Knicks Need Only Look in the Mirror to See Reasons Behind Their Demise

NEW YORK — During his three-year NBA sabbatical, Phil Jackson wrote another book, watched a lot of basketball and mastered a new form of communication: the tweet.

“11 champ;ipnsikp[ ringhs,” Jackson, um, stated on March 27, 2013, in his Twitter debut.

The garbled greeting was a marketing ploy for Jackson’s book, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” but he has come a long way since, deftly using Twitter to pontificate, philosophize and tweak.

Now settled into his latest venturethe quixotic attempt to breathe life into the New York KnicksJackson is using the platform to send subtle messages on the state of his team.

On Tuesday, he retweeted a historic photo showing four brothers“Giants. All over 7 feet tall”then quipped, “Where are these guys when you really need them?”

Where, indeed?

While he was at it, Jackson might as well have tweeted out photos of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Robert Horry, Ron Harper and every other disciple he ever coached in Los Angeles and Chicago.

At this point, even a 53-year-old Dennis Rodman would be an upgrade for a Knicks roster that is lacking both skill and acumen.   

The Knicks are 5-23, the worst start in franchise history, triggering the usual hysteria and Gotham blame games. It’s the triangle offense! (Too complicated! Outdated!). It’s coach Derek Fisher! (Too calm! Overmatched!) It’s Jackson! (Too Zen!)

There are clear growing pains in Year 1 of the Jackson era, both with the system and the rookie coach, but the Knicks’ greatest problem is so much more basic, and yet criminally underplayed: It’s the talent, stupid.

Lost in the hand-wringing and hysteria is the fact that the Knicks have just one above-average player: franchise star/mad hatter Carmelo Anthony. The rest of the roster? A collection of faded stars, underachievers and spare parts.

Aside from Anthony, the small forward, (who is toiling through back and knee soreness), there isn’t a single Knick who ranks among the top 15 at his position. We repeat: The Knicks do not have one player who ranks in the top 15 at point guard, shooting guard, power forward or center.

I count 18 point guards better than Jose Calderon, who is probably the Knicks’ second-best player. There are at least 15 shooting guards better than the Knicks’ group of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr.; at least 18 power forwards better than the platoon of Quincy Acy and Amar’e Stoudemire; and at least 20 centers better than the platoon of Stoudemire and Samuel Dalembert.

(That’s not just one man’s opinion. I consulted a handful of team executives who concurred.)

The picture is even bleaker if you check CBSSports.com’s total player rankings, which are based on actual production. By that metric, Calderon ranks 44th among point guards, Shumpert 31st among shooting guards, Stoudemire 20th among power forwards and Dalembert 36th among centers.

That means several teams have not one, but two players who rank ahead of the Knicks’ starter at any given position. Indeed, the Knicks have four starters who wouldn’t crack the lineup on a decent playoff team.

This is what Jackson inherited last springa poorly constructed roster with no salary-cap room, no first-round pick and little ability to make significant changes. Even if Jackson had let Anthony leave last summer, the Knicks would have been over the cap.

It must be noted that Jackson did inherit one other quality player, center Tyson Chandler, but he traded him to Dallas to acquire Calderon. The deal made sense at the time – Calderon fits the triangle, and Chandler was miserable last season — but it now looks like a colossal misfire, with Chandler having regained his form as an elite defender.

Instead, the Knicks are playing Acy (17 starts), who had never started an NBA game until this season, and Dalembert, who is on his fifth team in five seasons.

Stoudemire, though productive in spurts, is no longer a full-time player and remains a huge liability on defense. Shumpert has never fulfilled his potential, and Smith is still, well, Smith.

Although Calderon is a fine shooter and distributor, at 33 he’s probably best suited as a reserve.

The Knicks rotation is filled with players who would struggle to earn minutes on a good team: Acy, Shane Larkin, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith, Travis Wear.

Is it any wonder Fisher has used 14 different starting lineups? Or that the rotation changes game to game?

Beyond all of that, the Knicks have few players who are well suited to the triangle offense, a read-and-react system that requires quick decisions, crisp passing and a high basketball IQ.

Watching the Knicks meander through their sets Tuesday night, Charley Rosena triangle scholar and Jackson confidant (after serving as an assistant coach for Jackson in the CBA)could hardly contain his disgust.

“Everybody’s out of position,” Rosen said, while the Knicks quickly fell behind the Dallas Mavericks in what became their 22nd loss.

