Author: Rob Mahoney


Could Rudy Tomjanovich be Mike Brown’s stats consultant?

Leave a comment

Rudy Tomjanovich served as the Lakers’ replacement head coach the last time Phil Jackson took his leave from the game, but Rudy T likely won’t be around to see the beginning of L.A.’s second post-Phil era. According to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, Tomjanovich — who had been retained by the Lakers in a consulting role since he stepped down as head coach in 2005 — is a Lakers employee no more.

It’s not uncommon to see experienced NBA head coaches serve as consultants if their coaching contracts come to a premature conclusion, so the fact that Tomjanovich remained with the Lakers up to this point is hardly shocking. The roles of these coach consultants vary from franchise to franchise, but responsibilities ranging from scouting to personnel advisement can be included under their jurisdiction, while others are “consultants” in name only.

Tomjanovich’s role, however, appears to have been pretty unique according to Ding’s report, and it’s that quality that could potentially bring Tomjanovich back to the Lakers under Mike Brown:

It remains possible Tomjanovich could remain in touch in a distant, different way, as he and son Trey recently made a presentation to Mike Brown’s new Lakers coaching staff about hiring them for their basketball statistical program. Trey Tomjanovich has provided software to the Lakers before, and his father’s reports to Jackson’s staff became increasingly stats-based.

Plenty of NBA teams have consultants who specialize in quantitative work, but I’d wager that few of those consultants — if any — are storied NBA coaches in their own right. It’s still too early to know whether Tomjanovich’s interest in working with Mike Brown is reciprocated, but if nothing Tomjanovich serves as an interesting example of an old school coach turned new school analyst.

What can LeBron James actually learn from training with Hakeem Olajuwon?

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Six

Few things in the world of pro basketball are fetishized more than mentorship, particularly when the part of the wise sage is played by an NBA legend. There’s just something about NBA greats — past and present — comparing notes that really sparks the imagination; the idea that some enlightenment could be gained through two people sharing a gym is an alluring one, so much so that current players consulting with some of the game’s all-timers is as surefire way to generate headlines as it is the most whimsical basketball daydreams.

The most recent examples all seem to hover around the same legend: Hakeem Olajuwon. He famously met with Kobe Bryant, and was cited for his efforts every time Bryant set up shop on the block. Then he met with Dwight Howard, a move designed to increase the league’s most dominant center’s post repertoire. This year’s pairing? Hakeem and LeBron James, everyone’s favorite “he-should-really-post-up-more” player of choice. James’ ability to physically dominate his opponents has made him an effective post threat thus far, but his game down low could certainly use some polish. That’s where Olajuwon would theoretically help; a drop step here and a baby hook there, and James would go from an efficient but underused post threat into a certifiable weapon.

Of course, all of this leans heavily on the notion that Olajuwon’s tutelage actually creates a tangible benefit. There’s only so much that can be gained from short-term instruction, and while Olajuwon undoubtedly has much to teach any post player willing to listen, his time and influence are limited in these cases. He may be able to introduce a few ideas or moves, but to expect those skills to be fully formed is asking a bit much. Hence why Howard, who spends as much time in the post as anyone in the NBA, didn’t look the part of a completely reinvented player. He was a bit more fluid and did have a few new tricks this past season, but his moves were essentially as robotic as they had been previously.

A superficial examination of Howard’s case alone would say that Olajuwon’s teachings weren’t able to accomplish their intended goal. Yet where Olajuwon’s advisement may be truly beneficial is not in skill training, but in confidence building. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN’s Heat Index examined the before and after effects of Olajuwon’s instruction on post usage and efficiency, and found a particularly interesting development in the post play of another of Olajuwon’s apprentices:

In 2008-09, [Kobe] Bryant 14.2 percent of his overall play repertoire was used on post-up plays, or, put another way, he used 4.1 post-up plays per game. This includes post-up plays like drop-steps, turnaround jumpers, and even pass outs when the defense collapsed. On average, 1.035 points were scored per post-up play (you can find this under the “Efficiency” column).

And what happened the following season? Everything went up, but mostly his usage. Whether it’s a product of age slowing him down or a newfound confidence sparked by Olajuwon (or both), Bryant almost doubled his diet of post-ups in 2009-10. That’s an astounding change in playing style which we rarely see in the game today. His efficiency also saw a slight uptick from 1.035 to 1.058.

Bryant did become a bit better in the post, but more importantly, he started operating from the block almost twice as often. It’s notable that he was still able to boost his efficiency despite that increase in usage, but the far more relevant aspect of Bryant’s evolution is that he was willing to work out of the post so often at all. Haberstroh wonders if the same product might come from LeBron James’ sessions with Olajuwon, and rightly so; James’ biggest post problem isn’t a lack of effectiveness, but of willingness. If training with Olajuwon would give James the confidence to work down low more often, then that alone could make the NBA’s most brutally effective and efficient player that much more so.

Perhaps this kind of mentorship is guised as a workshop in post moves, but thus far the clearest benefit seems to be the transformation of the low post into a comfort zone.

Success and failure through the lens of Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks - Game Two

Russell Westbrook isn’t the most hated player in the NBA, nor is he the most criticized. Yet the baffling misreads of Westbrook’s game — which paint him as either incompetent of villainous — have persisted into the offseason, so much so that his name alone was somehow deemed a suitable taunt for Kevin Durant. It’s all very confusing, and somehow stems from the fact that Westbrook didn’t pass Durant the ball enough, or didn’t make enough of his shots, or didn’t manage to fill whatever role the basketball adoring public demand that he fill.

Yet beneath all of the bile heaped his way, Westbrook is still a star. His decision making isn’t perfect, but he’s nonetheless an amazingly productive and effective basketball player. So much so that Kevin Pelton, in a piece for ESPN Insider, explored the benefits of the Hornets trading Chris Paul — who has the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer — for Westbrook. Pelton’s case is definitely persuasive; New Orleans’ evaporating roster makes rebuilding around Westbrook an incredibly sensible plan, one that the Hornets’ brass ought explore.

Yet embedded within Pelton’s hypothetical argument are some more immediately relevant (and important) caveats to the criticism aimed at Westbrook:

In front of a TV audience that had seen relatively little of Oklahoma City throughout the season, Westbrook was the scapegoat for the Thunder’s inability to construct an effective late-game offense. Westbrook deserved some of the blame; he lacks the kind of court vision to find teammates when they slip open for a split second, which is part of what makes Paul so special. Westbrook also has a tendency to overdribble when the play breaks down, trusting his own ability more than that of his teammates.

Still, Westbrook can only run the plays called from the sideline, and Oklahoma City’s half-court playbook is limited. When defenses took Kevin Durant away with physical defense, Westbrook creating on the fly was often the only alternative. Additionally, the Thunder were victims of their own success. Oklahoma City’s problems were only revealed because the Thunder made an impressive run to the Western Conference finals — further in the postseason than Paul, for one, has ever advanced.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting Westbrook to be the best player he can possibly be, but turning each of his faults into a crusade against his game is foolish. He does, as Pelton notes, lack the court vision of players like Paul. He’s not an elite playmaker, even though his physical gifts enable him to create dribble penetration in ways few other players can. His decision making, too, isn’t perfect, and neither is his jumper. Yet all of these are detractions from the whole of Westbrook’s game rather than the other way around; he’s a player who pushed his team to the Conference Finals, not one who cost them a trip to take a step further. He did what he could under the circumstances, and though Westbrook’s playoff showing wasn’t without its own faults, it’s unfair that only he — and not Durant, or Scott Brooks, or any other member of the Thunder — should be defined by them.