Matchup Madness Part II

We've become accustomed to interpret the 48 minutes on a basketball court as some type of dynamic chess match. But have we ever stopped to think if attempting to control that chaos actually matters?

Image result for matt thomas raptors

When the Toronto Raptors signed Matt Thomas this offseason, it wasn’t to much fanfare. Unless you were a hardcore Iowa State Cyclone fan, writing a book on the Lakers 2017 Summer League title or an ardent follower of the ACB, Thomas likely didn’t exist in your orbit. Well, at least until Synergy threw this stat out and let Basketball Twitter have a moment:

If you weren’t familiar with Thomas before this post, that tweet pretty much sums up his essence as a player: he’s an elite shooter and generally impactful offensive operator. Given the NBA is in the midst of a three-point craze, the Raptors scouting department did the team a favor by keeping tabs on one of the best young shooters outside the NBA. When free agency opened, Toronto secured his services with a three-year deal.

Shooters like Thomas always have a way sticking around NBA rosters. Hell, Steve Novak was basically a statue that flung basketballs in at a high rate from beyond the three-point line and he lasted 11 years in the league. The problem with a lot of these specialists is their flaws in other areas typically keep them from consistently staying in rotations.

At the start of the season, Thomas was no exception. You didn’t need a direct quote to see head coach Nick Nurse had some concerns over earmarking his new shooting specialist for a nightly role in the rotation. Despite getting some decent run in the preseason, Thomas opened the year with a pair of “DNP-Coach’s Decision” next to his name in the box score.

Then against the Bulls, Thomas saw 20 minutes of action. The following game against Orlando, however, he was back on the bench. The same was true except for one lone minute in the next game against the Pistons. Nurse’s use of Thomas clearly was going to be reliant on matchups and/or a need for an offensive boost.

Against Chicago, players like Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison and even Tomas Satoransky likely presented non-threatening matchups in the eyes of the Toronto coaching staff. For them, having a place Thomas could “hide” on defense was the only way they felt secure in utilizing his offensive tools. Chicago presented that while Orlando and Detroit, while hardly powerhouses, apparently did not. When Thomas played nine minutes against the Bucks a couple nights later, matchups might still have been an issue but the Raptors sluggish offensive start screamed for the boost only an elite shooter can provide.

Thankfully for Thomas, the string of this matchup yo-yo eventually broke and dropped him permanently in the rotation due to the injury crisis that struck the Raptors a couple weeks back. Patrick McCaw bit the dust first, followed by Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and for a few games, OG Anunoby. With the Raptors generally needing bodies, Nurse really didn’t have much of a choice but to play Thomas for minutes that weren’t entirely matchup based.

Thomas has played in all seven of those games since the Lowry injury, averaging 13.3 minutes per contest heading into last night’s game against, coincidentally, Orlando. Toronto has gone 5-2 during that stretch while Thomas has been +16 in his 93 total minutes. And here’s the kicker, his positive split doesn’t even have much to do with his offensive impact. Surprisingly, the team’s ability to produce points remains virtually the same regardless of the presence of Thomas.

Yet for all his apparent concerns, Nurse’s defense has also been just fine. The Raptors have posted a defensive rating of 102.6 with Thomas on the court. When he’s on the bench, there’s an ever so slight improvement to….102.1. Now the sample size is small, Thomas has only played 123 minutes overall entering last night’s game, but it’s pretty obvious that the skilled offensive player is not an anchor dragging down Toronto’s defense.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the idea of matching Thomas up against weaker offensive players or waiting until the Raptors need points to utilize their shooting specialist is a concern over a problem that might not exist. And part of an outmoded thought process that not just Nurse continues to ascribe to….

Image result for daniel kahneman and richard thaler

Only Thinking Slowly

Back in 2011, renowned psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman wrote a book about the cognitive biases that effect our two levels of thinking — which he referred to as System 1 and System 2 — called “Thinking Fast and Slow.” I remember that over the course of the next couple years, that book picked up a lot of steam inside basketball coaching circles. By 2015, about two dozen basketball coaches had either referenced the book while talking to me or implored me to read it.

