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David Lee's Exit Unclogged Drain For Steve Kerr

Everyone wants to make the Golden State Warriors fantastic start to the season about Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr, but the biggest change for this year’s team has been on the court. After averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds in 33 minutes a game last season, David Lee has played only seven minutes all season as he deals with a hamstring injury. This season and the 2012 Playoffs is about as close to a controlled experiment that you will ever see in the NBA.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jackson or Kerr. Without Lee, Golden State turns into a pure 4-out team and they become almost unstoppable. When Lee went down in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets in 2013, everyone thought the Warriors were finished. They had lost their only All-Star! Instead, they went nova, blitzing a 57-win team in six games and giving the San Antonio Spurs everything they could handle in the second round.

The same exact thing is playing out again. With Draymond Green playing as a small-ball 4, the Warriors have four three-point shooters on the floor at all times. They space the floor really well, they have speed and athleticism at almost every position and Andrew Bogut towering over everything in the middle. A 4-out team with Bogut as the only big man and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson running the show from the perimeter is going to be hard to beat.

Lee gets his numbers - 18 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists on 53% shooting last season - but he does it in a way that destroys everyone else’s flow. Lee doesn’t play enough defense to be the only big man on the floor, which means Golden State can’t play 4-out with him in the game. When the Warriors have two big men on the floor, they become a much more conventional team which has to slow the ball and play inside-out in order to maximize Lee’s skill-set.

Lee is most effective as the second biggest man on the floor while playing in an era where many of the best teams only play one big man at a time. There are still teams like the Memphis Grizzlies that can succeed with two big men, but they play to their strengths - pounding the ball inside, controlling tempo and playing lock-down defense in the half-court. The fundamental problem with playing Lee is that he gives you all the spacing problems of a two-in team without any of the benefits, as he struggles to score over bigger post defenders like Zach Randolph and he has even more trouble stopping them on defense.

Lee’s exit is like unclogging a drain. All of a sudden, when Golden State is on offense, eight of the ten players on the floor are spread out around the three-point line. All that spacing makes it almost impossible to stick with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, since they can find the open man when the defense sends help. Golden State is playing the type of pure 4-out basketball that we haven’t seen in the Western Conference since the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.

If you look at the last few champions out West, every winner had a huge PF:

2008-2010 - LA Lakers - Pau Gasol (7’0 250) and Lamar Odom (6’10 240)

2011 - Dallas Mavericks - Dirk Nowitzki (7’0 240)

2012 - Oklahoma City Thunder - Serge Ibaka (6’11 240)

2013-2014 - San Antonio Spurs - Tiago Splitter (6’11 245) and Boris Diaw (6’8 250)

The Heat were able to get to the Finals playing pure 4-out basketball, but they barely survived series against Roy Hibbert and David West, much less some of the monstrous front-lines in the Western Conference. That’s the logic behind the construction of most of the top teams out West. The starting PF on all eight playoff teams last year were all 6’9+ - Tiago Splitter, Serge Ibaka, Blake Griffin, Terrence Jones, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki.

There has been no team willing to take the spread pick-and-roll to its logical conclusion, not since Mike D’Antoni’s glorious revolution in Phoenix could never get past a 7’0 foot roadblock in San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan. For the most part, teams in the West aren’t trying to play small. That’s why I assumed coming into the season that A) the Warriors would stick with Lee and B) it would ultimately doom their chances for winning the West.

Lee’s injury is really the best thing that could have happened to Kerr, since it took the tough but necessary decision out of his hands. There’s no way they can put him back in the starting line-up after the way they have started the season. In essence, the last three years were a holding action, where David Lee was fighting to hold onto his starting spot while a potentially great team was waiting to burst out at any moment. As soon as he got hurt or had to leave the line-up for any extended amount of time, this was going to happen. He may end up being useful to them as a 10-15 minute guy off the bench, but the days of him being a featured player in Golden State have come and gone.

