Quick Hit Thoughts from Around the League and NCAA

~ Some initial thoughts on Trae Young from Oklahoma are slow down on the Steph Curry comparisons.  I really like Young a lot but I’m hearing all type of crazy buzz on this kid and from the few games I’ve seen I’d say pump the brakes.

Yes, he’s an excellent point guard prospect, maybe even better than Lonzo ball or Markelle Fultz.  Young has a great mechanics on his jump shot; except for his low release point.  When the defense commits he makes strong decisions.  He has a Lonzo Ball feel for the game; he throws it ahead to find players out in transition beating the opponent.  When Young breaks down the defense he throws pin point passes to shooters in the corner; reminds me of Lebron.  Young knows how to manipulate screens as the ball-handler; when to shoot, pass and drive.  Like I said I really enjoy his game but it does come with some flaws

Young doesn’t have a tight handle.  Its good but when the defense hedges hard he takes a wide angle around it wasting motion in the process; good defense flusters his rhythm.  He’s not that great around the basket and finishing.  His field goal percentage around the basket is 44% and his points per possession is 1.00 which ranks 745th in D1 basketball with a minimum of 50 possessions per Synergy Sports.  He needs to work both hands around the rim but mostly his left.  When Young uses a right side PnR his field goal percentage is 62% but when he uses a left side PnR his field goal percentage is 23% per Synergy Sports.  He also needs to work on his off-ball game; better at using screens, when to flare, fade, curl.  

He’s still going to be a likely top three pick and he still has Damian Lillard with better passing ability potential.  Curry is generational and comparisons at times can get out of control; I’m looking at you Bill Simmons (Tweet).  This upcoming draft is weak when it comes to point guards so he’ll for sure be off the board quick.

 

~ BREAKING NEWS: Russell Westbrook is really, really, really good.  Over his last five games he’s been averaging 33.8 points, 11.8 assists, 8 rebounds on 52% from the floor.  Paul George over his last five has been averaging 27.8 points per too.  The Thunder have now won eight in a row and from an outsider looking in the Thunder pose a real threat in the West.  I’m still not there yet.  

They don’t move the ball, their offense is still too isolation friendly reliant on a vanilla system with their best defender, Andre Roberson, out for the year.  It’s only January and George/Westbrook are logging heavy minutes.  That catches up with you come postseason time.  Bottom line: Are they better than the Warriors?  No.  Are they better than the Rockets?  No.  Are they better than a healthy Kawhi Spurs?  No.  Are they better than the Timberwolves?  Maybe.  It feels like a lot of people are trying to convince themselves the Thunder are for real but the space shrinks during a seven game series.  Those driving lanes for Westbrook go away and shooting is needed to stretch the court.  Considering the Thunder have only two shooters and a bottom two assist percentage….I’m not buying it.

 

~ I don’t think this is breaking news but Ty Lue isn’t a good coach.  The Cavs major problem entering this season was defense, in particular transition defense.  And his solution?  Put Kevin Love at center.  Oh good grief.  

It’s only been two games but the Cavs do look better since the switch back to Tristan Thompson at center.  Thompson runs the floor (sometimes), sets good screens, has a good repertoire with Lebron at finding the angles on his dives and brings toughness back to a soft defense.

Is this enough for a turnaround?  I mean they could’ve done nothing and still win the East.  The Cavs problems are inherently worse than some lineup change.  Possibly getting George Hill will help but against the Warriors it’s a cupcake move.  This really has the makings of Lebron leaving this summer.  I know there’s a lot of speculation out there with no substantial basis but Lebron really should stay in the East.  Even if he went to the Rockets it would have to be at the cost of players like Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and maybe you make it out of the West.  Going to teams like the Knicks or even Philly make more sense.

 

~ The Sixers lost yesterday to the Thunder but I still really like the Sixers.  I think outside of Boston they pose the biggest threat to beating the Cavs.  No….I don’t take the Raptors seriously.  The Sixers have shooting, ball movement, player movement, well executed after timeout plays, long lanky versatile players that can switch 1 thru 5 and two budding superstars.  They need to work on closing games, holding leads, taking care of the basketball and limiting the amount of stupid fouls.  They aren’t consistent for a reason…youth.

