Can Dallas Mavericks Survive with Aging Point Guard Platoon?

The Dallas Mavericks may lack star power at point guard, but they make up for it with depth.

After trading away one of the more reliable game-managers and shooters in the game in Jose Calderon in order to acquire Tyson Chandler from the New York Knicks, the Mavericks are betting that a veteran platoon of guards will be able to share the load and keep one of the league’s very best offenses chugging along.

Who will be the man primarily tasked with that job? It certainly isn‘t easy to handicap.

Raymond Felton, who was acquired alongside Chandler in the trade, is coming off the worst season of his 9-year career, where he averaged just 9.7 points a game and shot 39.5 percent from the field. Felton appeared to lose a step offensively, as he could no longer reliably get in the paint or threaten opponents with his three-point jumper (31.8 percent last year). 

There is hope that Felton will return to the mean this season for the Mavericks, however, as the 2012-13 season was one of his very best. Felton proved to be a capable distributor out of the pick-and-roll with Chandler during that season, and he was part of a team that shot a ton of threes, which is something Dallas should do this season.

Felton will be suspended the first four games of the season, but he’ll get his chance to prove he’s worthy of holding down the starting job.

Counting on Felton to be in shape and return to form is always a dicey proposition, and so it makes sense that the Mavericks addressed their point guard situation with other signings this offseason as well.

Former Orland Magic point guard Jameer Nelson was a late offseason addition, but his shooting and distributing ability should help alleviate some of the sting from losing Calderon.

Here’s what Nelson told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel about joining the Mavs:

I just think with the makeup of the team and the organization it’s similar to what we had in Orlando when we were winning. And I wanted to get back to that. I’ve dealt with the process of rebuilding, and it’s tough. I want to win. I don’t want to sit back and develop anymore.

Nelson may be on his last legs at 32 years old, but he did average 7 assists a game last year with minimal talent around him. Now with guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis next to him, Nelson could have a bit of a revival.

It’s important to note that Nelson only played around 29 minutes a night even in his prime, so sharing the load with the other point guards shouldn’t be much of an issue. He’s used to playing in shorter stints.

In addition to Felton and Nelson, the Mavs also re-signed Devin Harris, who brings a change of pace and a little more size off the bench. Harris should spend a good deal of his time backing up Ellis at shooting guard, but he’s easily capable of getting substantial minutes at point as well.

Here’s Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News with his take on the Harris signing:

Devin Harris got a good deal.

And by the way, so did the Mavericks.

Harris showed in the second half of last season that he is still a very solid option at point guard and at shooting guard in smaller lineups. He also re-proved that during the playoff series against San Antonio, when he was still a pest to Tony Parker.

Harris is the best defensive option of the bunch, which could mean he’ll see an uptick in minutes when the matchups call for that. Harris can also help the Mavericks play a little faster when he’s at the point.

Here’s what Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:

The Mavs ranked in the middle of the pack in pace last season, averaging 95.7 possessions per game, almost six fewer than the team that played at the fastest tempo. Carlisle hopes the remodeled Mavs, a team he believes is built to run, will be among the leaders next season.

“We want to play faster,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to have to do it by playing with our depth and playing with intelligence. We should be able to do that because we’ve got a lot of high-IQ players.” 

That includes three point guards with significant starting experience in Jameer NelsonRaymond Felton and Devin Harris. Of that trio, only Harris could be considered fast by NBA point guard standards. However, the Mavs’ hope is that their three-man rotation at the position gives their point guards the luxury of playing at maximum speed without concern for conserving energy. 

The idea isn’t necessarily for the point guards to run the transition offense on a regular basis anyway. The best way for them to push the pace is often via the pass, something Jason Kidd was a master of as an old man during his second tenure in Dallas. 

The reference to Jason Kidd and that 2011 title team is important. The Mavericks have shown before that they can get by with creative defensive schemes to make up for a lack of foot speed and athleticism, which Kidd was short on at that point.

With Felton, Nelson, Harris and maybe even a little bit of Gal Mekel, the Mavs will largely need to get by with intelligence instead of athleticism at the point this season. Egos will need to be cast aside, as playing time should be based on matchups and who has the hot hand. 

That could cause some serious issues, but the presence of a leader and teammate like Nowitzki and an excellent coach in Carlisle provides a pretty strong foundation for this point guard experiment to flourish. 

