Mar 11, 2014 1:52 PM EDT
With an 83-69 win over Indiana State in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Wichita State moved their record to 34-0. Coming off a Final Four run last season, the Shockers have established themselves as one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. The first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated in 23 years, they are a legitimate threat to cut down the nets in Dallas.
Like most mid-major teams, Wichita State’s strength is on the perimeter. College basketball is a guard’s game and Gregg Marshall’s team has one of the best backcourts in the country in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, both only sophomores. Van Vleet and Baker are skilled, tough-minded and physical guards that contribute on both ends of the floor. They take care of the ball, shoot it from the perimeter, get into you on defense and control the tempo the game.
At 5’11 195, Van Vleet doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be a big-time NBA prospect. However, at the college level, he is as good of a point guard as there is. You can see that in his two per-game ratios - 5.3 assists on 1.9 turnovers and 1.9 steals on 1.9 personal fouls. Van Vleet keeps Wichita State in every game because he gets his teammates easy shots without turning the ball over and he turns over the opposition without picking up fouls that would send him to the bench.
Baker, a deceptively athletic 6’3 215 combo guard, has a chance to play at the next level. He has a very well-rounded game, with the ability to create his own shot and finish at the rim, shoot from the perimeter, make plays for others, rebound and defend multiple positions. Baker is averaging 13 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals a game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. He’s a former walk-on who could start for every team in the country.
The third member of their Big Three is Cleanthony Early, an NBA prospect in his own right at 6’8 220. Early, whom Marshall discovered playing D3 JUCO ball, is a prototype combo forward at the college level, giving Wichita State a lot of versatility in their line-ups. They can go big with Early as a 6’8 SF or play 4-out with him at PF. He can take bigger players to the perimeter, where he shoots 36 percent on this three-pointers with five attempts a game, or post up smaller ones in the lane.
As a perimeter-oriented team that likes to spread the floor and hoist 3’s, the Shockers are most effective with Early at the 4. Going small opens up minutes for their two other guards - Tekele Cotton (6’2 210) and Nick Wiggins (6’6 190), the older brother of the Kansas superstar. Cotton is another three-point shooter (38% on 3 attempts a game) while Wiggins gives them a defensive match-up for bigger wings. On the perimeter, Wichita State looks like a high-major team.
If the Shockers have a weakness, it’s upfront, where they get by with a more limited group of big men. They have two undersized bruisers at the center position - Kadeem Coleby (6’9 260) and Chadrack Lufile (6’9 260). While both understand their roles and make the right rotations on defense, neither has the size to match-up with NBA-caliber centers and both are very limited on the offensive end. The two combine to average a little over nine points a game.
Their most skilled big man is Darius Carter, another of Marshall’s junior college finds. At 6’7 235, Carter can bang inside and hit the mid-range jumper. He averages 8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1 block a game on 53 percent shooting. Carter, like Coleby and Lufile, can get by at center against small-ball teams, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to defend a 6’10+ player who can create his own shot. The good news is there aren’t many of those players in college ball.
That’s the one knock on Wichita State’s season - their schedule. With Creighton gone to the new Big East, there isn’t another heavyweight program in the Missouri Valley. They went 18-0 in conference but none of those wins came against an NCAA Tournament team, certainly not one with NBA-caliber big men upfront. Nor were they able to schedule many tough opponents in non-conference play - their only win over a ranked team came against fellow mid-major St. Louis.
If there’s a formula for shocking the Shockers, you can look at the film of their game against Tennessee, whom they defeated 70-62 in December. The Volunteers, as the rare high-major program willing to play in Wichita, gave the Shockers their other “signature” win this season. While they came up short, they had the half-time lead and were in the game all the way through. If the game had been played in Knoxville, it wouldn’t have been stunning to see it go the other way.
Tennessee had two bruising 6’8 260 big men - Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon - who could attack Wichita State on the block. While neither had a huge game, they collapsed the Shockers defense and forced them to crowd the paint. If the Volunteers had shot better than 6-20 from three, they would have had a good chance of pulling the upset. Just as important, Early didn’t have the size to defend either Stokes or Maymon, forcing Marshall to play more two big-man line-ups.
In that respect, Wichita State is similar to the Miami Heat, in that they are far more dangerous when they play 4-out with only one conventional big men. If they have to play two limited big men who can’t shoot 3’s at the same time, their floor spacing is compromised and there is less room to attack the basket. The Shockers want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.
The key to knocking off Wichita State is personnel. To give them their first loss, you would want an NBA-caliber 4 or 5 who can get his own shot, another big man who can punish Early and make him play on the perimeter, a PG who can handle Van Vleet’s ball pressure and long, athletic wings who can run with Baker, Wiggins and Cotton. Basically, a team like Michigan State, which has Adreian Payne, Branden Dawsen, Gary Harris and Keith Appling.