I’m starting to write up a longer piece on why I think Philly could be a dark horse but I want to watch more games.  Health is obviously important and when Embiid plays the Sixers have a net efficiency rating of the second best team in the league and when he doesn’t play the Sixers have a bottom five efficiency.  We’ll see what the team does about Embiid playing back to backs, JJ Reddick should be coming back from injury soon and who knows what’s going on with Markelle Fultz.  They need to make the playoffs first and even though they are young the Sixers have the personal and style of a maturing title team.

 

~ I really don’t like fixating on the MVP topic but this year is really interesting.  No one is running away with it or there is no two man race like years past.  An argument can be made for five to ten players.  Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook.  Heck I can make arguments for Victor Oladipo, Klay Thompson, Joel Embiid and Demar Derozan.  

As of now I think Harden would probably be the consensus choice but if Curry continues this level of play since December first than I’d go with him.  Since December first Curry is averaging 30.8 points, 6.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds on 54% from the floor and 50% from three on 11 attempts per game.  The excuse that the team has so much talent that they cancel each other out does hold some weight and Curry did miss a two week stretch of games.  But the identity of the Warriors is Curry.  His gravity stretches the court horizontally and vertically, his screen setting causes major confusion in opposing defenses even when he doesn’t shoot.  When Curry is at his best, in a league full of adjustments, there’s nothing you can do to stop him.   

 

 

“Hit Me” ~ Jason Kidd

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Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports that Jason Kidd, coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, has been fired (Story).  I don’t think the timing was appropriate but the idea is still sound.  Jason Kidd is an average coach, at best, and the Bucks should be better.  But maybe I’m wrong about Jason Kidd.  Maybe the expectations got the better of the owners and this is what the Bucks roster currently is.  Maybe they weren’t the top four seed most were projecting at the beginning of the season and they are closer to a fringe playoff team.

The Bucks were missing an identity under Kidd; something every team needs to assign players roles for a system to work.  What type of defensive team were they?  The Bucks were the second best team in the league when it came to defensive efficiency in 2015; now they are 25th with largely the same players, minus defensive stalwart Zaza Pachulia of course.  The Bucks still have good defensive players though.  Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tony Snell, John Henson make up their usual starting five with Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Sterling Brown and Thon Maker coming off the bench.  

With those players, skill set and the modern basketball world we live in today a defensive system involving switching on most pick-and-rolls, depending on the ball-handler hedging, doubling down on good post players and zoning up behind him; something akin to the Warriors because the Bucks have the personal to.  Instead the Bucks hard hedge on most pick-and-rolls or they’ll blitz the ball-handler trying to cause deflections, turnovers and spring a transition game; something akin to the Lebron James Miami Heat.  The problem with that type of defense now is it’s more susceptible to breakdowns in pick-and-roll coverages with more player movement scrambling from gap to man; so much energy has to be spent, the communication has to be crisp and the rotations have to be on point for it to work.  It isn’t a bad defensive system, in fact it’s won multiple titles in the past, but for this particular personal grouping there’s a more conservative less aggressive way to guard the pick-and-roll and still be effective.  

The Bucks offense ranks tied for 8th in the league at 107 points per 100 possessions.  That’s pretty good but most of it can be attributed to Giannis.  When Giannis is on-court the Bucks have a +3.7 net efficiency rating; the team has a -.3 rating overall.  When Giannis is off-court the Bucks have a -10.2 net rating.  Maybe it’s just as simple as when Giannis plays the Bucks are a playoff team and when he doesn’t the Bucks are one the worst teams in the league.  I find it hard to believe without Giannis with the remaining players the Bucks have that they are worse than the Kings.  To me that’s just bad coaching.  Under Kidd they are a one action offense with no secondary options except for isolation or spread pick-and-roll.  And when they do find an action that works, say some sort of floopy action, Kidd over uses the set and unnecessarily simplifies things in the process.  

The Bucks head coaching job will be one of the more sought after jobs due to Giannis.  I’m assuming they will hire a replacement over the off-season.  Jabari Parker is the only free agent of note for the Bucks this summer and reportedly he’s looking for max money (Story).  The Bucks are currently $4.22 million away from paying into the tax and an offer to Parker will clear that and than some.  I like Parker as an offensive threat; post-up, three point shooting and PnR play.  Defensively he is less than desired and his injury history is a major concern.  Since his contract is only $6.78 million now the only way to get adequate value is by adding a lottery pick.

