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Masters Of Space

Before a second half that will go down in infamy as either the air condition game or the cramping game, fans were treated to an exhilarating display of basketball in the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. There were 5 lead changes and 3 ties, as the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat traded baskets, racing up-and-down the court and spraying 3's from all over the floor. No teams in the NBA space the floor better than the Heat and the Spurs, which isn't a coincidence.

San Antonio and Miami have three-point shooting up and down their roster, which is very, very hard to defend. The entire game was played in semi-transition, with both teams spreading the floor, pushing the pace and constantly probing for three-pointers. If any defender falls asleep, his man can devastate you in a matter of seconds. Eighteen guys played in Game 1 on Thursday and only three - Tim Duncan, Chris Anderson and Tiago Splitter - didn't attempt a 3.

The Spurs started Duncan and Splitter, but the two barely played together in Game 1, a continuation of the adjustment Gregg Popovich made in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. By splitting up his two big men, the Spurs coach turbocharged his offense and played 4-out for almost the entire game. When they came off the pick-and-roll, either Splitter or Duncan had miles of space in the paint, since the other three players were spread out along the three-point line.

The Heat, meanwhile, started the game playing five-out with Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis. While neither player is a traditional rim protector, they are both lights-out shooters who have to be respected 25+ feet from the basket. Bosh was spotting up from behind the three-point line like he was Ray Allen, catching and shooting as soon as he touched the ball. He finished the game with 18 points, including 3-4 from deep, while Lewis chipped in 12 with two 3’s.

When Bosh and Lewis came out at the end of the first quarter, Miami went even smaller with LeBron James at the 4. With one big man and three shooters playing with the best player in the world, their second unit is as dangerous as a starting unit which features three future Hall of Famers. Given how many three pointers that line-up attempts, there's a lot of variation in how they perform on a nightly basis, but they have the potential to blow open a game very quickly.

With Duncan and Splitter getting their minutes staggered, pretty much every line-up San Antonio uses over the course of a 48-minute game has the same kind of potential. Almost all of them shot well from 3 in Game 1: Kawhi Leonard (2-3), Danny Green (3-7), Tony Parker (2-2), Patty Mills (1-3), Marco Bellinelli (2-3), Manu Ginobili (3-6) and Boris Diaw (0-1). With the way they move the ball, they will get open looks and some of their shooters will be hot.

It's the same story for Miami, who have Bosh, Lewis, Mario Chalmers (1-1), Ray Allen (3-8), Norris Cole (03) and Shane Battier (0-1) spotting up off of Dwyane Wade and LeBron. Even Wade, their only perimeter player without a green light to hoist 3's, has been shooting well from beyond the arc in their last two playoff series. He's had seasons where he shot 35% from 3 - if he can consistently knock down that shot, the Miami offense goes to another stratosphere.

The threat of the shot dramatically alters the geometry of the floor, making everything easier for the other four players. Just by spotting up beyond the arc, a great three-point shooter turns the game from 5x5 to 4x4. Playing in space is the key to any offense - an average player becomes good, a good player becomes great and a great player can become an all-timer. Just look at how every player on the Phoenix Suns team improved in Jeff Hornacek's spread offense.

Of the five basic tools in the game of basketball - scoring, shooting, passing, rebounding and defending - only shooting can guarantee a spot on the floor. "[Shooting] is what [Green] does, you know," said Popovich. "That's his major skill. If he's not going to do that, than we might as well play somebody else. That's the honest to God's truth." A coach would never be able to get away with using a one-dimensional scorer, passer, rebounder or defender in the same way.

If you can't shoot, you had better be good at just about everything else. Even then, it can be tricky. Wade is still one of the best players in the NBA and the Spurs almost forced him off the floor in last year's Finals. Whenever he played with LeBron, his man would shade off him and force the ball out of LeBron's hands. At the highest level of the game, a player who can't shoot needs to be an elite offensive player or a center who plays at the front of the rim.

There are ways to massage a line-up around 1-2 players who can't shoot, but all things being equal, modern NBA teams would rather not do it. That's the way the game is going - no one had seen a big man like Dirk Nowitzki a generation ago and now the stretch 4 is one of the most important positions in the game. Adreian Payne (Michigan State) and Isaiah Austin (Baylor) spent most of the college season playing as stretch 5's and both will be taken in this year’s draft.