That being said, there’s no mistaking that point guard is the one weak link for the Mavericks right now. Monta Ellis had some great moments at the 2 last year, Chandler Parsons should be a huge offensive upgrade at the 3, and Nowitzki and Chandler have proven in the past that they are a perfect fit for one another. There’s just one hole in this starting lineup.

Relying on this veteran group beyond this season probably isn‘t ideal. The Mavericks could potentially get involved in a big way in free agency next year, particularly if Chandler re-signed on a friendly deal similar to Nowtizki’s. Thanks to the contract that will pay Nowitzki $8.3 million next season, the Mavs can address their long-term point guard situation sooner rather than later.

The free agent market for point guards in 2015 should be a strong one. Eric Bledsoe could very well be an unrestricted free agent, should he take the qualifying offer for this year. Rajon Rondo is set to hit free agency. Goran Dragic will likely decline his player option and become a free agent. Ricky Rubio could be a restricted free agent.

A lot can change between now and then, but Dallas is in a good spot having point guard as the only real position of need. That’s the deepest positional talent pool the league has to offer.

While it’s possible the Mavericks get involved in trade talks if the veteran platoon doesn’t work out, building chemistry and letting this roster jell is probably the preferred way to go.

There are a lot of new pieces and old faces in Dallas this season, but having multiple experienced players at the point should go a long way for a team that once again has legitimate title aspirations. 

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Can Portland Trail Blazers Survive LaMarcus Aldridge Injury and Team-Wide Slide?

Months after charming the NBA with their bewitching offense and volume winning, the Portland Trail Blazers‘ star is fading, reducing itself to a flickering twinkle.

Portland is still a darling no doubt, treading water in a hyper-competitive Western Conference awash with powerhouses, exceeding even the most ideal expectations. But the surprising flair and genius are gone, replaced instead with crashing waves of reality the Blazers cannot surf and could now be forced to traverse without LaMarcus Aldridge.

Early in the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Aldridge put in a shot over Tim Duncan, colliding with Aron Baynes in the process. He hit the floor back first—hard—and had to be escorted off the court. He would not return.

Initial X-rays didn’t reveal any extensive damage, according to Blazers.com’s Casey Holdahl, but, per CSNNW, Aldridge didn’t look good after the game:

No timetable has been set for Aldridge’s return, nor is it known if he will miss any time at all. Yet as he was being ushered off the court, tacit thinking rang true. 

Not him. Not now.

With only 17 games left to play, the Blazers cannot afford to lose Aldridge. They can barely withstand their most recent fall from grace.

The team’s demise, it’s most recent slide, has been a steady one, gradually amounting to what it is now. The Blazers are no longer contending for a top-two spot in the Western Conference or the NBA’s best record—they’re struggling to survive, a task that’s becoming harder to complete with each passing foible.

 

Demise in the Making

There is no confidence to be found in Portland’s recent performance. The last six games have been mostly disastrous. 

Currently navigating a four-game losing streak, the Blazers have dropped five of six and are just 2-5 overall in the month of March. Their jaunt into oblivion has left them clinging to fifth place in the Western Conference, merely 1.5 games ahead of the surging Golden State Warriors.

This isn’t the same team that began 2013-14 an unbelievable 31-9. The defense remains iffy, prone to permeable sets, but the offense, of late, is broken beyond recognition.

Where the Blazers were once able to overpower their opponents with calculated efficiency, they are now jagged and incidental, having failed to eclipse 100 points in three of their last four games—all losses. And with the defense still mediocre at best, the Blazers cannot fail to break 100.

In games they fail to hit 100 points, the Blazers are 6-10 and winless in their last four tries. Their defense, however much improved, isn’t going to win them basketball games.

Being forced to play without Aldridge isn’t going to win them basketball games.

Alridge has missed only five games this season. During that time, the Blazers are a convincing 4-1. But that’s a small sample size and potential anomaly. Ask them to play five, 10 or 15 games without their leading scorer and rebounder, and they won’t come out the other side winning 80 percent of the time. 

Just look at the team splits. They tell you everything:

Maybe the Blazers steal a game here or there without Aldridge. Maybe they nab upcoming games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks, but what about playoff teams? What about the Warriors? And Miami Heat? And—can’t believe I’m writing this—Charlotte Bobcats?