When Jackson took the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, he signed two ex-Bulls, Ron Harper and John Salley, to serve as triangle tutors on the court. Fisher has no such luxury. (Jackson tried to convince former Laker Pau Gasol to join the Knicks, but he chose Chicago instead.) The Lakers were also stocked with skilled, high-IQ role players, including Fisher, Horry, Brian Shaw and Rick Fox. These Knicks hardly compare.

“If everybody doesn’t do their job, then the whole thing falls apart,” Rosen said. “If one guy messes up, it doesn’t work.”

The triangle works best with a skilled big man who can catch the ball in the low post and force the defense to adjust, opening other options. The Knicks don’t have that player. They also lack three-point shooters, playmakers and defenders, which would handicap any team.

If the Lakers and Bulls ran 100 percent of the triangle’s actions, exploiting every nuance and countermove, the Knicks are using maybe 25-30 percent, according to Rosen. And what they are running, they’re not running well.

“They’re very slow in coming to their assigned spots,” he said, “which messes up their spacing, messes up their timing, makes it easier to defend. They don’t set weak-side picks, which negates a lot of the movement.”

It was that sort of action, Rosen noted, that the Bulls used repeatedly to get Horace Grant open midrange jumpers. Grant made a living off of those plays.

Simply put, these Knicks aren’t committed enough to make the offense work as it should.

“Their attitude is, ‘OK, I’m supposed to set a pick, but I really want to cut to the basket,’ ” Rosen said.”So they don’t want to work hard, and they don’t see how it’s advantageous to them. Because they may be two passes away, three passes away from getting a good shot. But they want to be a dribble away from getting a good shot.”

Tex Winter, the triangle architect and Jackson’s mentor, used to say the triangle was not just an offense, but a philosophy. It required a certain amount of selflessness and sacrifice, which the Knicks have yet to display.

“It’s not the triangle” that’s the problem, Rosen said. “It’s them.”

In the players’ defense, it’s probably difficult to make a full commitment when most of them know they will be gone by next season. The Knicks’ larger agenda is to leverage their salary cap room next summer to acquire a second star, or several impact players, which means cutting ties with most of this roster. Nearly every Knick is available in trade right now, which they surely understand.

As Fisher noted earlier this week, “On top of that they’re being asked to  sacrifice more and do less in order to win, so it’s not a great combination for cohesion and team chemistry.”

Should the Knicks nevertheless have more than five victories? Perhaps. But not many more. No matter what system they run, or how well they run it, or how hard they play, these Knicks are limited by a profound lack of talent.

It’s a waiting game now, a long, depressing slog toward next summer, when the Knicks should have a top-10 pick (their highest since 2009) and salary-cap room (for the first time since 2010), and a chance to acquire players who fit the Jackson profile.

Phil Jackson may be best known for those 11 sparkly rings and the mystical offense, but his real value in New York won’t be known for another seven months. It’s nice to have a winning philosophy. It’s better to have winning players.

 

 Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

 

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Indiana Pacers Need To Avoid Lance Stephenson Trade At All Costs

The Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and Lance Stephenson are all much worse off than they were a year ago. Dec. 15 was the first day on which players who signed free-agent contracts over the summer could be traded. With that date in the rearview mirror, there is now the opportunity for all three parties to take a massive mulligan on their summers and arrange a deal that would send Stephenson back to Indiana.

It’s an enticing idea, but likely a terrible one from the Pacers’ perspective. 

The Pacers appear to be doing their due diligence and gathering information. Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Pacers are at least talking to the Hornets about the idea.

The case for pursuing Stephenson is fairly straightforward. The Pacers wanted to re-sign him this summer, offering Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal. The three-year, $27 million deal he ultimately signed with the Hornets works out to roughly the same yearly salary. Essentially the Pacers could have him back, on a slightly shorter commitment, for the price they were willing to pay in the first place.

Stephenson hasn’t exactly been sparkling this year in Charlotte. Colin McGowan of Vice Sports visited the Hornets’ situation and Stephenson’s role in it:

The Hornets, in what was supposed to be a season of marked growth, are in the Eastern Conference’s basement. Outside of Al Jefferson‘s reliably efficient post-ups, they’re without ideas on offense, and their defense, which was quite good last year, leaks like a cardboard dam. Stephenson is and isn’t at the center of this. The entire squad is in a funk, but Stephenson is slumping as hard as anyone, and (shockingly) isn’t handling it well. His jumper has forsaken him, and his body language suggests he assumed he would have the ball in his hands more often—he sulks whenever Kemba Walker runs the show for a few minutes. 

