Mar 25, 2013 6:35 PM EDT
In the nine years before Fred Hoiberg returned to Ames, Iowa State made the NCAA Tournament once. After taking over in 2010, the former Cyclone great turned things around immediately, making the second round in each of the last two seasons. In 2012, a team lead by Royce White gave Kentucky their only real scare of the Tourney. On Sunday, they came up just short against Ohio State in a controversial 78-75 nailbiter. The early returns are impressive, but Hoiberg's free-flowing and wide-open style of play is what has really caught the eyes of NBA GM’s. He could become the Chip Kelly of college hoops, unless the NBA grabs him before he has the chance to finish the job at Iowa State.
After retiring as a player in 2006, Hoiberg took a job in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves. His extensive background in the NBA gave him a distinct advantage when he returned to the Big 12, home to such 'brilliant' coaching minds as Rick Barnes, Scott Drew and Travis Ford. In order to turn the Cyclones program around quickly, he began bringing in transfers from all over the country. Most coaches wouldn’t have been able to integrate that many new faces, but Hoiberg assembled a team heavy on shooting, a quick way to make up for a lack of continuity. By playing five three-point shooters at once, Hoiberg spread the floor as wide as possible, the logical endpoint to the way the game has changed over the last generation.
The top six players in Iowa State’s rotation all took at least two three-pointers a game. Will Clyburn was the only one who shot less than 38 percent from the beyond the arc. Clyburn, an athletic 6’7 210 shooting guard, was the team’s best player; when he had the ball in his hands, defenses had to respect the other four players spread out along the three-point line. The result was huge driving lanes to take the ball to the rim, as well as space for everyone else to use when defenses collapsed. Iowa State’s offense was a beautiful mix of Mike D’Antoni and Don Nelson, designed to create enough space to exploit a mismatch at any position on the floor.
When they were executing and avoiding turnovers, the Cyclones were almost impossible to defend. They had an offensive rating of 111.8, 15th best in the country, despite having marginal talent for a Power Six conference. They don’t have a single McDonald’s All-American and only two players (Clyburn and Chris Babb) with clear next level potential. Scouting them was only so useful because they didn’t need to run any sets to get an offensive flow. They created space on the floor, trusted their players to win 1-on-1 match-ups and had everyone else in position to take advantage of the rotating defense. In short, Hoiberg allowed his players to play basketball and trusted them to make the right decisions from there.
It was a refreshing change from the vast majority of college offenses this season, which lacked the spacing or the skill-level to consistently execute in the half-court. It’s the same basic idea behind Kelly’s offense at Oregon: create tempo by using skilled athletes to attack in space and keep the defense off balance. Mike D’Antoni began an offensive revolution in Phoenix by spreading the floor with three shooters around Steve Nash. His system turned an aging point guard the rest of the NBA didn’t want into a two-time MVP and an undrafted free agent into an international superstar in the span of a few weeks. In a similar fashion, Hoiberg turned a bunch of cast-offs other programs sent away into one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
Iowa State was never quite able to get over the hump against elite teams this season. They lost to Kansas three times (twice in overtime), and couldn’t quite finish off Ohio State. As D’Antoni found out, there’s an obvious downside on the other side of the floor to playing so many offensive-minded personnel. The Cyclones starting PF (Melvin Ejim) was 6’6 230; their starting C (Georges Niang) was 6’7 245. They were gambling they wouldn’t run into any big man capable of punishing them on the block, which wasn’t that much of a gamble when you consider how few low-post scorers there are anymore. The real problem was they didn’t have a shot-blocker who could protect the rim against dribble penetration.
The key to running Hoiberg’s system is finding athletic big men who can hold their own defensively while still stretching the floor. The good news is that those players are becoming more versatile at an increasingly younger age. Instead of being encouraged to gain weight and wrestle on the low block, the biggest and most athletic players have drifted out to the three-point line. You can see them starting to appear in the college game. Isaiah Austin, Baylor’s 7’1 220 freshman hybrid center, took 2.7 three-pointers a game this season and knocked them down at a 33 percent clip. Adreian Payne, a 6’10 240 junior center for Michigan State, has the size and athleticism to average 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game in 25 minutes while also shooting 40% from deep, albeit on only 37 attempts this season.
