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Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

Outside of the Jason Kidd saga, the Brooklyn Nets experienced a relatively quiet offseason in terms of personnel changes. Their lack of cap flexibility made it difficult for them to add any impactful players and even retain their own free agents. The loss of two key contributors and the injury-riddled histories of their star players could cause the Nets to struggle to make the 2015 playoffs.

Where Did They Finish? 

After recovering from a dismal 11-21 start to win 33 of their last 50 games, the Nets won a tight 7-game series against the Toronto Raptors to make it to the second round of the playoffs. Their second round exit was surely not what management had envisioned when it assembled the $100 million roster. While the Nets won five fewer games in the regular season than the year before, the first round victory represented an improvement from the year before when the Nets were ousted in round one.

Kidd helped the Nets turn around their season by moving Paul Pierce to the 4 and giving more minutes to journeyman guard Shaun Livingston. The move helped Pierce increase his offensive output because he was able to utilize his quickness advantage over opposing frontcourt players. Furthermore, playing Pierce in the frontcourt and giving Livingston more minutes improved the Nets defensive length and speed. Their newfound ability to switch liberally made it hard for opponents to create mismatches.

What Happened This Offseason?

The major story of the Nets offseason occurred when Jason Kidd’s failed power grab resulted in his leaving Brooklyn to become the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately for the Nets, he wasn’t the only person who left, as Pierce and Livingston both bolted for teams that seem to have a better shot to compete for a championship.

Pierce and Livingston were the key players to the identity change that turned the team’s season around. Their net rating numbers from last season illustrate their importance to the team, as they each posted the best net rating on the team behind only franchise point guard Deron Williams. Losing Pierce and Livingston makes the Nets roster look a lot more similar to what it looked like in 2012-13 than to what it did last season.

How Will They Do Next Year?

The 12-13 Nets took advantage of the league’s third easiest schedule to win 49 games en route to the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference. Their success was powered by an offense that was ranked eighth in the league because of two main factors: offensive rebounding and free throw attempts. The Nets undoubtedly have more accomplished role players on the roster for the upcoming season than they did in 2012-13. However, the 12-13 roster included players who played complementary roles to the stars of the team, particularly in the frontcourt.

For instance, Reggie Evans led the league in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in 12-13, which served both to bolster the offense and mitigate the effect of Lopez’s subpar rebounding at the Center position. Kris Humphries played a similar role by rebounding at a high rate off the bench. Andray Blatche also contributed by grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds and by getting to the free throw line at a steady rate. The role players on this year’s roster are not equipped to contribute similarly.

At his advanced age, Kevin Garnett is not able to provide the same constant energy on the glass as Evans and Mason Plumlee was not the same caliber of rebounder in his rookie year as Evans or Humphries. The changes in the frontcourt explain the Nets decline from 10th in the league in total rebound rate in 2012-13 to 29th last season. 

A major reason for the Nets success in 2012-13 was the sustained health of their star players. The ability of the role players to play a complementary role will be less important if the top players are not on the court. Joe Johnson does not have much of an injury history but the same cannot be said about Deron Williams or Brook Lopez. Here are their last three seasons in terms of games and minutes played and how those numbers translated to Nets victories.

Deron Williams

 

Games

Minutes

Wins

2011-12*

68

2484

27

2012-13

78

2842

49

2013-14

64

2059

44

Average

70

2462

40

Brook Lopez

 

Games

Minutes

Wins

2011-12*

6

169

27

2012-13

74

2253

49

2013-14

17

533

44

Average

32

985

40

*Extrapolated To Full Regular Season Because Of Lockout

It is difficult to expect Williams and Lopez to stay as healthy as they were in that 12-13 season considering Williams’ long injury history with the Nets and the struggles of big men with repeated foot injuries. If either Williams or Lopez is forced to miss a significant amount of time, it is hard to envision a scenario where new coach Lionel Hollins gets the Nets to improve their win total from last season. 

In conclusion, Pierce and Livingston were the key players that allowed the Nets to persevere through injuries and make the playoffs last season. Losing them means that the Nets must bank on the sustained health of their two star players in order to repeat their 49-win season from 2012-13. Even if they both manage to remain fully healthy, they still might not mesh with the players surrounding them as well as they did two seasons ago.