Sadly, the revelations in Kahneman’s book may have excited these people on the inside the profession, but it still hadn’t done much to change the way basketball coaches operate as a whole. In any sport, the mind of a coach is typically ground zero for biases at work. I certainly can recall my own involvement in numerous arguments over basketball cliches that simply required the right play to argue one side or the other — the confirmation bias hard at work. And years ago, I even wrote about how the optimism bias likely impacts the way NBA teams evaluate free agents.

Yet none of that is the reason I mention Kahneman’s literary works. It’s what Kahneman spent most of his life studying that comes up often whenever there’s a basketball coach obsessing over matchups. One of Kahneman’s more notable contributions was that of prospect theory, which is essentially the idea that losses and gains of equal value are perceived differently.

Prospect theory isn’t the end of the road though. Kahneman’s discoveries there provided the basis for loss aversion, the idea people are prone to avoiding losses rather than seeking equivalent gains — essentially an inherent desire to mitigate risk. That’s something that seems helpful on an anthropological level, but hardly helps when it comes to winning basketball games.

It’s also not the final stop as we venture down this rabbit hole. Richard Thaler (the guy to the right of Kahneman in the above picture), an esteemed professor of behavioral science and economics, teamed up to explore the effects of myopia and loss aversion on risking taking with Kahneman (and two other members of academia) in 1997. What they found was that we human beings are prone to letting the things right in front of us sabotage our best interests long term. Thaler and Co. aptly named this cognitive process myopic loss aversion.

The definition of this particular bias is summed up quite well by the people at They write:

Myopic loss aversion occurs when investors take a view of their investments that is strongly focused on the short term, leading them to react too negatively to recent losses, which may be at the expense of long-term benefits (Thaler et al., 1997). This phenomenon is influenced by narrow framing, which is the result of investors considering specific investments (e.g. an individual stock or a trade) without taking into account the bigger picture (e.g. a portfolio as a whole or a sequence of trades over time).

It’s very hard to read that definition and not think of Stan Van Gundy’s decision to play Aron Baynes and Andre Drummond together a few years ago. Or why Nick Nurse only played Matt Thomas, a productive member of his rotation during the last seven games, only two minutes against an Orlando team that hasn’t won a game away form home yet this season (and is now 6-8 overall). All these moves are very shortsighted, a coach seeing a danger and looking to minimize his risk. Yet in the big picture, the argument could easily be made that these moves are, well, not optimal.

And it’s not as if Nurse and Van Gundy are two rogue agents in the basketball coaching world. Pick a team, game or situation, and any coach, even the almighty Gregg Popovich, has likely succumbed to making his team actively worse while seeking to minimize short-term risk. It’s just, as Thaler, Kahnamen and their colleagues found out during rigorous studies, what we seem built to do as human beings.

But what makes matters worse, aside from the fact that knowing about these biases doesn’t make us immune to them, is that in today’s NBA, matchups are pretty much irrelevant. Sooner or later (if it hasn’t happened already and I just don’t know about), someone will likely come out with a paper or data set to show how often a player who starts a possession guarding his particular opponent, ends that same trip down the floor across from the same person.

With all the switching on the ball and switch-outs behind it, the NBA isn’t this one-on-one league anymore. Teams are attacking earlier in possessions, running more guard-to-guard screens than ever and generally trying to make life as difficult as possible on an opposing defense. If I had to guess what such a theoretical paper would produce, my guess is that it would come up with a percentage that isn’t very high.

It seems as though the current coaching belief to let an opponent’s personnel dictate their own rotations is completely enveloped by our natural predisposition to avoid short term losses. Coaches essentially avoid seeking edges to protect themselves from risk. Why dance up on the highwire by going small against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph when you could just die a slow death with Aron Baynes and Andre Drummond. And if even NFL coaches can start being more aggressive on fourth down, it seems as though basketball coaches should be slammed (see what I did there) for this stubborn fixation on risk-averse matchups.

But the problem with blaming coaches is that it’s pointing fingers away from the other people complicit in this outmoded process: all of us.

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Just Tell Me Who’s Fault It Is?

