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.

Isaiah Thomas gets choked up after tribute video, welcome back from Boston fans

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Isaiah Thomas is still loved in Boston.

He’s the undersized hero who played like an MVP, led the Celtics to the playoffs, all while playing through hip pain and the death of his sister. He embodied what Celtics fans want to see in their stars.

Monday night he returned — in a Denver Nuggets uniform — and IT became emotional during the tribute video and reception from the fans in Boston.

There was more love when Thomas checked into the game.

Next season hopefully Thomas is fully healthy for an entire season and lands in a place where he can truly showcase his talents.

Isaiah Thomas not happy to be benched in Denver, still working to find way back

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Isaiah Thomas is frustrated and nobody can blame him.

Just a couple of seasons back he was fifth in the MVP voting and was lined up for a “back up the Brink’s truck” payday, but he tried to play through a hip injury that eventually required surgery and nobody stepped up with a payday. This season in Denver, on a one-year minimum contract, he was given plenty of time to get his body right, but when he came back he wasn’t helping a team thinking deep playoff run. Thomas averaged 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Coach Mike Malone couldn’t keep Monte Morris — who is a Most Improved Player candidate with his play this year — on the bench while Thomas worked things out, and IT has been moved out of the rotation.

That doesn’t mean he took the news well. From Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

It’s very possible we’ve seen peak Thomas. That doesn’t mean most of the NBA is rooting to be proved wrong on that — I’m among many who want to see him succeed.

Hopefully next season he lands somewhere and really gets that chance. Denver became too good too fast to really be that place for him this season.

 

Celtics, Nuggets look ahead to playoffs, not to past meeting

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — November was a long time ago, so chances are the Boston Celtics have gotten over Jamal Murray‘s antics from the first time they played the Denver Nuggets.

Then again, NBA players have long memories.

Murray scored 48 points in the Nuggets’ 115-107 in Denver on Nov. 5 and jacked up a last-second 3-pointer to try to reach 50. Boston guard Kyrie Irving wasn’t happy and threw the basketball into the stands after the buzzer, drawing a fine.

After the game, Murray acknowledged he got caught up in the moment, and Irving said there would be no hangover.

“What kind of competitor wouldn’t it bother? I was (mad), but we’re not going to make a big thing about it,” he said that night.

Irving can prove there are no hard feelings when the teams meet in Boston on Monday night. In fact, the Celtics might be thanking the Nuggets for helping them in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Denver beat the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night while Boston was taking care of Atlanta, allowing the Celtics to move within a game of the Pacers for the fourth seed.

Boston (43-27) has two more games against Indiana but the Nuggets are the immediate priority. The Celtics have bigger concerns than payback for Murray, too. Center Al Horford left Saturday’s game after he banged his knee but was able to return, while forward Gordon Hayward left in the first half with a strained neck and didn’t return.

Horford appeared fine but Boston is trying to manage his minutes down the stretch. Hayward’s status for Monday is unknown after colliding with Atlanta forward John Collins. Coach Brad Stevens said after the game that Hayward was woozy at halftime.

“You could see right away that it was quite a hit,” Stevens said.

Denver has dealt with injuries all season but is finally fully healthy. Despite that, the Nuggets have struggled the past two-plus weeks, going 4-4 since Feb. 28 and needing late-game heroics to pull out two home wins.

All-Star Nikola Jokic hit a game-winner against Dallas on Thursday, and Saturday it was Paul Millsap saving the day. Denver (46-22) is securely in second place in the West as it starts a four-game trip through the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to a 12-3 record in games decided by three or fewer points.

“It’s great. Those are the moments that make the team,” Millsap said of the close victories. “It shows the type of character we have, it shows the type of team we have. Those situations can make or break a team and we’ve been able to thrive off of it.”

Jokic has been the catalyst, leading the team in scoring (20.3), rebounds (10.7) and assists (7.6). He showed his temper Saturday when he got ejected with 2:56 left and Denver leading by seven. Indiana rallied to tie it only to have Millsap hit the winning layup with seven seconds left.

“(We’re) talking about an All-Star guy who gets knocked around a lot, but through it all he (does) have to keep his composure, fight through it,” Millsap said. “Playoff atmosphere. Plays like that are going to happen, you’re not always going to get the call, you just have to fight through it.”

Monday’s game could be the first Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas plays at TD Garden since he was traded to Cleveland 18 months ago. Thomas led Boston to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals but was dealt for Irving in the offseason, and then to the Los Angeles Lakers during last season.

Hip surgery kept him out until just before the All-Star break. He played in nine games before being out of the rotation the last three heading into Boston.

Kevin Durant to return to Warriors vs. Spurs Monday, Bogut to make (another) debut

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Kevin Durant missed two games with a tweaked ankle, and the Warriors beat the Rockets and Thunder — maybe their two biggest threats in the West — anyway.

Now he is back, starting Monday night against the Spurs. Coach Steve Kerr confirmed the news, reports NBC Sports Bay Area, adding that Kerr said Durant could have played Saturday against Oklahoma City if it had been a playoff game, but the Warriors decided to be cautious.

“I’m excited to play again,” Durant said following Monday’s shootaround in San Antonio.

Golden State will be without DeMarcus Cousins for Monday’s game, but the team got good news about his ankle injury, he is listed as day-to-day and should return soon.

With Durant out, Andrew Bogut has been pressed into action sooner than the Warriors wanted. The plan had been to let him sit out until the Warriors return home from their current road trip, but now Bogut is in San Antonio and will play tonight, Kerr said to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I’m going to play him,” Kerr said Monday. “Without DeMarcus, we’ve got to guard LaMarcus Aldridge, so [Kevon] Looney can guard LaMarcus, Draymond [Green] but Bogut will be out there at some point.”