Archives For

Preview and Chat: The Cleveland Cavs

Reed —  January 19, 2009

(First, Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day. It seems to mean a bit more this year.)

Lakers: 31-8 (1st in West), Cleveland (1st in East, by % points over Orlando)
Offensive Rating: Lakers: 110.4 (1st), Cleveland: 110.0 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: Lakers: 102.0 (5th), Cleveland: 96.2 (1st)
Rebound Rate: Lakers: 51.6 (5th), Cleveland: 52.1 (3rd)
Pace: Lakers: 97.5 (4th), Cleveland: 91.8 (25th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Radman, Gasol, Bynum
Cleveland: Williams, Pavlovic, Lebron, Wallace, Varejao

Lakers Coming In:

When the schedule came out over the summer, a few stretches stuck out as extra important – in which the team would be tested and revealed as true title contenders or needing improvement. We are in the midst of one of those stretches right now, and it is not going particularly smoothly. This game finishes off a brutal four game gauntlet: at Houston and San Antonio back to back, followed by Orlando and the Cavs at home. I’m not particularly worried about the consecutive losses. We were missing key players in both, having to play unnatural lineups to compensate for the total lack of guard depth off the bench. The Spurs game was the second night of a back to back on the road against a team that was playing possessed. Despite having all three of their stars bring their “A” game (all had 20+ points), and shooting at a scorching rate (57% from the field and 50% from three), the Spurs needed a lucky last minute shot, foul, and non-foul to beat us by one. Sometimes that just happens. I’m confident that if we played them 10 times they’d only play that well once. The Orlando game also showed us how hard it is to beat a great team firing on all cylinders – Howard went off for 25/20, Nelson had 28/8, and all five starters scored in double figures. They couldn’t miss down the stretch and we couldn’t make. Again, sometimes this happens.

Yet, all of this begs the question: why are teams playing so well against us? There are some recurring red flags. Our last seven opponents all scored over 100 points (even with our increased pace, that’s a bad sign). Houston and SA both shot over 53%, an alarming rate. Houston and Orlando both destroyed us on the boards (Orlando by +14, with 15 offensive rebounds). SA and Orlando both made more than 10 threes at over 42%. Too often, our defense seems to be lost in its rotations – the slightest bit of penetration off a pick and roll or otherwise leads to massive over-help in the lane, with other teammates either not helping the helper, or doing so very slowly. The result is too many open three pointers and poor positioning on the rebounds when shots go up. I don’t think the loss of Farmar, Sasha, or Walton explains any of this. Or a fundamental weakness in our personnel. It’s simply a failure to execute our defensive schemes and play smartly. This must change.

Walton might play tonight, but I wouldn’t expect him to get many minutes with Lebron the opposing small forward. Ditto Radmanovic. When Lebron is at the 3, I suspect we’ll see a lot of Ariza, as Radmanovic and Walton simply have no chance against him (unless Kobe surprises me and guards him heavy minutes, which I don’t think would be good). When Lebron slides down to the 4, then we’ll probably put Odom on him. I look for many of our key players to have fresher legs given the two days off. Fisher has played 36+ minutes in seven straight games; Kobe has been over 40 the last three and over 37 in seven straight. Sasha is back to spell both. This could help as our guards really seemed worn down at the end of the Orlando game (Kobe just ran out of gas and started throwing up impossible threes).

Cleveland Coming In:

The Cavs are also banged up, but you wouldn’t know it from their play. Even though they lost to Chicago on Thursday, they rebounded the next night and throttled New Orleans. Last week, they destroyed Boston. That said, I do not think we will see their best side. First, Ilgauskas and Delonte West are both out, arguably their second and third best players (West is second in +/- and Z third; both figure in Cleveland’s most effective 5 man lineup by point differential). Despite the continued parade of victories in his absence, Z has been missed. He’s always been underrated and is having another solid season: 21st in PER (21.15, ahead of Garnett, Billups, Joe Johnson, David West, Alridge, Carter, Durant, etc.), spreads the floor for Lebron on offense with his perimeter shooting at the center position, and is part of perhaps the best rebounding front line in the league. Despite all the buzz about Mo Williams, West has been the better player, making more threes at a much higher %, playing better defense, and sporting almost double the assist to turnover ratio. Williams arrival has influenced the Cavs rise, but maybe not as much as West’s improvement. With him out, everyone slides up a notch: Pavlovic starts, and Wally and Gibson get more time. All can shoot lights out from distance, as well as Williams, so things are always set up for you to get drilled if you help too much on Lebron. Varejao and Wallace are first rate rebounders and defenders (both on and off the ball), so they will make life difficult for Drew and Pau. Really, the team has no discernable weakness: 2nd in offense, 1st in defense, 3rd in rebounding, guards who shoot lights out from 3, bigs who defend and rebound, and . . . some guy named Lebron.

Lebron vs. Kobe
:

Which, brings us to the subplot we care about most (or, better said, The Plot): Kobe vs. Lebron. They are widely recognized as the game’s best two players, they lead perhaps its two best teams, they spearheaded the Redeem Team to gold, they are the league’s preeminent marketing personalities. A favorite nba pastime is to debate this vs. that star’s merits. For the last season or two, that debate has often centered on Lebron and Kobe. A word about that.

First, I’m an unabashed Kobe homer. I have researched and argued the technicalities of certain provisions of the Colorado criminal code. Last week, I was teaching my two year old girl how to write letters for the first time and led with, “think of a word you really like, some person or thing you love and I’ll write that word.” Her immediate reply, unprovoked: “Kobe.” I’ve advocated for him endless times in mvp debates, his place among the greats of all time, his feud with Shaq, etc., etc. Yet, in this current debate, I must give way to clear reason and cry uncle. As a basketball player, Lebron is better. Than Kobe has ever been.

Random Lebron points:

• His PER this season is 32.0. That would be the best mark . . . ever. Jordan’s high was 31.7, Wilt’s 31.8, Magic’s 27.0, Bird’s 26.3, Kareem’s 29.9, Shaq’s 30.6, Duncan’s 27.1, and Kobe’s 28.0 (24.7 this year).
• To put his PER in perspective, Lebron uses 33.16 possessions a game. Those possessions result in 42.5 points. That means that if Lebron used all of his team’s possessions, they would end up with an offensive rating of 128.3 (LA leads the league at 110.4). Kobe uses 31.51 possessions a game and those result in 37.9 points, leading to an all Kobe offensive rating of 120.2. Both are off the charts, but the gap between the offense Lebron and Kobe create is huge.
• Lebron is more efficient in scoring the ball because he shoots a better percentage, which is primarily the result of both getting to the basket more and finishing at a higher rate when there. Lebron shoots 40% of his shots inside at a 74% clip; Kobe shoots 23% inside at 65%. Kobe shoots better on jump shots, but only by 5%.
• Lebron shoots 2.1% higher in true shooting %, assists on 5% more of his possessions, and rebounds at a 3% higher rate. He simply creates much more offense, more efficiently than Kobe, and uses the ball at about the same rate. And, remember, all of this comes in Kobe’s preeminent year in terms of scoring efficiency.
• Whatever the difference is between them on offense, it is bigger on defense. When Lebron is on the court, other teams score 97.9 points per 100 possessions; when he sits they score 105.9. When Kobe is on the court, other teams score 104.9 per 100; when he sits they score 104.2. Lebron makes his team 8.0 points per 100 better on defense; Kobe makes his team 0.7 worse. As a result, Lebron is 4th at individual defensive rating and second in defensive win shares. Lebron is the anchor of the league’s best defense. Kobe is a significant component of a strong, but far worse defense.

