Looking Forward: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat were decent last season. 43-39, with the league’s 11th-best defense and 20th-best offense. Good enough to lose the most boring, meaningless 7-game series in NBA playoff history to the Atlanta Hawks. Dwyane Wade turned in an individual season for the ages, but his teammates were not good enough to make this team a serious contender in the East.

With Wade’s free agency coming up in the summer of 2010, many expected Miami to try to make a big splash this summer and surround the megastar with more talent. With Toronto in the same situation with Chris Bosh, they overhauled the roster and invested significant money in Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani in an order to solidify their core. What did Miami do, get Lamar Odom and Carlos Boozer? Nope. These avenues were explored, but all they ended up doing was replacing Jamario Moon and Mark Blount with Wade’s buddy, Quentin Richardson. Bleh.

This is a risky strategy, following the Knicks’ lead in holding out for the 2010 sweepstakes. Dwyane Wade might not be content with another season on a middle-of-the-pack team, losing in the first round of the playoffs. If he sees himself being trapped in Chris Paul Hell and bolts to Chicago or New York next summer, their fan base will be crushed.

Thing is, if it works, it really works. Next summer, everyone’s contract is up. They already have a potential star in Michael Beasley and a nice young PG in Mario Chalmers, and they’re going to have enough cap room to re-sign Wade, sign another big-money player, and find a few role players. As a Raptors fan, I’m absolutely terrified that Bosh will join Wade in Miami. Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire, and even David Lee are also legitimate possibilities. Of course, this raises the question of whether or not Beasley can be converted to a 3, but if that becomes a problem it will be a pretty good problem to have in Miami. In a city where it seems every NBA player would love to play, having the most flexibility in the league in a star-studded free agency period is certainly a good thing. This team has had an extremely boring summer and I’m not even very excited about watching them in 2009-2010, but I understand their thinking. They have a plan and they’re going to stick to it.

If the Heat are not going to be in the East’s upper echelon (and they won’t be), the single most important part of 2009-2010 is going to be how they develop Michael Beasley. This supremely talented player only played 25 minutes a game for Erik Spolestra’s club last season, despite being taken #2 overall in the NBA draft. Even with his defensive deficiencies, this is far too low. His scoring and rebounding translated very well to the NBA. This season, he’s got to get far more minutes and they have to run more plays for him. With increased playing time and an increased role, there’s no reason this kid can’t average 20 PPG next season. They need to give Beasley the opportunity to shine – it’s the right move for their future, even if it’s later determined that he doesn’t fit alongside Wade and Free Agent X in Miami’s long-term plan.

Aside from Beasley (and Mario Chalmers), there’s probably not going to be much improvement from anyone on this squad. Dwyane Wade does almost as much as humanly possible and, if Jermaine O’Neal actually does return to All-Star form like he says he will, it will defy all logic and historical precedent. It’s a bit unfortunate for Heat fans, to see the same mediocre team trotted back out there again this year, probably destined for another first-round defeat. I guess they’ll just have to live with having one of the game’s very best and most exciting players on the roster. That isn’t so bad, actually.

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Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Miami Heat, Trades

Looking Forward: New York Knicks

Chandlernari

“Let’s get this out of the way.”

This is what the Knicks’ management thinks of the upcoming season, and likely what they were thinking at the beginning of last season too. It’s clear the Knicks are looking towards the summer of 2010, as they should be. Upon hearing today’s news that Nate Robinson’s one-year deal is essentially finalized and David Lee’s will soon be too, I figured it was time to get this preview out of the way.

If you watched any Knicks games last season, you no doubt noticed a significant change from the previous few seasons. With Donnie Walsh pulling the strings to dump the worst offenders of the dreadful Isiah era and Mike D’Antoni freeing his players to push the ball and get quick shots up, this team was infinitely more watchable. Sure, they still won only 32 games, but that’s what you get when you don’t have a real starting centre and you have Chris Duhon playing over 36 minutes a game. They were still the butt of some jokes on late-night TV, but their play was a huge, huge upgrade from what we were used to. At long last, the Knicks were fun.

