Paul Pierce’s move to power forward adds twist to his career, Brooklyn Nets’ season

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BOSTON – On Paul Pierce’s first defensive possession as the Brooklyn Nets’ full-time starting power forward, Serge Ibaka backed him down on the block. Pierce bodied Ibaka, keeping him out of the paint, and Ibaka threw the ball away.

On the Oklahoma City Thunder’s next possession, Ibaka posted up Pierce again. Pierce hardly yielded an inch as Ibaka settled for a turnaround jumper. Airball.

“He’s always telling us how he can lock everybody up that tries to post him up,” Nets center Mason Plumlee said with a laugh. “He’s done that, pretty much.”

Pierce – the NBA’s shortest and maybe most surprising – starting power forward certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to excel in his new position.

Nor the ability defend post-ups.

He’s held opponents to 35.3 percent shooting and forced a turnover on 25.9 percent of post-up plays finished against him, according to MySynergySports. Overall, he’s allowed .64 points per post-up – 16th best in the entire NBA.

A small forward his entire career, Pierce was always crafty and strong enough to handle players his size. But his ability to routinely defend the post-ups of bigger players, often through sheer physicality, has been impressive.

In every other way, though, Pierce hardly looks the part of a power forward – beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame, shortest among the NBA’s 30 starters at the position. Even in era of small ball, Pierce at power forward adds a little wonkiness on both sides of the court.

But wonkiness seems to be exactly what Pierce, who’s reinventing himself at age 36, and the Nets need.

Brooklyn started the season 10-21, but once Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury, Jason Kidd turned to small ball and turned his team’s fortunes. Since the change, conveniently timed with the flip of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, the Nets have gone 20-9.

Of teams’ most-used lineups, the Nets’ – Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – has been the NBA’s second best with a net rating +15.9 (offensive rating: 103.9/defensive rating: 88.1).

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But Brooklyn’s most-used lineup has played fewer minutes (122 all season) than any other team’s most-used, so sample-size caveats apply.

Still, with with Garnett out injured and Plumlee replacing him as a starter, that lineup has been even better (116.8/86.1/+30.7). Though in just 59 minutes sample-size issues are even more relevant, it seems as long as the Nets go small, they can’t help but stumble into a productive lineup.

For Pierce, whose career appeared to be wilting just a few months ago, the results have been nearly as dramatic.

The slippage began to show during the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Knicks last season. In that series, Pierce posted negative win shares, shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3s and turning the ball over more than five times per game.

His first couple months with Brooklyn didn’t go much better, as he posted a PER of 13.6 in 2013. That would have been first below-average PER of Pierce’s career. At 36 and on an expiring contract, he appeared nearing retirement.

By moving to power forward, though, Pierce has increased his season PER to 16.1. That would still be a career low, but it’s solidly above average and ranks fifth on a playoff team.

Careers have been extended – or ended – on less.

Despite all his progress as a quirky small-ball four, the position carries dangers. Whenever Brooklyn’s center gets pulled away from the basket, to defend a pick-and-roll or otherwise, Pierce is often left as the last line of defense near the basket.

In the third quarter of Pierce’s re-return to Boston on Friday, Celtics center-of-the-moment Kris Humphries drove past Plumlee on the perimeter. Pierce slide over and took a charge – and a Humphries elbow deep into his right shoulder.

Pierce immediately went to the bench and sat, grabbing his shoulder and wincing.

Even when Pierce succeeds as a backline defender – a difficult assignment for him – he exposes an area of his body that has bothered him for years.

“Whenever I get hit in that shoulder, just I guess the constant years of banging – especially now that I’m playing the four,” Pierce said.

But Pierce – unlike his partner in crime, Garnett, who openly hates shifting to center – seems to be in no hurry to change the small-ball lineups that feature him at power forward.

“That’s our style. It’s no secret. We’re a small team,” Pierce said. “We don’t rebound well. We force turnovers. We shoot 3s.”

Pierce certainly does his part to contribute to those trends.

