May 14, 2013 1:19 PM EDT
A friend once asked me to explain the point of watching an NBA game in its entirety. After all, he said, games are usually decided in the last five minutes. I told him that when you have a large sum of money on the line, every possession is important. Everyone remembers the final five minutes, but they aren’t always the most decisive stretch of a game, even if it goes down to the wire. In a long playoff series, as two teams begin to know each other in and out, every five minute stretch is important. A playoff game can be lost at the start of the first quarter as easily as it can at the end of the fourth.
In the regular season, coaches think long-term, not short-term. They get their best players rest and keep their rotation as stable as possible, in order for everyone on the roster to get comfortable with their roles. An 82-game season is a marathon, not a sprint; it’s more important to be consistent from Game 30-60 than it is to win Game 45. That dynamic changes in the playoffs, as every coach starts to act like Tom Thibodeau and manage games solely for the present, not the future. They shorten their rotation and play the match-up game, trying to create an edge on a possession-by-possession basis.
Micro-management, however, doesn’t necessarily make games any closer. This season, the average margin of victory in the second round is 11.5 points. Some of that margin is padded by two blowouts in the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls series and cheap points given up on the free throw line at the very end, but the broader point still stands. More often than not, the team that controls the action all game long will end up winning. The collapse of the Golden State Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their series is the exception that proves the rule. Before that, NBA teams were 392-0 in playoff history in the same situation.
Nevertheless, the last few minutes have an outsized hold on our collective memories. We remember the most notable moments of a series, condensing hours of action into a few “decisive” seconds. We remember Michael Jordan’s shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, not the shots he hit in the first 47 minutes. Jordan had a 28.1 career playoff PER while playing 42 minutes a night. He was great not because he hit the big shot, but because he hit all of the little ones. Over the course of his NBA career, he missed 26 game-winning shots. There are no guarantees in the final moments, even with the greatest closer in basketball history.
The first four games of the Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder series have come down to the fourth quarter, but important things were happening in the first three quarters. While Oklahoma City’s execution at the end of games has been lacking without Russell Westbrook, the route to the end has been slightly different in each game. Both coaching staffs have been subtly making adjustments back and forth, altering their rotations and trying to find the most effective line-ups. Over the last three games, Lionel Hollins has had better luck with his adjustments, most of which were not made in the fourth quarter.
The big storyline of Game 4 was the adjustment of the Thunder to the Grizzlies' starting line-up. The Thunder shrunk the floor when both Tayshaun Prince, a reluctant three-point shooter, and Tony Allen, a non-shooter, were in. Memphis’ offense isn’t very explosive normally, much less playing 3-on-5. They were -11 with their starters in the first 11 minutes of the game and were lucky to break even at the start of the second half and overtime. They won because Hollins eventually went to a more explosive line-up, with Jerryd Bayless in place of either Allen or Prince. Bayless, who gives them another shooter and playmaker, was +18 in Game 4.
Nevertheless, if the Grizzlies had lost in overtime, the end of regulation would have stuck in everyone’s head. After Kevin Durant tied the game on a brutally efficient drive to the rim with six seconds left, Memphis had a chance to set up a final shot. In years past, Rudy Gay would have been their closer. Gay, an athletic 6’8 220 small forward with an effective step-back jumper, could always create a decent 1-on-1 shot at the end of games. As a result, he has an impressive number of career buzzer-beaters under his belt. But with Gay in Toronto, Hollins drew up an easily snuffed-out Zach Randolph isolation.
Not having Gay in that last six second sequence cost the Grizzlies, but their lack of shooting would have been the biggest reason for a loss. Since they have to stagger the minutes of Randolph and Marc Gasol in order to keep at least one on the floor, they have to maximize the time when they are playing together, the foundation of their best offensive line-ups. As skilled as Gay is off the dribble, he shot 31 percent from beyond the arc in Memphis and couldn’t space the floor for their two star big men. Going forward, Hollins has to find more time for Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, his two best wing shooters, in those minutes.
