Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thoughts on Rockets-Lakers

  • Can anyone else almost hear J.R. (of WWF fame) screaming "OH NO! NOT THIS! ANYTHING BUT THIS!" in the background every time Brian Cook enters the game at any moment of relevance? When he checked in last night, I told my friend I would prefer Aaron Brooks' chances at securing the rebound.
  • Typically when a team is extending itself as this group has, it begs the question "can they really sustain this type of energy over the course of the season?" This isn't the Boston Celtics the year Rick Pitino implemented that ridiculous '48 minute full court defense' that wore half the roster out within 2 months. This energy is sustainable for no other reason than that these guys don't even know of any other way of playing basketball.
  • My favorite part of each game is becoming the pre-game analysis when the other team's broadcast crew discusses the big advantage in the middle for their team (over Chuck Hayes). It's pretty humorous. No, Chuck Hayes is not "hard-working", "tough", "rugged" or any of that other back-handed bullshit. This is an elite All-NBA class defender. It immediately brings to mind the Chris Rock bit on Colin Powell where he remarks that people compliment Powell saying "oh wow, he speaks so well!". Rock says "what do you mean 'he speaks so well?' this is a f****** educated man."
  • Leaving Artest for that '3' was absolutely the right call to make. I would do it again. In fact, I would have just left him open the entire overtime and invited him to shoot. The funny thing last night was hearing the excitement from the Lakers' announcers every time Artest did something well. It was almost as if they were trying to convince themselves that this was somehow a good idea.
  • Brooks: Speaking of Chris Rock, he could really use Tracy out there.
  • Speaking of Tracy, two thoughts immediately came to mind upon the culmination of that game:
  1. Damn, a dosage of Tracy would have been real nice in those closing minutes.
  2. Damn, there's no way in hell McGrady fits in with this 'cutting/slashing/run you to death' thing we have going.
  • Which brings up an interesting idea. If you could somehow keep Tracy on the bench the entire game and only bring him in for the final few possessions of a close game, I think you would really be onto something. This would be, in a sense, bringing literal meaning to the term 'closer.' And yes, the issue of wearing out the bullpen would definitely be at relevance here.
  • You have to wonder how long Rick continues perpetuating this 'dress Trevor Ariza up as Tracy McGrady' shtick. It's an experimental season, yes, and for that, I have no problem finding out what Trevor can and can't do (though it's pretty clear already.) But you have to believe Rick is pretty aware that he has a 'Coach of the Year' award on the line here. 43 wins and it's his. He knows this. That's why I'm guessing Ariza probably won't be handling the ball as much by January.

The Ron Artest Experience

[As originally seen on]

Wednesday’s meeting with the Lakers beckons forth reminiscence upon one of the most surreal experiences in Houston Rockets history.

When he etched the logo into his hair, Ron Artest instantly became iconic of this team’s ethos.

From heart to sheer tenacity, he represented an accentuation of the Rockets’ core essence.

The Rockets, in their unrelenting perseverance in the face of adversity, had come to symbolize the spirit of toughness. Ron was the toughest player in the league.

The Rockets were tormented by a too cruel destiny and demons of playoffs past. Artest carried the burden of infamy; the catalyst for the most shocking scene in league history.

The Rockets earned accolade for a stingy, smothering team defense. Artest was lauded as the game’s most menacing defender.

Ron Artest was the physical embodiment of The Houston Rockets on steroids.

Early on, when the team was still a favorite, Artest exuded an aura that seemingly intensified every game into a playoff atmosphere.

Most exemplary of this was the loss at Cleveland. With the outcome already decided, Artest maniacally hounded Lebron James for the final meaningless few minutes of the game, even sending him to the floor on one encounter. One could almost sense the hope to deliver a message for a June matchup he most likely had already deemed inevitable. No, Ron Artest never laid down nor let his team give off the appearance of doing such.

When it came to his actual play, the ride was tumultuous.

To euphemize, Artest's offense was not exactly graceful.

Ron quite possibly has the ugliest game in the entire league (out of those players actually looking to score.) He easily had the worst shot selection in Rockets history. (Note: This is a rich history inclusive of both Vernon Maxwell and Cuttino Mobley's 1999-2000 sophomore campaign.)

He would prance along the circle, bulling his way into the paint; the sheer absurdity of the sight a source of great humor. Ron looked like a bodybuilder handling the ball, in danger of tipping over at any point.

