D.J. Foster

The Extra Pass: Five observations from the East and Monday’s recaps

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After a busy Monday night in the NBA, let’s swing around the Eastern Conference for a few observations.

Indiana: If Roy Hibbert keeps getting that “verticality” respect from officials, it’s goodnight, Irene time for all of the other the Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Look at these numbers:

Per 36 minutes on his career: 2.6 blocks, 4.6 fouls.

Per 36 minutes this season: 5.3 blocks, 2.8 fouls.

Should we just go ahead and mail Hibbert the award now?

Orlando: It’s not very often you see a guard breakout in his 7th year, but all of the sudden Arron Afflalo is scoring like a legitimate first option. How? Location, location, location. Give Jacque Vaughn and the Magic coaching staff credit for posting up Afflalo at the elbow relentlessly, a spot where he’s a handful for defenders because of his size and strength.

Afflalo’s early returns of 19.5 points a game and 4.7 assists are career highs by a long margin, and it’s very clear he looks more comfortable with his back to the basket as opposed to having create off the dribble from 25-feet away. This was a nice adjustment for Afflalo, and it’s a good sign for Orlando’s future that they have a coach in place who is capable of maximizing talent through on-court adjustments.

Atlanta: Al Horford developed great chemistry with Josh Smith in their years together in Atlanta, but Paul Millsap’s presence has allowed Horford to operate out of the high post more than ever, and it’s working beautifully so far.

With Millsap chewing up space in the paint and diving hard to the rim, Horford has had plenty space to unfurl that knockdown 15-footer of his time and time again.

Atlanta’s HORNS set with Jeff Teague at the point, Kyle Korver spacing the floor and Millsap and Horford at each elbow is death for defenses, and it’s a big reason why the Hawks have a top-5 offense to start the season.

Toronto: Someone put a stop to the Rudy Gay/DeMar DeRozan madness. Two ball-stoppers who both like to post-up shouldn’t start on the wing together, particularly when your future franchise building block (Jonas Valanciunas) also happens to be a post player.

I get that it was double-overtime and those situations tend to welcome a lot of hero ball, but my goodness, DeRozan and Gay were a combined 17-for-62 from the field. 17-for-62! How long before poor Valanciunas gets sick of sealing off his man deep in the paint, only for Gay to completely ignore him and clank a long contested two instead? A lesser man would have cracked already.

Detroit: Sound the alarms: Josh Smith has shot 35 3-pointers through five games. That puts him on pace to shoot 574 3-pointers this season. That would be the 16th most 3-pointers attempted in NBA history. Smith, mind you, is a 28.4 percent career 3-point shooter.

I like the concept of zigging while the rest of the league is zagging and loading up on size, but using Smith as a floor-spacing small forward doesn’t end well for you, Detroit.

-D.J. Foster

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Spurs 109, Sixers 85: The Spurs crushed an opponent for the second time in as many days, although this time they did it without Tim Duncan, who got the night off simply to rest. Much like the game against the Knicks on Sunday, San Antonio didn’t leave anything to chance, pouncing on their opponent early and leading by 18 points at the end of the first quarter, which sucked the life out of the inexperienced team they faced which looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The only thing of interest was Gregg Popovich facing his former longtime assistant coach Brett Brown, who is in his first season in Philadelphia. “If you win, you sort of feel bad,” Popovich said. “If you lose, you’re sort of happy for the other guy. Which is also a weird feeling.”

Pacers 95, Grizzlies 79: Indiana improved to a perfect 8-0 on the season after this one, as the starting unit of the Grizzlies simply had no answer offensively for the defense of the Pacers. Memphis managed just 16 points in both the first and third quarters, and along with 23 points and seven rebounds from Paul George and a triple-double effort from Lance Stephenson, the Grizzlies fell to just 3-4 on the season. Roy Hibbert didn’t do much offensively, but was dominant inside on the defensive end in ways that don’t show up in the box score. On the Memphis side, it’s worth wondering if maybe Lionel Hollins wasn’t so easily replaced.

