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Coach's Corner: Rockets' Big Man Rotation, Utah's Shot Tweeners

Rockets' Big Man Rotation

On late Sunday night, the Houston Rockets released Jeff Adrien. While not on par with news like LeBron James heading back to Cleveland, Adrien’s release brought attention to the strange dynamics in the Houston frontcourt. Prior to being waived, you could make the case that Adrien was Houston’s third best big, behind incumbent starters Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones. Yet due to contracts, Adrien finds himself looking for a new team. The leftovers - Donatas Motiejunas, undrafted rookie Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey -- are now left to fill out the crucial rotation spots behind Howard and Jones.

Coming off an underwhelming FIBA tournament, Motiejunas was a mess this October. He posted a preseason PER of 7.88 and was also at fault for more than his fair share of defensive lapses. Part of the struggles could be attributed to the Rockets using Motiejunas as a backup 5 and encouraging more post ups than he will likely see in the regular season. But combined with his 4-of-13 showing on three-pointers, Motiejunas didn’t do anything to justify a rotation spot come Houston’s regular season gams.

Dorsey, signed this offseason after a three years in Europe, didn’t look much better. At 6’7”, Dorsey is something of a Ben Wallace-lite and the Rockets are surely hoping he can fill such a role in the minutes behind Howard. Upon returning from an ankle injury that cost him the first three preseason games, the 30-year-old Dorsey struggled to finish, rebound or impact the game defensively. The ankle injury did keep Dorsey out for the beginning of camp, so with some time to adjust to Houston’s scheme and regain his fitness, Dorsey should be better, but the question is how much?

If Dorsey’s preseason performance doesn’t drastically improve, the next option the Rockets will turn to is likely Black. Coming from out of nowhere, Black impressed with his energy, rebounding and toughness all preseason long. On a younger team with less lofty expectations, Black would be a no-brainer for minutes in an attempt to accelerate the refinement of his game. But this Rockets team is coming off a 54-win season in a loaded West and though Black brings some positive attributes, he’s only 6’8” (though he possesses a wingspan that’s just shy of 7’3”, according to DraftExpress), has an offensive game that’s limited to garbage buckets and is still feeling out the nuances of NBA defense. Black is a potentially a great find for Houston in the long-term, but right now he’s a rookie that’s still trying to find his way in the world’s most competitive league. 

There are a few other options the Rockets can possibly sort through as the season wears on. The first being rookie center Clint Capela, who is a virtual unknown at this level because he’s missed all of preseason with a groin injury. The second is shifting rookie small forward Kostas Papanikolaou to the 4, like Houston did with Chandler Parsons at times. But Papanikolaou has also been adjusting to the power and pace of the NBA game and may not be physically capable of holding his own at that spot until a full offseason spent working on his body.

It seems as though with all their roster shuffling hoping to land a third superstar, the Rockets find themselves now with more questions than answers when it comes to an increasingly important part of NBA team-building: depth. 

Fire At Will

One of the more fascinating subplots of the recent emphasis on shot efficiency is how spacing-obsessed coaches have handled “shot tweeners” -- players with limited jumpshots thrust into systems that demand their position stretch the floor all the way to the 3-point line. The old rule of development when it came to players like this was that you simply found the range they were most accurate from and limited them to attempts from that far and in. So a lot of coaches simply adjust their system to their personnel even if nowadays it’s been hammered home that 3's are much better than long 2's, it’s still a much better option than to let him shoot a higher percentage from the mid-range. 

The most brazen conversion attempt happening right now is in Salt Lake City. Trevor Booker and Enes Kanter are currently being thrust into the role of ‘stretch 4’ by new head coach Quin Snyder. Snyder’s system calls for 4-out spacing and lots of ball movement around the perimeter. The problem is that when the ball finds the hands of Booker or Kanter out there, defenses don’t exactly fall over themselves in order to contest the shot. And with good reason as Kanter and Booker have combined to shoot 13 3’s in their career. Yet this preseason, those two have combined to launch 28(!).

Snyder’s system works best when the four players on the perimeter can create maximum room for post ups, pick-and-rolls or drives to the basket. Instead of just accepting what his players current limitations, Snyder (and coaches like Brad Stevens in Boston and Brett Brown in Philly to name a couple more) just tries to jam a square peg in a round hole and hopes it changes shape in the process.

