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 Rookie Ratings: Hasheem Thabeet has the shoulders to carry the weightiest of expectations.

September 7, 2009

hasheem 1by Jack Maidment

It is up there with all of the other clichés, but it is oh so very true: you can’t teach tall.

Of all the world’s popular games, basketball more than any other (except perhaps sumo wrestling) is best suited to those people with a very specific body type.

That is not to say that a tall player is guaranteed to be a good basketball player and similarly a vertically challenged player is not guaranteed to be ineffective. You only have to look at the success that many players have had despite measuring up at less than 6 feet: Allen Iversen. No elaboration needed.

However, one thing that is assured is that an extremely tall person with very little skill or experience is more likely to be picked up than a shorter player with above average skills: they may not be able to make a jump shot, but their mere physical presence on the court is enough to warrant a roster spot.

This may be the case at pick up games, high school and even college, but height is not enough to assure success at the professional level.

The importance of a physically imposing post presence to success in the NBA has made the drafting of 7 footers a troublesome and unpredictable business. The search for the next Shaq or Duncan or Wilt and the Championships that would surely follow has caused the demise of many an aspiring GM, consumed by the possibility of unearthing that monster of a man who also possesses the craft to do more than just get in the way and occupy space.

The fact that very, very few players come out of college and into the Draft as the finished product leads those in charge to place huge amounts of emphasis on a player’s potential. ‘He is 7-3, imagine what he COULD be!’.


Alas, most don’t work out that way and that is by no means their fault. The pressure placed on a player drafted high to grow as the GM promised he would is simply a case of misguided expectations.

It is with this in mind that Hasheem Thabeet’s rookie campaign will garner much attention and criticism. You cannot go second overall and not expect media attention, but when you were taken ahead of a number of other exceptional players who apparently could contribute more immediately seemingly because you were simply much taller than them is a sure fire way to attract detractors.

Regardless of the alleged politics surrounding the Memphis Grizzlies #2 pick i.e. Ricky Rubio not wanting to play their, Thabeet has much to do to repay the faith placed in him by the franchise. They believe that he will grow and mature into a player capable of dominating the floor, the anchor to their team.

The major positive for the Tanzanian is that he has got to where he is now despite only taking up the game at the age of 15. That would certainly suggest that he has much to learn and that what he has learnt he has done so in a very short space of time. Given a few years to develop and who knows how good he can be.

The expectations of most people, outside of the Grizzlies hierarchy, are that #2 was just too high for a player who brings relatively little to the table at the moment. So few genuine Big Men have gone on to fulfil the promise that their height has the potential to allow that the bar will be low set for Thabeet: nobody expects him to really excel, nobody will have him pegged as a Rookie of the Year candidate despite having gone second overall.

Perhaps that is unfair, but historically the vast majority of NBA giants have failed to ignite the game as those that drafted them may have wished.

No player taken this year will have a harder task than Thabeet in trying to finish where they started. Ranked the #2 rookie at the end of the season?

A tall order indeed.

NBA Trade Rumors: Minnesota Pursuing Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love Offered To Memphis?

June 16, 2009

loveby Jack Maidment

The Los Angeles Laker’s returned to the City of Angels, trophy’s and all, drawing to a close the 2009 NBA season.

All of the year’s meaningful, competitive basketball has now been played and teams around the League must now look forward to what can be achieved heading into a new year when currently dirty slates can be wiped clean: here’s looking at the Suns, Clippers and Wizards especially.

With the Draft less than two weeks away, every team is looking to make moves; whether that be to improve roster talent or to shed salary.

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing draft possibility to emerge over the past couple of days has the Minnesota Timberwolves looking to trade Kevin Love plus filler to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for the #2 pick in this year’s draft.

All of the noise up to this point has suggested that the Wolves are extremely keen on Ricky Rubio and believe that he could be the man to help persuade the citizens of Minnesota to part with their hard earned cash and come watch.

Brining Rubio in would undoubtedly boost ticket sales given his penchant for flash. Yet, given the strength of Love’s rookie season, which saw him lead rookies in rebounds a game and most double doubles, sending him to Memphis for an unproven NBA point may raise a few eyebrows.

However, if the deal did go through, the Wolves would still hold the #6 pick where they could likely take Jordan Hill, the athletic power forward out of Arizona as Love’s replacement.