You can see from his shot chart that he’s been barely average around the rim and horrible from everywhere else, except a pocket of pull-up jump shots from the right elbow:

Still, as bad as he’s been in Charlotte, Stephenson has all the same skills he used in a Pacers uniform the past few seasons. He has not regressed physically. His regression has been about the situation in Charlotte and Stephenson’s mental and emotional reactions. It seems reasonable that the Pacers could plug him back into the same framework in which he was previously successful and expect similar results.

To be clear, the Pacers seem like they could really, really use the old Lance Stephenson this year.

After he signed with Charlotte, they tried to replicate his contributions in piecemeal fashion—C.J. Miles as the shooter, Rodney Stuckey as the penetrator, Solomon Hill as the defender. Miles has been a disaster shooting the ball and, predictably, not having a single player who can do all three things consistently has short circuited the Pacers’ effectiveness at both ends of the floor.

Still, even with those clear needs and a clear opportunity to fill them with a known quantity (as much as Stephenson can be considered a known quantity at any one moment), reacquiring Stephenson seems like a losing proposition.

For all his physical talent and basketball skills, Stephenson was a problem for the Pacers’ chemistry. His teammates were visibly frustrated with his antagonism of the Miami Heat in last season’s playoffs. That wasn’t a one-time occurrence but a reflection on the tension that had been building around his offensive decision-making all season long.

When the Pacers were finally eliminated, Paul George was asked point blank if he wanted Stephenson back. He offered a less than ringing endorsement, per Pro Basketball Talk‘s Kurt Helin:

I mean, I don’t know. That’s for (Indiana president) Larry (Bird), (GM) Kevin (Pritchard) to decide. It would be great, we came into this league together. It would be great for us to continue our journey together. He’s played a huge year this whole season and in this postseason. He’s definitely put pressure on us to make decisions going forward with Lance.

That diplomatic non-commitment sounds remarkably similar to Frank Vogel’s comments on the trade talk after Tuesday’s practice, via Fox59.com‘s David Griffiths: “I have no comment on that or players on other teams. I really love the guys we have on our team. I love the togetherness we’re building. All my focus is on getting this group to succeed.”

George Hill offered a similar sentiment, saying, “I’m not saying I like it or dislike it, but right now we have a lot of great guys. I think it would be unfair to them.”

While Stephenson seems like a solution to so many of their current challenges, his potential teammates and coach don’t seem desperate for his return.

It’s possible that these quotes reflect caution or a desire to not make waves or put pressure on management and the organization. However, after watching the Pacers collapse in on themselves last spring, it was clear that the dysfunction the team was dealing with was more about personalities than talent. The joy seemed to go out of the team around the beginning of January and they never quite got it back. 

The Pacers systems—offensive and defensive—both rely on precise collaboration and communication. In that context, personality, attitude and effort are almost as important as skill.

While Stephenson might be able to help in terms of raw talent and basketball skill, it seems probable that his interpersonal contributions could completely undermine that.

Lance Stephenson was important to the rise of the Indiana Pacers organization. He was a key piece of their playoff push the past two seasons and helped bring them to the brink of the NBA Finals. 

That era is over.

Too much damage has been done, too many psychological bridges have been burnt.

The Pacers could use Lance Stephenson’s skills in a vacuum, but personal experience offers a reminder that skill in a vacuum is nothing more than a pipe dream.

The Hornets have learned the same lesson and won’t be looking for much in return for a chance to undo their mistake.

Just say no, Indiana.

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Kentucky Basketball: Do the Wildcats Need a Go-to Scorer?

To numbers junkies and analytics aficionados, what Kentucky is doing with its platoon system is mind-boggling. But numbers and data sets don’t win gamesclutch players do.

Kentucky doesn’t have a true go-to player at this point, partly because it hasn’t needed to and the sermon that head coach John Calipari has preached about balance and benevolence.

Yet at some point during the Wildcats’ quest for perfection, a situation will arise that calls for one player—not five—to put the team on his shoulders and carry it to victory.

Kentucky’s leading scorer is junior Willie Cauley-Stein, who is averaging 10.7 points but is only playing 24.5 minutes per game. That’s also a team high, as the platoon system has resulted in 10 players logging at least 13.7 minutes.