Nor is having a great closer enough to win an evenly matched series, as Oklahoma City is finding out. Durant is averaging 32 points on 49 percent shooting in the playoffs; he gets points as easily as anyone in the league. The problem is that he has to carry too huge an offensive load over the course of a game without Westbrook and James Harden. Their role players don’t get enough points within the flow of the offense and Brooks’ fairly questionable rotations have backfired without three star players. Durant can’t carry Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher by himself, not over a seven-game series against the NBA’s best defense.
That’s the fundamental problem with judging individuals by team success. In a seven-game series, the best team, not the best player, will almost always win. While the best player will have the edge when he is in a great situation, like LeBron James in Miami, that doesn’t mean the best player in a series will always be able to carry his team to victory. Basketball is a team sport; the “Green Lantern Theory of the NBA” doesn’t hold. To return to the baseball analogy, it doesn’t matter who the closer is if there isn’t a starter who can get him a lead headed into the ninth inning.
Over time, the mythology surrounding the closer position has overshadowed reality, in both basketball and baseball. Mariano Rivera is widely considered the best closer in baseball history. From 1997-2011, with Rivera in the bullpen, the Yankees won 97.2 percent of the games where they lead in the ninth inning. That sounds impressive, but from 1961-1964, before baseball began using set closers, the Yankees won 97.3 percent of their games when leading in the ninth. It’s the same in every sport. Execute on both sides of the ball all game long and the final moments will care take of themselves.
May 06, 2013 1:55 PM EDT
With injuries to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose dramatically weakening two of their biggest challengers, there aren’t many obstacles left in the path of the Miami Heat.
After a methodical sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, their playoff record is now 26-7 with the Big Three in the starting line-up. In a league becoming more perimeter-oriented, the Heat have the ultimate small-ball frontcourt, with Chris Bosh and Shane Battier spacing the floor for LeBron James. You can’t defeat Miami by playing their game, which is why the massive front-lines of the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies are the biggest threat to the NBA’s newest dynasty.
While most of the league zigged, the Pacers and Grizzlies zagged. Instead of moving towards a four-out offense that spaces the floor for pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration, they run their offense through two skilled big men in the post. As a result, they have remarkably similar rosters and styles of play. They prefer to operate in the halfcourt, pounding the ball inside and grinding out possessions defensively. Even more intriguingly, they both face a challenge in the second round that could prepare them for the Heat: a clash of styles against the second (Kevin Durant) and third (Carmelo Anthony) best small-ball 4’s in the NBA.
A generation ago, most front-lines looked like Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol and David West/Roy Hibbert. Randolph (6’9 260) and West (6’9 250) are two of the toughest power forwards in the NBA, old school players who can brutalize smaller defenders on the block as well as step out and knock down a 15-foot jumper. Gasol (7’1 265) and Hibbert (7’2 280) are two of the league’s biggest centers, defensive anchors who can control the area around the rim and protect it at an elite level. While none of the four have three-point range, they know how to play off each other and create space while operating in the narrow confines of the paint.
With so much size upfront, it’s no surprise Indiana and Memphis are two of the slowest teams in the NBA. In the regular season, the Grizzlies averaged 88.4 possessions per-48 minutes, 30th in the league, and the Pacers averaged 90.2 possessions per-48 minutes, 25th slowest. That continued in the first round of the playoffs, with Memphis/LA Clippers and Indiana/Atlanta turning into half-court rock fights. Both teams dictated the style of the game: the Grizzlies never allowed the Clippers to get out into transition while the Hawks were forced to abandon their small-ball front-court and start Johan Petro by Game 3.
As the Knicks and the Thunder discovered in Game 1 of the second round, it’s hard to go small against power forwards as skilled as West and Randolph. New York only has two conventional big men (Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin) left on their roster and they prefer to use Carmelo at the 4. The problem is that leaves either Carmelo or Iman Shumpert giving up a lot of size against West, who had 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting in Game 1. And while Oklahoma City starts Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, playing both at the same time dramatically impacts their floor spacing, since other teams don’t have to defend Perkins.
