The Extra Pass: Why D’Antoni is the right man for the job; plus Sunday’s recaps

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You may consider this curious timing to take up for Mike D’Antoni, considering his Lakers just gave up 137 points at home to a Denver Nuggets team that can best be described as “meh.”

Believe it or not, though, pulling the wool over your eyes isn’t my intention here. Let’s be truthful: D’Antoni’s teams really are awful defensively. In 11 seasons, he’s coached an above-average defense in terms of efficiency just once. His defensive schemes aren’t ever any good, and they likely never will be.

That, understandably, doesn’t sit right with a lot of people. Rarely do below-average defensive teams make the playoffs, let alone go deep in them.

The Los Angeles Lakers, as many of their fans will be quick to remind you of, are all about hanging banners and winning rings. D’Antoni’s track record sure seems to be counter-intuitive to that.

But while we’re being honest here, let’s knock down those expectations a peg. The Lakers weren’t going to win a championship this season. Not with Steve Nash in this condition at 39 years old, not with Kobe Bryant coming off a devastating injury, not with Pau Gasol’s natural decline, and not with Dwight Howard leaving behind no reasonable way to replace his production.

No one was winning anything substantial with this roster – not even the great Phil Jackson, who surely would have a whale of a time coaching Nick Young.

That’s part of the issue with evaluating D’Antoni’s performance this season. What standards should he be held up to? Those set by past coaches and teams far more talented, or ones more in line with reality?

The Lakers have been entertaining, and not solely in just a trainwreck sort of way, as was originally anticipated. This is typically a fun brand of basketball to watch, but more importantly, it’s a style that’s hospitable to star players, Bryant included.

The Lakers move the ball. They feel empowered to take open threes. For the most part, they play pretty unselfish basketball, which is pretty much unheard of considering that nearly everyone on the roster is on an expiring contract and playing for their next job. There are defensive failures, naturally, but what did anyone reasonably expect?

From Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak’s perspective, D’Antoni has probably met his expectations so far this year.

The reclamation project of Kendall Marshall has been a huge success thus far. D’Antoni has a reputation as a point guard whisperer, and maybe it was Kupchak’s confidence in D’Antoni that made giving Marshall a two-year non-guaranteed deal a high-upside play that looks like it’s going to pan out.

That may not seem significant, but it’s a big deal for the Lakers. Most of the players currently on the roster, including Gasol, will be long gone next year. Finding cheap options that can contribute to next year’s team has to be the top priority, so long as we’re going to ignore the white elephants of tanking and taxes.

At least in that sense, D’Antoni is the perfect coach for the Lakers right now. For as unimpressive as his defensive resume is, D’Antoni has a history of unearthing diamonds in the rough. His offensive system can inflate numbers, and in turn, it can inflate the trade value of the players putting up those numbers. That’s important – arguably moreso than wins are at this point.

That won’t stop the pitchforks from being raised, of course. There is a tipping point with D’Antoni that’s been reached multiple times in the past, and bad defense usually reflects worse on a coach than a hapless offense does. There’s a reason D’Antoni has been fired before, and there’s a reason it will likely happen again.

But it shouldn’t happen yet – not so long as D’Antoni is helping to improve the Lakers’ future, one way or another.

-D.J. Foster

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This was the best video of the night — watch J.R. Smith on the left of the screen untie Shawn Marion’s shoe during Dirk Nowitzki’s free throw attempt. Marion plays the entire next possession that way before getting to tie his shoe.

The question on twitter after this… (keep reading)

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Grizzlies 112, Pistons 84: This game was close for the first half (Detroit led by 5 at the break and got good play from their bigs) then the Grizzlies won the second half 61-28 as the Pistons shot just 30.8 percent in the second half and were 1-of-9 from three. The last 24 minutes were everything you feared about the Pistons — Josh Smith taking bad jumpers, Brandon Jennings was 0-of-7, and they didn’t defend. Jon Lauer came off the bench to lead the Grizzlies with 23 points, and a rare shout out this season to Ed Davis (not a good fit in the Grizzlies system most nights) who had 13 points in the fourth quarter to keep this a blow out.

