On the surface, the allegations against Memphis stemming from Derrick Rose‘s high-school transcripts/SAT results have nothing to do with the NBA. After all, it’s the Tigers that are being investigated, not Rose per se. Unraveling the story a layer, however, suggests that this is another bit of ammo in the debate about the age limit. As I discussed with Bethlehem Shoals and Dan Filowitz on today’s edition of Free Darko Presents: The Disciples of Clyde Podcast, this scandal may well never have happened if not for the age limit.
Through 2005, qualifying for the NCAA was no big deal for elite prospects. If they did reach the necessary combination of high school GPA and SAT score, they would have a choice to make. If not, it was off to the NBA. With the NBA route no longer available, the options of players like Rose are much more limited. Brandon Jennings (who, like Rose, failed to qualify) has shown that there is a third path in Europe and I suppose Rose could have chosen to go to a prep school for a year before entering the draft. However, neither of these alternatives are for everyone, and it’s easy to see how Rose (and his crew) might have felt they were almost forced to do whatever it took to become eligible, legal or otherwise.
So far, the one-and-done era has been a mixed blessing for the NCAA. Obviously, the college game has benefited on the floor from the presence of superstars like Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and (yes) Rose, if only for a single season. However, two of the highest-profile NCAA investigations in the last year have involved Rose and O.J. Mayo, two players who likely would not have ever set foot on a college campus if not for the age limit.
Of course, as our John Gasaway noted in last year’s College Basketball Prospectus, the NCAA really has no say in how the NBA determines its eligibility, so it has little control other than to investigate these situations after the fact and try to deter colleges from skirting or breaking the rules. The question is really how well the age limit is working for the NBA, and so far it has been a qualified success. The hype around Durant and Oden never would have reached the heights it did without their seasons in college, giving the NBA tremendous free marketing. At first, there appeared to be little downside. Now, the equation is changing slightly. If players like Mayo and Rose see their reputations tarnished by violations related solely to their college eligibility, the age limit could end up backfiring on the NBA.
I dissent from those who say that Billy Gillispie was “a terrible hire” at Kentucky. Nothing about the year that Texas A&M had in 2006-07 spelled impending disaster for the coach. I think it rather more likely that his incredibly rapid ascent up the coaching ladder–going from UTEP to UK in just 1100 days–simply unmoored him, rendering him a worse coach than he’d been before. So, no, I don’t think the Wildcats were necessarily “wrong” to hire Gillispie.
But I will grant you this. Since the moment Kentucky decided that Gillispie was their man in early April of 2007, every significant decision and/or action that the University has made with regard to its basketball program has been 180 degrees wrong:
1. On April 6, 2007, Kentucky signed Gillispie to a Memorandum of Understanding that included a buyout pegged at $1.5 million per year for every season remaining on his contract in the event of his firing. Even in the heady pre-Great Recession days of 2007, a $1.5 million-per-season buyout wasn’t chicken feed. More to the point, it was wildly inflated and unnecessary for Gillispie in particular, a legendarily single-minded coach who plainly would have taken a vow of celibacy if it meant he’d get the job at Kentucky.
2. During their coach’s two-season tenure, UK failed to sign Gillispie to a contract that would supersede the MOU. The university blames their ex-coach for refusing to sign. That may indeed have been the case, but failure to close the deal could harm only Kentucky. The failure is thus theirs alone.
3. On March 27, 2009, Kentucky fired Gillispie in a hurry, saying goodbye to their coach without coming to terms on a buyout. Now UK will repent at leisure. Yesterday in Dallas Gillispie filed suit in federal court to recoup $6 million, a development that, incredibly, seems to have caught UK by surprise. I am surprised they are surprised. After all, every ex-coach in Gillispie’s situation has an ex-coach star to steer by: former Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien.
4. On April 1, 2009, Kentucky hired Memphis coach John Calipari knowing full well, they now tell us, that Calipari’s program was being investigated by the NCAA. True, it could well be that Calipari knew nothing of shady doings related to Derrick Rose and an SAT whose results may or may not have been fraudulent. But if you’re Kentucky and you have knowledge of the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, do you really go ahead and pull the trigger on the Calipari hire?