We gasped as Artest rolled to his right and hung jumpers off of one foot, and were baffled by his refusal/inability to use his size in the post.

Yet nothing came as more dreadful than 'The Tick'.

There is really no other appropriate term to describe that horrid phenomenon.

All waters would lay calm until Ron would suddenly spasm, foraying on a 4th quarter shooting frenzy.

This was one of those rare episodes in sports in which one can merely watch in utter disbelief and hopelessness, too numbed by its reoccurrence to feel any real anger.

But the greatest irony lay in Artest’s defense.

With old age and added bulk, the legend had become more myth than reality.

Ron's performance against the likes of Brandon Roy, O.J Mayo, and Kobe Bryant was bewildering. He wasn't just torched. He didn't even seem to have a chance.

It seemed Pavlovian the way he would lunge for every slight fake and jab step. Watching Ron swipe as Bryant dangled the ball before him evoked a newfound empathy for David Robinson's so very public 1995 humiliation.

On the contrary, Artest was easily the best big wing defender in the game. He did a better job guarding Lebron James than anyone I personally saw all of last year.

When the news of Yao’s injury first broke, it immediately became clear that extending Artest would not be in the best interests of prudence.

I still contest that had Tracy McGrady not been lost for the season, Ron would have provided the rare, exuberant swagger to propel this team to the title.

He was one of the most polarizing figures in Houston sports history. Yet despite his warts, we can all agree that he put his heart and soul into this team and was instrumental in its success.

He entertained us with his frankness and captured our attention with his every word.

It was truly a strange season, and a surreal experience.

Such was inevitably to be the case with basketball’s most flamboyant superstar in tow.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Assessing Ariza

[NOTE: The 6th and 7th main body paragraphs contain links to four separate, critically related addenda.]

During Saturday night’s home opener, I counted five total possessions in which Trevor Ariza attempted to attack his defender off the dribble while squared up in a one-on-one scenario.

These were:

Roughly the 3 minute mark in the 1st: He attempted to change directions, was unsuccessful, and had to pick up his dribble and pass.

Roughly the 2 minute mark in the 2nd: He faked left and drove right, banking in an incredibly awkward jumper.

Roughly the 2 minute mark of the 3rd: He faked right and drove baseline towards his left, lost body control and threw a bad pass, resulting in a turnover.

Roughly the 7 minute mark in the 4th: He dribbled right, and spun back left, got trapped, and was bailed out by Greg Oden. This resulted in two free throws.

Roughly the 5 minute mark in the 4th: He squared up and drove baseline left, resulting in a layup + foul.

While three of these possessions were technically 'successful', for analytical purposes, I think one would agree that on two of these circumstances, Ariza was the beneficiary of some incredibly good luck. The bank off the glass was extremely awkward and not reflective of any ability to pull up for the mid-range jumper.

Similarly, the possession against Oden was not a premeditated pump fake bait, as is utilized by many perimeter players, but rather a situation where Ariza simply got bailed out by a very undisciplined defender after losing his dribble. Only the baseline drive against Brandon Roy can be classified as a successful attack possession.

The aforementioned sequences are noteworthy in that they illustrate Ariza’s overall inability to create off the dribble in a one-on-one scenario. Two of the three situations in which he was technically ‘successful’ were not indicative of any actual ability with future predictive significance.

Why This is Relevant

Based on comments during the offseason, following his preseason struggles, and following the excitement of Saturday’s game, it is clear that there are extant expectations regarding Ariza which are incredibly unrealistic. If not reined in, this unbridled enthusiasm could quickly spiral into serious disappointment.

I found myself cringing last night as Bill and Clyde proffered their analysis during Ariza’s ongoing breakout performance. They mused about his potential to become “the man” and a “go-to scorer”. The entire episode was exemplary of the media’s role in perpetuating a set of highly misguided assumptions and misconceptions which have raised the expectations for Trevor Ariza to such unrealistic, unattainable heights.

Trevor Ariza will never become a primary 'go-to' option for a good team. This is simply due to the fact that he cannot create off the dribble and most likely will never develop this ability. He is a 'slasher', not a 'creator'.

That a perimeter player can almost never be considered a primary 'go-to' scorer without the ability to create off the dribble is so axiomatic that it should be taken as a fundamental truth.