Going into the off-season, there were questions about what would happen with Lee and Robinson. Both had just had phenomenal seasons and would likely want their deserved multi-year contracts. However, with the Knicks not wanting to commit potential LeBron James money to anyone and with few other teams in the free agent market this off-season, their situations lingered until… well, about now. Fortunately for Knicks fans, though, these two should give the team more of the same solid production next season, even if they don’t figure to be in the team’s long-term plans.

The only other free agent move Walsh even considered was signing Ramon Sessions. The young PG ended up signing a below-market-value deal with Minnesota, but would have been a big upgrade over Duhon at the point in NY. I can’t fault the GM for not pursuing him, though – anything that would jeopardize the 2010 financial flexibility Walsh has worked so hard to set up probably isn’t worth it. Knicks fans have suffered for too long, they deserve a shot to become an elite team. You have to stay with the plan. Even if the plan fails and they don’t land a megastar next summer, it’s worth the gamble. It just means that you’re going to have summers like this one, where the two biggest new faces are rookie Jordan Hill and Darko Milicic.

You know what to expect from the Knicks next season. They’ll play at a blistering pace and surprise more talented teams every once in a while. They’ll be a fun watch, but you’ll never consider them “relevant”. Without the circus surrounding the team at the early stages of the season this time around, and with some progression from young players Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, they could make a slight improvement on their record from last season. Still, we know this isn’t a playoff team and it isn’t a team that’s going to scare anybody. That’s okay for now, though. Maybe next year.

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Looking Forward: Detroit Pistons

Old Huskies, New Pistons

The Detroit Pistons are in transition. We all know this. This is why they made the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson trade. This is why Rip Hamilton’s contract extension made no sense. This is why they signed two ex-UConn Huskies (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) who don’t quite fit the traditional Piston mold. Finally, this is why they probably should have grabbed Rajon Rondo from Boston earlier this summer.

You’re aware that mainstays Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess are gone. Amazingly, Ben Wallace is back, along with the aforementioned marquee free agent Huskies, big man Chris Wilcox, and rookies Austin Daye and DaJuan Summers. In addition to this, maligned head coach Michael Curry is gone, replaced by long-time assistant John Kuester, who was on Larry Brown’s staff when Detroit for their 2003-2004 championship season.

Kuester, the architect of Cleveland’s much-improved offense last season, will be charged with improving what was the league’s 21st-best offense in 2008-2009. He’s got the tools to do it, I tell ya. Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Chris Wilcox all have their faults, but they can score. Despite appearing to be a chucker, Gordon is quietly one of the most efficient scorers in the league, and Charlie V. turned in an impressive 21.7 points per 36 minutes last season in Milwaukee. Wilcox, in the East, will be serviceable at both the 4 and 5 spots. His inconsistency, especially on defense, will likely remain, but so will his excellence in pick-and-roll situations. Point guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum can put the ball in the basket, too, and you don’t need me to tell you what Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton can do.

Does this mean they’ll be better this season?

Probably. They should be far better on the offensive end, but questions remain. What will happen to Rip Hamilton? He obviously shouldn’t have had his contract extended, and it’s probably going to be tough to move him in this economic environment. We know Gordon is the future of the Pistons’ 2-spot, but Kuester has already committed to bringing him off the bench while Rip is around. A big challenge for this new coach is going to be to allocate minutes in a way that keeps everyone happy and doesn’t leave guys playing out of position for so long that it puts the team at a disadvantage.

Kuester’s also going to have to put some thought into how to get these guys to play D. This squad was average on that front under Michael Curry last year, finishing 16th in the league (down from 4th the previous year). With a bit of luck, they’ll sustain something close to that mark this coming season – Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are certainly not defensive-minded players, but I don’t think their efforts will be significantly worse than what we saw from Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace last season.