Indiana raised some eyebrows in 2006 by hiring Kelvin Sampson at a time when he was under NCAA investigation at Oklahoma. Say this for the Hoosiers, though: at least Sampson’s status was public knowledge. By contrast Kentucky gives the appearance of having hustled Calipari into town furtively before the news could gum up their plans. (Nor has the administration at the University of Memphis exactly been a model of transparency.) Moreover, the fact that the UK president, Lee T. Todd, Jr., and athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, knew of the NCAA allegations but apparently did not brief the university’s trustees makes the whole hiring decision look unseemly.
Todd and Barnhart are now captives to whatever Calipari’s future and closet may hold in store. The two Kentucky officials may want to ask former Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan how the same kind of captivity treated him.
Comments Off on Kentucky Really Needs to Start Doing the Opposite
If the Nuggets didn’t have the Lakers’ attention before, you can bet your bottom dollar they do now.
In a game as much of statistical stalemate as you’re ever going to find, Denver evened the Western Conference finals by turning up the defensive heat on Kobe Bryant and taking advantage of some good fortune down the stretch. Bryant was efficient, scoring 32 points on 20 shots, but used only 24 possessions, down seven from Game One. The Nuggets threw a variety of looks and defenders at Bryant, mixing Dahntay Jones, Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony at various times, and did a good job of forcing Kobe to give up the ball—or denying it from him in the first place.
As mentioned, the teams’ statistical lines were barely distinguishable from each other. In the first game, the Nuggets had 11 more free-throw attempts than L.A., but missed 12 times from the charity stripe, a crucial lapse in the two-point loss. The Lakers, meanwhile, enjoyed a 17-7 edge on the offensive glass (36% to 19%) and shot 11-of-25 from beyond the arc. In Game Two, both teams visited the foul line frequently (37 FTA for Denver, 35 for L.A.) but the Nuggets closed the gap on the boards, as each team grabbed 32% of its own misses.
There were two ways George Karl’s crew could have taken the tough loss in Game One. They could have looked at it as, “Hey, we can beat these guys.” They could have also have felt, even if only in their collective subconscious, that they’d be chasing that missed opportunity the whole series. There may have been a bit of a hangover, because Denver came out seemingly unable to dig in with the same effort they proffered on Tuesday. The Lakers jumped out to a double-digit advantage and held it for most of the first half. The Lakers were getting too many easy shots at the basket and Denver was taking too forced many perimeter shots.
Midway through the second quarter, ESPN aired a clip of Karl in the huddle. Karl reminded his squad that they are an aggressive, take-it-to-the-basket team. “That’s who you are,” he said and, indeed, the Nuggets posted the NBA’s best offensive foul rate during the regular season. Anthony took Karl’s words to heart and began to drive to the basket with abandon. He finished the game with 14 free-throw attempts and continues to play the best basketball of his career. In fact, according to my WP82 metric (wins produced per 82 games), Anthony is second of all players in the playoffs at 14.7. (Teammate Billups is third at 13.9. Both trail LeBron James’ astounding figure of 27.2.)
Subsequent to that timeout, Karl also found a combination that worked extremely well. He brought Linas Kleiza in to play the four position, which opened up driving lanes for Anthony and Billups (16 free-throw attempts), a fact noted by analyst Jeff Van Gundy a couple of times. The score was 51-38 when Kleiza came into the game. He had 11 points and eight boards in the first half and the Nuggets outscored L.A. 16-4 to close the first half. For the game, Kleiza scored 16 points and had a game-best plus-minus of +16.
There was a play toward the first half that illustrated just how smart Billups is as a basketball player. With Denver taking the ball out of bounds under its own basket, Bryant elected to turn his back to Billups and help on whoever took the inbounds pass. Billups threw the ball off of Bryant’s back, got both feet in bounds to re-establish himself, and scored on a layup. That was a stark example of how quick Billups is to recognize and react to defensive schemes, as good as any player in the league in that regard. The real question I had was whether Billups got credit for an assist for passing to himself. He didn’t, but I think he should have. Why can’t you assist yourself? Isn’t there an entire industry built on self-help concepts?