To me, these individual stats from Lebron reveal why Cleveland is so dominant as a team. When you first look at the team around Lebron, you see a lot of solid players, but nothing overwhelming. None of his teammates will be all stars this year, even in the weaker East; none will compete for all nba or all defensive honors; the bench is okay, but nothing like LA’s. Is Cleveland’s second best player (probably Ilgauskas) as good as LA or Boston’s fourth? Yet, Cleveland leads the league by a wide margin in both point and efficiency differential. They are having a historic season on both fronts. The reason is Lebron. Whatever you think of PER, he is having one of the single best seasons that any player has ever had – at both ends of the court – and is doing so in a way that directly translates to team dominance. And that’s not a point to glide past. He is putting up all time dominant individual numbers and helping all of his teammates have career years themselves. He is one part Michael and one part Magic. And he’s only 24.

Now, none of that is to discount Kobe. He will go down as one of the ten best players of all time, the second best shooting guard, perhaps the all time scoring leader, and owner of multiple rings. Beyond all of that, Kobe brings something to the table that Lebron does not. Kobe captures our attention and imagination in a way that Lebron has not, and probably could not. Lebron is like Shaq in the sense that his success is almost entirely physical – with Shaq an unparalleled combination of size and power, and Lebron adding speed and skill to the equation. As with Shaq, there has never been someone with Lebron’s physical gifts before, and there may never be again. He simply is bigger, faster, stronger, and jumps higher than everyone else. This is not the case with Kobe. There have been endless players with his physical traits that have not made it, or that have not made it like him. (Put another way: if Lebron had Kobe’s body would he still be a superstar? what if Kobe had Lebron’s body?).

Kobe’s success, much like Jordan’s, comes through mastery of detail, mental dominance, and unbounded intensity, will, and ambition. He is, and always has been, obsessed with the nuances of the game. His entire focus and energy has always been directed at one thing – basketball excellence (whatever you think of how he balances personal and team success). Kobe’s “faults,” his “dark side,” all stem from this mad desire to be the best at the game. This is a two sided coin, with “heads” producing possibly unmatched clutch performance and spurts of brilliance, and “tails” leading to destructive interactions with underperforming teammates or team officials. The result, ironically, is a personality that transcends the game. Kobe, perhaps more than any present athlete, commands interest, passion, love, hate – he forces you to take a side, and to do so zealously. We marvel at Lebron’s almost unfair physical abilities and accomplishments, but he does not move us like Kobe. Everyone is happy when he succeeds; no one cares when he fails. Lebron makes us wonder at his physicality; we marvel at his dunks, his leaping ability, his strength. Kobe draws deeper reactions; we wonder at his mystique, will, and spurts of godliness. We won’t care about Lebron’s day to day life when he retires, like we do with Jordan, and like we will with Kobe. If someone wrote a tell all biography of Lebron’s non-basketball activities, it would be greeted with a shrug and a yawn; such a book about Kobe would be impossible to put down.

In a sense, both players are deep contradictions. Kobe grew up the son of a professional basketball player, living in Italy or affluent suburbs. He didn’t need basketball to make it in life. Yet, we have perhaps never seen an athlete so driven, both mind and body. He has the work ethic of someone who fears life is on the verge of collapsing, but he’s always had everything. He is that strange rich kid with a chip on his shoulder, who goes on to rule the world, but does so coldheartedly. He grew up on the basketball court, with his father’s teams, but has always found being part of a team unnatural. He plays as if the embodiment of the American Dream, but grew up to riches and the finest of Europe. Despite unbounded personal ambition, he hasn’t overly “branded” or “corporate-ized” himself, letting (whether by choice or Colorado) his focus extend first to the game. We are left confused, but always captured. We care not only what Kobe does, but why, and what he thinks, and what he’ll do next.

Lebron is also a mystery. He is the kid from nowhere that speaks of himself in the third person, and has open (and realistic) dreams of being the Global Icon. Despite goals that clearly far transcend on the court success, and that are purely individualistic, he is perhaps the consummate “team” superstar, playing in a way that unites individual and team success, making others better, always preferring the easy pass to one on one play. His is the face of Nike; branding personified. He is openly willing to turn his back on his hometown and the throngs that worship him there for a higher corporate platform; but he plays with uncanny unselfishness. He also confuses us, but our interest only runs basketball deep, despite his broader pursuits. Sometimes his antics get old.

If I had to choose which player to start a team with today, I would pick Lebron. If I had to choose a player’s career to follow, from cradle to grave, it would be Kobe. I have had the good fortune of fulfilling the latter, watching most of his games since he was a rookie, and I doubt any future athlete will so completely be worth my time and emotion. We should be grateful for these days when gods again grace the court.

Keys to the Game:

Back to the game at hand. Both teams need this game. Cleveland needs to continue to prove that they are legitimate cream of the crop contenders. LA needs to prove that the last two games were bumps in the road and not indicative of deeper problems. It appears as if every game will count in the race for home advantage, which is so crucial in the bizarre 2-3-2 finals setup. I think the Lakers win this game by over-neutralizing Lebron. Double and triple teams, traps as soon as he gets the ball, etc. This won’t always work given his ballhandling, speed, and incredible passing ability. But without Z and West, he will more often be surrounded by unskilled bigs clogging the lane and shooters that can’t create offense if chased off their spots. As the numbers above reveal, when Lebron “uses” a possession (by shooting or assisting), Cleveland’s offense is off the charts. Make others beat you, especially as his teammates are banged up and might be less sharp on the road. On offense, run the offense inside-out. Wallace is a great defender, but he gives up significant length to both Pau and Drew. Put those guys on the block and let them shoot over him. Force Cleveland to collapse in and work the ball weakside to open shooters or Kobe for a pick and roll. Don’t, under any circumstances, let Kobe get sucked into a duel, especially if Lebron is guarding him.

This is a game to care about. Put on your Lakers (or Forum Blue and Gold) gear, give the kids cough syrup and send them to bed early, fire up the grill, and enjoy basketball at its best – two elite teams trying to prove themselves, and, above all, a battle of two very different basketball gods.

–Reed

Year in Review (so far…)

Reed —  December 31, 2008

We’re 30 games into the season, in the midst of a lengthy break in between games, and approaching a new year – feels like a good time to take a long look at where the team sits, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how it compares to its chief competitors. In that spirit, and to try and encourage objectivity, I’m going to throw out buckets of statistics to try and spark informed discussion of the team’s current state.

Team Stats

Notes:

• Looking at big picture stats, the Lakers appear weakness free. They score, defend, and rebound at top 5 rates, and their turnovers are respectable.
• They have made significant inroads in catching up to the best defensive teams compared with where they were at last year (now only 4.3 behind the league leader/Boston, compared with 6.6 last year). However, as we’ve all seen, the defense has been inconsistent, with an impressive start and last few games, but a scary stretch in between. Hopefully, increasing confidence in and execution of Rambis’ strong side zone will lead to results closer to what Boston and Cleveland are doing.
• Offensively, they probably are not going to get much better, as they are just off the league leading pace this year (Portland) and last year (Utah).
• They are a strong rebounding team, on both ends of the court, another area where they have caught up to the elite teams compared with last year. As we all hoped, Bynum’s presence alone seems to have solved that problem (which was gaping during the playoffs).
• Their point differential is almost at double digits, and about where the league leader sits each year. Last year they relied on offensive dominance to overwhelm other teams; this year they combine this offense with much improved defense and rebounding, leading to more stable, consistent success.
• Comparing LA to the other two elite teams, Boston and Cleveland, it appears we are right with them, but no one is set apart from the pack. Boston and Cleveland have marginally better point differentials and overall efficiency numbers, but we have the best records vs. playoff and contending opponents.
• It is noteworthy that Cleveland is significantly worse against playoff and contending teams than LA and Boston, perhaps suggesting that their success somewhat comes from beating up on bad teams (and that LA indeed has a boredom problem).
• Records vs. elite teams seems particularly illuminating to me in differentiating between real and pretend contenders. For example, note that Phoenix has 11 losses against playoff teams, is 1-6 against contenders, and is 2-7 against playoff teams on the road (with the wins coming against NJ and Milwaukee). Championship teams bring their A game in “test” games, especially on the road. LA is passing those tests so far.