Now there are definitely some underlying factors to this. The biggest one is that all those coaches mentioned are dealing with teams with little or no expectations and currently have the job security needed to watch players develop their perimeter shots on the fly. Monty Williams would probably love to let Anthony Davis get game reps with his 3-point shot, but given his job status depends on New Orleans making the playoffs, that isn’t happening. 

Another part of this is the player being challenged to add this shot to his game. Two questions likely need to be addressed before any random player on the roster is told to shoot 3’s for the first time in his career. The first is whether or not that player’s current shooting stroke can handle a shot from further back. Certain mechanics can look funky, but with repetition, they can still be turned into accurate shots from that distance. Some players, like Brandon Bass, may have certain movements in their jumper that mean a drastic shot overhaul (which is a really hard thing to do) would be needed in order to give that player a realistic chance of flirting with league average.

The second question is much more simple, if you give a particular player the green light to test out a new skill in a game, will he work on it diligently during, and more importantly, before and after, practice? There has to be some reciprocity between the coach and player in this situation. If someone like Snyder is giving players like Kanter and Booker the green light to develop this shot on the fly, he should make sure they understand they are required to put in extra work in order to fully take advantage of their newfound freedom.  

All this is really just a fun gamble for both the coaches and players in the positions that Snyder, Booker and Kanter are in. If it fails, it will at most cost Snyder a few extra losses for a team that isn’t expected to be in playoff contention. If it works out, Booker, Kanter, Snyder and the Jazz will have hit the jackpot.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Oct. 28-Nov. 2)

Welcome back to Non-National Games of the Week! This should be another strong season of games not played on TNT, ESPN, ABC or NBATV. You can also read my League Pass team column. As much fun as the offseason has become, real games are so much better.

Tuesday

Orlando Magic @ New Orleans Pelicans: The first non-national game of the season features Anthony Davis and his new muscle Omer Asik. Orlando made a series of changes this summer and Jrue Holiday will provide a challenge on both ends for Elfrid Payton’s first game. Plus, any minutes of Aaron Gordon vs. Anthony Davis should be captivating.

Wednesday

Milwaukee Bucks @ Charlotte Hornets: A combination of the first game for the newly rechristened Charlotte franchise and Jabari Parker’s first regular season game. The Giannis / Jabari / Larry Sanders (not all caps…for now) front court will be worth checking in on the first few weeks and Lance Stephenson making his debut should be fun as well.

Washington Wizards @ Miami Heat: A nice opening week game featuring two teams that had some notable turnover this summer. Miami has to learn how to play without LeBron while Paul Pierce works to make his imprint on a Wizards team ready for more success. Since Washington has players suspended due to a strange brawln in the pre-season, Chris Bosh will have an opportunity to show what he can do against shakier opponents.

Atlanta Hawks @ Toronto Raptors: While other games on this list make it for storylines or debuts, this one should be a fun game to watch. Toronto was one of the NBA’s best surprises last season and Atlanta played well before Al Horford’s injury. These teams actually made a trade in the off-season that sent Louis Williams and rookie Lucas Nogueira to the Raps in exchange for cap flexibility so we could see Lou try for some fireworks against his former team.

Houston Rockets @ Utah Jazz: Dante Exum’s debut, Trevor Ariza’s return and Dwight Howard vs. Derrick Favors. Sounds good to me.

Thursday

Detroit Pistons @ Minnesota Timberwolves: There may not be two teams outside of Cleveland with more questions we need answered. Will Stan Van Gundy lay down the law and only play two of Drummond, Smith and Monroe at a time? Can Andrew Wiggins start his career strong? Will Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine get minutes? How many bad shots can Josh Smith take before SVG goes ballistic?

Friday

Philadelphia 76ers @ Milwaukee Bucks: After missing all of last season,  Nerlens  Noel should get a showcase here against the only team that ended last season with a worse record than the Sixers. We might get to see second round pick KJ McDaniels defend Jabari Parker at some point, which happened most recently in a thrilling ACC Tournament game.

