Saturday, April 30, 2011

The End of an Era


A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated's cover story proclaimed the new "small ball" revolution in the NBA. One of their examples happened to be the Spurs, who this year went to a smaller, higher scoring lineup in order to take more of the focus off their aging big man, Tim Duncan. Duncan, of course, had been the rock of a Spurs foundation that had won four NBA titles since 1999. But Duncan's skills were clearly in decline.

With apologies to S.I., and anyone else who loves "small ball", I will always believe that in the NBA, much like in the mind of a woman, size matters. Give me bigs--young, athletic bigs, preferably--over small scorers. I'll beat you every time. Kids on the playground learn this basic premise at an early age--the tall guys are always picked first when choosing sides.

(Note: There are, of course, occasional exceptions to any rule. In this case, Shawn Bradley would be an example of being the exception to the "always give me a tall guy" rule.)

Spurs "small ball" didn't work too well against a younger, hungrier, and bigger Memphis team. The Spurs joined the Mavs as the only top seeds to ever lose a best-of-seven to an eight seed. The Grizzlies made San Antonio look old, slow...and small. Zac Randolph was a beast and was way too much for the Spurs aging and undersized power forward Antonio McDyess. And, Marc Gasol was too much for Duncan to handle. That's right--Tim Duncan had a tough time with Marc Gasol. Not Pau Gasol. Marc.

It's not that Duncan was awful in this series (12 ppg and 10 rpg). He just isn't the Tim Duncan of old. Now, he's just old Tim Duncan.

In the 2003 playoffs, at the height of his powers, Duncan scored 37 points and grabbed 16 boards in the series-clinching game against the Lakers. That day (and that series), Duncan dominated an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal, who found himself matched up with Duncan more than usual, as the Lakers had no answer for "The Big Fundamental" (as Shaq called him).

Fast forward to 2011--the series-deciding game 6 in Memphis. Duncan scored just 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Gasol had 12 and 14. Gasol was so effective guarding Duncan that the Spurs never ran the offense through the Duncan post--a complete departure from the glory days. Instead, the Spurs had to run everything through Parker and Manu on the perimeter, where they were no match for the young, quick, and athletic Grizzlies. I counted exactly one time that Duncan scored on Gasol from a traditional low-post set. And, I counted exactly one Duncan bank shot--the familiar 16-footer from the side that used to be automatic. Not anymore.

NBA champs are built from the inside out. You have to have big, strong guys inside who can attack the rim on offense and who can get easy, post-type shots in the paint. Those same guys have to be able to defend the rim on the other end. If you have one of those guys, you are golden. If you have two of those guys, you are almost unbeatable (think the current Lakers, or the Duncan/Robinson Spurs). If you have none of those guys, you are this year's Spurs.

I never liked the Spurs chances in this postseason (not that I thought they would lose to Memphis!). The fact that they won 61 games in the regular season was a miracle--one of Popovich's best coaching jobs ever. But they were never going to be a postseason match for the better clubs. Duncan turned 35 this week. When a big man ages, he can lose it quickly. Very quickly. Add to that the fact that the other "bigs" on the SA roster aren't very big at all. McDyess is old and hasn't been a good leaper for years. Matt Bonner will play hard, but he seems more of a 6'7 guy than his actual 6'10. DeJuan Blair couldn't get off the bench in this series. Blair is the Spurs top backup C and PF, but he plays smaller than his 6'7 (which is a generous listing). It got so bad for the Spurs that Popovich gave significant minutes to Tiago Splitter, the Brazilian project who barely sniffed the court during the regular season. Pop was simply desperate for some size to try to slow down the Memphis parade to the rim. He probably would have played Swen Nater if the big Dutchman had been available.

In the post-Robinson years, Duncan was still so dominant that the Spurs could get away with average players alongside him. They won titles with the likes of Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed and Fabricio Oberto riding shotgun with Duncan. Everything went through Duncan, and nobody could stop him.

Now, age and mileage have caught up. Last night in Memphis officially marked the end of the Duncan Dynasty. It was an incredible run. Having followed the Spurs since I was a kid (and since they were in the ABA), I never thought I would see them win a championship. Duncan delivered four. It had to come to an end at some point. This is that point.