If there was ever a time for Aldridge to be absent again, it’s now, as Portland prepares to play seven of the next nine against Eastern Conference teams. Back issues are fickle, though, especially with regard to big men. If Aldridge is out, he could be out for a while.

And if he’s not, the Blazers can only hope he has a speedy recovery or isn’t forced to play in a diminished capacity at all. Even a limited Aldridge is crippling for this team.

When he scores 22 or fewer points—below his season average—the Blazers are 16-11. Know where winning 59.3 percent of games gets you in the Western Conference? Seventh place.

When he brings down 10 or fewer rebounds, the Blazers are 16-12. Know where winning 57.1 percent of games gets you in the West? Outside the playoff picture.

Aldridge is Portland’s ultimate bellwether. Without him, the team doesn’t stand a chance of securing a top-five playoff spot.

The Blazers barely have a chance with him the way they’re playing. 

 

Position Is Everything; Momentum Is More

Easy matchups don’t exist in the Western Conference.

It won’t matter what team the Blazers face in the playoffs. Their opponent will be a tough out no matter what.

But the more they slide, the more they dip in the standings, the more difficult their already shaky playoff endeavor becomes.

Right now, the Blazers are tracking toward a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, whom they are 1-3 against this season. Houston could easily become the Los Angeles Clippers, a team the Blazers are 1-1 against. Barring a complete meltdown through these final 17 games, Portland should be able to avoid both the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, each of whom it’s 2-2 against this season.

Here’s the thing: It, again, doesn’t matter.

Portland has put itself in a near unmanageable scenario.

More likely than not, it’s going to face one of the West’s top four teams, which is problematic given they’re a combined 6-8 against the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets this season. But it’s even more of an issue now.

The Blazers haven’t defeated any of those four teams since Jan. 17. They’re a combined 0-7 against those four squads since then.

Worse still, the Blazers haven’t taken down one of the other current postseason contingents since Jan. 18, when they beat the Dallas Mavericks. Since then, they’re a combined 0-11 when facing Western Conference playoff teams.

In their current state, Aldridge or no Aldridge, there’s not a single playoff matchup that favors them. And urgency is at an all-time high. 

According to CSNNW’s Chris Haynes, the team held a players-only meeting following its loss to San Antonio.

“I just felt like it was something that needed to be said,” Damian Lillard explained when asked why he initiated the powwow, via Haynes. “At some point, it’s up to the players.”

Lots of things needed to be said. Questions needed to be asked.

Urgency needed to set in.

The Blazers are playing that bad. Their offense is that disjointed, their postseason ambitions that infirm.

Their once shimmering star is fading, dying.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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UCLA Basketball: Why Bruins’ Defense Must Slow Opponents’ Shooting to Survive

On a lot of nights this season the shots have splashed softly through the nylon for UCLA like sweet summer rain into a warm pool of points.

But when the shooting goes arid and the fair weather drifts over to the opponents, the Bruins are as vulnerable to death as a turtle tipped onto its shell under a hot sun.

The loss against the Cardinal in Palo Alto—an 83-74 scorching—was the shooting cyclops coming to life and devouring the crew.

“Our lack of a defensive presence and/or combined with Stanford’s shooting game—it was one of those games they shot the ball extremely well—I think it was their best shooting game of the year,” said Coach Steve Alford Tuesday on the Pac-12 conference call.

“So playing on the road and and overall when a team’s shooting extremely well and we had a few more breakdowns than we had in the previous games, it probably adds up to the kind of offense they showed.”

It was not just Stanford’s best shooting game this season, it was the Cardinal’s best Pac-12 shooting effort in 11 seasons, going back to another game against UCLA in 2003. Last week, the Cardinal shot 62 percent on the game and 74 percent in the second half. It was a 74 percent effective field goal percentage for the game.

That is an almost impossible percentage to overcome, no matter how well you shoot it yourself, and UCLA does shoot it well. The Bruins’ 55 percent effective field goal percentage is 11th best, and their 40.5 percent from beyond the arc is fifth.

The dead-eye gunning gets them 83 points per game on average (seventh), with a scoring margin of plus-12.4, which is eighth-best. When those averages hold true UCLA almost never loses, but the faultless through line in each of their six losses is misfiring on offense and allowing the opponent to incinerate the nets on defense.