Without Lee around to get in everyone’s way on offense and get lit up on defense, the Warriors have gotten off to the best start in the NBA, with a 21-3 record and a 16-game winning streak that ended in The Grindhouse on Tuesday. In terms of pure statistics, Golden State is as good a team as there is in the league. However, when you start playing the match-up game in the playoffs, it looks like their chances to win it all will come down to two questions.

1. How will the pure 4-out approach play out against the best PF’s in the West?

It almost ended up working in the 2014 playoffs, when Jackson was forced to go 4-out after Andrew Bogut was injured. After they were down 2-1 to the LA Clippers in the first round, Jackson moved Lee to the 5 and started Draymond Green at the 4. They averaged 101 points in Games 1-3 and 110 points in Games 4-7. However, in the end, though, the lack of rim protection and size on the defensive glass doomed them. Would it have been different with Bogut at the 5 and Green at the 4?

Golden State’s 112-102 victory in Chicago a few weeks ago was the best-case scenario for a 4-out team playing a 2-in one. Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson were able to take advantage of their size upfront, but they had no answer for Green at the three-point line. The floor was spread so wide that the Warriors were able to tear holes through the Bulls defense. When everything goes right, the math becomes overwhelming. Green scored 31 points and hit 7 3’s in that game.

Their 105-98 loss to Memphis was the worst-case scenario. Zach Randolph was able to bully Golden State around the rim, with 17 points on 12 shots. Green, meanwhile, was unable to make him pay on the other end, repeatedly coming up short on jumpers and shooting 2-11 from the field. The worry is that over a seven-game series, his legs are going to be worn down by all the wrestling he will have to do with guys like Blake and Z-Bo.

“Draymond is the heartbeat of the team,” said Steve Kerr after the Warriors win over the Mavs on Saturday. “He has guarded everybody - LaMarcus Aldridge early in the season, Anthony Davis last week. He just guards whoever he needs to, including on switches, when he’s handling PG’s or wings. Draymond is a huge part of our success and I think people are realizing that and he should get plenty of notoriety for his contributions.”

You can only tell so much from the individual match-ups in the regular season, since teams can alter their game-plans to focus on a match-up advantage over the course of a seven-game series. If Golden State ends up playing a team like Memphis (Z-Bo), the Clippers (Blake) or the Blazers (LaMarcus Aldridge) in the playoffs, it’s going to come down to which team can with the contrast of styles at the PF position and dictate the tempo of the game.

In theory, that type of series is where it would nice to have David Lee, but does anyone think he’s winning match-ups with elite PF’s? At least if you play Draymond and Barnes at the 4, you are going down playing your style instead of losing while pretending to be something you are not. And if you look at the way the NBA has been going over the last generation, you have to trust that the math will win and that the spread pick-and-roll will beat the post-up.

Where it gets really interesting is what happens if the Warriors play a team that wants to play 4-out with them.

2) Can someone beat Golden State at their own game?

Over the last three seasons, the Thunder and the Spurs have been the class of the West. They played in the 2012 WCF and the 2014 WCF and the only reason they didn’t play in the 2013 WCF is that Russell Westbrook got injured. Odds are, a team that wins the West this season is going to have to beat Oklahoma City and San Antonio. What makes those teams so dangerous in the playoffs is their versatility - they can play either 4-out or 2-in and still win.

The Thunder start Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, but their most dangerous line-up is Ibaka at C and Kevin Durant at PF. This is what I mean by Golden State playing “pure” 4-out basketball - Oklahoma City could start Durant at PF all season and score all the points. Instead, they go with a more conservative defensive-minded line-up, with the idea that they can always go 4-out when they need to in the playoffs. The Ibaka/Durant tandem is an absolute nightmare match-up for the Warriors defense, since they don’t want Bogut on the three-point line.

The Spurs start Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but they can play 4-out with Boris Diaw at PF and Duncan at C. Two years ago, Diaw was one of the keys to the Spurs getting past the Warriors in the second round, as he had the quickness to play their perimeter game on defense and the skill to punish their lack of size on offense.

