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

Unsung Hero -- Part 1

After finishing last season ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Sacramento Kings have lept into the top half of the league this year. Their current rating of 103.3 has Sacramento at 14th overall, a particularly remarkable improvement given that the team has played the second hardest schedule in the NBA through the first 13 games. Part of the reason for their early success has been the unheralded play of veteran big man Jason Thompson.

As I mentioned in my piece about the impact of Omri Casspi on the team’s depth, Thompson has one of the most blue-collar roles in the league right now. Night after night, it’s usually Thompson, and not Demarcus Cousins, battling with the bigger and more effective frontcourt opponent. It’s a thankless job that rarely gets a player credit despite the fact it frees Cousins to use his energy to unleash hell (or more specifically, foul trouble) on opposing teams at the other end of the floor.

Even better for the Kings is that Thompson isn’t just absorbing body blows, he’s helping the team shut down opponents. Per NBA.com, Sacramento’s defensive rating is 96.5 when Thompson is on the floor, the second lowest mark on the team behind Darren Collison. Opponents have also shot just 40.7 percent from the floor when Thompson is on it -- a number that puts him second, again, to Collison -- compared to 46.8 percent when the blue-collar big man sits.

Now, as usual, these early season numbers could be subject to some drastic changes as the games continue to pile up. Thompson also definitely benefits from spending a lot of his time on the floor with not just Collison, but the team’s star duo of Cousins and Rudy Gay playing with much more consistent energy and effort on defense. All of this makes Thompson’s role with the team a fascinating subplot as the Kings move forward. If the data holds and Thompson continues to be a key part of the Kings defensive improvement while, at the same time, being a total zero on offense outside of the occasional rim finish, it puts Sacramento in a weird spot.

On one hand, the team could try to upgrade his positions and replace Thompson’s willingness to battle opposing bigs down low with someone who adds more offensive punch. But removing Thompson’s role as something of a designated hitter (or maybe battler?) could do untold damage to both Cousin’s production -- he already has foul issues despite the arrangement -- and the team’s defense. Yet it’s pretty clear, that Thompson makes life harder offensively for the rest of his teammates until he finds an efficient way to exploit a defense.

At least for right now the Kings can be happy with the the status quo. Despite less than flattering performances on offense, Thompson has played a key role in Sacramento’s early success.

Unsung Hero - Part 2

Throughout his career, Zaza Pachulia has never really had a stand out attribute to his game. He’s been solid in most areas -- from rebounding to leadership in the lockerroom -- but unlike role-player extraordinaire Nick Collison, Pachulia was never a plus/minus darling at any of his spots. This year in Milwaukee has been a little different.

The Bucks surprising sprint out of the gate (well, compared to last year which was a drunken stumble down a 20-story flight of stairs) is a little bit of a mirage -- 7-7 starts are a little easier to come by when facing the ninth easiest schedule in the league -- but Pachulia has been one of three players with a positive net rating, per NBA.com. Part of that is due to head coach Jason Kidd’s management of his minutes, as Pachulia typically plays against more physical frontcourts that match his strengths (literally) well. But the other part of it is that Kidd’s insistence on running Corner action, the offensive concepts made famous by Rick Adelman, has allowed us to a see a new side of the Georgian big man.

Though his assist numbers aren’t noticeably better, Pachulia’s passing has created opportunities for a Bucks team that has been pretty poor offensively to start the year. Check out this dime against OKC:

Milwaukee is still at their best when their long and active defense gets stops and steals that lead to their young athletes scoring on the break. It’s probably a primary reason why Kidd has his group so focused on that end of the floor. As we all know though, it’s impossible to rely solely on transition or even semi-transition (or early) offense. Teams will make shots and other game stoppages will force the Bucks to go against set defenses.

With so many young players (and, correspondingly, bad decision-makers), putting the ball in the hands of Pachulia really helps the Bucks offense in half-court situations. And yes, that sentence was as weird to type as it was to read. I’m not sure if running Corner action is in the best long term interest of Milwaukee, but until their kids figure out NBA basketball -- and/or add skills to breakdown set defenses -- having a post player like Pachulia use his previously unappreciated passing to create easy shots in walk-up situations will be a nice boost for the team.