After an even third quarter, the Nuggets’ defense began the fourth quarter by forcing the Lakers into a string things they didn’t really want to do, including a long jumper by Pau Gasol and a Bryant charge when he attempted to pass out of a a double team on the move. The Nuggets edged up by seven with just under nine minutes to play, but Bryant, who’d been catching a breather, re-entered and nailed a three-pointer. That sparked a 9-0 run by L.A., which was also aided by some big minutes from Shannon Brown. With Sasha Vujacic (0-of-4 on Thursday) continuing to struggle, Brown has emerged as the Lakers’ best offensive option opposite Bryant.
As mentioned, the Nuggets got a little bit lucky down the stretch. Billups drove into the crowded lane with about 30 seconds left and flung the ball out to the perimeter. Nene had been trailing the play and was able to chase down the errant ball and fed Kenyon Martin for a layup that put Denver up 103-101. On the next possession, Billups and Nene blitzed Bryant on a pick-and-roll, with Gasol setting the screen. The ball kicked loose in the congestion and Gasol tied up Billups.
That should have been an easy tip for Gasol, but on the toss, Denver’s J.R. Smith darted across the jump circle while the ball was in the air. The ball was knocked loose, Billups came up with it and sank one of two free throws to put the Nuggets up by three. It’s beyond my understanding how three officials could miss a man running through the circle on a jump ball, but to Smith’s credit, it he got away with it. The Nuggets did a good job of denying Bryant the ball on the final possession and Derek Fisher threw up an airball three-pointer at the buzzer.
Looking ahead, the Nuggets only have to look back at the Lakers’ last series to see that gaining the split in L.A. is no guarantee, not against the NBA’s best road team. This is the Nuggets’ third trip ever to the Western Conference finals. In 1978, they split the first two games at home against the Sonics, then went to Seattle and lost two straight to fall into a 3-1 hole. In 1985, the Nuggets split in L.A., but went back to Denver was blown out in Game Three and lost a tight Game Four. So the Nuggets are looking for their first-ever lead in conference final.
In many ways, Game Three is the series fulcrum. Will we still get that Kobe vs. LeBron matchup? Or will we instead get ‘Melo vs. LeBron? NBA fans win either way, and on Saturday, we may get a pretty firm idea of just how far the Nuggets can take this thing.
Comments Off on Playoff Prospectus: Nuggets get even
Being a college hoops type, I’m in the middle of an annual sabbatical and my writerly reaction time is correspondingly slow. So forgive me for being seismically late to this whole Malcolm Gladwell thing.
As you are no doubt aware by now, Gladwell triggered somethingofacommentaryfrenzy with his New Yorker piece on how Davids can beat Goliaths. Much of said frenzy centered on two of Gladwell’s examples, both of which were offered to illustrate the value of employing an unorthodox strategy, specifically the full-court press in basketball. The two examples causing the fuss were: 1) a team comprised of 12-year-old girls in the Bay Area, and 2) Kentucky and Louisville under Rick Pitino. (Still another example of praiseworthy heterodoxy offered by Gladwell concerned T.E. Lawrence‘s exploits with Bedouin guerillas in World War I: “Aqaba, from the land!” Consider this an excuse to put the movie in your queue. Nearly a half-century after its release it is still arguably the only American-financed gimme-an-Oscar-scaled biopic to exhibit an abiding and considered ambivalence toward its subject.)
I’ll grant that Gladwell put an odd display in his store’s anecdotal front window: Louisville makes a poor “David.” And while I have no personal experience playing basketball as a 12-year-old girl, I can report that when I was a 12-year-old boy, our league expressly prohibited the full-court press. After a made basket, defenders had to retreat to their own side of the half-court line. I dare say Gladwell’s piece offers rich testimony in support of my league’s wisdom. A team of 12-year-olds playing a full-court press can trigger chaos that is only tangentially related to basketball.
That being said, an interesting thing happened as I continued to read more and more of the revisionist canon that Gladwell spawned. It occurred to me that the revisions might be every bit as errant as Gladwell’s original piece.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons an underdog team might decide against pressing:
Pressing is energy-intensive and could tire out your moderately useful players to the point where you have to bring in the complete gits you stash on the bench.
Pressing brings more fouls and could force the moderately useful players to the bench, at which point out come the gits.
A competent press requires practice time that could otherwise be spent teaching the gits to catch balls with something other than their faces.
