UNC Basketball: Will Tar Heels Go Undefeated in 2014-15 Nonconference Play?

The beauty of the college basketball regular season—as opposed to its football counterpart—for the top teams is that an early loss or two does not ruin their long-term goals. That means powerhouses like North Carolina are incentivized to schedule marquee nonconference games to prepare for March, and the fans are given a real treat before ACC play begins.

The Tar Heels certainly won’t have to worry about strength of schedule numbers come Selection Sunday given their daunting nonconference slate. Just because they can afford an early loss, though, doesn’t mean they want one.

With that in mind, what are the chances North Carolina runs through its nonconference schedule without a loss before it makes a run at the ACC title?

It is important to point out those chances aren’t high simply because it is a difficult schedule. Head coach Roy Williams suggested as much, via C.L. Brown of ESPN.com:

If you have some success, you can say that I am more prepared than just about anybody to get into conference play and that’s what we are trying to do. In the pre-conference, get ready for conference play, but also to play some of those national-type games to measure yourself to see how you can do outside the league as well. It is planned to try and get better, get better, get better so that you are hopefully playing your best basketball at the end of the season, when it’s the most important.

Before we dig into the schedule game by game, it is worth recapping exactly what North Carolina brings to the table. After all, if the Tar Heels didn’t have legitimate talent, the possibility of an undefeated nonconference run wouldn’t even be a conversation.

Marcus Paige is an absolute superstar and a legitimate candidate for ACC Player of the Year and perhaps even National Player of the Year if he takes another jump. He can drill it from three-point range, attack the basket off the dribble and set up teammates with crisp passes, which helped him carry the Tar Heels a number of times last year.

While he became the first North Carolina player since 1995-96 to lead his team in scoring and assists, he won’t have to carry quite the same load this year.

J.P. Tokoto will anchor the defense with his length and athleticism, Joel Berry will take some of the backcourt pressure off Paige with his shooting ability and Brice Johnson could be the most improved player in the conference if he stays out of foul trouble on a consistent basis. In fact, Johnson has the talent to be a double-double machine every night this season.

Throw in Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks, and this is a deeper and more talented team than a year ago.

It’s clear the pieces are in place to win a lot of games, but can North Carolina really win all of them before ACC play begins?

There are a number of nonconference tilts we can simply assume the Tar Heels are going to handle just by rolling the basketballs out on the floor given their status as a Top 10 team.

North Carolina plays N.C. Central at home, Robert Morris at home, Davidson in Charlotte, East Carolina at home, UNC Greensboro in Greensboro, UAB at home and William and Mary at home.

It would be dangerous for the players and coaching staff to overlook games, especially the one against Davidson, but fans and commentators can safely assume North Carolina will win these ones. After all, we are talking about the No. 6 team in the country in the initial USA Today Coaches Poll, and Stephen Curry isn’t walking through any doors for Davidson.

That leaves the difficult games on the nonconference schedule.

North Carolina is playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis from Nov. 26-28 in the Bahamas and will start off with Butler. After that, it will play UCLA or Oklahoma and finally finish against UAB, Florida, Georgetown or Wisconsin. It is obviously difficult to project how the Tar Heels will do in these three games because playing UAB is a lot different than playing national championship contenders like Wisconsin or Florida.

Let’s assume, though, for argument’s sake that North Carolina gets past Butler and UCLA/Oklahoma (easier said than done, but none of those teams is as talented as the Tar Heels on paper) and runs into the Badgers or Florida in the last game.

In terms of the experience and talent combination, there may not be a better team in the country than Wisconsin. The Badgers should have plenty of confidence after last year’s Final Four run and return star center Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig.

The frontcourt alone is rather imposing with Kaminsky as one of the country’s best centers, Hayes as a rapidly improving presence and Dekker as a potential first-round NBA draft pick down the line.

Florida may pose a slightly less daunting challenge, but it is still the No. 7 team in the country even though it lost four senior starters from a year ago.

Sharpshooter Michael Frazier II, athletic Dorian Finney-Smith and potential superstar Chris Walker give the Gators a formidable core, and Kasey Hill is an ideal pass-first point guard to get them each the ball. Florida is once again a serious candidate for a Final Four run.

Outside of the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Tar Heels have a matchup with perennially underrated Iowa in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Aaron White led the Hawkeyes to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 last year, and they should contend for a top-four seed in the Big Ten in 2014-15.

