Posts Tagged ‘Michael Jordan’

Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.

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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.

Converting for Era – Part 1: Could Scottie Pippen Play 3 and D?

September 8, 2014

Recently I’ve been listening to an excellent podcast over at Hardwood Paroxysm called “Over and Back” where they do comprehensive career retrospectives for retired players, and having heard a few of these, I think it’s time to discuss player comparisons and historical context again.

What got me thinking about the tangled mess of cross-generational comparisons is that these podcasters like to include a topic about how a player would play in today’s game or who a good comparison might be, and for three out of three players they’ve discussed, (Scottie Pippen, Reggie Lewis, and Rick Barry), one of the chief concerns has been lack of three point shooting. That’s understandable. Three point shooting is a key skill for wing players in today’s game. With some key exceptions like Dwyane Wade, basically all your star perimeter players can function as floor-spacers when playing off the ball.

A guy like Scottie Pippen doesn’t seem to have that skill set when we examine his shooting percentages, and the fellah’s on “Over and Back” came right out and said that Scottie wouldn’t be a 3 and D guy in today’s NBA. Obviously the problem isn’t with the D, since Pippen is arguably the best perimeter defender of his era and possibly all time.

Pippen’s career three point shooting percentage is 32.6%, and he only shot over 35% for a season twice, both times while the line was moved closer. So Scottie could not be an adequate floor spacer in the 2010+ NBA. Right? Well, maybe. There are couple other points to examine.

Unfortunately we don’t have shooting charts for Pippen’s era, but luckily for my valued readers, I watched a ton of 1990s Bulls games and remember some of Scottie’s tendencies. One of his bad habits that irked me to no end as a fan was that he liked to pull up in transition for at least one top of the key three-pointer per game, and he wasn’t very good at that shot. On the other hand, Pippen was not the designated corner three specialist for the Bulls (that task went to Craig Hodges, John Paxson, BJ Armstrong, and Steve Kerr), but from my memory, he actually shot pretty well from the right side on catch and shoot opportunities.

As I mentioned, we don’t have shot charts to verify exactly how well players shot from different areas from this time in the NBA; however, we don’t need to be exact to make a point about types of shots taken and team role. Pippen played point forward for Chicago. He brought the ball up the court and initiated the offense. So he didn’t spend a ton of time on the wing waiting for kick-out passes. Those mostly came to him in isolation sets for Michael Jordan (what assistant coach Bach referred to as the “Archangel offense” where Jordan spread his wings and rained fire from on high).

Let’s do a “what if” shooting exercise. Andre Iguodala is in many ways a poor man’s Scottie Pippen, an athletic guard-forward with a good handle and court vision, known for his defense and not so much for his individual scoring or shooting acumen. Last year Iggie shot 35.4% from 3, which is all I think a player needs to do to adequately punish teams that leave him open on the perimeter. Interestingly, Iggie’s shot chart shows exactly what I would expect for Pippen. He’s terrible from straightaway (generally a pull-up spot) at 27.3% and good from the right corner (generally a catch and shoot spot) at 40%. He also shoots a solid 35.5% from the left corner, a good 38.9% from the right wing, and a poor 29.6% from the left wing.

But for now let’s simplify and pretend that there are only two shooting spots, the top of the key and the right corner. We’re also going to operate under the assumption that Scottie’s percentage breakdown is similar to Iggie’s…

If Pippen takes 3 three pointers a game and shoots two of them from the top of the key at 27 FG% and one from the corner at 40 FG%, he would make .94 three pointers out of three attempts per game for a 3P% of 31.3%. That also amounts to 94 points per 100 possessions for the team, not a great figure.

If he shot one 3PA from the top of the key and two 3PAs from the corner, we would expect him to make 1.07 three pointers out of 3 attempts for a 3P% of 35.7%. That would be 107 points per 100 team possessions, which is better than today’s league average, about in line with Golden State.

We just turned Pippen into a floor-spacing wing, and all we had to do was adjust his shot selection, something that would probably happen naturally based on modern metrics and coaching trends. We didn’t factor that he might become a significantly better shooter if a coach told him that making threes was going to be an increased part of his role and he should practice them more. We didn’t factor changes to Pippen’s opportunities that might arise by putting his teammate Michael Jordan in today’s context with the no-hand check rule and the overloaded strong side defensive semi-zone. These defensive tendencies among today’s teams would almost certainly present Pippen with more open shots.

It’s tempting to look at statistics, especially for players we’ve never or rarely seen play, and assume they tell what a player COULD do. We need to consider the numbers as signifiers only of what a player was REQUIRED to do. NBA players, especially the stars, are by and large versatile and multi-faceted athletes capable of adapting to circumstances. Increased emphasis or opportunities in a particular area would very likely produce improved results.

2014 Playoffs – Paul George Shines as Pacers Fall in Game 5

April 29, 2014

Take a look at the following list of playoff games. It is the only good thing I have to say about the Pacers’ effort last night and in most of the games in their first round match-up against the Atlanta Hawks.