Jason Kidd's Great Escape

On the surface, Jason Kidd’s jump from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a rough start, Kidd found his sea legs in the second half of the season, leading Brooklyn to the second round of the playoffs and establishing himself as a legitimate NBA head coach on a perennial playoff contender. Milwaukee, in contrast, is a perennial underachiever coming off a 15-win season that hasn’t made the second round since 2001.

However, if you take a closer look at the environment surrounding both teams, you can see the logic behind Kidd’s thinking. As he is undoubtedly aware, an NBA head coach is hired to be fired. No matter how successful a coach has been, they can lose their job at any time. The key is expectations and the appearance of forward progress - the Bucks have nowhere to go but up, the Nets have nowhere to go but down. For a young head coach, the choice is easy.

The Nets have far more talent than the Bucks and they will almost certainly be a better team over the next two seasons, but they don’t have much room for growth. After trading three future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they went all-in last season, only to see their best player (Brook Lopez) go down in the first two months. Kidd responded admirably in changing their identity on fly, but the limits of the approach were exposed in the playoffs.

With Pierce and Garnett aging and no other ways to add talent to their roster beyond the free agent bargain bin, Brooklyn will need Mikhail Prokhorov to continue writing monstrous luxury tax checks just to stay in place. Even if Prokhorov doesn’t tire of subsidizing half of the league, what’s to stop him from looking at the coaching staff for an upgrade next off-season? Kidd only needs to look at Mark Jackson with the Golden State Warriors to see how quickly the knives come out.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, is an almost ideal situation for a young head coach. After bottoming out under the old regime, they have a new ownership group looking to start over and a promising young core to build around. Last season was a perfect storm of injuries, bad free agent signings and back luck. Even without a coaching change, they are almost certain to have a dead cat bounce and regress to the mean, which will give Kidd breathing room.

When you take a look at the elite young talent under contract, the Bucks situation going forward looks even more promising. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are both under 20 and have as much upside as any two young players in the NBA. Just as important, their games complement each other, which will allow them to grow together over the next 3-5 years. They could be the best two players on an elite team and Kidd gets them at the ground floor.

After only one season, Giannis already looks like the steal of the 2013 draft and possibly its best all-around player. At 6’10 210 (and growing) with a 7’4 wingspan, he has a freakish combination of length, skill and athleticism that allows him to match up with multiple perimeter positions and impact the game in a number of ways. He’s a franchise-type talent - if he had stayed an extra year in Greece, he could have been a Top 5 pick in this year’s draft.

And while Giannis can defend and slash to the rim, Jabari can stretch the floor and command double teams on offense. The No. 2 pick in 2014, he is an elite prospect who was also one of the safest picks on the board. At 6’9 240 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jabari already has a high-level combination of athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and feel for the game. He averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game on 47% shooting at Duke and should be a ROY front-runner.

The big concern for Jabari comes on the defensive end, which is what makes Milwaukee such a good fit. Not only do they have Giannis to handle the tough defensive assignments on the perimeter, they have two quality rim protectors - Larry Sanders and John Henson - to play behind him. There are spacing issues with playing Sanders and Henson together, but they should combine to protect Jabari over 48 minutes and you can always trade an athletic 6’11+ player.

The Bucks current mix is far from perfect, but there is talent up and down the roster that can be moved around in order to better complement Jabari and Giannis. That will be what next season is all about - figuring out which combination of Sanders, Henson, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo is worth keeping around. No matter how it shakes out, they don’t have the same type of cap-killing contracts as the Nets.

For Kidd, the plan is simple. Develop Giannis and Jabari, consolidate the peripheral talent around them and add another high lottery pick - preferably a two-way perimeter playmaker and shooter - next season. With a new Big Three and one of the Henson/Sanders duo upfront, Milwaukee isn’t that far off from being a playoff contender and a long-term power in the Eastern Conference. They just need to add shooting and improve defensively over the next two years.

If Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Oklahoma City Thunder North. Kidd’s already proven he’s a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security. Throughout his long career in the NBA, Kidd has been the consummate survivor, one step ahead of the pitchforks and leaving disaster in his wake. His latest move could be his greatest escape yet.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

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Since the Bucks can finish no worse than fourth in the draft order, they can rest assured they will land either Wiggins, Parker, Embiid, Dante Exum or Julius Randle. With a free agent class that could be top-heavy if any number of stars opt for the open market, they can then go about adding a talented veteran to augment their young core.

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