Duncan has another year left on a big contract. It's likely he'll play next season (if there is a next season), but the title-winning window has closed. Duncan will go down in history as one of the ten greatest players the Association has ever seen. But in this Memphis series, Duncan was just another guy. Zac Randolph was the alpha-male.

In the Duncan era, I've never seen a team make the Spurs work harder on both ends of the floor than Memphis did in this series. Ever. To hell with "small ball"--if Tim Duncan had been 25 instead of 35, the Spurs would have won the series in five games. That's how much a dominant big man means to a team. But, time marches on, and Duncan's march has slowed down to a crawl--and thus all around him slows down, too. The Duncan Dynasty is dead. Long live The Big Fundamental.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Meltdown

Has any pro sports franchise authored more playoff meltdowns in one five year stretch than these Dallas Mavericks? They already own the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history. Then they became the first #1 seed to ever lose a best-of-seven series to a #8 seed. Last year they lost in the first round as a #2 seed to the #7 seed. Now, following Saturday's historic collapse, they are hunting the trifecta: become the only NBA franchise to lose in the first round as a #1, #2 and #3 seed. Amazing.

There are so many things that are hard to understand about Game 4, and about the Mavs in general. Everyone is talking about how Dallas defended Brandon Roy (or didn't defend him). Everyone wonders why they didn't double him or play a zone. My question is this: why give him the right-handed drive over and over and over again when he burns you every time? The book on Roy may be to force him right, but after he burns you time and time again to the right, how about simply planting your body between Roy and rim? Why do you have to force him to one side? I was amazed at how both Kidd and mainly Marion were encouraging him to drive right, into the lane (where there was never any help defense!), over and over and over--with the same result (Roy making a basket). Maddening. Not to mention, the guy with the worst knees on the floor is the guy who is burning you repeatedly!

Marion's foul on Roy on the three-pointer was comical. So was the Dallas offense for most of the 4th quarter.

I kept waiting for Dirk to get pissed. When a 23 point lead is down to six, that's when your superstar has to take over. That's when Dirk has to say "get me the ball, dammit, and get out of my way!" Your star has to stop the bleeding. Your star has to make a couple of shots in a row to silence the crowd and win the game. Yes, they tried to run the pick-and-roll with Dirk and Kidd or Terry a few times--that's not how you play that situation, in my opinion. If your star is a seven-footer, you post him. Simple. Entry pass, and let him work. Quickly, before the double-team. If the double comes, someone is open, and that someone is found much more easily from the post than the perimeter. How many times did the Mavs do that in the 4th quarter? None. How many shots did Dirk make in the 4th quarter? One. How many turnovers did he have in the 4th? Two. How many shots did he take in the 4th? Three. All absurdly silly numbers--fitting for an absurdly silly loss.

Following the Golden State collapse, which followed the Miami collapse, I said this team had to be gutted. It's been a painfully slow process. So slow, in fact, that the loser mentality has been allowed to seep in and be passed on from season to season. The makeup of a 50-win regular season is always washed away by the ugliness of the playoffs--where the Mavs prove year after year that they've learned nothing. They can play defense, for a while. They attack the rim, for a while. They walk with a swagger, for a while. But at some point during every series, they stop playing defense, stop attacking the rim, and walk around looking dazed and confused. Every year.

One thing every NBA champ has had: a killer instinct. This generation of Mavericks continues to show us that they are devoid of that quality.

And, for those who think I'm just a Spurs homer--some thoughts on the San Antonio-Memphis series. The Spurs are threatening to become the second #1 seed to ever lose to the #8 seed in a best-of-seven. I said before this series started that it would be a very difficult series for SA. Memphis played them very tough in the regular season. They physically beat up the Spurs. I thought this would be a 6 or 7 game series, and it will be.

I don't like this edition of the Spurs. They are very good, but not championship caliber. They don't play defense like they used to, and a big reason for that is because they are a very short team. Tim Duncan is 7ft tall, but in his old-age he plays smaller than that. Antonio McDyess can't leap like he used to, so he plays smaller than his 6'9. Dejuan Blair is a very short backup C and PF, and he can't jump either. Matt Bonner is tall, but plays small. They have very little length inside. They may win this series on moxie and pedigree, but they will probably lose to OKC--and if not, they will definitely lose to Los Angeles.