You don’t need to look far to see what Hoiberg’s system can do with the right talent. Erik Spoelstra turned the tide of last season’s NBA Finals by going small and hasn’t looked back from there. With Chris Bosh and Shane Battier spreading the floor from the front-court, defenses are stretched to the limit while trying to prevent LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from attacking the rim. There’s too much space to cover to do both, so the only way to defend Miami is to have athletes good enough to keep LeBron and Wade in front of them. The Heat have reeled off 26 straight wins over the last two months; that’s what happens when you spread the floor for the best athletes in the NBA.
There is one team that would be an obvious fit for Hoiberg. Scott Brooks is apparently beloved in the Oklahoma City locker room, but his lack of tactical and strategic acumen has cost the Thunder dearly in each of the last two seasons. It wouldn’t take very long for Hoiberg to make some very obvious adjustments: benching Kendrick Perkins and playing Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant full-time at the 5 and 4 positions. Ibaka has a great-looking outside shot and has gone 17-for-49 from beyond the arc this season; Hoiberg would have him shooting a lot more three-pointers. With LeBron being LeBron, the odds of Oklahoma City winning a title aren’t great, which is even more reason to not stick with a coach who has apparently decided that Perkins and Derek Fisher are the hills he wants to die on.
At the end of the day, no coach or system will be able to make up for not having the best players. However, in the modern NBA, the best way to maximize the skills of those players is a wide-open offense that gives them space to create shots. Even if you don’t have the best talent, a system like Hoiberg’s gives you the chance to compete on a nightly basis with a crowd-pleasing product that can create stars out of otherwise average players. His grasp on the importance of floor spacing has allowed him to turn Iowa State into a burgeoning national power in only three seasons. If he doesn’t go to the NBA, the Cyclones will be must-watch TV for basketball fans looking to see where the future of the sport is headed.
Feb 25, 2013 12:42 PM EST
The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks have had plenty of nationally televised games over the last decade, but rarely one with as much (or, alternatively, as little) on the line as there was on Sunday. At this point of the season, they are usually fighting for homecourt advantage in the first-round, not locked in a pitched battle for the No. 9 seed. Not much has gone right for either team this season, but both remain worth watching, if only for the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. On Sunday afternoon, the two combined for a vintage shootout, with Kobe’s 38/12/7 outpacing Dirk’s 30/13 in one of the most thrilling games of the season.
While the NBA game has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, Dirk and Kobe seem to exist outside of time. Since their games are built on fundamentals, there hasn’t been that much slippage as they’ve gotten older. They do many of the same things in 2013 that they were doing in 2003. A 35-year-old can’t play above the rim as well as a 25-year-old can, but the basics of playing below the rim don’t change with age. Dirk and Kobe are pure shooters with impeccable footwork and excellent size for their position. They can get a clean look at the basket against almost anyone, even players nearly half their age.
Kobe, now in his 17th season, has outlasted almost all of his contemporaries. The average NBA career is only 4.5 seasons long, so Kobe has witnessed the entire league turn over three times. At a time in his career when most great players are a shadow of themselves, he is still one of the most productive players in the NBA. He’s already played in more career regular season and playoff games than Michael Jordan. Players with that many games on their knees are usually in a steep decline; he’s averaging his highest number of assists since 2004 and best field goal percentage since 2009.
Dirk, in his 15th season, has had a rougher year. Like Kobe, he has been remarkably durable his entire career, but that changed this summer, when he underwent seemingly “routine” knee surgery. No knee surgery, however, is ever routine for a basketball player. Dirk ended up missing the first two months of the season and seemed a step slow when he finally returned. He’s only started to look like himself in the last few weeks. Sunday’s game may have come too late to save the Mavericks season, but it’s a sign he still has MVP-caliber play left in him now that he’s regained his timing.