In road and neutral-site losses to Mizzou, Duke, Arizona, Utah, Oregon State and Stanford, the Bruins shot a combined 40.6 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent from the three-point line. They scored, on average, 69.8 points. 

That is fully 9 percent under the team’s season average percentage from the floor and 8 percent under the average from three-point range. It is 14 points less than its average scoring output.

On the other side, rather than stifling opponents with angry, aggressive defense that generally shows the rough-neck grit of a championship team, the Bruins have watched opponents pour in points. 

The six teams to set-down the Bruins shot a combined 50.2 percent from the floor and 41 percent from deep. They averaged 78 points per game. On the season UCLA holds opponents to 42.7 percent from the floor, 34 percent from three and surrenders 70 points per game.

An unusual, uneasy trend from the three-point line has emerged not only from the losses, but on the season, generally. The Bruins allow 8.1 three-point buckets per game, which ranks them 341st of 351 Division I basketball teams. 

In the six losses, three teams—Mizzou, Duke and Stanford—made more than 10 three-pointers on the game. In two other losses, Utah made nine and Oregon State made eight. Arizona made the fewest, at six on 13 attempts.

A reporter asked coach Alford about the strange three-point vulnerability before Tuesday’s practice.

“I’ve hammered at our defense a lot, but I think four of our last five games—we weren’t very good at Stanford, but they made a lot of shots,” said the coach.

“I like our position regardless of what percentage we’re giving up of three-point shots—I like overall defensively that we’ve shown a lot of improvement. To be honest we give up too many easy ones. If we could make teams shoot more threes and take away more of the inside I’d be much more in favor of that because the percentages are going to go in our favor. It helps our rebounding and our ability to get out and run.”

The long rebounds that often come after missed three-point shots are a great way to get out and run, but in their losses that opportunity has been taken away from them. NCAA tournament games have become infamous for allowing teams who get hot shooting the long ball over a 40-minute span to go on deep runs and vanquish teams otherwise out of their league because of the shot’s great floor-leveling power.

The Sword of Damocles has been hung tenuously over the Bruins because of this curious chink in their armor. Whether it is a technique deficiency with players failing to close out on shooters or put their defending hand in the right place—or if fate has decried it should be their ominous vulnerability—is difficult to say.

Their losses this season have shown that it is real, and the vaporizing at Stanford late in the season revealed that it has not gone away. Though in the four games leading up to Stanford, the Bruins had chipped away steadily at opponents’ shooting percentage and used that success to run out a four game winning streak.

At this late hour, is it the team that appeared to have learned how to redirect the slings and arrows of the enemy, or the squad that chose for most of the year to eat them while attempting to return fire more of its own?

“We thought we were doing the same things [against Stanford],” coach Alford said during the conference call. “We’re obviously hoping it’s only a one-game deal.”

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Oklahoma State Basketball: Will Cowboys Survive Marcus Smart Suspension?

In case you haven’t heard by now, things are really bad right now for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Travis Ford’s team are in the midst of a season-crippling four-game losing streak, but that is the least of their concerns after the Marcus Smart incident on Saturday. 

As has been well-documented by everyone in sports media, Smart was provoked by a Texas Tech fan and shoved him towards the end of the Cowboys’ upset loss to the Red Raiders on Saturday night.

While the Smart story stole the headlines, the real newsmaker from Saturday night in Lubbock was the fact the Cowboys are on the verge of missing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament because of their lowly February. 

Oklahoma State has lost four straight and five of its last six games, and the team currently sits at 4-6 in the Big 12, a streak and record no tournament hopeful wants to have at this time of the season. 

Now, with Smart suspended for three crucial games against Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor, the Cowboys have reached crisis mode and may not be able to salvage their season. 

Before Smart was ruled ineligible for the next three contests, the Cowboys were already suffering depth problems because of Michael Cobbinsseason-ending injury and Stevie Clark’s removal from the team for disciplinary reasons. 

Five days before they lost to Texas Tech, Ford and company fell in three overtimes at home to Iowa State, a game that saw just six players see significant playing time. 

Add to that problem the departure of a player who produces 17.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for three contests and you could easily declare the Cowboys as being royally screwed. 