If all goes right, then, we’ll see an elite offensive team and an average defensive team. This is the opposite of what we saw from Larry Brown’s championship-winning team (it should be noted that the great Flip Saunders had them playing elite-level ball on both ends) and it’s why I must stress again that this team is in transition. There is some serious talent in Detroit, some of it young and some of it old. Pieces remain from the perennial Eastern Conference Finals teams earlier in the decade, but they don’t represent the majority of this roster anymore. It’ll be interesting to see how this franchise negotiates this tricky terrain of trying to rebuild while staying in the playoff hunt, rather then tearing everything down and starting again. Grabbing at least one post-season victory this time would be a good start.

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Filed under Detroit Pistons, Free Agency, Looking Forward, Trades

Looking Forward: Indiana Pacers

I could probably copy and paste my recent Milwaukee Bucks post here and you’d get the idea.

Indiana, like Milwaukee, had to deal with major injuries last year and missed the playoffs. Again, like Milwaukee, they’re on the outside looking in when it comes to how most are projecting the East’s 2009-2010 playoff picture. If all goes right, sure, they could sneak in there, but it’s hard to argue that they’ve improved, talent-wise, during the off-season.

Here’s a quick run-down.

Players Added: Tyler Hansbrough, A.J. Price, Dahntay Jones, Earl Watson, Solomon Jones, Luther Head.

Players Lost: Marquis Daniels, Jarrett Jack, Rasho Nesterovic, Stephen Graham, Maceo Baston, Jamaal Tinsley (kinda).

With due respect to Psycho T, I’d argue that for this season Daniels, Jack, and Nesterovic are the three best players on those lists. Unfortunately, they all reside on the “Players Lost” list. Still, you can’t really kill the Pacers for the boring moves they’ve made this summer (besides the Dahntay Jones one – inexcusable). As was the case with Milwaukee, they didn’t have much room to manoeuvre because they’re so close to the luxury tax. With the money Troy Murphy, Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, and Jeff Foster are making, they likely won’t be in a position to make a big splash next summer, either. This is the result of mistakes of the past, mistakes that other teams should learn from. If you’re going to invest big, long-term money to a player, you better make sure it’s a guy who can be a top player on a successful team. Danny Granger fits the bill fine, but while I like Murphy and Dunleavy, I don’t think they should be your key guys. So, if you’re going to slam the Pacers’ front office for assembling a middle-of-the-road team, that’s fine, but realize those seeds were planted well before this summer.

Let’s talk about positives, though. These guys were a fun bunch to watch last season. They pushed the ball at every opportunity, finishing 3rd in the league in pace. Granger is a great, great young prospect, and I’m not just talking about fantasy basketball here. Roy Hibbert had a much better rookie season than I could have anticipated, shockingly posting a better PER than former Pacer center Jermaine O’Neal was able to muster. Theses guys should improve this year. So should Brandon Rush, who showed a lot of promise when he was given a starting role for the last month of his rookie campaign. T.J. Ford, who no longer has to share minutes with Jarrett Jack, has a great opportunity to bounce back from what was a down year in 2008-2009. Also, the new faces might help them improve their defense from last season. All good things.

Like I said about Milwaukee, it’s not too far-fetched to see the Pacers ending up with the 8th seed. Nobody’s penciling them in now, though, especially with the way some other Eastern teams have improved. With a week until training camp starts, Indiana fans are anxious and can do nothing but hope for the best. If this year’s squad is as fun as last year’s and finishes with a better record, I guess that’s a successful season. If you take a broader look at this franchise, though, there are real problems. Danny Granger, at 26, is approaching his prime – do we really want to wait until the summer of 2011 to see him (potentially) on a winning team? I say no. Mediocrity is annoying.

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Looking Forward: Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have had an underwhelming off-season. After a 2008-2009 campaign where important coach Scott Skiles improved this team’s defense and toughness the same way he did in Chicago, Bucks fans have watched as three of their four most talented players have been let go.