If, in a few weeks, you think we'll be talking about a Spurs-Mavs Western Conference Final, then you're as insane as a 23 point, second half comeback.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Playoff Eight


In the NBA postseason, every coach seems to settle on an eight man rotation. Let's face it: if players 9, 10, 11 and 12 get any significant minutes in the playoffs, it doesn't mean you're a deep team--it means you don't have great quality at the top of your roster. Coaches go with the eight guys (sometimes even just seven) that are their best players, and the guys they can trust in the pressure-packed world of the NBA's second season.

Guessing Rick Carlisle's playoff rotation would be difficult based on how he's handled his roster over the last two months. There has been no rhyme or reason to some of his lineups and playing-time decisions. So, this is my advice to the coach for the playoffs--my Mavericks eight for the postseason...

Starters

PG: Jason Kidd. No-brainer. Highest basketball IQ on the team. Needs to be more assertive on the offensive end, and in many ways is a key to their playoff success. The head of the snake--let's hope he's not worn out (again).

SG: Deshawn Stevenson. Did you know Stevenson shoots better from 3-pt range than Jason Terry? And, he plays defense! The playoffs are all about defense, so starting Stevenson and asking him to be this team's Bruce Bowen makes sense. He also brings some real toughness (not fake toughness, like Terry) to the floor.

C: Tyson Chandler. Will be better for Dallas if he's the Chandler of early in the season and not the Chandler of the last couple of months. Must stay out of foul trouble.

PF: Dirk. (OK, that one was really easy)

SF: Shawn Marion. Need a viable second scoring option in the starting five, plus he's a good defender. Seems to be more engaged when in the starting lineup.

Bench

G: J.J. Barea. I don't like that his size hurts A LOT on defense, but you can't deny that this guy has turned into a pretty solid backup guard. He can be a bit wild, but for the most part I trust him with the ball, and he'll at least try to get to the rim, something sorely lacking on this team.

F: Peja Stojakovic. He's shooting 40% from 3-pt range as a Mav, and he's got tons of playoff experience. He must be this team's bench scoring option. Lord help him on defense.

C: Brendan Haywood. Dallas needs him to start caring. There is too much length in the West and Chandler is too foul-prone to think that Haywood won't need to get significant minutes off the bench.

Buried Alive

Jason Terry. Terry should have been farmed out long ago--with Dampier, Howard, Harris, Stackhouse and the others who were around for the Miami and Golden State meltdowns. What does he give you? 15 points per game off the bench--that's about 7 or 8 made shots a game (unless you need him to hit those shots at big moments in the playoffs--then he disappears). 15 ppg is nice, but what does he give up? He is such a poor defender that it's hard to figure how many baskets for the opponent he contributes to each night--but when you add that number to his high turnover rate and to whatever points the other team gets on technical fouls called on Terry, he turns out to be a negative-sum player. Plus, he's had FOUR freak-out moments in the last two weeks! He does not have a game that is postseason-friendly: he's a very poor defender, he misses clutch shots, he has a high freak-out factor, and he gives away possessions. In a moment of panic, I won't mind Carlisle giving Terry a few minutes to see if he can jump start the offense (if need be), but the more he's on the court, the worse the Mavs chances are. Ground the Jet.

Roddy Beaubois. He's had an opportunity this year, and done nothing with it. He still needs to be a big part of their future (see my previous blog post), but he should be a very small part of these playoffs. It's hard to believe how many steps backwards his game has taken this season--he looks completely lost. He's a turnover machine--and in the postseason, where every possession is like gold, you can't live with a guy like Roddy. I'll put it this way: opposing coaches in the West are begging the Mavs to play Jet and Roddy.

Corey Brewer. I'm OK with Carlisle giving Brewer a few minutes here and there for defensive help and to add some energy. But, like Terry and Beaubois, he's way too streaky to play much in this postseason. He's downright frightening to watch when he tries to handle the ball, and he still looks lost on too many nights.

The White Flag (If these guys have to play much, Mark Cuban will spontaneously combust)

Brian Cardinal
Ian Mahinmi
Kurt Nimphius

I feel for Cuban and Carlisle in that this team would be better if Caron Butler were healthy. Not a title contender, but better. But, he's not here. And, for the last two months, the Mavs have stunk. They've beaten the bad teams, and they've lost to the good teams. Their defense has fallen off dramatically, and they have turned back into a jump-shooting team. There has been bickering amongst the ranks. Their body language has been terrible. They look more primed for a first round exit than ever before. So, desperate times call for desperate (and fundamentally sound) measures.