The loss of junior Alex Poythress to season-ending knee surgery seems to have scrapped the two-groups-of-five approach for the time being.

Calipari has been very candid about the platoon, often saying that it will last as long as it needs to and can be scrapped at any time when certain players struggle or prove deserving of extra minutes.

I’m not going to take minutes away from a player just to platoon,” Calipari told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal on Thursday. “If we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it’ll be pretty cut-and-dried…and those guys will play.”

Those comments are more related to dropping people who aren’t performing well out, but they don’t address the idea of having one or two guys as the primary scorers.

Cauley-Stein has twice tied for the scoring lead and has one outright high individual score when he had a Kentucky season-best 21 points in the 63-51 win over Texas. That was the Wildcats’ toughest game to date, and the 7-footer responded by making nine of 12 free throws and chipping in 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.

That performance, as well as a stat-stuffing game last time out against North Carolina, makes Cauley-Stein the best option for being a go-to scorer. There are plenty of other reasons:

  • He’s the veteran. With Poythress out, Cauley-Stein is the lone senior. He’s been through the good (reaching the title game last season) and bad (failing to make the NCAA tournament in 2012-13) and can feed off the experiences of both to influence his play and younger teammates.
  • He can do so much. Cauley-Stein not only leads the team in scoring but also rebounding (6.8). Furthermore, he has a team-high 19 steals and his 62.3 percent shooting is second to Dakari Johnson.
  • He doesn’t run hot and cold. Though he’s scored as few as five points in a game this season, that was against Montana State and the final margin in that contest was 58 points. Every other player to lead or share the team lead in scoring in a game has had an off game, with guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison each having many with their continued struggles shooting from outside.

The beauty of Kentucky’s system is that it doesn’t require one or two players to handle the majority of the scoring, but that option needs to be there.

With the rotation down to nine players due to Poythress‘ injury, only four players were subbed in at a time early on against North Carolina, allowing for a “hot” player to stay on the court longer.

As the season goes on, the opportunity for longer stretches of play for the more dynamic players should increase.

Being able to wear down opponents with constant substitutions of fresh bodies will remain a deadly weapon, but there will come times when an even more effective asset will be one player who can be turned to each and every night for clutch scoring.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Kansas Basketball: Jayhawks Need a Go-to Scorer to Step Up Before Big 12 Play

The University of Kansas Jayhawks keep finding a way to pull out victories in close games against high-quality opponents. 

However, the luck of the Jayhawks is bound to run out sometime soon if they don’t identify a go-to scorer before Big 12 play begins January 7 at Baylor. 

In the closing stages of the 63-60 win over a talented No. 13 Utah squad, Kansas had to rely on six clutch free throws and two solid defensive possessions to leave the Sprint Center with its eighth victory of the season. 

The good news for the Jayhawks is they have no problem sinking foul shots, which is keeping them afloat at the moment. Brannen Greene is automatic from the charity stripe, and the team, as a whole, went 21-of-23 from the line against Utah. 

That is the one attribute about this particular Kansas team that remains consistent. But it is the other inconsistent qualities of the Jayhawks that will eventually do them in. 

As the player with the most experience on the roster, Perry Ellis is expected to step up in key situations. But the junior forward scored a single basket in the final 10 minutes of Saturday’s victory. 

In the close win over Georgetown Wednesday, Ellis was also nowhere to be found in the scoring department during the final 10 minutes, as he made one field goal and two free throws. 

Ellis is a reliable player on the defensive end of the court, but he has to be willing to step up and sink baskets during crucial stretches of key games. 

In the tremendous second half against Florida, Wayne Selden Jr. was the star with 21 points in front of the home crowd at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks also saw freshman Cliff Alexander show up in major fashion with a commanding double-double against a weakened Florida frontcourt. 

In the two games following the massive come-from-behind win at home, Selden and Alexander have combined to score just 23 points. The regression in scoring typifies the season Kansas is having so far. Once the Jayhawks take one step forward, they end up taking two steps back. 

The young age of the team can be blamed partly for those struggles. But when you have an experienced player like Ellis on the floor, you would expect him to inspire the young guys with a few clutch performances. 

Right now, the Jayhawks do not have any standout individuals on the roster. They are winning games as a team, but that will only get them so far against the likes of Texas and Iowa State in conference play. 