Writing about the effects of how we consume the sports we love and the media’s response to that fervor isn’t so much a newsletter as it is a doctoral thesis. I’m not going to pretend to be smart enough or knowledgeable enough about all the aspects to do some deep dive in the final paragraph of this post. However, years ago, while discussing double-teaming post-ups, a very smart writer (just kidding, it was only me) briefly touched on this general issue by exploring how difficult it is for coaches to make decisions that go against the all-important narrative:

And that’s why coaches chase the flush. It’s a lot easier for a coach to handle fans, reporters, talk radio shows, etc., if his gameplan revolves around letting Blazers not named Aldridge rain shots from the most efficient areas on the floor as long as the All-Star big man isn’t getting his. Saying things like “we tried to take the ball out of his hands” in a losing effort where a player like Aldridge scores 20 points is a lot easier than rambling some long-winded response about variance, efficiency and long-term trends on a night he’s single covered and scores 51. Chances are that if the team playing Portland is evenly matched, the latter strategy will produce more wins than losses over a suitable sample size.

This type of logic certainly explains why it’s easier for coaches like Van Gundy and Nurse to make decisions the way they do. There was a clear and present problem facing Van Gundy in that game against Memphis. He chose a suboptimal choice but it gets wrapped up in an illusion of proactivity.

Nurse, on the other hand, could lock Thomas into his rotation. But very soon, Nurse will experience a game in which the rookie gets torched in a noticeable fashion on multiple defensive possessions. After that contest, Nurse will have to walk into a scrum of reporters and explain why he did nothing to stop the bleeding.

The nuance needed to have that conversation with a media machine built to give us the quick soundbites and black-and-white critiques just doesn’t exist, especially if you’re talking about a nationally televised game. Nurse will get shredded publicly and privately other forces, like the millionaire athletes who look to him as a coach paid to help them win games, will make him reconsider his decision. Basketball coaches, like Nurse, simply have the deck stacked against them.

Not only do their own subconscious biases seek to undermine the decisions they make, but we’ve helped shape an environment around them that is quick to provide loads of blame on the spot, big picture be damned. In other words, I won’t be forgetting about Stan Van Gundy, Aron Baynes and that random night against Memphis anytime soon.

The path from Brooklyn to Portland

These two teams had very different offseasons. Unfortunately, both have led to early struggles. Is there a need to be concerned?

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When it comes to team building in the NBA, there is never any one way to do it. Lots of franchises have succeeded and failed with tried and true methods or, in the case of the process Sixers, bold gambits. Brooklyn and Portland are perhaps two teams with the least in common when it comes to how their rosters were built. 

Each franchise executed their offseason plans with their sights set on competing for a title. They just took very different routes to get there. Portland has bet on continuity while Brooklyn shed nearly their entire roster to bring in a couple superstars.

Entering the year, it was not foolish for either club to be full of optimism. Unfortunately, bumpy early starts have raised some questions about where these teams are at. Granted, there is a lot of noise to sort through in such a small slate of games. So we’ll be cautious as we check to see if both teams are on track to meet lofty preseason expectations. 

The Blazers Resume

Record: 3-4

Point Differential: -0.9

The Trail Blazers have been stuck in the Western Conference’s second tier of contenders for what seems like an eternity. Despite obvious temptation to ditch the City of Roses for greener pastures, CJ McCollum and Damien Lillard re-upped with Portland with an eye on one prize: an NBA championship. With a dominant Warriors team in limbo, it seemed like Lillard and McCollum had a real chance to push the Blazers into the vacant opening at the top of the West. 

But an ugly loss to a Warriors team featuring a Process Sixers rotation Monday night was a pretty harsh reminder that nothing is a given in the NBA. To make matters worse, Zach Collins, the emerging young stud in their frontcourt, is now out four months with a shoulder injury. If you’re the type to overreact, you could very easily look at these events and believe Portland’s title hopes are already up in smoke. 

Yet if you glance hard enough, there might be a few reasons to keep the faith. For starters, despite that loss to the Warriors, the Blazers have played a pretty rugged schedule so far. Take away the Golden State, and the record of Portland’s opponents is a pretty respectable 24-20. Then if you really want to feel better about the 3-4 start, it’s important to remember the Blazers have opened the season playing five of their seven games on the road -- including that ugly loss to the Warriors. 