First, Richard Jefferson was moved to San Antonio for cap relief, Kurt Thomas, and Amir Johnson (who was later traded to Toronto along with Sonny Weems for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic). Then, Charlie Villanueva was allowed to walk, choosing to sign with Detroit. Finally, the team declined to match Minnesota’s below-market-value offer sheet to Ramon Sessions. This is all kind of understandable in the scheme of things, as the Bucks are cash-strapped, in a small market, and nowhere close to being a serious contender. If you’re a Milwaukee fan, though, it had to hurt, epecially considering the Jefferson trade represented the colossal failures of the previous two summers, where they had 1) drafted Yi Jianlian 6th overall and 2) traded Jianlian and Bobby Simmons to New Jersey in exchange for RJ.

As I said, the off-season’s been underwhelming in light of what they’ve lost this summer, but let’s examine the guys the Bucks have added to the roster:

1. Brandon Jennings: Milwaukee fans can be legitimately excited about this rookie. You know the story: played in Italy last season instead of becoming another slave to the NCAA, sick handles, great court vision, tons of potential, but needs time to develop. He may have come under fire a bit earlier this summer, but he seems like a great kid. Anyway, he will probably make tons of mistakes, turn the ball over too much, and miss jumpers this season. That’s fine, he’s only 19. Be patient with him.
2. Jodie Meeks: He can score. He really can. He gave up the chance to be on an absolutely stacked Kentucky team this year in order to be picked 41st by Milwaukee. For his sanity’s sake, I hope he gets some burn this season and contributes. You know he’s going to be watching John Wall and company tear it up next year.
3. Hakim Warrick: This is the Bucks’ only real free agent signing. I guess he will replace Charlie Villanueva. He’s a different kind of player than Charlie V., but still an effective one. He can score, he can guard, and he can play both forward positions (although he is most suited to the 4). Good one-year signing, but is he part of the Bucks’ long-term plans?
4. Kurt Thomas: He’s exactly the type of player Scott Skiles likes – not flashy, but smart and tough. He’ll play excellent post defense, grab boards, and hit open jumpers from the wing. He’s way past his prime, but he’s still effective. If I’m Skiles, I’m happy to have him, but if I’m the GM I’m already looking to trade him to a better team for young talent.
5. Carlos Delfino: He has a chance to start at the 3 for Milwaukee. He’s got handles, he can shoot, and he rebounds at an excellent rate for a wing player. Watching him in Toronto, I appreciated his toughness and his ability to space the floor on offense, but I grew tired of his inconsistency. Let’s hope this is the year he avoids those 3-12 shooting nights.
6. Roko Ukic: We’re all infatuated by his potential – he’s a 6’5 point guard who can get to the basket and make very nice passes. However, his shooting and decision-making leave a lot to be desired. He’ll be 25 in December, so his deficiencies in these areas are worrying to even the most ardent Ukic supporters.
7. Ersan Ilyasova: He was below average in his first NBA go-round, but has been productive overseas. If you haven’t noticed, he’s absolutely killing it in Eurobasket right now, so Bucks fans have reason to be excited about him. You’ve gotta wonder if there will be minutes for him in the rotation, though – he’ll be competing against Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Kurt Thomas, Hakim Warrick, and Joe Alexander.
8. Walter Sharpe: Um, Sharpe has played 20 minutes in his NBA career. I’m not going to pretend I have anything to tell you about him.

With these guys joining a healthy Michael Redd, along with Andrew Bogut, Charlie Bell, and Luke Ridnour, these Bucks could challenge for the 8th seed in the East. I see that as the ceiling for this season, given that Scott Skiles hasn’t worn out his welcome yet. He’s capable of making teams achieve more than they should on paper and is excellent at disguising individuals’ defensive flaws. This is what makes him a good coach.