Hawks 103, Bobcats 94: Al Jefferson and head coach Steve Clifford both returned for the Bobcats on monday, but getting outscored 34-18 in the third quarter erased their first half lead and ultimately doomed their chances. Al Horford scored 13 of his 24 points on the night in that fateful period, and Carter Martin finished with 16 points on seven shots in 20 minutes off the bench for the Hawks.

Celtics 120, Magic 105: In the battle of two rebuilding teams, the Celtics simply wanted it more … I guess. This Boston team shouldn’t drop 120 points on anyone, but Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, and Kelly Olynyk led seven Celtics players who finished the night in double figures. Then again, Orlando also had seven players in double figures scoring, but their 18 turnovers and the fact that they allowed Boston to shoot 60 percent from the field for the game meant that they were rewarded with the loss.

Bulls 96, Cavaliers 81: This was billed as the first ever matchup between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but it wasn’t a game that featured either player impacting the final result the way they have proven capable of in the past. Each star point guard finished with 16 points on a low shooting percentage, and the Bulls pulled away late thanks to the positive play of Mike Dunleavy off the bench. Rose sat the last three-plus minutes after appearing to suffer a hamstring injury, but all reports postgame suggested that it was minor and that he should be ready to go for the Bulls’ next game against the Raptors in Toronto on Friday.
Brett Pollakoff

Rockets 110, Raptors 104 (2OT): At the start of this game Dwight Howard was aggressive and got both Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas in quick foul trouble, then took advantage. Howard had 9 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter and finished with 17 points in the first half. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan combined to miss 45 shots between them, which is why the Raptors shot 33.3 percent on the night and why the Raptors couldn’t win (Gay did hit the three to send the game). Jeremy Lin, on the other hand, had 31 off the bench for the Rockets on just 17 shots, and nine of those points came in the overtimes when the Rockets needed them most.

Nuggets 100, Jazz 81:  Well, someone had to win. This was a close one through three quarters but in the fourth Andre Miller scored 9 points and was the floor general that picked apart the Jazz defense as Denver went on a 21-5 run and pulled away. Ty Lawson continues to play very well for Denver and had 17. Gordon Hayward had 22 for Utah. Best we not speak of this game again.

Trail Blazers 109, Pistons 103: Not a lot of defense played in this one but that worked out better for Portland, which has a more diverse offense. Damian Lillard had 25 points on 16 shots, while the LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 18 and 12. Robin Lopez even did some work, scoring 17. Detroit got 28 from Brandon Jennings but needed 24 points to get there.

Clippers 109, Timberwolves 107: Not a game for fans of defense, but it was entertaining as both teams tried to push the tempo. The two starts played themselves pretty much to a standstill: Blake Griffin had 25 points, Kevin Love 23 points, although Love had 19 rebounds to Griffin’s 10. Chris Paul had 21 points and 11 assists carving up the Timberwolves, while Nikola Pekovic had 25 points and 10 boards for Minnesota. The Wolves answered every Clipper run until the final play, when down two they had Kevin Martin (30 points) miss, then both Pekovic and Love chances at point blank tip-ins and missed. The Clippers escaped with the win, really.

—Kurt Helin

The Extra Pass: Boxed out and Thursday’s Recaps

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You probably already know what I’m going to say about Shane Battier before I even say it.

For 12 seasons, Battier has largely defied conventional box scores by doing all the things that don’t show up there.

It’s been a long-standing feud between Battier and the box score, really, but it’s a feud that Battier is on the brink of losing.

Battier is maturing. Box scores are not. Box scores, actually, have stayed almost exactly the same over the last 12 years. They’re pretty much unaffected by time.

We are in the midst of the sport’s biggest analytic movement. Great strides are being made. Fantastic information is out there. But for the stat lines most commonly seen by 99 percent of fans? The best we can do for an advanced stat is a plus/minus number that is almost completely worthless on an individual game basis and borrowed from another sport, no less.