Pacers 82, Cavaliers 78: It wasn’t pretty. To use the Rasheed Wallace classic, both teams played hard. But it wasn’t pretty. This was the kind of game you expect the Pacers to win in the postseason (well, except for the for the lack of crowd noise) — it was a grind-it-out win. They defended and held the Cavaliers to 34.2 percent shooting, or an offensive rating or 89.6 points per 100 possessions. Indiana just couldn’t shoot. Paul George led the Pacers with 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting, while Roy Hibbert had 15 points (on 12 shots).

Heat 102, Raptors 97: Moral victories suck, but Toronto should take this as one — they looked like the third best team in the East right now (which they are) and led entering the fourth quarter. Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and outplayed Chris Bosh for most of the night. DeMar DeRozan looked like an All-Star with 26 points and 7 assists, but he wore down in the fourth. That’s when LeBron James played like the LeBron James you expect — 10 of his 30 points came in the fourth quarter. Once again Beasley was key with 17 points off the bench, he’s becoming a real weapon.

Warriors 112, Wizards 96: Make that nine wins in a row for Golden State, the last five on the road. This one was tied at the half, but the Wizards have had some rough third quarters recently and the Warriors took advantage this time. Golden State started the second half on a 19-3 run and they led comfortably the rest of the way, shooting 50.3 percent on the night. The Warriors were led by 26 points from Klay Thompson, while David Lee had 21 points and 11 boards (10 of his points came in the key third quarter). John Wall had a strong first half but wasn’t a factor in the second and finished with 14 points (tied for most on the Wizards) on 11 shots.

Thunder 119, Celtics 96: It was the second night of a back-to-back after a tough game against Minnesota, yet this was the best the Thunder have looked in a week. You can thank Reggie Jackson for that, as he had a career high 27 points and played with a lot of confidence from the start (he opened the game 4-of-4 shooting). He seems to be growing into the role of starter with Russell Westbrook out. Boston got 19 a piece from Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, but this one was never close. Kevin Durant had 21 and never got off the bench in the fourth quarter.

Knicks 92, Mavericks 80: Dirk Nowitzki was right, Dallas didn’t look like a playoff team in this game. They looked flat. Even without an ill Tyson Chandler New York took the lead with a 21-5 run in the first quarter and held that the rest of the way, fighting back each Mavericks’ run. While Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 19 points it was the seven points late in the fourth quarter from Iman Shumpert that sealed the win the win. Dallas got 18 out of Nowitzki but the team scored just 35 points in the first half and seemed uninspired.

Nuggets 137, Lakers 115: Fast paced, high scoring, this was a little bit of a throwback to a 1985 Lakers/Nuggets game. Except much more sloppy. Denver took control of this game in the third quarter with a 17-2 run sparked by Ty Lawson (20 points on the night) and they got strong play off the bench with from Timofey Mozgov (who also had 20). Brian Shaw needs to play Mozgov and Kenneth Faried together more. On the other side, the Lakers continue to get good play out of Kendall Marshall — he had 17 assists and when he sat the Lakers offense loses all structure.

—Kurt Helin

Report: Atlanta in negotiations to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk as Hawks GM

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The Atlanta Hawks brought in some big names — Chauncey Billups most recently, they thought about Brent Barry, they took a swing at Portland GM Neil Olshey — but in the end, they went with the guy who has paid his dues, comes from a great team culture, and someone who deserves a shot. In short, they made the right play.

The Hawks are in talks to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk to take over the big chair in Atlanta, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Atlanta Hawks are working on a contract agreement to hire Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk as general manager, league sources told The Vertical. Barring any unforeseen snags, a deal could be completed as soon as Wednesday, league sources told The Vertical….

Schlenk has spent 12 years in the Warriors’ front office, including the past five as assistant GM under Bob Myers.

The position was available because Mike Budenholzer has stepped away from the coach and GM role with the team over a disagreement about direction. Now that direction question falls on Schlenk’s shoulders: Paul Millsap is a free agent this summer, should the Hawks re-sign him to a max deal and likely be a 4-6 seed for the foreseeable future, a good but not great team, or start the rebuild now? What to do about Dwight Howard and the two-years, $47.3 million he is owed? How much do they want to pay Tim Hardaway Jr., he is a restricted free agent?