I would be very worried about this if I was a Bucks fan, though. The last thing this team needs is a mediocre season where they finish with a record just good enough to keep them from getting a high draft pick. What I advocate is the same as what PG of All Things Hoops has called for: Play small-ball, trade guys like Kurt Thomas and Charlie Bell, and listen very seriously to trade offers for Michael Redd. The losses of Villanueva, Sessions, and Jefferson are only excusable if this franchise commits to a rebuilding plan. I know Skiles would hate to hear this, but this club doesn’t need a decent record in 2009-2010. At this point, Milwaukee fans just need a team that has a chance to compete a few years down the road.

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Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Milwaukee Bucks, Trades

A Closer Look: Coaching Matters

VDN UPSET!

This is a guest post by my buddy Julian, who writes the blog Comedy Landfill. Like me, he’s a huge NBA fan, so sometimes we have arguments that end up in one of us wanting to write a blog post defending our case. So, here ya go. Also, tell him to start tweeting again.

I recently had a discussion with the creator of this blog, about the effects of coaching on a team. VDZ wasn’t convinced that coaching had all that much to do with a team’s fortunes in the NBA. I agreed that the NBA, unlike many different sports in the world, was player-driven, where the teams with the best players, in virtually all cases, were the best teams in the league. Kobe, Pau Gasol and Odom on the Lakers? Championship. Phil Jackson (one of the greatest, if not the greatest coach of all time) tried and failed to make Kobe plus a bunch of scrubs successful in the mid-2000s. Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Championship, and that was with oft-disrespected Doc Rivers at the helm. The year before that, they were one of the worst teams in the league.

My argument, however, was that coaches DID play an important part in the success and failure of a team. I pointed to Stan Van Gundy as a guy who made a significant, real impact on the Orlando Magic, turning them from an also-ran eastern conference team into a legit contender through a great rotation, a great gameplan, and some expert play-calling. This debate intrigued me enough to do a rundown on coaching changes that happened last season, in order to get a better idea of how coaching can change a team, for better or for worse.

Mike D’Antoni (NYK):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating Before: 111.9 (29th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.6 (15th)
W-L Before: 23-59
Offensive Rating After: 108.1 (17th)
Defensive Rating After: 110.8 (23rd)
Pace Factor After: 96.7 (2nd)
W-L After: 32-50

After several outrageously poor seasons under the helm of Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks GM Donny Walsh decided to bring the Zeke era to a close, by demoting him and hiring recently fired Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s system is a pretty intriguing one, and judging by his statistics, it’s not hard to see why. Take a look in the difference between the pace of the Knicks before he got there, and after he got there. Going from middle of the pack to the second-fastest team in the league (only behind warp-speed Golden State) in one season is incredible. The offensive rating, while making a jump, obviously did not increase by as much as the pace. The problem here, in my opinion, is that while the offensive structure was re-vamped for the better, the team still didn’t have players that were efficient enough on the offensive end to complete Mike’s vision of a Pheonix Suns east. Defensively, they improved as well, but I think that I’m going to chalk that up to Isiah Thomas being terrible, and Mike D’Antoni steadfastly refusing to play notorious non-defender Eddy Curry, as well as adding a defensive scheme that made at least SOME sense. The win differential was +9. That’s pretty darn good, but with the caveat that they won only 23 games the prior season, and the improvement landed them 9 games under .500, which isn’t something you can brag about to your friends if you’re a Knicks fan.

Larry Brown (CHA):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.6 (24th)
Defensive Rating Before: 109.4 (20th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.8 (14th)
W-L Before: 32-50
Offensive Rating After: 104.7 (27th)
Defensive Rating After: 106.1 (7th)
Pace Factor After: 88.3 (27th)
W-L After: 35-47

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown took the reigns of a struggling Charlotte Bobcats team, and incorporated the players into his well-worn system. His system, of course, being a no-nonsense, defense-first, play-call-on-every-possession, slow, deliberate game. He also got a big overhaul midway through the season, landing the dynamic Boris Diaw and tough as nails defender Raja Bell for the chronic underachiever Jason Richardson. As a result of both coaching and personnel changes, the team’s defensive efficiency skyrocketed from 20th to 7th in the league, and it’s offense languished from and already miserable 24th in the league, to a near-bottom 27th. To no-one’s surprise, their pace factor also went from middle of the pack to slower than molasses. Even with that massive defensive improvement, the Bobcats went 35-47, improving by a meager 2 games (unimpressive considering how inept the guy Larry replaced was) and missed the playoffs yet again.

