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.

Thunder give P.J. Dozier No. 35, Kevin Durant’s old number

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The Thunder signed P.J. Dozier, who went undrafted out of South Carolina, to a seemingly innocuous two-way contract.

Then, they let him pick No. 35 – previously worn by Kevin Durant.

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

Honoring Reggie Lewis seems like a valid reason for Dozier, who probably didn’t want to get swept into what has become a minor controversy.

Personally, I don’t mind a player wearing any unretired number. Even numbers that will clearly be retired can be fair game until the jersey goes into the rafters. This is a non-issue to me.

But people care about this stuff. Many see it as a sign of disrespect to Durant, who left Oklahoma City on bad terms when signing with the Warriors. The Thunder lose deniability about not caring, considering they told Dion Waiters he couldn’t wear No. 13, which was previously worn by James Harden.

Will Oklahoma City eventually retire Durant’s No. 35? He spent a fantastic eight years there (and another season with the Seattle SuperSonics before they moved). Time will ease the bitterness of his exit. It’s certainly possible he’s honored that way.

In the meantime, let Dozier wear No. 35 in peace. It should have nothing to do with Durant.

Cornrowed Joel Embiid calls minute limit f—ing BS

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76ers center Joel Embiid made clear yesterday he disliked the minute restriction placed on him, which Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said would keep Embiid below 20 minutes per game.

Today, sporting a new hairstyle, Embiid upped the rhetoric.

Embiid, via Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“That’s f—ing BS,” he said after practice Tuesday. “I wish I was playing more minutes. I think I’m ready for more than I don’t know whatever number they have.”

“I think the concept of minute restrictions is kind of complicated,” Embiid said. “I don’t think there should ever be minute restrictions. I think it should always be about how my body feels and how it’s reacting.”

“They know that I’m frustrated, but once again you’ve got to trust the doctors,” Embiid said. “They care about me. It’s all about the long-term view.”

“Like I always say,” he said, “you’ve got to trust the process.”

We’ve been here before – an injury-prone Philadelphia center rocking cornrows (at least Embiid went all the way with them) and Embiid lashing out at his minute limit.

Embiid is incredibly competitive, and he can’t just turn it off. It’s an attribute that contributes to his on-court excellence.

Embiid appears to have just enough trust-the-process perspective here, but Brown will also likely have his hands full keeping Embiid from getting too frustrated throughout the season.

At least Embiid has his contract extension and isn’t restless to get on the court and earn his big payday.

LeBron James game-time decision for Cavaliers-Celtics opener

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James may miss Cleveland’s opener Tuesday night against Boston because of a sprained left ankle.

James injured his ankle in practice on Sept. 27 and played in just one exhibition game. He participated in the team’s morning shootaround, and a team spokesman said it will be a game-time decision whether he faces the Celtics. James is officially listed as questionable.

James took some outside shots but did very little lateral movement when the media was permitted to watch the Cavs work out.

It’s hard to imagine James missing the first opener of his career and a chance to play against former teammate Kyrie Irving, who was traded this summer to Boston after telling Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out. James and Irving had a sometimes rocky relationship during three seasons together, but they made it to three straight NBA Finals and won the title in 2016.

 

Why did Kyrie Irving request trade from Cavaliers? ‘I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do’

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Kyrie Irving said he requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he wanted to be happy and maximize his potential.

But why did he feel that couldn’t happen in Cleveland?

Irving hasn’t come close to directly answering that question, saying things like, “My intent, like I said, was for my best intentions.” Returning to Cleveland with the Celtics, Irving was again pressed to explain.

Irving, via MassLive:

Going forward, I kind of wanted to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to figure out and dive in and continue to dive into a narrative that they have no idea about and that probably will never, ever be divulged, because it’s not important. This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward. I don’t want to pinpoint anything. I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do. They continue to move on with their life and and continue to progress, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Perhaps, Irving is just following Dwyane Wade‘s advice and taking the high road. But that won’t ease our collective curiosity. Fans will continue to speculate about why Irving wanted out, and reporters will continue to dig into it. Reporting and speculation have both centered on LeBron James.

If Irving eventually wants to set the record straight – and he doesn’t sound interested, lending credence to the theory he wanted to leave LeBron behind – everyone will be all ears.