Lots of road games against solid opponents is a tough hand to be dealt in the early going. Given we’re not even one-tenth of the way through the season, such a tricky early schedule can certainly cause unnecessary concern. And if you’re a Blazers fan who wants even more of a reason to relax, I have something for you: Portland’s opponents are currently on a hot streak when they head to the free throw line. 

The Blazers currently lead the NBA in opponent’s free throw percentage at 81.6 percent. In most years, even the unluckiest free throw defenses only see opponents convert between 78 and 79 of their charity shots. The Blazers should see their defensive improve slightly just due to variance working back in their favor. And since Portland is hacking like crazy to start the year -- they’re tied for second in that dubious category -- a few extra missed free throws here might be an even bigger boost than it seems.

Unfortunately, that, imaginary Blazers fan I am writing this for, is about all the good news I can muster for you around the team. The elephant in the room we haven’t even touched on yet is what this team was like without injured big man Jusuf Nurkic. Turns out, they were kinda…..average. Before he suffered that gruesome leg injury last season, the presence of Nurkic vaulted Portland to a much higher level.

The Blazers were +10.3 points per 100 possessions when the big man played and -2.0 per 100 when he was on the bench. That’s kind of a big gap! Nurkic is still set to be sidelined through the end of January, and with Collins now out through the beginning of 2020 as well, Portland is in a very worrisome state. 

So far, Lillard and McCollum have been doing what they can to pull the team through the injury quagmire. The Blazers as a team have been outscored by six points overall this season. Yet in the 217 minutes Lillard and McCollum have shared the floor, Portland has outscored opponents by 26. The problem for Portland is that, well, Lillard and McCollum can’t play every minute of every game together. Which leads to quite a dilemma for the Blazers!

Maximizing the minutes of those two together means that, for small doses of the game, Portland needs to rely on all-bench units from a thinning supply of players. At times, those groups have held their own but they’ve also had some rough outings, like when a unit of Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Rodney Hood, Hassan Whiteside and Anfernee Simons got outscored by six points in just over 90 seconds by the Spurs. 

Still, keeping Lillard and McCollum together as much as possible seems like the best bet for Portland to maximize their play before their injured, integral big men return. In 2018-19, lineups where McCollum played without Lillard barely eeked by opponents with a mark of just +1.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, in the 39 minutes McCollum has held the fort down while Lillard rested, the Blazers have been outscored by 20 points. 

This means the tightrope Portland has to walk is pretty clear. Hope the all bench units can survive long enough to let Lillard and McCollum put the team over the top each game. Without Nurkic and Collins, that will be a much tougher task. Yet the Blazers happily re-upped their dynamic backcourt in hopes the continuity could survive the absence of Nurkic and, upon the big man’s return, push this Blazer team into the championship stratosphere. 

Unfortunately after this early stretch,  this signs are pointing toward the notion that Portland’s bet on the status quo might actually have them on track to take a small step back. 

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A Brooklyn Tale

Record: 3-4

Point Differential: +0.7

If you were looking for the team that “won” the NBA offseason, you wouldn’t need to go any further than Brooklyn. The Nets ditched most of the cast of solid youngsters and steady vets that brought them to a 42-40 record and a return to the playoffs for two legitimate stars. Kyrie Irving was supposed to eventually combine with a healthy Durant to accelerate Brooklyn’s title chances.

It was clear without Durant, likely for this entire season, that the Nets wouldn’t quite be considered championship contenders. Yet most betting markets had them favored to claim a playoff spot with Irving operating as a solo star. It’s the potential return of Durant during the playoffs that could make this team a legit darkhorse. Yet in order to get to that point, Brooklyn needs Irving and Co. to make sure the franchise qualifies for the postseason. In the early going, that’s starting to look pretty uncertain. 

For starters, the Nets are just 3-4 despite only two of the seven teams they’ve played owning a winning record. It doesn’t make things any better when you factor in that five of Brooklyn’s first seven games have come in the cozy confines of the Barclays Center. Just as it was unflattering to Portland’s record when they were losing to good teams on a road-heavy schedule, it can be easily argued that Brooklyn’s underwhelming start is glossing over even more trouble.

