The unsolvable NBA small ball conundrum? The Memphis Grizzlies have got the answer

November 17, 2012

by Jack Maidment

The two best teams in the NBA as of right now, going on what they have actually put on the court, are the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Who knew?

Now, before anybody plays the ‘but it’s only 8 games’ card, yeah, I am aware.

I’m not saying they will meet in the Finals.

The reason it is interesting is because the success of the two different teams can actually be seen as a revealing microcosm for basketball as a whole.

On the one hand, the power ball team – Christmas past if you will.

The Grizzlies game plan is far from advanced algebra. Get the ball to the post, watch your two big guys pound the ball down low and then capitalise on what the other team gives you: either open jump shots on the perimeter or one on one opportunities at the basket.

On the other is the small ball team, Christmas present.

The Knicks, just like the majority of teams in the NBA in 2012, have shifted away from the twin towers model of the 1990s and early 2000s, instead focusing on athleticism and an ability to get up and down the court.

Now, part of that is down to the fact Amare Stoudemire has no knees, but still, just like the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York now plays their small forward at the four instead of the three most of the time.

The impact on most teams is killer.

99% of power forwards in the league have no chance of staying with Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter and he is able to do just enough defensively to make the game plan work.

But does it have to be this way?

Well apparently not. Memphis is proving this season it has the recipe to flummox the seemingly irresistible move to small ball.

When Miami did their thing last summer, rolling to a title, the question of how to stop them with LeBron James at the four seemed unanswerable. ESPN talking heads looked like they might have a seizure when asked how they would tackle the system.

But is it really that complicated?

If a team goes small, how do you shut them down if your strength is size?

The answer, according to Memphis, is a combination of versatility and talent.

Here’s the formula:

#You can play two big guys against a small ball team and win but they HAVE to be legitimate offensive threats. Dump the ball in low post guys. Double team guys. Then go to work on the mismatch.

#Slow the game down. No running. No running at all. Foul at all costs.

#Play one, preferably two uber-athletic swing men AT ALL TIMES to protect the wings (see Rudy Gay, Tony Allen) and to make sure the three playing four on the opposing team always has a comparable body type on him defensively.

Do those three things and there is no reason a big talented team shouldn’t beat a small talented team.

So the Grizz are winning the title, right?

Well no.

The problem for Memphis and to a lesser extent the Lakers is one of playoff match ups.

The reason is that while the Grizzlies might be able to solve ‘true’ small ball teams like the Heat and the Thunder that doesn’t mean they have more flexible teams like San Antonio figured out.

If the Grizzlies were able to make it to the Finals, I would give them a 40% chance against the Heat of winning a 7 game series.

But getting there? A series against the Spurs with their deep front line and tricky backcourt, I’m not sure they would progress.

Which is why this season is so important. If the Grizzlies make the West Finals or even the Finals they could buy a reprieve for old ball.

If they lose in the first round, never getting the chance to pound the truly great small teams into the ground, well, that could be the end of big ball.

At least until it comes back into fashion again.


Jerryd Bayless: Finally Home

November 12, 2012

by Jack Maidment

The first time I saw Jerryd Bayless for any length of time was when he appeared in Adam Yauch’s frankly excellent documentary Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot.

Telling the tale of the top high school basketball players in America as they took part in the Elite 24 game at Rucker Park, the film provided what would be a telling glimpse into the lives of a handful of players who within two or three years would be playing in the NBA.

Just like they said they would.

Every featured player, whether it was Michael Beasley, Kevin Love or Brandon Jennings, spoke of their drive to make it to the league and shine.

But at the time only one player made me feel like he would go through walls, actual walls, to make it and that was Bayless.

It was the way he spoke of commitment and the virtues of hard work, the way he carried himself off the court (in yoga), the way he reacted when he was told Tyreke Evans was on the cover of a magazine instead of him, but more than anything it was his eyes.

It seemed like he wanted to make it, and to win, more than anything.

His eyes burnt. They were flat out on fire: There was no way Jerryd Bayless, the undersized, ridiculously hard working scorer from Phoenix, Arizona, was not making it to the NBA.

So after two years on the outside in Portland and two more playing for the perennially poor Toronto Raptors, Bayless wound up in Memphis, Tennessee – eyes dimmed, perhaps a little tired, but still burning, still working hard: And no where is hard work more appreciated than in the land of the Grizzlies.

Bayless is a perfect fit. A blue collar player for a blue collar team in the most blue collar of towns.

Finally Bayless is in a situation where he can succeed and where his contributions will mean more than lottery balls.

Backing up Mike Conley in Memphis means 16 minutes a night. It means steady point play. It means hitting open shots and playing defense. And so far this season Bayless has been stellar.

Maybe not statistically but certainly in helping his team win.