In all honesty, Oklahoma State is in a very deep hole they dug themselves, and the only way to start climbing out of it is to win a game against a ranked opponent, a designation Texas happens to have heading into Tuesday’s clash in Austin. 

Ford is going to have to piece together his bench behind a starting five of Phil Forte, Markel Brown, LeBryan Nash, Brian Williams and Kamari Murphy, which will be no easy task. 

No player outside the five starters for Tuesday’s game has averaged more than 6.3 minutes per game this season. 

The player with the most minutes out of that mix of players that in a normal season would not see the court at all is Leyton Hammonds, who has contributed one point and 1.2 rebounds per game in 20 appearances. 

If Ford cannot get any production out of his reserves on Tuesday, he may have to pick volunteers from the student section to earn playing time against rival Oklahoma on Saturday, a task every fan in the Bedlam rivalry would love to take on.

The reliance on the remaining five key contributors will be a massive one, and while those players are fully capable of delivering an improbable win against either Texas or Oklahoma, the chances of that happening are slim.

Too many variables, whether it be foul trouble, fatigue or some other unknown, are at play in this type of situation and we may see Oklahoma State in the midst of a seven-game losing streak when Smart returns against Texas Tech, the same team that may have stuck the final dagger in the Cowboys’ coffin. 

Oklahoma State is at a major disadvantage with Smart gone, and with its season already on a downward spiral, it will be hard for the Cowboys to recover from this latest massive blow to a season that started with plenty of expectations, none of which the team has lived up to as of now. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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Georgetown Basketball: Will Hoyas Survive without Josh Smith?

As the Georgetown Hoyas enter the most difficult stretch of their schedule to date, they will be without one of their key players, Josh Smith, who was suspended for the rest of the season on Friday due to academic troubles.

The Hoyas will kick their week off with a home game against Villanova on Monday and then they will have to travel to New York to face Michigan State on Saturday. 

If that brutal week wasn’t bad enough for John Thompson III and company, they are also in the middle of a four-game losing streak and have won just one of their last six games. 

With their dreams of qualifying for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament thrown out the window, unless the Hoyas pull off a miracle run at the Big East tournament, Thompson and his remaining players must attempt to salvage their disappointing season. 

Heading into the season, the Hoyas were not expected to win the Big East, but they were expected to be one of the top four teams in the conference alongside Creighton, Marquette and Villanova. 

Instead, Georgetown has fallen flat in big games against Oregon and Kansas along with losing to Seton Hall on its home floor on January 18. 

Literally nothing is going right for the Hoyas, but now with Smith gone, they will have to somehow pick up the pieces and move on to avoid sharing the basement of the conference standings with longtime rival St. John’s, a team that is also having a terrible 2013-14 campaign. 

With Smith out of the picture, the Hoyas do not have a strong presence in the paint, as Mikael Hopkins and Nate Lubick are now Thompson’s best options. 

Both Hopkins and Lubick have the height to play down low, but they are nowhere close to Smith in the weight department, and both could get battered around in the paint if they try to emulate the UCLA transfer’s play. 

Up until now, the Hoyas did not have to worry about their perimeter shooting, but now that Smith is gone for the season, opponents will begin to put more pressure on D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks in the backcourt.

Smith-Rivera (17.5 points per game) and Starks (16.2 ppg) have been two bright spots on an incomplete Georgetown team, and they will have to step up even more in the upcoming weeks as their team begins to play for pride instead of a berth in the postseason.

There is some good news on the horizon, if there is such a thing this season, for the Hoyas as they face a fairly easy stretch of five games after they face off against Michigan State. 

With DePaul, Butler, Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall on the docket in February, Georgetown has a chance to regain some pride by beating up on the lesser teams in the conference. 

However, that will not be as easy as it seems, because Providence is proving to be a surprise team in the conference at 5-2 and Seton Hall already took down the Hoyas this season. Butler also pushed the Hoyas to overtime on January 11 at Hinkle Fieldhouse

If Georgetown can pull it all together during that five-game span in the heart of February, it could be able to pull off an upset against the big guns of the conference, but that will be a difficult task without a major paint presence like Smith. 

All four of the Hoyas‘ final opponents (Xavier, Marquette, Villanova and Creighton) have big men that can take over a game in an instant, and they will all be licking their chops when the Hoyas line up against them because of their lack of depth and girth in the paint. 