At least that one is in Chapel Hill.

Speaking of Big Ten teams, North Carolina plays Ohio State in December at the United Center in Chicago as part of the CBS Sports Classic with Kentucky and UCLA. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 20 in the country and have a solid mix of returning veterans and talented freshmen.

Shannon Scott anchors a potentially stout defense, guard D’Angelo Russell is the highest-regarded newcomer because of his scoring ability and overall quickness and guys like Sam Thompson, Marc Loving, Anthony Lee, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate and Amir Williams give Thad Matta plenty of depth.

This will be more challenging than the No. 20 next to Ohio State’s name indicates because the Buckeyes are quite athletic and will use defensive pressure to attempt to rattle Paige.

Finally, North Carolina’s premier nonconference showdown comes against Kentucky in Lexington in front of what should be one of the most raucous crowds in all of college basketball this season.

The Wildcats are No. 1 for a reason and have returnees Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress to help another loaded recruiting class get accustomed to the college game. Among the freshmen are potential superstars in Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis.

That is a lot of McDonald’s All-Americans to deal with on the road for the Tar Heels. 

This team is so deep that we could see a radical strategy from John Calipari, via ESPN College Basketball:

North Carolina is incredibly talented and has the exact right idea with this schedule. Playing this many difficult games before ACC play begins will have the Tar Heels ready to go when Duke and Syracuse are on the other end of the floor.

However, playing Iowa at Chapel Hill and Ohio State, Wisconsin/Florida and Kentucky all away from home is not a recipe for an undefeated nonconference run. It’s just not realistic to expect a win in every one of those games, especially against the Wildcats, because the Tar Heels would have to play at their best every night out. 

It will be more important if the Tar Heels use this daunting stretch of games to prepare themselves to go undefeated in March.

 

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Buss: Any FA who won’t play with Kobe ‘probably a loser’

When Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanie Buss made her first comments in reaction to the scathing “ESPN The Magazine” piece by Henry Abbott regarding her team’s veteran superstar, she didn’t merely defend Kobe Bryant, she went on an aggressive offensive. Unlike others who chose to directly criticize Abbott and the magazine over the content of…Read More
The post Lakers boss Jeanie Buss: Any free agent who won’t play with Kobe is ‘probably a loser’ appeared first on Sportress of Blogitude.

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Jeanie Buss: I’ll fire anyone who said free agents don’t want to play with Kobe

Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanne Buss on made some strong comments on Thursday in response to the recent ESPN the Magazine story that was written about Kobe Bryant. For starters, Buss said that any team employee who contributed to the feature — which claimed Bryant deters free agents from signing with the Lakers — will…Read More

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Lakers boss Jeanie Buss: Any free agent who won’t play with Kobe is ‘probably a loser’

When Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanie Buss made her first comments in reaction to the scathing “ESPN The Magazine” piece by Henry Abbott regarding her team’s veteran superstar, she didn’t merely defend Kobe Bryant, she went on an aggressive offensive. Unlike others who chose to directly criticize Abbott and the magazine over the content of…Read More
The post Lakers boss Jeanie Buss: Any free agent who won’t play with Kobe is ‘probably a loser’ appeared first on Sportress of Blogitude.

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Wyoming senior Larry Nance Jr. cleared to play

Wyoming senior Larry Nance Jr. cleared to play in upcoming season

      
 

 

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Brad Stevens says it’s possible Rajon Rondo could play opening night, Rondo isn’t so sure

Reports from the Celtics practice today in Waltham:Brad Stevens says Rajon Rondo is progressing well and could begin contact drills as early as next week.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 20, 2014#Celtics coach Brad Stevens: a chance Rajon Rondo could be cleared for contact by end of week, opening night still possible.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014Rondo had a scan on his hand, opening night return still a possibility, per Stevens.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 20, 2014Rondo won’t put timetable on his status, but ran through today’s shooting drill without any impediments.— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) October 20, 2014Rajon Rondo on potential to play on opening night: ‘I don’t know… I don’t want to set goals; I just want to go as my hand heals.”— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) October 20, 2014#Celtics captain Rajon Rondo: It ‘doesn’t bother me at all’ to catch, dribble ball with off hand right now.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) October 20, 2014#…

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Can the 6’11″ Greek Freak Really Play Point Guard in the NBA?