Some games it’s been key steals. Others it’s been a big block. Others still, a three down the stretch.

Put simply the man with the fire has found a home.

I always knew he would.


NBA 2012/13: Decision making and why the Los Angeles Lakers will make The Finals

October 2, 2012

by Jack Maidment

Sometimes it is easy to over think things.

Grocery store. Clothes shopping. Take out.

That’s why I advocate the philosophy of the Afro Samurai: My goal is to only move forward. Make a decision and don’t look back.

It doesn’t matter if it’s second thoughts about going for a new job or worrying that a girl you want to ask out might say no – in most cases the best thing you can do is just do it.

Open your mouth, inhale, speak and see what happens.

More than that, don’t wait. Every second you spend thinking about whether you should buy a black VW or a white one, or debating the merits of whether or not you actually want to see Looper (you do) is time you can’t spend thinking about this. Or this.

Decide. Move on. And if it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.

Nowhere is second guessing more prevalent than in sports – particularly in sports fans.

“Man, if Horry didn’t hit that three from the top of the key at the buzzer in game four, we would have killed the Lakers.”

Maybe. But he did.

Or: “Man, if Rose hadn’t gone down in the first round last year we would have taken the East and rolled the Thunder in the Finals.”

Maybe. But he did.

Don’t get me wrong, I like playing the historical What If? Hindsight Game as much as the next guy and that specific section in Bill Simmons’ excellent Book of Basketball is especially enjoyable.

But in the present I prefer to stick to my guns. No flip flopping.

So, embrace the spirit of the samurai and play along: I asked the following five questions about the forthcoming NBA season of myself and answered with no hesitation. You try too.

1. Are the Lakers good enough to get out of the West and win it all.

Yes. Just because it looks good on their promotional posters doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When the Lakers take to the floor against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday October 30 for the start of the regular season, their starting five will have 33 All Star nods, 4 defensive player of the year awards and three MVPs between them.

With that much experience and talent, along with having Dwight Howard at the rim to negate any worries about ageing legs, LA is not only good enough to make The Finals, with their roster and leadership they have to. And I believe they will.

2. Will LeBron James be any better this season?

Yes, definitely, even if that seems ridiculous given how good he was in 2011/12, but having firmly cemented his position atop the basketball mountain and got rid of the championship monkey which had been lingering on his back for almost a decade, there is every reason to believe King James will elevate even further.

Statistically speaking a 28-8-8 could be possible, maybe even a 30-8-8 if Wade goes down for any length of time. Enjoy.

3. Will Anthony Davis win rookie of the year?

I say no. I’m taking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That’s not to say anything bad of Davis, who I think will be a very close second and eventually a franchise guy, but MKG just has something about him that makes me buy in from the get go.

You would think that changing the losing culture that’s so ingrained in Charlotte would be a nigh on impossible task but that’s what will make MKG’s achievement all the greater when he does it. The man is a tear-your-heart-out killer. I love him.

4. Mediocrity, thy name is..?

Brooklyn. Love the new arena, love the new logo, love the name. To a certain extent I love the backcourt.

But the rest of the team is simply underwhelming. Pricey and underwhelming.

The Nets as currently put together will never get out of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Essentially they are the new Atlanta Hawks – good, but in the worst possible way.

5. Who will have the last laugh: Jeremy Lin or the New York Knicks?

Lin, almost certainly. The Knicks say letting the Harvard man go was a strictly financial decision, which on many levels is fair enough (salary cap) but in others (shirt sales, ratings)? Not so much.

Regardless, replacing him with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd? Madness.

While the Knicks wait for their PG to bring the ball up the floor every possession this year, Lin will have all the shots he wants in a system built around him. And when he isn’t on the court he will be in his Houston penthouse counting cash from his latest endorsement deal and remembering how he used to sleep on a sofa and had to put up with Melo’s stink face.

Advantage Lin.

How did you do? And remember: No flip flopping…


NBA 2012/13 preview: CREAM

September 14, 2012

by Jack Maidment

A not very wise, entirely fictional and utterly hilarious man once said that nothing ever changes by staying the same. Literally.

I like the philosophy, as a rule, because it invokes change, which for the most part, is a good thing.

But you know what they say about rules and needing an exception to be proven true.

Step forward the National Basketball Association, a league in which everything has changed this offseason – and yet nothing really has.

Allow me to explain.

There have been so many stories breaking since the Miami Heat won it all in June that you would be forgiven for thinking the NBA will look dramatically different in October come opening tip off.

With a draft class at least 10 deep (Davis, Barnes, Rivers, Sullinger, Kidd-Gilchrist, Perry Jones, Royce White, Beal, Robinson, Waiters and so on) in legitimate league talent and more free agents boarding flights than I can remember in years, things must be different.