With four nonconference games left against Lafayette, Temple, Kent State and UNLV, someone has to put the team on their back and prove to Bill Self he can trust someone in the final five minutes of a close game. 

We saw some signs of life from Kelly Oubre Jr. in the first half against Utah, but he ended with nine points in just 17 minutes. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk also has the potential to develop into the go-to guy, but he only received 10 minutes of playing time after a cold spell over the last few games. 

All of the statistics suggest everyone on the Kansas roster from Ellis and Jamari Traylor in the frontcourt to the shooters in the backcourt are having trouble with consistency this season. 

The same stats also lead us to believe Self has little faith in keeping his players on the court for long spells. When Self finally gave Traylor an expanded role against Utah, he rewarded his coach with 13 points in 26 minutes. 

The junior forward also helped clog the paint on defense during most of the game, which is likely to lead to more minutes over the next few games. 

Instead of displaying a short leash with his players, Self should let his guys work out the growing pains on the court. Maybe what Self needs is someone like Traylor to prove success can be had without working under the short leash. 

The best thing for the younger players like Oubre, Alexander and Mykhailiuk to do to fix their inconsistent numbers is to play more. Sitting on the bench will not help the progression of these players one bit. 

By failing to give his freshmen a consistent amount of minutes, Self is hurting himself and the team. A consistent clutch performer doesn’t just pop up out of the blue in one game. 

For now, Self will have to rely on the team’s consistent approach at the line and some periods of solid defense. 

If the Jayhawks are going to continue their streak of consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, one of the young stars must accept the role of finisher. 

Who that player is remains to be seen. And based off what we have seen so far, the absent go-to scorer may not show up for quite some time. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All stats obtained from ESPN.com.

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6 NBA Stars Failing to Deliver What Their Teams Need Most

Stardom comes at a price. 

When NBA players enter into that celestial realm—or, at least, are expected to, based on predicted improvement and massive contracts—they’re tasked with much more responsibility. It’s on them to make sure their teams live up to or exceed the expectations, and the results aren’t pretty when they fail to do so. 

Every year, stars prove that they’re capable of handling those burdens. The 2014-15 season has been no different, with guys like Stephen Curry and James Harden, among many others, carrying their squads to success. But others, like these six, fail to provide their teams with what they need most. 

You won’t find any players on successful teams here. These are the standouts—or supposed standouts—who haven’t lived up to the widespread expectations and are starting to take their squads down with them. 

Begin Slideshow

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Fordham Head Coach Tom Pecora: ‘We Need Our Veterans to Lead the Way’

By Fordham head coach Tom Pecora‘s estimation after the loss to Maryland Eastern Shore, the Rams had three freshmen on the floor for about 90 percent of the game. 

Pecora wasn’t using age as an excuse, but anyone who saw what took place inside the Rose Hill Gym Saturday afternoon—missed free throws, bad shot selection, costly turnovers, poor defense—could tell that the Rams’ youth and inexperience (they have seven freshmen on the roster) played a big part in the 72-66 loss, their fourth in a row.

That’s what made Monday night’s 69-67 win over Siena so significant. For the first time since opening night against the New York Institute of Technology, Fordham played the bulk of the game with a lead. After trailing early, the Rams went on a 16-0 run in the first half that gave them a 26-18 advantage, one they never relinquished.

In the second half, Fordham increased its lead to as many as 13. But with 6:27 to go, the lead had been cut to 58-55. Moments later, with 3:39 left in the game, it was down to 63-61. And with 20.4 seconds left, Fordham’s lead was still at two, 67-65.

The Rams were in uncharted waters: a close game late, playing with the lead and challenged right to the last shot.

Down the stretch, as Pecora noted, there were three freshmen (Antwoine Anderson, Eric Paschall and Christian Sengfelder) and two juniors (Ryan Rhoomes and Mandell Thomas) on the floor. In the end, a game-saving block by Paschall as time expired sealed the win.

Paschall finished with 19 points, while Anderson and Thomas added 18 apiece. Rhoomes had 17 rebounds.

After the game, Pecora called his freshmen “fearless” and said he expects his veterans to be that way as well. On Monday night, they were.

“We need our veterans to lead the way for these freshmen,” Pecora said. “We have three freshmen on the floor just about all the time. We need Ryan and we need Mandell [Thomas] and Bryan Smith. They’re our only three upperclassmen so they have to lead the way a little bit. … That’s where we are right now. We’re young.”