Schlenk is a quality hire, a guy respected around the league who should make well thought out decisions. But he walks right into a room of tough decisions.

Report: Timberwolves, maybe Spurs have interest in Derrick Rose as a free agent

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The one thing we know about Derrick Rose‘s free agency this summer is that he will not return to the Knicks. After that, things are wide open. He and his agent say winning is what matters, and Rose can play off the ball (despite his iffy jumper), but will he accept less money and a lesser (maybe sixth man) role to be on a winning team?

The teams looking at him this summer seem to have a backup point guard role in mind, at least based on a report from Ian Begley of ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves view Derrick Rose as a potential free-agent target this summer, league sources told ESPN…

Rose, the 2011 MVP, has a strong relationship with Timberwolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau; he played for five seasons under Thibodeau with the Chicago Bulls…

It is unclear at this point which other outside teams besides the Timberwolves view Rose as a potential free-agent target. Some rival executives believe the San Antonio Spurs may have interest in Rose, depending on how the free-agent market for point guards develops.

In both cases, Rose would be the backup asked to bring scoring off the bench. In Minnesota, Ricky Rubio played the best ball of his career after the All-Star break and Tom Thibodeau will ride that (and Rubio’s quality defense) into next season. However, Kris Dunn has not panned out as a backup and Rose could be a good fit there.

In San Antonio, the point guard spot is more fluid. Tony Parker has a career-threatening injury suffered in the playoffs, and Patty Mills is a free agent. While there are rumors about them chasing Chris Paul, to do that would require a gutting of the roster (moving Pau Gasol and Parker for no money back, plus letting guys such as Mills and Dewayne Dedmon go for nothing) and there would be no money left for a guy like Rose. However, that scenario is unlikely, and if the Spurs bring Mills back Rose could make a good backup.

The question is money. Rose can still get buckets, he averaged 18 a game last season plus 4.4 assists, and he may be due a salary into the eight-figure range. But will a team pay that? And for how many years? San Antonio, if it keeps Gasol and Mills, would basically have the mid-level exception at a little more than $8 million a season. Minnesota may not offer much more. The teams willing to offer more money and a larger role to Rose are likely not ones on a deep playoff track (or maybe making the playoffs at all).

The market for Rose will be interesting, and maybe not as robust as he imagines. It will come down to what his priorities truly are.

Rumor: “Rumblings” Chris Paul has interest in San Antonio Spurs

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We were robbed of the chance to see exactly how the San Antonio Spurs match up with the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, and you can direct your blame at Zaza Pachulia. But even if Kawhi Leonard were healthy, San Antonio could use another distributor and shot creator on the perimeter, someone to replace what Tony Parker used to bring them.

How about Chris Paul?

That rumor has been circulating for a while, that the Clippers’ free agent guard wants to win and sees a path to a ring through Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. ESPN’s well-connected Zach Lowe confirmed that during a recent Lowe Post Podcast.

“There’s been a lot of rumblings about Chris Paul, and I think that’s real,” Lowe says. “I think there’s mutual interest there. I don’t know how real it is given the Clippers can offer a gigantic amount of money and are also a really good team; and the Spurs, like I said, have no sort of cap flexibility to get there. I’m very curious about what they do this summer and who’s on the team next year.”

It’s easy to see the logic of a path to winning there, and it’s easy to understand why the Spurs would want to go this route. CP3 is the best floor general in the game, he can shoot the three, and he’s still a strong defender at the position. Go to the Spurs and he makes bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol look better, he gets rest for his aging body, and he gets to chase a ring.

Don’t bet on it happening, however, and the reason is money.

Paul was head of the players’ union during the negotiation of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 and a new provision in that CBA is that the over 36 rule — limiting max contracts for guys who turned 36 during the deal — will become the over 38 rule. Why? Because it gives Chris Paul one more five-year max contract from the Clippers. Are you going to go through all the hassle of changing the CBA then walk away from that money?