Even after winning a ring, Diaw is still one of the most underrated players in the world. In a one-game scenario, he can be as good as anyone. In the last nine months, he played LeBron James to a draw in parts of the NBA Finals and absolutely smoked Marc Gasol in the World Cup. He’s essentially a much bigger version of Draymond Green. If they face San Antonio in the playoffs, Green may find out, in the inimitable words of Lionel Hollins, that there’s always a bigger man in a prison.

Trying to leverage a mismatch on the perimeter against a guy like Zach Randolph is a whole different animal than trying to beat Kevin Durant and Boris Diaw at their own games. It’s not so much that Green has to outplay those guys 1-out-1, but that Golden State is no longer the faster and more skilled team on the floor in that match-up, the advantage they have had over everyone else all season.

As great a start as Golden State is off too, all roads in the West still go through the stretch of I-35 from Oklahoma City to San Antonio.

The New Team Smell

Vivek Ranadive had a deal in place with Michael Malone to hire him as head coach before he even became owner of the Sacramento Kings. The unconventional way of hiring a coach before putting front office personnel in place should have foreshadowed with what has been unraveling the past several days for the Kings.

Malone was fired in his second season after a somewhat surprising 11-13 start in the rugged Western Conference. DeMarcus Cousins has missed the past ten games with viral meningitis and the team expectedly has struggled, dropping eight of those ten games.

With Cousins not in the mix, opposing teams have been focusing primarily on Rudy Gay—which has reverted Gay back to the inefficient player he has been throughout his career. Cousins commands so much attention down low that it creates floor spacing on the perimeter that often led to higher percentage shots for players like Gay and Ben McLemore. With Cousins on the court, the Kings were a plus 12.7 per 48 minutes.

Ranadive’s inability to allow the staff he hired to make basketball decisions will undoubtedly hinder the potential of the Kings. General manager Pete D’Alessandro was hired to work in concert with Ranadive in making personnel decisions. Several different occasions through Ranadive’s brief tenure as owner can attribute to the growing rift between him and Malone that eventually led to Malone’s dismissal.

Since his days with the Warriors, Malone was widely considered a defensive coach. On the other hand, Ranadive wanted the team to run and play at a faster pace, similar to their Reno D-League affiliate. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Ranadive wanted Malone to instill a four-on-five defense—something his daughter’s youth team did and was written about in Malcom Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” book—where one defender would run back for easy cherry pick baskets.

Furthermore, Malone’s desire to re-sign Isaiah Thomas over the summer and hesitance of long-term extensions to both Cousins and Gay were overruled by Ranadive and his front office.

Even with the addition of speedy Darren Collison, the Kings do not have the proper team roster to run at a pace similar to the Warriors or Thunder. Malone was simply playing to the team’s strength of a pick and roll half-court scheme for the offense to run fully through their best player in Cousins. Additionally, Cousins post-up game improvement under Malone has been a huge reason for the team’s fast start this season.

Factoring in the lack of depth on the current roster, the unavailability of their best player, and the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Kings were surely going to regress to the mean at one point or another. With the tense offseason pandemonium, Kings’ management were waiting for any excuse to terminate Malone, and with their recent slump, they seized that opportunity. 

In their war room on draft day, Sacramento is featured by Grantland. Ultimately, they decided to pick Nik Stauskas over Elfrid Payton—one they may surely regret in the future. The Kings have a similar player to Stauskas in the more athletic McLemore, and Payton would have been a quality perimeter defender to fill the point guard void, as Thomas wasn’t expected to return. This was a simple objective call, but it appears that Ranadive is the driving force behind all decisions given how much he’s talking throughout the video.

In the past, Ranadive has seemingly liked to engage the media about his team. Since the ousting of Malone, Ranadive took two long days before he finally addressed the media. He compared the organization chaos to that of a Sousa marching band, and they needed to shift to a jazz band.