There’s not much of a chance the Shockers see a team like that in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and they may not see one in the second weekend, either. That’s what it will come down too for Wichita State - their draw and the possible match-ups in it. There’s been a lot of talk on TV about whether they “deserve” a No. 1 seed, but it doesn’t matter. The number next to a team isn’t nearly as important as how they match-up with the team across from them.
Mar 05, 2014 9:19 PM EST
With a 106-103 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Houston Rockets moved into a tie for third place out West. Winners of 8 of their last 10, Houston has found a groove - every man in their 9-man rotation has settled into a role. With a 41-19 record and a +4.5 point differential, they are on pace to win 55 games in a stacked conference. The 13-14 Rockets are the best team Dwight Howard has been on since the 08-09 Orlando Magic, whom he lead to the NBA Finals.
At 28 and in the prime of his career, Howard has become a somewhat forgotten man in the NBA. After burning bridges on his way out of town in Orlando and Los Angeles, his Q rating has fallen off a cliff. At the same time, a lengthy recovery from back surgery had many questioning whether he was already peaked as a player. This season, almost two years removed from the procedure, Howard has reestablished himself as the best center in the NBA.
At 6’10 260 with a 7’4 wingspan, Howard is one of the most physically imposing players in the league. Even though he gives up height to a lot of centers, his broad shoulders carve out a tremendous amount of space in the paint. He’s a force of gravity - he has tremendous mass, very long arms and he still has the ability to play high above the rim. When he gets the ball inside, help defenders are naturally drawn to him. On defense, few can move him out of position.
Howard is the anchor of the 12th rated defense in the NBA, an impressive number when you consider the youth of the players in front of him. Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Terrence Jones are all 25 or younger and Beverley is the only one with much of a defensive reputation. Parsons, Harden and Jones are more focused on the offensive end of the floor, particularly Harden, whose defensive effort is lacking at best, if not outright egregious.
And while he’s no longer leading the league in rebounding, Howard is still grabbing 12.5 bounds a game. His ability to clean the defensive glass allows the Rockets perimeter players to leak out in transition, where they are particularly deadly. Once he gets the rebound, Howard can get down the floor quickly, drawing defensive attention and opening up shooters on the perimeter. You can count the number of centers who can bang and run with Howard on one hand.
Where Howard differs from guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond is his effectiveness in the halfcourt. He may never have the refined post moves of Kevin McHale, the Rockets coach, but he’s light years ahead of most modern centers who can’t play with their back to the basket. Howard commands a double team on the block; he gives his team the versatility to play either out of the post or the pick-and-roll. Few teams have the personnel to defend both.
Add it all up and you have a very impressive package of skills at the center position - an elite defender who averages 20 points a game on 59 percent shooting and is also a Top-5 rebounder. When guys play with Howard, they benefit from the attention he draws on offense and his ability to cover up their mistakes on defense. The centerpiece of Houston’s offense and defense, he makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball, the mark of a true superstar.
To understand his importance, all you have to do is look at his former teams. The Magic turned Howard into some quality young players, yet they still have a 19-43 record and are years away from respectability. The Lakers, meanwhile, are already selling their fans on the 2015 and 2016 free agent classes. There’s just no way to replace the canyon-sized hole Howard’s absence creates. When Dwight leaves town, turn off the lights, because the party is over.
Howard has made only one NBA Finals appearance in his 10-year career, but that’s mostly a testament to how shallow his supporting casts have been. Who was the best player he played with in Orlando - Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson? He was certainly not in a situation like LeBron James in Miami, playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, when he was teamed up with Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Who knows what would have happened if the Magic had a perimeter player like Harden, instead of relying on Nelson and Turkoglu as their primary playmakers. The combination of Harden and Howard shifts the balance of power in the West, not only this season, but well into the next decade. In 2020, Howard will be 35 and Harden will be 31, younger than what Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are now. The Rockets aren’t going anywhere for a very long time.
When you project Howard’s career going forward, it’s hard not to see him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his first 10 seasons in the NBA, Howard has made the All-Star team eight times, the All-NBA team seven times and the All-Defensive team five times. He has won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, scored over 13,000 points and grabbed over 9,000 rebounds. Keep in mind, he did all of this while he was too “immature” to be a championship-caliber player.
Just like LeBron in Cleveland, Howard has been psychoanalyzed to death by a culture that can’t accept the fact that basketball is a team game. Over the course of his career, Howard has done more than enough to put his teams in championship contention. The reality is that no one was winning a title with Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation in Houston, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
This summer, the Rockets can either make a run at Kevin Love or count on internal improvement and Howard’s ability to lure free agents. Other players may not like his personality, but they respect his game. There are only three players who can swing the balance of power in the NBA - one is in South Beach, one is in OKC and one is in Houston. My guess is the team that knocks off LeBron James will have either Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant on it.