But they aren’t. Nothing has changed at the top of the pyramid.

Going into this season:

#The Lakers are set for another title run after trading for Dwight Howard, the one player in the NBA that could solve all of their ‘we’re old, not very athletic, can’t defend the rim’ problems, and Steve Nash, the perfect Kobe-complement: a ballhandler who can run the offense, keep 24 fresh and get all the (ageing) players on the team easy shots.

#The Celtics are set for another title run after retooling. They still have their core (Garnett, Pierce, Rondo) and have swapped streaky (now) shooters, Ray Allen for Jason Terry, while adding enough talent to their bench to return to the Eastern Conference Finals.

#The Miami Heat are set for another title run after attracting another batch of veteran ring-seekers willing to take the minimum for the chance at grabbing a piece of career capping jewellery.

#The Oklahoma City Thunder are set for another title run after their four best players got better at the Olympics and Sam Presti gambled (and will win) in the draft.

#The San Antonio Spurs are set for another title run – like you thought they wouldn’t be.

Last year’s five best teams=This year’s five best teams.

Book it.


Oklahoma@Miami, Lakers@Clippers: This much we know

April 5, 2012

By Jack Maidment

Four teams with realistic championship aspirations faced off against each other on Wednesday night with the NBA regular season finish line in sight.

Here’s what we learned.

Oklahoma City Thunder @ Miami Heat.

@There are way too many hot, young women going out with old (rich) men in Miami. Man.

@My heart might want something different (I see you Chi-Town) but an OKC-Miami NBA Finals would be out of this world. The standard of play when both teams are on the floor is off the scale.

@Kevin Durant has acquired The Look.

@LeBron James-KD is the best player match up in the league by a long way. They play each other pretty much the entire game and guarantee the other a tough night, both offensively and defensively.

@OKC can be nasty when it needs to be. Between Ibaka, Perkins, Mohammed and Collison, the Thunder have four solid bodies who can dish out a hit and on Wednesday they did. Frequently. The game had more missed layups than any other I have watched this season and every one was down to players waiting for the crunch.

@If I was a Miami fan, I would worry about Chris Bosh. He was milk-carton missing on Wednesday night and wanted no part of a positively scary OKC frontline.

@On that note, OKC’s front line is the best in the league. Between Perkins, Ibaka and Durant the Thunder have everything you need to be a great team on both ends of the floor.

@If Shane Battier cannot consistently make the left corner three in the fourth quarter the Heat could be in big trouble.

@Eric Spoelstra must drink a lot of Red Bull prior to each game. He walks around a lot. (Could make a ‘he spends more time on the floor than Mike Miller’ joke here, but I won’t because I am all class.)

@There is no scarier defensive player in the League than Serge Ibaka.

@If OKC-Miami do meet in the Finals Mike Breen is going to need to take a deep breath.

@Mike Breen is the best announcer in the NBA and it’s not even close.

@James Harden is the slipperiest player the the league.

Los Angeles Lakers @ Los Angeles Clippers

@There are way too many hot, young women going out with old (rich) men in Los Angeles. Man.

@Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. The ‘raise up’ wing three pointer he hits with alarming regularity is probably the toughest shot any player takes in the league and it is also probably the most demoralising for the opposition.

@Yes Blake, the dunks are nice. But they are still only worth two points.

@Pretty sure Vinny Del Negro pulls names out of a hat to pick his starters and their minutes.

@Chauncey Billups has some truly horrible ties.

@Andrew Bynum is the biggest and strongest player in the league. There is no one in the entire NBA who can play him one on one any more. He made DeAndre Jordan look like a 6-year-old on the low block.

@Blake Griffin looks lost in just about every half court set. Although to be fair, so would you if you had VDN teaching you.

@Randy Foye cannot play Kobe Bryant straight up. Who knew. Kobe was asked in his half time interview what he thought about the Clippers leaving Foye on an island. Kobe grinned and simply said in that situation ‘it’s just time to go to work’.

@Pau Gasol is the most skilled big man in the league. He is also the owner of the best stinkface. After Blake dunked on him a second time on Wednesday Pau gave a facial expression similar to the one given by a workman who arrives home to see his wife getting banged by an alligator. Amazing.

@A Clipper-Laker series would be fun, but the Lakers would win.

@Ramon Sessions is an upgrade over Derek Fisher in the same way that the animation in Toy Story is an upgrade over Steamboat Micky.


The Toronto Raptors are on the rise. No, really.

April 3, 2012

By Jack Maidment

After playing with the kind of lethargy normally associated with a morgue employee, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a familiar 21-6 hole early against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday February 12.

They were doing everything they were supposed to: not playing defense, not making shots, not really doing much of anything.

Just as advertised.

