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.

Report: Lakers to change up lineups in lieu of LeBron, wins

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The Los Angeles Lakers are not a good basketball team without LeBron James. This is fairly obvious, and we knew the ultimate test heading into this season would be if James suffered an injury that kept him out for a significant period of time.

Of course we have been able to test this theory firsthand this season as LeBron has not played since a 127-101 win over the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. The Lakers have lost seven of their last 10 games, and so head coach Luke Walton has decided to switch up his starting lineup.

Both Josh Hart and JaVale McGee will find themselves in the reserve rotation moving forward for Los Angeles.

Via Twitter:

McGee started the season strong but has seen a downward trend in subsequent months. McGee’s rebounding numbers and have been disappointing as of late, but most shocking has been his field goal percentage. He’s been hovering in the low-60s all season long but in the month of January McGee has dipped to just 47.4 percent.

Hart has been relatively steady, although January has been hard on him from beyond the 3-point line. Typically a reliable outside shooter, Hart has shot just 17.5 percent from downtown since the start of the new year.

No doubt Walton is hoping that a change in the lineup will help alter some of the scouting opponents have against the Lakers, as well as revitalize both McGee and Hart individually.

Terry Rozier on Celtics’ challenge: “Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

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Too many mouths to feed.

Among the many “what is wrong with the Celtics?” theories the idea that there are too many players who want touches and shots had a lot of traction around the league. Last playoffs, then rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and “scary” Terry Rozier had increased roles — and thrived. They were the alphas (along with Al Horford), the guys with the ball in their hands leading a team to the conference finals, and they liked it — these are young players trying to carve out a role (or, in Rozier’s case, prove to other team’s he’s a starting point guard) and they didn’t want to take a step back. But that’s what had to happen with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the rotation. The result was a lack of a pecking order on offense, uncomfortable sacrifices, and precious little of the fluid play that got them within a game of the Finals a year ago.

Rozier seems to agree with that theory, speaking to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports in a story about Kyrie Irving’s adjustment to being a leader.

“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”

When asked if the roster was too talented, Rozier didn’t back down.

“Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

If everyone buys in, if everyone sacrifices (including Irving), if guys are willing to accept a role, all that talent can make the Celtics versatile and the team everyone expected. The team to beat in the East.

To get there will require Irving to be a leader — in words and actions. That’s more than just calling out the young core, it’s getting them involved and feeling like contributors so they are willing to make sacrifices. It’s doing the little things yourself. Can Irving do all that and turn Boston into the conference favorite we expected.

Or were Nets fans right, he is going to get frustrated and leave this summer?

The second half of this season in Boston is going to be fascinating.

Philadelphia signs Corey Brewer to 10-day contract in effort to add depth

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The Philadelphia 76ers remain a step behind Toronto and Milwaukee — and maybe Boston — in the Eastern Conference, despite adding Jimmy Butler to form a “big three” with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. One issue is getting those three to make sacrifices to their games and meld together. The second big issue is depth: J.J. Redick is their fourth best player, then things drop off a cliff.

Enter veteran Corey Brewer.

For at least 10 days, anyway.

The 76ers signed Brewer to a 10-day contract, the team announced Tuesday.

“For me, I love playing basketball. I just wanted another opportunity,” Brewer told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I feel like I did enough last year that I should be on a team. But sometimes things don’t work out the right way … you can’t look it like that. An opportunity is an opportunity. I get to come here, and I gotta prove myself…

“I’m like a glue guy,” he said. “I do all the little stuff. I play hard, I’m going to run hard, and I feel like the way Ben [Simmons] pushes it, that’s right up my alley.”

Brewer is the king of the leak out and may benefit from some Simmons passes that way.

Brewer split time last season between the Lakers and Thunder, and in OKC he showed he could play a role on the right team and shot 34.3 percent from three. That fit was not evident on the young Lakers, Brewer looked out of place and struggled with his shot, which is likely why he was not able to land a guaranteed contract this past offseason.

This is a 10-day contract, the Sixers can sign him to two of those before having to either let him go or commit to him for the rest of the season. This is likely the first in a series of roster moves over the next few weeks as Elton Brand looks to find the right pieces to go around his big three stars so the team can make a push this offseason.

Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”