Young basketball players have gotten the message. It's not like it's impossible to learn the corner 3 - most NBA players are skilled enough to do it. Birdman, who has taken only 12 3's this season, spent a lot of time taking corner 3's in warmups before Game 1 and his shot didn't look half-bad. If the last two NBA Finals are any indication, there's no stopping that trend. A generation from now, you may not be able to play in the NBA if you can't shoot 3's.

The Big Mistake: Measurables Vs. Situation

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. 

The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.

So what happened?

Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. 

At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.

Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.

However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.

His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.

Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.

After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.

Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.

At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game. 

Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.

On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.

Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.

Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.

Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?

When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.

In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.

If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.

Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything. 

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

The Tools: Five Basic Areas To Identify

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

The key to evaluating young basketball players and how their game will translate to the NBA is developing a universal framework that can be applied to every prospect. There’s too much room for subjectivity if you are doing it on a piecemeal basis and trying to figure out whether every 18 and 19-year old has “it”. Every once in a while there will be a guy who breaks your model, but you need to have an underlying foundation from which you are making exceptions from.

In that respect, talent evaluation is like learning to paint - before you can start coloring outside the lines, you need to know what the lines are for. So much of what happens in the college game (and to a lesser extent in the top international leagues) has little bearing on the NBA game. It’s the highest level of the game – the best NBA players are bigger, faster and more skilled than anyone else in the world.

I like the metaphor that Fran Fraschilla uses on ESPN – the NCAA is A or AA and the NBA is the big leagues. In A ball, a pitcher can blow by guys with just a fastball. He doesn’t need secondary pitches. However, when you start going against the best of the best, that isn’t going to cut it. At the lower levels of the game, it’s not what you are doing but how you are doing it.

When evaluating position players, baseball scouts look for five different tools – the ability to hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw the ball and field a position. The more tools the player has, the more likely he will be a major-league contributor. In the scout’s mind, all five exist on a pendulum. If a player is lacking in one tool, he needs to balance it out by excelling in another.

You can create a similar framework for basketball, based on the five basic things a player can do in a game:

1) Create his own shot

This is the most difficult thing to do at the NBA level. The defenders are bigger, stronger and faster and they know your game inside and out. There are no secrets – the book on a guy’s strengths and weaknesses gets around very quickly.

The distribution of shots on a team is zero-sum – if one guy has the ball in his hands, someone else doesn’t. That’s why the best player on a college team isn’t necessarily its best pro prospect, since very few players are given the chance to dominate the ball early in their NBA career. If you can’t create your own shot at an elite level in the NBA, you had had better be able to do something else.

2) Create a shot for someone else

This is what separates the good from the great players on offense. A lot of guys can throw up shots, but few can command double teams and read the defense well enough to make the correct pass off the dribble. The smaller a player is, the more important they be able to pass – unless you are Allen Iverson, it’s hard to have a big career as a 6’1 shoot-first player.

Passing is the most intuitive of all the tools. It requires spatial intelligence - the ability to read the defense, have a feel for the flow of the game and see the play develop before it happens. You have to think the game, which is really hard to develop once you are in the NBA. It’s not just a matter of racking up assists – you have to be able to do it without turning the ball over.

3) Shoot the ball off the pass

Shooting is the most important skill for a role player (read: a guy who can’t create his own shot) to have. If you aren't going to get your own shot, you had better be able to shoot. If a guy can't shoot, he can't threaten the defense without the ball in his hands. Even the big men have to shoot these days. With quasi-zone defenses all the rage, an offense has to have enough shooters to prevent the defense from packing multiple defenders in the paint.

Shooting is another thing you have to develop early in your career. Every year there are a host of college guys who would be really good NBA players “if only they could shoot”. It happens, but not very often. In recent years, the only guys I can remember developing a three-point shot in the NBA are Kawhi Leonard and Lance Stephenson.

4) Rebound a miss

The bigger you are, the more important it is that you can rebound. In that respect, it is the converse of passing, which becomes more important the shorter you are. At the same time, guys who can flip that dynamic – big men who can pass or guards who can rebound – are very valuable.