If you look at the per game numbers (which you mostly shouldn’t ever do!), the eye-catching thing is Brooklyn’s porous defense. The Nets rank in the bottom five of the league in points allowed per game at 120.3 (How that isn’t the worst in the NBA is also kind of insane). But before claiming this team is a defensive dumpster fire, it’s important to dig a little deeper. 

Brooklyn has already played in two overtime games this season (Memphis and Minnesota) while playing at the league’s third highest pace. That combination will bloat any per game defensive numbers. When you look at the team’s rank per 100 possessions, Brooklyn climbs slightly higher to 20th. It’s still not, like, a good thing that Brooklyn’s defense is in the bottom third of the league, but it might be juuuuusssttt close enough to a point where the team’s top 6 offense can make up for it. 

If you’re looking for quick hacks to fix Brooklyn’s leaky defense, you might start with DeAndre Jordan’s minutes. Jordan came along with Durant and Irving as part of a package deal. Unfortunately for the Nets, the player that was twice been named NBA’s All-Defensive First Team isn’t who Jordan is anymore. 

Opponents are blistering Brooklyn when Jordan is on the floor through the first seven games. During his 148 minutes on the floor (small sample size alert!), the team’s defensive rating is an astronomical 115.2 points per 100 possessions. When Jordan sits, that number drops all the way down to 101.8 opponent points per 100. You don’t even need context to see that it’s not going well for the Nets when Jordan is out there! 

Yet before claiming Jordan is washed and Brooklyn needs to excise him from the rotation, it’s important to note he’s been a little unlucky. Opponents are shooting over 40 percent from three-point territory so far this season when Jordan is on the floor. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything systemic the Jordan is doing to cause extraordinarily clean looks from beyond the arc for Brooklyn’s opponents. So it seems that he’s just at the mercy of being on the floor when teams are hitting shots.  

Jordan is also not helped by the fact that the Nets don’t really have a lot of quality perimeter defenders. Irving’s point-of-attack defense has largely gotten negative reviews. Starting guard Joe Harris has limitations and had a sneaky awful defensive rating last season that has carried into this year. Then of course during the roster turnover, all of the players who graded among the Nets best defenders from last year -- Ed Davis, Demarre Carroll and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- are no longer with the team. So while you could make calls for Jarrett Allen to eat up more Jordan’s minutes, I’m not sure how much that would actually move the needle.

As for Irving, he may never be lockdown on defense, but he sure is holding up his end of the bargain overall this year. In the 247 minutes he’s played, the Nets are 14.7 points per 100 possessions better than when their new star is on the bench. Sans Irving, the Nets offense simply doesn’t function, dropping to just 96.7 points per 100 -- a number that would be a historically bad mark if it held up for an entire season. 

That split, while drastic, is kind of what the Nets signed up for when they took the route of this massive free agent coup. Depth and additional firepower was always going to be in short supply with Durant out of the mix. So far, only four Brooklyn players playing meaningful minutes have posted positive on/off splits. That’s mixed in with a lot of noise but doesn’t seem ideal. 

The Nets had to be hoping that even sans Durant, the presence of Irving would still be able to keep them competitive enough to make the playoffs. Yet the goal of hanging around as a slightly-above-average team pushed toward elite-level when Durant returns doesn’t seem like the reality. What’s bearing out in the early going is there’s a clear issue with the team’s defending that has them lurking in Mediocrityville. Until some clear-cut solutions present themselves there, this issue might not go away. 

Now of course, turning over a scrappy, balanced roster to become a top-heavy, star-powered team was always going to be an adjustment. Just seven games isn’t anywhere near enough time to say the Nets are going to be dragged into the slapfight for a low playoff seed. But enough warning signs are blinking that the Nets playoff future might be in some trouble, making the return of their second superstar a moot point.

Matchup Madness Part 1

We've become accustomed to interpret the 48 minutes on a basketball court as some type of dynamic chess match. But have we ever stopped to think if attempting to control that chaos actually matters?