So why haven’t we seen any changes on the front lines, despite all the progress? Basketball takes its cue from baseball in this regard: keep things consistent, simple, and easy to digest. It doesn’t matter that there’s better information out there. RBI’s will be listed because RBI’s have always been listed, and also, how dare you try to sully RBI’s.

A changing sport with changing statistics requires change in representation and consumption. Would Dean Oliver’s Four Factors be nice to have available? Sure. Team efficiency numbers? Great. But I’m not asking for the world. We can walk before we run.

Tonight provided a perfect example for why things should be a little different.

Shane Battier was an afterthought on paper with 7 points in 22 minutes. But on the court? He completely changed the game.

Battier’s mobility allowed him to trap Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls, and the Clippers offense was completely stifled once the ball was forced out of Paul’s hands.

We’re still working on how best to convey that sort of thing, but there was something else Battier did in the Miami Heat’s 102-97 win that we could start listing tomorrow.

Battier drew three huge charges in the second half. Momentum shifting, backbreaking, gamechanging charges. But guess what — the stats give him no credit. That’s nowhere on his “line” for the night.

Isn’t that a problem?

It makes no sense. Blocked shots lead to a change of possession roughly 57 percent of time, but we’ll record that, we’ll base awards on that, and we’ll form opinions on that while a play that results in a change of possession 100 percent of the time only gets recorded by a few websites and never sniffs a box score.

Battier was unquestionably one of the most important players on the court Thursday night, and there’s been plenty of nights just like this one throughout his career. This particular one will be forgotten, unmarked and deemed unremarkable statistically like all the others. How many more times does that have to happen before something changes?

-D.J. Foster

 

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Heat 102, Clippers 97: We covered this in greater detail, but the short version is that there was too much Dwyane Wade for the Heat and not enough Chris Paul for the Clippers. On a night where LeBron James was far from dominant, one more big time performance on the opposing team might have been enough to steal one in Miami, but the Heat’s strategy of making sure to key the defense on the game’s best point guard ended up being enough on a night where Wade was simply sublime when it mattered most.

Nuggets 109, Hawks 107: Denver held on for its first win of the season, but it was anything but easy and the team has real issues to work through if it’s going to once again make it to the playoffs. Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, and Nate Robinson did the bulk of the damage offensively, while new head coach Brian Shaw continued to shuffle his lineups, going 11 players deep while trying to find the right combination. Atlanta’s frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Al Horford was too much for the Nuggets’ starting unit inside, but three of Denver’s six players who scored in double figures came off the bench in this one to secure the team’s victory.

Lakers 99, Rockets 98: Steve Blake hit a three-pointer off of an out of bounds play with 1.3 seconds remaining to give the Lakers the victory, and despite the fact that the Rockets will be better over the course of the long regular season, it’s a comforting victory for L.A. nonetheless. The Lakers blew a big lead in this game, but it’s to be expected given the gap in talent between the two teams’ rosters. Plenty of Lakers fans wanted this one badly given the way Dwight Howard spurned the team in free agency over the summer, and they largely got their wish. Howard’s numbers were fine, but he was fouled intentionally throughout the final period and finished just 5-of-12 from the line in under six minutes of fourth quarter action. L.A. won this game on the strength of its three-point shooting and because the Rockets simply didn’t convert a high percentage of their shots. James Harden was an inefficient 9-of-24 from the field in scoring his 35 points, and Houston as a team shot just 37.7 percent from the field. Wes Johnson and Jodie Meeks were the stars for the Lakers on this night, which makes you wonder if this performance was at all repeatable under reasonably similar circumstances.

-Brett Pollakoff

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Memphis Grizzlies

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Last season: After totaling up 56 wins in the regular season, the Memphis Grizzlies got sweet revenge over the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, then extinguished a short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder team before finally falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. This was the best season in franchise history by a large margin.