San Antonio Spurs @ Phoenix Suns (Game of the Week): The Champs get Game of the Week honors and deservedly so with such a compelling week one matchup. The Suns added Isaiah Thomas to an already fun core and know how important each win will be. I also want to see how the Spurs handle Patty Mills’ extended absence and whether rookie steal Kyle Anderson gets any minutes.

Saturday

Dallas Mavericks @ New Orleans Pelicans: Two teams with substantial changes who should be right in the middle of the battle for playoff spots in the Western Conference. Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler make Dallas a more complete team but Omer Asik provides a defensive identity that New Orleans sorely lacked last season. Plus, Anthony Davis guarding Dirk Nowitzki will be thrilling each and every time down the court.

Denver Nuggets @ Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook gets the reins of the Thunder in what should be a fast-paced game. Ty Lawson and the Nuggets added veteran depth in Arron Afflalo and young talent in Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris while the Thunder will have to survive without Kevin Durant and new addition Anthony Morrow.

Phoenix Suns @ Utah Jazz: This game has five Point Guards I want to see, six if you count Tyler Ennis who likely will not see much time. I also like it when coaches face teams they played on and Jeff Hornacek had great success in Salt Lake City. 

Sunday

Philadelphia 76ers @ Houston Rockets: This will likely only be worth watching for a quarter but Nerlens Noel manning up Dwight Howard should illustrate just how far the rookie’s body needs to develop if he wants to play center in the best league in the world. Plus, Harden could go for 40 or more.

Golden State Warriors @ Portland Trail Blazers: Must-watch NBA basketball on the first Sunday of the season. Just excellent. Damian Lillard has already had some big games against his hometown team and both franchises have making and winning playoff series in their sights already. This game also should be an early test of Steve Kerr’s defensive ethos since David Lee has lots of trouble defending LaMarcus Aldridge.

LeBron At 30

As the new season gets underway, all eyes in the NBA are on LeBron James and his new team, just as they were four years ago. The 14-15 Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot in common with the 10-11 Miami Heat, from the massive spotlight they are playing under to a head coach without a lot of NBA experience and three star players learning to play together. The biggest difference between the two teams is their best player, who had to do a lot of growing up in the last four years.

LeBron James at 26 might have been the most impressive athlete in the history of the sport. He was a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who was bigger than the big men and faster than the guards. He was a seemingly indestructible basketball cyborg who could play all 48 minutes without any visible sign of wear and tear. Like most young guys, he thought he was invincible. Miami’s collapse in the 2011 NBA Finals humbled him and made him a better player.

LeBron at 30 isn’t quite the athlete he once was. He can’t play as many minutes and he can’t go as hard on both ends as he used too. He can still turn on the athleticism when necessary, but he doesn’t do it as often. It’s like an older sports car - you can still take it into high gear, but you probably don’t want to wear out the engine revving it through downtown traffic. What he’s lost in athletic ability, though, he has more than made up for in his grasp of the game.

If LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland was Young LeBron, what he was doing by the end of his time in Miami was Peak LeBron. The offensive efficiency numbers speak for themselves. LeBron averaged 29 points per game on 50% shooting in his last season with the Cavs - he was at 27 points on 57% shooting in his last season with the Heat. He became comfortable scoring out of the post and he turned himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.

Where you really saw that was in the playoffs, where he was able to score at will regardless of who he was playing against. Before last season, LeBron had never shot above 51% in the postseason. It makes sense - the game slows down and you are facing much better defenses with much bigger and more athletic defenders. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 56% from the field. Those are prime Shaq numbers and Shaq spent the whole game dunking on people.

That LeBron is able to score at that volume and efficiency while taking shots from all over the floor shows you how easy the game comes to him. In their first year with Miami, everything looked really difficult for the Heat. They had a hard time getting out of each other’s way on offense and they didn’t function all that well as a unit. LeBron at 30 is unlikely to have the same types of issues in Cleveland - he doesn’t make the game any harder on himself than it has to be.

When LeBron has the ball in his hands, he almost always makes the right decision. If the defense plays off him, he shoots. If they press up on him, he drives. If they send help, he finds the open man. He takes what the defense gives him and he doesn’t force the issue. If basketball is an equation, he has essentially solved it. As long as he can play in space, LeBron is one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA - the defense has to give up something.

The big difference for him in Cleveland is that he will have more support on the offensive side of the ball.