Prediction: Potential injury issues, a questionable supporting cast, a thinner roster, and a tougher conference will all combine to cause the Nets to finish somewhere between 8th and 10th in the East.

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

When Kyrie Irving started to heat up halfway through the first quarter, he removed any intrigue from the championship game of the World Cup. Team USA was up 35-21 after ten minutes and never looked back from there, which was really the story of the tournament. The Americans dominated with absolute ease, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points a game, their highest margin of victory since the 1994 world championships.

They trailed only once at halftime - a group play game against Turkey which they ended up winning by 19 points - and they were never tested in the second half of a game. None of the teams they faced could stop them from scoring and none could consistently execute against their defense. Order has been restored to the basketball universe, as Team USA has won the last four major international tournaments and hasn’t lost a game since 2006.

The scariest part about their performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain. At the start of the summer, the three players expected to lead Team USA were Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George. Coach K was able to reshuffle the roster on the fly, with waves of shooters and defenders on the perimeter and three man rotation upfront of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins.

Without Durant, Team USA opted to spread responsibility around and not run their offense through any one player. Six different guys - James Harden, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Irving, Davis and Faried - averaged in double figures in the tournament. The days of international teams wanting to zone the Americans and daring them to shoot from the perimeter have come and gone - Team USA shot 52% from the field, 57% from 2 and 40% from 3. 

While there were moments where the offense stagnated and individual players held the ball, for the most part, the Americans did a good job of spreading the floor, moving the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. With Cousins coming off the bench and dominating second unit big men, averaging 9.6 points a game on 70% shooting, they even had the option of running offense through the post when the pace of the game slowed down.

That didn’t happen too often, though, as the US had only one game where they scored less than 95 points. When you consider that international games are only 40 minutes long, it shows you how effortlessly Team USA was able to put up points against the best teams in the world. At a certain point in each game, they started going from defense to offense and getting out in the open floor, essentially running every team they faced out of the gym. 

Defense was their calling card in this tournament, an impressive feat when you consider the NBA reputations of many of their best players. Four of their five starters - Irving, Curry, Harden and Faried - are guys viewed as weaker players on that end of the floor. Fewer minutes and smaller offensive roles allowed them to increase their effort level while a great defensive scheme by Team USA’s coaching staff put them in a position to succeed.

Given their overwhelming edge in talent and athleticism, you would expect the Americans to be a dominant defensively, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even when the US was finishing out of the top two in major international tournaments from 2002-2006, the problem was never a lack of athletic talent. Under the direction of Colangelo and Coach K, the American players buy into a team concept and execute at a high level on both sides of the ball. 

In 2014, the end result was a juggernaut that ran rings around the rest of the world. If you break down the roster individually, no one would take this version of Team USA over either of the teams that won gold medals in the last two Olympics, yet both groups had to pull out several games in the fourth quarter. A lot of that is because Spain won silver in 2008 and 2012 and lost in the quarterfinals in 2014, but you can only face the teams in front of you.

When Spain was knocked out of the tournament, they took almost any chance of drama with them. Before their upset loss to France, the Spaniards were playing about as well as Team USA, going 6-0 and winning by an average of over 20 points a game. On paper, the Spanish frontline of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could have given the Americans some match-up problems upfront, but the way they lost to France throws cold water on that scenario. 

If Spain was going to be physically manhandled in their own gym and outrebounded 50-28 by a frontline of Boris Diaw, Joffrey Lauvergne and Boris Diaw, they were going to have a hard time keeping Davis, Cousins and Faried off the glass. The French didn’t even play that well in the upset - they shot 39% from the field and 25% from 3. If the US had used a similar defensive game-plan and shot well from the perimeter, they would have blown Spain out.

With their gold medal in the World Cup, the US automatically clinches a spot in the 2016 Olympics, which means they won’t have to play any qualifying games in 2015. That’s good news for international basketball, since Team USA’s presence tends to remove most of the drama from the proceedings, the ultimate tribute to how dominant they’ve been under Coach K. They are winning so easily these days the whole thing is becoming kind of boring.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each MVC team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview

MVC Favorite

Wichita St.: There is no consensus on where to rank Wichita St. this year and that is probably fair. That is because we honestly couldn’t decide how good this team was last season. The Shockers didn’t play a Top 80 opponent from mid-December until the NCAA tournament. Because they were stuck playing huge mismatches, it was simply impossible to get a conclusive evaluation of how they stacked up against other elite teams. (Margin-of-victory is far less informative when games are mismatches.) One thrilling game against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament hardly answered the question of how good the Shockers were.