The only way San Antonio could get near max cap space would be to shed the salaries of Pau Gasol — $16 million next season, and he has said he’s opting in — and Tony Parker, plus just let Patty Mills walk as well as guys likeDewayne Dedmon. The Spurs may be willing to do this, but to trade Gasol and bring no salary back is going to require serious sweeteners in the deal (picks or young players). And it would be very un-Spurs to coldly let Tony Parker go for a cap-space move — Popovich is not Bill Belichick.

In reality, the Spurs would need to get CP3 to take less, and I’m not sold he will do that. Paul will take the meeting, he will talk to a number of teams this summer, but in the end expect him to take the payday and re-sign with the Clippers (maybe giving himself an opt-out after three or four years in case he then wants to ring chase elsewhere).

 

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Will Lonzo Ball justify LaVar Ball’s hype? Does he fit on the Lakers?

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Lonzo Ball is unlike anything that we’ve seen come through the college ranks in recent years.

It’s not simply that he’s a 6-foot-6 point guard with range out to 30 feet on his jump shot and court vision that is probably more aptly described as radar. Lonzo is the son of LaVar Ball, who has become a viral sensation and a quasi-celebrity due to the nature of the way the media operates today and his desire to turn the Ball family into an athletic apparel brand.

Put another way, the circus surrounding Lonzo isn’t just a result of him being the closest thing we’ve seen to Jason Kidd since he was torching Pac-12 defenses with Cal back in the early-90s.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion about Lonzo’s potential has a pro has been dominated by whether or not LaVar is too involved in his son’s life, because the conversation about whether or not the oldest of the three Ball kids can transform an NBA team the way that he’s transformed his high school and college teams is far more intriguing, and frankly, more relevant.

Lonzo’s strengths are elite in every sense of the word. But he has some pronounced weaknesses that, at the very least, make you wonder if the team he ends up on will have to tailor their roster to cover those holes.

What kind of a pro will Ball end up being?

Height: 6′6″
Weight: 190
Wingspan: 6′9″
2016-17 Stats: 14.6 points, 6.0 boards, 7.6 assists, 73.2% 2PT, 41.2% 3PT

STRENGTHS: What Lonzo Ball does well he does at an absolutely elite level, and you can’t talk about Ball without first mentioning his unbelievable skill in transition.

It starts with his ability to get from one end of the floor to the other. He isn’t the quickest or most explosive guard in this draft, but once he hits his top gear, he can run away from the defense; 30 percent of his offense, according to Synergy, came in transition possessions. He creates transition opportunities himself. He not only runs on turnovers or off of an outlet, he’ll go and grab a defensive rebound himself and lead the break. This not only creates layups for himself, where, at 6-foot-6, he can finish at or above the rim with either hand, but it puts pressure on the defense to stop the ball. He also runs hard without the ball, and his size and athleticism allows him to be a lob target in transition.

As good as Ball is going running, he’s even better passing the ball in transition. It’s incredibly entertaining to watch. His vision and understanding of where his teammates are going to be is on another level — his basketball IQ is off-the-charts — and he is able to vary the angle, the height or the hand that he passes with in order to get the ball where it needs to go. He’s a quick, decisive and creative decision-maker with the size to see over the defense and accuracy that would make Aaron Rodgers jealous.

It’s not just in transition where he has that kind of success. He can make just about any pass you need to make coming off of a ball-screen — a big popping, a big rolling to the rim, same-side shooters, weak-side shooters. Again, his size here is an incredible advantage, allowing him not only to see over the defense but to make passes over the defense.

His unselfishness permeates a team. His teammates fill lanes and run to spot-up because they know he’ll reward them for doing it. They make the extra pass because they know the ball will eventually find its way back to them. It’s contagious, and it starts with Ball.

As a scorer, he does have some limitations — we’ll get to that — but the things he does well he’s very good at. It starts with his three-point shooting, where he has range well beyond the NBA three-point line, either off the catch, off the dribble or off of a vicious step-back jumper that was borderline-unstoppable in college. He shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, many of those from out to 30 feet. He also shot 73.2 percent from inside the arc, which speaks to his effectiveness at getting to, and finishing at, the rim; Ball only attempted 13 shots inside the arc that weren’t layups or dunks, as he’s a very good straight line driver going right.