Much as I admire any post that so deftly employs the shamefully under-utilized term “git,” I am forced to note that this particular volley of bullets pretty much went 0-for-3. In order….
Pressing is indeed energy-intensive compared to standing in place, but I think the widespread conviction–one shared by coaches and fans alike–that the press is uniquely energy-intensive is likely mistaken. Bear in mind that effort expended on D is a function not only of your defensive scheme but also of the offense that your opponent runs.
And I would wager that when Purdue plays Illinois, for example, the two defenses on the floor expend more energy than does your garden-variety pressing team. Not because the Boilermakers and Illini are uniquely exemplary in their commitment to defense. Merely because these two Gene Keady-influenced teams mirror each other exactly on both sides of the ball. Both teams play frenetic man defense, along with low-dribble clock-milking motion offense. To shadow your man through every screen and on every rotation for 30+ seconds on every possession is energy intensive.
As for the press, note that the energy required to deploy it is distributed unevenly across a team’s five players. Typically the “front” three on a 1-2-1-1 press carry the bulk of the effort, while the back two sip beverages festooned with tiny umbrellas and check their email, relatively speaking. Louisville notwithstanding, the major-conference teams currently known for pressing–Missouri, say, or Tennessee–have, I dare say, as many gits as your run-of-the-mill non-DePaul team. But even gits can harass an inbounds pass–which, of course, was precisely Gladwell’s point: the triumph of effort over skill. More to the point, a press requires energy not only from the pressing team but also from their opponent. When it works a press tires out the other team faster than your own, much like a no-huddle in football.
The most foul-happy major-conference teams of 2009 (Kansas State, Oregon, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, and Indiana) were no more press-happy than your average group of teams. Conversely pressing teams fouled no more or less than average. Basically teams with foul-prone individuals foul a lot, regardless of scheme. Additionally, of course, fouls are a function of each league’s mores and customs as reflected by its officiating. Take any team out of last year’s Big Ten, put them in last year’s Big 12, and the number of fouls called on them would have increased, guaranteed.
Any scheme requires practice time to execute well. It’s true that Pitino in particular likes to talk up the oh-so-daunting complexity of his full-court press, particularly when explaining early-season losses to inferior opponents. But the example of Baylor suddenly switching to a zone defense for the Big 12 tournament this season suggests that even in March defensive schemes can in fact be swapped out entirely without teams having to dedicate months of practice to the task at hand. This is not rocket science.
Even when Gladwell’s detractors agree with him, I can find myself disagreeing. Take for example the idea that the press is a “high-variance” strategy, one that underdogs should indeed consider because anything that introduces an added element of chance to a contest poses a threat to favorites. As my colleague Kevin Pelton has pointed out, the idea that Rick Pitino in particular plays a high-variance style of hoops dates to Dean Oliver, who made the observation when Pitino was still at Kentucky. (Pitino’s style, Oliver hastened to add, includes not only a pressing D but also lots of attempted threes on offense. Threes are indeed variance personified: You make fewer of them but they’re worth more.)
I don’t pipe up with a “hey wait a minute” lightly when the prevailing voices are furnished by the likes of Pelton and Oliver. But are pressing teams truly higher-variance on defense than non-pressing teams in college basketball? I wonder. Certainly Tennessee in 2007 fulfilled the press’s feast-or-famine stereotype. When that year’s Volunteers failed to force their opponents into a turnover, they gave up a whopping 1.38 points per possession in SEC play. Then again Louisville gave up just 1.19 points per turnover-less trip in the Big East this year. Meaning this year’s Cardinal press was not high-variance, and therein lay at least a few seeds of their success: Pitino’s defense was good even when opponents didn’t turn the ball over.
My sense is that variance on defense is simply much more descriptive in football than it is or ever could be in basketball. In hoops the worst thing that can happen is that you give up two or three points. In football your blitz can cost you a 60-yard TD.
What I took from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece was that far too often coaches–much like everyone else–rely on custom and the settled inertia of habit when instead they should, particularly if they’re facing a team that’s better than theirs, ask themselves a simple question: How can I surprise and discomfit my opponent? Gladwell found two coaches who have asked themselves precisely that question, as did T.E. Lawrence some 90 years ago. Coaches, writers, or anyone else can surely benefit from trying to attain their own prosaic “Aqaba, from the land!” In this Gladwell is better than correct. He is correct on something foundational.
