Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Lebron Block

It begins so unsuspectingly with the makings of an open court layup. But while that dribbler has his eyes on the rim, his previously assumed uncontested layup gets swatted off the glass from behind by a defender. This move is arguably the most exciting type of blocked shot available to the viewer because it manages to combine the excitement of an outlet pass so perfectly tossed that it leaves the basket wide open, but compounding that scenario with a defender that is racing back in pure desperation, makes for either an exciting block, or a flailing rocket of arms and legs right into the crowd.

Until the 2008-2009 season, successful attempts at blocking a fast break layup from behind were few and far between. Some people remember the image of Tayshaun Prince successfully chasing down Reggie Miller in game 4 the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals. But that play was only possible because Tayshaun is built with arms hanging down to his ankles. It’s very hard to chase down a dribbler while also maintaining any sense of trajectory on where the ball is headed.

Fortunately for Lebron James, he is ambidextrous, usually faster than his opponent, and can certainly jump higher, so he stays balanced while beating the dribbler towards the rim. Mr. James showed promise at this move a year ago, but this season has become an absolute hawk. The Cavs’ increased pace from last season has inevitably lead to a reciprocation of fast break attempts, but Lebron is smart enough to see the break develop, and quick enough to block several shots from behind each game.

The propensity of Lebron’s hands getting to the rim before his opponents’ has helped add another layer to the Cavaliers. Their defense has received some aggressive tweaks and twists from head coach Mike Brown in order to take advantage of Cleveland’s desire to push the ball more. But Lebron’s ability to hunt players down in the open court is a perfect complement to his aggressive offensive style, and makes him considerably more dynamic as a player. It’s also arguable that Lebron is already the greatest ever at this move. Michael Jordan was certainly a predator on defense, but he feeded more on his opponents ballhandling skills in order to force steals. And Bill Russell was certainly a better shotblocker in the half court, but he never possessed Lebron’s speed and leaping ability needed to hunt down speedy guards.

It’s imaginable that ten more seasons of Lebron protecting the rim from half court will result in “The Lebron Block” being standard nomenclature. But sports writers are sometimes slow to accept a term until it takes place in a climactic enough scenario, such as an NBA Finals game, or several NBA Finals games. And maybe that is deserving. If Lebron is truly the greatest fast break shot blocker ever, the opportunity for him to prove how far he has come on defense will eventually present itself.

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NBA after week 1: Cleveland Cavaliers

After one week into the NBA season, it’s become rather clear that a completely healthy Cleveland Cavaliers team is, at worst, the second best team in the Eastern Conference.

For the first time in his career, Lebron has a real team

For the first time in his career, Lebron has a real team

Offense

Anyone who has seen the Cavs play at any point prior to this season knows how anemic and underdeveloped their offense has been. Most play sets revolved around Lebron running an isolation play at the top of the key, waiting for a big man to come out and set a screen, before he gallivants towards the rim, violently drawing contact and either finishing from up close, or violently drawing contact and kicking the ball to an outside shooter. But not this year.

The addition of Mo Williams would not have been a dealbreaker for most teams, but Williams is an excellent fit with Lebron not just because he can shoot, but also because he can take over ballhandling duties, allowing Lebron to receive the ball in other places besides 30 feet from the basket.

The Cavs have James playing about 8 minutes per game at power forward, which not only gets him the ball in scoring position, it has also been an attempt to cover up their low post scoring deficiencies. So far this move has worked very well, as James is fast enough that he can beat his man down the court, and get into an advantageous position on the low block. Plus he’s strong enough that opposing big men can’t simply back him down on the other end.

Moving Lebron to the 4 hasn’t been the only change for Cleveland this year, as it’s pretty clear that Cleveland emphasized ball movement and passing during training camp.  Making the extra pass has been a priority, and so far, the Cavs rank second in the east in field goal shooting percentage, third in scoring per game, and first in the east in points per shot.

Almost down to a man, Lebron’s supporting cast has improved from a training camp of offensive coaching. G Daniel Gibson has developed a nice catch-and-shoot move from the corners of the foul line, G Delonte West’s field goal percentage is over nine percent higher than last year , and Zydrunas Ilgauskas is taking a greater advantage of his 7’3″ height, which has improved his passing considerably. But the biggest improvement has been made by Anderson Varejao, who has lost at least 20 pounds, and can now finish around the basket with considerable force, shooting over 60% from the field; a 14% improvement from last season. He has developed his jumpshot as well, to the point that he is able to bring his defender out to 17 feet, which clears up the lane to either put the ball on the floor, or pass to a cutting Lebron.

Anderson Varejao has improved on offense

Anderson Varejao has improved on offense

Defense

The Cavs have continued to defend well by outrebounding their opponents (5th in the NBA), rotating well, and cutting off the three point shot. Their rebounding differential is +4.4, and their point differential is +6.6, which ties them with Boston for 5th in the league. The major difference between this season and last, has been the aggressive use of Mo Williams as an on-ball defender. Head coach Mike Brown is still in the process of teaching Williams how to use his quickness to consistently pressure the ball, but so far, the 7.9 steals per game that the Cavs are putting up, is higher than the 7.1 from a year ago.

And although Lebron has been playing 4.4 fewer minutes than last season, his rebounding numbers have gone up, and his defense has gone from very good to elite. He’s now one of the 10 best defenders in the league, and has become extremely difficult to score on, due to his size, and his ability to swat layups off the glass from behind.

