Posts Tagged ‘Kyrie Irving’

LeBron James – Point Guard

December 6, 2014

Before this latest string of wins, there were a lot of opinions being thrown around about the state of the new Super Cavs.

On defense the consensus opinion seemed to be that Kevin Love should morph into a shot blocking defensive anchor, I’m guessing via some sort of exposure to radioactive materials, or maybe there’s a gene therapy he could get in Germany. Let’s ask Kobe Bryant for advice here. Alternatively, everyone not named LeBron James or Shawn Marion needed to learn to pay more attention at the defensive end. And frankly, James had been pretty lazy on defense for his normal standards too.

On offense, folks seemed to expect Kyrie Irving to take personality altering drugs until he saw the floor like Chris Paul and became as pass-happy as Rajon Rondo. People also wanted to see Love in the post more, which is a great idea as a first option in half-court sets, except that if Love is catching the ball in the post, LeBron isn’t. Everyone remembers that LeBron shot over 60% from two-point range since he moved into the post as a power forward for the Heat, right? You might want to exploit that particular little piece of amazing. Also LeBron in the post is a dramatically better passer to open shooters than Love.

BUT, LeBron is also vastly more versatile than Kevin, so they may just have to sacrifice that piece of James’s game. This is the trouble with combining a group of super-scorers. They can’t all have the ball in their favorite places at the same time, so the threat of everybody playing sub-optimal ball, or at least putting up sub-optimal stats, is real.

The concerns are a bit premature, but they are legitimate. The Cavs are currently the 5th best offense in the league (same as the Heat last year). They are the 15th defense in the league (4 spots worse than Miami last year). Their margin of victory is only 3.8 points at the moment. It’s always good to have that number be a positive, but historically championship contenders have an MOV of about twice that number. There’s still lots of time.

The competing voice in the Cavs debate always maintained that it was just a matter of time. Talent wins out in the NBA, and these guys were bound to figure it out, or LeBron would just give into the impulse to take over and simply carry them into relevancy on his own. What no one seemed to anticipate, and what has clearly taken place is that James has assumed a new position this year.

The official Cleveland starting line-up looks like this:

PG – Kyrie Irving
SG – Shawn Marion
SF – LeBron James
PF – Kevin Love
C – Anderson Varejao

In actual execution that line-up amounts to this:

PG – LeBron James
SG – Kyrie Irving
SF – Shawn Marion
PF – Kevin Love
C – Anderson Varejao

First, let’s clarify the basic difference between a guard and a forward in traditional position assignment. Guards are ball-handlers. Forwards work for points off the ball and generally play closer to the basket unless they are playing a “stretch” role as a jump shooter. Shawn Marion is no guard. He is a classic tweener or swing forward capable of rebounding with bigs and running with quick wings. He can defend big guards, but he cannot serve that role on offense. LeBron on the other hand has the ball-handling skills of an And-1 champion. The idea that Marion is the starting two guard and James is the starting small forward is as ridiculous as the old days when skinny, three point shooterRobert Horry started at center next to post-scoring, shot-blocking, rebounding machine, Tim Duncan. It’s non-sense.

In fact, not only is James starting at guard, he is clearly the primary playmaker on this team. You see it when you watch them play. He’s orchestrating. He’s handling the ball. He’s making things happen for others. It’s also clear in the box score where he’s leading the team in assists and turnovers. That’s a point guard. Kyrie is ball-dominant, but he’s using his guard skills primarily to create scoring opportunities for himself. This is fine. Allen Iverson won an MVP and helped an offensively challenged Sixers team reach the finals while playing that style. The question-mark is with LeBron. Should he be playing the point?

When the Heat were going through their growing pains, LeBron took over point forward responsibilities for a time (Miami always started two true guards – Dwyane Wade and one of Mario Chalmers, Mike Bibby, or Norris Cole), and he did not like the role. I don’t recall that James gave an explanation for why he didn’t want to be the point man on the team. Too tiring, maybe? Wanted a system for sharing the ball better so as not to alienate Wade? Not sure. But it looks like that’s where the Cavs are now, and I wonder if James didn’t intend to take this responsibility on from the get go. He did take it on himself to lose a ton of weight this summer. He looks more like a guard than a power forward now.

And frankly if he did decide prior to making the move to Cleveland that he was going to go back to being the primary creator, it may have been a smart move on his part. James is such a great passer on the pick and roll, he has the ability to play to Love’s game this way, keep Andy and Tristan Thompson involved, and open things up for the guards to attack the defense with secondary penetration. LeBron can also push the ball in transition more when he is the first outlet receiver or making more end to end runs off his own defense rebounds. It’s tough to sacrifice all the easy buckets they get off of James’s leak outs, but Dion, Kyrie, and Marion can all finish on the break as well, and LeBron’s ability to see over the defense and make pinpoint passing strikes is unmatched in the game today.