Ariza's Other Weaknesses:

In addition to his inability to create, Ariza also:

•Is a poor finisher in heavy traffic
•Is a poor passer off the dribble
•Has poor body control in mid-air
•Often gets stuck in mid-air with nowhere to go
•Has not demonstrated any semblance of a mid-range game
•Struggles with the cross-over dribble against tight pressure defense
•Has no semblance of a post-up game

This above evaluation is not intended as an indictment of Ariza or even a value judgment of his worth as a player. This full disclosure is simply intended for the purpose of assessing the player’s capabilities and definitively debunking the preposterous prognostications currently in circulation regarding Ariza's future potential and expected growth trajectory.

Ariza's Current Play and Random Musings

Two things I have found to be both peculiar and of some interest:

1. Ariza was actually bringing the ball up as the point guard for a few possessions on Saturday night. He certainly has sufficient handles for this task, but unfortunately, as delineated already, not enough of a handle to do much more on his own once in the half-court.

This was of great interest as it is clear that Rick Adelman is in experimentation mode for this season. My sense is that there is a desire to play Aaron Brooks off of the ball in late game situations.

One must also assume that the staff, in order to assess the limits of Trevor’s potential, is hoping to throw before him as many challenges as possible. While I personally have assigned a ceiling to his potential, I also do feel that it is important to ascertain the limits of each player's capabilities. This is the year for experimentation.

2. I found it awfully humorous to see Ariza actually attempt to post up on numerous possessions in the first two games. Obviously, nothing came of this as he does not have the footwork to maneuver from such a stance. The notion was interesting though as it really confirms the above points regarding Adelman's mindset.

I think the coaching staff wants to give Ariza everything he can handle and let him determine his own destiny. On the basis of what I have seen in the tasks they are laying before him, it almost seems that the staff is treating Ariza like a high growth potential prospect. They want to give him every opportunity to develop as a player.

In addition, while Ariza has been struggling with turnovers and in finishing at the basket, I do expect improvement in these areas as the season progresses, and certainly upon the return of McGrady and Yao (if both healthy). Ariza has clearly been pressing in his new and expanded role.

Ariza is the Perfect Role Player for this Team.

Aside from its analytical utility, identifying Ariza’s inherent limitations serves to reveal and underscore the talents which he does possess and aids in the formation of realistic expectations.

Make no mistake, for the MLE, this signing was an absolute slam dunk and seems to be even better value than even I had initially concluded.

Ariza’s Capabilities:

Good defender – I have based this on Daryl Morey’s comment that Ariza is a top 5 wing defender as well as upon Trevor's reputation. I personally do not have large enough of a sample size to draw a conclusion on his abilities in this area, especially when 1 of the 3 games thus far includes a torching at the hands of Brandon Roy.

Plays the passing lanes well – Not only does he get steals but he has the athleticism and speed to finish at the other end.

Deadly shooter – It is becoming clear that his performance from last year’s playoffs was no fluke. Small sample size thus far, but Trevor is looking nearly automatic from long range.

Some hints of pull-up ability – While we haven’t yet seen a mid-range game, we have seen Ariza attempt pull-up 3’s off the dribble. While not yet there, this shows that the capability for development of a mid-range pull-up game is there.

Can dribble sufficiently – While he can’t break down a defender off the dribble, he is capable of comfortably handling the ball against light pressure and even bringing it up in certain situations.

Can drive in both directions and change directions when not facing tight pressure - Trevor Ariza does have handles. This isn't Luther Head or Shandon Anderson we are discussing. He can dribble well with both hands and can even cross over and change directions. However, as established, his problem is dribbling against tight pressure and breaking down the defender.

Very good 'slasher'

“Out of space” rebounder -Aiza is what I would define as an “out of space” rebounder. This is that category of player that can grab loose balls and long rebounds. The Rockets have not had this type of player in this current era and it is my contention that this is one of the primary causes of our postseason struggles in past years. We simply got beat to too many loose balls by more athletic teams with more athletic players.

What intrigues me the most about Ariza are the early hints of the pull-up jumper in its infancy stages. This is the one big area in Ariza’s game where one can realistically hope for major development. We saw the awkward pull-up bank shot against Portland which wasn't really reflective of anything but luck. However, he has really surprised me with his fluidity in pulling up for 3's off the dribble. While he hasn't made them, his form and comfort level shows that there is potential for growth in this area.