Ironically, Wichita St.’s first best chance to prove themselves this season may come on Nov. 18th against the former big fish in a small pond, Memphis. In Memphis’s final eight years in CUSA, the Tigers lost a total of 13 conference games. While Memphis had NBA level talent, a creative offense, and some great defensive teams, every year college basketball experts would quibble about their worth. After going 16-2 in the MVC three years ago, and 18-0 last year, Gregg Marshall’s squad seems to be headed for a similar pattern. It makes me wish that college basketball had some sort of Champions League like European football. We need more opportunities to evaluate the Shockers against the best of the best. Since that does not exist, you’ll read a lot about Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter, JUCO’s Bush Wamukota and Tevin Glass, and 3-star freshmen like Zach Brown and Rashard Kelly. But you won’t get to see them on TV nearly enough.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Northern Iowa: What Wichita St. could use more than anything is for the MVC as a whole to return to its glory days. Just a few short years ago, the league would have four to six teams on the NCAA tournament bubble. And even two years ago, the battle between Creighton and Wichita St. at least made for must-see TV. One thing that will help tremendously this season is that the MVC has a high number of returning players. This will be a very mature league:

Conference

Avg. Returning Minutes

MVC

65%

B12

62%

B10

60%

A10

58%

ACC

57%

WCC

56%

Amer

56%

Horz

56%

SEC

56%

BE

55%

MWC

54%

P12

53%

Northern Iowa returns 88% of their roster from last year. And with a quality coach who led the team to a 2010 NCAA tournament victory over Kansas, there is no reason Northern Iowa should not get better on both sides of the ball. But after the team finished just 16-15 last year, with the 94th best margin-of-victory in the nation, just bringing players back probably will not be enough. Northern Iowa needs to make an unexpected improvement on offense or defense if they want to make the tournament.

Offensively, transfer Paul Jesperson might be the key piece that puts Northern Iowa over the top, but he is no guarantee. Jesperson basically only did one thing at Virginia, take and make wide open threes. He never attacked the basket, and despite his size 6’6” he was not a rebounder or shot-blocker. He couldn’t even make intermediate jumpers. He simply stood on the perimeter and rarely shot. Still Jesperson had a higher high school recruiting rank than anyone else on Northern Iowa’s roster, and if another year of practice has expanded his game, Jesperson’s presence could be a deciding factor.

Defensively, the real issue is the team’s interior depth. Seth Tuttle and Nate Buss were both quality interior scorers, but because the team needed their scoring, they were afraid to get in foul trouble last season. And that meant the team was a revolving door defensively. 6’6” Marvin Singleton chipped in some late in the year, but he was not much of a rebounder. And freshman Ted Friedman was not ready last season. This year’s post additions are 2-star recruits who are unlikely to move the needle. And that leaves head coach Ben Jacobson with a real dilemma. He must improve his teams’ defensive aggressiveness while ensuring that Tuttle and Buss stay on the floor.

Hoping for the NIT

Illinois St: Illinois St. is becoming JUCO University. Last year head coach Dan Muller rolled the dice with four Top 100 JUCO players, Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter, Michael Middlebrooks, and Zach Lofton. Middlebrooks was a bust. He was suspended and ultimately left the team. Lofton was a high volume low efficiency scorer, and he ultimately transferred. But Knight and Hunter are returning, and they are probably the Redbirds best two players. And a year after rolling the dice with four JUCO players, Dan Muller is adding four JUCO recruits again. This time Devaughn Purcell is the highest rated among a group that includes Will Ransom, Mark Hall, and Justin McCloud.