Perhaps the most impressive part of both of their games is the work they’ve put into them. You don’t just wake up one morning and become a great shooter; it takes an endless number of hours in endless numbers of empty gyms to perfect and hone a great shot. Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour” rule is probably a gross underestimation of the time Kobe and Dirk have put into their craft over the years. At their age, making the game look effortless requires an unbelievable amount of effort behind the scenes. They don’t need the money and they don’t need the aggravation, after all they've accomplished, the only reason to play is love of the game.
There are 11 players in NBA history with 10 All-Star Game appearances, a regular season MVP and an NBA Finals MVP: Kareem, Magic, MJ, Bird, Moses Malone, Wilt, Russell, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Dirk and Kobe. There’s no right or wrong answer for how you to rank them, just being on that list is an honor in and of itself. At that level, the normal rules of aging don’t necessarily apply. 75 percent or 80 percent of a Top 15 player is still better than the prime of many All-Stars. Duncan, at 36, might be the first-team All-NBA C this season; Kareem won a Finals MVP at 38.
As long as Kobe and Dirk can stay healthy, they’ll be able to play at a fairly high level. A player’s body is like a car: the more miles on it, the more routine maintenance it needs. Injuries, more than a decline in effectiveness, are what often get the greatest players. Dirk got a first-hand glimpse at his own mortality as his knee injury lingered this season. Karl Malone was still a starting PF on an elite team at 40, but he retired after a knee injury knocked him out of the NBA Finals. Jordan, if he got back in shape, could probably play in an NBA game at the age of 50, but it’s ridiculous to think he could stay healthy over an 82-game season.
Realistically, in the age of LeBron and Kevin Durant, Kobe and Dirk aren’t winning MVP awards anymore. Kobe no longer has the athleticism or energy to consistently dominate games on the defensive end, while Dirk’s rebounding and free-throw numbers, the canaries in the coal mine for his declining footspeed, have been dropping steadily for years. Nevertheless, their elite shot-making ability would make them deadly as a second or even third option. Chris Bosh shoots 55 percent as a release valve in Miami; it’s hard to imagine how efficient Dirk could be with a steady diet of open shots.
As you get older, there’s no shame in embracing a secondary role. If anything, Jason Kidd’s legacy has been enhanced by his turn as a role-playing shooting guard for the Knicks at 40. Steve Nash, at 38, is still one of the most efficient offensive players in the NBA. How much fun did Bill Walton have as the sixth man for the 1986 Boston Celtics? A Hall of Famer who embraces a smaller role can extend his career well into the late 30’s. Kobe and Dirk are still “only” 34 years old. That’s how old Jordan was when he retired for the second time, but his decision to come back three years later make you wonder if he left too early.
In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious why he didn’t “leave on top” after the 1998 NBA Finals. He loved to play basketball and thought he still could at a high level; he didn’t want to regret not giving it one more chance before it was too late. And if he still wants to play at 50, how could he not regret choosing to walk away from his age 35-37 seasons? With the way LeBron is going, it would be nice to have an extra ring or two on his resume. There are only so many years an athlete has to play the game before their body gives out; why not use every last one of them? Players like Dirk and Kobe don’t come around very often; for their sake, and for ours, I hope they play as long as they possibly can.
Feb 22, 2013 1:17 PM EST
Josh Smith would have fixed many of the Brooklyn Nets' problems. An athletic 6’9, 225 forward with a 7’0 wingspan, his ability to pass, protect the rim and defend multiple positions would have been the perfect complement upfront to Brook Lopez. He’d allow Brooklyn to take their model to its logical conclusion and throw outlandish sums of money at every position on the floor. However, due to the new CBA, they couldn’t just wait to pounce on the Hawks in a sign-and-trade this summer. They actually had to offer some assets at the deadline, but all they had were Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and a late first-round pick.