The offensively challenged Lakers proceeded to pour in 34 points in the first quarter, a season high for an opponent of the Raptors. Oh, and Kobe was scoreless.

What happened next was deeply surprising and for those who doubt the veracity of the Mayan 2012 prophecy perhaps a little worrying.

The Raptors gave the Los Angeles Lakers a game. An actual game with lead changes and everything. Unbelievable.

Toronto have been in the NBA basement for so long that writers could feel confident copy and pasting season projections for years: Replace Bosh with Barnani, Carter with DeRozan, cap up the word ‘soft’.

But on this particular lunchtime the Raptors did something new. They showed some heart. They fought.

The old Raptors would have thrown in the towel; hopelessly out matched and outclassed by NBA royalty.

But this time they dug in and found a way, clawing back an 18 point deficit over three quarters and actually going ahead with under a minute to play on a Jose Calderon jump shot from the free throw line.

Nobody thought the point guard’s shot was going in. He may have been in the midst of a career night, he scored 30 points, but nobody in the Air Canada Centre thought he was actually going to sink it; that’s what years of perpetual losing will do for a fan base.

But he did.

And if the Lakers didn’t have a player who can consistently make fadeaway 18ft baseline double-teamed jump shots the Raptors would have tasted an improbable victory.

Despite the loss, 94-92, and many similar this season, the Raptors and their fans should be encouraged by the performance and the overall effort of the team under first year head coach Dwayne Casey.

They have had close losses before, plenty in fact, but the one against LA felt different. The ones they have played against Chicago, Miami and New York have felt different. The games have felt real, like the Raptors actually had a chance. Like they are actually going somewhere.

If you google news search Raptors+heart you get 90 results. And most of those also include the words ‘lack of’.

But if there is any justice in the world that should change this year.

Their roster may be… interesting, and a little short on elite NBA talent, but team basketball and belief can be great equalisers.

That and the fact they have Jonas Valancianas stashed in Europe, a legitimate seven foot center with oodles of potential and the toughness to protect Andre Bargnani, and a probable top five pick in this year’s draft.

With Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes likely to be available it’s not a bad time for things to start looking up.

Next year their starting five could be Jerryd Bayless (I believe), DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valuncianas and Top-5 Draft Guy X from the deepest Draft in years.

Get on the bandwagon early. Next season the Raptors will rise.


NBA All-Star Game 2012: 22 nuggets

February 27, 2012

by Jack Maidment

NBA All-Star 2012:

  1. Kobe Bryant was visibly annoyed LeBron passed on the second to last possession (which he turned over) and when he decided to take the ball out to pass with 1.1 seconds left on the last play of the game. Kobe wanted him to take the challenge.
  2. Regardless, LeBron James was other-worldly for a stretch, making eight or nine in a row to bring the East back in the 4th.
  3. Pitbull was truly awful. Is he the least talented superstar singer/rapper we have right now?
  4. Mary J. killed the anthem. Phenomenal.
  5. Russell Westbrook lost his mind on his post-dunk celebrations.
  6. Kevin Durant cussed the ref for not calling a foul on an inbounds play that would have sent him to the line to ice the game (‘call the fucking foul ref’). I like that he was so invested.
  7. I thought Durant was going to hit the MVP trophy on the ceiling of the Amway Center when he lifted the award up. As scouts everywhere would say: His length is ridiculous.
  8. Derrick Rose does not care about winning All-Star games. He wants championships.
  9. I have never seen a basketball player more afraid to shoot free throws at the end of a game than Blake Griffin. He did not want that ball.
  10. Spike Lee’s tie was a horror show.
  11. Even in an All Star game Thibs was screaming for defence. ‘Stay on the boards Melo, stay on the BOARDS!’
  12. Out of all the non-teammate guys at the game the ones with the most obvious friendship were Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony by a distance, followed by Blake Griffin and Kevin Love.
  13. LeBron’s beard had been trimmed. It looked sharp.
  14. Russell Westbrook’s shoes looked like they had melted.
  15. Steve Nash cut his hair. My friend text me to tell me he thought he looked like a 14-year-old girl. Agreed. Regardless his bounce pass from halfcourt through traffic was beautiful.
  16. Russell Westbrook is easily the most powerful and explosive dunker of the NBA’s guard class.
  17. Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard are not friends.
  18. Andrew Bynum has silicon injection in his knees. This worries me.
  19. Deron Williams is a three-time All Star. How can a guy that good be that underrated?
  20. Dirk Nowitzki has perhaps the ugliest gate of any NBA player. It looks like one leg is half a foot shorter than the other when he runs.
  21. Dirk Nowitzki should sue Kobe and Kevin for copyright infringement.
  22. For every three Dwight Howard elects to take in All Star games, $100,000 should be donated to charity.

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