Highly touted freshmen MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins are also now available after both were partial qualifiers last year. That means Illinois St.’s roster includes six JUCO recruits and two partial qualifiers. Coaches often get criticized for this type of roster construction. (I recall Bob Huggins used to take a lot of flack for constructing rosters of this type at Cincinnati.) But before opposing fan-bases complain, they should realize that EVERY team in the MVC is adding at least one JUCO recruit this year (except for Drake). And among major conferences, the MVC adds the most JUCO recruits. Furthermore, adding up the D1 transfers and JUCO transfers debuting this season, the MVC is tied for the lead in transfer debuts per team:

Debuts in 2014-2015

Teams

D1 Transfer Debuts

JUCO Debuts

Transfer Debuts Per Team

MVC

10

4

20

2.4

Horz

9

9

13

2.4

Amer

11

12

14

2.4

MWC

11

12

14

2.4

B12

10

10

12

2.2

SEC

14

20

6

1.9

WCC

10

12

6

1.8

P12

12

7

9

1.3

BE

10

8

5

1.3

ACC

15

11

5

1.1

A10

14

8

6

1.0

B10

14

9

3

0.9

Notes: Not all waivers for immediate eligibility have been processed, but I took my best guess about eligibility for 2014-15 based on the available information. Second, some players played at a D1 school and then spent a year playing JUCO ball. I count these players in the D1 transfer category and not the JUCO category.

Aside: This week Gary Parrish noted that the SEC has a rule about recruiting certain types of JUCO players. And clearly, with just six JUCO recruits, the SEC will have a limited number of JUCO players debuting this year. But the SEC is not the league to use the fewest JUCO recruits. The Big Ten has just three JUCO transfers coming in this season.

There are positives and negatives associated with the MVC using so many JUCO players. One positive is that the MVC won’t waste a lot of possessions on freshmen this season. On the other hand, as I’ve said many times, JUCO recruits are lottery tickets. Sometimes teams hit the jackpot, but often times JUCO recruits can’t make the leap and don’t become quality D1 players.

Evansville: I’ve said before that returning minutes are over-rated, and the large number of transfers in the previous table should make that clear. A league can lose a lot of talent, and still not be very young. I used my simulation model to project 10,000 scenarios for each league this season. I account for the possibility that players may exceed or fail to live up to expectations and for the possibility of injury. Using these simulations, the next table shows the average percentage of minutes I expect each conference to give to each class. The A10 is going to be very young next year. While the A10 returned 58% of its minutes, which was not particularly low, because the A10 is adding so few transfers this year, expect the league to experience significant growing pains.

But as the earlier tables showed, the MVC returns the most minutes of any of these top leagues, the MVC adds a number of transfers, and the MVC projects to have just 38% of its minutes go to first or second year players this year.

Conf

Pct Min Fresh

Pct Min Soph

Pct Min Jr

Pct Min Sr

B12

18%

27%

32%

23%

MVC

19%

19%

38%

23%

Horz

19%

19%

34%

28%

Amer

19%

23%

41%

17%

WCC

23%

15%

25%

37%

SEC

25%

25%

28%

22%

BE

26%

19%

24%

32%

MWC

26%

20%

23%

31%

P12

26%

22%

31%

20%

ACC

26%

23%

33%

19%

B10

27%

18%

25%

31%

A10

30%

20%

30%

20%

That experience could mean a resurgence for the MVC in 2014-15. But as I noted in my Big East Preview (scroll down to the Marquette blurb), the MVC has just one player who was a Top 100 recruit out of high school, Bradley’s Mike Shaw. And not only did Shaw score less than 1 PPG at Illinois (before transferring to Bradley), Shaw is currently sidelined with an injury.

That talent disparity is going to make it hard for the MVC to climb into the Top 6 or 7 again. If another league struggles with youth (I’m looking at you A10), it is possible the MVC can be a Top 10 league again. But the glory days, when the league had multiple at large candidates, seem distant at this point.

The Purple Aces return 96% of their minutes from last year. The team also adds two Top 100 JUCO recruits in Willie Wiley and Taylor Stafford. The team has one of the most under-rated big men in the country in Egidijus Mockevicius. DJ Balentine is a quality guard. But in February and March, the team beat just one team ranked above 200th by Kenpom.com, and that win came in OT at home. Even with zero freshmen on the roster, Evansville is still light years away from being able to compete with a team like Wichita St.

Indiana St: You can’t replace a four-year leader and starter at PG like Jake Odum. First, you can’t recruit a replacement while that player is still around, because no one wants to be glued to the bench. And Indiana St. can’t recruit the type of freshman who would be an instant impact recruit. And thus the Sycamores did the only sensible thing they could do. They added a Top 100 JUCO recruit, PG Tre Bennett. With Bennett feeding the ball to Justin Gant and Khristian Smith, Indiana St. will still be one of the better teams in the MVC next year. But they don’t add enough instant impact players to replace the three key seniors they lost, and they will take a step back.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson was a consistent winner at Missouri St. He might not have been a tournament regular, but he almost always had a winning record in the league. I knew when he took over at Southern Illinois that he might not have enough talent to win right away, but I thought at minimum, he would be able to improve the Saluki’s defense. That hasn’t happened yet, but the answer might be on the way in the form of 7’1” JUCO transfer Deng Leek.