A tall player who can pass can see over the defense and his height can create easy passing angles in the half-court. A smaller player who can rebound can start the fast break himself and can take advantage of all the guards who don’t know how to box out.

5) Defend a position

This is where push comes to shove for most young players. All the talk of the “position-less” NBA is true to an extent, but you still have to defend someone. There is no DH in basketball. Every player on the court has defensive responsibilities and if they can’t meet them, it puts everyone else in a bind.

Defense is where physical tools really come into play. It’s all well and good to know the game, but if you aren’t big enough, fast enough or strong enough, it’s not going to matter. NBA veterans – guys who stick around long enough to get a second contract in the league – get paid the big bucks precisely because they can exploit guys who can’t match up with them physically. If they couldn’t, they wouldn’t be in the league for very long.

It’s very hard to hold down a starting spot in the NBA if you can’t defend your position. There are guys who are good enough on offense that it doesn’t matter – Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Steph Curry – but there aren’t many of them. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. Nowitzki and Curry are two of the greatest shooters in the history of the sport while Love is the rare big man who is a plus shooter, rebounder and passer.

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

Why Lance Stephenson Will Be Worth Every Penny

Just like Lance Stephenson, James Harden excelled in the role he was forced to play on the team that drafted him, but he was ready for a much bigger role. Donít mistake opportunity for talent, especially not with a 23-year-old.

The Gospel Of Length

The Thunder are the Oakland A's of the NBA, a franchise determined to build a perennial contender without breaking the bank in terms of payroll. The Heat sign ring-chasing vets; the Thunder run a finishing school for guys with supersized arms.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

Clippers Vulnerable Without Perimeter Stopper

The player who could have really helped the Clippers was Eric Bledsoe. He was moved to get a more traditional SG in the starting line-up, but they might have wanted to try the Bledsoe-Paul combination before just giving up on it.

C.J. McCollum: How The BPA Rule Fails Outside The Top-5

With Damian Lillard entrenched at PG, Portland used a lottery pick on a guy who can't play more than 10-15 minutes a game in a playoff series. That's not a great use of resources for a small-market team without many other obvious ways of upgrading their roster in the offseason.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Centers

There should be a bumper crop of behemoths in the college game in 2015, who will look to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominate by guards.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Power Forwards

In contrast to small forward and center, where very few players can fit the prototype of size, athleticism and skill, there are usually too many power forward to go around.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Small Forwards

A small forward who canít shoot 3ís has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, itís become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - thereís no such thing as a role playing SF who canít stretch the floor at the next level.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Shooting Guards

There is no shortage of big, athletic guards who can shoot the ball - what separates the best SG prospects is the ability to attack the rim and create shots for their teammates.

You Can Never Have Enough Tall Shooters

The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7í2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6í9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Returning Point Guards

Delon Wright, Marcus Paige, Rysheed Jordan, Andrew Harrison and Ryan Boatright are returning to college, but are the most intriguing point guard prospects for the NBA.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6í10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

Duncan's Longevity & The Meaninglessness Of Stardom

There have been a ton of articles marveling about the Spurs longevity atop the NBA, but there's no real mystery to what's going on. Having Tim Duncan meant your team had a great offense and a great defense. There are not many players in the history of basketball you can say that about.

MCW & Giannis: Why The Eye Test Still Matters

When you are evaluating young players, the statistics can only tell you so much. That's why there are still ways to find steals in the draft - look for the tallest, longest and most athletic guys at each position. Itís really that simple.

Draft Report: Dante Exum Of Australian Institute Of Sport

While Dante Exum isnít quite as long and athletic as Andrew Wiggins, heís far more skilled. Heís an elite athlete in his own right and plays with more poise. You have to play Trading Places with these guys - what would have happened if Exum was on the AAU circuit every summer and Wiggins was in the AIS?

NBA Players Who Could Still Be In College

Itís easy to forget how young some of the players in the league are - freshmen drafted in 2011 would have been college seniors this season. You have to judge young players against guys their age not against the guys in their draft class.

One And Done Model Works For Everyone

John Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. Itís a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire ďone and doneĒ model.

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