By: J.R. Smooth
Smooth’s Starting Five –
- The Denver Nuggets keep winning
- Al Horford has been amazing
- JaVale McGee has been awful
- Tristian Thompson’s emergence in Cleveland is worth watching
- Patrick Beverley is Houston’s wild card
The Denver Nuggets keep winning. And winning and winning and winning some more. After taking four straight last week, including two victories over the Thunder and Bulls in a difficult road back-to- back, the Nuggets moved their franchise-best winning streak to fifteen games. Anyone that can write about them is writing about them. And the content has been nothing short of superb.
Denver is a marvel this season – the ultimate ‘Moneyball’ team. If you have yet to read Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball”, you should probably remove yourself from the rock under which you live. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen the movie starring Brad Pitt, then you should stay in your cave. No one wants to know you anyway.
“Moneyball” is the story of how the small-market Oakland A’s, under the guidance of general manager Billy Beane, revolutionized the game of baseball through the use of advanced stats. Major League Baseball is different in that it doesn’t have a salary cap. Teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox can outspend their small-market counterparts and see almost guaranteed success on the field. The NBA, however, has a salary cap. And because of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement – spurred in large part by 2011’s lockout – NBA teams cannot simply buy success. Certainly, the league’s “soft cap” isn’t as strict as what you’ll find in other pro sports like the NFL. However, the Association has made it significantly more difficult for large markets to outspend the competition.
The Denver Nuggets franchise is, for all intents and purposes, the NBA’s Oakland A’s. Masai Ujiri’s front office smartly assembled one of the most individually productive teams in the league. However, the true genius of Denver’s success is in the coaching staff’s ability to architect lineups (out of their roster full of wing players) that win games while using the drive-and-kick motion offense George Karl proselytizes.
The playoffs are decided on individual matchups. Does Denver have any one player who can claim superiority over his potential counterpart amongst the final eight Western Conference playoff entrants? And if not, can Denver’s “team-ness”, as George Karl puts it, survive against tightened playoff rotations, tightened playoff possessions, and tightened nerves that come with the grand stage? Once again, only time will tell.
Al Horford is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career. But because he plays in Atlanta, no one is giving it much notice.
Typically, you want your starting center to anchor your defense and protect the rim. The opposite holds true for Horford. Jared Dubin illustrates this beautifully in a detailed examination of Al Horford’s game at Hoop Chalk.
Consider: Atlanta has one of the league’s middling offenses, posting a 104.6 offensive rating, good enough for 19th in the league. Among playoff-eligible teams, only Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indiana are worse. With Horford on the floor, that number jumps to 107.6 – good enough for 8th. With Horford off the floor, that number plummets to 97.5 – placing them in last place by over a two-point margin. Pair that differential with his near career-high 19.9 PER, and you start to understand why he’s been granted such a nice contract. You also begin to understand just how important it is to have a dependable center in the NBA. A team can neither compete nor contend without one.
On Sunday night, the Hawks paid visit to Milwaukee, where Horford faced the ultimate test in Larry Sanders. Sanders is widely recognized as being the best interior defender in the NBA today. The game’s box score, which can be found here, is fascinating, as neither appeared able to stop the other.
Horford played a team-high 41 minutes, with Sanders seeing just 32. If — and this is a big if — if Bucks’ head coach Jim Boylan had decided to match Horford minute-for-minute with Larry Sanders, he might have seen his team come away with a big home victory. But it wouldn’t have been because Sanders was able to mitigate Horford’s damage. It would have been because Sanders produced just as much as his opponent. The Bucks’ center finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds, 1 steal, 3 blocks, and a plus-5. Horford put up 24 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and a plus-1.
Al Horford is 26 years old and due $12 million over each of the next three years. Larry Sanders is 24 and due $3.05 million in the final year of his rookie extension in 2013-14. The fact Sanders was able to go toe-to-toe with Horford bodes well for his potential compensation in the coming years. Even still, that Horford was able to produce with such ease against the best interior defender in the league speaks to the type of player he has become.
I would take either and be beyond overjoyed.
At the other end of the spectrum …
Listless. Listless is the word that best describes my mindset while watching JaVale McGee attempt to play basketball. Listless.
Now that we have established how vital the center position is in the NBA today, let us now establish just how bad an investment JaVale McGee was for Denver. His blooper reel is nothing in comparison to his possession-by-possession failures at both ends of the basketball court.
How bad has JaVale been for Denver this season? Bad. Real bad. Real, real, real bad. And he doesn’t discriminate. He’s putrid offensively. He’s putrid defensively. And he’s an untradeable “asset”. He’s just not an NBA player.
With JaVale on the court, Denver’s typically flamboyant offense loses much of its steam, producing a meager 107.7 points per 100 possessions (8th-best in the league). With JaVale off the court, Denver goes off the rails, producing 111.8 points per 100 possessions (3rd-best in the league). His defensive impact is even more pronounced. With McGee on the court, Denver allows 107.5 points per 100 possessions (giving them the 23rd-ranked defense). That’s bad. With McGee off the court, that number falls to 104.1 (tying them with Atlanta for the league’s 9th-best defense).
JaVale McGee on the court: #8 offense; #23 defense.