The key is to attack the Pacers and Grizzlies where their size can be negated: in transition and when they go to their bench. Forcing live-ball turnovers against both is crucial, since that speeds up the tempo of the game and creates open-floor scoring opportunities. And when their big men are fatigued or in foul trouble, the opposing team has the opportunity to dictate the style of the game. The Pacers went 12 minutes without both Hibbert and West on the floor in Game 1; the Grizzlies went 14 without both Randolph and Gasol. The Thunder and the Knicks have to take advantage of the stretches of the game when they can go small with impunity.
Those stretches are where Indiana (Danny Granger) and Memphis (Rudy Gay) miss their leading scorer from last season. This season, Granger played in only five games due to a knee injury, while Gay was dealt in a salary-cap move at the trade deadline. There are plenty of differences in their games, but both are 6’9+ forwards capable of playing inside and out. Without them, neither the Pacers nor the Grizzlies can put too much firepower on the floor in the rare occasions when they go small. When Randolph was in foul trouble in their first two games against the Clippers, it was a completely different series.
Where the two teams differ is how they’ve adjusted without Gay and Granger. Indiana has run more of their offense through Paul George, their 6’8, 220 small forward. George, who won the Most Improved Player award this season, has thrived in Granger’s absence, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. Memphis, in contrast, has turned the keys over to Mike Conley, their 6’1 185 point guard. Conley is now their best shot-creator and the player they turn to in end of the clock situations. He went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul in the first round and they’ll need him to dominate his individual match-up against the Thunder, especially with Westbrook out.
If either Memphis or Indiana can get out of the second round, it will have been the perfect warm-up for an eventual series against Miami. For the most part, the Heat do everything the Thunder and the Knicks do, they just do those things better. If the Pacers let J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony take over the game from the perimeter, they will have no chance against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And if the Grizzlies can’t contain Kevin Durant when Ibaka or Nick Collison is the lone big man on the floor, good luck handling LeBron when Bosh is spotting up for corner 3’s.
Most importantly, if Memphis and Indiana can’t dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against Miami. In the three years since “The Decision”, only one team -- the 2011 Mavericks -- has forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, Miami’s postseason record with their Big Three healthy is 24-3. A generation ago, “small-ball” was an underdog strategy, a desperate attempt to even the playing field in a sport dominated by centers. That’s how much the balance of power has changed: in 2013, Goliath is the underdog.
Jan 31, 2013 10:52 AM EST
The early reactions to the Memphis Grizzlies trading Rudy Gay to Toronto Raptors seem to fall in two camps: one thinks the trade was a very good one for the Grizzlies while the other, most notably Adrian Wojnarowski, see the trade as some sort of demolition of the strong team Memphis had put together. What makes this discrepancy so striking is that it feels like the second group has positioned themselves this way based on an off conception of how good Rudy Gay has actually been as a basketball player.
Immediately after reading Wojnarowski’s piece, a quote from an unusual source came to mind: in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, one character turns down another by telling them it is “because you don't love me, you maybe want to love me. But I think what you love right now is the idea of me. You can't love someone for what they stand for or seem to be. You have to love them for their details, for the little things that are true of them and only them.”
In many ways, the critics of this deal are doing so from a love of the idea of Rudy Gay rather than the details of what he actually has been as a player thus far in his career.
As someone who got into professional basketball by writing obsessively about the NBA Draft, I fully understand the appeal of Gay. He came into the league as a physical specimen with some impressive hoops instincts as well.
Immediately after he was drafted, Jay Bilas described him on the broadcast as "Incredibly athletic, he's 6-foot-9, he's got really long arms, a wingspan of about 7-foot-3, he plays bigger than he is, he's got every skill, every piece of ability you would want in a player."