The returns on the new CBA are still coming in, but it looks like it’s having its intended effect. It’s going to be a lot harder for teams to buy their way out of problems going forward. Instead, there will be more of a premium on long-term planning, particularly scouting and developing young players, than ever before. The NBA is going to look more like the MLB, where it takes several years to turn a franchise around. If an MLB team ignores its farm system or where they are on the win curve, it will catch up to them. The Nets could become a test case of what happens when you try to shortcut the rebuilding process in this era of the NBA.
After bottoming out in 2009-10, Brooklyn had the beginning of an interesting roster with Brook Lopez and Derrick Favors. Not only did Lopez and Favors have complementary games, but their development process would give the Nets lottery picks in 2011, 2012 and maybe even 2013. It would have been a slow process, but if the Nets had made the right selections, they would have been one of the NBA’s elite teams by 2014. But, rather than build through the draft, new owner Mikhail Prokhorov was determined to make a splash as he opened the franchise’s new Brooklyn arena, so his management team began auctioning off assets for veterans.
The Nets became the rare under .500 team to be a buyer at the trade deadline when they acquired Deron Williams in 2011. They paid a steep price for the stunning move: Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, as well as their 2011 lottery pick that became Enes Kanter. Their 2012 lottery pick, which became Damian Lillard, brought them Gerald Wallace. Last summer, they used the rest of their assets -- their expiring contracts and a 2013 first round pick from the Rockets -- to pick up Joe Johnson. It’s no wonder the Josh Smith talks went nowhere; the Hawks had already rummaged through the Nets' cupboards.
Two years after the process started, Brooklyn GM Billy King thought he had built a team that could match-up with Miami. In reality, any team with a Brook Lopez / Kris Humphries frontcourt wasn’t defending anyone, much less LeBron James. Even worse, King was paying $60 million to just four guys, two of them on the wrong side of 30. He had repeatedly violated the two cardinal rules of NBA trades: never deal old for young or big for small. He compounded the problem by ignoring the back end of his roster, letting Avery Johnson stuff it with aging veterans rather than grooming young players.
As a team above “the apron” of the luxury tax, the Nets are going to be severely restricted in how they improve their roster going forward. They’ll need to be run more like a college basketball program, with one eye on the future at all times. Mike Krzyzewski is a master at it: he staggers his Duke rosters so they’re never too imbalanced with seniors or freshmen. In contrast, Brooklyn has played Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans over MarShon Brooks for parts of the season. That was almost certainly due to their head coach, but head coaches who can’t or won’t develop young players are a luxury teams will no longer be able to afford.
Brooks may not have the best shot selection or defensive awareness, but he’s a talented and athletic 6’5 200 shooting guard with a 7’1 wingspan. More importantly, at the age of 24, he’s one of their only players with upside potential. And because they weren’t committed to improving him, he wasn’t a very attractive piece at the deadline. It’s hard for another team to sell their fans on a guy getting 11 minutes a night. If veteran leadership is really such a valuable asset, maybe Brooklyn could have shopped Stackhouse and Bogans? Surely other teams would jump to have guys with so many years of NBA experience under their belts.
If they’re going to improve, the Nets need to get the most out of Tyshawn Taylor, whomever they select with their first-round pick in 2013 and the last few spots on their roster. They need Taylor, a second-round pick out of Kansas, to develop into an NBA combo guard and they need to find an athletic 3/4 combo forward to fill out their frontcourt in the draft. To improve their bench, they will have to find more diamonds in the rough like Andray Blatche, a reclamation project that the rest of the NBA had given up on. King will have to find some of the good players in the NBADL and Europe, because he’s going to have a hard time acquiring quality NBA veterans with his team so far above the luxury tax.