The NBA would have been better served if Blake Griffin had ended up just about anywhere other than with the squatters lurking the Lakers’ home arena. You just wonder how long it will take Griffin to find his way to a better organization. We’ve been teased by the Clippers before, but we know from decades of self-induced futility that no matter how much young talent LA gathers, they will find a way to screw it up. The faces on the court and on the sideline change, but the bumbling wizard behind the curtain remains the same.
As it stands, the Clippers will have an interesting collection of names. Baron Davis, Zach Randolph, Marcus Camby are the key veterans. Al Thornton, Eric Gordon, Griffin, Chris Kaman and possibly DeAndre Jordan represent the younger core. Somewhere, somehow, it seems like a decent squad can be crafted out of those names. However, I don’t see how Randolph fits and I don’t see how he can be moved to yet another franchise. We’ll see how it works out.
Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio is the consensus No. 2 player in the mocks, but the Grizzlies just extricated themselves from a point guard controversy last season by trading Kyle Lowry to Houston and turning the position over the Michael Conley. Moving Conley to the off-guard spot full time is out of the question because of O.J. Mayo.
Meanwhile, if the Grizzlies cast their lot with Hasheem Thabeet, that would bump Marc Gasol over to the four-spot and leave the Grizzlies with one-too-many slow footed defenders. Thabeet would fit very will with Oklahoma City. In fact, I’d call that an ideal match. So right now, Memphis looks like the wild card in the upper part of the June 25 draft.
The reaction to Dwight Howard‘s complaints about touches in the wake of the Orlando Magic’s Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics has been fascinating to watch. The instant reaction was for the folks on TV to agree with Howard, in no small part because his argument dovetailed nicely with the conventional wisdom that Orlando shoots entirely too many three-pointers.
By the following day, when cooler heads prevailed, a new consensus emerged. Analysts, myself included, considered Howard’s performance in the game and in this series and found that he hasn’t done much with the touches he has gotten against Boston’s Kendrick Perkins. John Hollinger of ESPN.com looked at Howard’s shot attempts and how they correlate with the Magic’s success over the course of the season, while Ben Q. Rock of the Third Quarter Collapse blog weighed in a day later with a nice look at Howard’s production in this series broken down into second-chances opportunities and touches in the flow of the offense (the latter not nearly being as effective).
The third wave of analysis has been to criticize Howard for his incomplete game, a meme perhaps best expressed (and certainly done most eloquently) by Joey Litman on FreeDarko, who writes, “There are so many things which I’d like to write about Dwight Howard that we should probably start with the most simple one: he’s not nearly as good as he should be.” As Litman himself points out, the whole problem there is the word “should,” a wholly subjective judgment that invites widely different interpretations from different people. Until Howard reaches perfection, it’s always possible to argue that he should be better.
That aside, I think the biggest problem here is people are looking at Howard at his worst. First, we can all agree that Perkins has developed into one of the league’s better defensive centers. I’m wiling to argue that Howard doesn’t deserve touches against Perkins. That’s not the same as suggesting he’s a bad offensive player in any matchup. Second, the specific portion of the game being spotlighted is the stretch run, and few centers are effective in close games because it is so much more difficult to get the ball to a post player than a perimeter scorer who can bring the ball up, and also so much easier to double-team them. That’s only exacerbated by Howard’s poor free-throw shooting.
The same complaints apply to Howard’s literal predecessor in Orlando and his spiritual model, Shaquille O’Neal, and they haven’t stopped him from winning four championships when paired with wing players who could help offset his deficiencies down the stretch. Hedo Turkoglu is supposed to be that guy for the Magic, or maybe Jameer Nelson, but Nelson is watching from the bench and Turkoglu hasn’t quite been the same in this postseason, possibly due to his ankle.
The other issue is the classic overreaction to what has happened recently. That goes double for Stan Van Gundy, who has apparently become an idiot overnight. Van Gundy was my pick for Coach of the Year, and I wasn’t alone. Yes, he’s made some strategic mistakes in this series, but are there a lot of other coaches who would have this relatively motley collection of talent in this position? Maybe there’s another coach who would execute much better than Van Gundy in the postseason, but if that coach is unable to get the Magic this far in the first place, that’s pretty much pointless, no? You can’t switch coaches depending on the situation.