That description of Gay stuck and it created a persona of a guy who could do it all physically and was developing into a player who could take control of a team and a game. As Memphis went from being a rebuilding team to one that made the playoffs (incidentally helped by the reacquisition of the player Gay was traded for originally, Shane Battier), it became clear that while Gay had talent, he was not an essential cog in the Memphis machine. In fact, the No. 8 seed Grizzlies team that shocked the No. 1 Spurs in the 2011 playoffs did so with Rudy missing the entire postseason due to a shoulder injury.
The same story persists for those who prefer a more statistical edge to analysis. While no single stat gets particularly close to establishing player quality, my personal favorite is Win Shares/48. It takes the normal Win Shares concept and adds in a component scaling it for minutes played so it does not reward volume of time on the court and instead goes for something more akin to impact per minute played. Among players who logged 15 minutes per game and participated in at least half of the games in the season in question, the best Rudy Gay has ever finished in the league in WS/48 is a whopping 87th.
If you prefer PER, his best final position is 55th.
Incidentally, each of these high water marks occurred during the 2010-11 season where Rudy missed the end of the regular season and Memphis’ playoff run. Even 55th in the league does not mark any sort of elite player, especially considering Rudy has played substantially worse than that level this season. By just about any measure, Rudy Gay’s 2012-13 has been a disaster thus far.
Keeping all of this in mind, it feels like those who hate the trade for Memphis are more in love with the idea of Rudy Gay and what he could become as a basketball player than the understanding that a 26-year-old playing in his sixth season as a full-time starter can improve but just will not become the superstar everyone hoped he would progress into. He still can improve and absolutely has value to an NBA team but trading him (particularly for a solid player at the same position) does not cripple Memphis’ lofty aspirations in any meaningful way.
The deal for Memphis: On top of the analysis above, there are a few other major things to consider in terms of the Grizzlies here.
First, they were able to do a slight downgrade at small forward to Tayshaun Prince that saves the team about $10 million per season while still fitting what they do on the floor. Considering the money they have committed to other players, that flexibility allows them to add depth and continue to be a more versatile and challenging team moving forward.
Beyond that, Gay stands out as being younger than Zach Randolph by about five years, which likely means that he would have been given more of the reins of the team in a few seasons. If management reasonably surmised that he would not be particularly good at that even with positive development the next few years, moving him now for an older player makes it easier to make a bigger move down the line and spend more time trying to find the next big thing.
Speaking of that, the other major positive in the deal comes in the form of Ed Davis. While Davis only has two more years on his cheap rookie deal and then will want a hefty raise, he has been a revelation this season with the Raptors and gives Memphis an incredibly deep big man rotation. That depth can be used to withstand injuries since an injury to anyone other than Marc Gasol could be weathered by just moving everyone’s minutes up or it could be used in a trade down the line to strengthen the perimeter.
Considering Darrell Arthur and Davis both have team-friendly deals, Memphis’ front office could choose to trade either one of them for a nice return or make a bigger move and trade Zach Randolph. Heck, they could even keep this group together for a few years and then just choose between Davis and Randolph when Z-Bo becomes a free agent in 2015. Depth and flexibility (augmented with their flier on Austin Daye) coupled with largely reasonable salaries gives Memphis an advantage on and off the court moving forward.
Grade for Memphis: A
The deal for Toronto: I totally get the idea of using the specter of long-term cap flexibility to get talent that would be hard to procure in the free agent market. It stands as a strategy that more teams in non-major markets should employ moving forward. However, Toronto did not negotiate using that cap space as a major tool since they gave up a meaningful asset in Jose Calderon’s expiring contract and a young prospect in Ed Davis for the privilege of spending a ton of money on Rudy Gay for the next few seasons. In fact, by doing so Toronto gutted most of the trade assets they have that they are actually willing to move (leaving only Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, and Kyle Lowry as higher-end pieces) and leaving players that they want to keep around. As such, the combination of trading components and losing salary cap flexibility leaves Toronto with an OK team that will be tough to improve in the short term.