Player Stats:

Notes:

• As expected, we dominate at SG, PF, and Center. The Bynum/Gasol combination at center puts us at first in the league in net production (PER differential).
• Point guard is a glaring weakness, especially defensively as Fisher and Farmar combine to allow an 18.4 PER. Tellingly, our PGs allow opposing PGs to shoot .500 eFG, the highest of any position against us. It is extremely rare for a team’s PGs to lead in eFG, given that they take so many perimeter shots (on our team, PGs shoot the lowest eFG at .489, with our centers shooting .537).
• Our PFs and Cs are extremely efficient shooting the ball, at .531 and .537 – we really should pound the ball inside at every opportunity. Other teams don’t have an answer for the length and skill of Gasol and Bynum (or Odom).
• Our best lineups feature a few common ingredients: Kobe and Ariza. Odom, Gasol, and Bynum are fairly interchangeable, although Odom appears more often than the others.
• Bynum is featured in all of our best defensive lineups, which we’d expect. This makes it all the more puzzling why Phil has often take Bynum out in offensive-defensive substitutions at the ends of game when transitioning to defense.
• Our team stands out in its depth. While it lacks one uber-dominant offensive or defensive lineup (compared to league leading lineups), it boasts the highest ratio of top 10 or 20 such lineups – there are just endless combinations of effective lineups for Phil to play with. I believe the best is Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum – which should become our closing lineup in the playoffs.
• Odom is the best individual player in point differential per 48 minutes (+15.6), the best on offense (110.6 rating), and the second best on defense (95.0).
• Five other players have a +9.0 or greater point differential rating, revealing incredible depth: Fisher (+12.9), Kobe, (+11.5), Ariza (+10.9), Bynum (+9.9), and Gasol (+9.5).
• The team is 4.6 points better on offense with Gasol on the court than Bynum, and 4.9 better on defense the other way – meaning we get almost identical results, but at opposite ends, when we replace one with the other.

Final Thoughts

This team feels a lot like the 1999-2000 Shaq-Kobe Lakers, which was the most talented, but least experienced of the three title teams. That team was loaded. They finished 67-15, started Shaq, Kobe, Rice, Harper, and AC Green, with Fox, Fisher, Horry, and Shaw all coming off the bench (at a time when most of them were in their primes). Imagine bringing those four off the bench. They finished first in defensive efficiency and fourth in offensive efficiency. Shaq was unequivocally the best player in the league, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks. Yet, despite their regular season dominance, they struggled through the playoffs, beating the Kings 3-2, needing the miracle 4th quarter comeback against Portland in game 7, and letting the outgunned Pacers take them to six games in the Finals. On paper, they were unbeatable, yet they hadn’t quite learned how to play as one and execute under pressure – resulting in choppy playoff play. The subsequent title teams were significantly less talented and deep, had worse regular season records, but were much more dominant come playoff time. I think this current Laker team is going to similarly end up with a sparkling regular season record (64-68 wins?), but struggle against less talented teams in the playoffs as their role players learn to deal with pressure and execute seamlessly, especially on defense (Bynum, Ariza, Farmar). We saw some of the same last year, with players like Farmar, Turiaf, and Sasha struggling at key moments — so hopefully some of the growing pains are behind us — but two of our top 5 players are still not battle tested. In the end, I think whether we prevail against teams like the Spurs, Celtics, or Cavs in intense series will come down to mastery of the small things – which Boston embodied so annoyingly last spring. If we can progress through the season and give our key young players the experience they need, then we should be the champions. No other team is as talented, balanced, or deep (unless, of course, team Lebron trades Wally for a few all stars…).

Your thoughts?

–Reed

Projecting Success

Reed —  October 22, 2008

Now that we’ve been talked off the Kobe ledge and feel reasonably comfortable with Odom’s role, let’s move on to something less fun … statistical analysis. What follows is my attempt to weed through stats from last year and projections for this year and draw a few conclusions about the team’s likely performance. I recognize there are numerous flaws, big and small, in my assumptions and analysis, but nevertheless press on in the hope of adding some piece to the puzzle.

PER Differential

There are numerous bottom line statistics that measure individual performance, but I will focus on one I think is particularly illuminating – PER differential. “PER” tells us how efficient a player is in scoring, helping others score, gaining possession of the ball, and protecting possession of the ball. “PER allowed” tells us how efficient a player is in stopping his direct opponent from doing the same. “PER differential” (PER minus PER allowed) tells us the net effect of a player’s production on both sides of the court. In doing so, it weeds out players who appear productive by piling on box score stats, but are ultimately liabilities because they do so inefficiently. For example, in fantasy circles Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace are known as elite defensive players given their high combination of steals and blocks, yet they both allow a relatively high 18.2 PER allowed. By way of reference, Tayshaun Prince, who gets very few steals and blocks, has a sparkling 12.4 PER allowed. PER differential also helps us distinguish between offensive wonders and more well rounded players. Amare Stoudemire, for example, was one of the best offensive players in the league last year, but also one of the worst defensively – with one of the highest PERs and PERs allowed (27.6 PER, 19.2 PER allowed, +8.4 differential). Bynum, by comparison, while less flashy overall and less dominant on offense, had a stronger net effect (22.6 PER, 13.1 PER allowed, +9.5 differential).*

*(Note: for reasons I won’t get into here, the PER ratings listed by Hollinger and 82games.com are slightly different, with Hollinger’s always a fraction smaller. All PER references here are on Hollinger’s scale, so anytime I use data from 82games.com I normalized to Hollinger’s lower scale).

Team PER Differential

What I want to focus on here is using individual PER differentials to predict team success, particularly when it comes to the Lakers. There is a close (and obvious) statistical correlation between a team’s win-loss record and the cumulative PER differential of its individual players (taking into account minutes allocation). 82games.com lists the PER, PER allowed, and PER differential for each team by position. By adding up the five positional PER differentials, we can generate a total team PER differential. I did this and then mapped team wins as a function of team PER differential to measure correlation, as shown below.

Running a linear regression (not shown), we find the correlation coefficient between the variables is very high: .941. This is an obvious finding, as we already know that PER and PER allowed, given their focus on efficiency in scoring and preventing points, is a powerful statistic in tying individual to team success. Unsurprisingly, the Celtics and Pistons finished 1-2 in both team PER differential (+17.4, +14.4) and wins (66, 59). Also unsurprisingly, the Heat, Sonics, and Knicks finished bottom 3 in PER differential (-14.6, -14.3, -13.8) and with 3 of the 4 worst records in the league (23, 20, and 15 wins). The Lakers were third in the league in wins (57) and fourth in PER differential (+11.4). By calculating the slope of the regression line fitting the data, we can determine that each extra point of team PER differential is worth an extra 1.3 team wins (with a 0 differential tied to 41 wins, as we would expect).

What is more interesting than this obvious connection is the potential to use individual player PER projections to project likely team success. Recently, John Hollinger came out with his PER projections for every player in the league. By using these and forecasting minutes played for each Laker at each position, it is possible to come up with a rough estimate of total team PER for this season – and then use that to project wins. I did this. My methodology:

1. Project minutes played per game at each position for our 12 (likely) rotation players;
2. Use Hollinger’s PER projections and my minute allocations to determine the net PER for each of the five positions;
3. Because Hollinger does not project PER allowed, I used last year’s numbers for each player from 82games.com (thinking that our unchanged roster would lead to basic stability in defensive numbers), and calculated net PER allowed for each position;
4. Using the projected PER and PER allowed, I calculated the net PER differential for each position, and then the team as a whole.