CLEVELAND — With Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Knight currently nursing a strained right groin, head coach Jason Kidd had a golden opportunity to experiment with an unlikely replacement on Tuesday night: 6’11″ guard/forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Kidd announced the move on Monday, the day before the Bucks were set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in a preseason game:

Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd said after Monday’s practice he plans to start the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo at point guard in Tuesday’s preseason game at Cleveland. Antetokounmpo played the entire fourth quarter at the point Saturday in the Bucks’ 91-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Kidd said he will go with a big starting lineup including Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia when the Bucks face the Cavaliers.

While he possesses the height of most centers, Antetokounmpo is able to handle the ball due in large part to his gigantic hands, rumored to be 15″ in length. He’s a matchup nightmare waiting to happen at any position, but the learning curve at point guard differs from other NBA positions.

Still just 19 years old and entering into his sophomore season, there’s little reason to doubt the Greek Freak. But Tuesday’s first test left something to be desired, to be sure.

 

Comfort Level, Experience at Point Guard

Last season under Larry Drew, Antetokounmpo was used almost exclusively at small and power forward. The Bucks rarely used him as a facilitator, if ever.

Even with his athleticism, hands and length, Antetokounmpo averaged just 1.9 assists in his 24.6 minutes a game.

So when exactly did the idea of him playing point guard come up?

“Summer league,” Antetokounmpo told Bleacher Report before the Bucks tipped off their preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Coaches came to me around the second game. I’m not sure what I did, but they told me I deserved a shot to play point guard.”

In four summer league games, Antetokounmpo averaged 17.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. During the third game after coaches had approached him about running some point, Antetokounmpo registered five assists in a loss to the Utah Jazz.

Before that time, Antetokounmpo had never played the 1, at least, not in America.

“When I was younger, I played (point guard) growing up in Greece, but I’ve never played it here,” Antetokounmpo said.

Now that he’s had a few months to learn the tricks of the trade, Antetokounmpo said that his comfort level as a floor general was quickly growing. He didn’t know, however, how long his new position would last.

“Day by day, I’m getting more comfortable there. I’m just trying to do my best, and whatever coach asks me to do,” Antetokounmpo told Bleacher Report. “Whatever my coach says to do is what I’m going to do. (Smiling) If this is the last time I play the point guard position, then that’s OK. Whatever coach wants me to do.”

Antetokounmpo did note that given his 6’11″ height, he had a certain advantage both on offense and defense.

“It gives you an advantage. Being so tall, and with all the guys at that position being small, I can see who’s open and see all my teammates and where they are. I can also go in the post, too.”

When asked about possibly struggling against smaller, quicker guards, Antetokounmpo said, “Guys in this league, are very strong, very good. It’s hard to guard them. I’ll try to use my length against them.”

Heading into his first true test at a new position, Antetokounmpo seemed very calm and relaxed. His big grin hid any potential fears that may have lingered heading into the game.

 

A Work in Progress

Antetokounmpo did indeed start against the Cavs, and looked very much like someone who hadn’t played point guard at the NBA level before.

Cleveland was without Kyrie Irving, and instead started second-year guard Matthew Dellavedova in his place. Dellevadova gave up seven inches, but was noticeably quicker than Antetokounmpo from the moment the ball was tipped.

The Bucks used Antetokounmpo very cautiously, allowing him to bring the ball up the floor before quickly passing off to a close teammate. Milwaukee would often follow an entry pass by running Antetokounmpo into the post, where he tried (unsuccessfully) to box out the 6’4″ Dellavedova.

Throughout the entire first half, Antetokounmpo seemed very uncomfortable, as if thinking too much before every pass, shot, or dribble.

He finished the first half with a combined zero points, rebounds and assists in 12:54 minutes of play. While Antetokounmpo did a nice job taking care of the ball (just one first half turnover), this was more attributed to the types of easy passes he was throwing.

Too often Antetokounmpo would stand waiting for a teammate to post up, then try squeezing the ball into whatever small window was available.

The offense, when run through Antetokounmpo, stalled mightily. After being replaced by Nate Wolters around the seven minute mark, Antetokounmpo watched the Bucks go on a 20-19 run.

The pace was quicker, and the offense flowed much more smoothly with Wolters running the show.

By the second half, Milwaukee had switched to Wolters as their starter at point guard, with Antetokounmpo moving back to his more comfortable position of small forward.