Simply put, Georgetown could enjoy some success during February, but when it comes down to crunch time, it will fall short because it lacks a big man in Smith. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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Ole Miss Basketball: Rebels Survive Auburn Tigers Without Marshall Henderson

Ole Miss opened SEC play without senior, star guard Marshall Henderson and struggled at times offensively, narrowly winning 65-62 last night in Oxford, MS.

Auburn is not an elite team, and Ole Miss should be able to handle teams like this at home.  Without the emotion and streaky shot of Henderson, head coach Andy Kennedy got a chance to work on getting more production from his inexperienced post players.

Junior Aaron Jones stepped up to the challenge and contributed offensively (12 points) and also provided a last minute block to allow the Rebels to seal the game with their first SEC win of the season.

This win puts the Rebels in a good position, as they play a rival game this Saturday against Mississippi State—another game they should win.

The first half of Ole Miss’ SEC schedule is the weakest, so they must take advantage if they hope to get to a postseason tournament.  Forcing the post to contribute and develop during Henderson‘s suspension could prove invaluable to the team later in the year.

Per clarionledger.com’s Hugh Kellenberger, Marshall Henderson was injured during practice on Wednesday of this week, in a practice drill, and likely would not have been available to play, regardless of the school’s induced suspension.

As the team’s only senior, Henderson’s 18.8 points per game are sorely needed. However, junior guard Jarvis Summers has improved his scoring this year (17.5 points per game) and was recently mentioned as the team’s best overall player by coach Andy Kennedy.

Having a one-two punch that he can depend on should give the the young front court a chance to improve. 

Against the weaker Auburn Tigers, the Rebels’ post players combined to score 25 points from six players.  Expect to see frequent substitutions for Ole Miss until someone solidifies one of the forward positions.  Heralded freshman Sebastian Saiz did not score.

Ole Miss (10-4, 1-0 SEC) next travels to Starkville, MS to face MSU (10-4, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday, January 11, 2014.

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Los Angeles Lakers survive in first game back without Kobe Bryant

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With Kobe Bryant back on the shelf and without a healthy true point guard, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 104-91.
The Lakers struggled in the first half as their offense was plagued by turnovers, but their defense and hot shooting kept them in the game until the offense was able to hit its stride.
In Bryant’s absence, the Lakers reverted back to a balanced attack with four players scoring in double digits, led by Nick Young.
Young scored 25 points off the bench and shot four of six from 3-point land.  Normally regarded as just a scorer, Young managed to hand out four assists, but did have five turnovers in his sporadic attempts to play the role of a point guard.
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Pau Gasol nearly recorded a triple-double, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.  Five of Gasol’s assists came in the first quarter as he helped the team adjust to life without a point guard.
Thrust into the starting point …

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No. 5 Michigan State survives pesky Oakland to survive upset

Survival is just about all Michigan State can hope for these days.

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How the Brooklyn Nets Survive Latest Injury to Paul Pierce

Another day, another injury to the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul Pierce’s broken hand, suffered on November 29, will sideline the veteran forward for about two to four weeks, according to ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk.

After bringing together what appeared to be a super-team (do those ever work?), Brooklyn has been absolutely decimated by health issues.

Deron Williams (ankle) and Andrei Kirilenko (back spasms) are out indefinitely, and Jason Terry (bruised knee) is also hurt. Brook Lopez is just getting back from his own ankle issues, and Kevin Garnett has shown some figurative gray hair early on in 2013-14.

Some super-team, huh?

And while Pierce’s age has been evident—he’s put up a career-low 12.4 points per game in 15 games—his absence from the team will hurt. But it might actually help Brooklyn down the road.

 

Pierce’s leadership role

It’d be very easy for the Nets to freak out right now. Injuries have plagued every key player not named Joe Johnson, they’ve gotten smacked around both at home and on the road and Jason Kidd’s lack of coaching experience has been exposed.

While Pierce and Garnett are years removed from being able to carry the team offensively, they are invaluable leaders. And when they don’t panic, the rest of the team doesn’t.

On November 21, after slipping to 3-8, Pierce silenced all of that panic nonsense, as quoted by Newsday writer Robert Boone:

Nah, no panic. I know we are going to get better. Obviously, it’s all talk right now. But we’ve got to go out there and do it. But I feel confident in this group. It’s a lot of positive things going on every day.

