Category Archives: Analysis

Deeper dives into recent happenings.

Will the real King James please stand up?

What the fuck is going on?
What the fuck is going on?

Where do I even begin? LeBron James has become one of the most mystifying figures in NBA playoffs history. After “conquering his demons” in 2012’s storybook run to a championship (seriously, the 7 game comeback against Boston + the vanquishing of rival Kevin Durant), LeBron James returned to the 2013 Finals with a thirst for revenge on the Spurs who foiled his first championship appearance in 2007. Back in 2007, 22-year-old LeBron had not mastered his outside shot like the 56% FG/40% 3P machine we saw this season. Surrounded by an undeniably weak supporting cast, LeBron was forced into one tough jumper after another as the Spurs gave him all the room in the world, daring James to beat them with jumpshots. LeBron failed, shooting 35.6% on over 22 shot attempts per game.

Flash forward six years, four MVPs, two gold medals and a championship ring later, and the Spurs are still defending the best player in the world the same way: by treating him like Rajon Rondo. Somehow, some way, it’s working. Much like Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Maverick’s hybrid zone scheme in 2011, the Spurs are making James uncomfortable and confusing him with their defensive looks. In 2011, James collapsed beneath the pressure. Stumped by all the defenders in his way, James became far too passive, even scoring just eight points in one 2011 Finals loss. After the Mavs dispatched of Miami in six, LeBron vowed to get better and his promise held true. In 2012, we saw a more focused, efficient and intelligent James, culminating in an MVP, Finals MVP and gold medal. James became unstoppable in the post, cut down on his three point attempts, and most importantly, did not wilt under the pressure of the Finals. Instead, he notched a triple double in the clinching Game 5 while icing the series with a cold-blooded three pointer–all while playing with leg cramps bad enough to momentarily take him from the game.

So what’s stopping James from dominating in 2013? The Spurs (4-0 in the Finals in franchise history) are gladly giving James every open look he desires outside the paint. The difference between this season’s Finals and 2011’s is the style James is attacking the defense. In 2011, LeBron simply stopped attacking and allowed Dwyane Wade to take over. Ultimately, Wade put up Finals MVP type numbers but Dirk and the Dirkettes were just too much. This season, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looking like shells of their former selves, James has had no choice. LeBron has taken 18 shots per game thus far compared to the 15 he averaged in 2011. In Game 3, LeBron was 2/14 from outside the paint and 5/7 inside of it. For whatever reason, the shots that LeBron had finally perfected are no longer falling. You have to start wondering if the Spurs have found a way under LeBron’s skin. The emotionless, point-scoring machine of 2012 has disappeared in lieu of an unconfident, confused and clanking King James. By playing James the same way he was defended in 2007 and 2011, Greg Popovich and San Antonio are telling LeBron that they don’t respect the improvements he’s made to his game. Inexplicably, this strategy has worked, yielding a 2-1 series lead for the Spurs and yet another nationwide eulogy for Miami (remember the Indiana and Boston series last year?).

Luckily for James, there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played. LeBron has the easiest adjustment out of anyone: start knocking down the shots he knows he can make. Unless LeBron is quietly nursing a significant injury, I see no reason why he won’t bounce back and start knocking down jumpers. 2012 was far too dominant of a year for King James not to believe in himself enough to make wide open jumpshots. I’m expecting a team result closer to Game 2 tonight, and for the real King James to please stand up.

The Small Ten

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It seems that in order to make it to the finals these days, a team needs a Big Three. Last year you had the Miami contingency of Lebron Bosh and Wade matched up against a young, emerging big three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden. After OKC shipped out 1/3 of that group, and lost another third to injury in round one of this post season, it was time for another big three to reclaim the spot of representing the Western Conference.

But in what was expected to be a high octane battle of what essentially could be boiled down into a 3 on 3 game last night was anything but. I don’t believe Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Wade, James or Bosh would tell you that they were pleased with their individual performance last night. While the latter three were excited about the outcome of the game, they owe a lot of thanks to the other ten guys on the active roster.

The first quarter could not have gone better for the Spurs. Despite sloppy play – they surpassed their turnover total from the entire first game in the first period of game two – they Spurs managed to head into the second quarter with the score tied, and more importantly, with minimal contribution from Lebron James. Lebron began the quarter going just 1-4 from the field, scoring with just ten seconds left on a jumper after catching in the post. Lebron would remain quiet throughout this contest, managing to shoot just 7-17, after starting out 2-12, and didn’t really get going until the game was already out of hand. His rim rattling dunk in transition surely put the cap on the game, and will leave fans remembering that James did put his mark on the outcome, but for the majority of the game Lebron found himself to be stymied by the smartly designed San Antonio defense.