Defensively, my only thought is that they still need to coordinate better and give more consistent effort. Not having a dominant defensive center isn’t a death sentence on defense. The Heat didn’t have one. It just takes more attention to detail and energy on the perimeter when there’s no shot blocker waiting at the rim. Either that or they need to make a move to get the shot blocker they are missing. One easy shift they could make is to consistently line up with Marion guarding the other team’s best wing player. This would give James more freedom to help on defense, and his speed and athleticism make him the team’s best cover up defender and ball hawker.

One nice thing that comes about if the Cavs do concede that LeBron is their starting point guard: Waiters wins his argument with Bradley Beal. The Heat would have the best starting backcourt in the NBA (Warriors have an argument). He just isn’t part of it.

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Are the 2014 Cavaliers Championship Material?

September 29, 2014

One practice down, and LeBron James is already letting us in on how he expects the team offense to run. He expects it to run through Kyrie Irving. That is to say, Kyrie will play the point, and LeBron will get to work off the ball more than he did in Miami where he split shot-creation duties with Dwyane Wade and certainly more than he did in his last stint with the Cavs where Mike Brown’s lack of an offensive system put the results of every possession squarely on James’s tattooed shoulders.

This is good news for everyone involved. Kyrie is not necessarily best-suited to spending all game making entry passes to James and Kevin Love in the post and then playing a purely catch and shoot role. He’s too dynamic with the dribble to be confined to a Derrick Fisher role. And for James, this means he will get to be a finisher rather than a creator. His assist numbers will likely decrease, and his shooting efficiency may drop some as he won’t be in position to pick and choose his spots as much as he has been in the past. However, his energy reserve for end of game should be much increased. I recall when Phil Jackson instituted the triangle offense and moved the ball into Scottie Pippen’s hands, it had a detrimental effect on Michael Jordan’s efficiency and box score totals, but it also saved him the gas to close games for the Bulls on a more regular basis which I would say contributed to their championship success.

What should we expect the offense to be if it is not a steady diet of LeBron and Love on the blocks? New Cavaliers coach David Blatt is a master of Euro-ball, so we can probably assume that the majority of plays will involve heavy doses of pick and roll. He can set the floor a number of ways and run a lot of different off ball action to free up wing shooters while the primary pick and roll action happens thanks to the mobility of presumed starting shooting guard Dion Waiters and the outside shooting ability of both James and Love. If Kyrie runs a side pick and roll with James while Anderson Varejao and Love set a staggered screen for Waiters curling from the baseline to the top of the key, the defense has to a lot of bad choices to make.

Irving and James cannot be defended without a hedge or an outright double team from on of the other defenders. Kyrie is too good with the ball, and James is too big and athletic, especially at the small forward position. The defense can send Varejao’s defender to help, drop Love’s defender onto Andy, and hope Dion’s defender catches up to him before he gets a wide open shot, but then it’s a swing pass to Love in the corner for an open three pointer. The defense could drop Varejao’s defender to help on the pick and roll and just abandon Andy as the only non-shooter, but that leaves him to cut to the rim for a dump down pass or uncontested offensive rebound. It’s rough, and it’s a lot easier to set up than the synergies that formed in Miami because the pieces fit in more traditional ways.

Setting baseline screens for LeBron off the ball would also be interesting, because he’s likely to have a massive size advantage, and if they can use Kyrie’s dribble attack as misdirection, they could probably hit James with unstoppably deep post position. All in all the offense ought to be very tough because of all the shooters, passers, and ball-handlers available.

Defense on the other hand could be an issue, but we won’t know until we see how they line-up. Kyrie looked decent as an on-ball defender in the World Cup, but he hasn’t had good defensive numbers or habits in the NBA. Love is another player who has not historically been a good rim defender or a one-on-one stopper. James is an All-D regular with the ability to lock up multiple positions, and Andy is a solid position defender as well. The team’s biggest weakness projects to be big guys with post games. However, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and Chris Bosh are probably the only players in the East capable of really taking advantage of that weakness, and none of their teams are expected to contend due to a lack of overall talent or an inability for key players to stay healthy.

I’d expect the Cavs to play a sort of late 80’s / early 90’s style where they pace the game to take advantage of their superior talent and then try to lock down teams for a few minutes at the end of each quarter to really build separation. Danny Ainge told Bill Simmons in a podcast that he felt the 1986 Celtics had a defense on par with the 2008 Celtics but that they didn’t focus as much energy on all-game defense. They exerted themselves more on offense and then locked down on defense selectively. By the numbers the comparison isn’t close. The 2008 team is up there with the mid-90s Knicks and early 2000s Spurs as one of the best defensive teams of the 3 point era. That said, the ’86 Celts were the best defensive team in the league that year (Jordan still dropped 63 on them in the playoffs), and that mentality of playing faster and allowing your offensive dominance to shine most of the game and then really focusing on getting stops, especially turnovers, in short bursts is tried and true. The Celtics did it. The Lakers did it. The Bulls did it. These Cavs could do it too. Maybe.