There’s no finger pointing. There’s no whispering in this locker room. We don’t allow that. So, I feel confident this group is going to continue to get better.

He’ll still be on the sidelines, but Pierce’s absence will be felt if only for his leadership. Players look up to him, and for good reason—the Truth is a 10-time All-Star and a former NBA champion. His voice and leadership on the court will be sorely missed.

 

How Brooklyn’s on-court performance is effected

Those days of dropping 20-plus points a night are over for Pierce. But, make no mistake about it, he can still play

Pierce is like that older guy at the park—the one who isn’t as athletic or physically gifted as those younger bucks, but can still take them to school with impeccable fundamentals and superior basketball IQ.

The Truth scored or exceeded 15 points in six of his first 15 contests with Brooklyn but has yet to eclipse 20 points. His shooting percentages are also way down. Pierce is connecting on nearly 37 percent of his attempts from the field, and has a sub-27 clip from beyond the arc.

A temporary seat on the bench isn’t the worst thing in the world for both Pierce and the Nets, in regards to on-court performance.

Pierce is no longer a superstar, but he’s had to try to play like one with injuries to D-Will, Lopez, Terry and Kirilenko.

If Brooklyn can get healthy and develop some flow to the offense with the Truth on the bench, it’d be easier to lessen his role offensively once he returns than it would be to simply demote him.

 

Candidates to (temporarily) replace Pierce

In the next two to four weeks, someone is going to have to step up.

Since November 16, Andray Blatche has given the Nets over 15 points and five rebounds a game and has had a PER (Player Efficiency Rating), of 18.18 through the first 18 games of the season. Pierce’s rating in 15 games has been 12.07.

To shed some light on how good Blatche has been, Tim Duncan’s PER is currently 18.94.

 

Four inches taller, 25 pounds heavier and nine years younger than Pierce, Blatche is a good fit to step in while the Truth nurses his broken hand. Even if he doesn’t start, Blatche will surely be able to fill the gap in frontcourt production.

Pierce’s injury also gives Brooklyn the chance to see what they really have in Mirza Teletovic, a Yugoslavian three-point shooter who erupted for 35 points (7-13 3PT) in a pair of games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets in late November.

Kidd is really going to be able to play with different lineups with Pierce out and may develop a more effective way to use him once he gets healthy.

 

The bottom line

Along with Garnett, Pierce is the team’s biggest leader, and he will be sorely missed in that department.

But Blatche and Teletovic will be able to expand their roles on offense while he’s on the sidelines, and this little break will probably end up benefiting Pierce as well as the Nets in the long run.

And that’s the Truth.

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How Do Memphis Grizzlies Survive Marc Gasol’s MCL Recovery Period?

Well, this doesn’t bode well for the Memphis Grizzlies‘ ability to move back up into the upper half of the Western Conference. 

The team was struggling to adjust to Dave Joerger‘s new systems, and those struggles were present on both sides of the ball. They’ve had trouble moving the ball and creating offense, and they’ve also experienced far more difficulty with defensive rotations than anyone expected. 

Things were finally starting to come together, and then boom. Marc Gasol goes down against the San Antonio Spurs during the second quarter with a knee injury. 

Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it could have been. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Gasol has a Grade 2 MCL sprain, far better than the tear that could have kept him out for around 10 weeks or an even worse injury that could have knocked him out for the season: 

It’s a report that has since been officially confirmed by the team:

Sheridan Hoops’ Brett Poirier speculates that it’s an injury that will leave him out of action for right around a month: 

That’s a little bit more aggressive than I’d be with my speculation, seeing as Greg Stiemsma is the most recent player to experience a Grade 2 MCL sprain. Plus, six to eight weeks is the typical recovery period for this injury. 

One month is doable for the Grizzlies. Much more than that might not be. 

Given the competitive nature of the Western Conference, they can’t afford for Gasol, the true centerpiece of this team, to be out for much longer than a month. Even that’s a lot, but it’s possible for them to survive during his as-of-yet undetermined recovery period. 

Why? They actually have depth at center, which makes the reigning Defensive Player of the Year a little bit more expendable than he would have been otherwise. 