The following spreadsheet shows the results (and makes it easier to understand the process):

As you can see, the projected team PER differential is +15.1. This (a) would have been second in the league last year, (b) is a significant improvement over last year’s +11.4, and (c) results in a projected total of 62 wins. A few notes:

Changed Assumptions

I tweaked the numbers in just a few cases. First, Hollinger projects Odom as having a 15.93 PER (down from 16.9 last year). Looking back at past seasons, it is apparent that Lamar has a much higher PER at PF than SF, but he will split time this year between the positions. Thus, my spreadsheet reflects this as I give Odom a 13.73 PER at SF and a 16.89 PER at PF (which, taking into account that I project him playing 2/3 of his minutes at PF, leads to a net PER of Hollinger’s 15.93). Second, Ariza’s data from last year was too small a sample size so I used his defensive numbers from 2007 with Orlando when inputting his PER allowed.

Roster Thoughts

• The Lakers have great talent and depth. Thanks to Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum, we project to be very strong at three positions (SG, PF, C) and among the league leaders in two (SG, C). At SF, PF, and C we not only have a star starter (Kobe, Gasol, Bynum), but backups with positive PER differentials (Sasha, Odom, Gasol). This is a rare blessing.
• The main improvement over last year comes at PF and Center, which is unsurprising given that we expect a full season out of both Bynum and Pau at those spots.
• As expected, SF is a mess. There are simply too many bodies to give anyone meaningful minutes. Based purely on the numbers, we should focus our minutes there on Ariza and Kobe (and to a lesser extent Odom), especially as Sasha is very productive at SG and worthy of more minutes (shifting most of the SF minutes to Ariza and Kobe and giving more time to Sasha would lead to an increase in 2-4 projected wins). Ariza is the only true SF (Kobe excepted) with a positive differential (+2.19). However, based on the preseason, I am optimistic that Radmanovic can be more productive than projected. As we’ve all discussed, at some point Phil needs to ride the most productive players at SF and sit the others.
• If Hollinger is right and Fisher regresses while Farmar improves, more of the PG minutes should be transitioned to Jordan. Last year they split at 27 for Fisher, and 21 for Farmar; I projected an even 24/24 this year, but it might make sense to give Jordan a little more than that.
• Our best lineup on paper (Farmar, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum) has an incredible PER differential of 28.0 (if that lineup played all 48 minutes of every game, the team would be projected to finish 77-5). Last year, the Spurs had the best 5 man lineup in terms of PER differential (Parker, Finley, Ginobili, Thomas, Duncan) at +31.3. The Celtics had the second best at +28.8 (Rondo, Allen, Pierce, KG, Perkins). The difference between those teams was that the Celtics’ production did not fall off the cliff when they went deep into their bench, and the Spurs did (in addition to the fact that PER really disfavors pure defensive specialists like Bowen). Clearly, this Laker team has strength in both being able to sport very effective 5 man lineups, and in having depth to not lose significant production when it goes 8-9 men deep in the rotation (we have seven players who project to have positive PER differential; many teams have multiple negative players starting). But, there also remains room to create a much more dominant 5 man lineup by improving (whether internally or via trade) at the PG or SF position.
Hollinger projects PER decreases for most of our players: Fisher (sizable), Kobe, Sasha, Radmanovic, Odom, Walton, Gasol, and Bynum. Basically every rotation player on the team except Farmar and Ariza. I buy his arguments for Fisher, Kobe, and (to a lesser extent) Sasha. Some of the drops are significant and puzzling: Gasol and Bynum. I understand that they will share responsibilities and numbers, but PER is also about efficiency. I’d be surprised if their mutual presence seriously harms each of their individual PERs, especially with Bynum young and developing. I think Walton bounces back from a poor showing last year and Radmanovic has room to improve. Overall, I think Hollinger’s projections are a touch on the low side for the team. If I’m right, and many of these players just hold steady with their production (in terms of efficiency) from last year, the team would project closer to 65 wins.

Methodological Problems

This analysis is obviously rough and there are a few problems with my analysis, including: (1) failure to take into account how roster changes will affect individual PERs (although I understand Hollinger’s projections did so, as shown by Pau and Bynum both having lower projected PERs than last year); (2) using last year’s PER allowed stats (there was simply no way to accurately project changes for this year, but I hope our basic roster and style stability will lead to a small error size); (3) my minute allocations do not take into account possible injuries (although I do try to project on the low side – e.g. Bynum may play more than 30 minutes a game by the end of the year, but he’ll also probably miss a few games); and (4) most importantly, statistics (including PER) have significant, inherent limitations and overlook things like chemistry, effort, health, attitude, style synergies, etc. This analysis is intended to be interesting and spark discussion, not be an end all projection of the team’s performance this year.

Questions

We don’t need statistical projections to tell us this is a very talented, deep Laker team. With health, the forecast of 62 wins is reasonable, even in the increasingly brutal West. How many wins do you predict? What players have the potential to make a leap in their production and efficiency this year (like Sasha did last year)? Who might regress? Is Hollinger right that both Bynum and Gasol will lose a little individual efficiency when playing together and see a drop in their PERs this year, or is it possible they could become more efficient (I, for one, think they could both shoot over 55%, which would make our offense historically dominant)?

–Reed

Know Your Enemy: The Phoenix Suns

Reed —  October 7, 2008

This is the latest in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. Today we talk about recent rivals — the Suns. — Reed

Last Season Record: 55-27 (sixth seed, but had the fourth-best record, just two games back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Lost to the Spurs in the first round in five games
Offensive Rating: 109.5
Defensive Rating: 104.4

The Suns.

No team currently evokes more spontaneous hatred, spite, fear, annoyance, and general negative emotion from me than the Suns. I’m not exactly sure why. The Spurs are the natural rival, or “enemy,” right now – the team we have regularly competed with for titles, dominance, and team of the decade honors. They are the team we don’t want to play in the playoffs. They have the only other player (Duncan) or coach that are relevant competitors with our superstar and coach for places in history. The Celtics are the recent finals opponent and only true epic rival. The Suns, on the other hand, will probably just pass as a cute little blip on the radar. A fun new style, an exciting point guard, but no real substance or accomplishments. Yet, they are the only team I watch with real anti-emotion.

This strange circumstance probably relates back to the crushing defeat in 2006. It was then, after several dark years post-Shaq, that I first allowed myself to hope again, only to have it cruelly snatched away by an opponent that openly despised all things LA (as revealed in Seven Seconds or Less). Immediately after the epic come behind victory in game 4 of that series – the “double Nash turnover, jumpball, Kobe buzzer-beater” victory – my twin basketball obsessive (“Brig”), a lifelong Phoenix native, Suns fan, and friend of Suns management, sent me the following email, summing up the general demeanor of every true Suns fan I have ever met:

An absurd farce of a game. I’m not an NBA fan anymore, it’s like watching professional wrestling – the whole damn thing is rigged. Good luck cheering on your team full of criminals, drug addicts and CBA throw-aways. I hate everything now, the Suns (who have played like garbage, we shouldn’t have even been in the situation for the refs to steal the game from us, since you knew they were going to try if it were close; Marion in particular is a complete waste), the Lakers (who are pure evil, Phil Jackson is in fact Beelzebub, and I refuse to watch any more games, because I can’t stand the camera shots of phony celebrities and every other stupid, plastic, useless Lakers fan), and all things relating unto these two teams and the sport that they play. I renounce the Suns, basketball, and all organized athletics. May Kobe Bryant die of some painful disease and rot in hell.