The result?

Antetokounmpo attacked the basket less than 20 seconds into the second half, earning a trip to the line and his first two points of the game.

Already, he seemed more at ease.

Antetokounmpo remained at shooting guard and small forward for the remainder of the game, registering four points, four rebounds and a blocked shot.

In his first game as a starting point guard, Antetokounmpo finished the game with zero assists and a single turnover.

Dellavedova, despite being seven inches shorter, seemingly won the first matchup at point guard.

He finished with just two points, but recorded nine assists and five rebounds in the Cavaliers’ win.

When talking to Dellavedova after the game, he seemed surprised when told of the exact amount of height he was sacrificing in the matchup.

“I just try to get around him and force him to catch it out when he tries to post me up. It’s very unique having a guy that size playing the point. He’s definitely improved from last year and I’m sure he’ll continue to improve.”

Dellavedova also said he wasn’t sure why Milwaukee pulled the plug on Antetokounmpo at point guard for the second half.

“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the coach. It’s the preseason so everyone’s trying different things.”

If Kidd truly wants Antetokounmpo to play point guard this season, he’ll still require quite a bit of work.

On this night, Antetokounmpo looked uncomfortable and very out of place in his new position. The offense clearly flowed better with the ball in Wolters’ hands.

At 19, Antetokounmpo does possess the size, skill and time to develop into a quality floor general.

The question is, how long are the Bucks willing to wait?

 

Greg Swartz has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by NBA.com.

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Why Ed Davis Needs to Play Major Role for Los Angeles Lakers

Ed Davis‘ time with the Los Angeles Lakers shouldn’t be anything like his stint with the Memphis Grizzlies or even the Toronto Raptors

They actually need him.

Inconsistent playing time has dogged Davis his entire career. If it wasn’t for his quirky beginnings, he wouldn’t even be in Los Angeles right now, playing for peanuts and pride.

His role was unclear while with the Raptors. Frontcourt minutes were hard to come by with the Grizzlies. The last four years have yielded more confusion than answers as Davis became something of a per-36-minute phenom who couldn’t secure a stable spot in the rotation.

Nothing of the sort stands to complicate Davis’ tenure—however brief—with the Lakers. Playing time will have to be earned within a rotation that includes Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle and Jordan Hill, but Davis has on-court chops that fill gaping voids.

Marginalizing him—or burying him on the bench altogether—shouldn’t be an option.

 

Real, Live Defense

As currently constructed, the Lakers aren’t built to defend.

Nevermind that the defensively obsessed Byron Scott won’t ever say die. The Lakers ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and the talent they’ve since added and retained doesn’t promise improvement, much to Scott’s displeasure.

“[We need to be] better on the defensive end,” he said, per the Los Angeles TimesEric Pincus. ”That’s the whole emphasis for this whole preseason, is just each game get better on that end of the floor, not make as many mistakes, do a better job of covering pick-and-roll. It’s just the little things that we need to continue to clean up.”

Improving—surviving, really—on the defensive end demands a number of different things happen. Though the Lakers are at a point where it’s difficult to get any worse, they’ll need to depend heavily on certain individuals to keep their defense from regressing further. 

On the perimeter that means running Wesley Johnson ragged and hoping Xavier Henry gets healthy soon.

Down low that means they find someone who can contest shots.

Rim protection was an issue for them last year. They finished 18th in point-blank prevention, allowing opponents to hit 53.2 percent of their shots at the iron.

Not one of this year’s primary frontcourt components can be considered an elite rim protector. Hill is athletic, but his focus is narrow. He’s not going to slide over off rotations and deter dribble penetration or hassle slashers; Randle isn’t an above-rim player, nor is he known for his defense; and Boozer is a sieve who is about as qualified to protect the rim as a career sheepherder is to conduct a Craniectomy.

Luckily for the Lakers, they have Davis. He’s quick and explosive, and while he isn’t a defensive linchpin, he’s someone who can exist within top-flight systems or help plug habitually and collectively running faucets.

Opposing big men combined to register a 14.3 player efficiency rating against him last season, noticeably below the league average of 15, per 82games.com. He also ranked 14th in opponent field-goal percentage among the 228 players who faced at least two shots around the basket and appeared in 25 or more games, according NBA.com. Hill finished 100th in that same category, while Boozer ended up placing 179th.