Forecasting Team USA without Durant

August 8, 2014

Losing Kevin Durant (don’t worry Thunder fans; he’s fine) is a serious blow to team USA’s goal of winning a gold medal in the newly minted FIBA Basketball World Cup. Not only was KD the best player in the entire tournament, he was also the focal point of Coach K’s offense and according to reports out of the Las Vegas training camp, the heart and soul of the team. He’s the guy everyone else looks up to. It’s a big loss to drop your most talented, most central, and most respected player.

Quick list of all the players that team USA expected to be available for this tournament who for various reasons are not:

Kevin Durant
Paul George
Kevin Love
LaMarcus Aldridge
Blake Griffin

That’s a full complement of big men, less Anthony Davis, and it is the two best wings on the team. Love, Aldridge, and Griffin have been out of the picture for some time now, but George and Durant comprised the team’s starting forwards as recently as last Friday. How will Mike Krzyzewski and his staff adjust their game plan, and who will make the final roster?

No one in the player pool or the rest of the world for that matter can approximate what Durant does. He’s a 6′ 10″ quick forward with guard skills and limitless range and possibly the best one on one scorer in the game today. You don’t just replace that skillset. In 2010 KD undressed the rest of the world with his combination of length, quickness, and shooting touch to the tune of 33 points per game (in a 40 minute contest). Without him the team will need to leverage athleticism for transition buckets and maybe use Duke’s motion offense to a higher degree. Thankfully the team is loaded with great point guards. Overloaded maybe.

Speaking of point guards, let’s take a moment to figure out that position and how losing Durant and George, two playmaking wings with range and speed, might impact which PGs make the final roster. The available pool contains: Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, John Wall, and Damian Lillard. The team has 12 roster spots, and it will need at least 4 bigs and 4 wings, leaving no more than four available slots at guard. At least one of these All-Star caliber guards is off the team. Rose is a lock. By all accounts he’s been the best of bunch since day one at training camp. Rose will function as a penetrating creator off the dribble and in the pick and roll. He’s also a quick-footed defender who can harass opposing ball-handlers in the open court. The most obvious candidate to back-up Rose and possibly pick up some minutes beside him is Steph Curry. Curry is the premier shooter off the dribble in the league and another strong pick and roll distributor. With the loss of Durant, shooting will be at a premium, and Curry seems like a sure thing.

If you consider minute distribution, there are only 80 total guard minutes in a 40 minute game. Rose, Curry, and presumed starting big guard James Harden could split those minutes equally between them and play less than 30 minutes per game each. If Harden picks up some minutes at the small forward slot, a move made more likely with the injury to George, that would make a little space for one of Irving, Lillard, and Wall. Of the three Lillard is the best shot-maker, Irving is most familiar with Coach K’s offense, and Wall has the most size and thus the best chance to defend big guards alongside another PG. Personally I think taking Wall is a no-brainer here. His size and speed add versatility to the position. Irving and Lillard both have their merits at the double secret reserve guard spot, but Coach K will probably go with the more trusted and familiar Kyrie.

Reports had the staff favoring energy bigs like Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee playing short minute bursts off the bench. Faried may have to start now. There are other options. Chandler Parsons has enough size to play a small-ball power forward in place of Durant, but he’s a poor substitute for the MVP, and the skills he brings may not make up for his lack of size defensively and on the boards. The team could also choose to play a bigger brand of basketball and pair Anthony Davis with either DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond. Drummord shoots free throws worse than Dwight Howard on horse tranquillizers, so he’s probably out as a crunch time player at least.

Replacing Paul George is less of head-scratcher though the drop in talent is still an issue, and the damage to the team’s depth is incontrovertible. George’s role was to be the team’s wing stopper on defense, to finish on the break, and in the half-court to play off the ball with hard cuts and space the floor with spot up shooting. Klay Thompson, who seemed like a lock to back up both the shooting guard and small forward positions, is the obvious replacement. Klay is a good on-ball defender, has good size, and he’s a deadeye shooter. He’s not the athlete that George is, but he’s a good fit. Starting Thompson depletes the bench of one of it’s best two way players. Those extra minutes will be picked up by the combination of Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons, and Gordon Hayward. None of them is a proven defender at the wing, but I’d lean towards Korver who is the NBA’s premier distance shooter and smart enough to use Coach Boeheim’s zone defense principles to his advantage.