This captures the Suns fan. Frustrated, desperate, scorned by destiny, tragically scarred, and, mostly, intensely anti-Laker and LA. As a Cubs fan, I can understand the mentality, for nothing has worked out for this team. The Barkley era came and went with no rings, as it happened to coincide with the Jordan era. Then a brilliant team emerges that caught the league by storm with its new style of unselfishness and offensive fireworks, but destiny seemed to firmly snatch away every chance in their window: the Joe Johnson injury in the 2005 playoffs, the missed Amare season in 2006 (when they would have been the heavy favorites with him), the Horry hip check/Amare suspension in 2007, and then the ill-fated Shaq-Marion trade last season, followed by the death matchup with San Antonio. Top to bottom, they were probably the most talented team over the last four years, and yet they could never make the finals. Now, with the rise of LA, Utah, New Orleans, and Houston, their window has probably closed. Again. This delights me.

Now, putting biases aside, let’s look at the state and future of this worthy rival.

2008-09 Outlook

This is the last stand for the Suns as we know them. Nash is 35, Shaq and Hill 36, with no significant young talent ready to take their places. This is a classic “glass half full, glass half” empty team. One person might see extraordinary talent and experience. Another might see over the hill stars and chemistry issues.

First, the glass as half full. A fan could look at the roster and see one of the few teams with two legitimate mvp candidates (Nash and Amare), a dynamic point guard-power forward combination, a veteran all time great and matchup nightmare in the middle (Shaq), steady role playing veterans on the wings (Bell, Hill), a top 6th man candidate (Barbosa), and a few talented and versatile bench players (Diaw, Barnes, Lopez). On paper, that’s a balanced, talented, powerful team.

With the arrival of Shaq, the team’s focus seemed to shift from Nash to Amare, as Shaq’s presence freed Amare from his failed role as defensive and rebounding anchor and allowed him to focus on what he does better than anyone – score efficiently. Amare has become hands down the preeminent scoring big man in the game. After the all-star break he averaged 28.5 points on 59% shooting, 83% free throws (and 10.2 attempts a game). On the season he led the league with an incredible 65.6% true shooting percentage (reflecting field goal and free throw combined efficiency), and was third in PER (behind Lebron and Paul). He finished second in both offensive and total win shares (behind Paul in both). He developed a deadly 20 foot jump shot, finishing 12th in the league in 2pt jump shot % (ahead of Kobe and any Laker), was third in the league in inside fg%, was second in total dunks, and first in “and ones.” He is, simply, the most efficient and productive scorer in the game. And, with the arrival of Shaq to anchor the middle, he is no longer the massive defensive and rebounding liability he was as a center. In their prime, Duncan and Garnett were better players than Amare was last year, but the league hasn’t seen this offensively dominant of a power forward since the young Karl Malone. And, at 25, he’s only going to get better.

Shaq’s arrival didn’t help everyone, however, as Steve Nash’s production noticeably dipped with the arrival of the diesel. The presence of Shaq caused Nash to slip in every statistical category, including a sharp decline in assists from 11.7 per game to 9.9. The reason for this appeared to be that Shaq’s constant presence on the low block hurt the Suns offensive spacing, as the middle wasn’t clear for penetration and cutters. The running game also obviously slowed down, as the team transitioned to a more traditional half court offense centered around their two big men. So, instead of having Nash feeding shooters and cutters, we saw more of Amare isolating on the high post, or Shaq hitting shooters from the low block. A great question entering this year is what type of style Porter will endorse – can he find a way to harmonize Nash’s freelancing and fastbreaking abilities with Shaq’s plodding, power game?

Shaq himself actually played very well after the trade, averaging 13 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 61% shooting in 28 minutes a game. He also instantly changed them from the worst rebounding team in recent memory (they were -5 per game before the trade) to an above average one.

There are, however, clear warning signs. With Shaq, they were only 18-15 (including the playoffs), but only 8-14 against winning teams. Nash showed worrying signs of slippage last year, especially defensively, as he simply could not stay in front of the new band of young, elite point guards in the West. Tellingly, Phoenix went 0-4 against New Orleans, 1-2 against Utah, and were dismissed 4-1 by a Tony Parker led Spurs team (Shaq largely neutralized Duncan, so Poppovich put the ball in Tony Parker’s hands with endless pick and rolls). In the four losses to New Orleans, Nash allowed Chris Paul to go off for 29 points, 4.5 rebounds, 11 assists, and 4 steals. Against Utah, Deron ran wild for 20 points, 4 rebounds, 11 assists, and 53% shooting. In the playoffs, Parker went off, averaging 30 points and 7 assists on 52% shooting. At this point of his career, Nash is simply too slow and weak to guard these opposing point guards, which had devastating effects given Phoenix’s general defensive weakness. Clearly, Nash needs more rest and the Suns are hopeful that new backup PG Goran Dragic is the answer.

There are also warning signs in the front office. After a power struggle with new owner Robert Sarver, Bryan Colangelo left the Suns to tak eover the Raptors. Since then, the team has been run disastrously. In 2004, they owned the 7th pick but traded it away for a later pick and cash. That pick turned out to be Luol Deng, and Andre Iguodala was also still on the board. In 2006 and 2007, the team continued to sell their first round draft picks, trading away the rights to Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez, and Rudy Fernandez. At the same time they were trading away cheap young talent, they were signing overrated players to inflated contracts, with Marcus Banks landing $21 million and Diaw landing $45 million (D’Antoni was a great coach but horrific GM). These latter moves led the team to desperately cut costs last summer, trading away Kurt Thomas and two unprotected future first rounders to Seattle for nothing. Would there have been a need to sign Banks, Diaw, and trade away Thomas (with two picks) if the team had simply kept Deng, Rondo, Rodriguez, and Fernandez? Of course not. And the team would be better positioned for the present and future. Now, the team faces a need to rebuild around Amare whenever Nash and Shaq break down, but lacks the budding young talent or future draft picks to acquire the necessary players. We’ll see if Kerr can reverse the tide.

With few remaining future draft picks, a bare cupboard of young talent, and the financial inability to take on more salary, the team has no real resources to immediately upgrade their current roster around Nash, Amare, and Shaq. The lack of young players and picks means it will also be very difficult for them to quickly retool around Amare. Thus, if things start to fall apart, they might be in a position where they have to make a few bold moves, such as trading Nash, to put a few strong pieces around Amare for the future. They will also have Shaq’s expiring contract next summer, which will be a huge piece on the trade market. IF they can’t use these pieces to rebuild, they could face a long, dark winter in a year or two.

I see this team as darkhorse title contenders this year. The talent is there. Very few teams have two top 10 players and mvp candidates. Very few surround such stars with experienced veterans at the other positions. But they will need to stay healthy and find a system that harmonizes the talents of their key pieces. And do all of this with a new, inexperienced coach who has to juggle difficult ego’s in Amare and Shaq. The potential is there for great success and great failure. Which, from a Lakers fans perspective, is all we can hope for – great drama and tension from our key rival.

Inside Perspective

Now, back to my friend Brig, who is a true basketball intellectual and friendly with a few higher ups in Suns management. I asked for his perspective on a few issues:

Question: In hindsight, would you make the Marion-Shaq trade over again?

Absolutely. While it didn’t work out in the playoffs as hoped, we faced the defending champions and were in every game. Marion was causing problems with chemistry. He was complaining about shots, he was grousing a lot (saying that D’Antoni didn’t do enough to promote him as an All-Star candidate), and he and Amare never really got along. Amare and Shaq are actually very close – Shaq has been kind of a mentor since he first came in the league. The Suns needed a big presence inside – someone to help with rebounding, clog the middle, help Amare avoid foul trouble by taking on guys like Duncan, Yao, and Bynum for 20 minutes a game. Shaq can certainly do those things. And Shaq is a mean, tough, playoff tested veteran that everyone in the league respects. The Suns needed attitude as much as interior defense and rebounding.

