The Inbounds: The Pierre-Bargnani Defensive Mirror

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Some of you will be aware of this, but for those of you aren’t, let me catch you up real quick. You know how Andrea Bargnani has this reputation as being the very definition of a horrible defender? It’s not entirely a fictional archetype, but it’s also not really so much in love with the truth that the two have announced the relationship on Facebook. Synergy Sports ranked Bargnani in the 88th percentile in post defense on a per-possession basis, and the 56th percentile in isolation defense last season (with a gaudy 95th percentile overall). It wasn’t all Dwane Casey’s wizardry last season (though his work with Bargnani’s defense should not be ignored, but we’ll get there. In 2011, he was 47th percentile in post and 83rd percentile in isolation. 2010? 72nd percentile in the post, 28th in isolation. Bear in mind these numbers are regardless of the number of possessions, so someone that defended in the post once successfully logs in at the top of the chart. So basically, he’s even better than these numbers indicate, relative to his position.

But as so many people that don’t understand nuance, statistics, or empirical information suggest, “numbers don’t tell the whole story.” It’s easy to say that, but what about who he was guarding, etc. Unfortunately, if you have too much time on your hands, as I have over the past four years, you can actually watch the game video and discover that, whoops, often Bargnani was actually defending the better offensive threat due to his raw height. Surprise! Andrea Bargnani is a pretty good man defender. Let your world shake into a new comfort. Even with the problems afforded Synergy and the metrics used in that glorious environment, it’s impossible to deny that Bargnani at least does a decent job of distracting the guy he’s matched up with into missing his shot a lot of the time.

But notice I said “man defender” there and not “defender.” Because the reason Bargnani has so consistently been set aflame by Twitter, bloggers, and your average Raptors fan is because he is, at his heart, an absolutely atrocious help defender. He never crowds the lane on perimeter penetration. He doesn’t nail the weakside block. He fails to rotate the first time, much less the second, and too often is already out of position for a rebound when the ball is in the air. There’s a lot to dislike.

Modern NBA defensive criticism is interesting because it specifically targets centers with fault for failing to cover for the mistakes of their teammates. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why is it Andrea Barganani’s fault that Jose Calderon can’t contain perimeter penetration? Why should Bargnani have to clean up the mess for DeMar DeRozan? No one’s blasting wing defenders for not committing to the double team when Bargnani’s outmatched. This isn’t to suggest Bargnani’s victimized, it’s fair criticism. It’s just worth noting that for a fanbase that tends to lean towards traditional models of personal responsibility, we hold centers culpable for the wellbeing of the entire defensive state. They’re supposed to raise themselves up by the bootstraps and take care of their neighbor, so to speak.

And in another way, it’s hard to fault Bargnani for the thought process. He’s essentially torched because he fails to abandon the man he’s been tasked with keeping from scoring.  Think about that. He’s a bad defender because he carries out his assignment too much (while failing to execute other assignments that, depending on the time, have a greater priority). That, again, seems contradictory to our model of what we hold one another too. But it’s how it is, and when you consider the essential manner each defender is dependent on every other, the criticism rings true.

So what does Bargnani need to do this next season to make the major leap forward he started last season prior to injury? He needs to emulate JaVale McGee. And McGee needs to be like the seven-foot Italian. McGee is a block machine. He’s able to swat nearly any shot out of the air, even hooks from seven footers. He can alter any possession with his athleticism, and has great timing when he manages to channel his boundless energy into a significant play.

He also has defensive ADD. He sees the rabbit and dives after it, despite the electronic collar. He’s always chasing the weakside block. Too often he goes to close on a driving player who has been successfully corralled by a teammate, only to lose his man who sneaks weakside for the dump-off score. He’s chasing the bunny rabbit and loses the buck behind him.

So Bargnani is hammered for not helping his teammates enough, and McGee is hammered because he abandons his responsibility in pursuit of helping those same teammates too often.

But for each, it may mean something different. McGee speaks of wanting to lead the league in blocks. If you have the ability to defend the shot, even if your teammate has it well covered and the player is unlikely to convert, how can you not swat that thing? If you have your guy locked down, why are you worried about what someone else was or was not able to do?

We’ve seen over the past four-to-six years a familiar trend from the past reasserting itself. Older big men are blossoming. It’s really 26-plus when players come into their own. Because nowadays, system defense is what matters, what makes an impact, and that takes time to add to a skillset. Bargnani is 26. McGee is 24. To make the adjustments they need to reach the next level, it means letting go of their own personal concepts of right and wrong defensively, and playing as one cog in a greater system. The singular great defensive player is gone, even Tyson Chandler relies on teammates funneling players to where he can achieve.

If the two hyper-long freak athletes are going to fulfill their potential, they have to recognize the value of what’s on the other side of the mirror. It’s not a skill question, an ability question, or toughness question. It’s just bout understanding the big picture and being able to bridge those gaps in knowledge. If they can, the big men in the league could be in for a jolt. Defense has evolved from checkers to chess, and next season represents a chance for the young players to learn the game they’ve been fumbling through for years.

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.