Image result for andre drummond and aron baynes pistons

I can tell you from firsthand experience, that watching the Detroit Pistons play basketball from 2015-2017 can test your ability to enjoy the sport as a whole. During those two years, Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons czar at that point in time, over-coached a fatally flawed team he built to become painfully average. If I had my druthers, I would have been watching, well, nearly anyone else. But due to having a client on the team during that stretch, I was stuck tuning into those slogs.

Thankfully, my nightly anguish watching those Piston teams chase banal mediocrity didn’t turn out to be in vain. During that stretch, Van Gundy’s controlling nature as a coach blew a spark of doubt I had over the way basketball games were managed into a raging fire. And that fire burned hottest during one of the many otherwise forgettable Pistons games I was forced to consume.

The Memphis Grizzlies rolled into town one night sporting their twin towers of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Though Randolph was coming down from the peak of his powers, Gasol was operating at the height of his. In a league just starting to phase out old-school power forward-center combos, the Grizzlies were still holding strong. The inside presence of Randolph and Gasol forced opponents sporting more modern frontcourts to make choices when it came to how they approached the game.

After a back and forth battle edged toward Memphis in the final quarter, Van Gundy, looking to nullifying the interior presence of Gasol and Randolph, dialed back Piston basketball to the 1980s. I heard the airhorn through the TV and watched as Aron Baynes checked into the game. Typically during his two years with Detroit, Baynes would replace Andre Drummond in a center for center swap. This time, however, he was coming in to play alongside him.

It doesn’t take a basketball savant to hone in on Van Gundy’s logic. Randolph and Gasol were beasts on the inside tearing apart the Pistons front line. Moving to Baynes and Drummond would, in this line of thought, provide a little more muscle in hopes of slowing down the two Memphis giants.

Now a Baynes-Drummond frontcourt pairing is, quite obviously, not a recipe for long-term success. After all, it was the start of an era where the Golden State Warriors were winning titles with a 6-foot-5 dude at center. And to say Baynes and Drummonds couldn’t be some wild counterpounch to the NBA smallball revolution is not just a subjective observation.

While the sample size is small, during the 46 minutes Drummond and Baynes while the latter was with the Pistons, Detroit was outscored by 21 points. Maybe some potentially powerful pairings start out by getting outscored by nearly 24 points per 48 minutes, but I’m guessing most don’t! In that game against Memphis, the duo, not surprisingly given the tone of this post so far, failed to provide the boost Van Gundy was hoping for as Detroit lost the game.

But that’s basketball for you, right? There was a matchup issue. Something wasn’t working for a team so a coach, coached. The end results is the following day, we assign credit or blame and the machine keeps chugging along.

But for longer than is probably healthy, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything that went into what I had seen that night. Something bigger was at work here. A coach had just desperately lunged at a positive, short term result by making a move that in no way, shape or form could be considered a viable in sustained minutes.

It seemed like ever since that game, I couldn’t help but be hyper-focused on these moments where coaches became consumed by this matchup madness. It wasn’t just Van Gundy. It was all of them. Even the great Pop would roll out different starting lineups depending on his opposition. Ones that included Pau Gasol creeping toward his “washed” stage. Maybe none of these moves were on the desperation scale of throwing out a Drummond-Baynes frontcourt, but they happened. And they continue to occur quite frequently in big and small ways.

These counterproductive moves pile up in my consciousness. Then they are followed by seeing coaches give generic speeches about tactical misgivings in postgame press conferences while writers, like me, wax on about the efficacy behind them. It’s a weird loop.

It’s as if a coach like Van Gundy could walk into the media scrum after a game, like the one in Memphis, cry, “Matchups!” and let slip the dogs of armchair punditry. After all, it doesn’t take much for all of us to fire up the Nazi-infested machine we call Twitter and duke it out over whether ‘X’ move in ‘Y’ game was the correct one while we all can’t see the forest for the trees.

And that’s the point of all this. I think we are blind to the forest. It’s why, in 2019, when Baynes is leading a downtrodden Phoenix Suns franchise to an NBA Finals, I’m bringing up some game from a few years ago that, in most respects, didn’t really matter. A fundamental aspect of how basketball coaches operate seems, at the very least, mildy flawed.