The Suns are also one of the most veteran player friendly teams in the league. They have light practices, a cool, understanding coaching staff, probably the best training staff, excellent facilities, and a great group of guys (by all accounts, Nash, Raja, Grant Hill and Barbosa are some of the coolest guys in the NBA). They have unselfish players (except for Amare, who loves and respects Shaq), and Nash will find a way to keep Shaq happy. So it’s a good situation for Shaq at this stage.

I can now fully reveal my hatred for Marion – an insecure, crybaby little nancy who complained about being underappreciated and underrated, even while he was the highest paid guy on the team and a 4x All Star who couldn’t get his own shot and consistently choked in the playoffs. We had a three-way deal for Boston in place to get Garnett, but Marion refused to go to Boston. Good riddance. He is now lumped in with Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Jason Kidd, Joe Johnson, Michael Finley, Stephon Marbury and AC Green – former Suns players who are dead to me.

The Suns weren’t going to win it with Marion, and Shaq plugged a gaping hole, so I’d make that trade again, obvious concerns included. There was enormous risk in the move, but they could be unreal if they can get Shaq healthy and keep him that way. Shaq helps in exactly the way the Suns need – defensive rebounding (a fatal weakness before – Marion is a great rebounder, but he doesn’t keep other people from getting offfensive rebounds, which is what we really need); keeping Amare out of foul trouble; increasing FT attempts (Suns are the best FT shooting team in the league, but other than Amare, never get to the line – Shaq, though a terrible FT shooter, puts other teams in the penalty); gives the Suns a low post option when Amare isn’t on the floor to open things up for shooters, and provides size to discourage penetration. And, perhaps most importantly, toughness and intimidation. All NBA players fear and respect Shaq, even at his age now.

Question: What direction are the Suns heading? Should they go all in this year for another title run or should they cash in on Nash while he still has value?

Definitely have to go all in one more time. There is no sense in attempting to “rebuild” at this stage. Shaq is likely completely untradeable. The Suns will not trade Nash. It is unlikely the Suns would deal Amare (I’m just not sure who they would deal him for that would fit with Nash and Shaq and approximates equal value). So, as long as you have to pay three max-contract guys for multiple years, your only choice is to try and contend. Also, Diaw is awful, and nobody will trade for that guy. You can try, but it’s not going to happen.

The Suns did a pretty good job of addressing their needs this offseason. They needed: (a) a versatile, atheltic defender who can guard rangy 4s (like Dirk or Bos) and wings (like Kobe or McGrady); (b) a reserve point guard for Nash, someone who can fit into the system and is young enough to groom behind Nash, but competant enough to start playing minutes now; (c) a mobile big who can defend the pick and roll and crash the boards. Through free agency and the draft, they picked up Barnes (the wing defender), Dragic (the backup point guard), and Lopez (the energy big). Add in an offseason to integrate Shaq, and the team could be markedly better next year.

I think a lot of the problem last year can be attributed to cohesion – just not having played together and integrating a drastically different piece to the system (it’s not like the Suns traded Marion for Nocioni and Noah, or for Granger and Jeff Foster – those would have been easy pieces to integrate). Shaq can’t score on pick and rolls, so he has to get the ball in the post to be effective, and the Suns just aren’t used to that. So this has led to turnovers, which leads to increased scoring from opponents. This year, I’d expect the team to be on the same page and the pieces to fit together more efficiently.

Question: How do you feel about Porter as the coach?

It’s as good as can be expected. He’s got a good reputation among veteran players, so I think both Shaq and Nash will respond well to him (though I worry that Shaq will resent him for not being Shaw). He played on some great Portland teams (those teams are right up there with the Stockton/Malone Jazz and the Barkley Suns of great, non-title winning teams). He’s coached under Adelman and Flip Saunders, so he’s had some great apprentice opportunities on good teams with great offensive minds, and he’s played for Popovich. Plus, he was a decent head coach for a mediocre Bucks team. I don’t think he’s as good D’Antoni, but he’s as good as we can get under the circumstances.


Question: How will Dragic fit in?

Dragic has actually been on NBA radar screens for a couple of years, so I’ve seen more of him that most other Euro prospects. He reminds me of Keyon Dooling – very athletic, an excellent defender, great size for his positions, but a questionable decision-maker, a technically-sound but inconsistent shooter, and (unlike Dooling) frail physically. I understand the Suns’ attraction – he’s an almost ideal backcourt mate for Barbosa, because of his size and defense, and ability to be effective without taking a lot of shots, and he’s a nice understudy for Nash (international guy, humble kid, team-oriented). But he clearly does not have Nash’s vision or shooting ability. I feel a little about Dragic the way I feel about Lopez – the right idea (i.e., exactly the kind of player we need), but I’m not sure that the player we picked is good enough. In Lopez – we clearly need an athletic, defensive-minded front-court partner for Amare in the future (and to spell Shaq and defend the pick-and-roll now), and Lopez is that exact kind of player. But he had a less-than-stellar collegiate career – the numbers say he won’t be that good. Same with Dragic – ideal type of player, great fit, but his numbers in small European leagues say that he either isn’t that good, or isn’t ready to assume a big role (and being Nash’s backup next year is a big role). Maybe getting Lopez out of his Brook’s shadow (he played much better when Brook was suspended last year), and getting him working with Cartwright/Shaq/Amare will help him accelerate his development, and getting Dragic into some top flight competition (obviously Tau Ceramica, one of the top Euro teams, agreed with the Suns that he’s ready for prime time), and putting him with Porter and Nash will help him develop. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Question: Tell me about how the Suns approach scouting for the draft. Are they refocusing their energies on the draft after selling all those picks?

Yes, they are very interested in drafting good young players now, although they are severely handcuffed by the picks lost in the Thomas and Shaq deals.

The scouts have a cutting edge computer program, where they can literally call up video clips of any player in the draft based on certain categories, like “transition defense” or “three-point shots” or “post-up possessions”, and the computer will run a series of clips of the good and the bad of that player in those circumstances. Just awesome.

They approach workouts wisely. A lot of what the scouts are looking for is preparation – does the player take the workout seriously, came in prepared and in shape, and showed good work habits and competitiveness. I think it’s as much an evaluation of character as it is of basketball ability.

Also, it’s an intelligence test. They throw a lot of sets and install plays quickly to see how well the player remembers and reacts and takes instruction and coaching.

It’s also about trying to measure players against other draft picks. This is particularly important where the player (1) comes from a smaller school or played overseas in a non-elite league; or (2) only has a year of college experience (or less), and thus may have only played against elite talent at his respecitve position twice, even if the guy played for a top college team. Even for major programs in top conferences, there are only maybe 10 NBA caliber guys at any position in college at any given time. Most teams won’t play all of those guys, so for a freshman, you may have only evaluated him playing against someone of his own caliber once or twice.

Also, his college team may not have allowed him to exhibit all of the skills you’re looking at. Someone like Hakim Warrick or Jared Dudley were forced to play as power forwards in college, but they aren’t well suited for those positions in the pros. So you need to evaluate their skill sets for other positions, which you can’t do in game tapes. Top to bottom, the scouting department is first rate.

Final Thoughts

I hope the Suns are great this year. The Lakers season will be more interesting and rewarding if they battle the Suns all year for the division and then have to worry about them in the playoffs. And the league is simply a better place when Nash, Shaq, and now Amare are involved in important games. But, ultimately, I don’t think this team can beat LA in a series, so I welcome their relevance without great fear. There are just too many concerns and too much has to go right for them to come out of the West.

Finally, lest there be any question about the importance of this rivalry, here is Brig’s immediate response to the Gasol trade last winter:

Do you realize that you have sold your immortal soul to a franchise that would sooner defile everything you love and hold dear than extend a hand of fellowship to mankind – a dark necromancer haunting us all?