Kevin Love is a better three-point shooter than Chris Bosh and he gives them another dimension on the offensive glass, while Kyrie Irving won’t have to sit out games and have his minutes cut like Dwyane Wade. Part of the problem in Miami was that LeBron was using up so much energy trying to carry them on the offensive end of the floor, he had to take off possessions on defense.

By the end of the Spurs five-game rout of the Heat, LeBron just seemed worn out - Wade could no longer dominate on one knee, Bosh had been completely de-emphasized in the offense and none of the role players could do much of anything. Everyone needed LeBron to spoon feed them open shots. The Cavs, in contrast, have more guys on their roster - Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson - who know how to find their way into points.

If LeBron is able to ration his energy more effectively in the regular season, that could pay dividends in the playoffs. A couple of times in the 2014 NBA Finals, he reached into the tank and came out empty, most notably when he cramped up at the end of Game 1. That might not have happened were it not for an air conditioning malfunction in San Antonio, but it clearly had an effect on how he trained in the offseason, as he is at his lowest weight in years.

Dropping weight and playing with teammates who can carry the offense and allow him to take a step back are two of the biggest reasons for Tim Duncan’s amazing longevity in the NBA. The older a player gets, the harder it becomes for them to carry any extra pounds on their knees and the more susceptible they become to injuries. Injuries, not any significant decline in play, are what usually ends the careers of the greatest players, from Shaq to Kobe Bryant. 

Great players don’t age like basketball mortals. As they get older, they can adjust their game and remain effective, compensating for any loss in physical ability with a corresponding gain in mental ability. That’s the biggest difference between LeBron at 26 and LeBron at 30 - he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.

LeBron’s game has changed a lot over the last four seasons and he will have to continue to reinvent himself to stay atop the NBA for the next four, if not longer. If his time in Miami was like Jordan’s first three-peat in Chicago, his second stint in Cleveland will have to be like the second. We are witnessing one of the greatest players of all-time at the peak of his powers. As the next stage of his career begins, everything is on the table, both for him and the Cavs.

A Solution To The NBA Draft Lottery

The answer is to keep the current system in place, while implementing rules that prevent teams from getting top picks in successive seasons to prevent sustained tanking.

The Torture Chamber

The Warriors possess a compelling combination of pieces that can be mixed and matched to create problems for their opponents and the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut five should be the crown jewel sooner rather than later.

Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Why Brad Stevens' system will maximize the skill sets of Boston's ecletic group of players, how LeBron experiments in preseason and fallout from Philadelphia's tanking.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

The Raptors were the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement last season. Terrence Ross, Iman Shumpert, Mason Plumlee, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Zeller can offer their teams improvement from within.

Mavericks Regained Contender Status With Nostalgic Summer

The Mavericks enter the new season with a revamped roster and high expectations, thanks to the addition of Chandler Parsons and the trade to bring back Tyson Chandler.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

All five teams in the Northwest have committed to building through the draft and Steven Adams, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Coach's Corner: Warriors' Change Of Tempo Style, The Triangle's True Difficulty

The Warriors played fast last season, but any player has the freedom to "rip-and-run" under Steve Kerr, while the Triangle could be a bad fit for Derek Fisher and the Knicks even if they run it right.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.

Thunder Finally Approaching Prime Contention Seasons

With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder aren’t just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

The top teams to watch on League Pass have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7’0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7’0. Chandler covers up Dirk’s flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.

NBA Limbo

Limbo is the best way to describe the area where players whose skill and production have them vacillating back and forth between starring on the top teams in Europe or filling out the bottom half of NBA rosters. In this Basketball World Cup, Milos Teodosic, Emir Preldzic, Ante Tomic showed us (or reminded us) that they can contribute to NBA teams.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Jonas Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.

Cleveland's Blind Spot: Contenders Without A Top-10 Defense

The Cavaliers will have no trouble scoring at an efficient rate with offensive talents like LeBron, Love and Kyrie sharing the floor. The real question is how good will the Cavaliers be on defense, particularly their interior defense?

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

Dario Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup.

Charlotte's Chances Of A Deep Playoff Run

Failing to keep Josh McRoberts in the mix with a core of Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson might ultimately wind up preventing Charlotte from legitimately contending in the Eastern Conference.

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