That defense was forced to take some calculated risks, and those risks ultimately caused the downfall of the Spurs Sunday night. While Bosh, Wade and James combined for just 39 points on the night, the Heat received massive contributions from all of their role players whose job is primarily to hit wide open three pointers. Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller (!) managed to shoot a combined 8-12 from deep, with Miller shooting a perfect 3-3 and Ray sporting an incredible +27 on the night.

The story for the Spurs is not necessarily about a lack of contribution from its role players, as they were treated to an incredible shooting night from Danny Green, who went 6-6, including 5-5 from beyond the arc. Rather, it is a story of how terribly their big three played. While no one is arguing that the stars of Miami ever dominated this game, they managed to play well enough to force the Spurs defense to make tough decisions that resulted in open threes for the Heat. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combined to shoot just 27% from the field, a rate that is just horrible considering how much the Spurs rely on their play. To me, there were a couple of key possessions during the killer 35-5 Heat run that kind of sum up the story of this game.

There were back to back Spurs plays where the offense, known for its cuts, its whirring passes and intelligent play, slowed down and simply watched as 37 year old Tim Duncan attempted to make something happen in the post against Bosh. Had either shot gone down, momentum may have shifted, and this could have been a completely different game, as it was an incredibly close contest through three quarters. But the difficult turnaround baseline attempts did not fall for the Big Fundamental, who likely would have had those shots fall if the year was closer to 2007. 

For Lebron James and Miami, this game proved to themselves that they can rely on their role players to deliver big shots when it counts. It also means the Spurs will have to adjust to the outside shooting, likely opening things up for James and perhaps Wade, if he is ever able to sustain a high level of energy past the first quarter. For the Spurs, they need to think of this game as a blip of unsustainable luck on the part of Miami, and uncharacteristically bad luck on the part of their stars.

Irreconcilable Differences

When I was a junior in high school, I was appointed to the super prestigious position of executive board member of student council. My job was to lead a committee and participate in other exec board activities. I was kind of bummed out when the committee I was assigned to run was the one that met on Monday nights after school, the committee whose only job was to hang up posters advertising school events. I was also unhappy to learn that, starting that semester, all executive board members were being forced to take an extra leadership class that met before school and during lunch. I am proud to tell you that the posters in the halls that semester had never looked better, and likely never will. But I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that I mouthed off to the teachers in charge of student council quite a bit, not taking the leadership course seriously at all and generally goofing off as much as I could. After just one semester, I was kicked off of executive board.

I could not help but recall that semester of poor behavior while reading and hearing about Lionel Hollins and his status as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Hollins has had great success in Memphis since taking over the team in 2009. Each year has seen an increase in the team’s winning percentage from the year before, a trend any organization would normally be thrilled about.

But the immediate results are not necessarily the concern of the new ownership and management group of the Grizzlies. New CEO and president Jason Levien has a specific vision for how the team’s roster should be shaped, how its salary cap should be managed, and, most importantly when it comes to the future of Hollins in Memphis, how the team should play on the floor. Levien is a believer in the new wave of statistical analysis that is sweeping through the league. In his first major decision as president of the club, Levien hired longtime ESPN scribe and inventor of PER John Hollinger as the Memphis’ VP of Basketball Operations. This move marked a historical landmark in basketball, as it announced to the league that the Grizzlies would be thinking about the game in different terms than in the past. While not a revolutionary hire, as Houston GM Daryl Morey seems to have claimed the title of Billy Beane of basketball, it was a fascinating development (On a personal side note, this hire was very disappointing for me as Hollinger’s snarky and hilarious Twitter account, one of my favorites in the league, has become significantly less snarky and hilarious since his hire).

This shift in the front office must have made Hollins feel threatened. For reasons that cannot be explained, Hollins seems very reluctant to embrace what will inevitably become the future of basketball strategy, instead going out of his way to insult his new bosses in a radio interview where he criticized analytics in basketball.

The source of frustration for Hollins stemmed from the Rudy Gay trade, the polarizing decision of new management to trade away the Grizzlies’ starting small forward and leading scorer for what amounted to spare parts and salary cap flexibility. Although advanced statistics (and unadvanced statistics, unless you’re particularly confused by things like three point percentage) pointed to Gay as being an inefficient and wildly overpaid player, Hollins believed he added value to the team in ways that did not show up in one of Hollinger’s logarithms. This clash of opinions marked the beginning of the end of Hollins’s run in Memphis, or so I initially believed.

Following the trade, though, the team continued on with their  successful 2013 campaign. The Grizzlies, who had previously relied heavily upon isolation drives and long jumpers from Gay, allowed their offense to run through Marc Gasol and the high post at a much higher rate. The trade also allowed up-and-coming point guard Mike Conley to take over games at times when he would have normally deferred to Gay. The new-look Grizzlies were able to make their way through a difficult first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs before eventually being swept at the hands of the Spurs.