Rick Carlisle (DAL):
Offensive Rating Before: 111.1 (8th)
Defensive Rating Before: 106.1 (9th)
Pace Factor Before: 90.2 (22nd)
W-L Before: 51-31
Offensive Rating After: 110.5 (5th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.4 (17th)
Pace Factor After: 91.5 (16th)
W-L After: 50-32

Mark Cuban, the fiery owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hates, and I mean loathes losing. If you’ve ever seen him on the sidelines playing your favourite team, you’ll instantly realize that he both takes the game waaaay too seriously, and also that he would do anything to make his Mavericks a better team. That’s the main reason why he sacked the former Coach of the Year, elf-voiced Avery Johnson after getting (Marv Albert impression) REJECTED by Golden State in the first round two seasons ago. Enter Rick Carlisle, another former coach of the year, and regarded by most as an all-around good coach, albeit with a reputation of alienating his players after a few seasons. In any case, as you can see, the team got a bit better on offense, and a lot worse on defense. One of the reasons for both of those things might be the acquisition of Jason Kidd during the offseason. Jason Kidd used to be one of the best defenders at the PG position in the league, but Father Time has waved his magic time staff and slowed Jason Kidd down considerably. Especially laterally. Father Time hates side-to-side movement. Anyway, they sped up marginally and won 1 less game. Pretty much treading water. What does that say about Rick Carlisle? I guess it says that he’s a mediocre coach? That may be a bit harsh, but I’m sure that Mark Cuban expects a better result than treading water. The huge drop in defensive efficiency from 2 years ago to last can’t be considered good, and it can’t all be blamed on personnel changes.

Vinny Del Negro (CHI):
Offensive Rating Before: 103.9 (26th)
Defensive Rating Before: 107.2 (14th)
Pace Factor Before: 93.0 (11th)
W-L Before: 33-49
Offensive Rating After: 108.4 (14th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.7 (18th)
Pace Factor After: 93.1 (9th)
W-L After: 41-41

After reading these stats to my friend, who hates Vinny Del Negro, he instantly said “THEY GOT DERRICK ROSE STUPID” (Ed.: That was me). Well, I suppose that’s true, but the Bulls still jumped up a very impressive 12 spots from 26th to 14th in the league, while only dropping about 4 spots on defense (which also might be “Derrick Rose stupid!” considering how poorly he defended last season). Another reason for the uptick in offense was the brilliant trade made halfway through the season, where the Bulls shipped out an underperforming and overpaid Andres Nocioni for the versatile and efficient John Salmons. The difference in speed between the two seasons was almost negligable, but the massive jump in offensive efficiency was enough to catapult them out of the basement of the Eastern Conference into the middle of the pack, and coupled with their relatively middle of the pack defense, gave them the ultimate middle of the pack record of 41-41. The reviews coming out of Chicago were mixed. Some were forgiving of Vinny’s rookie-coach mistakes, while others were not. They said that his rotations left a lot to be desired, and that the plays he drew up out of time outs rarely worked. However, the offense looked a lot better, and he put the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon, which seemed to work pretty well. He also wrung a pretty great season out of Joakim Noah, allowing him to play through his mistakes, while keeping a lid on the dressing room drama. While he may have his detractors in Chicago, he certainly had quite an impressive season for a rookie coach (making it to the playoffs, giving a shorthanded Boston a run for it’s money).