Depending on what happens Sunday in Boston, this topic may be entirely moot, and that’s precisely the problem. If Glen Davis misses his jumpshot in Game 4, we’re never having this discussion. It’s entirely too easy to blow things out of proportion, either positively or negatively, under the microscope of the playoffs. The smarter play is virtually always to consider the long-term picture.
If you agree or disagree with me, or somewhere in between, this topic is just one of the many we can chat about Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific at BaseballProspectus.com. As always, leave your question now if you can’t make it live. I hope to see you there.
This one hurts. Today’s CT scan showed that Yao Ming‘s injury wasn’t a sprained ankle, as he and the Houston Rockets hoped. Instead, Yao has a hairline fracture in his left foot, the latest in a series of foot woes suffered by the 7’6″ behemoth. Yao will miss the remainder of the postseason, one that in the wake of this injury seems likely to end sooner rather than later.
Can the Rockets beat the Lakers without Yao? Some bit of hope can be found in the fact that the Rockets have actually been better in this postseason when Yao has been on the bench, outscoring opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions in these situations. In this series, Houston has been +14 against the Lakers in the 38 minutes Yao has spent on the bench.
However, that stat largely reflects the superiority of the Rockets’ bench in Games 1 and 2. Going up against the Lakers’ starting frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will make for a very different matchup for Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry. Presumably, Rick Adelman will move Luis Scola to center and start Landry alongside him. Hayes rounds out the three-player frontcourt, which will have to avoid foul trouble. The fourth big man would be. . .Brian Cook? Ron Artest in a small lineup? The combination of losing Yao and Dikembe Mutombo, the only other player on the Houston roster over 6’9″, severely taxes the Rockets’ depth up front.
Offensively, Artest becomes the focal point for Houston. He has to make good decisions and play under control. If that’s not the case, Adelman doesn’t have a whole lot of other options. Scola has had success in the post against Odom, and Landry has finished well out of pick-and-rolls. However, Aaron Brooks will find less room to operate offensively because the Lakers don’t have to worry about defending the post in the same way as with Yao in the lineup. We also might see a little bit more of Von Wafer because of his ability to create off the dribble.
Whatever margin for error the Rockets had in this series, it is now gone. They will have to play nearly perfectly for 48 minutes and avoid any offensive droughts along the lines of the third quarter of Game 3 in order to have a chance to take another game off the Lakers.
As disappointing as Yao’s injury is for Houston, I feel even worse for Yao himself. He played 77 games during the regular season, avoiding a major injury for the first time since the 2004-05 season, and seemed to have eluded the bad luck that has plagued him in the past–only for it to strike at the worst possible team. Because of Yao’s size, foot injuries may simply be part of his reality. That doesn’t make them any easier to take.
The Mavericks-Nuggets game just ended and the Dallas Mavericks are running around, acting like a bunch of buffoons because they just fell into a 3-0 hole from which they will not escape. The play that set them off was Carmelo Anthony’s three-pointer with one second left, which turned out to be the game-winner.
Antione Wright had attempted to give a foul just before Anthony’s shot. He did so by bumping ‘Melo with his chest, not once, but twice. On the second one, Anthony doled out as much of a blow as he took and his progress towards the spot he was trying to get to wasn’t really impeded. Was it a foul? Maybe. Probably. But not definitely. When you’re giving a foul, give it. Wright had a chance to wrap up Anthony and he didn’t do it. He just bumped him. The whistle probably should have been blown, but it wasn’t. So Wright screwed up.
Wright then screwed up again. Assuming that the whistle had blown, he stopped playing. That is a cardinal sin — in any sport. Anthony kept right on going and drilled the game-winner. Everyone on the Dallas sideline, including Rick Carlisle and Mark Cuban, was going ballistic. The fact of the matter is that they had no one to blame but themselves. Well, Antione Wright specifically. In any event, don’t take it out on the officials. I’m sure it’ll be played up differently in the national media, of which I guess we’re a part, but I don’t see anything controversial about that ending.
