

Before Butler’s introduction drew the most applause of the night, former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau received a thunderous ovation when he was announced with the U.S. coaching staff. Thibodeau took a year off after he was fired by the Bulls in May 2015, and then was hired as Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations in April.

The star power also extended to the sideline near the U.S. bench, where former Olympians Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade watched the action attentively. Wade was joined by his wife, actress Gabriel Union, hours after he held his introductory press conference for his new contract with his hometown Bulls.

Pippen played on the 1992 Dream Team that rolled to gold in Barcelona, and also helped the U.S. win gold in 1996. Wade was on the Americans’ gold medal-winning teams at each of the last two Olympics.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Monty Williams is back coaching with Team USA, ready to get back on NBA sidelines

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  Draymond Green #14 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team drives against assistant coach Monty Williams of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Getty Images
3 Comments

Watching Monty Williams back on the court at the USA basketball camp/practices in Las Vegas, you could see he was at home. He’s easily the best 44-year-old defender on the planet — he went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and the rest, was physical, and made them work for buckets. Then he’d instruct. He’s just a natural.

Back in February, Williams’ wife was killed in an auto accident. It devastated the devout family man, in ways it’s hard for us to understand who have never experienced it. He walked away from coaching the rest of the NBA season with the Thunder, and nobody questioned it for a second.

Now, after getting his feet wet with Team USA (where he is an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski), he told Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman he is ready to get back on the sidelines.

“I wouldn’t even think that if I didn’t know, one, my wife would want me to; my kids talk about it all the time. And there have been some things that have happened in my life lately that have allowed me to get that back. I’m so juiced up and ready to get back into it again.”

He is one of the better respected assistant coaches in the league, and a guy who will get another shot at a top spot someday. Soon. Can’t wait to see him back on the sidelines.

Ben Simmons says he plans to work on shooting, handles, getting stronger before camp

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons cheers from the bunch during the first half of the team's NBA summer league basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Associated Press
9 Comments

The leap from college — even high-level college programs — to the NBA can be hard to describe. Now everybody is bigger, longer, and far more athletic — the guy at the end of the bench barely getting any burn was one of the best players on his college team.

Players get their first taste of that at Summer League. The Sixers’ No. 1 pick Ben Simmons looked pretty good when he got that taste, but you can see the development that needs to go on as well.

He’s spending the time between now and the start of training camp working on his shooting and getting stronger, among other things, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com.

“I think just getting in the gym and making sure I’m getting reps up, shooting-wise, dribbling,” Simmons said earlier this week after an appearance at Sixers Camp in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “The weight room as well, making sure I get my strength back and my weight up.”

All good things. Handles and shooting in particular — he’s about to start seeing much better defenders nightly. It’s going to take time, and we’ll see how far he can go, but Simmons unquestionably brings a lot of skill and potential to the table. That he’s putting in the work is a good sign — that was one of the concerns about him heading into the draft.

New GM Bryan Colangelo is going to benefit from Sam Hinkie’s process. So long as he doesn’t screw it up.