The fact that Rubio is looking to avoid Memphis like the plague, the move makes sense for the Grizz who would acquire a player who would compliment Marc Gasol in the paint.

The tandem of Gasol (Jr) and Love would be one of the League’s best rebounding front courts which would leave Rudy Gay to get his on the offensive end.

It would also allow Memphis to stick with their current backcourt pairing of Mike Conley and future League Top-Scorer O.J. Mayo, giving them the time needed to grow as individual players and as team mates.

Even if Rubio did want to play in Memphis, would a ball hungry pair of Mayo and Rubio click? In all likelihood, no.

NBA Trade Rumors: Boston, Houston and New York all interested in #2 Pick

June 9, 2009
by Jack Maidment
Despite the perceived weakness of the 2009 Draft Class, many teams are still keen to get their hands on the top picks for a shot at taking the player can usher in a new era of success for their franchise.

For some this means finding the building block on which to add other pieces, looking ahead at least 2 or 3 years before really contemplating playoff success.

For others, a top 5 pick represents the opportunity to add ‘the last piece’ to a team that is ‘almost there’.

It appears that the Los Angeles Clippers are dead set on Blake Griffin with relatively little chance of a trade taking him away from Clipperville.

However, the same certainty cannot be applied to the Memphis Grizzlies who hold the rights to pick #2.

News is beginning to circulate that at least three other teams are keen to trade for their chance to pick second overall when Ricky Rubio, Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry will all be available.

The Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets are two of the three teams apparently interested but with neither team possessing a first round pick this year they will have to rely on a personnel switch to persuade Memphis to part with their valuables.

The third team, which does have picks to play with and is rumoured to be interested, is the New York Knicks. Rumour or no rumour, it makes sense for the Knicks to trade up with the franchise desperate for a player to build around.

Ricky Rubio will undoubtedly be the Knicks’ target: a player capable of boosting the team’s performance and popularity as well as providing the player the perfect market in which his management want him placed.

If these rumours materialise into something more concrete it will be interesting to see what the #2 is worth:

The Celtics will be the team with the least options given the liklihood that they will want to preserve the Big 4. That leaves Kendrick Perkins, Eddie House and other bench players as Boston’s bargaining chips?

The Rockets could try and offload Tracy McGrady’s salary for the pick plus player(s) from Memphis?

As for the Knicks? Well they could offer just about anyone from their roster.

I like Rubio in New York

NBA Draft 2009: Top 10 Largely Picks Itself

May 26, 2009
Stephen Curry fits the Knicks

Stephen Curry fits the Knicks

by Jack Maidment

Why would you pick Blake Griffin with the #1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft?

The answers are two fold:

1. You get the only player ‘guaranteed’ to make an impact straight away a player destined for All-Star status sooner rather than later.

2. As a struggling franchise you draft the player that will sell the most season tickets through sheer weight of interest.

Now, both of these reasons are obvious and self explanatory. Yet it is with no surprise that we hear that the Clippers are listening to offers for their pick.

Such a rumour has started to grow pace as a result of one man’s actions: Ricky Rubio.

It could be argued that the DNA of this Draft class rests heavily on how the man from Spain decides to handle himself as the Big Night draws closer.

Rumours are rumours and their one constant is that they don’t have to hold an ounce of truth: they will still grow larger and gain more talk time. Whether Rubio will commit to the draft regardless of location could dictate the specifics for, at least, the other players in the top 10.

It is difficult to isolate Rubio because his decision will affect everyone making the first 10 picks largely difficult to predict. However, some should be sure things. Observe:

Barring trades and Clipper Madness, Blake Griffin will go first to Los Angeles. As Ron Burgundy would say, ‘that’s a given’.

If Rubio plays hard ball the Grizzlies will likely take Hasheem Thabeet for two reasons. Firstly, he should compliment Marc Gasol’s post game.

Secondly, Memphis couldn’t accommodate another perimeter player who needs the ball to be successful. They already have OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay to demand the rock and it can only be shared so much.

Ricky Rubio may well look attractive to the Thunder, but the bottom line is: could he play in the same backcourt as Russell Westbrook? No. Westbrook can play at the 2, but both want the ball in their hand. Conflict? Yep.