When I think of Chuck Daly, I think of the coach that forever changed how defense is perceived in the NBA. There has long been a myth that NBA teams don’t play defense. To a certain extent, it still exists. However no one did more to change that misperception than Daly’s rugged championship teams in Detroit.
The evolution of that team is fascinating to recall. Daly took over after Isiah Thomas’ rookie season. His early Pistons teams were good — they won at least 46 games in each of his first three seasons at the helm. And they were fun, playing a frenetic pace that highlighted Thomas’ open-court flambouyance, Vinnie Johnson’s microwave jump shot and Kelly Tripuka’s hair. Some of the pieces of Detroit’s eventual championship teams were in place, such as Thomas, Johnson and Bill Laimbeer. Still, the gap between the Pistons and the Celtics/76ers/Bucks triumvirate atop the Eastern Conference was wide.
The Pistons were knocked out in the first round of the 1986 playoffs. That team had won 46 games and finished 15th in the league in defensive efficiency. Slowly, though, Daly had begun the process of redefining his team’s style and roster. Ex-Bullets enforcer Rick Mahorn had been acquired and the team brought in an unheralded rookie guard from little McNeese State: Joe Dumars.
Daly began emphasizing more defensive effort and slowed the pace a bit with that ’85-86 team, but it was the 1986 offseason when the Bad Boys were finally born. Tripuka was dealt to the Jazz for Adrian Dantley, giving Daly a low-post, foul-drawing machine to anchor his half-court offense. Even more importantly, the Pistons drafted John Salley and Dennis Rodman, infusing the Pistons’ second unit with energy and a defensive menance such as the franchise had never seen.
Meanwhile, Dumars had matured into the perfect backcourt complement to Thomas. Laimbeer had established himself as an elite rebounder, bruising defender and dangerous jump shooter. With a defense now built around Dumars, Mahorn, Salley, Laimbeer and Rodman, the pace continued to slow and the defensive efficiency continued to rise. The Pistons finished in the top three in NBA defensive efficiency each season from 1988 through 1990 and won the Eastern Conference all three seasons. They won NBA championships in the latter two campaigns.
That Daly succeeded by coaching such a wildly different collections of talents and personalities was really a testament to his strengths as a coach and a leader. Daly succeeded coaching in the Ivy League, in the NBA with a bunch of gazelles and at the same level with a glorified S.W.A.T team. He coached the original Dream Team, arguably the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on a single squad, to a dominating Gold Medal finish in the ’92 Olympics.
His best Detroit teams weren’t exactly beloved, at least outside the state of Michigan. Despite the trucculent personality of the Bad Boys, you cannot find anyone that knew Daly that didn’t admire him.
“I never understood how a great man and nice guy coached the Bad Boys,” Charles Barkley told the AP on Saturday.
As for myself, I was a Bulls fan in the Bad Boys days and cannot recall a team I despised more than those Pistons. As such, I wasn’t exactly a Daly fan and it wasn’t until the last few years, when I read testimonials about what a good man and influential coach Daly was, that my opinion changed. I never met him, but I wish I would have gotten the chance to sit down and talk hoops with Chuck Daly. Believe me, there was a time I could have never imagined writing that.
Daly led the Pistons to the most successful nine-year run in franchise history and the ’88-89 Pistons, the first of the back-to-back title teams, was the best Detroit squad in NBA history. The Pistons were a losing team before Daly arrived on the scene. They won nine straight years. Then, the year after he left, they had a losing record and lost 62 games the season after that.
As much as any of the great NBA championship teams, the Pistons were a product of the work, knowledge and scheming of their coach. And while that product was ultimately branded as the Bad Boys, Chuck Daly was one of the good guys. He will be missed and it is fitting that the NBA has dedicated this year’s playoff season to Daly.
Of the various quotes about Daly that I’ve read, my favorite is this one, from the ceremony in which Detroit retired No. 2 in honor of its former coach. It was uttered by Rick Mahorn, he of the brutal fouls and menacing smile. He said simply, “Without you, there wouldn’t be us.”
The most interesting bit of basketball theory in the past week, as it occasionally tends to, comes from entirely outside the traditional sports arena. Author Malcolm Gladwell, an NBA fan who has touched on basketball in the past, uses it as a window into the world of underdog strategies in his latest piece for The New Yorker, How David Beats Goliath.
