Dec 04, 2013 9:12 PM EST
“[Terrence Jones] brings a lot to the game. Defensively he’s very long and active, rebounds the basketball well. Offensively he’s knocking the 3 down now, but he handles the ball very well. When he has a bigger forward closing out on him, he can make plays for his teammates which is the style we play, so he’s the X factor going into every single night.” -- James Harden
After a slow start where they experimented with an ill-fitting Twin Towers lineup, the Houston Rockets have found themselves over the last few weeks. They are 9-3 in their last 12 games, a streak that coincides with second-year power forward Terrence Jones moving into the starting line-up. Jones has made the most of the opportunity, averaging nine points, six rebounds and one block a game on 51 percent shooting, good for an 18.2 PER.
Getting on the floor has been an uphill battle for Jones, who played only 18 games as a rookie. At various points last season, the Rockets had five other young guys -- Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson -- at his position. Of the five, only Motiejunas was taken later than Jones, the No. 18 pick in 2012. A year later, Jones is the only one still standing in Houston.
Despite his draft pedigree, it’s hard to call him an underdog. A consensus Top 10 recruit in the class of 2010, Jones was one of the crown jewels of John Calipari’s second recruiting class at Kentucky. He was a star the day he walked on campus, averaging 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 43 percent shooting as a freshman. Along with Brandon Knight, he led Kentucky to the Final Four, where they lost a one-point nail-biter to eventual champion UConn.
Like most of Calipari’s elite recruits, Jones was widely presumed to be a one-and-done player. However, with the threat of a season-long lockout looming, he decided to return for his sophomore season. If he had declared, he would have been a lottery pick, at worst. In a draft as thin up top as 2011, it’s hard to say how high Jones could have gone. Tristan Thompson, who put up similar statistics on a worse team, was a surprise pick at No. 4.
After such a strong freshman campaign, the expectation was that Jones would dominate the college game in 2012. Instead, his statistics slipped across the board -- his points, rebounds, assists and blocks were all down from 2011. With his progress seemingly stalled, the armchair psychologists began breaking him down -- Was he too content to blend in? What about his occasionally contentious relationship with Calipari? Oh my, the body language!!
The other way of looking at it was that he was sharing a frontcourt with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As a result, there just weren’t as many points and rebounds to be had as when Josh “Jorts” Harrellson was the starting center. Davis and MKG were the first college teammates in the history of the draft to go No. 1 and No. 2 overall. It would have been a bigger concern if Jones hadn’t been willing to take a back-seat.
If a college team had a No. 1 option in a No. 3 role, you would expect them to do exactly what Kentucky did in 2012. The Wildcats were an all-time great team, going 38-2 and breezing to a national title. They had only two wins within five points, neither in the NCAA Tournament. It’s no wonder Jones looked bored at times -- he didn’t have all that much to do.
He improved as a player, even though his per-game stats were down. No longer the primary option, he had to learn how to pick and choose his spots. As a result, he was more efficient, going from 43 percent to 50 percent shooting. He took 30 less 3’s than he did as a freshman. For the most part, he did a better job of playing within himself and letting the game come to him. For this, he was criticized heavily.
As it turns out, knowing how to “blend in” has been pretty useful for Jones at the next level. He came into college as a combo forward with an iffy jumper, not the ideal skill-set for a complementary player. He shot 33 percent from three at Kentucky, just good enough that he fell in love with the shot a little too much. If he had started jacking up 3’s, like Motiejunas did in his time in the rotation, he would have fallen out of favor too.
The inconsistent jumper is one of many similarities Jones has with Josh Smith. At 6’9 250 with a 7’2 wingspan and a 35’ max vertical, Jones is a prototype small-ball power forward. He has the size to hold ground in the low post, the speed to defend on the perimeter and the athleticism to play above the rim. And while he’s not the playmaker Smith is, he has the ability to create shots off the dribble. Jones can attack a close-out and finish at the rim.
His game isn’t a perfect fit for the Rockets spread-and-chuck system, but he has still found ways to contribute. He moves the ball, makes smart cuts to the rim and only shoots when he’s open. It’s not like he doesn’t have range on his jumper -- he’s 10-23 from 3 this season -- he just doesn’t force the issue. If Jones is open at 12 feet, he can take two steps and dunk, its own way of spacing the floor.
With Jones in the game, the Rockets score 120.6 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they are at 108.5. His ability to clean the glass and run the floor allows them to get out in transition, while his efficiency in the half-court means he doesn’t end many possessions with a turnover or a bad shot. For a guy with his athleticism and finishing ability, it’s easy to be a release valve next to Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons.
The defensive numbers aren’t quite there yet, but he has a lot of potential on that end of the floor. Jones is the second line of defense when Howard makes a rotation, averaging two blocks per-36 minutes. With Howard, Jones and Parsons upfront, the Rockets have the length and athleticism to control the glass and make up for Harden’s defensive shenanigans. If he ever gets dialed in, they have all the pieces to play great defense.