I’m not the hugest fan of tanking because it can lead to tanking in perpetuity and poor habits building poor culture.  I do, however, think the Bucks should retool for this one year.  Giannis is dealing with knee soreness and will miss a couple of games (Story).  I would use that as a linering excuse to play Giannis as less as possible for the rest of the season.  I’d trade Parker and get a lottery pick plus a young player preferably on a rookie deal back.  With no Parker or Giannis and with Khris Middleton playing like crap this year (he is shooting 33% from three, he shot 43% last year) than theres a chance Milwaukee lands two lottery picks.  They could end up having a better cap situation and more movable tradable assets if a star wants to pair himself with Giannis.  With a new coach in place, a superstar and young building blocks that’s a future you can possibly sell.

Even if you regard that as a good plan I doubt it happens.  I just think with a lame duck coach, no real playoff advancement hopes, salary tax implications, asset problems and a superstar questioning the whole organization that maybe pausing this season, retooling for next year could give the Bucks a better chance at success.  I like the upcoming NBA draft when it comes to lottery players so maybe I’m biased towards that.  But if the other option is paying Parker max money, possibly paying the repeater tax, losing in the first round and having limited assets than why not raise your risk profile a little more and get off the treadmill of mediocrity.  

Are the Oklahoma City Thunder a real threat?

When the Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over this past off-season many experts envisioned them to be a contender in the league and a threat to the Golden State Warriors.  During that same period of time many also believed the Paul George for Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo trade was a steal for the Thunder.  Fast forward six months into the future and the Paul George trade is anything but a steal and this years version of the Thunder are looking like a one year wonder.

I’m not going to lie either, I thought the Paul George trade was a great move by the Thunder as well.  That’s until Victor Oladipo started to play like an MVP candidate.  Oladipo is averaging 24.4 points, 48.7 fg%, 40.8 3pt%, 5.2 reb and 4 ast per game.  The Pacers as a team this season have a +1.1 net efficiency rating, while Oladipo himself has a +5.6 net efficiency rating while on-court.  Oladipo is second in the league for shooting guards with a +4.92 Real Plus-Minus, only behind Jimmy Butler, and is quickly establishing himself as a high end two-way player.  Heck, even Sabonis has been solid too.  Sabonis in 81 games last year for OKC had two double-doubles, so far in 40 games this season he has nine.  OKC had Sabonis around perimeter more, shooting more threes, while the Pacers work Sabonis as a rim-running roll man doing most of his damage around the basket.  Sabonis averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 reb a game last year and 12.5 points and 8.2 reb this year.

Are some of these improvements playing time based?  Sure.  Are some of these improvements based off of playing with or without Russell Westbrook?  To an extent yes.  Westbrook last year was on a mission to average a triple-double a game and win MVP to showcase around the league how good he is and what a mistake it was for Kevin Durant to leave.  In the process he stunted the growth of Sabonis and Oladipo since they both weren’t put in position to succeed like they are with the Pacers.  But I’m not running with that narrative as much as some people are.  Did Westbrook stunt Oladipo and Sabonis’ growth by over using possessions and killing game flow?  Sure, but that isn’t all on Westbrook.  That’s also on Billy Donovan, coach of the Thunder, to understand how to properly use his young players.  It also doesn’t help that Oladipo decided to transform his body during this past offseason and get in phenomenal shape (Victor getting into shape).  Maybe if he does that the summer before than none of this ever happens.

What’s done is done.  The Thunder still have a great opportunity on their hands with three of the best players in the league and a fourth player who is a top line big.  Carmelo Anthony and Paul George both have options on their contracts next year so this could end up being a one year experiment.  With that amount of talent on hand surely you can sell the impact of contending for titles to two players who desperately want career validation.  The only problem is are they good enough to contend?  Because if they are they can see this through for another three to five years, but if not the Thunder may be looking at a rebuild.  

So, are the Thunder true contenders?  A threat to knock off the Warriors?  Not really, no.  I want to give a definite no but by having three all-stars you still are prone to the “hot hand” theory; which Carmelo, Westbrook and George are no strangers too.  Outside a miracle of hot stretched play by three all-stars than no, I don’t think they contend and are a likely candidate to be upset in the first round.