Scott Skiles (MIL):
Offensive Rating Before: 105.3 (21st)
Defensive Rating Before: 112.8 (30th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.3 (17th)
W-L Before: 26-56
Offensive Rating After: 106.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating After: 107.9 (15th)
Pace Factor After: 92.6 (11th)
W-L After: 34-48

It’s interesting that we get to examine how an outgoing coach does on another team after analyzing his replacement, and we get to see that with Scott Skiles on the Bucks. Now, to be fair, Skiles is getting a bit of a raw deal here, because the ratings on offensive and defensive efficiency during his last season with the Bulls are tainted by a dreadful interim coaching job done by a man by the name of Jim Boylan, who coached the team for 56 games in 2007-2008. Milwaukee has been one of the worst run franchises in the league for a while now, and looking at the stats, it’s not hard to see why. Dead-last in defense, bottom ten in offensive efficiency, one of the worst W-L records in the league; Scott Skiles had his work cut out for him when he arrived. What happened was a pretty impressive turnaround, not unlike Larry Brown’s, where the Defensive efficiency went through the roof, and the offensive efficiency increased as well, but actually slipped in the rankings (I suppose the league in general was less efficient in 2007/08). Unlike Larry, they didn’t play at a super-slow pace; in fact, the pace went up under Skiles! In fact, in his time coaching the Bulls, the pace factor never dipped below 11th in the league. This may be surprising, because most people equate excellent offenses with speed, and speed with a porous defense, when in fact, it’s the opposite under Skiles. The formula worked, at least partially, because like Mike D’Antoni, his team improved by 8 games, from 26 to 34 wins. It’s amazing what a functioning system and identity can do for a team, isn’t it? With D’Antoni, the Knicks became a run and gun squad, and with Skiles’ Bucks, they became a gritty, hard-nosed defensive team, when before, they were simply floating around, amorphous and directionless.

Conclusions

From this list, I think you can make a couple of intriguing observations: one is how much a coach can change how a team operates. Mike D’Antoni’s system had a real, observable effect on how his team played. The pace went through the roof, as did the offense. Skiles increased the pace, and made the defense much stingier. Larry Brown slowed the game down to a crawl and instituted a defense that was one of the best in the league. These aren’t just small swings, some of them are 15-ranking swings, which can’t just be attributed to personnel changes. The style of ball changed when the new coaches arrived. In terms of actually winning games, the evidence is not as strong. Skiles and D’Antoni boasted large improvements in this category, but from god-awful to merely “poor”. A more impressive jump was Mike D’Antoni’s second season in Pheonix, where he took the team from under 30 wins to over 60. That is obviously a result of the system matching the players perfectly, as well as the addition of a pointguard that could actually carry the gameplan out.

I think that by looking at these new coaches, we can actually see that coaching does have an observable effect on the fortunes of a team. Sometimes dramatic ones. I think that it’s at least evidence towards teams performing better when they have an identity, rather than directionless. It’s certainly very strong evidence that coaches are very good at implementing their system. Most importantly, I think that this illustrates why the NBA isn’t just a “player’s league” like so many people seem to believe, and that coaching has a strong influence on how the game is played.

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Filed under A Closer Look, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Coaching, Dallas Mavericks, Guest Posts, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Stats

Looking Forward: Minnesota Timberwolves

It’s been a busy summer for the Timberwolves. New GM David Kahn put his stamp on the team right away, ensuring that next year’s Wolves look very different to the team Kevin McHale had assembled. This is a bit weird, considering how last year’s Wolves were playing before Al Jefferson’s injury.

It’s worth nothing that although the Wolves started out the season horribly (especially when Randy Wittman was still the coach), they were 11-8 in the 2009 calendar year when Al Jefferson went down with his season-ending ACL tear. Jefferson had become an elite post scorer, Randy Foye had flourished at the 2-guard spot, and Kevin Love had put a few monster-rebounding games together. If this team had done nothing but stand pat this summer and make use of their #6 draft pick, they’d have a roster that would be primed to make a significant improvement on their woeful 24-58 record based just on the return of Jefferson and improvement from within.

