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2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Marvin Bagley III is tweener of modern NBA

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The difference between Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton in terms of production was marginal.

Bagley shot better from three. Ayton was a better rim protector. Both scored at will, overwhelmed opponents in the paint and on the glass and needed to be graded on a learning curve as passers and positional defenders, particularly against pick-and-rolls.

The difference in what they can be projected doing at the next level, however, is fairly significant, and it’s the reason why you are seeing all the hype for Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick and none of it for Bagley.

That’s because Bagley is the perfect example of a tweener in the modern NBA.

Offensively, he’s everything that you want from a small-ball five. He can dominate in the paint, he can space the floor and he is aggressive and productive on the glass. He was a walking double-double in college and it’s not hard to project him being the same in the NBA.

The problem is that he is not a five on the defensive end of the floor. He’s not a rim protector by any means, and his relatively short wingspan coupled with the fact that his skinny frame makes it easy to overpower him in the paint makes it hard to figure how he can defend that position at the next level.

As the saying goes, you are the position you can guard, so what should NBA teams do with a top four pick that plays the five but will have to guard fours?

HEIGHT: 6-foot-11
WEIGHT: 234
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-0.5 (measured two years ago)
2017-18 STATS: 21.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 61.4/39.7/62.7
DRAFT RANGE: Top four

STRENGTHS

We can’t talk about Bagley without first talking about the level of athleticism that he has. He’s at the upper-echelon, even when weighted by NBA standards, and that is integral into the player that he is and what he can be at the NBA level. Bagley is an explosive leaper with a terrific second-jump, which is part of what makes him such an effective rebounder, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Rebounding translates as well as any ability between levels, and it’s hard to imagine a world where Bagley isn’t able to get on the glass in the league.

Bagley is not just a rebounder, however. He’s a big-time scorer that was utterly dominant for long stretches of his freshman season, and the list of things that he’s able to do on that end of the floor is impressive and versatile. He’s at his best around the bucket — his PPP is 96th percentile nationally scoring at the rim — and while he was very left-hand dominant in the post while at Duke, some of that could simply be the result of opponents being unable to keep him from getting to his right shoulder.

More importantly, Bagley showed the ability to be able to stretch the floor. He shot 39.7 percent from three, and while that was a small sample size (58 attempts) and his free throw shooting was not great (62.7 percent) his stroke makes it possible to project him as a capable three-point shooter from the NBA strip. He can attack a closeout and his handle and mobility make him a threat to go coast-to-coast should he grab a defensive rebound. Throw in his ability in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop actions, and he covers all the bases for what is asked of small-ball fives on the offensive end of the floor. He’s developing enough as a passer that it he is projectable as functional in that area at the next level.

While most everyone agrees that Bagley is a fit offensively for the way the NBA is headed, the defensive side of the ball is a different story.

WEAKNESSES

The crux of the issue for Bagley is that he simply is not built to defend fives at the next level.

He, quite frankly, is not a rim protector. The physical tools back that up. He’s 6-foot-11 but he has just a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan — for comparison’s sake, Ayton’s wingspan is 7-foot-5 — and he weighs at least 25 pounds less than the elite modern fives. He’s not built to block shots and he’s not built to bang.

The numbers back that up. His collegiate block rate, when compared to some other elite big men that have been drafted in recent years, is laughable. It doesn’t even compare with players like Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor, who have proven to be defensive liabilities in the NBA:

Okafor is a dinosaur, a relic of a past area whose skill-set simply does not fit in the modern NBA and is not all that comparable with that of Bagley. He’s probably not worth using in this discussion. Kaminsky is nowhere near the athlete that Bagley is, but he’s super-skilled offensively, which has allowed him to be an effective NBA rotation player.

Which leads me to my next point: Bagley can shoot but he hardly proved himself to be a great shooter. That 39.7 percent he shot looks great from the college line, but free throw shooting has been proven to be a better indicator of potential as an NBA three-point shooter and Bagley, even dating back to his high school days, has been a low-to-mid-60s free throw shooter. He might end up being a good three-point shooter, but that is anything-but a guarantee.

Athletically, Bagley has the tools to defend on the perimeter and in space. Duke was a disaster defending pick-and-rolls this past season. It’s the major reason they were forced to play zone exclusively. As one Duke staff member told NBC Sports, “we tried a lot of different things in man […] and none of it worked,” but that is something that has to be taken in context.