Trevor has sufficient handles, athleticism, size, and shooting touch to really develop this facet of his offensive game. Similar to a Josh Howard, if evolved, I envision Ariza using his adequate handles to dribble around screens to pull up over his defender for mid-range jump-shots. Such an addition to his arsenal is not only reasonable and realistic, but would vastly amplify his overall offensive potency.

Most importantly, one can certainly expect Ariza’s effectiveness to increase when/if playing next to a healthy McGrady and Yao. There is currently no strong side offensive focal point on the court to capture the attention of the opposing defense. Each of our players is drawing equal attention thus mitigating Trevor's ability to 'slash'. A healthy McGrady/Yao would put increased pressure on the defense allowing Ariza to feast on slowly rotating defenders.

Concluding Thoughts

Trevor Ariza will most likely never be an All-Star or even a consistent ‘go-to’ scoring option. If we accept this and restrain our expectations, we can really appreciate this signing for its true worth.

Ariza has the room for growth to become a very lethal role player. At the time of the signing, I had put his ceiling at 15ppg. Upon seeing him, while I don't expect such output, I actually don’t think it is completely out of the realm of possibility that he could average 18-20ppg in this offense.

However, this production will come similarly to that of the prototypical ‘super’-role player, Shawn Marion, in that it will be through feeding off of other players and in playing within the team's offense.

It is highly unlikely that Trevor Ariza ever becomes a guy to whom one can merely hand the ball and ask to go to work against his defender.

But that’s ok.

We don’t need him for that.

He will have many more nights like Saturday where he explodes offensively. That will lead many to ask for and expect more.

That should not be the case.

At his salary, if he continues to do what he has been proven to be capable of, this signing seems to be yet another absolute steal for Daryl Morey.

Fans should recognize that if merely accepted for what he is, at his age, with his size, and existing skillset, Trevor Ariza is a tremendous building block for this franchise heading forward.

The Importance of 'Creating' off the Dribble

[NOTE: This post is intended as a supplement to 'Assessing Ariza.']

Why is the ability to 'create' off the dribble so important?

The answer should be fairly obvious after last season when the Rockets routinely failed to score late in the 4th quarter of close games. The NBA is distinct from college basketball in that set offenses do not function well against tight defenses late in close games.

This is why teams routinely put the ball in the hands of a guard who can break down the defense off the dribble and either create shots for himself or his teammates.

These players are usually the team's 'go-to' players.

Ray Allen is the only guard who comes to mind who doesn't attack off the dribble but is considered a 'go-to' option. Even then, he does have the ability to create for himself off the dribble.

The Difference Between ‘Creating’ and ‘Slashing with the Ball’

[NOTE: This post is intended as a supplement to 'Assessing Ariza.']

Another huge misconception that is fueling the unwarranted expectations lies within the distinction between ‘creating’ and ‘slashing.’

Most fans see instances of ‘slashing’ and either presume that it is the same thing as ‘creating’ or rather that it is indicative of the ability to 'create'. In the minds of the average fan, it almost seems that there is an assumed 'Battier-McGrady Dichotomy' wherein every perimeter player is either completely rooted to the ground or has the full blown ability to create off the dribble.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In actuality, the abilities of players to drive with a basketball can be demarcated through a continuum ranging from Battier to McGrady at each extreme.

It’s understandable that Rockets fans hold such a mistaken belief as, until Von Wafer last year, this team really hasn’t had any capable ‘slashers’ since Mario Elie. Every perimeter player has been either a standstill shooter such as Jon Barry or a full blown 'creator' such as Mike James, Steve Francis, and McGrady etc. There haven’t really been ‘in-betweens’ up until now.

Like Wafer, Trevor lies in that ‘in between’ range which characterizes ‘slashing.’ What this means is that unlike Battier, he can still drive to the basket and score. However, this is not ‘creating’ nor is it indicative of the ability to ‘create.’

When Ariza or Wafer drive to the basket, they are either attacking the defense as it rotates or they are utilizing picks set by their teammates.

There is nothing wrong with this as Trevor’s 'slashing' will be a huge boon for the team. However, the distinction between ‘slashing’ and ‘creating’ is not merely a matter of semantics.

It is important to identify this distinction for the purpose of reining in expectations because the same plot unfolded last year with Wafer.

Fans observed his superb slashing ability and complained aloud as to why he was never given the opportunity to create off the dribble to close out games.

A player who ‘creates’ off the dribble does not need special circumstances to weave his way to the basket. Players who merely 'slash' are usually using their athleticism and quickness to beat their defender after the latter is out of position.