On Saturday against UMES, Fordham turned the ball over 20 times. Against Siena, they turned it over 13 times. 

“I thought we did a great job against their pressure,” Pecora said. “Lesson learned after Maryland Eastern Shore. To be pressed as much as we were [against Siena] and to have 13 turnovers—a lot weren’t in the backcourt—I think that was big for us.” 

It wasn’t the only area of improvement, something Pecora pointed out in his postgame comments to the media following the Siena win, calling the team’s performance “a sign of maturity.”

“What I put on the board [after the game] was 41 percent from the field, only 13 turnovers and plus-four on the backboards. That’s why we won the basketball game.”

For one night, at least, the reality of Fordham’s situation played out in its favor. The Rams aren’t going to become older overnight, but they can show growth.

“We were looking at a year where we thought we’d be starting Ryan Rhoomes at the 4 and Ryan Canty at the 5, and Jon [Severe] would be with us at the 2,” Pecora said. ”That’s not the way it is right now, but so what? You go out, you coach them up, [and] they let you do that. They practiced real hard all week.

“I’m very proud of them. That’s a good win.”

 

Quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. A full archive of his articles can be found hereFollow him on Twitter: @CFCostello

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Dallas Mavericks Need Monta Ellis as Much as He Needs Them

When the Dallas Mavericks and Monta Ellis found each other during the 2013 NBA offseason, the pairing appeared dramatically different depending on which side it was viewed from.

For Ellis, the Mavericks offered hope to reclaim a career that seemed destined to be defined by big, inefficient numbers compiled on bad teams. With two playoff appearances to show for his first eight seasons in the league, he had never graced the type of stage Dallas seemed capable of providing.

But the deal had a very different feel from the Mavericks’ end.

Ellis was a walking consolation prize, several tiers removed from the likes of Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, two notable names Dallas had tried to pursue. The Mavs at least managed to secure Ellis at a reasonable rate ($25 million over three years, with a player option for the third season), but that seemed to be the highlight of the signing.

That was, of course, until Ellis actually suited up for Dallas.

The 6’3″ scoring guard has been an unbelievable find for the Mavericks. He brings a little bit of everything to the offensive end of the floor, with the tools to serve either as a primary option or a complementary scorer.

“He’s a guy who can carry a team. He can carry an offensive load,” Tyson Chandler said, per Mavs.com’s Earl K. Sneed. “… He can knock down a jump shot, he can finish at the rim, and he can also make plays. So, he’s definitely a guy that you can run the offense through.”

Ellis has always been a good numbers guy, but his statistics in Dallas are different. There is a substance behind the production. There is some major significance attached to these stats, too, like with his miraculous game-winner that pushed the Mavs clear of the pesky Milwaukee Bucks 107-105 on December 3.

“We wanted Monta to have the ball at the end, hit the shot and get out of here,” coach Rick Carlisle told reporters after the win. “That’s an All-Star. Flat out. … Monta Ellis is having some kind of year.”

And, not coincidentally, so are the Mavericks.

Dallas has been a wrecking ball at the offensive end. That’s how a team ranked 13th in defensive efficiency can still own the league’s second-highest net rating at plus-10.0 points per 100 possessions. It pays to average at a nightly output of 110.2 points on 47.8 percent shooting.

Obviously, those numbers extend well beyond Ellis’ reach.

Dirk Nowitzki has continued to distance himself from Father Time by putting up 19.6 points on 48.5 percent shooting. Chandler Parsons is still working to carve out his jack-of-all-trades niche, but he’s been good for 14.9 points a night nonetheless. The Mavs also have the ninth-highest scoring bench, per HoopsStats.com, thanks to the contributions of Devin Harris (8.9 points, 4.6 assists), Brandan Wright (9.4 points, 73.1 percent shooting) and J.J. Barea (8.1 points, 3.9 assists), among others.

The Mavericks could have a very good offense without Ellis. But he might be the key in promoting this attack from very good to great.

“He’s a crunch-time player,” Nowitzki said, per Sneed. “He wants the ball in big moments. … It’s no secret this year that he’s really our go-to guy.”

Ellis leads the Mavericks in points (20.7), assists (4.8) and steals (1.6). He creates scoring chances for others, and he’s capable of finishing the ones he finds on his own. Less than 30 percent of his two-point field goals have come off assists, which highlights the potency of his off-the-dribble game.

