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Antawn Jamison & The Floater Game

With training camp over and a new season underway, the odds are not good for any unsigned free agent trying to get back into the NBA. That goes double for a 37-year-old like Antawn Jamison, who played in only 22 games for the Los Angeles Clippers last season, posting career-low numbers across the board and looking like a player on his last legs after his minutes went from 33.1 per game in 11-12 with the Cleveland Cavaliers to 12-13 in 21.5 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Let’s not reduce his career to whether or not he was a Hall of Famer - either way, the guy was a monster.

For all Jamison has done in the NBA, he might be remembered best for his time at North Carolina, where he and Vince Carter combined to form one of the most explosive duos in college history. In an era where guys didn’t go pro as soon as they possibly could, Carter and Jamison led the Tar Heels to consecutive Final Fours before declaring for the 1998 draft. They wound up being taken at No. 4 and No. 5 overall, with their rights exchanged on draft night.

Jamison was the bigger star in college, winning the Wooden and Naismith Awards as a junior, but Vince was the one seemingly destined for NBA stardom. At 6’6 210 with a 40’ vertical, he was cut out of central casting for a star SG. Jamison, on the other hand, was a bit of a tweener - at 6’9 235, people wondered if he would be a SF or a PF in the NBA, while his reliance on flip shots and one-handed runners earned him an unflattering rep as a finesse player.

When projecting college players to the next level, scouts look for comparable NBA players, established guys with roughly similar games and skill-sets. With Jamison, there was really no one to compare him too - he wasn’t a post scorer, he wasn’t a three-point shooter, he wasn’t a slasher who played above the rim. He was the master of the in-between game, a guy who could get a shot off from any release point and score without dominating the ball.

After an up-and-down rookie season cut in half by the lockout, Jamison came into his own in his second season with the Golden State Warriors, averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 47% shooting. What really put him on the map was a pair of 50-point games in back-to-back nights in December of that season, something only four other players in NBA history have done since 1964 - Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King and Allen Iverson.

By his third season, Jamison had established himself as one of the best scorers in the league, averaging 25 points per game on 45% shooting. Unfortunately, there was never much talent around him in Golden State, as they were perennially one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, yet they continued to spend lottery picks on more perimeter scorers. Jamison’s five years with the Warriors came in the middle of a 12-year playoff drought for the Warriors.

To be sure, he wasn’t helping out too much on the defensive end of the floor, a criticism that followed him throughout his NBA career. That’s where being a “tweener” really hurt him, as he was neither quick enough to stay in front of the best SF’s or big enough to match up with the best PF’s in the post. To get the most out of his talents, Jamison needed to be surrounded by defensive-minded players, which never really happened in Golden State.

He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks at the age of 27, where he became part of one of the more bizarre teams in recent NBA memory. Those Mavs featured five different players who could get 20 on a given night - Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker and Jamison - none of whom could play much defense. Jamison became the odd man out, forced to go the bench and play as a sixth man, almost never having plays called for him in Dallas.

With so many other guys dominating the ball, Jamison had to change his game, scoring on off-ball cuts, put-backs and run-outs. It didn’t matter, as he was the definition of a guy who could roll out of bed and get buckets - he averaged 15 points on 54% shooting and won Sixth Man of the Year. If he got the ball, it was going up. He could score in the blink of an eye, appearing out of nowhere and throwing up a shot before the defense even noticed.

The five 20-point scorer experiment in Dallas only lasted one season, as Don Nelson began to take a smaller role in the organization and the team decided to become more balanced. Jamison was traded to the Washington Wizards, where he became a two-time All-Star and had his best years in the NBA. Along with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, he was part of a Big Three that made four straight playoff appearances in the latter half of the 2000’s.

While they only made the second round once, it was still quite an accomplishment considering the recent history of the franchise. In the previous 16 seasons, the Wizards had made the playoffs one time. That, in many ways, was the story of Jamison’s career - apart from his one season in Dallas, he was always on underachieving franchises and being asked to carry teams that didn’t play a lick of defense, which wasn’t the best use of his skill-set.