“We had a Sousa marching band, which was needed when there was chaos, but now we need to shift to a jazz band, where people can be individually showcased and improvised. What we need is a jazz director. I think that’s the kind of leadership moving forward.”

With past history that shows Ranadive controlling the organization top to bottom, it is quite ironic that Ranadive points out that he needs someone with creativity and that can improvise.

Other reports have come out that Ranadive did not directly speak to Malone about his termination, and Cousins found out about the firing over Twitter—rather unprofessional on all levels.

As talked about previously, new ownership tends to come in and try to run their respective teams as their own fantasy teams, and Ranadive clearly falls in this category. Until he realizes that the front office is employed to do their jobs in making basketball decisions, the Kings will be stuck in a form of chaos and uncertainty.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Dec. 15-Dec. 21)

From top to bottom, this should be an excellent week of non-national games featuring matchups of elite teams as well as some with compelling young talent. 

Monday

- Bulls @ Hawks: Even as we close in on the 25 game threshold, I am still not sure where the Hawks fit in a strange Eastern Conference playoff picture. Hosting the Bulls could help resolve that. It will also be a test of if Tom Thibodeau will react to Golden State exploiting his defense (and talent) with a stretch four since Atlanta’s system can force similar decisions.

- Bucks @ Suns: Two teams that have produced some fun games so far this season. Milwaukee’s unusual length allows them to play pick and rolls aggressively while the Suns may have the best collection of ballhandlers in the league.

- Spurs @ Trail Blazers: In other weeks, an argument could be made for this being the most anticipated NNGW matchup. After all, Portland’s improved defense has fueled their 18-6 record and the Blazers have been a strong home team. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge both pose problems for the champs but San Antonio’s depth will make Terry Stotts lament his comparatively meager bench. 

Tuesday

- Heat @ Nets: Chris Bosh’s strained calf means Miami will need to get contributions from new places and facing a Brooklyn team still finding themselves despite having a top-eight record in the East.

- Mavericks @ Knicks: On the list to see if Tyson Chandler injures his back laughing at the sinking ship he was lucky enough to be traded away from.

Wednesday

- Hawks @ Cavaliers: Another test for Atlanta and a potential showcase for LeBron James considering Atlanta’s lack of an elite perimeter defender. It also features Kevin Love battling Paul Millsap which has been worth watching for years.

- Magic @ Celtics: Both teams have outperformed their talent so far and this continues an incredible home/road disparity for the Magic who as of this writing have played seventeen games on the road and only nine in Orlando.

- Grizzlies @ Spurs (Game of the Week): No sales pitch needed as these are two incredibly good basketball teams that have plenty of battles on larger stages over the years. 

Thursday

- Pelicans @ Rockets: Assuming Anthony Davis returns by this point, we could see a fun game featuring teams with dramatically different strengths. Houston has played well without Dwight Howard but could struggle to contain one of the league’s best players while New Orleans’ best perimeter defender has been their Point Guard who they might be reticent to put on James Harden.

- Bucks @ Kings: Sacramento’s first League Pass game after they shockingly fired Mike Malone. Also, Giannis!

Friday

- Bulls @ Grizzlies: An old school battle between two teams with elite front lines. Memphis has a few opportunities this week to make statements against top teams and I hope we get to see some quality time with Mike Conley and Derrick Rose going at it. 

Saturday

- Trail Blazers @ Pelicans An easy inclusion if Anthony Davis can suit up. Lillard and Aldridge have played well this year but Davis and Holiday have the potential to be solid defensive counterpoints.

- Hawks @ Rockets: This game features teams unafraid to try new things in the NBA with the talent to compete with the best. James Harden and Al Horford are All-Stars without logical stoppers on the other side.

- Spurs @ Mavericks: Another game of the week option in another week even though we see these teams play so often. Dallas continues to lead the league in Offensive Efficiency while the Spurs quietly sit in third for Defensive Efficiency despite using their starters so much less than other franchises.