The Thunder’s style of offense isn’t conducive to winning titles.  It’s too stagnant and isolation friendly.  The Thunder are second last in the league with a 53.2% assist percentage and are last in the league in passes per game at 256, per second spectrum.  They are also second in the league with a 11.6% frequency of isolation type plays but only score .88 points per possession on those plays which is 15th in the league, per nba.com.  The Thunder don’t have the superior shooting that some teams have to mitigate the fact they run too may isolation plays.  The Thunder are 21st in 3pt percentage and 18th in 3pt makes in the league.  And they don’t have the shooting big men like Minnesota does to stretch out the defense when the offense goes isolation.  However, a baseline look at their offensive efficiency it’s 12th in the league at 105.4.  Just by looking at that stat alone with their 4th ranked defensive efficiency one might think they have a well rounded team to tangle with the Warriors.

The problem is styles.  The Warriors switch most everything on defense which considering the Thunder are a isolation, my turn your turn type offense it’ll push the Thunder further away from the paint and shoot desperation end of shot clock type heaves.  Half court, slowed down style execution offense would serve the Thunder best but I just don’t see them doing that.   Now the Thunder aren’t all isolation plays; they like to get out in transition, run the three man weave with Westbrook, George, and Anthony with down screens opening up lanes to the basket and weak-side help having to dig down opening up shooters, or spread pick-and-roll plays with Westbrook/Adams with Roberson cutting baseline but nothing consistent enough to make the defense work side to side breaking down their gap protections. 

Andre Roberson needs to be healthy too; which is odd saying since he’s a terrible offensive player but since his injury the Thunder have been a much worse defensive team and that’s what they hang their hat on.  During the Thunder’s six game win streak, when Roberson was healthy and most people were starting to think they were getting it together, they had a +14 net efficiency rating and a 102.9 defensive rating.  Since Roberson got hurt December 31st the Thunder have a +1.3 net efficiency and a 109.2 defense rating.  In Roberson’s absence the Thunder have been playing a combination of Josh Huestis and Terrance Ferguson.  

For all the crap Roberson gets about his poor shooting and how he cramps space for the all-stars (which does happen) his defense clearly lifts the team’s overall play.  Roberson is a great team defender; tagging players as they run by screens, bumping roll-men on help side pick-and-roll defense then closing out on the shooters hard but not over aggressive to the point he’s out of position.  He’s long, active and plays his role with the Thunder’s league leading 18.1 deflections per game which jump starts their fast break game too; OKC is 4th in the league in fast break points.  Roberson leads all shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus with a +3.76; the next highest is Danny Green at +1.99.    And even though Roberson’s shooting will become a problem during a seven game series he does do a good job of screening, cutting and finding the holes in the defense.

This play is a microcosm of the Thunder’s offense:

Terrance Ferguson sets a back screen at the right elbow while Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony prepare for a staggered screen for Paul George to curl off of.  Russell Westbrook surveys the play.

There is poor communication on defense between Batum and Walker since Walker sticks to his man and Batum easily gets caught up in Ferguson’s back pick.  Dwight Howard should help on George but he seems more concerned about the staggered screen.  Even Steven Adams points out George, letting Westbrook know that hes about to be wide open.

Steven Adams at this point is telegraphing how wide open Paul George is.  Even though the intended play is to use the staggered screen there is clearly an option available to Westbrook to hit George wide open.  I mean, he’s really wide open.

Geogre is even more wide open than he was before, I didn’t even know that was possible.  Adams has been telegraphing the play for a good few seconds and Dwight Howard hasn’t even bothered to scope the play.  Westbrook ends up not hitting the wide open George but passes it to George after he uses the staggered screen and shoots a brick of a three.  A well executed play that had multiple options, misdirection was completely misread by their star point guard.  We’re at the half way mark in the season and there is no excuse for this.  Timely adjustments for the Thunder to maintain some resemblance of execution style offense are possible but my bet is that they stick to isolation/transition friendly basketball.  A play that should’ve been an easy layup but ends up exerting more energy than need be for a more difficult shot, yea, sounds like the Thunder.