Jamison was instant offense, the rare player who could be effective in almost any context regardless of his usage rating or his teammates. His per-100 possession numbers over the course of his career were remarkably similar - it didn’t matter whether he was a primary option on a bad team (Golden State), a 6th man on a great one (Dallas) or a secondary option on a good one (Washington). He was a pure scorer and those guys are usually not 6’9. 

Instead of being surrounded by other score-first players, Jamison would have been better off on a team full of defensive-minded guys, particularly upfront. He could have carried the load for two or three guys on offense - it would have been interesting to see what he could do as the primary option on a team like Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. Better yet, he would have been an ideal complement to Iverson, since he could score without needing the ball.

Jamison only got to spend half a season on a contender, when he was picked up by the Cleveland Cavaliers at the deadline in 2010. He put up 16 points a game on 49% shooting for a team that would win 61 games, but they collapsed in the second round against the Boston Celtics. When LeBron James left town that summer, it was over. By the time he got the chance to hook up with another good team, Jamison was a 36-year-old near the end of his rope.

Maybe the most remarkable part of his career was his durability - he hardly ever got hurt despite playing huge minutes every season and putting up 20 points a game for well over a decade. He is one of the top 50 scorers in NBA history, averaging 18.5 points a game on 45% shooting for 17 seasons, which comes out to 20,042 career points, 43rd all-time. Guys like Jamison don’t come around very often and you almost never see college players with his game.

Fittingly enough, just as he is leaving the NBA, the closest guy to him in the last 17 years is entering the league. At 6’8 230, TJ Warren doesn’t shoot 3’s, post up or play above the rim. All he does is get buckets - he averaged 12 points a game on 62% shooting as a freshman at NC State and 25 points a game on 53% shooting as a sophomore. However, despite his prodigious numbers, his unorthodox game caused him to fall to the Phoenix Suns at No. 14.

Like Jamison, Warren is a master of the running floater. There’s no way to guard a 6’8 guy who only needs a sliver of space to get a shot off within 15 feet of the basket. Either you play off him and he scores or you crowd him, he blows past you and he scores. Help-side doesn’t do much good either, as he gets the shot off so quickly that he freezes the shot-blocker. The question is whether Warren can make those shots at the same rate as Jamison in the NBA.

Jamison’s career was built around making terrible shots every night for 15 years. There are not many guys out there who can consistently make running 12-footers over two defenders. He was an athletic 6’9 guy with a high basketball IQ who knows how to put the ball in the basket - a guy like that can be a really good player for a really long time. Jamison made $142 million dollars in 17 seasons in the NBA. He must have been pretty good at basketball.

The Torture Chamber

Last season, the Golden State Warriors boasted one of the most dominant starting lineups in the entire league. Their #FullSquad of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut walloped opponents by a startling 16.3 points per 100 possessions. They outperformed the strong unit of the Portland Trail Blazers and arguably outplayed the Indiana Pacers' heavily-used starting five as well. The #FullSquad’s Points Per Possession of 1.149 (via NBAwowy.com) was better than any team’s season total (which includes subs, of course) and their 98.6 PPP allowed would have been third in the NBA behind the Chicago Bulls and Pacers.

Despite all that dominance, Golden State’s starting five was not even the best five-man unit the team put on the court last season. Replacing David Lee with Draymond Green actually produced even better results albeit in far more limited minutes. In an admittedly small sample size of just 71 minutes (thanks, Mark Jackson!), this group I call “The Torture Chamber” outscored opponents by an insane 17.2 points per 100 possessions, nearly a full point better than the #FullSquad.

The statistics are fine to provide some framework but the true power of this lineup comes out when imagining them functioning as a regular unit. With Bogut, Iguodala and Green on the floor, Klay Thompson becomes the fourth-best defender on the floor which should be downright scary for opponents. That combination of perimeter defenders also allows Stephen Curry to get non-taxing assignments on that end so he can preserve energy for carrying the offense and ideally avoid foul trouble which has periodically caused problems. While I feel Mark Jackson focused too much energy on hiding Curry throughout games, some chances at cover are necessary to keep him on the floor and at his best.