Jones is still only 21; he would be a senior in college this season. In 34 career NBA games, he has a PER of 17.7 and a usage rating of 18.1. Going forward, the sky is the limit to how good he can be. And while his cost-controlled contract makes him a great trade chip, he’s played well enough that Houston doesn’t have to make a move for a PF. Jones won a title as a third option in college; let’s see how he develops in a similar role in the NBA.
Nov 27, 2013 9:46 PM EST
Ever since their dramatic loss to the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. A seven-game winning streak has allowed them to reel in the Indiana Pacers, who looked poised to run away with the Eastern Conference. Coming off three straight trips to the NBA Finals, many wondered whether Miami had the horses for another 82-game grind. Their current record (12-3) and point differential (+9.7) should answer that.
The win streak has coincided with a painful tweak Erik Spoelstra made to the rotation -- benching franchise stalwart Udonis Haslem. His jump-shooting and interior defense have been a crucial part of their team, but he has been trending downwards for awhile. His PER has dropped for four straight years, bottoming out at 6.6 through seven games. If early returns are any indication, he may have had a Kendrick Perkins-like drag on the Heat offense.
The statistics are eye-popping. The Heat have a net rating of -10.6 points per 100 possessions with Haslem and a net rating of +13.1 points per 100 possessions without him. That gives him a net rating of -23.9 on the season, which doesn’t even seem possible. There may be a ratchet effect going on -- Haslem is the most limited offensive player of all the Miami regulars. With five legitimate threats on the floor, the defense has to give up something.
Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley have taken most of his minutes. Both were left for dead before coming to Miami, but they’ve been revitalized in the pace-and-space system. While Lewis is in his 16th season in the NBA, he’s still only 34. Guys with his skill-set -- tall players who can shoot and score -- can play well into their late thirties. Beasley, meanwhile, has found his niche in his 6th season in the league -- a gunner coming off the bench of a good team.
Along with Chris “Birdman” Anderson, Lewis and Beasley give Miami a ton of size and athleticism on their bench. They go 6’11, 6’10 and 6’8 and all have to be respected by the defense. Lewis averages five points a game on 43 percent shooting, Birdman averages seven points on 63 percent shooting and Beasley averages 10 points on 57 percent shooting. Line-ups with any combination of those three and either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James have done very well.
For Miami, it doesn’t matter whether it’s their first or second unit. They space the floor for all 48 minutes; they have 10 guys who can score, put the ball on the floor and pass. The ball moves around the court and finds the open man -- it’s the way basketball is meant to be played. Spoelstra runs a system that allows everyone to play in space and punishes defenses for sending help. It’s pretty much the exact opposition of the situation four years ago.
The Heat have what the San Antonio Spurs like to call “corporate knowledge.” Continuity is one of the most underrated components of building a basketball team -- when everyone is on the same page, it makes life a lot easier. When you have to incorporate multiple players into significant roles, there’s an adjustment process the entire team has to go through. Miami can just plug and play veterans into their system -- spread the floor, move the ball and play defense.
Like the Spurs, the Heat have taken the philosophy of spacing the floor to its logical conclusion. Those two teams put on an offensive clinic in the 2013 NBA Finals -- small-ball teams with only one big man who try to shoot as many corner 3’s as possible. They don’t need to run sets; they can get the majority of their offense out of the flow. Even an average player can look great in enough space; put LeBron in the same situation and there’s not much to be done.
It’s hard to beat the recruiting package Miami can put together. Come to South Beach and play for the two-time defending champions, where you get to be in an uptempo system next to one of the greatest players of all-time in the prime of his career. At this point, it really is like going on the tour with the Beatles. How many other teams’ role players get to be in national TV commercials? It’s no wonder guys are willing to take discounts to play there.
For a player in Lewis’ position, it’s not even a question. Lewis is a two-time All-Star who has made more than $155 million in his NBA career. He has started on a team that went to the NBA Finals and averaged more than 20 points a game in a season. He doesn’t need the money or the aggravation; he’s just hanging around because he enjoys playing basketball. If Miami wants a veteran in their early or mid 30’s, they are going to be able to sign them.
On the other end of the spectrum, Beasley represents hope for every talented young headcase in the league. After wearing out his welcome in Minnesota and Phoenix, Miami is his second third fourth chance to prove that he can be a professional. So far, he’s been proof that no player is irredeemable. After his PER declined in each of his first five seasons, he has a career-high 21.6 in 2013. Young guys bust out all the time; Miami has first dibs on them too.