I thought that the run to the conference finals, despite being greatly aided by the Russell Westbrook injury, would be enough for Hollins to secure a new contract with the team that so clearly appreciated his leadership style. The current roster includes several players who are signed through the next two to three years, including Gasol, Conley and reclamation project Zach Randolph. The development of these players and their vocal support for their coach seemed like strong reasons to believe that the team and coach would be able to kiss and make up following Hollins running his mouth to the media. Clearly I was wrong.

The Grizzlies and Hollins failed to make any significant progress in their offseason contract negotiations, with  the major hangup being neither years nor dollars but rather major philosophical issues of running the team. Hollins is a rough and tough old-school dude who takes shit from nobody, especially dorky math nerds. Unfortunately, dorky math nerds control his employment status in the city of Memphis. Hollins is likely to land another job. Reports have already begun that he is being pursued by Donald (Duck?) Sterling and the Clippers, an organization so backwards they probably are still deciphering what Hollinger is even talking about.

But how will this decision impact the future of the Grizzlies? Early indications are that Memphis is looking to promote internally, with an eye on Dave Joerger, who has been credited with building the defense that ranked second in the league overall. But will Joerger be able to reach the players in the same way that Hollins was? Will the players lose faith in the organization that cast aside the coach they clearly loved to play for?

For Levien, Hollinger and company, it is a meticulously calculated risk. Such is the new way of business in Memphis.

Game 7 Recap: If You Can’t Take the Heat…

HEAT 99, PACERS 76
Dead even after six games, last night the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers geared up for a deciding Game 7 to decide who would face the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Just like last season against Boston, LeBron James and the Heat pulled away at home to clinch their 3rd straight berth to the Finals.
-The big debate going into the game was whether James would/should “go back to his Cleveland days” and dominate the ball to ensure a victory, or trust the Big 3 that has had so much success by continuing to try to find the right looks for the struggling Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It was clear what King James had decided as soon as the game started–Wade and Bosh combined for eight shots before James took even one. While Wade looked to have a spring in his step once again and got off to a quick 3/5 start, Bosh missed seven of his first eight shots in the first quarter. Nonetheless, James stuck to his gameplan of trusting his teammates–although he did score 18 points in 17 minutes to end the half. James, who averaged 4.9 three point attempts per game against Indiana, only attempted two three pointers in Game 7 while systematically pounding the ball inside and challenging Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, the breakout defensive star of this series, did a solid job inside with an efficient 18 points and eight rebounds but found himself in foul trouble with the Heat team crashing the glass hard. Furthermore, James clearly intended to and succeeded in shutting down Paul George on both ends. George had no answer for James’ drives and ultimately fouled out midway through the 4th quarter. On defense, LeBron held George, who averaged 19.4 PPG on 43% shooting in his own breakout playoffs, to seven points and seven rebounds on 2-9 shooting. After a massive Game 6 performance, George never got in any kind of a groove and James is undoubtedly the reason why.
-While James dominance was clearly the difference in the game, the most important development for Miami was the reemergence of Dwyane Wade. Wade finally notched his second 20 point game of the playoffs (first since 4/23), which is kind of insane when you consider his 21.2 PPG this season and 24.7 PPG career scoring average! What stood out about Wade’s game was his energy on the offensive glass (six OREB!) and his lift when attacking the basket. Wade made plenty of his signature bank shots and got to the line more times (still only seven attempts to James’ 16) than he had since Game 1 against Milwaukee, six weeks ago. However, Wade still missed nearly all of his long jumpers and looked creaky at times. Perhaps this was the signal of a breakout for the struggling star, but it might’ve just been one night where pride overtook pain.
-Chris Bosh continued struggling but at least showed up for this game, unlike the last three. After seeing his rebounding decline to 6.8 RPG (career 8.9), Bosh only notched 3.7 RPG in this series coming into Game 7. While the flurry of early shots wouldn’t fall for the escaped dinosaur, he made up for it with great energy by grabbing seven first half rebounds. He only finished with eight, but Miami dominated the 2nd half to an extent that overshadowed this completely. Bosh, who before the game asserted that he would “play without thinking”, still only finished with nine points. Perhaps he was intimidated by Roy Hibbert, but Bosh’s offensive struggles this series kicked into gear when he sprained his ankle in a Game 4 loss (16.3 PPG Games 1-3, seven PPG Games 4-7). If Bosh is hurting this badly against San Antonio, expect Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter to make him pay. Of course, we have plenty of time to discuss that team from Texas that just won’t go away–for real though, five finals (4-0 in first four) in 14 years is pretty damn impressive for Coach Popovich and Timmy D.
-Meaningless Statistic: James started the game 13-13 from the FT line, which would have tied his own record for most FT without a miss in a playoff game (May 2011 against the Bulls–ugh). However, Bron missed his 14th FTA, missing his shot at breaking his own record. He finished 15/16. (Does it feel like LBJ kills the Bulls at the FT line in the playoffs? Quick research shows that he shot 81% against Chicago this year (77% overall) and 86% in 2011 (76% overall). So yeah, he does kill us.)