I am a well informed NBA fan, and understand completely the implications of this trade. But I refuse to be cowed by evil – even in such a monstrous and terrifying form.

The Suns: fun to hate; always frustrated; the perfect rival.

–Reed

Breaking Down Team USA

Reed —  August 8, 2008

Due to particularly oppressive slave-driving from The Man, I was not able to watch any of the Team USA exhibition games. However, my good friend Kyle (my arch nemesis during hundreds of heated and poorly played pickup games during law school), has been breaking down the games and roster in a series of long emails that warm the soul during oppressive work weeks. Since his thoughts were so insightful, and with Kurt out of town, I asked Kyle to fine tune those emails into the following Team USA breakdown. — Reed

On Sunday night, the USA Basketball team officially begins its latest pursuit for Olympic gold and for recognition as the greatest basketball country in the world. In preparation of this, I have put together a breakdown of each player’s performance over the last few weeks during the exhibition schedule. While I tend to be a stat guy by nature, for this analysis I primarily used my observations of the games. I am not going to recap any of the games (plenty of other sites have done that), just the overall performance of each player. Unless noteworthy, I will not discuss their performances in any specific game, just my overall impressions. For those of you who have watched the games, your impressions may differ from mine so feel free to chime in. For those of you who didn’t see the games, don’t blast the analysis based on your NBA experience. As has been well documented on this site and others, the international game is vastly different from the NBA game and NBA skills do not necessarily translate into international skills or vice versa (see Carlos Arroyo). Away we go:

J. Kidd: The decline is significant, noticeable and not at all troubling (unless you’re a Dallas fan). Kidd will play the first 4-6 minutes of each half and then will likely sit out the rest of the time. He took two shots in five games, which is about right. He still runs an effective break but his ability (or lack there of) during half court sets hamstrings the offense. I am glad he is on the team for leadership and experience but even more glad he doesn’t get the bulk of the playing time.

K. Bryant: Pardon the blaspheme but so far, Kobe has not looked very good. He is gambling far too much on defense and when the other team scores in a half court set, it is usually Kobe’s guy that does the scoring. That can’t happen as Kobe is supposed to be our defensive stopper (our Doberman if you will). He needs to stop going for the home run on defense and stay put with his guy and stay more aware of back screens and back cuts, both of which have been used effectively against him. It is as if he is so juiced to lock his guy down, that he has forgotten all of the basic defensive principals that have made him one of the better defenders in the league over the last decade. Offensively, Kobe has looked out of sorts. He keeps taking long 3’s, which doesn’t make sense. If they are going to give you thee points for shooting a mid range jumper (the international three line is just behind the collegiate three line), take the mid range jumper. With all of the above said, Kobe has not yet had to guard any good players and when he finally does, I think he will shine. I would like to see USA use him more like Redd on offense. Set some off the ball screens for him and get him open 3’s, like they consistently do for Redd. He is just as good of a shooter when open, but since he doesn’t move on offense (not at all, not even a little), he ends up getting the ball four feet behind the 3 line and chucking up some terrible looking shot.

L. James: His strength is unbelievable compared to the international players. I think he is playing exceptionally well and will likely be the MVP of the Olympics (not sure if they have that award, but if they do, he will get it). On defense, he is playing consistently and doing a good job of getting into the passing lanes. He is rarely burned by his own guy and when he is involved in the pick and roll defense, USA is in good shape. His height and speed allow him to trap the ball handler and effectively prevent the pass to the screener. I think this has impressed me the most. On offense, he has played within the system for the most part and is I think our 3rd most effective offensive player (I will discuss the other two below). He attacks the rim, like he should, but he is also getting into the paint and creating little six foot jumpers that are essentially gimmes. He is also shooting well from the outside which makes him practically unguardable. He took over the Australia game down the stretch, which is the reason we won.

C. Anthony: Offensively, I have no complaints. He is a bit of a chucker but he has been tagged as the team’s first offensive option so I am ok with that and in some ways like it. For purposes of offensive rebounding (Howard), it is nice to know where a lot of the shots are going to come from. He settles some for his jump shot but it is consistent enough that I don’t mind too much. The only exception to this was the Australia game where he ended up going 4-13. It is imperative that Coach K keeps tabs on Anthony if we are going to win gold. When Anthony is on, he is perfect for international basketball because of his size, strength and quickness off the dribble (relative to the speed of his opponent, who is usually the 4). When Anthony is off (see Australia game), he is a gigantic liability as he is our worst defender (by a fair margin) and not committed to rebounding. As I said, on defense, Anthony is just terrible. Doesn’t move his feet and lets his guy get too many offensive rebounds. As he is the 4, it is critical that he spends a lot of energy on the defensive end fighting for position and keeping the other big off the glass. Anthony has not really shown a willingness to do that yet and it has hurt the team some. I think the good teams are going to use Anthony in the pick and roll and USA will have to rotate out of position to make up for his poor defense which will eventually leave some outside shooter open. This is what scares me the most right now.

D. Howard: Fouls way too much and lets the physicality of international basketball get to him. This is a major issue and makes me even more furious that Chandler didn’t make the team. What is Howard doing that Chandler can’t do? You cannot run the offense through Howard because there is too much zone defense in international play and because the trapezoid lane makes it difficult to get good post position. Howard is there to rebound (on both ends), block shots (doing that very well) and be available for the around-the-rim pass. All things that Chandler does just as well as Howard. The reason Howard is always in foul trouble is that in international ball, the refs (A) suck, (B) suck, (C) suck and (D) like to call petty fouls against the interior defensive players, even though the bigs may have been elbowing each other for 20 seconds before the offensive player got the ball. In terms of what Howard is doing, I love it and think he is great. A bigger concern right now for Howard is that he appears to be in Coach K’s dog house. Coach K doesn’t like how Howard has gotten chippy with the other players and Howard’s tendency to gloat after good plays (he did this a lot during the five exhibition games, more than any of the other players, which was frankly shocking to me as I thought Howard was the nice, humble Christian). This bugs me too as the days of US dominance are over. Lets hold off on the showboating and rim hanging until we actually win an international tournament that matters. Hasn’t happened in six years.

D. Wade: Remember when Wade was in the discussion for best player in the league with Lebron and Kobe? Me either. But I do remember when he was a lock for an All-Star spot. That Wade happens to be back, wearing red, white and blue and playing the best basketball on Team USA. His windmill ally-oop dunk the other night was jaw-dropping (I actually let out an And-1 Mix Tape Tour like ‘holla, and as a white, middle aged guy, that is something). He is playing angry right now and it is positively scary. He is attacking the rim and breaking ankles left and right. The best is that somewhere along the lines, he picked up the Ginobili side-step that looks like a travel but isn’t. To complete his comeback and to once again cement his spot in the All-Star game starting line-up, he has been consistently hitting his outside jumper. On defense, he’s omnipresent and getting his hands on every loose ball. I am not sure of the stats but it feels like he is getting a lot of rebounds for his position. Just a force of nature and has answered all the questions about his come back. I love him coming off the bench by the way (though I would have him in my starting line-up). He is Ginobili 2.0 (two Ginobili references in one paragraph, nice), All-Star quality that comes in after a few minutes when the other team is getting a little winded and just creates havoc.