- Bucks @ Clippers: Even though they have fallen to tenth in defense, watching Jason Kidd’s tactics for defending Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers will be a fascinating exercise. I am especially intrigued to see where Kidd puts Jabari Parker and Giannis because Larry Sanders may be the most logical defender on Blake. 

Sunday

- Grizzlies @ Cavaliers: Another day, another huge game for the Grizzlies. While Kevin Love has some battles with Memphis in his past, we sadly have not seen much of Kyrie vs. Conley or Tony Allen on LeBron (in recent years, at least). Just seeing these teams share the court should be worth the price of admission.

- Suns @ Wizards: Marcin Gortat revenge game! Also, college teammates John Wall and Eric Bledsoe throw down with one of the few guys in the league that can hang with them athletically.

- Pelicans @ Thunder: The game I am most looking forward to this week hands down. New Orleans has played some feisty games recently and the Thunder have been winning while continuing to get their groove back. Almost college teammates Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday will not get the headlines over their forward counterparts but could end up deciding the outcome unless Durant goes wild against a team without a wing defender.

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Multiple appearances this week from the Warriors, Raptors, Cavaliers, Clippers, Pelicans and Thunder as you set your League Pass schedule.

Clippers Starting To Roll

As the Clippers grow and mature, a more formidable kind of team has emerged, one that stresses tough defense, spreading the court, and making the extra pass. Maybe not as flashy as Lob City, but more substantial, with the hope of playing deep into May.

The Overhyped Specter Of The Repeater Tax

While the new CBA established a heavily punitive repeater rate, it also made getting there incredibly difficult. After the current season, the only way for the repeater rate to come into play is if a team paid the luxury tax in three of the four previous seasons.

Brad Stevens Appears To Reach Breaking Point, All But Calls Celtics Soft

Brad Stevens does nice guy about as well as anyone in the NBA, but his patience is wearing thin. Physicality has been one of Stevensí favorite words as of late, a diplomatic way for the coach to harp on his team for being soft without creating a salacious headline.

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Coach's Corner: Pop-ology

In a league where more and more brilliant ideas and minds are infiltrating it by the day, there is a continued push for the new, intricate ways to view the game. But as Gregg Popovich and the Spurs regularly remind us, sometimes the smartest people are in the NBA are the ones that remember to keep it simple.

Non-National Games Of The Week (Dec. 1-Dec. 6)

Multiple appearance this week from the Bucks, Cavs, Heat, Mavs, Pelicans, Wizards and Thunder.

Joel Anthony Hopes To Re-Sign With Pistons As Part Of New Culture

Joel Anthony has made clear to Stan Van Gundy his desire to remain within the new regime, aiming to re-sign with the Pistons and be part of a roster that thrives again in Detroit.

Magic Find Free Money In Evan Fournier

If Evan Fournier had spent three seasons at Indiana playing next to Cody Zeller, he would be pretty well regarded like Victor Oladipo. Rob Hennigan has again found free money as he did with Tobias Harris and Nik Vucevic.

Coach's Corner: How Jason Thompson And Zaza Pachulia Are Unsung Heroes

The Kings and Bucks have started the 14-15 season better than expected with Jason Thompson and Zaza Pachulia playing key, under the radar roles in that success.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov. 24-Nov. 30)

Brow vs. Boogie Part II headlines Thanksgiving week, along with multiple appearances from the Raptors, Grizzlies, Rockets and Bucks.

Alex Len And Why The Tools Are There To Wait

Miles Plumleeís emergence should have made people more leery of writing off Alex Len, not less. After all, what was the oldest Plumlee doing when he was 20, the same age as Len?

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov. 17-Nov. 23)

The Raptors make three appearances this week with critical tests against the Grizzlies, Bucks and Cavaliers.

Wolves' Long Road Trip Begins Long Season

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The players and owners have begun their PR campaigns on more equal footing than the last time, but it already feels like at least the public stances so far have lacked the nuance necessary to have this discussion.

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