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.

Draft is next up during NBA’s dizzying days of deals

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NEW YORK (AP) — Markelle Fultz is ready for the NBA draft. He’s already learned about life at the trade deadline.

During a dizzying few days of deals around the NBA, the presumed No. 1 pick had his Saturday plans – not to mention his future destination – change when the Philadelphia 76ers brought him in for a workout. They then completed a trade with the Boston Celtics and are expected to take the Washington guard to begin the action Thursday night.

And if the last few days are indication, what follows might be a wild night inside Barclays Center.

“It’s been a little crazy last couple days,” Duke forward Jayson Tatum said Wednesday.

Teams seem to have one eye on the draft and future stars like Fultz and Lonzo Ball, while the other is firmly focused on jockeying for proven veterans. Former and future No. 1 picks have already been dealt this week in what feels like the trade deadline, free agency and draft all rolled into one frenzy.

“It just shows you what the NBA is about. I mean, you can get traded in the blink of an eye, without knowing,” Fultz said. “It just shows you how this business is and like I said, I just go with the flow. I’ve got an opportunity to play basketball and that’s all I ask for.”

Though Fultz heads what’s widely regarded as a strong draft class, the young stars have had to share the spotlight this week with veterans who are – or could be – on the move. All-Stars and Olympic champions such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler are front and center in trade talk that usually isn’t this heavy until February. Dwight Howard was dealt and D'Angelo Russell – who just two years ago was on the same stage the players will walk Thursday as the No. 2 pick – was dealt by the Los Angeles Lakers, presumably to clear the point guard spot for Ball and salary cap space for the future.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of crazy things. They’ve been coming through my phone with the ESPN app,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said.

“I knew right before the draft something crazy was going to happen. It happens almost every year, so I wasn’t shocked about it.”

Things are expected to settle down a bit for at least the first two picks. The 76ers, selecting first for the second straight year, should take Fultz before Magic Johnson takes Ball with the Lakers again in the No. 2 spot, which is exactly what the UCLA guard and his father, LaVar, want.

“It would mean a lot to play for my hometown and learn from the best point guard ever,” Ball said.

From there it could be Tatum, Josh Jackson of Kansas, Kentucky’s De'Aaron Fox or some other player in the mix at No. 3, where the Celtics will now pick after the deal with the 76ers. Celtics President Danny Ainge said after making the trade he thought he could get the player he wanted two spots lower.

“It’s a very loaded class and I feel like especially whichever guys go at the top four, five, there may not be that much separation between (them) because everybody’s just so talented,” Tatum said.

Many of them, as usual lately, are freshmen. A record 14 were taken in the first round of last year’s draft and that number should be threatened Thursday. The Sacramento Kings have two top-10 picks, while NBA champion Golden State and runner-up Cleveland have none in the first round.

Teams chasing those two squads may make up ground quickest with a veteran player they can only get through free agency or a trade, so that may have to wait until July.

But they should be able to find someone good Thursday.

“This, I think, has a chance to be a historic draft,” Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Scott Layden said. “You look at the top end of the draft and I think there’s a chance that there’s going to be a lot of very good players, but it also runs deep into the late first round. I think that’s why there will be a lot of activity at this draft, because I think teams see potential to get a great player.”

 

Report: Cavaliers offer Chauncey Billups job running front office

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Not quite the news Ice Cube broke, but the Cavaliers are a step closer to hiring Chauncey Billups.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

Owner Dan Gilbert has offered Chauncey Billups a five-year contract to head up the Cavaliers front office, but Billups has yet to accept, sources with knowledge of the talks told The Athletic.

Billups has long desired a front-office after retiring as a player. It’d be difficult to find a more exciting opportunity.

The job comes with potential peril. LeBron James could leave in 2018, Gilbert isn’t always a treat to work for.

But the Cavs are championship contenders right now, Billups – with a little tweaking and, given the Warriors’ dominance, luck – could deliver Cleveland a title next year. Connect with LeBron and convince him to stay, and Billups could keep the window open a while longer.

Billups never shied from pressure as a player. Will he again embrace it as an executive?

Steve Kerr on Warriors visiting White House: ‘It might be a good statement for us to go’

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Steve Kerr reportedly stated in November a plan to decline an invitation to Donald Trump’s White House if the Warriors won a title.

Now that Golden State won the 2017 championship and players are talking about not going to the White House, Kerr is striking a different tone.

Kerr on The TK Show:

The biggest thing, for me, is it’s about the players. This is a visit that is about the team. We have not met about it, because we haven’t been invited.

But I would want to make sure the players gave this really a lot of thought. And everybody knows I’ve been a very outspoken critic of Trump, and as a result, maybe we won’t even get the invitation. But I do think it’s very important to consider a potential invitation because I think it could have really positive ramifications if we did go.

And it’s a different way to look at it. I, like many of our players, am very offended by some of Trump’s words and actions. On the other hand, I do think there’s something to respecting the office, respecting our institutions, our government. And I think it could make a statement in a time where there’s so much divide and everybody seems to be angry with each other. It might be a good statement for us to go and to show that, hey, let’s put this aside, put all this partisan stuff aside and personal stuff aside, respect the institution.

And maybe even if one of you players wants to voice your concerns over what’s happening, what better opportunity to do so? Now, that may be incredibly idealistic. But I would want to at least bring that up with our players as an option rather than just coming out and saying, “No way. I’m not going.”

Among Kerr’s mistakes:

  • Implying that his players haven’t already considered the positives of visiting the White House before reaching their conclusions
  • Believing the Warriors visiting the White House would be significant enough to reduce partisanship
  • Thinking Trump has any interest in hearing comments that challenge his worldview

Phil Jackson: Carmelo Anthony said he prefers to stay with Knicks

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Knicks president Phil Jackson said Carmelo Anthonywould be better off somewhere else.”

That drew a huge uproar – from the players’ union with a statement, from Kristaps Porzingis with a skipped exit meeting, from other players with leaked discontent.

From practically everyone but Anthony himself.

But Jackson revealed the response of Anthony, who holds a no-trade clause.

Jackson on MSG Network:

Here’s a guy that’s really special, Hall of Fame player who’s done a lot for our organization. We know that we value him highly, and we know that the NBA does, and other teams do.

This is something that is on the long-term kind of situational thing. We’ve expressed the fact that – we’ve done a lot of things to try to put teams together than can win, and we haven’t been successful. And it might be time for him to find an opportunity to go somewhere else. He’s come back and said he’d just as soon stay.

We’re trying to start growing from the youth aspect of it. There will be conversations after the draft and after the free agency, as teams start reorganizing their rosters. So, there will be other conversations in the process.

I don’t know whether it sounds phonier for Jackson to talk up Anthony’s value to the Knicks or to the rest of the league. If Anthony were so valuable to the Knicks, they wouldn’t be trying to trade him – especially because he’ll return so little. He’s 33 and due more than $54 million over the next two years. Potential trade partners know its a closed market, Anthony’s ability to pick his destination through his no-trade clause eliminating desperate losing teams in small markets.

Resisting a trade is the same approach Anthony took before the trade deadline. Apparently, according to Jackson, Anthony hasn’t changed his stance – and that’s what matters.

Anthony controls this process.

Good luck changing his mind, Phil.