So who do Oklahoma take? James Harden, the best SG in this class would provide them with a perimeter threat who can go to the hoop and finish. A perfect compliment to Westbrook, Durant and Jeff Green.

The Sacramento Kings could be a viable alternative for Rubio who would get the reigns to the team and would sell tickets. But, whether he would mesh with Kevin Martin, the franchise’s main scorer and ball demander, is a tough question to resolve.

The Washington Wizards will likely take Jordan Hill who will bring toughness and heart to a front line which lacks fire. His offensive game may be far from polished, but the fact that the Wiz will have Arenas, Butler and Jamison, Hill wont be relied on for production anyway. Just clean the glass and hustle.

Hill seems like a lock for Wahington. He just makes sense. The same can not be said for the next two picks.

It would appear that the T-Wolves and the Warriors will take Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, but which way round does not scream out.

Nellie Ball would suit Jennings more but Monta Ellis might not be too keen. But, to be fair, he might not like the other option any better.

Tyreke is probably a better fit for the Wolves who can persist with Randy Foye at the 1.

It’s a tough call.

If he is still there, the New York Knicks will take the best shooter in the draft, Stephen Curry who should fit perfectly into Mike D’Antoni’s offense. That will be nice.

Toronto picks 9th and they will need to address their lack of backcourt power, probably by taking Demar DeRozan. A real slasher, he should fit nicely with Calderon and compliment the Raptors frontline perfectly.

Ramon Sessions’ contract demands will likely lead the Bucks to draft a PG in the shape of Jonny Flynn.

If Rubio pulls out then everything will change, with Jennings the one to benefit.

If he stays in the draft and Memphis or Oklahoma call his bluff, the landscape will change all over again.

It’s all on Rubio.

NBA Draft 2009: Ricky Rubio Wants LA Clippers Or Nothing?

May 22, 2009
Dollars or Euros next year?

Dollars or Euros next year?

by Jack Maidment

Making it to the League is the objective right? That’s pretty damn exciting. Getting paid to do something you love? Sign me up.

The opportunity to get drafted is such a huge opportunity that where you play is kind of a foot note. However, Ricky Rubio, having already played pro ball in Europe since he was 5, is apparently less than thrilled at the prospect of relocating to Memphis. Or Oklahoma.

So, while everyone else focuses on improving their draft stock, thus their wages, just being excited by the start of their NBA career, Rubio is busy scheming. Or at least his agent is.
“I’m drafted? Sick! Where to?”

“Oklahoma City”

“Oh. Ok. You know what, I’m good in Spain. I’ll check you next year.”

Apparently, Rubio wants LA. Or Sacramento at a push. Otherwise he is not interested.

The extent to which this is BS is clearly up for discussion, but it does ask a number of questions.

For 95% of the players in the Draft, this is the first chance they have to get paid to play. However, Brandon Jennings and Rubio are used to the sweet smell of Euros in their pockets.

This effectively means that the allure of the NBA is strictly based on playing experience rather than building an impressive bank balance.

They already got money AND a nice place to live.

Let’s be fair. If you had your choice of Rome and Barcelona or Oklahoma City which would you choose? Likely you would be booking your tickets to Europe straight away.

The fact is that truly elite athletes have a luxury that everyone else does not. The freedom to choose. They get their own way or, well, no, they just get their own way.

Kobe Bryant is rumoured to hold a no-trade clause in his contract. The only difference is that Rubio has not made it in America yet. It’s the same situation.

Now clearly Rubio is not Kobe, LeBron or Wade, but he has experienced enough success to stamp his feet a little if he feels it.

This throws in another variable in player’s decisions.

Do you want a good team to draft you so that you win straight away with sparce playing time?

Or a bad team with lots of time and lots of losing?

Or the team doesn’t matter at all, just location.

Luckily, the majority of Draftees do not have the sort of power that Rubio possesses, so they will go where they are told and be grateful for it.

The real difficulty for Rubio is that the likelihood of a ‘good’ location is fairly slim. And if he holds out and calls Memphis’s bluff, his reputation takes a huge hit.

If the Grizzlies or the Thunder stand firm and draft him but he returns to Spain, boy does the NBA look silly.

If it turns out to be lies, or not, Rubio can likely expect a loud welcome whatever.

Probably boos and jeers.