As we dive down the rabbit hole of this matchup obsession, be ready for some twists and turns. And the first twist comes in the form of someone that doesn’t even have anything to do with basketball. He’s an athlete, but doesn’t even use the same appendages for the sport he plays. He’s a soccer player named Christian Benteke.

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Soccer Is Telling Us Something But We’re Not Listening

Over the weekend, Crystal Palace, the team that currently employs Benteke, hosted Leicester City in a Premier League match that had a weird level of importance given the expectations of the two clubs before the season. In the 57th minute, Leicester scored to go up 1-0. Then 21 minutes later, Palace, still needing a goal, turned to Benteke, their often maligned (and injured) backup striker.

Now while he hasn’t been an overly effective goal-scorer in quite some time, Benteke, at an imposing 6-foot-3 (which is tall in soccer), still can rattle opposing defenses with his ability to rise above defenders and head the ball, well, roughly toward goal (and sometimes even in it). Leicester City manager Brandon Rodgers, knowing the importance of getting a win on the road, was apparently growing increasingly concerned about the aerial threat Benteke presented.

In the 85th minute, Rodgers dusted off a veteran defender named Wes Morgan. Morgan was part of Leicester’s title-winning run in 2015 (which for you non-soccer fans, is still one of the most insane things to happen in sports) but is now 35 and fighting a losing battle with Father Time. While Morgan isn’t a starting caliber defender anymore, he’s a strong center back perfectly suited for the task of shadowing a striker like Benteke and not letting him overpower Leicester for a late goal.

Rodgers move to counter Palace’s insertion of Benteke paid off. Leicester not only held the lead, but expanded it late on to secure the victory. It was a massive win for Leicester, secured by a late, matchup-drive change. Naturally, it was also a big win for pundits and tactics bloggers everywhere.

For me, that match made me think back to Baynes and Drummond. That’s because as I have been questioning the impact of the chess match that goes on in basketball games, there are people in and around soccer have begun doing the same for their sport. The see a sub like Morgan and wonder if the obsession with formations and mangers mirroring their counterparts moves blow for blow actually is worthy of the narrative we give it afterwards.

In a 2016 article for Paste Magazine, Richard Whittall works through his own misgivings about the obsession with single game tactical narratives in the sport he covers for a living:

In football, that complexity can also involve a lot of random variation, individual creativity, and tactical discipline. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to convincingly mark the boundary lines between all three, and often they all blend into a seamless, impermanent whole. This is why it takes some cojones to point to a formation or a tactic to explain away a match result.

And Whittall isn’t alone! There’s a few other people having a similar epiphany, like Ryan O’Hanlon (who directed a few of you here), who went down a similar rabbit hole while writing on the USWNT this past summer:

I enjoy reading all kinds of tactical analysis. The historical inflection points (when a new, never-before-seen style becomes unstoppably dominant before its co opted by everyone else, and then the cycle begins again) and the ongoing philosophical debate about how the game should be played are two of my favorite things about the sport. However, I’ve heard the practice described as something more akin to art criticism, rather than analysis. And I think that’s right, as all tactical analysis is a work of interpreting and then value-judging. Even if you hooked the manager and all of the players up to a lie-detector test, I’m not sure you’d be able to paint a perfect picture of why they all did the things they did in a given match. Intentionality is impossible grasp.

The point these two are trying to make is that when it comes to these ungodly complex soccer matches, how in the hell do we know that any one sub, formation switch or tactical directive actually worked how we thought it did? What’s even more interesting about the thread that O’Hanlon and Whittall tug on is that soccer probably does see a greater impact from tactical tinkering and lineup management than basketball does. That’s mostly because soccer teams can function in different game states. When a soccer manager makes a defensive substitution, like Rodgers from Leiscester did, he can also pair that decision with a choice to play without the ball.

When looking at something like the Baynes-Drummond situation in that context, it makes basketball’s matchup obsession seem even more counterproductive. A basketball coach that chooses to play a more defensively sound lineup can’t then also decide to just defend the rest of the game. If Van Gundy had to protect a 10-point lead and never play offense, playing Baynes and Drummond together would make sense! But other than rare late game situations were possessions get chopped up due to fouls and timeouts, lineups have to function both offensively and defensively in a way that soccer managers don’t always have to consider.