If the Lakers are going to protect the basket at all next season, they’re going to need Davis—who’s averaging 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes for his career—swatting shots at the rim. He is their best chance at finding an interior defensive anchor. The other alternatives are underwhelming, disastrous or Boozer.

 

Valuable Connections

Second-unit performance figures to be an issue for the Lakers, if only because the bench mob is, by default, going to be a huge part of their success or failure.

Who Scott starts at this point is almost irrelevant. Kobe Bryant figures to be on a minutes cap, Carlos Boozer is 32, Steve Nash remembers discovering fire and Hill has never averaged more than 20.8 minutes per game.

Assuming Scott wasn’t lying while talking shop with the Los Angeles Daily NewsMark Medina, that represents 80 percent of the Lakers’ starting lineup. Johnson will likely round that group out, and he’s only logged more than 25 minutes a night once in the last three years.

Ergo, the Lakers will have to be creative and generous with their minutes distribution across the board.

Good thing Jeremy Lin and Davis are ready to drop the offensive hammer. 

Of the many things the Lakers have seen go wrong during the preseason, the chemistry between Lin and Davis isn’t among them. The two have forged synergistic ties, looking particularly dangerous as pick-and-roll partners.

This comes as no surprise, given Lin’s claim to fame came within Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll packed offense that included a then-super athletic Amar’e Stoudemire. Davis is Stoudemire incarnate in this scenario, only his post-up game and jumper need work, and he’ll play defense for more than two seconds at a time.

“Those probably will be two of the first guys off the bench,” Scott said of Lin and Davis, per Lakers.com. “With the way Ed played last night, (he) definitely played well. And Jeremy didn’t shoot the ball well—and we know he’s capable of making shots—but he did a good job of orchestrating the offense and making great passes.”

Sustaining this connection is paramount given how the Lakers offense will be structured. Bryant is already trading rim assaults for more turnaround, mid-range fadeaways, and Scott wants the team attempting between 10 and 15 three-pointers a night, per Pincus

Ignorant though that sounds, Scott doesn’t have a choice. Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes explains why:

Scott’s ideas are outdated, and they’re going to exacerbate the skill deficit L.A. will be up against in almost every game this year.

When you have less talent than the opponent, you should be looking for edges, gimmicks and statistical efficiencies to exploit. It’s the only way to compete.

But here’s the problem: The roster Scott will coach this year isn’t equipped to do any of those things. There is no magic fix-it-all style for this personnel group. Shooting 30 threes a game would be better than 30 long twos, but the Lakers will still struggle to score at an above-average rate if they fire off that many triples.

Pick-and-rolls—which Scott has always loved to run—will be key to the Lakers’ livelihood if they’re not going to space the floor and jack threes. They’ll still need to hit jumpers, but curbing the number of deep balls makes getting open looks at the rim necessary.

Davis put in 58.7 percent of his shots inside eight feet of the basket last year. He also hit 42 percent of his attempts between eight and 16 feet. The potential for him to be a pick-and-pop threat is there. He can thrive alongside Lin or Nash. Anyone who’s able and willing to find cutters he can complement.

And with the way the Lakers offense is shaping up—and given their inability to lean on defensive fortitude—they need that explosive slasher who can finish at the rim while hitting the occasional jump shot.

Five years ago, that may have been more Boozer. It’s never been Hill. 

It could be Davis.

 

Supersized Role

Coming up with reasons for Davis to play is easy. The list goes on and on, and anything we come up with forces us toward one conclusion: Davis deserves a chance.

“If Davis is a stopgap, that’s fine. That’s all he’s costing,” NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman wrote at the time of Davis’ signing. “But he might develop into more—and that’s why the Lakers come out ahead on this deal.”

Long-term potential is one of the huge gains Davis brought with him. The Lakers aren’t flush with young, able-bodied building blocks. He is a potential cornerstone. And if he’s not, he’s still someone who can produce.

Remember, Davis is averaging 11.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 54.2 percent shooting per 36 minutes since entering the league in 2010. Only six other players—minimum 200 appearances—have matched his benchmarks during these last four years: Marcin Gortat, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard.

(Clears throat.)

Wow.

Despite limited playing time and topsy-turvy circumstances, Davis has managed to produce wherever he goes. There’s no reason to believe his stay in Los Angeles will be any different; he’s already putting up numbers.