This lineup also makes substantially more sense on offense as the young players on the team progress. While David Lee has plenty of offensive strengths, he can be a self-starter and has not shown faith in his jumper in recent years (especially last season). Draymond has no issues in terms of confidence in his shot as both playoff runs illustrated. In fact, after the All-Star Break the Dancing Bear shot 38.1% from three, a better percentage than stretch fours Channing Frye and Patrick Patterson made over the course of their full seasons. Lee and Bogut have played well together but their natural positions on the floor gum up the works for drives since neither big can draw their opponent out of the paint to open up driving lanes. The combination of Bogut and Green gives the Warriors two dangerous screeners that Coach Kerr can use in concert with one another to break open multiple players at the same time, especially since Andre Iguodala can handle the ball enough to let both Splash Brothers wreak havoc when necessary.

I am not saying The Torture Chamber should log the insane minutes together like the #FullSquad or other top-heavy combinations around the league when healthy. David Lee and Harrison Barnes should both receive plenty of minutes with members of the core (particularly Barnes with Curry to see if his offense can be resuscitated) and the Warriors should have one of their best perimeter defenders on the floor for all significant minutes to keep other teams on their toes. Rather, that insanely potent lineup must be the top choice for closing out games and a possible starting five against opponents who struggle defending drives.

This Warriors' team possesses a compelling combination of pieces that can be mixed and matched to create problems for their opponents and the Curry / Thompson / Iguodala / Green / Bogut five should be the crown jewel sooner rather than later.

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

Every Monday we’ll check take a quick dive into some of the more interesting X’s and O’s related topics from the previous week.

Warriors Pushing the Pace

With so many skilled and uniquely talented offensive players, it's a shame that many Golden State Warriors' games under Mark Jackson were so hard to watch. Too many offensive possessions encouraged their stars to embrace the 1-on-1 motto of the 1990s era of the NBA, making some trips down the floor a mind-numbing slog lacking creativity, cohesion and unselfish play.

Steve Kerr was hired to to fix these issues (among other things) and while there’s noted improvement in their halfcourt sets, one of the biggest changes evident in Golden State’s first few preseason games is in their transition attack. Golden State wasn’t exactly a slow paced under Jackson, finishing 6th in pace according to ESPN’s advanced metrics, and the tempo under Kerr thus far suggests they’ll be near the top 5 of the league once more. The biggest surprise isn’t so that they’re running, but how they’re doing it.

Despite the presence of Kerr and lead assistant Alvin Gentry, a duo that worked together during the tail end of the Steve Nash years in Phoenix, the Warriors are taking a very balanced approach to pushing the pace. Instead of casting Stephen Curry as the lead in a point guard-centric production similar to how Mike D’Antoni, and later Gentry, used for Nash with the Suns, Kerr and Gentry have created an equal opportunity fast break.

Any player -- from Andrew Bogut to Curry -- apparently has the freedom to “rip-and-run”, or grab a rebound and push the ball upcourt as quickly as possible. It’s an interesting tactic because it takes the ball out of the hands of the team’s best playmaker (Curry) and has players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson breaking out ahead of the pack trying to make plays before the defense is set.

But the Warriors are unique in that their entire starting five and nine-tenths of their possible rotation are equipped to handle the ball and push it upcourt (David Lee and Bogut being such skilled bigs is the difference maker). It’s led to some interesting developments, like Green dribbling free throw line to free throw line and sinking a jumper, but overall has seemed to produce a bevy of open shots early in the clock. It can also certainly be argued that without the rebounder trying to find a guard for an outlet, it allows the Warriors to play slightly faster.