Final Roster Prediction:

G – Derrick Rose
G – Stephen Curry
G – James Harden
G – John Wall
G – Kyrie Irving
F – Klay Thompson
F – Kenneth Faried
F – Kyle Korver
F – Chandler Parsons
F – Mason Plumlee
C – Anthony Davis
C – DeMarcus Cousins

I would anticipate starters of Rose, Harden, Thompson, Faried, and Davis, but that PF spot could go a lot of different ways. I think team USA will still be favored to take the gold, but the roster and game plan have been compromised in some serious ways, and it will be a real test for some young guys who are unproven in international play.

Do Star Players Really Win in the Playoffs? – PER & Win Share Review

May 10, 2013

“All models are wrong, but some are useful,” George E. P. Box.

Metrics and statistical evaluation tools are never exact.  Dean Oliver never claimed that using Offensive and Defensive rating would allow a MVP voter to instantly identify the precise best player in the league, much the opposite in fact.  Metrics are meant to serve as one indicator of efficiency and production that can be applied against the complexities of a game with 10 men on the court at any given time employing various strategies against a shifting landscape of circumstances.

That said, metrics are useful as quick and rough single number evaluators of who the pool of players operating at the highest level may be, and journalists and fans are learning to fall back on these numbers more readily than in the past.  So given that we know the metrics we rely on are not perfect, let’s take a quick look at who is left in these playoffs as an indicator of just how useful the derived numbers are.

Player Efficiency Rating
1. LeBron James-MIA 31.6
2. Kevin Durant-OKC 28.3
3. Chris Paul-LAC 26.4
4. Carmelo Anthony-NYK 24.8
5. Brook Lopez-BRK 24.7
6. Tim Duncan-SAS 24.4
7. Dwyane Wade-MIA 24.0
8. Russell Westbrook-OKC 23.9
9. Tony Parker-SAS 23.0
10. Kobe Bryant-LAL 23.0
11. James Harden-HOU 22.9
12. Blake Griffin-LAC 22.4
13. Andray Blatche-BRK 21.9
14. Anthony Davis-NOH 21.7
15. Kyrie Irving-CLE 21.4
16. Stephen Curry-GSW 21.3
17. Al Jefferson-UTA 20.9
18. John Wall-WAS 20.8
19. LaMarcus Aldridge-POR 20.4
20. Deron Williams-BRK 20.

The above table – courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com – shows the top 20 players by PER from the 2013 regular season.  7 of the top 10 (including Westbrook since he helped to win the first round series) are still in the playoffs.  Of the other three in the top 10 no longer in the playoffs, Chris Paul and Brook Lopez were in their respective first round series through game 7, and Kobe Bryant missed the entire first round due to injury – though given that Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are represented in the top 10, clearly either Kobe or Tim and Tony would not be playing in the second round if Mamba had played.

Players 11-13 also played until game 7 of their series.  14 and 15 were talented young players on weak teams that missed the playoffs.  16 is Stephen Curry, the presumptive MVP of the playoffs so far, and Deron Williams rounds out the top 20 as yet another game 7 participant.  Basically what we see here is that 15 of the top 20 players by PER advanced to the second round or pulled their round 1 series to 7 games, which I would suggest indicates that their teams were good enough to advance with a break or two in their favor.  If you excuse the Lakers’ crummy showing due to Kobe’s injury, it’s 16 of 20.  So either 75% or 80% of the top 20 players led teams good enough to win a playoff series.

Winning isn’t exactly what PER is trying to predict, but if we adhere to the old standard that winning in the NBA requires star players, we do see the players that PER considers to be stars well represented.

Win Shares Per 48 Minutes
1. LeBron James-MIA .322
2. Kevin Durant-OKC .291
3. Chris Paul-LAC .287
4. Tyson Chandler-NYK .207
5. Tony Parker-SAS .206
6. James Harden-HOU .206
7. Marc Gasol-MEM .197
8. Tiago Splitter-SAS .197
9. Blake Griffin-LAC .196
10. Russell Westbrook-OKC .195
11. Dwyane Wade-MIA .192
12. Tim Duncan-SAS .191
13. Brook Lopez-BRK .191
14. Carmelo Anthony-NYK .184
15. Deron Williams-BRK .184
16. Serge Ibaka-OKC .181
17. Stephen Curry-GSW .180
18. David West-IND .179
19. George Hill-IND .177
20. Chris Bosh-MIA .175

Unlike PER, Win Share really does aim to predict winning, and it actually does an even better job by the standards we established in the above study.  Every single player in the top 20 for Win Share per 48 minutes advanced to the second round of the playoffs or made it to game 7 (again including Russell Westbrook) of the first round.

I’m both impressed and surprised by these results.  I’m going to have to do a historical retrospective on this investigation and see if these two metrics pertaining to individual players have always been such accurate predictors of team playoff success.

For our purposes PER and WS/48 really do prove to be useful.  Go nerds!