  • There were a lot of bad individual defenders on Duke’s team, and they all were freshmen — Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., Bagley.
  • Bagley himself only played three seasons of high school ball and was allowed to do whatever he wanted at every level. His AAU program was run by his father and he never participated in any USA Basketball events. Has he ever truly been coached defensively?

Bagley’s issue on that end of the floor isn’t because he can’t defender but because he doesn’t know how to be a good defender. Ball-screen coverages can be taught, particularly when a player can move the way Bagley moves. Defensive rotations can be taught. His instincts are never going to be great on that end, but there’s no reason that Bagley cannot at the least be an average defender at the NBA level …

… as a four.

In an era where fours in the NBA are just bigger wings — where P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza are squaring off with Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in one conference final while LeBron and is battling with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown at the four, assuming that those defenses aren’t switching everything — is Bagley really skilled enough to play that role?

I’ll leave you with these facts and figures to chew on:

  • Ben Simmons was the only player 6-foot-10 or taller in the NBA this past season to average at least 15 points without averaging more than 1.0 blocks or 1.0 made threes. Bagley averaged 0.9 blocks and 0.7 threes in college.
  • Since 1996, there have been just five big men selected in the lottery that have averaged less than 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per 40 minutes: Lauri Markkanen, Trey Lyles, Domas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Derrick Williams.

NBA COMPARISON

Earlier on in the season, the comparison that I liked the most was John Collins, the Atlanta Hawks rookie that put together an impressive first season after a super-productive sophomore year at Wake Forest that was plagued by defensive issues. As the season went on, Domas Sabonis started to look like a better comparison as he grew into a contributor for the Pacers. I think Julius Randle and the role that he plays for the Lakers — something of a back-up five — makes a lot of sense now.

Bagley is a better prospect, and athlete, than all three of those players; we can use that as his floor. His ceiling? There’s an element of Amare Stoudamire in his game as well, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think that he could post numbers similar to what Stoudamire put up in his prime; his best season came in 2007 when he averaged 25.2 points, 9.1 boards and 2.1 blocks.

OUTLOOK

I think Bagley is going to end up being a very good NBA player. I think he’ll make some all-star teams, depending on which conference he ends up playing it. I think that he’ll post numbers that will make him a popular fantasy asset.

But I don’t think that he’s ever going to be the cornerstone of a franchise, not without quite a bit of help.

Let’s compare him to Deandre Ayton, because it’s easy and relevant and the two of them are dueling for a spot at the top of this year’s draft. Ayton has a defined skill-set and a defined position on both ends of the floor, one that should allow him to thrive in the modern world of the NBA where bigs are asked to protect the rim, switch onto guards, catch jobs and make threes. You take Ayton and figure the rest out because there are no requirements for who you need to put around him.

With Bagley, that’s not the case.

At the NBA level, for a team that he is featured on to win, he’s going to have to play alongside someone that can protect the rim and that can stretch the floor. If he falls to Memphis at No. 4, that might be a perfect situation for him. Marc Gasol is aging, but he’s still a guy that makes threes, can pass the ball and protects the rim. Bagley is freed up to do what he does best: Overpower people in the paint, use his athleticism to defend those smaller players on the perimeter and catch lobs at the rim. The same thing goes if he ends up on the same team as Kristaps Porzingis. Or Giannis. Or Draymond Green or DeMarcus Cousins or any of those other elite big men. Just about anyone can fit alongside players that can do what they do. That’s what makes them so good and so valuable.

Bagley will thrive if he finds a team with players that he fits alongside.

But he’s a piece to the puzzle, not the anchor you build around.

And there is a difference.

Five questions that will decide NBA Finals

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This was the matchup we expected in June before the season started: Golden State vs. Cleveland for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Again.

However, the road to get here was far different — and with far more twists and turns — than we imagined. It was the kind of season that left us with questions — including questions about how the Warriors and Cavaliers match up in the Finals.

Here are the five questions whose answer will determine the winner of the NBA Finals.

1) How challenged, how engaged will the Warriors be this series? It’s easy to say the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t need more motivation to bring their “A” game every night — they are in the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in basketball. They are four wins away from a third NBA title in four years. They are playing to be considered a dynasty.

Yet, as we have seen this all season from Golden State, if this team doesn’t feel challenged, if it doesn’t get pushed, the Warriors coast and fall bad habits, making mistakes on both ends. The question isn’t even “will they coast in the Finals” as much as “how much will they coast in the Finals?”