Signature highlight from last season: Tayshaun Prince invites you to bring your whole crew.

Key player changes:

IN: Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Jamaal Franklin, Nick Calathes.

OUT: Austin Daye, Darrell Arthur, Tony Wroten.

Considering the tiny amount of wiggle room the Grizzlies had under the luxury cap, there were some great additions made.

Kosta Koufos is one of the most underrated centers in the game, and he’ll mesh with Ed Davis and Zach Randolph much better than Darrell Arthur did. Nick Calathes has been one of the best players overseas the last few years, and getting a distributing backup point guard with size is another good fit. Jamaal Franklin could be scary in a few years if he stays glued to Tony Allen. There’s a lot of defensive potential there.

Mike Miller could be the biggest addition come playoff time, as the perimeter-shooting starved Grizzlies will welcome his presence as a floor-spacer when the games really matter.

The Grizzlies lost very little and made some very nice additions to the bench on the cheap. This might be the deepest team in the league.

Keys to the Grizzlies’ season:

1. Are the minor tweaks enough? 

The Grizzlies got better this offseason, but was it enough? Despite having one of the league’s best defenses last year, this was still a team that sputtered offensively late in the postseason and was just the 17th ranked offense in efficiency during the season. The Grizzlies have gone against the grain for a while now, but placing last in three-point makes and attempts might not be good enough to take out the best of the best when the defense really steps up in the playoffs.

2. What’s in the cards for Zach Randolph?

We know the Grizzlies front office isn’t afraid to trade a big piece after the Rudy Gay trade, and the tax concerns in Memphis are very real. Ed Davis is on tap for an extension or a big offer in restricted free agency next season, and keeping both Davis and Randolph on the books next year would be very difficult. Randolph is still a valuable piece, but he may be in decline and Memphis will lose leverage the longer they wait on a deal. Could another blockbuster be on tap this year?

3. Was the decision to let go Lionel Hollins for Dave Joerger the right one?

Hollins may not have always been on board with the decisions of the front office, but to his credit, his teams always defended and played hard. Joerger should be able to get the same from a veteran roster, but whether he can improve the sometimes baffling rotations and game-management in his first season as a head coach will be interesting to watch. Memphis was the league’s slowest team last season in pace, but Joerger has said repeatedly that he wants to speed it up. Will that turn out to be coach-speak or a real strategy that jump starts a below-average offense?

Why you should watch the Grizzlies: Marc Gasol is a bonafide basketball genius. Spend a whole game watching just him, and you’ll marvel at his positioning and decision-making. Tony Allen adds the perfect amount of unpredictability to a predictably stifling defense, and Mike Conley’s growing comfort level has led to more eye-popping plays. The Grizzlies are like a smart indie movie — the aesthetics may not always be on par with the competition, but it’s nuanced enough to be wholly enjoyable.

Prediction: 54 wins, the 4th seed and a second round exit. The Grizzlies are incredibly deep and will enjoy plenty of regular season success thanks to that defense, but the possible decline of the starting forwards (Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph) and the strength at the top of the Western Conference might make a deep playoff run difficult. Once we see what the Grizzlies do at the deadline, if anything at all, we should have a better idea of their playoff outlook.

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Portland Trail Blazers

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Last Season: The Blazers spent the first half of the season threatening for a playoff spot, but one of the worst benches in NBA history ultimately sunk the team’s chances. Damian Lillard’s scoring prowess made him the fourth unanimous Rookie of the Year winner in NBA history, and it simulatenously provided hope that Portland’s current core can contend in the near future.

Signature Highlight: It feels dirty not to have a Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge highlight here, but by golly gee, this dunk from J.J. Hickson was one of the best of the year.

Key Player Changes:

IN: Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson

OUT: J.J. Hickson (Denver), Eric Maynor (Washington), Luke Babbitt, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavolvic, Ronnie Price

General manager Neil Olshey pulled off some sneaky tanking last year by cobbling together an awful bench with multiple players who won’t even play in the league this season. After hitting on Lillard in the draft, it looked like the Trail Blazers might have stolen another underrated small school grad to slot in as a scoring sixth man. Unfortunately, though, C.J. McCollum’s foot injury will keep him out of action indefinitely.