  • His total-rebounding percentage (10.0) ranks in the bottom five of starting power forwards. Only Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Josh McRoberts and Thaddeus Young are lower.
  • Pierce’s steal rate (2.0) is his highest since 2004-05. He excels at jumping in front of passes to power forwards whom other bigs typically couldn’t get around quickly enough.
  • Pierce has taken 39.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, easily a career high. Because he’s tangling for defensive rebounds more and isn’t as exactly as quick as he once was, Pierce, shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, is one of NBA’s more dangerous trailers.

Can Pierce keep this up? Has becoming a power forward saved his career?

“It’s not about being a four,” Kidd said. “He’s a basketball player. So, he’s out there taking advantage of maybe a bigger guy. But his basketball IQ is extremely high, so he knows how to play no matter what position he’s in.”

Are these the new Mavericks alternate jerseys?

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The Mavericks want you to take them seriously. They traded up for Luka Doncic, traded for Kristaps Porzingis then signed a bunch of solid role players. Dallas became a good team through brute force.

Then these make the rounds…

Though the Mavericks haven’t announced anything, that would be an elaborate fake of a new alternate jersey.

These are pretty ridiculous. Dallas has the added misfortunate of using a graffiti-influenced font just after the Nets and Clippers did – only the Mavericks’ is more cartoonish.

But I’m absolutely certain, in several years, there will be major nostalgia for these as throwbacks.

Gordon Hawyard admits he’s frustrated by latest injury

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Following a gruesome leg injury that robbed him of a couple of years of his career, Gordon Hayward was finally starting to look and feel like himself — like the All-Star from Utah the Celtics thought they were signing. Hayward averaged 18.9 points per game, shot 43.3 percent from three, pulled down 7.1 rebounds, and dished out 4.1 assists per game. He was a playmaker Brad Stevens could lean on.

Then Hayward fractured the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand on a fluke play. Hayward had surgery to repair it and will be out for six weeks.

Of course Hayward is frustrated. Via NBC Sports Boston:

“Like I said, happy that it shouldn’t be that long. Obviously frustrated — it sucks watching and not being able to go out there and play, especially with the start that we’ve had. I think this time around, I’ll be able to run around, use my legs still, maintain my conditioning, which I’m very thrilled about and then be around the team, too. And kinda stay involved, which is good…

“I think we’ll take it, as cliche as it sounds, we’ll take it day by day and week by week and it’s one of those things that, once the bone is healed, then it’s kind of how much can you tolerate and how well does my body handle with the swelling, kind of how well it takes ramping up activities and doing different basketball things,” said Hayward. “Honestly, looking at the plan that we set up today and just kind of attacking each day. Hopefully, I’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

The 9-1 Celtics can afford to be patient bringing him back. No need to rush it. They are a deep and talented team, but they need Hayward at his playmaking and scoring best to be a real playoff threat. Hayward should be back around New Year’s Day, why risk his hand issues becoming chronic so he can play in games in December?

Hayward, a competitor, is not going to want to be patient. After everything he’s been through with injuries, hard to blame him.

 

Russell Westbrook on Patrick Beverley: ‘He don’t guard nobody, man. He just running around doing nothing’

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley have a history.

After his Rockets beat Beverley’s Clippers last night, Westbrook fanned the flames.

Mark Berman of FOX 26:

Westbrook ripping someone else for phony defensive effort? That’s rich. Westbrook is the king of that style.

Beverley is one of the NBA’s best defensive guards. Sure, he has antics. But there’s an underlying effectiveness behind all his bark.

James Harden scoring 47 points hardly disproves Beverley’s defensive ability. Harden’s output by defender:

  • Beverley: 4 points on 1-of-9 shooting
  • Other: 43 points on 11-of-17 shooting

Three Things to Know: Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers. Dear basketball gods: Can you please arrange a Clippers vs. Rockets playoff series? We’d all appreciate that down here. Thanks.

There are no statement games in November, but after the Rockets 102-93 win against the Clippers Wednesday a lot of statements were being made. An intense, emotional game led to a lot of trash talk on the court that spilled over into the locker rooms afterward. These teams do not like each other — and that makes it fun. The basketball gods need to give us more of this.

Everyone was getting in on the act.

Russell Westbrook trash-talked Patrick Beverley’s defense.

Let’s put aside the irony of Westbrook calling out another players’ defensive effort for a second, he’s just wrong. It’s just not factually accurate. Beverley is a good defender and ESPN’s stats guys have the proof

The best trash-talking of the night came from Austin Rivers.