Of course, their most interesting reclamation project of all has yet to see the floor. There’s no timetable for when Greg Oden could return, but if he can give the Heat anything in the playoffs, he could be the final piece of the puzzle. At 7’0 285, he has the size to match-up with Roy Hibbert and David West, which has always been the Achilles heel of the Heat. If Oden and Beasley played with the Big Three, Miami would have five Top 5 picks on the floor.
I just finished the "Game of Thrones" books, so pardon this analogy. South Beach is like King’s Landing -- a seat of power from which you can rule the realm. Install a legitimate King on the Iron Throne and you will always find players to wear your colors. Once you’re in a position like that, the last thing you want to do is start over somewhere else. Even if Miami falls short this year, there’s nowhere LeBron can go that will put him in a better position to get back.
Nov 20, 2013 11:08 PM EST
Before you write any piece about the New York Knicks, it’s a good idea to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of James Dolan. From top to bottom, the Knicks are not the most well-run organization in the league. That we can all admit. That said, the latest crisis isn’t directly the result of his mismanagement. As soon as Tyson Chandler got hurt, the whole thing fell apart. Few NBA teams can survive the loss of their most valuable player.
Carmelo Anthony is their leading scorer, but the Knicks have managed without him before. In the regular season, it’s fairly easy to redistribute field goal attempts and stay afloat for a few weeks when a volume scorer goes down. Linsanity was the ultimate proof of that. The NBA is like the NFL -- people focus too much on the guy with the ball in his hands. As the Knicks are finding out, the irreplaceable guy was the seven-footer anchoring the defense and finishing on the pick-and-roll.
There are not many players in the NBA who can do what Chandler does. At 7’1, 235 with a 7’2 wingspan, he is a physical marvel. When he’s healthy, he’s usually the tallest and the most athletic player on the floor. He has the strength to defend the post without a double team, the quickness to cut off dribble penetration and the length to play above the rim. There’s a reason he went No. 2 overall at the age of 18, even without much discernible basketball skill.
Over the last 13 years, he slowly turned himself into an effective two-way player. While he will never be a featured scorer, he’s very efficient on offense: in the last three seasons, he shot 66 percent, 68 percent and 64 percent from the field. He’s got the hands and leaping ability to catch alley-oops and he can knock down free throws, shooting 69% from the line in 2013. He’s the rare big man who knows how to play -- where to position himself and how to create space by cutting.
A big man with Chandler’s skill-set makes everyone on the floor better. His defensive impact is obvious -- it’s much easier to play poor defenders when you have a Defensive Player of the Year as the second-line of defense. On the offensive end, the pick-and-roll with Chandler creates ball movement. The defense has to react to his cut to the rim, which creates a gap for one of the perimeter players. From there, you rotate the ball to an open shot, preferably a corner 3.
There’s a reason the Knicks and the Mavs liked to start the game by throwing lobs to Tyson Chandler. It’s a reminder: if the defense doesn’t shade over, they can do that all night. The four-out offense allows Chandler to play in space just as much as Carmelo. When there’s more space on the floor, there are fewer people in the way of the lob at the rim. It’s an opening move: there are ways to defend it, but that leaves the defense open to counter measures.
Chandler is the kind of big man who can turn around a franchise. If that seems far-fetched for a guy who averages 10 points a game, look at the Dallas Mavericks. In the four years before Chandler got there, the Mavs won a grand total of one playoff series. That had nothing to do with Dirk Nowitzki either -- he was pretty much the same player he was in 2008 as he was in 2011. He added a post-game after the Golden State loss; after that, he could score at will.
Nevertheless, just like in New York, as soon as Chandler left Dallas, things crumbled quickly. A year after they won it all, the Mavs got the No. 8 seed and were swept out of the first round. Two years later, they missed the playoffs entirely. Dallas is only now starting to recover from that decision, with the signing of Monta Ellis adding a new element to their offense. The real irony is that the one thing their current roster is missing is a dynamic two-way center.
There were a lot of similarities between the 2011 Mavs and the 2013 Knicks, a point Chandler and Jason Kidd made many times. There was, however, one overriding difference -- in the playoffs, Dallas had Dirk defend quality 4’s, something New York was unwilling to do with Carmelo. In 2011, Dirk matched up with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. In contrast, the Knicks did not want Carmelo banging with a guy like David West for seven games.
For many Knicks fans, that’s where they went wrong in 2013 -- not going with the small-ball line-ups that got them to the second round in the first place. Knicks management, though, learned the opposite lesson -- if they were going to beat a team like the Pacers, they would need a second big man to match up with the likes of West and Roy Hibbert. At the same time, he also had to stretch the floor in order to maintain their offensive spacing. Thus, Andrea Bargnani.
There is a certain logic to the moves they made in the offseason, although it may not hold up to much scrutiny. The presence of Bargnani isn’t going to move the needle much in a hypothetical playoff match-up with the Miami Heat. In the regular season, bad teams have an easier chance of matching up against Bargnani at the four than Carmelo. That’s the trade-off with one-dimensional players: improve one facet of the line-up and subtract from 2-3 others.
