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.

Kevin Durant: Kyrie Irving-LeBron James situation ‘just a regular NBA problem’

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Kevin Durant knows something about star teammates not always getting along.

So, the Warriors forward is not freaking out about the disconnect between Kyrie Irving and LeBron James and Irving’s subsequent trade request.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“It’s just a regular NBA problem, right? A lot of teams have gone through this before,” Durant told ESPN. “They’ll figure it out. That’s a great organization, a championship organization. They’ll figure it out.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Durant said. “Both of those guys won a championship together. They love each other. If Kyrie wants to do something else, that’s on him. I’m sure whatever happens, it’ll work out for the best for both of them. But it’s just a normal NBA problem. It’s just two big stars that it’s happening to.”

Durant is definitely right in the larger sense. Teammates spat and requests trades more often than we realize. Remember, both Irving and the Cavaliers probably prefer this never became public.

But I’m not sure Cleveland will figure this out with the ease Durant suggests. David Griffin, who had proven so adept at putting out these fires, is gone. LeBron’s free agency looms. This could be extremely destructive to the Cavs.

The fact that this “regular NBA problem” became public only intensifies it – and raises it something greater.

Report: Heat signing Jordan Mickey

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Jordan Mickey – the No. 33 pick by the Celtics in 2015 – became the first second-round pick in memory to sign the year he was drafted and receive a higher initial salary than first-round picks.

He’s keeping the checks coming.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Mickey will be the Heat’s 16th player with a standard contract, though Matt Williams (unguaranteed) will likely be waived to meet the regular-season roster limit.

I’m not sure where Mickey fits on this team, which already has several bigs. Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk will likely play ahead of him. Miami also has A.J. Hammons (who might be just dead salary) and Udonis Haslem (who might provide nothing more than veteran leadership).

The Heat could just see Mickey as someone they can develop. At that point, how he fits into the current roster doesn’t really matter.

Mickey – 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan – is a mobile defender with nice timing for blocking shots inside. He even possesses a work-in-progress 3-pointer in his arsenal. There’s plenty for Miami to help mold.

Russell Westbrook wins union’s Players Voice MVP

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The players union released its long-anticipated long-overdue awards, and there are some doozies. First of all, I still can’t figure out what Chris Bosh – who was announced as the “host” of the Twitter-released awards – has to do with this. But let’s get to the actual winners.

Here are the major awards, with the traditional award/Players Voice equivalent:

No surprise Westbrook won both MVPs. He deserved them. Still, James Harden could’ve hoped for a split result like in 2015, when Stephen Curry won actual MVP and Harden won the players’ version.

There’s obviously slight differences in the other categories. I think Green had the best defensive season and deservedly won Defensive Player of the Year, but I also think Leonard is the NBA’s best defender and therefore deserved this honor. I would’ve picked Andre Iguodala for Best off the Bench (and Sixth Man of the Year, for what it’s worth), though that’s a minor quibble. But how on earth did Joel Embiid not win Best Rookie? He was the best rookie in years, let alone this season. I picked Brogdon for Rookie of the Year based on his overall contributions in far more playing time, but there should have been no question about the best rookie.

The union also released several awards without a corresponding NBA honor:

  • Comeback Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
  • Hardest to Guard: Russell Westbrook
  • Clutch Performer: Isaiah Thomas
  • Global Impact: LeBron James
  • Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team: LeBron James
  • Most Influential Veteran: Vince Carter
  • Best Dressed: Russell Westbrook
  • Best Social Media Follow: Joel Embiid
  • Coach You’d Most Like to Play For: Gregg Popovich
  • Best Home Court Advantage: Warriors

LeBron winning Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team has to be an implicit slap in the face to Kyrie Irving. I’m glad to see Thomas and Carter deservedly recognized.

Lastly, the union awarded a Teammate of the Year on each team:

Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA’s Teammate of the Year – which is voted on by current players after a panel of former players selects nominees – then didn’t even win for his own team here? That’s just weird.

76ers take 1 big step (and a couple smaller ones, too)

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Even the NBA’s worst team has only a 25% chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery.

The 76ers made their own luck.

Philadelphia finished with the league’s fourth-worst record, fell to No. 5 in the lottery, swapped picks with the Kings to move up to No. 3 thanks to a two-year-old trade then traded up to No. 1 by enticing the Celtics with a future draft pick (another pick acquired in that heist of Sacramento, a Lakers pick or one of the 76ers’ own).

Whew, that’s some Process.

No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is the latest prize in the 76ers’ reverse engineering of the NBA’s system, joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That’s an exciting young core that might be ready to lift Philadelphia from years of tanking to playoff contention.

To that end, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. The 33-year-old has already shown signs of decline, but he’s an upgrade over any shooting guard on the roster. If their other young players are ready to make the leap, the 76ers didn’t want to learn the hard way they were a starting shooting guard short of reaching the postseason. In securing an immediate boost, Philadelphia essentially paid extra for flexibility. Redick’s salary will almost certainly outpace his production, the 76ers ensured no lasting negative effects beyond this season.

The same logic could apply to Amir Johnson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract. But Philadelphia’s frontcourt depth and the dreary market for bigs make that deal less defensible – especially if Johnson’s salary could have been reappropriated for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent) or paying Robert Covington more up front (as opposed to in future seasons, when the savings might matter more) in a renegotiation-and-extension.

With about $15 million in cap space remaining, the 76ers will likely still renegotiate-and-extend Covington once they can in November. He fits well into a deep crop of solid assets beyond the big three: Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Furkan Korkmaz (the No. 26 pick last year who signed this year), all Philadelphia’s own future first-rounders plus one extra (from either the Kings or Lakers – or both, if if Philadelphia’s own pick is conveyed to Boston). The 76ers even added to the pool this summer with a couple draft-and-stash selections – No. 25 pick Anzejs Pasecniks and No. 36 pick Jonah Bolden (who I’m personally quite high on).

That grouping alone would be envy of many teams. And then there are still Embiid, Simmons and Fultz – the trio that will determine how quickly the brighter days ahead arrive in Philadelphia.

The 76ers’ revival is built on Embiid’s back – and feet and knees. He could be a generational player, but injuries have already cost him 215 games in three years and limited him to just 25 minutes per game in the 31 he has played.

Though it’s the one that looms far beyond, Embiid’s health isn’t the only potential pitfall this season. Rookie point guards – whether it be Fultz or Simmons – rarely lead good teams. It’s a position that typically requires fine-tuning.

Still, this is just the start in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs this season would be nice, but bigger goals down the road appear attainable either way.

The 76ers were in great shape entering the summer. They’re in even better shape now.

Offseason grade: B