Players who 'create' can face up a defender while in a standstill position and advance past him to the spot of their choice by utilizing an assortment of moves from the spin, the cross-over, to the behind the back dribble etc. In a nutshell, players who 'create' can go where they want, whenever they want, and however they want. They are not constrained by the positioning of the defense.

We saw what happened last year when Wafer faced up Vujacic and attempted to shake free from his defense. I hadn’t seen such complete ownage by a perimeter defender since Vernon Maxwell’s 1994 semifinals against Dan Majerle.

The sentiment is already beginning to rear its head, but I do predict that on the basis of his prolific slashes to the hoop, there will be calls to allow Trevor Ariza to close out games off the dribble. Either when it’s attempted and he proves incapable or when he isn’t even given the chance, there will be general disappointment.

I am not against giving Ariza the chance to succeed, but fans should be cognizant of his limitations and not feel disappointment when their unrealistic expectations are not met.

The Confusion Over 'Creating'

[NOTE: This post is intended as a supplement to 'Assessing Ariza.']

There is a widespread assumption that a player can simply practice over the offseason and develop the ability to 'create' off the dribble. More than just misunderstanding the essence of this skill, this really demonstrates an overall lack of appreciation of the extreme talent level of some of the NBA’s elite wings.

This aforementioned phenomenon is most pervasive at draft time. Without fail, one can expect fans and pseudo-experts to point to any particularly raw and athletic perimeter player and apply the mistaken assumption that “he can’t really create his own shot too well off the dribble but that's ok, he can develop that later.”

It almost never happens as planned. Richard Jefferson and Andre Iguodala are really the only two perimeter players that come to mind that developed the ability to score off the dribble after entering the league.

It is pretty obvious why this is so very rare. The fluidity required to break down an NBA level defender is something most easily attainable at a young age while overall hand-eye coordination is still in a critical period of plasticity.

A person can't just begin practicing at age 23 and simply expect to cultivate that crucial feel for the ball and total control of his body required to break down an NBA defender.

The one counter-example always presented by subscribers to the assumption of ‘creating ability’ procurement is Tracy McGrady. On the contrary, McGrady entered the league with ball handling as one of his primary strengths. (see 1:56 mark of video) He was starting at point guard for the Raptors by his third year. He didn’t just simply practice over the summer before joining the Magic. T-Mac already had the ability to 'create' his own shot but just simply was not given the opportunity to put it on display.

This is not to say that general ball handling cannot be improved. It certainly can and most players do improve in this area. But that is markedly distinct from developing the full blown ability to 'create'.

I'm not completely ruling out the possibility that Ariza someday comes to develop the ability to 'create' off the dribble. There are few absolutes in sports. My point is that fans should not simply expect this ability to come as part of some natural, expected maturation process.

It's highly, highly unlikely to occur. If it does happen for Ariza, it was something extremely out of the ordinary and should be appreciated as such.

Such a development should not just be a foregone conclusion as has been presented and as seems to be perceived by many fans.

The Difference Between Tracy McGrady and Trevor Ariza

[NOTE: This post is intended as a supplement to 'Assessing Ariza.']

The media is largely culpable for the unreasonable expectations surrounding Ariza.

Without fail, virtually every fluff piece pertaining to the acquisition made some comparison to Tracy McGrady’s emergence with Orlando.

Beyond the surface, there are very few commonalities between the two circumstances.

The premise that Ariza could make a progression similar to that of Tracy McGrady really underestimates the unique talent of the latter. McGrady didn’t just suck in Toronto, practice over the off-season, and blow up the next year. Unfortunately, this seems to be the accepted historical narrative.

McGrady entered the league with a very high skill level but did not get the opportunity to display his talents in the Raptors' system in Vince Carter’s shadow.

Of course, McGrady did gain strength and improve his shooting and footwork with Orlando. But he already had the elite level ball handling abilities which afforded him a basic framework of capabilities through which he was able to develop a full-fledged offensive arsenal. McGrady simply needed the chance to unleash his talents.

Therein lies the difference with Ariza. Trevor has been in the league for quite some time and has never demonstrated any potential to score off the dribble. If it were ever to happen, we probably would have seen hints of it already, with Trevor now at age 24.

It’s very possible that Trevor expands certain facets of his game (as he has clearly improved his shooting), but he almost undoubtedly will never become an elite overall offensive threat.