JaVale McGee off the court: #3 offense; #9 defense.
JaVale McGee is a terrible basketball player that makes his team worse at both ends of the floor. When McGee apologists mention his phenomenal production as justification for increased playing time, they only hurt their own reputation. Ignorance is bliss. Truly. Ignorance is bliss. Because it’s not a simple blooper reel that hurts his cause. It’s his entire body of work.
When I discussed the underrated Kosta Koufos in this column’s premier edition last week, I did so with little context given as to the quality of his backup. As such, Koufos’ impact becomes much more exaggerated when you take into account his replacement.
Hopefully, George Karl and his staff have their wits about them in the playoffs and realize McGee cannot see the floor for more than 10-minutes per night. Because with McGee, Denver is an also-ran. But without him, they’re a legit contender.
Center is the most important position on the floor for an NBA team. If you’re in the business of letting JaVale McGee have the most important job in your organization, you’re in the wrong business. Period.
I like the Cavs. Actually, no. On second thought, I love the Cavs. Only recently has Cleveland began living up to my preseason expectations. One of the main reasons why is because Tristan Thompson is growing up before our very eyes.
Only Thompson and Alonzo Gee have started all 69 games for Cleveland this year. Star point guard Kyrie Irving has missed twenty games, Dion Waiters has missed twenty-one, and Anderson Varejao has been out since the December. Gee and Thompson have been the model of consistency in an otherwise injury-wrecked season for Cleveland.
The fact it has taken until March for the franchise to find any sort of continuity is understandable.
In Cleveland’s near-upset victory over the Heat last Wednesday, the 21 year-old Thompson was dynamite, registering 18 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and a plus-18. Chris Bosh couldn’t slow him down. Udonis Haslem faced the same difficulties. The only player who seemed to give Thompson an issue was Shane Battier.
Through eleven games in the month of March, Tristian Thompson has registered six double-doubles. While Cleveland’s record in that span is a very poor 2-9, the progress is there. Minus their most recent 38 point blowout loss at the hands of the Houston Rockets (an emotional letdown following the Miami game), the Cavs’ loss margin is a mere seven points — and that includes a 21 point thumping against the Pacers. The seven point margin is greater than their season average (-4.28), however, when you consider Irving and Waiters only saw time in four and seven of those games respectively, you begin to see signs of hope.
Cleveland is most definitely a lottery team this season. But with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristian Thompson, and Anderson Varejao all due back next year, I’m betting this will be their last appearance in the NBA’s ping-pong ball pick ’em for the foreseeable future.
The Houston Rockets will be a dangerous draw for whoever is unlucky enough to see them in the first round of the playoffs. But not for the reasons you might think. Certainly, they’ll throw James Harden and Jeremy Lin along with Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons at the opposition. The presence of Harden alone gives them a shot at victory every single night. Their secret weapon, however, wasn’t even on the opening day roster.
Patrick Beverley, a 24 year-old rookie out of Arkansas, signed a free agent contract with the Rockets on January 7, 2013 to the league’s minimum. Averaging just over 16 minutes per game off the bench, the Rockets have gone 17-12 since his signing. In the ten games where he’s seen over twenty minutes of action, Houston is 7-3.
Who is this guy and where did he come from? Someone should ask Daryl Morey. Because the presence of Beverley really throws a wild card into the mix as we move towards the playoffs.
In Houston’s remarkable 96-95 victory over the Spurs on Sunday, Beverley was sensational — and arguably the difference between a win and loss for the Rockets. In 24 minutes of court time, he outplayed, outhustled, and outworked San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Patrick Beverley’s line: 11 points on six shots, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 0 turnovers, and a plus-14 in 24:17
Manu Ginobili’s line: 3 points on six shots, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover, and a minus-12 in 27:16
Beverley’s substitution for Jeremy Lin at the 3:49 mark of the fourth quarter was smart for two reasons:
1. This game was a defensive battle all night. If Houston had any hopes of winning, they needed a defensive stopper in the game to control the talented guards and wings San Antonio deployed.
2. Beverley is shooting a team-high 40.6% from 3-point range this season — far surpassing Lin’s 33.7%. Coming out of a timeout at the 2:39 mark, Rockets’ coach Kevin Mchale actually drew up a play giving Beverley an open look at a corner three (he missed).
In the game’s most critical moments, it was Beverley’s defense that sealed the deal for Houston. At the 1:30 mark, with the Rockets down four, Chandler Parson’s turned the ball over, leading to an apparent easy layup in transition for Danny Green. That was until Beverley came out of nowhere to block the shot. James Harden took the ball the other way, feeding Chandler Parsons a cross-court pass for an open three. He nailed it. Houston was within one.
Then, at the :41-second mark, with San Antonio still in control of a 1-point lead, the Spurs ran a play for Manu Ginobili to receive the ball on the right block. Patrick Beverley did such an effective job at ball-denial, Ginobili was forced to come out his position and curl around Tony Parker to receive a pass from Duncan. The end result was a wild corner 3-point attempt from Kawhi Leonard that didn’t even hit the rim.
If not for Patrick Beverley’s ability to blow up that possession with such incredible ball-denial, Houston never would have had a chance to win the game on the final possession.