Through two preseason games, he’s logged 28 minutes. And in those 28 minutes, he’s scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots. That’s the equivalent of 23.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per 36 minutes.

Oh, and that’s all come on 81.8 percent shooting. 

Yes, it’s only preseason. And yes, playing well in short bursts helps pad per-36-minute touchstones. But the Lakers aren’t in position to ignore or in any way cage this type of potential.

“It’s more of a fresh start,” Davis said of playing in Los Angeles, per Medina. “It’s about getting an opportunity and being in the right situation. I’ll do whatever I can to help a team win.”

Wins will be difficult to come by as the Lakers try to withstand a Western Conference gauntlet inundated with teams more talented and healthier than themselves. This upcoming season will be rife with hardships. Finding a prominent place for Davis will be easy. 

Few of their players can make a positive impact on both sides of the floor. Davis is one of those few.

Whatever role they give him needs to be gargantuan.

He’s earned a fresh start and the supersized role it should come with.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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Thunder prepare to play without MVP Kevin Durant (Yahoo Sports)

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 10: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on October 10, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For the first time, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be forced to play without Kevin Durant for more than a handful of games.


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Bradley Beal’s Injury Paves Way for Paul Pierce to Play Featured Role Again

Featured roles aren’t a memento of Paul Pierce‘s past just yet.

If at any point he thought his time with the Washington Wizards would be a lesson in ancillary devices, Pierce was wrong. Bradley Beal‘s injury has, once again, thrust him to the forefront of his team’s battle ground.

The Wizards announced that Beal sustained a “non-displaced fracture of the scaphoid bone” in his left hand during the first quarter of their preseason loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Beal has since undergone successful surgery and will now begin his path back to Washington’s rotation—one NBA.com’s David Aldridge says will take a while:

Six to eight weeks is a long time. The worst end of that projection could have Beal sidelined through November, returning sometime in December, 15-plus games into the Wizards’ schedule.

Quite obviously, everyone will need to step up in his absence. Beal led the team in scoring during last year’s impressive postseason run, and he remains Washington’s deadliest shooter. One player isn’t going to replace everything he does. This is a replacement-by-committee situation.

Chief of that committee, though, must be Pierce. He’s been a featured fang of playoff-bound, championship-chasing animals many times before. This is the perfect opportunity for him to show his bite still rivals his bark.

 

Nowhere to Turn

Playing “next guy up” isn’t a realistic option for the Wizards. Their system is built around John Wall and Beal. Everyone else just sort of falls into place. The third option should, in theory, be someone different on any given night, whether it’s Pierce, Marcin Gortat, Nene or even Otto Porter.

But Beal‘s injury leaves a gaping hole in the pecking order. They don’t have an established contributor ready to step in at shooting guard, let alone function as Beal in terms of importance.

Martell Webster is still recovering from back surgery, and his return doesn’t appear imminent. Trevor Ariza is now catching passes for the Houston Rockets. Glen Rice Jr., Garrett Temple and even Otto Porter should all see time at the 2 slot. While any or all of them should hold the Wizards’ floor-spacing potential steady, not one of them is equipped to be second in command. 

Relying on Gortat or Nene to cart heavier offensive burdens isn’t the answer, either. The NBA is perimeter-focused these days. First and second options are rarely traditional big men. Inside-out scorers are both valued and utilized more.

And that’s how it was for the Wizards last season. Nene and Gortat were the No. 4 and No. 5 scorers, respectively. It’s unrealistic for either of them to be featured much more given the league’s perimeter obsession and the fact that both towers are on the wrong side of 30. They’ll be expected to do more, just not much more.

That leaves Pierce.

Standing at 6’7″ and fresh off a campaign that saw him spend 99 percent of his time at either forward spot, he isn’t going to replace Beal in the positional sense. That challenge will belong to Rice or Temple, or perhaps even Andre Miller for stretches. 

As a former superstar familiar with bearing sizable offensive crosses, though, Pierce is someone the Wizards can and will lean on to fill the conspicuous crater in their systematic ladder.

 

Requisite Skill Set

Although Pierce ceded star status while on the Brooklyn Nets, he’s not far removed from his days with the Boston Celtics, when he was their primary offensive option.