The Warriors are unquestionably the more talented team in this series — for the Cavaliers to have any shot the Warriors have to be party to their own demise. The best way to tell if that’s happening (outside just missed threes by Golden State) is if Cleveland can replicate what Houston did last series — take away Golden State’s off-ball movement with good switching defense, and force them into a slowed down game in the halfcourt featuring Kevin Durant isolations. The Warriors will fall into that trap, if led there. The Rockets had the defensive talent, the defensive recognition and communication to pull that off. The Cavaliers… that brings us to our next question.

2) Can Cavaliers’ defense even begin to slow down Warriors’ offense? The Cavaliers are playing better defense in the playoffs than they did the regular season — Cleveland gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the season (29th in the league), but it has been down to 105.9 per 100 in the postseason (7th in the playoffs, the equivalent of 15th in the league for the season). Cleveland players are putting in the effort, or at least they are when LeBron James is putting in that effort.

None of that may matter against the Warriors.

The Rockets had success shrinking the floor, switching everything, and defending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers do not have the same personnel to make that defense work. Cleveland doesn’t have a rim-protecting big the likes of Clint Capela who can also switch on the perimeter and hold his own. The Cavs don’t have a good matchup for Kevin Durant (not that anyone does, but Trevor Ariza did a respectable job; now the defense of Durant likely falls to Jeff Green and LeBron). They don’t have switchable wing defenders who can play a physical style, like P.J. Tucker. They don’t have anyone who can hang with the off-ball movement of Klay Thompson.

George Hill, with his length and veteran savvy, may do okay on Stephen Curry. However, expect the back cuts, split cuts, and other off-ball movements that the Rockets took away from the Warriors last round to come back. And expect a lot of finger-pointing and glaring at each other from the Cavaliers after wide open made Warriors baskets.

3) Who will be the fifth man for the Warriors? Golden State hopes Andre Iguodala will be back this series — he is out for Game 1 at least. He would help their cause, primarily as a quality defender on LeBron James (so that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green don’t have to shoulder that burden all the time). Iguodala matters — in the 2017 Finals the Warriors were +60 when he was on the court and -26 when he was not. On offense, Iguodala is a smart playmaker who keeps the motion offense going.

Shaun Livingston has been the best fifth man with the rest of the Hampton’s lineup (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green), but he’s not as good a defender and more of a midrange shooter. Jordan Bell brings athleticism and energy, but for every good play he makes he also seems to bring a rookie mistake. Kevon Looney tries. There is just not a great fifth option without Iguodala, but how much can the Cavaliers exploit that.

4) Can the Cavaliers knock down their threes? In the regular season, the three ball accounted for 34.8 percent of Cleveland’s non-garbage time shots, fourth highest percentage in the NBA (higher than the Warriors at 31.3 percent). In the playoffs that hasn’t changed, with 35 percent of Cleveland’s shots coming from beyond the arc (second highest percentage of playoff teams).

This isn’t rocket science — the Cavaliers need a high percentage of those shots to fall. Cleveland is shooting 34.7 percent on playoff threes (non-garbage time) and that simply isn’t going to be good enough against the high-powered Warriors. LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and every other Cavalier player taking threes has got to knock them down this series at a high clip — Cleveland doesn’t defend well enough to lock Golden State down, the only way the Cavs win is outscoring the Warriors in a shootout. Which means making a lot of threes.

5) Will LeBron’s supporting cast be anywhere near enough? Last year, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals — and that was a Cleveland team that had Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, and James Jones. None of those guys are back this season.

LeBron has had to carry an incredible burden to get this team roster to the NBA Finals.

He’s got a few veterans who have been here before — Korver, Smith, Tristan Thompson — but not as many and some not as good as who they replaced. Then there are the newcomers such as George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson — those guys are going to have to step up and have big series on a stage they have never been on before.

Kevin Love’s return from a concussion — his status is not known for Game 1 as of this writing — would be a big boost. He can score, he is a matchup problem, and he’s got a ring to show he can play under this kind of pressure.

Can the rest of this team? The Cavalry is not charging over the hill to save the day for LeBron, he’s got to make due with the guys around him. That just doesn’t look like it will be enough.

How the Rockets’ cold shooting sunk them

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The Rockets shot 5-for-30 (17%) on open or wide open 3-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, per NBA.com.

If those same players shot their season-long percentages, including the playoffs and last night’s disaster, based on whether the shot was open or wide open, Houston would have shot 11-for-30 (37%) – scoring 18 more points.