In terms of fitting on the court, acquiring Rudy Gay exacerbates the stupidity of extending DeMar DeRozan when they did. There are certain types of similar players that make sense to pair on the perimeter yet there are others that make very little sense. Both Gay and DeRozan are slashers that have severe limitations stretching the floor and creating for others at a high level. Putting them together allows teams to switch more and will not force them to make as many tough decisions, which should be the goal of any offensive philosophy. Instead of having an asset like DeRozan without a long-term commitment, the Raptors now have two players who do not make sense together making a combined $27.3M per season for at least the next two years. Ouch.
Grade for Toronto: D+
The trade for Detroit: As much as Tayshaun Prince has been an important part of the franchise and should age well, he does not fit this stage in the development for the Pistons. As such, getting out of his long-term salary commitment allows the team to get younger and fit their new core of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in both skill and age moving forward.
Unfortunately, we have seen recently what Joe Dumars can do to sink a team when he has cap space burning a hole in his pocket, though one would have to hope that he can do better this time. On top of that, Jose Calderon should be a nice fit shepherding the young guards Detroit already has on roster while lobbing the ball to Drummond all day, every day.
While we do not know what Calderon is looking for in his next team, it could also be possible to sign him to a reasonable deal and then make a decision about whether Brandon Knight actually makes sense as the future lead guard of the team or to trade him for a swingman and try again without the team falling off a cliff. A logical and practical trade for a team in desperate need of one.
Grade for Detroit: A-
Dec 12, 2012
As we move forward with “Amnesty 2.0,” we will see the fascinating possibilities that the provision brings even as the number of teams and players left dwindles with time.
Oct 03, 2012
The Spurs, Mavericks and Grizzlies should be playoff teams again in 2013, but the development of the Hornets and Rockets will be equally fascinating.
Jul 19, 2012
The Heat, Thunder and Lakers appear to be a cut above the remainder of the NBA, but how do the 27 other teams rank?
Jun 29, 2012
Whle the Pistons, Blazers, Bobcats, Nets, Thunder and Bulls headline the 'Great Drafts', the caboose of 'Bad Drafts' is comprised of the Cavaliers, Suns, Bucks, Wolves, Heat and Knicks.
Jun 28, 2012
The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.
Jun 21, 2012
The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.
Jun 19, 2012
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-draft expectations, while there are two main paths for prospects to underachieve.
May 23, 2012
While every team in the lottery can bring their Anthony Davis jersey if they win the first overall pick, the gap between Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond is extremely narrow for me and highly intriguing.
May 07, 2012
Game 3 could have been a story about how an inexperienced playoff team’s dreadful free-throw shooting snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead, it’s a story about a resilient team that answered the Grizzlies’ physical challenge in Game 2 and beat them at their own game.
Apr 24, 2012
There was great concern about how teams would struggle with so many games in so little time, but the numbers indicate that they fared better than expected. Teams averaged a .547 winning percentage in the third game of consecutive days.
Apr 19, 2012
As we move forward into the 2012 offseason with “Amnesty 2.0", here is a team-by-team look at which players are eligible for amnesty and identify the reasonable candidates.
Jan 06, 2012
Like quarterbacks, quality big men are difficult to find. Here is a look on how the lack of strong frontcourt depth could harm teams like the Knicks and the Clippers in a compressed regular season.
Dec 26, 2011
Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Florida and Arizona each begin the 11-12 NBA season with 10 or more players on NBA rosters.
Dec 16, 2011
While the Blazers and Grizzlies improved and are built around long, athletic and skilled front-courts, the rest of the Western Conference (excluding Oklahoma City) returned to the pack.
Dec 13, 2011
If you're a seven-footer with any type of coordination, you will die a very wealthy man. This hasn't changed in the 2011 offseason and will not be changing in the future.
Nov 28, 2011
The NBA's most rapid free agency period is nearly upon us. Here are RealGM's Power Rankings going into an important, free-for-all offseason.
Sep 12, 2011
On the effect the other nine players on the court have on a player's production/value and why our obsession with comparing players in a vacuum is a little silly.
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