The younger Rivers should forever be grateful to his Dad for that oversized three-year, $35 million contract, but when Doc Rivers got into it with the officials, the younger Rivers urged quick-trigger Tony Brothers to go over and toss his dad out. And Brothers did. That’s when Austin waved off his dad and made the call-me gesture

(Just for the record, Doc had a point. After a failed attempt to call a challenge — Rivers took longer than 30 seconds to do so — he said two referees told him the Clippers had two timeouts. After he used one, Rivers was told that was his last one. If the officials indeed screwed up his timeouts, he should have been pissed.)

There was basketball, too — and James Harden was better at it than anybody.

Harden’s 47 pushed his per-game average over his last five to 41.6 per game. More importantly, he got his buckets when his teams needed them — he scored 17 points in the final six minutes (and did it against Kawhi Leonard and Beverley). Even with elite defenders to match up the Clippers started throwing double-teams at Harden, it just didn’t matter.

Thanks to Harden, the Rockets executed down the stretch. The Clippers did not. Los Angeles’ first half was sloppy and listless, their worst half of the season. They missed bunnies and open threes all night. Los Angeles climbed back with a good third and led at 83-80, but the Clippers offensive execution and shot selection down the stretch was poor.

Leonard finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, but P.J. Tucker did an excellent job keeping him in check — Leonard 4-of-10 for 10 points with Tucker as the primary defender, according to the NBA.com matchup data.

If these teams meet in the playoffs next spring, this November meeting will be ancient history. Both teams will have evolved and be different by then (the Clippers will be different on Thursday night in New Orleans when they get Paul George back). However, the tone was set. And we want more of it.

2) Ja Morant does not play like a rookie, hits game-winner against Hornets. Sure, Ja Morant brings some freakish athleticism to the point guard position in Memphis. But what is really impressive is the poise he brings — he does not look like a rookie coming out of a small college.

He looks like a beast who can hit game-winners – which he did against Charlotte.

Morant finished with 23 points and 11 assists.

He did all that in 30 minutes — the Grizzlies wisely continue to manage his workload this season, limiting him to 30 minutes a game (with some nights off). This is absolutely the right thing to do. When we talk about the science of “load management” what we’re talking about is the cumulative impacts of numerous seasons of running up and down a hardwood floor — starting in AAU/High School and running up to the NBA — and how that wears a body down and leads to injury.

Ja Morant is getting plenty of minutes, plenty of chances to learn and make mistakes, and he is closing out games (obviously). But he’s still thin and his body’s still adapting to the grind of the NBA. If you have a franchise cornerstone player — and the Grizzlies believe they have one in Morant — why wouldn’t you take steps early to lengthen his career and effectiveness? Why would you ramp up the miles on his odometer during a 24-win season? The Grizzlies are making the right long-term play (especially after watching their prized rookie from a season ago, Jaren Jackson Jr., have to miss the end of the season with an injury).

3) Is Orlando interested in DeMar DeRozan? Makes sense. Are the Spurs going to trade him is another question. An interesting early-season trade rumor popped up via our friend Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer:

The Orlando Magic have interest in trading for the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan.

For Orlando, this makes a lot of sense. The Magic’s offense has been dreadful this season, scoring less than a point per possession so far. They need a guy who can get buckets, and DeRozan can do that. From the midrange, sure, but the guy scores efficiently and raises the floor of your team —get DeRozan the rock and your team will have a respectable offense. Orlando needs that.

The question becomes, what do the Spurs want to do? Good luck with that one. DeRozan can opt out of the $27.7 million he is owed next season and become a free agent next July, and the Spurs talks with DeRozan about an extension went nowhere. Conventional wisdom in that kind of situation is to trade the player and at least get something for him before he walks. The Spurs, however, do not follow conventional wisdom. The Spurs are going to be a fringe playoff team in the West and may want to keep the band together and make a push for the postseason. Maybe they want to start rebuilding around a young backcourt of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White, but would they really trade DeRozan to jump start that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just consider this the start of what will be a lot of trade rumors this season — with a very down free agent class next summer, teams will be turning to trades to upgrade their rosters.