Player Attempts Made Expected Difference
Eric Gordon 8 2 2.9 -0.9
Trevor Ariza 7 0 2.5 -2.5
James Harden 6 1 2.3 -1.3
P.J. Tucker 5 2 2.0 0.0
Gerald Green 3 0 1.1 -1.1
Joe Johnson 1 0 0.3 -0.3
Total 30 5 11.1 -6.1

Houston lost to the Warriors by nine.

Five things the Rockets need to do to beat the Warriors in Game 7

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We all know what the Golden State Warriors are capable of — we have seen them at their “Thanos got all the infinity stones” peak where nothing can stop them. We witnessed it in the second half two days ago.

However, this is a Houston team explicitly built with beating these Warriors in mind, a Rockets team that won 65 games this season and forced Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. This is a very good team. A team capable of winning Game 7 in its home court, with or without Chris Paul.

However, their margin for error is gone (even if CP3 is back, he’s not going to be near 100 percent). Here are the five things Houston has to do if it’s going to dethrone the champs and move on to the NBA Finals.

1) Knock down their threes. It’s obvious, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The Rockets made more three pointers this season than any team in NBA history (breaking their own record of a season ago). The three-ball is critical to the Rockets’ offense, and that importance only goes up if Paul is out. From the opening tip, whether it’s James Harden on stepbacks, Eric Gordon in transition, or P.J. Tucker in the corner on a kick-out, the three ball has to fall.

@jharden13 from waaay out @nbaontnt!

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The Rockets did that in the first quarter of Game 6, the Warriors seemed confused on defensive assignments (Kevin Durant, in particular, missed a couple switches and did not pick up shooters in transition) and the Rockets took advantage. The Rockets were 11-of-22 from three in the first half of Game 6 and up 10, they need to repeat both that volume and nearly that percentage.

The Rockets are going to take 35 or more threes in this game, but how well will the Warriors contest those? Will the Rockets hit them anyway? The Rockets need to make 17 or more threes in this game to give themselves a shot. Those cannot be forced, it needs to come with room in transition, or when Harden drives the lane and gets into the middle, forcing help and rotations and opening up shooters on the perimeter.

2) Take care of the basketball — limit the turnovers. In Game 6, the Rockets turned the ball over on 21.3 percent of their possessions — more than one-in-five times down the court they came away without a shot, just giving the ball back to Golden State. In the second half, that percentage was slightly higher. Live ball turnovers are an accelerant for the Warriors offense.

“The problem with (the Warriors) getting 115 (points in Game 6) is it’s because we turned it over about 20 times and that’s a double whammy — we don’t score first of all and they get out in transition,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

That ties directly into…

3) Control the tempo — do not get into a transition battle with the Warriors. The Rockets played slightly faster in the first half of Game 6, with Paul not out there to slow things down, than they have the rest of the series. That may have caught the Warriors off guard a little in the first quarter, but Golden State adapted and we saw the results in the second half. The Warriors thrive at a high pace. These Rockets were 14th in pace in the NBA this season, they are not a D’Antoni seven seconds or less team, they are methodical and hunt mismatches, running only when it suits them. If Game 7 is a track meet, Houston will lose.

“We’ve got to dictate (the tempo) by our good play, we can guard them but we can guard them in the halfcourt, it’s tough in transition,” D’Antoni said. “That means we have to limit our turnovers.”

Limit turnovers and also get back in transition. When Harden attacks the rim and Clint Capela is lurking around the bucket looking for the offensive board, a miss means the Warriors have numbers going the other way. Houston has to make those shots and get back.

4) Defend so well in the half court the Warriors resort to Kevin Durant isolation ball. For long stretches of this series, the smooth switching defense of the Rockets has frustrated the “beautiful game” offense of the Warriors. The back cuts, the split cuts, the things the Warriors offense thrives off of have not been there. That has led to Golden State going to its fall-back — Durant isolations. Those are effective, Durant is the best scorer on the face of the earth right now, but it takes the Warriors out of their flow and makes them less dangerous, and less prone to massive runs.

“We made way too many mistakes defensively, like we did in Game 3,” D’Antoni said of the Game 6 effort. “We cured that in games 4 and 5, we’ve got to get back to that.”

One twist, the Warriors attacked the switching more in Game 6 with Curry’s ball handling — and when he had the ball the Warriors moved much more crisply off it. Curry has the skills as a point guard to break down the defense and find the open man with his passing, not just drain ridiculous threes. That ball movement and passing led to Klay Thompson getting open and no Warrior’s shooter can get as white-hot for a stretch as him. It led to the entire Warriors’ second-half run, and the Rockets need to have a defensive counter to that (something where they really could use Paul back).