Player Pos Date Opp FG% 3P% FT% ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS GmSc ▾
Patrick Ewing C-F 1990-05-04 BOS W .750 .889 2 13 5 7 2 3 44 46.4
Michael Jordan G-F 1989-05-13 NYK W .560 .500 .846 2 15 9 6 1 3 40 41.4
Gary Payton G 2000-05-03 UTA W .478 .429 .909 2 10 11 6 0 4 35 34.8
Charles Barkley F 1986-04-29 MIL W .632 .538 6 20 6 6 2 4 31 34.5
Hersey Hawkins G 1991-04-30 MIL W .600 .500 1.000 2 10 6 6 1 0 26 31.8
Paul George F 2014-04-28 ATL L .563 .571 1.000 0 12 6 6 0 3 26 28.4
Scottie Pippen F-G 1991-06-12 LAL W .455 .500 .917 4 13 7 5 1 7 32 28.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/29/2014.

Not bad company, huh? The only reason that the list is this short is that Basketball-Reference’s game data for the playoffs only goes back to the 1986 post-season, but still, Paul George is the first player since Gary Payton in 2000 to post at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals in a game. Interesting list of players too. Jordan’s not a surprise. Neither are Barkley or Pippen. Ewing is. He’s not really known for getting in passing lanes or for being a prolific assist producer, while his two rival All-NBA centers, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, were both great thieves and passers. Interesting thing about Pat showing up here is that he did it against a very solid Celtics front line, and it just goes to show how when Pat Riley came in he nerfed Ewing’s offense while making him the dominant defender of his generation (by the advanced stats anyway). Hawkins is totally out of left field, mostly because he played with a rebound-hungry big man lineup. Surprised by the lack of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Clyde Drexler. Kobe Bryant always played in a more conservative defensive scheme, so his absence isn’t a shock. Allen Iverson and Chris Paul are two theft-artists I could have seen making this group as well.

Should we talk about the Pacers’ utter collapse? I’m not sure I can give any better insight than Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons have in their various podcasts and articles on Grantland. The Hawks are just beating them into the ground with superior guard play, superior big man play, and superior teamwork. They are the more together squad, and they are earning their victories. We can just look at one number and see how much the effort and effective has reversed for these two teams since the regular season. In the regular season, Indi led the league in defensive rating, points allowed per 100 possessions at 99.3. Against the Hawks in the post-season they are giving up 105.6, which would not even make the top 10 in the regular season. The Hawks on the other hand had a DRtg of 106.4 in the regular season, barely above league average. Against the Pacers in the post-season their defensive rating is down to 102.9 good for 3rd best overall for the playoffs and a figure that would put them top 5 in the league for the regular season.

The good things for the Hawks and the bad things for the Pacers are all the same. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are outperforming George Hill and Roy Hibbert, while the Atlanta team cohesion steadily improves, and the Indiana identity fractures. Indi gets a chance to right the ship, but it’s hard to take them seriously as contenders anymore, and even if they somehow overcome the odds and wins this series, you’d have to favor the Wizards (assuming they continue to outplay the Bulls) in the next round.

Donald Sterling: All Wrong

April 28, 2014

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about this. Everything I had read or heard about the topic made it pretty clear that if Donald Sterling said what he is accused of having said, then he was in the wrong, and his attitude has no place in the NBA or in 21st century society for that matter. It all seemed pretty open and shut. Then I saw the reader comments on an ESPN article that gave the reactions of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and was reminded that there are two sides to every story even if one of them is idiotic. So I’m going to give my two cents and keep them relatively factual.

Part of Sterling’s alleged racist remarks as printed in a Deadspin article:

“…I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

Aside from coming off like a plantation owner circa 1800, and assuming that the answers to these rhetorical questions are all expected to come in the affirmative, every point is wrong.

Sterling does not give his players, coaches, or management team anything. He pays them for their services. He made a business decision and hired each individual to perform a job. And according to Forbes, he made good investments in these employees as the Clippers team is valued at $565 million and netted $15 million in operational revenue last year.

Sterling does not “make the game.” “The game” is a live entertainment product that is “made” of a team of athletes working together to compete against another team under agreed upon rules. Sterling purchased a franchise with the rights to field a team (for $12 million dollars by the way), leased a space to put on their games, and hired the players and staff. That is not “making the game.” It is performing one essential task in a complex system necessary for this particular entertainment product to be successful, and no more or less important than the actual players who fans come to see.

Finally, 30 owners did not create the league. The NBA was founded in 1949 when two other leagues merged. There were initially 17 franchises, but they quickly contracted to an eight team league. The subsequent expansion and promotion of the league into the giant success that it is today occurred while the Clippers were a floundering nothing of an organization best known for season ticket holder Billy Crystal and their cheapskate owner, who was willing to lose with a substandard roster year after year while the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan increased league popularity and artificially enhanced the value of his team.

Not only are Sterling’s alleged statements backwards and mean-spirited, they are also self-aggrandizing and inaccurate. I don’t know how a sports league is expected to penalize the owner of one of its franchises, but I hope while Adam Silver and company are reviewing the list of allegations, pride and ignorance are listed among them.