C. Paul: Disappointment so far, though he had an improved game against Australia. Some flashes of brilliance when he takes the ball into the paint but way too many turnovers and terrible defense. His outside shooting has improved, which is nice, but he keeps trying to make street ball plays which is nonsensical (please accept the fact that we cannot run most of the teams in the Olympics off the court). I think he has been tagged as the Kidd back-up, which is fine, but he has still not found his international groove yet. Maybe he is just too small for the very physical nature of FIBA, I don’t know. What I do know is that he needs to settle down and play more conservatively or he is going to cost us a lot of points. As I mentioned above, in the Australia game, Paul looked much better. When he got by his guy and the Aussies didn’t rotate to him quickly enough, he used his little teardrop to effectively score. That is the Paul that is dominating in the NBA. Too fast to keep in front of you and smart enough to immediately decide if he should shoot or pass. I think he was trying to be too much like J. Kidd in the first few games. In the last game he played like Chris Paul and we need Chris Paul.

D. Williams. Second best player so far. He is the perfect FIBA PG and a pretty darn good SG. He is a bulldog guarding the ball and plays the passing lanes as well or better than anyone on the team. I think the coaches thought Redd would be the zone buster but turns out Deron gives you everything Redd does plus a ton extra. He runs the break almost as well as Kidd and certainly better than Paul (Paul is trying too many dumb passes). He is hitting his outside shot consistently and every ball that leaves his hands looks like it is going in. He rebounds well, both high (jumping for boards) and low (running in and grabbing the lose boards). As mentioned, he is defending superbly. Finally, his penetration is the best on the team at this point and he can finish around the rim with power and/or finesse. He was also involved in my favorite play so far. During the Russia game, the Russians ran a pick and roll against Williams, who ended up switching onto Russia’s giant center. The center then tried to get position on Williams in the paint. The center might as well have been trying to move a house. Williams didn’t budge and I’m pretty sure the center got an elbow in his kidney for his efforts.

M. Redd: Giving us exactly what we expected, if not a little more. I like his energy on the offensive end (running around screens and trying to get to the open spot) and his determination on the defensive end. He is a great addition to the team.

C. Bosh: Nancy, first class nancy. Doesn’t rebound well against big men, doesn’t finish around the rim (no jumping ability and small hands) and isn’t hitting his outside shot. I’m not sure how many times he is going to drop a perfect pass before Coach K goes with Boozer over Bosh. I hate Bosh and hate him even more because Chandler should be on the team, not him. To boot, he sucks on defense and makes terrible decisions on the pick and roll (consistently gets screened and then guards no one as his guy rolls to the basket forcing the other players to rotate, leaving someone open). The only positive thing I have to say about Bosh is that he hits his free throws, unlike the rest of the team. I’m telling you right now, if Bosh gets major minutes once the elimination games start, we will lose.

C. Boozer: I think he has played well. He is the second best rebounder behind Howard and does a good job defending the rim as the center, even if he is undersized. He finishes weakly around the rim but his weak finishes tend to go in (a la Malone). As I discuss more below, the best thing about Boozer is the way he plays with Williams.

T. Prince: Fine. He should be the 12th man. He is too skinny to be a great defender in FIBA. Still, he rebounds well, gets his long arms in the passing lanes and hits the occasional open shot. I like him but his game doesn’t translate too well in international basketball. I don’t see him getting many minutes at all. Sure would have been nice to use this spot for either another big (hello Chandler) or a player committed to playing in 2012 (hello Durant).

Now for a few general impressions on the overall team, though most of it you can glean from my thoughts above.

Offense: What I expected. Constantly pushing the ball to create easy offense and when forced, going into isolation or pick and roll basketball. If forced into a half court game, Wade and Williams, or at least one of them, need to be in the game. They give us our best chance of breaking down the defense and then hitting the open players around the rim or at the 3 line. I’m a little disappointed that we still don’t have any plays at all. Maybe they are being saved for the actual competition, lets hope that is the case. The only time our players seem to have a purpose on the offensive end (at least in half court sets) is when Redd is in the game. Then we run a Pistons type offense keyed at screening players to get Redd open shots. I like this offense but feel we should also run it for Kobe, Anthony and Williams, all of whom can hit the open outside shot. I would also like to see more pick and roll rather than throwing the ball to Anthony and Lebron at the elbow which is our go to play. I hate when we try the Shaq offense with Howard (throw the ball into the paint and hope he scores or they double him). Howard is not skilled enough yet and the bumping and grabbing allows by the refs almost always leads to unnecessary turnovers. Howard should only get the ball when he is in a position to finish, not when he will be forced to create.

Defense: I have mixed emotions about our defense. On the one hand, we are playing aggressive and seem totally committed on the defensive end. On the other hand, we are being too aggressive and getting exploited because of it. The best part of our defense has been our commitment to trapping the pick and roll and our efforts at pressuring the ball up the court. This forces teams out of their sets which is key, as well run offenses can still beat USA. What has hurt us the most on defense is that the players are so keyed on ball denial and high pressure on-the-ball defense, that they expose themselves to back cuts and back screens, both of which have been used effectively against Team USA. Kobe is especially guilty of this. While a high pressured defense creates turnovers and thus avoids us having to run offensive sets, it also leaves us vulnerable to the Princeton style offenses that are so prevalent in international play. What is most frustrating is that many of the players on the team are great team defenders (Kobe, Lebron, Wade, Williams, Paul, Howard) but for some reason, when they landed in China, they checked their defensive IQ’s at customs. Obviously we are more athletic than our opponents, but when a team has good guards and solid passing big men (hello Spain and Argentina), a high pressured defense often results in open baskets for the other team. Sorry to rant, this is really bothering me. We need to control our emotions on the defensive end and play a more team oriented style of basketball. Finally, our defensive rebounding is not perfect but what did we expect? We don’t have a four other than Anthony, who is Tin Man like in his heartlessness. I think the guards are doing an adequate job of trying to help out and Howard is really flexing his muscles when he can stay in the game.

Best Line-Up: This is obviously debatable, but I think our best line-up is Williams, Wade, Kobe, Lebron and Howard. Williams has been the best PG so far and with him and Kobe on the court together, Wade’s and Lebron’s penetration should lead to a lot of made 3’s. I would play a lot of pick and roll with Williams and Wade (using Howard as the screener). I would also try to run Kobe off of some screens and get him open looks. When the offense breaks down, we would have the 3 best playmakers on the court (sorry, Kobe isn’t one of them at this point). On the defensive end, we lack size but only just. Lebron is huge compared to most international players so he can play the 4 just fine. Kobe is certainly tall enough to play the 3 with ease. Williams is a big PG and can guard either guard position. In terms of subs, I think Paul goes in for Williams. No Kidd at all, he gets to play the first few minutes but then must cheer from the bench. As for Wade, when he comes out, I would either put in Redd or move Williams over to the 2 spot. Kobe’s primary back-up should be Lebron (i.e., Lebron or Kobe should be on the court at all times, same with Williams or Wade). For Lebron, bring in Anthony or Boozer. If Williams is in the game, I would make a special effort to use Boozer rather than Anthony. Though they didn’t play together often during the five exhibition games, when they did, the chemistry was palpable (shocking right, teammates for 82 games a year play better together than guys who play 10 games together each summer). Howard can be spelled by Boozer or Bosh. Prince and Kidd should stay off the court as much as possible, unless it is a blow-out.

Conclusion: I have serious, serious concerns about our team. We still don’t have an offense and on defense, we are too arrogant in thinking our athleticism will overpower our opponents. I am hoping beyond hope that Coach K has some offensive sets up his sleeve. I’m also hoping that we can figure out how to tone down our defense when needed. If my hopes are in vain, I think we lose in the elimination round, probably in the semifinals. If you have watched international basketball over the last five years, you know very well that America has the best players in the world, hands down, but that we are not the best team, probably not even top three. Can great players beat great teams? Didn’t happen in LA vs. Boston and I don’t think it will happen in the Olympics. Am I totally hopeless? Absolutely not. I trust Kobe and I trust Coach K. I think there is more there than they have let on, or at least that is what I’m going to be telling myself until August 24th (the gold medal game).

–Kyle