He averages 10.4 drives per game, via NBA.com’s player tracking data, which is the eighth most in the league. Of the seven players who drive more often than him, only two have a better field-goal percentage on those plays than Ellis’ 48.2 percent conversion rate.

Ellis needed to land in a place like Dallas.

For one, he had to get to a place capable of putting better talent around him.

He served as mostly a one-man show during his six-plus seasons with the Golden State Warriors. The help he had then either didn’t stick around (Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington) or fit awkwardly with his skill set (Stephen Curry).

His one-plus year stay with the Milwaukee Bucks featured the franchise pin all of its offensive responsibilities on Ellis and Brandon Jennings. That worked about as well as one could imagine.

Ellis isn’t a typical No. 1 option. With his lack of size and struggles from the perimeter (career 31.9 percent from three), he’s going to have a hard time with both consistency and efficiency.

But the Mavs are constructed in a way that allows them to take full advantage of his talent. Between Carlisle‘s offensive genius and Nowitzki’s generational gifts, Dallas has at least two things to always keep an opposing defense off balance. If Parsons has it going or one of the Mavs‘ myriad shooters heats up, the defense has even more to try to stop.

Ellis is a tough cover on his own. He’s currently on pace to have his eighth consecutive season averaging at least 18 points. Only four other players can make that claim: Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Ellis might not have the well-rounded game to match, but he’s an elite scorer.

Getting to Dallas did a lot to improve his league-wide perception, as Yahoo Sports’ Eric Freeman observed:

Monta Ellis has rehabilitated his reputation since joining the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2013. A player previously known as a volume shooter with few contributions in other areas has benefited greatly from being surrounded by other quality scorers and now looks like a dangerous, acceptably efficient guard for the best offense in the NBA. Ellis is a lot more valuable now that no one considers him a first option.

As a capable creator and willing passer, Ellis has emerged as an ideal backcourt partner for Nowitzki. With the Mavericks starting to take more precautions with their management of the 36-year-old, Ellis’ ability to carry this offense in his absence is invaluable.

He transitions between scoring and distributing roles the way Jason Terry used to alongside Nowitzki. Only, Ellis packs a deeper bag of tricks than Terry ever had. And the value of Dallas’ second scorer has never been higher with Nowitzki’s playing time having dipped below 30 minutes a night for the first time since his rookie season. 

Credit the Mavericks for emphasizing Ellis’ strengths and minimizing the impact of his weaknesses. But credit Ellis, too, for maturing as a player and a teammate.

“I’m just picking my spots,” he said, per Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. “… As long as we play as a team and share the ball, get defensive stops and get out and run, we’ll be fine.”

Well, the Mavericks should be much better than fine, actually. They have a legitimate chance to make a lengthy playoff run next spring.

And Ellis has as much to do with that as anyone.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Derrick Rose: I don’t need confidence, I just need to play

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose played 28 minutes in Friday’s 109-102 win over the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden.
Rose put together a solid offensive showing—scoring 21 points on an efficient 9-of-18 shooting performance. He also dished out four assists and hauled in four rebounds.
He said his confidence is there, but that he just needs to continue to accumulate minutes after the game….

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Los Angeles Lakers need to get big

 
One of the biggest things the Los Angeles Lakers took away from a busy offseason was building a roster with a deep frontcourt. In addition to retaining Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly, the team added some talent by drafting Julius Randle and through the free agent signings of veteran Carlos Boozer and the versatile Ed Davis. Going into this season, depth in the paint looked like it would be a strong suit for this team. However, as the saying goes, things aren’t always as they seem.
The frontcourt was dealt a very serious blow in the very first game of the season when Randle went down and was lost for the year with a broken leg. Since then, the group as a whole has underperformed. Aside from Jordan Hill (13.9 ppg, 10 rpg), the Lakers’ big men have had underwhelming statistics, ranking 19th in total rebounds per game, 21st in blocked shots per game, 16th in field goal percentage from the post and 3rd worst in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (45.8%). This is beyond subpar for a team w

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Dallas Mavericks Need Everything They’re Getting From Super-sub Brandan Wright

Historically, the Sixth Man of the Year award has been reserved for guys who bring instant offense off the bench. Dallas MavericksBrandan Wright might not fit that description, but he has been every bit as impactful as any other bench player in the league.

Wright, 27, doesn’t get a lot of playing time, but he is one of the Mavs‘ most efficient players in his 19.3 minutes per game.