Feb 11, 2014 1:45 PM EST
The Portland Trail Blazers have been the feel-good story of the first half of the season. Widely considered a fringe playoff contender before the season began, they got off to a gang-busters start, winning 22 of their first 26. They haven’t cooled off much since, heading into the All-Star break with a 36-15 record. With two All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland seems like it has a bright future ahead of them.
Instead of going for the headlines, the Trail Blazers made a series of small but significant moves over the summer. The most important was at the center position, where they replaced an undersized power forward who didn't play any defense (JJ Hickson) with a legitimate two-way 7'0 250 banger in Robin Lopez. While not a star like his twin brother Brook, Robin has established himself as a starting-quality center in the NBA.
Portland also boosted their bench, upgrading a unit that had been one of the worst in the NBA last season. The key has been Mo Williams, a former All-Star who has reestablished himself as a premier sixth man, as well as the improvement of Joel Freeland, who turned himself into a poor man's Robin Lopez. Along with Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright and CJ McCollum, they have given Portland a legitimate second unit.
Last season, the Trail Blazers had a lot of front-line talent, but they were essentially a four-man team of Aldridge, Lillard, Nic Batum and Wes Matthews. As a result, their starters wore out over the course of the season, culminating in a 13-game losing streak to end the season that pushed them all the way down to tenth place in the West. With so many good teams in front of them, whispers about Aldridge's free agency began spreading.
The key to Portland's success this season has been the combination of Aldridge and their outside shooting. At 6'11 240 with a 7'4 wingspan, Aldridge is one of the longest and most skilled power forwards in the league. An elite shooter with a developed post game, he is one of the toughest covers 1-on-1 in the NBA. The only real way to stop him from scoring is to send double-teams, which opens up offense for everyone else.
Portland starts three elite three-point shooters on the perimeter -- Lillard (41 percent on seven per game), Matthews (42 percent on six) and Batum (34 percent on five). All three can shoot, dribble and move the ball, making it easy for them to exploit a scrambling defense. It’s the same story on the bench: everyone for Portland can shoot 3’s, with Williams (38 percent on 3), McCollum (36 percent on 2) and Wright (34 percent on 3) all capable of stretching the floor.
Having so much perimeter shooting allows the Trail Blazers to maintain floor spacing while playing big. Portland is one of the only true two-post teams left; they stay big for all 48 minutes, with Freeland and Robinson coming off the bench to back-up Aldridge and Lopez and playing with them as well. Playing all that size allows the Trail Blazers to be an elite rebounding team; they are currently ranked No. 2 in the NBA in that category.
The concern for Portland is on the defensive end of the floor. While Matthews and Batum are elite perimeter defenders and Aldridge has all the tools to be an interior stopper, the same can’t be said for Lopez or Lillard. Their bench is an even bigger problem on that side of the floor, as Freeland and Robinson are both somewhat raw while Williams (6’1 195) and McCollum (6’4 200) give up a lot of size and athleticism to bigger guards.
As a result, Portland is one of the most unbalanced teams in the NBA. They have an offensive rating of 112.4 per 100 possessions, tops in the NBA and a defensive rating of 107.8 per 100, good for 20th. Their rebounding ability means they don’t give up a ton of second-chance points, but that does them no good if they are rebounding the ball from under their own net. In the crucible of a seven-game playoff series, that could be a concern.
When you examine their schedule more closely, the Trail Blazers appear to be a bit of a paper tiger.
Going forward, they have one of the toughest schedules in the NBA, with only four home games left against Eastern Conference foes. They only have one East Coast road trip left all season; for the most part, they are playing only Western Conference teams in the last three months. They won’t have many chances to pick up easy wins.
With this current roster, the Trail Blazers will have to win games on the offensive end of the floor, which becomes harder in the playoffs, when you mostly face elite defenses. Since none of their perimeter players is an elite slasher, opposing defenses can press up on their guards and dare them to attack the rim. Aldridge prefers playing 20+ feet from the basket; Portland doesn’t have anyone who makes a living at the rim.
The lack of an elite slasher negates some of the value Aldridge brings to the floor. His dead-eye shooting from long range forces one of the opposing big men to leave the paint, which opens up a ton of driving lanes to the rim. If the Trail Blazers want to make a deep run in the playoffs this season, that’s a hole they will need to address. There are too many good teams in the Western Conference for them to get away with that.
The good news for Portland is they have the pieces to be very active at the deadline. Neil Olshey has done a fine job of upgrading their talent base in the last two years. Meyers Leonard, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe all have the upside to be NBA starters and none of them can find minutes on the Trail Blazers. Even McCollum, the No. 10 pick in 2013, isn’t needed on this team. Lillard and Williams do all the things he does but better.