Pierce can serve as a point forward of sorts, someone who gives the Wizards the secondary playmaker they had in Beal. His assist totals plummeted in Brooklyn, but he handed out 4.8 dimes a night with the Celtics in 2012-13. Though Wall isn’t an off-ball guard—his shooting is still too stormy—having that second-tier passer allows the Wizards to utilize his speed within backdoor cuts off screens and slashes that slice through the hearts of opposing defenses.

Even more value is found in Pierce’s defense-stretching range.

Three-point accuracy was a huge part of the Wizards’ limited offense success last season. They ranked fourth in long-ball conversion rate, banging in 38 percent of their treys.

Drive-and-kick and catch-and-shoot opportunities were their bread and butter. They finished atop the league in spot-up three-point shooting, draining 41.2 percent of all their attempts, largely thanks to Beal, who put in 44.5 percent of his standstill bombs. Webster was also a significant helping hand, finding the net on 40.5 percent of his deep, standalone missiles.

Pushing forward without both of them puts the Wizards at risk of warping their already shaky attack. Their offense was middling at best last year, finishing in the bottom half of efficiency. The results were even worse when Beal was off the floor. They scored fewer points per 100 possessions, and their overall field-goal percentages trended in the wrong direction.

None of the team’s primary concerns have dissipated during the preseason to boot. Last year’s flawed model has looked even worse thus far. Removing Beal only puts them at a further disadvantage.

“Spacing the floor—which has already been a nightmare so far in the preseason—becomes infinitely tougher after removing the most threatening shooter on the roster,” wrote Bullets Forever’s Umair Khan. “This has been the underlying issue all throughout the offseason. Washington chose to bolster its frontcourt, but it came at the expense of balancing out the rest of the team.”

Pierce at least begins to replace Beal‘s distance shooting. He pumped in 37.3 percent of his threes last season, and he hasn’t shot under 37 percent from deep since 2005-06. He also drilled 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes for 2013-14.

For a team that relies so much on drive-and-kicks, Pierce’s climbing efficiency in a complementary role will help keep the offense flowing.

But he adds another dynamic as well.

This is a Wizards squad with a dearth of shot-creators. More than 60 percent of their made baskets came off assists last season, and they lack the self-sufficient firepower—especially without Beal—to balance that out any further.

Creating his own shots isn’t foreign practice for Pierce. Many of his made buckets came off assists last year, but no more than 57.1 percent of his baskets were the product of assists between 2007 and 2013. He instantly becomes the Wizards’ most dangerous scorer behind Wall until Beal returns.

Let us also not forget his performance at power forward last year. The Wizards’ aren’t going to start games small, but Kris Humphries‘ injury does increase the importance of one-in, four-out lineups. So, too, does Beal‘s absence, since it’s easier for the team to supplant his offense with two outside-oriented shooters.

It’s at power forward that Pierce registered a 20.7 player-efficiency rating and a 56.9 effective field-goal percentage—which takes into account two-pointers and three-pointers—per 82games.com. Both marks are above his career average.

Washington isn’t in position to ignore that versatility.

Not without Beal.

 

Old Dog, Old Tricks

In all likelihood, the Wizards aren’t going to thrive without Beal. But they can survive.

Locking Pierce up in free agency remains one of the most understated offseason moves any team made. They added production and fire on a beggar’s dime, the latter of which isn’t any less important than the former.

Especially now.

Confidence isn’t a virtue Pierce lacks, even at 37. He is the perfect teammate, in that he leads and fights through his actions and the spoken word. And in lieu of Beal‘s youth, athleticism and rising star, the Wizards need that profound direction. They need someone who is going to scrap and claw and believe. 

“So why not us?” Pierce said of the Wizards less than one month ago, per The Washington Post‘s Jorge Castillo. “And that’s what I try to bring to this ballclub and that’s what I try to tell them in the locker room. Why not us?”

That, in a nutshell, is Pierce. 

Brooklyn doesn’t navigate its series of injuries and severe underachieving without Pierce last year. It doesn’t piece a playoff crusade together without Pierce’s willingness and ability to adapt and push, then push some more. It didn’t matter if he was playing small forward, point forward or power forward. It didn’t matter that his playing time decreased and his role within the offense diminished, even at the most crucial times.

Whatever the Nets needed, Pierce provided. And what they needed was a glorified role player.

What the Wizards need is an emotional bellwether who, for now, can find that requisite medium between prominent role player and featured star. Lucky for them, they have Pierce—the best possible in-house solution to their Bradley Beal problem.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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