Which leads us to…

5) Withstand the Warriors third-quarter run (or whenever it happens). We all know it’s coming. Including the Rockets. Curry will start draining 29-footers. Thompson will hit shots in a sliver of space. When the Warriors get rolling suddenly Draymond Green’s threes are falling, Shaun Livingston is slashing into the lane for easy buckets, and it’s an unstoppable avalanche.

Houston must keep the run relatively short — 11-0, 15-3 — and not lose their heads, just keep playing their game. Don’t try to get it all back with one shot. Execute the game plan, force the Warriors into the kind of game they don’t want to play, and hit their own threes. Grind the Warriors down. Do that and the Rockets can win. Get sucked into the pace, press to match the Warriors run, and the Rockets players can make early tee times for Tuesday.

Warriors facing elimination but undaunted entering Game 6

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HOUSTON (AP) — If the Golden State Warriors are worried as they head into Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on the brink of elimination, they aren’t showing it.

“We have a chance to tie the series at home. That’s a pretty good position to be in,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We’ve got to win two basketball games and we’ve done that an awful lot, so we’re very confident.”

The defending champions trail Houston 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after consecutive wins by the Rockets, capped by Thursday night’s 98-94 victory. Now the series shifts to Oracle Arena, a place where the Warriors have lost just one time in their last 17 playoff games.

Stephen Curry said the Warriors are encouraged despite falling behind in the series because they believe both games could have gone their way and that a few simple corrections will get them back on track.

“We have an opportunity to re-establish ourselves at home, get a big win, keep ourselves alive, and then roll the dice into Game 7,” Curry said. “Not all is lost.”

Houston’s big win in Game 5 was tempered by a hamstring injury to star Chris Paul which will keep him out of Saturday’s game. It’s a major blow for a team which is looking to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in more than two decades.

The Rockets believe they can absorb this loss and don’t seem daunted by the setback, noting that they found ways to win in the regular season in many games where Paul sat out with injuries.

“I don’t have a doubt,” D’Antoni said. “They see the challenge … whether CP’s there or not, it’s a heck of a challenge, and they’re up to it. They’re looking forward to it.”

James Harden, who has struggled offensively in the last two games and went 0 for 11 on 3s in Game 5, rolled his eyes when asked if Paul’s injury puts more pressure on him.

“Pressure for what? It’s Game 6 of the Western Conference finals,” he said. “There is pressure on everybody.”

While that may be true, the onus is on Harden to step up and deliver an MVP-caliber performance if the Rockets hope to close out this series. Harden has had plenty of playoff disappointments in the last few years and embraces the chance to get Houston back into the finals.

“It’s an opportunity that a lot of people never had and probably won’t ever have,” he said. “It’s our job to go out there and have fun with it and do the same thing we’ve been doing. We want to take advantage of it.”

While the Rockets will be down a starter, the Warriors could get one back if Andre Iguodala can return on Saturday. The Warriors have missed the defensive presence of Iguodala who has missed the last two games with a bruised left knee.

Iguodala is listed on the injury report as questionable for Game 6 and Kerr said he didn’t have an update on his condition on Friday. But he did address what it would mean to Golden State if he’s healthy enough to go on Saturday.

“He’s a great player,” Kerr said. “He’s one of our keys, and we’ve missed him the last two games. But we can’t count on it. Injuries happen, and you’ve just got to play with whoever’s out there. So we’re hoping he’s back, and we’ll see what happens.”

Iguodala’s absence has been magnified in this series that has morphed into a defensive slugfest instead of the high-scoring shootout that most expected when it began. The Rockets take great pride in the fact that they’ve limited Golden State to less than 100 points in the last two games and think continuing to play great defense is the only way they’ll advance.

“It’s something we talked about building up all year,” Houston’s P.J. Tucker said. “To see our defense now be as good as it is, we still think it could be a lot better. We watched film, and honestly … we didn’t play great defense last night. Everybody will talk about how good a defense we played, but we really don’t feel like that. So just keep working and trying to get better.”

Kerr said the experience of his team, which is trying to reach the finals for the fourth straight year, will be valuable as the Warriors try and climb out of this hole and force Game 7. He referenced the conference finals in 2016 when they fell behind Oklahoma City 3-1 before winning the next three to take the series.

“We’ve been here before,” Kerr said. “We’ve faced elimination on the road before – this team has – a few years ago. We faced series deficits before. We’ve won all of those series. Our guys have the ultimate confidence that we can get it done this time, too.”