It would be easy for the Trail Blazers to stand pat at the deadline, as they’ve already done more than enough to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011. At the same time, though, Aldridge is 28, Matthews is 27, Batum is 25 and Lillard is 23; they are ready to win right now. Nor has Aldridge’s long-term status been resolved. If they lose in the first round, no one is going to care about what happened in November and December
Feb 01, 2014
Over the last generation, many of the league’s best shooting guard prospects have been undone by getting too much too soon. Terrence Ross has been the exact opposite, an All-NBA talent forced to pay his dues and learn the game at every stop of the way.
Jan 07, 2014
The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.
Dec 13, 2013
Eric Bledsoe has played only 15 games in a Suns' uniform, but the trade already looks like a massive heist. His 20.95 PER is sixth among PG’s, one spot ahead of his former Kentucky teammate John Wall. Wall is a No. 1 overall pick who received an $80 million extension; Bledsoe has been every bit as good.
Nov 14, 2013
Forget whether or not tanking is morally acceptable. Most NBA franchises are so bad at identifying young talent (and even worse at developing it) that draft position almost doesn’t matter. The Pacers didn’t have to lose a bunch of games to build a championship-caliber team.
Oct 29, 2013
After Brooklyn acquired Joe Johnson, everyone decried how inflexible their roster situation had become. Since then, they have acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche. The Nets are extremely deep, with one of the most loaded rosters from top to bottom in the league.
Oct 23, 2013
Once players leave AAU basketball and enter college, their careers diverge quickly, even those with similar amounts of talent. Some declare too early, others too late. A perfect example of how our perceptions can change is to compare Jeremy Lamb to Victor Oladipo.
Oct 16, 2013
The NCAA can act like the NBA’s disinterest is a burden for the NCAA, but it’s really an opportunity to make $11 billion over 14 years to put on a March basketball tournament. There are plenty of people who want to watch the best 18-20 year old basketball players in the world.
Sep 09, 2013
The highest-drafted Lithuanian of all-time (No. 5 in 2011), Jonas Valanciunas is the rare gigantic center with both athleticism and coordination. When the biggest guy on the floor knows how to use his size to his advantage, it’s a problem for everyone else.
Aug 27, 2013
The NBA wrote him off, but Larry Brown couldn’t leave the game behind, the game needed him. Brown needed a job and SMU had nothing to lose. It was the ultimate marriage of convenience. One year later, it looks like a brilliant decision for both.
Aug 23, 2013
As long as Andre Drummond stays healthy, he has as much physical upside as any player in the NBA. If he ever develops a post game, he could be unstoppable. In his prime, a player with Drummond’s gargantuan size will be an existential threat to any small-ball team.
Aug 20, 2013
While the Kings haven't gotten any lucky bounces in the lottery lately, over the last five years, they picked between No. 4 and No. 7. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins were good picks, but their misses in 2011 and 2012 has made them several players away from becoming a playoff team.
Aug 04, 2013
Instead of trying to improve after winning a title, Dallas started shedding players and giving away draft picks. Mark Cuban wanted financial flexibility for the summer of 2012 when several superstars would become free agents. The best analogy for what happened comes from the game of hearts: Cuban tried to “shoot the moon” and missed.
Jul 29, 2013
In order to maximize his skills and their title chances, the Clippers need to use Blake Griffin more like LeBron or Durant. In order for the Clippers to win a title, Griffin will have to displace Chris Paul as their best player and DeAndrew Jordan will have to be moved.
Jul 18, 2013
The Jazz broke apart a 43-win team and received nothing in return, but it’s been a fire sale years in the making. Ever since dealing Deron Williams in 2011, they have been quietly rebuilding their roster. In the process, they pulled off the rare double dip: acquiring multiple high lottery picks without sinking to the bottom of the standings.
Jul 15, 2013
The only thing crazier than Brooklyn’s reckless approach to team building this offseason is that it just might work. Championships aren’t won on paper, but if everything goes right, all the pieces are in place for the Nets to make a deep run in the playoffs and could beat the Heat using the 2011 Mavs' model.
Jul 11, 2013
From a basketball perspective, the Pelicans have had an odd offseason for a 27-win team with a 20-year-old franchise player. There’s a model for what the Pelicans are doing, but it doesn’t come from the NBA. New Orleans is trying to be Kentucky South.
Jul 08, 2013
If the owners want to make it harder for superstars to switch teams, they have to increase the financial incentives for them to stay. Otherwise, franchises with one All-Star will forever be looking over their shoulder. To paraphrase Sean Parker, having two stars isn’t cool. Having three is.
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