Given how the old-school thought and new-school approach suggest getting the ball into the hands of a single playmaker and letting him make all the choices, this new approach is certainly an interesting development. But the thought from Kerr and Gentry must be that they don’t want Curry to be Nash. Having worked closely with both now, the two coaches may have realized the little things that Nash did well in Phoenix -- like throw the ball ahead quickly (called an advance pass) and probe the defense specifically to look for trailing shooters -- aren’t really what Curry is best at. Curry is primarily looking to dribble down and look for his own shot. And taking the ball out of Curry’s hands also means he’s free to just sprint down the floor and move to an open spot behind the arc during a time while the defense is scattered.

Still, the prospect of Curry assuming the Nash role in the D’Antoni, up-tempo, spread pick-and-roll system is a pretty interesting alternative. Should this equal opportunity approach start leading to bad shots or routinely waste precious seconds on the shot clock as the wrong players consistently fail to penetrate the heart of the defense, it might prompt a change in approach. 

A Three-Sided Mistake

There have been so many words written about the Triangle Offense these days that it seems trite to mention it here. But in watching the New York Knicks play the Boston Celtics last week, it’s impossible not to see the offense operate and muse about it’s place in basketball. Obviously, last Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics is just one game, an extremely meaningless one at that and the very first under new head coach Derek Fisher. It’s beyond unfair to judge the offenses impact on this particular team, but what really caught my attention is even how it looked when it was run correctly.

One of the biggest misnomers about the Triangle is that it’s an offense that caters to perimeter stars like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and now, potentially, Carmelo Anthony. The truth is the offense -- which originated in the 1940s under Sam Barry to give you some perspective -- is actually designed for post players, traditionally big men. Even the original strongside triangle that is the offense’s signature look came about to give a team two angles to enter the ball into a posting big man (basically, if the post player was denied a pass from the wing with a three-quarters coverage, the ball could move to the corner man who would have the proper angle to enter the ball). The Triangle can stake a claim that “anyone can post” in the offense, but when it comes to the Knicks, there are arguably two players that could generate the great scoring opportunities from posting up -- Amar’e Stoudamire and Anthony. Watching Samuel Dalembert trying to channel his inner-Olajuwan is certainly enjoyable to watch, but it doesn’t lend itself to winning games.

The other side of it is that the definition of “great scoring opportunities” has changed pretty drastically over even just the last decade. The invasion of analytics has sharpened the thought process of both teams, media and a more connected fan base. Nowadays it’s pretty universal that free throws, layups and 3’s (in that order) are the most productive shot attempts per possession.

You know what a common result out of the ball movement in the Triangle is? A mid-range jumper coming out of the two-man game on the weakside. Now a few times the Knicks worked the offense to perfection and generated a layup to a cutting big man (Once off the greatest play label in pro sports, the “blind pig”, which is basically no-look drop pass to a player cutting backdoor. Oh, and the video’s associated with the Triangle Offense and the Blind Pig on Youtube are, unfortunately, wrong). It’s just very hard to engineer the high-value looks teams want out of that offense unless they are routinely hitting on cuts to the basket, which teams are not routinely getting against quality opponents.

Now that doesn’t mean the offense is necessarily doomed to failure or be bad for Anthony. Jordan and Bryant clearly operated just fine in it during their heydays (but it’s also probably important to point out that great players are typically great in any system, it’s the lesser players in the league that are most reliant on schemes to maximize their skill sets). But the bottom line is the Triangle has some solid concepts, but seems increasingly ill-suited for today’s NBA. But perhaps Derek Fisher and the Knicks will prove that assumption wrong. 

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The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7’2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6’9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

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375 Days

February 19, 2015 may seem like a long way away and in NBA circles it feels like an eternity at present, but it should hold significant importance for those who care about the Warriors, because the basketball world will know how serious and competent their ownership group will be for the foreseeable future.

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Seth Curry is more aggressive off ball screens and has been excelling in pick-and-rolls that he would see in the NBA. At Duke, Curry saw most of his time at shooting guard, but he’s the primary ball handler in Santa Cruz while averaging 36.9 minutes per contest.

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