Gladwell’s focus is on the full-court press, used by a coach of 12-year-old girls in the Bay Area to advance to the national championships despite a distinct disadvantage in terms of basketball skills. As often seems to be the case with Gladwell, the big picture is more important than the details. If his piece is read as an advocation of the full-court press, it’s probably off base. But that’s missing the point. The key to the story is Gladwell finding, in both basketball and in war, that underdogs tend to play more conventionally and more conservatively than they ought to. Louisville coach Rick Pitino notes that coaches frequently seek to learn from his famous pressing style only to retreat to a more familiar attack when the season actually starts.
The funny thing about spotlighting Pitino in this story is that, despite Gladwell’s attempts to downplay the quality of his talent (yes, he’s coached but one NBA All-Star, but Pitino has coached a series of lesser NBA talents and one of the remarkable things about his Kentucky teams was how many first-round picks they produced; certainly Pitino had no trouble recruiting there and hasn’t lacked for stars at Louisville either), is that Pitino now is a Goliath, and it’s plausibly to his team’s detriment that they continue to play the way they do.
Father of APBRmetrics Dean Oliver has written extensively about underdog strategies from a statistical perspective, both online and in his book, Basketball on Paper (which I don’t pimp nearly enough on this site–if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Go find it now). For some reason, the Java Applets on the page I linked to above prevent it from displaying correctly on modern browsers, but from the source code here’s what Oliver wrote about Pitino, then at Kentucky:
This is very important for a coach like Kentucky’s Rick Pitino. His game plan of three pointers and pressing defense is a high variance strategy, one that an underdog should take, not a favorite. This high variance strategy is how he got his unknown Providence team to the final 4 in 1986. This is how his Kentucky team came back from a record 33 point deficit a year ago. But continuously applying this high variance strategy on a team with great talent like Kentucky is asking for an upset. Kentucky has been among the favorites to win the NCAA title two out of the past three years, only to fall earlier than expected. Again this year, they were favorites, being preseason #1. But their high variance game plan cost them last night against Massachusetts. And it will likely cost them later on this season. Despite Kentucky’s immense talent, coach Rick Pitino’s risky game plan makes the team more susceptible to upsets.
Of course, the logic applies equally the other way, and there is a very sound mathematical basis for less-talented teams employing riskier or high-variance strategies. The NCAA Tournament is a good example of this. When a lower-seeded team pulls an upset, usually it’s because the team plays an unconventional style, and it almost always relates to being a terrific shooting team that can get hot and outscore a bigger, stronger, deeper opponent.
Where Gladwell errs (probably in no small part for the sake of convenience for his non-basketball readers, just as he simplifies other concepts so people like us can understand them) is in implying in part that pressing is the dominant underdog strategy. By no means is this the case at the highest levels of basketball. Shooting a lot of threes is probably the best and simplest risky strategy, but zone defenses can also qualify and one method we see a fair bit in college hoops but rarely in the NBA (save one notable exception) is slowing the game down to a crawl, because an upset is more likely the fewer possessions in a game.
So why don’t we see these strategies more, especially in the NBA? In part, if you talk to head coaches, you find that there is so much that is out of their control that they become borderline obsessed with consistency. From a mathematical perspective, consistency is good for good teams and bad for bad ones, but it’s easy to see its allure to the coach. Perhaps more importantly, a coach who plays unconventially puts himself at risk of being blamed and getting fired. This manifests itself in many different ways across sports, but in general fear is a major factor.
Even when a coach employs an unconventional strategy and succeeds far beyond his team’s reasonable expectations, there’s still a risk of getting criticized. Witness Mike D’Antoni, who thankfully remains faithful to his belief in his style, as best described in Eric Neel‘s phenomenal E-Ticket piece on D’Antoni this season.
Mainstream analysts play a big role in this bias toward conventional wisdom. Just as Michael Lewis‘ so-called “Greek Chorus” argued against Moneyball (itself an underdog strategy of a kind), so too do we hear the talking heads and ex-players dismissing D’Antoni’s system or even the Orlando Magic’s tendency to shoot a lot of three-pointers. As a result, the NBA tends to be more homogenous in play that it really ought to be, and that’s a shame.