Offensively, the team just needs to share the ball more. For two years in a row, Southern Illinois has had one of the worst assist/FGM ratios in the nation. Anthony Beane is an efficient super-scorer, but he only calls his own number. Entering year three Hinson now has his players. But the need to build a better team defense around Leek, and the need to build an offense that shares the ball more, means Hinson still has a lot of work to do.

Missouri St: You probably think the loss of Jarmar Gulley (30% shot volume, 108 ORtg) will hurt the Missouri St. offense. But two factors should help off-set that. First, Marcus Marshall should be back after missing last year with an injury and Marshall was a tremendous scorer. Second, the further development of super-three point gunner Austin Rudder, who made 70 threes as a freshman, will help.

The bigger problem will be replacing Gulley’s defense. At 6’5” he was the team’s best rebounder and the team leader in steals. When the defense was already poor, a player like Gulley is very difficult to replace.

Not Looking Good

Bradley: Bradley is the only team in the league that is returning less than half its minutes. But fourth year head coach Geno Ford wasn’t willing to spend a year rebuilding and he added four JUCO prospects and Illinois transfer Mike Shaw to ensure the team stayed competitive. Unfortunately, summer injuries have kept key players from practicing and senior forward Auston Barnes was arrested in August. There are reasons for optimism. Rivals and ESPN rated freshman Josh Cunningham a 4-star prospect and Omari Grier is a quality scorer. But this hasn’t been an easy summer.

Loyola Chicago: I never understood why the MVC replaced Creighton with a middling team from the Horizon League. The justification given was that the MVC locked up the Chicago market, and it was also argued that Loyola was upgrading its facilities. Well, even if the facilities are getting better, the recruiting is not keeping up. Loyola still has the worst recruiting in the conference. They only have one player ranked above 2 stars on their roster.

Drake: Sophomore Jacob Jensen is still raw offensively, but he was a tremendous defensive rebounder last year. Among freshmen to play at least 16 MPG in 2014, only Julius Randle, Kennedy Meeks, Noah Vonleh, Joel Embiid, and Rice’s Sean Obi had a higher defensive rebounding rate than Jensen. Drake has some nice pieces, but with lots of roster turnover, and no transfers debuting, Drake could be in for a long year.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

Boris Diaw served as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

Arizona are the clear favorites to win the Pac-12 again in 2015 with UCLA, Stanford and Utah hoping for a place in the top-25.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

SMU and UConn are the co-favorites to win the American Conference, with Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati hoping to reach the Big Dance.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

Every national program involved enters this tournament with the goal of trying to make their country proud. For some countries, that means toppling the mighty U.S.A. For others, it’s one last shot at glory. And a few programs lurking in the shadows are hoping to use this platform to announce themselves as the world’s newest global power.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

Villanova won the Big East last season and it hardly seems fair that they also have the most returning minutes. Georgetown will be hoping for a place in the top-25, while Xavier, St. John's, Marquette and Providence will be tourney bubble teams.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, there’s really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paul’s brain in Derrick Rose’s body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

The problem for teams in the A10 is that it can take longer to restock the cabinet. When talented seniors leave, teams in the A10 sometimes need a year or two to rebuild, while teams in the Power Five conferences simply reload.

Kyrie Irving's Transformation Starts With Admission He Needs LeBron, Cavs' New Vets

He wasn’t a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

The release of the NBA schedule lets us put some date on some of the more compelling matchups (no repeats) that will take place during the 2014-15 regular season.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

Gonzaga could become a top-10 team in the country, while BYU and Saint Mary's are hoping to merely make the NCAA tournament.

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

Kevin Love was the best procurable player in the NBA for the Cavaliers, a top-10 talent at the age of 26 who will excellently complement LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

Kentucky and Florida are obviously playing for top seeds in the tourney, while Arkansas should comfortably be in the field. You can throw the next eight teams in a hat, and defend almost any ordering.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the time value of money) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Sonics and a second franchise.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

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