Does this mean Kahn’s screwed up with his overhaul, then? I say no. He’s used existing assets to improve the team in both the short-term and the long-term. The first and biggest deal he made was obviously the Foye and Mike Miller for the 5th pick swap. Miller dogged it in 2008-2009 and Foye, though capable of scoring, wasn’t in Kahn’s long-term plans for good reason. With no desire to extend Foye’s contract, and the stated goal of rebuilding to become a contender a few years down the road, trading these two for a high draft pick was a smart move. Heading into the draft, they had the fifth and sixth picks. Sure, it was a weak draft, but this was a chance to reshape the team.

They couldn’t have expected Ricky Rubio to be there, though. When it was their time to pick and the consensus 2nd-best player in the draft was still on the board, they couldn’t pass on him twice, even with questions about his buyout. So, the Wolves selected him with the #5 pick and followed it up with the confusing pick of Jonny Flynn, the point guard out of Syracuse at #6.

You know what’s happened since. Rubio’s elected to play in Barcelona instead of Minnesota for the next two, probably three years. Bill Simmons and Chad Ford have called Kahn out for screwing up this situation. It seems as if their argument is that the Wolves had a good chance to lure Rubio over next season, if only they hadn’t taken Jonny Flynn. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this claim, though. Financially, the motivation to stay in Europe is very clear – his new team, FC Barcelona, fully bought out his contract with DKV Joventut and, if he chooses to, he has the option to wait until he is no longer bound by the rookie salary scale to come to the NBA. Finances aside, he gets to live and play basketball at home in the great city of Barcelona. I haven’t actually been to Minnesota, but I can understand why a not-yet-19-year-old kid from Barcelona might prefer not to relocate there. I don’t think having the chance to play with Stephen Curry would have changed any of this.

The situation isn’t so bad for Minnesota. It kind of sucks for NBA fans, who are anxious to see Rubio compete against the best of the best, but the Wolves franchise still has a tremendous asset who will come over in a few years when he’s still very, very young in NBA terms. In the meantime, it opened the door for Kahn to ink promising guard Ramon Sessions to a four-year deal for $16 million. For a 23-year-old who has shown a lot of promise, this is a bargain. Of course, it duplicates the problem some saw in having Flynn and Rubio – they now have two point guards who will be competing for playing time. To me, this is a very positive problem to have, though, and one that will be mitigated a bit by giving Sessions some minutes at the 2 guard spot every night. Long-term, they aren’t going to keep Flynn, Sessions, and Rubio on the roster, but if they all develop like we hope they will, there should be plenty of takers for them on the trade market.

Flynn and Sessions aren’t the only newcomers to this squad. In fact, there are only four to five returning players who figure to have a chance to crack Minnesota’s rotation next season: Al Jefferson (duh), Kevin Love (double duh), Ryan Gomes, Corey Brewer, and Brian Cardinal. The other new faces are Wayne Ellington, Ryan Hollins, Antonio Daniels, Chucky Atkins, Damien Wilkins, and Mark Blount. These role players will fill the void left by departing players Sebastian Telfair, Rodney Carney, Mark Madsen, Kevin Ollie, Shelden Williams, and Bobby Brown. You probably don’t care much about any of the names mentioned in the past two sentences, but I thought they were worth mentioning. What you need to know: the names have been shuffled around, but ‘Sota is still weak at the wing positions.

I’m not going to tell you David Kahn is a genius, but his off-season hasn’t been nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. This team isn’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re not supposed to. They are rebuilding. This organization has four solid young guys suiting up next year in Jefferson, Love, Flynn, and Sessions. Plus, there’s that Rubio guy overseas. Their salary situation looks mighty fine to me, as the contracts of Blount, Cardinal, Wilkins, Daniels, Atkins, and Stewie Griffinall expire at the end of the season. None of this guarantees even eventual success, especially as it remains to be seen how the pieces are going to fit, but going forward the most important thing is that this organization has options. Sweet, sweet options.

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Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves, Trades