Kosta Koufos is the man who will step into the starting lineup, and it’s a job he’s actually held down in the past, just for the Denver Nuggets instead of the Grizz. During his first season in Memphis, he’s averaging 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. 

Ed Davis and Jon Leuer will also experience upticks in minutes, though it’s only Davis who should be receiving a significant boost. The natural power forward is tough enough that he can make an impact on the glass, though it’ll be tough for him to generate much offense against centers. As for Leuer, his shooting should be beneficial, but he’s in no way the defensive presence that Memphis needs. 

Obviously, none of them brings the same set of skills to the table that Gasol carried along with him on a consistent basis. The Spanish 7-footer won Defensive Player of the Year last season thanks to his stellar interior defense, a skill produced by his heady rotations and quick feet in the paint.

Somewhat surprisingly, this is the part of Gasol’s game that is easier to replace.

Koufos is by no means on the reigning DPOY’s level, but he’s still a big and physical player who can hold his own in the paint. As shown by NBA.com’s statistical databases, the Grizzlies have actually been a better defensive team when he’s on the court. 

Memphis is allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions when that happens, and the number skyrockets to 106.2 when he takes a seat on the pine. He’s a natural fit for Joerger‘s system, as the plodding nature of his defensive game doesn’t allow him to get caught out of position as often as Gasol has in 2013-14. 

But Gasol was so much more than a stopper for the Grizzlies, and that’s why his loss is such a big deal.

Gasol also functions as an offensive hub, operating with the ball in his hands far more often than most centers do. According to SportVU data, Gasol was averaging 67.7 touches per game, sandwiching him right in between Kevin Durant and James Harden. That should give you a solid idea about how involved he was in the offensive schemes. 

In fact, no player came close to Gasol in elbow touches per game before his injury:

  1. Marc Gasol, 18.0
  2. Blake Griffin, 12.8
  3. Kevin Love, 11.6
  4. Pau Gasol, 11.5
  5. Anderson Varejao, 10.5
  6. Zaza Pachulia, 10.4
  7. Tim Duncan, 10.4

Not a single player absent from that list has averaged double digits in elbow touches, and it’s pretty clear that Gasol, the master of the behind-the-back pass from the elbow to a backdoor cutter, stood out from the rest of the crowd in a big way. That’s what will be most difficult to survive. 

It’s plays like this one against the Sacramento Kings that really make the now-injured big man so special. 

Tony Allen has just flashed down through the paint, and while Zach Randolph looked him off, he did manage to throw the Kings defense into disarray. 

Now DeMarcus Cousins is left with two assignments and has to stay in between Gasol and Allen. There’s no positive outcome for him here because Gasol is such an adept scorer and passer from that particular spot. 

Z-Bo swings the ball over to his frontcourt teammate. 

And “Boogie,” because he has no choice, is left rotating over to prevent Gasol from crashing down to the hoop for an easy bucket. By doing so, he makes Gasol’s decision pretty darn easy. 

This is pretty much the definition of a touch pass. 

Gasol doesn’t actually take time to catch the ball, but rather keeps its momentum going and throws it behind his back to Allen. The result is an easy layup and an aesthetically pleasing assist. Just add it to the passing highlight reel that needs to be compiled for Gasol. 

None of the replacements can do this, and Memphis will resultantly have to shift the focus of its offense. That means that Mike Conley is about to have a lot more responsibility.  

The floor general has been fantastic this season, averaging 19.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and posting a PER of 24.02, per ESPN.com. But as good as he’s been, he’s been hesitant to attack as much as necessary, knowing that there are so many ways for the Grizzlies to generate offense. 

That has to change. 

Conley has been one of the most heavily involved players in the NBA, finishing in the top 10 in both touches per game and time of possession per game, but now he has to be more aggressive with the ball. It’s up to him to push into the interior of the defense and break down the opponent, even if it results in a declining field-goal percentage. 

Other than that, Z-Bo can go to work more as well, which means that Joerger must be willing to slow down the tempo on offense. That’s the best way to maximize the value of what should still be a stellar defensive unit. 

With the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Grizzlies all expected to compete rather heavily for the final three seeds in the Western Conference’s postseason picture, there isn’t much room for error here. The Grizzlies have to keep pace while Gasol recovers from the MCL injury. 

If it takes too long, or if Memphis struggles to replace him, the lottery could very well be beckoning. 

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