Adding Thomas Robinson was an incredibly low-risk, high-reward move, as his energy and rebounding should be a welcome sight coming off the bench. Robinson will likely never be a star, but he could carve out a solid role.

If Dorell Wright’s outside shooting returns to form, he could be a steal as a versatile 3 and D guy. Mo Williams is an extremely good shooter and a decent point guard to boot, but he needs to be hidden defensively at all times.

Robin Lopez might be the addition with the biggest impact, as his pure size should help the Blazers control the paint defensively much better than last season.

Losing J.J. Hickson doesn’t hurt nearly as much as his overall numbers would indicate. Hickson was defensive poison as a center last season, and it’s telling that the Blazers were unable to flip him for any asset while he was putting up grossly inflated stats.

Keys to Portland’s Season:

1) Can an improved bench make that much of a difference?

After running his starters into the ground by necessity last season, Terry Stotts can ease off the reins a bit and trust what should be a very capable bench. The on/off ratings for Aldridge (+9.4 points per 100 possessions) and Lillard (+9.1 points per 100 possessions) illustrate just how bad Portland’s reserve unit was last year, and the heavy minutes took a toll late in the season when the defense completely collapsed.

2) Will the defense improve?

Although he’s a plodder, Robin Lopez should plug a few more gaps in this leaky defense. Matthews is still the team’s best defender despite Batum’s reputation, but a lot of the responsibility boils down to Lillard and Aldridge, who need to stop reserving so much energy for offense and start defending pick-and-roll action better.

The Blazers finished 26th in defensive efficiency last season, so there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement here. The starting unit should be explosive, but below-average defensive teams traditionally have a much harder time making the playoffs than below-average offensive teams. The Blazers have to get better here in order to fight for the 8-seed.

3) Which unexpected source can provide the lift?

It’s time for Nic Batum to live up to his potential, as he’s the player who needs to make the biggest leap on both ends for the Blazers to truly be competitive. We know what we’re getting from LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews at this point, and it’s hard to imagine Lillard being significantly better (at least offensively) in his second year.

Perhaps Lopez or Robinson can surprise and add big contributions as well, but Batum is paid too much money to simply be a very good complementary player. The additions of an improved bench and a defensive-minded center can put the Blazers in the playoff conversation alone, but Batum’s continued development as a secondary creator (his assists shot up to 4.9 a game last year) and locked-in defender has to be there.

Why You Should Watch: Damian Lillard is the definition of smooth. Robin Lopez’s hair is the best in the business. LaMarcus Aldridge has three moves he just pairs over and over again, and no one can stop it.  Nic Batum in transition is an adventure. J.J. Hickson and his defense won’t make your eyes bleed anymore.

Prediction: 41-41 and the 9th seed. The Blazers should be able to beat out the other hapless defensive teams vying for the final playoff spot (Mavericks, Lakers), and the talent meshes better in Portland than it likely will in New Orleans. A healthy Minnesota team (oxy-moron?) is my choice for the 8th spot however, as they were much better defensively last year despite massive injuries. I need to see Portland’s defense improve drastically before I can fully believe they are a playoff team.

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: It was the end of an era. Josh Smith’s final season in Atlanta ended the only way it really could: with plenty of ill-advised shot attempts, tons of highlight-reel plays, and probably most importantly, another early playoff exit. After a first round loss to the Indiana Pacers in six games, it was fair to yet again classify the Hawks as a very good team that just didn’t have enough weapons to hang with the league’s elite in the postseason.

Signature highlight from last season: Jeff Teague summons Spud Webb. Nastiness ensues.