Dallas’ net rating is 3.5 points per 100 possessions better with the 6’10″ big man on the floor. He leads the league in field-goal percentage, connecting at an insane 80 percent clip early on in the season. As icing on the cake, Wright is also second only to New Orleans Pelicans‘ Anthony Davis in player efficiency rating.

His offensive load has also increased. Wright has scored in double digits in Dallas’ last eight games. His teammates trust him to score when they feed him the ball, and opponents have to scheme against his efficient movement on the court.

Wright has always been very efficient, but his numbers so far are truly special if he is able to sustain them. To head coach Rick Carlisle, it’s no mystery as to why his backup center is thriving.

“He’s a knowledgeable player that understands where openings are,” Carlisle said, according to ESPNDallas.com’s Tim MacMahon. “He does a good job anticipating and getting to them. We’ve got guys that understand where to get him the ball, where he is and things like that. That helps, too.” 

Wright himself appears to have a straightforward mindset on how to play the game.

“My job is simple. When I get the ball, I need to make a play with it,” he said.

While being a regular on highlight reels is nice, Wright’s influence on this year’s Mavericks team has gone way beyond that.

 

A Versatile Presence On Both Ends

Wright has done an excellent job emulating Tyson Chandler‘s presence. He is running pick-and-rolls just as effectively as the Mavs‘ starting center, and is throwing in a healthy dose of rim protection to spice it up.

It’s no secret how Wright has such a high field-goal percentage. He lives above the rim and gets the majority of his points through dunks. 

Wright usually finds his looks in two different ways—either by setting a screen and rolling to the basket, or by lurking on the weak side. Here are two examples of him being on the receiving end of J.J. Barea’s lobs:

He is great at timing cuts and his teammates usually have no trouble finding him.

“He understands how to read his defender, and it’s easy to get the ball to him. You can’t overthrow him. I have actually [tried]. It hasn’t happened yet,” Mavs guard Devin Harris said according to MacMahon.

Wright isn’t a post player, but he has a nice hook shot in his arsenal. Take a look at these two plays:

When defenders rotate in time and the dunk isn’t there, he generally puts the ball on the floor for a dribble or two. He is supremely athletic and has a very soft touch for a big man, which allows him to rise above the interior defender and finish over the top.

Wright always looks for the finish when he gets the ball anywhere in the vicinity of the rim. That decisiveness certainly contributes to his efficiency.

While he excels at a couple of things offensively, Wright is considerably more versatile on the defensive end. Here are a couple of clips of his defensive presence:

The first play is a great example of his pick-and-roll defense. Wright is presented with the challenge of stopping the driving guard, while not losing the roll man. He baits Houston Rockets‘ Francisco Garcia into the drive and swats the shot.

In the following play, Wright completely shuts down Donatas Motiejunas in the post. He holds his ground, stays down on the fakes, forces the travel and blocks the shot for good measure.

There are some bruisers around the league who can push Wright around a little more in the post, but he is strong enough to hold his own against most guys. Even if his matchup slips past him he still has the leaping ability to recover and contest the shot.

The Mavericks as a team tend to bring a lot of help, and Wright’s speed helps him time rotations. In the third clip, he stays with his man for long enough to make a dump-off impossible, but still does his job as a weak-side defender.

With his 7’4″ pterodactyl wingspan, Wright is able to close out on shooters and interrupt passing lanes. In the final play of the montage, he does just that. After hedging, he runs back to his man with outstretched arms and inadvertently forces a turnover.

That kind of length and speed also gives Dallas the freedom to occasionally switch Wright onto guards without compromising the defense.

His rim protection has been solid overall. Wright ranks eighth in the league in blocks per 36 minutes among players who have played 150 minutes or more this season.

Having Wright on the roster is a true luxury for Dallas. He has a very similar skill set to that of Chandler, which allows the team to maintain its identity even when the starting center is off the floor. 

Carlisle has also played both Chandler and Wright together for defensive purposes against bigger frontcourts. Even though neither of the two players have range, their combined mobility makes up for the lack of spacing. 

Wright increased his field-goal percentage to 67.7 percent last year. His incredible efficiency will inevitably take a dip at some point, but it’s certainly not impossible for him to shoot over 70 percent over the entire season.

The Mavs are getting all they could possibly ask for from Wright. They just have to hope he continues to deliver.

 

All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

You can follow me on Twitter: @VytisLasaitis

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