Bury Jet and Roddy--it's your only chance.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Future of Roddy B


The Mavericks don't have many guys on the roster that can be considered building blocks for the next decade. In fact, they have one. Rodrigue Beaubois. With Dirk, Kidd, Terry, Marion, Haywood and Peja all deep into their 30's, and Chandler getting close, the Mavs are a very old team. Except for Roddy, who, at 23, has a long career ahead of him.

But what to do with Roddy? And, what is his upside? In 10 years, will he be looking back at an All-Star career, or will he be sacking groceries in Pointe-a-Pitre?

There seems to be some debate about what position Roddy is best suited for--point guard or two guard. My esteemed and mustachioed colleague Norm thinks Roddy is a two guard. The Mavs have made many personnel mistakes over the years, and it's my opinion that if they groom Roddy to be a two guard, they will be making one of their biggest mistakes ever. He is a point guard, plain and simple.

I am not a fan of short, slightly-built two guards (see Jason Terry). They always leave you at a defensive disadvantage. Most two guards in the NBA are between 6-4 and 6-6. So, if your two guard is 6-0 and skinny like Roddy, he can't guard Kobe. Now you have to try to play musical chairs on defense. I don't like that. Plus, your tiny two guard will always have a much bigger guy guarding him, which means he's got to work much harder on offense to get a shot off. I don't like that.

What I like is the idea of Roddy as the heir-apparent to Jason Kidd at point. Roddy's quickness is exceptional. He's very raw in all other areas of the game, and it will require strong coaching to get Roddy to become anywhere near the player that Kidd was in his prime, but the talent is there. Point guards who are lightning-quick are hell to deal with. Tony Parker turned into a Finals MVP because of his exceptional quickness in attacking the rim. And while Parker is not the best defender, his speed allows him to make up for a lot of mistakes.

The one thing that Roddy B doesn't have right now is a tightness to his game. Fast and slightly built guards (think Parker or Iverson) have very tight games. They have to. Roddy is very loose--loose with the dribble, loose with his jumper, loose with his passing, loose on defense. The first step toward becoming an All-Star point guard will be for Roddy (or the coaches) to tighten up his game. Parker used to be loose. Once he tightened things up, he became one of the best guards in the NBA. Point guards can't give away possessions because of poor ball handling, poor passing, or bad shots. Roddy has a lot to learn.

I love Roddy's upside, though. With that quickness (which can't be taught), he's already got a tremendous advantage. Now, he's got to learn how to control his dribble in traffic. He's got to learn how to make safe passes in pressure situations. When he concentrates, he's got a pretty looking jumper--yet too often it's a bunch of loose limbs going everywhere. But, he has the range--much more range than the Mavs' previous quick-point-guard-project, Devin Harris, ever had. What a deadly combination that could be down the road: a point guard that is a threat to blow by you and get to the rim, or a guy who will sink a three-pointer if you play off of him. That's tough to defend.

What I'm having a hard time measuring right now is where Roddy rates in the all-important basketball IQ department. I tend to chalk up his mistakes to youth, but I can't do that for much longer. I just can't tell right now if he's got a grasp on how the game is supposed to be played. The answer to that, in the end, may be what writes or destroys the legend of Roddy B.

Because of injury, this potential season of growth for Roddy never came to pass. Next year (provided we have an NBA season) must be the year that Carlisle commits to Roddy. It will (probably) be Kidd's last year with the Mavs, and in the NBA. The plan should be for Roddy to be the starting point guard from 2012 on. Carlisle can't let Kidd, or Barea, or anyone else get in the way. When you have one hope for the future on your roster, you are silly not to give him every opportunity to sink or swim. And, for the sake of the franchise, he better be able to swim.

Being from a tiny island where he grew up surrounded by lots of water, I'm betting he can swim.

Bonus note added one day later--free of charge: Roddy has always reminded me of Leandro Barbosa more than Tony Parker. It is this very reason that I believe the Mavs need to try to force the issue of Roddy as a point guard instead of some hybrid small-ish two guard (and Barbosa is 3 inches taller than Roddy!). If you can mold Roddy into a Parker, your franchise has a true building block. If Roddy becomes Barbosa, you have, well, Barbosa--a player with far less impact and value than a great point guard.