Intangibles

Lebron sacrificed a summer of mid-range shooting practice in order to win a gold medal with the USA olympic team, but the mental fortitude gained from training and watching game film with the likes of Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant has helped James understand the role that an MVP must play on his team. So far, Lebron has been getting his stats, but he’s been effective at “managing” his team; content to let his teammates score when the offense is clicking, and taking the game over when they need him. This has resulted in a 5-2 record, with the only two losses coming on the road in Boston and New Orleans.

So unless an injury derails this Cavs team, it’s a safe bet that the Detroit Pistons switching out their starting point guard will result in enough transition losses for Cleveland to swoop in for their first division title in over 20 years. And considering that the Cavs have improved, all it takes is for a slight slip by Boston for Cleveland to claim its second Eastern Conference title in three years.

NBA Trade Alert: Billups to Denver, Iverson to Detroit

Allen Iverson lays it all on the line, for better or worse, in every game

Allen Iverson lays it all on the line, for better or worse, in every game

Detroit Pistons PG Chauncey Billups and PF Antonio McDyess were traded to the Denver Nuggets today, in exchange for G Allen Iverson. The deal, which is expected to be finalized later today, provides the shakeup that Pistons GM Joe Dumars had promised earlier in the summer, after Detroit was eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Dumars, apparently convinced that his core group of Billups, G Richard Hamilton, SF Tayshaun Prince, and PF/C Rasheed Wallace had reached its ceiling in terms of success, has found a trading partner in Denver that makes over the playing style for both teams.

Allen Iverson will be able to step in and provide a higher scoring average and a deadly crossover that has kept the lightning quick guard a step ahead of his defender for 13 NBA seasons. Billups, on the other hand, provides the Nuggets with a more stable half-court option, as well as a refined all-around game. But while there are advantages for both teams, there are also disadvantages as well.

Floor General

Chancey Billups: Floor General

Denver

Pro: At 32, Billups is coming off of an excellent year in which he shot over 40% from three-point range, and over 90% from the line. Billups is a master at drawing fouls late in the game, and is a strong, savvy defender, which has made Detroit one of the hardest teams to catch in the fourth quarter. He is also a better passer than Iverson, and doesn’t turn the ball over. Additionally, because Billups can shoot, and is tall for his position, he will likely be effective for the duration of his contract. In general, “Mr. Big Shot” may be the most complete two-way point guard in the league today.

PF/C Antonio McDyess, despite being included for salary purposes, is an underrated addition to Denver’s bare cupboard front line. Since the 2004-2005 season, Denver’s front line of Nene and Kenyon Martin have played an average of 34 and 50 games, respectively per season, so adding a competent big man who can knock down a mid-range jumpshot will help the team transition into more of a half-court offense.

Con: Billups plays fewer minutes per game than Iverson, putting some additional pressure on backup Anthony Carter. Billups’ contract also runs three years longer than Iverson’s, with about $38 million being owed to him after this season. This development is detrimental to Denver’s previous trade, that sent starting center Marcus Camby to the LA Clippers for nothing other than cap relief. Had the Nuggets retained Camby’s services, they would be competing with Utah for the Northwest Division crown, and subsequently, a top-four playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Detroit

Pro: Despite being an eyelash over 6 feet tall, Allen Iverson brings a big time scorer’s mentality to a team that has been getting its points by committee. Iverson is quicker and better in transition than Billups, meaning he will be able to create more open looks for Richard Hamilton. Iverson and Hamilton are likely the quickest backcourt in the NBA, and should result in a faster pace than what the Pistons are used to. This move also carves out a larger role for G Rodney Stuckey, whose size will be utilized more on the defensive end.

Con: Iverson’s defensive acumen is based on his elite quickness, while Billups could always use his strength to prevent bigger guards from posting him up. Whenever Billups would get burned by a quicker guard, Rip Hamilton would simply slide over to the point. Now the Pistons run the risk of losing the strength battle on the perimeter, while also losing the rebounding battle.

Conclusion

It’s hard to find a more complete player than Chauncey Billups. He’s a good player on both ends, can play on or off the ball, and is the only elite point guard to have played a significant role on a championship team. He won’t beat Allen Iverson one-on-one, but he’s stable as a table, and is going to provide the outside shooting and defense that Denver needs.

Detroit is receiving an injection of energy with this trade. Iverson’s scoring can keep pace with anyone, and his lack of size won’t be as much of an issue in the East, as the Celtics and the Cavaliers start point guards at or around Iverson’s height. Plus, even if Iverson and Detroit are a bad fit, the two can part ways at the end of the season, with the Pistons having successfully cleared the way for Rodney Stuckey, having jettisoned an expensive guard in his 30s.

This trade is interesting, because it involves the swapping of philosophies, but the lingering fact is that Denver and Detroit are on opposite ends of the offensive spectrum when it comes to how they get their points. Detroit plays one of the slowest paces in the league, and they’re adding a guy who has spent the last few years on a team that tries to run its opponents off the court. And because Iverson needs the ball in his hands in order to be effective, there will likely be some hiccups along the way as the rest of the members of Deeetroit basketball learn to push the pedal to the floor.

The upshot to this trade is that the infusion of Iverson into the Pistons’ starting lineup will cost Detroit some wins, and likely the Central Division crown. Denver, on the other hand, is still at best, in the lower half of the Western Conference, likely meaning a first round playoff series on the road, and far less cap relief to rebuild over the offseason.