For the Nets, it all goes back to that fateful decision to acquire Williams in 2011. Right now, in 2013, would you rather have Williams, Johnson, Wallace, Lopez and no cap room or Favors, Kanter, Lillard, Lopez and room for a max player? Here’s the most ironic part of all: in the 2 years since they went into “win now” mode, they haven’t won a single playoff game. It’s one thing to dump all of your youth and go all-in for a title run; it’s another to go all-in for a team that may not get out of the first round. In the NBA’s new economic climate, unless you have LeBron on your roster, there are no shortcuts to success.
Jan 31, 2013
Win-win trades that also make sense financially will become even more rare in the NBA's post-lockout era. Here are trades for the Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks, Blazers, Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs that make sense for all parties.
Jan 21, 2013
James Harden may be the best shooting guard in the NBA within the next two seasons, but as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant's careers have shown, he’ll still need a lot of help to make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender.
Dec 14, 2012
The Heat began slowly in the fall of 2010 when their supporting cast was substandard. The Lakers now find themselves in a similar situation, compounded by injuries to several of their stars. Mitch Kupchak must upgrade the personnel for the Lakers to meet their lofty expectations.
Dec 11, 2012
It may seem like the Nets and Dodgers are operating irrationally, but you can’t evaluate their expenses without first considering their revenues. There’s a flood of money coming into professional sports; the other owners can only stem the tide for so long before soaring franchise values eventually wash them away.
Aug 22, 2012
This is the part of the offseason in which general managers fill out the very end of their roster. Would a name player at the very end of their career really make more sense than someone like Terrence Williams, DeAndre Liggins or Sundiata Gaines?
Aug 13, 2012
More impressive than even his stats was LeBron James command of the game. While his teammates restricted their game and played more as specialists, LeBron expanded his. Whatever Team USA needed -- scoring, playmaking, rebounding, perimeter or interior defense -- he provided.
Jul 25, 2012
It makes no sense for a team that has Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant to give a 34-year old Kobe Bryant the green light to shoot the ball at will. The same is true for an NBA team with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Steve Nash.
Jul 23, 2012
If you consider his pedigree, Josh Selby's co-MVP performance this summer could be a sign that a once highly-touted phenom is back on track. Selby has established himself as an NBA talent, and he has the chance to carve out a career as a dynamic combo guard off the bench.
Jul 15, 2012
Neither the Thunder or Grizzlies have had the flexibility to make any major moves this offseason, but both should be significantly improved by a talented young role player coming off a year-long injury.
Jul 12, 2012
Minnesota had multiple chances to assemble an “Oklahoma City North” team around Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, but now that Love is headed into his fifth NBA season, their window to get another Top-5 pick is closed.
Jul 05, 2012
If Miami and Oklahoma City are going to stage a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals, they’re going to have to go through the Lakers, Clippers, Nets and Knicks to do it.
Jul 04, 2012
Deron Williams has been overlooked throughout his career, but winning a title without Dwight Howard appears impossible.
Jul 01, 2012
In a league getting smaller by the year, Detroit has the chance to buck convention by building an elite team around two Twin Towers in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Jun 27, 2012
Perry Jones, a soft-spoken and unselfish player, didn’t dominate that many collegiate games; therefore, the reasoning goes, he’s too “soft” to be an effective NBA contributor. As a result, a player with top of the lottery talent has slipped into the middle of the 1st round in many projected drafts.
Jun 22, 2012
The Heat were built on a practice court and not in a boardroom, and that is the real game-changer at the heart of this grand experiment. Wade, LeBron and Bosh weren't brought together by the vagaries of ping-pong balls, reverse-order drafts and lopsided trades. They took control of their own destiny, decided to play together and looked for a franchise who would hand them the keys.
Jun 20, 2012
Playing on a team designed to maximize his abilities, LeBron James made the right decision almost every single time down the floor in Game 4. It was a scary view of what the next decade of the NBA could look like: LeBron rolling through the high post as a freakish hybrid of Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan.
Jun 18, 2012
Miami almost always has at least two All-Star caliber players on the floor; the Thunder need to do the same. As this series goes forward, the best chance for Oklahoma City to win is for Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka to play 40+ minutes.
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