Key player changes:

IN: Paul Millsap (Jazz), Elton Brand (Mavs), Dennis Schroeder (17th pick), DeMarre Carroll (Jazz), Gustavo Ayon (Bucks),  James Johnson (Kings), Jared Cunningham (Mavs), Damien Wilkins (76ers), Pero Antic (Greece).

OUT: Josh Smith (Pistons), Devin Harris (Mavs), Ivan johnson (China), Dahntay Jones (Bulls), Zaza Pachulia (Bucks), Johan Petro (China), Anthony Tolliver (Bobcats), Deshawn Stevenson.

Paul Millsap should be able to replicate Josh Smith’s offensive numbers with shots from smarter locations, but replacing Smith’s rim protection and defensive abilities will be a much tougher task. To help Millsap out on that end, the Hawks brought in quality defenders like Brand and Carroll to help fill the void. Schroeder, meanwhile, should quickly cement himself as one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball. He’s a weapon in the mold of Avery Bradley defensively.

Although Smith was a highly underrated passer, Hawks GM Danny Ferry made sure to bring in big men highly capable of operating from the high post, which should be a great fit if new head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system resembles what the Spurs ran while he was in San Antonio.

Keys to Atlanta’s season:

1. Can San Antonio’s blueprint work in Atlanta?

The Hawks have moved on from a period defined by stagnation to become “Spurs East” with Ferry and Budenholzer at the helm. Financial flexibility has been at the heart of most of the major decisions thus far, but the Hawks have still managed to do a fantastic job molding a team in the Spurs vision on the fly. Jeff Teague’s raw speed and ability to score in the paint with floaters is reminiscent of Tony Parker, and Al Horford’s bankable production and reliable 18-footer are a little Tim Duncan-esque. You don’t have to strain much to see the similarities.

It’s no wonder why after 17 seasons under Gregg Popovich, this was the team and situation Budenholzer left the nest for. The Hawks have the shooting with Kyle Korver and John Jenkins to spread the floor for their multi-talented big men, which could make this offense dynamic — particularly if sixth man Lou Williams comes back healthy off a torn ACL.

2. Can the Hawks defend well enough to take down the beasts of the East?

The East is littered with great defensive teams like Chicago, Indiana, and Miami. Will the Hawks defend well enough to approach that level of play? Ferry loaded up on intelligent players this offseason, but there will certainly be challenges on the defensive end. Can Millsap help protect the rim? Can the wings (Korver, Jenkins, Williams) close out against shooters after finishing 28th in three-point percentage allowed last year?

The Hawks did finish 10th in defensive efficiency last season, but the system this year will have to be greater than the sum of its parts. Depending on size and athleticism to clean up the messes simply won’t cut it anymore.

3. Can Jeff Teague make the big leap?

With the ball in his hands more than ever before, Jeff Teague enjoyed the best season of his career with averages of nearly 15 points and 7 assists a game. Is an even bigger breakout year on the horizon?

If you believe in the Parker comparison, the answer is yes. Through four years, Teague has put up nearly an identical PER as Parker did (15.6 to 15.5) along with a better true shooting percentage and a better assist percentage. Parker really blew up in his fifth season, however, earning his first All-Star bid while shooting a ridiculous 54.8 percent from the field.

Asking that of Teague is a little much, but the dynamite young point guard could be in line for a big leap this year. For the Hawks to really contend in the East, they’ll need it.

Why you should watch the Hawks: Korver’s jumper belongs in a textbook, Millsap and Horford’s post passing will be a treat, Teague’s crazy athleticism will make for plenty of highlights, and Schroder’s minutes will be must see TV. The Spurs play beautiful basketball, and so should the Hawks. If you get only five League Pass teams this year, make the Hawks one of them and thank me later.

Prediction: 49-33. This is an extremely intelligent basketball team that should be able to recognize and account for shortcomings elsewhere. With solid depth, good specialists, and a core that could be in line for big improvements in a new system that should better accentuate specific skills, I’m bullish on the Hawks improving from their 44 wins last season.