Ball is also better moving off the ball than he gets credit for. He can run off of screens and bury threes off the catch or off of a one-dribble pull-up, and his size and ability to make back-door cuts made him a lob target for UCLA this past season.

Defensively, Ball must add strength to his frame, but he proved to be a pretty effective defender one-on-one when he was actually engaged on that end. His physical tools, his anticipation and his basketball IQ make him a dangerous defensive playmaker as well, and that should carry over to the next level as well.

WEAKNESSES: What Ball does well he does as well as anyone that we see at the college level, but his struggles are just as glaring as his strengths are obvious, and it all stems around one, simple question: Will Ball be able to create offense in a half-court setting?

The biggest issue is his jump shot. When he’s knocking down threes, be it off the catch or off of that deadly step-back, he’s bring the ball all the way over to the left side of his body and his feet are pointing well off to the left of the rim. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, this isn’t all that much of an issue — there are shooting coaches that will teach players to have a slight turn; watch Stephen Curry‘s feet when he shoots threes — and when Ball shoots his step-back, his feet are naturally going to be angled in that direction.

The trouble comes when he’s attempting to pull-up, particularly when he is going to his right. His feet are out of whack and he has to bring the ball all the way to the other side of his body, which is part of the reason Ball appears to fumble with the ball quite often when shooting off the dribble. As a result, Ball essentially has no mid-range game. On the season, Ball made 189 field goals: 80 of them were threes, 102 of them were layups or dunks and only seven were either floaters or two-point jumpers.

This issue is also evident when he shoots free throws, as his toes are pointed directly at the rim. That’s why a guy that shoots 73 percent from two and 41 percent from three makes just 67 percent of his free throws.

Ball’s other issue is in the pick-and-roll, where he never proved to be much of a scoring threat. There were just 49 pick-and-roll possessions all season where Ball wasn’t a passer — for comparison’s sake, Markelle Fultz had 184 while playing 11 fewer games — and he turned the ball over on 32 percent of them. He had nearly three times as many pick-and-roll possessions as a passer, and all of 33 possessions in isolation.

The result is that Ball is entirely too predictable in the half court. If he’s getting a ball-screen, he’s going to be a passer three out of four times. If he’s going right, he’s going all the way to the rim. If he’s going left, you know it’s going to be a pull-up. Throw in questions about whether or not he has the first-step to turn the corner at the next level, and there are certainly legitimate concerns about his effectiveness against NBA defenders.

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Matt York)

NBA COMPARISON: Jason Kidd is the obvious one, and it mostly works. Both are big guards with unbelievable court vision and an unselfishness that permeates a team. Both are average athletes by NBA standards. Both thrive in transition. Both make a lot of threes — Kidd is eighth all-time in three-pointers made — even if there are questions about how good, or effective, they are as shooters. All that left is to find out whether or not Ball can put together a Hall of Fame career, or if he can sell signature shoes, like Kidd.

OUTLOOK: Ball is going to end up being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 2 pick. We can pretend like there is going to be drama here, like Magic Johnson is going to look at a big point guard, a local kid, with an innate ability to lead the break and see anything other than himself and the reincarnation of the Showtime Lakers, but that would be a waste of time.

What that means is that Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will be teamed up with D'Angelo Russell, a point guard that was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft, and Brandon Ingram, a wing that was the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.

And, frankly, I think that works. What Russell and Ingram do well make up for where Ball struggles. Russell operates in the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler in the half court. Ingram is an isolation scorer that shot better than 41 percent from three in his one season at Duke. If Ball struggles to create in half court settings, he can act as a floor-spacer thanks to his ability in catch-and-shoot actions.

That’s before you consider that Luke Walton, the second-year head coach of the Lakers, spent two seasons as an assistant — one of which where he spent half of the season as the interim head coach — with the Warriors, and the offense UCLA ran this year, one heavy on spacing, ball-movement and player movement, is quite similar to what the Warriors run.

Put another way, on paper, Los Angeles looks like the perfect place for Ball, a exquisitely skilled albeit flawed prospect, to end up.