Either way, it becomes a moot point if Chandler misses too much time. Even in the East, if the Knicks have another 3-7 stretch over the next few weeks, they will be digging themselves out of an awfully large hole. They might want to try Cole Aldrich: he’s 26 and he has the size (6’11 250) of a center picked in the lottery. Last season, in 15 games with the Sacramento Kings, he had a 15.7 PER. He’s still young enough to turn his career around.
If Chandler gets back quick enough, New York can still salvage a 45-win season with him, Carmelo and their shooters on the perimeter. From there, they just have to bide time until some of the dead weight comes off their salary cap. In a best-case scenario, Chandler and Carmelo can lure Aldridge or Kevin Love in the summer of 2015. It’s unlikely, but as long as Chandler is healthy, they are only 1-2 moves away from being a legitimate contender.
Nov 11, 2013
If this is it, Lamar Odom leaves behind a complicated legacy in the sport. However, the player he could have been shouldn’t detract from the incredible player that he was.
Nov 03, 2013
Perry Jones, Jeffery Taylor, Terrence Jones, Will Barton and Quincy Miller are five players from the 2012 NBA Draft taken outside the lottery poised to have a breakout second season.
Oct 10, 2013
Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love are too good to be annually missing the playoffs. Of course, even if they make the playoffs, there is no guarantee that the Wolves, Blazers and Mavs keep their franchise player. If any of them move to the right team, the balance of power could shift.
Oct 04, 2013
The days of the $6 million per year role player may be all but over. Mo Williams, Mike Miller, Beno Udrih and Wayne Ellington are at the forefront of the new market inefficiency in the NBA -- veteran role players from the free agency bargain bin.
Sep 30, 2013
Health is why every deep playoff run is precious; it can be taken away at any time. To figure out which teams will reach The Finals, one question stands out above all the rest: who will keep their stars healthy?
Sep 25, 2013
At an age where most smaller guards are slowing down, Tony Parker is as good as ever. There’s no real secret to what he does: he takes what the defense gives him and doesn’t make the game hard on himself. That’s how a slight 6’2 31-year-old dominates a sport designed for giants.
Sep 17, 2013
Through the first two rounds of EuroBasket 2013, there’s been no country more impressive than Serbia. Despite having the youngest team in Slovenia, with an average age of 24, they are tied for the second-best record.
Sep 12, 2013
The James Harden trade before last season hangs over every decision the Thunder make. It’s easy to forget that during the regular season, when they had both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder barely missed Harden. They had a 60-22 record, second-best in the NBA, and a +9.4 point differential, the highest mark in the league.
Sep 04, 2013
By any reasonable measure of success, Tracy McGrady had an incredible career in pro basketball. At the end of the day, “T-Mac” is not his real life. It’s a character he plays on TV. There’s nothing wrong with a good TV show; it just becomes a problem when we start to think reality operates by the same rules as one.
Aug 30, 2013
Because there is no professional structure to youth basketball in the United States, a poorly organized and often self-defeating culture has developed in its place. If AAU basketball is bad for business, the NBA has the power to fix it and instead look to the models of Europe.
Aug 14, 2013
There are seven first-round picks from 2010 not currently on an NBA roster (Aldrich, Henry, Babbitt, Brackins, Elliott Williams, Damion James, Dominique Jones, Lazar Hayward). At this point in free agency, all would be happy to play for the minimum.
Aug 10, 2013
What would happen if the NBA conducted a full scale PED investigation? How deep would the rabbit hole go? A few players have tested positive over the years, but basketball has escaped the wide-ranging scandals that have hit baseball, cycling and track and field. In that respect, the NBA’s lax approach has been a blessing in disguise.
Jul 25, 2013
Team USA changed the peer group of the NBA’s best young players. While their NBA teammates changed every year, their USA teammates stayed the same. It fostered the relationship between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that led to a dynasty with the Heat and it could do the same with Paul George, Kyrie Irving, etc.
Jul 22, 2013
Things are gloomy for Milwaukee, but there is reason for hope. For all their troubles evaluating veterans, the Bucks front office drafts as well as any team in the NBA. Their last three first-round picks were Larry Sanders (15), Tobias Harris (19) and John Henson (14).
Jul 03, 2013
While it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about Ryan McDonough, the early returns are very good. For the first time in a very long while, there’s reason for optimism surrounding the Suns.
Jul 01, 2013
The Wizards and Cavaliers have been loading up on high lottery picks, but haven't selected a true big man with any of them. It is a risky assumption that you don’t need a high-level center to win.
Jun 17, 2013
Over the course of the NBA Finals, the lineups on the floor have become progressively smaller. The result has been beautiful basketball: two skilled teams playing 4-out for 48 minutes.
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