Yet with both sports, we see a similar approach from coaches or managers when it comes to controlling the chaos. Yet if it maybe, kinda matters soccer, which has a fundamentally different state of play built into matches, why do see basketball coaches operate in the same fashion?

We’ll take a look at that in Part II of this dive later this week!

The Nihilist Is Back

And I'm bringing some lukewarm takes on the NBA's first week

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Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is, in fact, a BasketballNihilist newsletter appearing in your inbox. Since this newsletter has been dormant for a couple months and a few newcomers (Hi there!) have signed up during that stretch, I figure a quick explanation is warranted.

For the past dozen years I have either been coaching high school basketball or training professional and college players. Then this May, I decided to leave the training outfit I was a part of in a completely unplanned way. For numerous reasons on a Saturday roughly six months ago, it dawned on me I needed to be done with that project.

I finished out the summer by fulfilling a couple commitments to a couple of German pro’s, including one I wrote about, while dabbling in some draft writing at Yardbarker and some storytelling in the Truehoop newsletter. It was about mid-August, when I looked ahead in my schedule and, for the first time in over a decade, I didn’t have a commitment to a high school season or clients ahead of me come the fall. Needless to say, that was weird!

I had been dealing with growing dissatisfaction professionally and personally for a couple years, but it wasn’t until things slowed down in August that I was able to start taking stock of things. Mostly, I have spent this time trying to figure out my current relationship with basketball (along with other things in my life). As it turned out, my personal and professional existential crisis didn’t bode well for the consistency of this newsletter. Who would have thought!

Eventually, as evidenced by the revival of this newsletter, it has become clear to me that while I may be burned out on other basketball-related things, I still very much enjoy the writing part. Basketball is a cool sport and using it as a vehicle to explore big ideas via the written word is even cooler. So, as of now, I’m fairly sure this newsletter (as well as some freelance stuff) is where I will be channeling my energy these days. That is until I decide tomorrow that I want to become a sherpa (the mountain guide, not the indigenous people from Nepal). Kidding! I think…

As for what this newsletter is going to look like in this iteration, I can’t say! It could be a few short posts a week. Or maybe a couple deep dives over the course of a month. I think for now, I’m going to avoid a set plan and just try to give y’all stuff that you hopefully find interesting whenever I stumble across it.

The general theme will remain the same though! The word ‘nihilist’ is in the name of this newsletter for a reason. That reason is I’m not sure what we think we know about basketball is really all that knowable. Sports are complicated. Basketball is no exception. Even in a sport with only ten players on the court, there are still a lot of variables to process. Not to mention there are always dozens of other factors outside the lines that we should also be considering!

But enough of me treating you all like conscripted therapists. The NBA season has started and it’s time to get to the basketball stuff. I figure we’ll start with a layup (see what I did there) and simply touch on three things that have caught my attention so far with one NBA week officially in the books.

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  1. Sato ‘s signing shouldn’t save Chicago?

My favorite free agent signing ever happened ten years ago. Channing Frye, then an underwhelming, underachieving big man with Portland, inked a two-year deal with Phoenix. Despite all their dysfunction then and now, the Suns somehow turned him into the Scott Hatteberg of basketball. Michael Lewis should have written a book on that too.

Instead of continuing to be a middling big man feasting on long 2’s, Phoenix simply asked Frye to take a step or two back and launch a more efficient type of jump shot instead. Though that change seems obvious now in a league where the Lopez twins are jacking nearly eight combined 3-pointers per game, it wasn’t in 2009. And Frye’s transition to being a stretch big led to one of the most exciting and unexpected runs from a Steve Nash-era Suns squad.

Ever since then, I kept searching for next free agent signing that would be one system tweak or an easily obtainable skill away from having a Frye-like breakout. It has not been a fruitful stakeout. But this summer, the Bulls, of all teams, gave me hope when they scooped up Tomas Satoransky in what was technically a sign-&-trade with the Wizards.

In Washington, Satoransky had fleeting moments where he was able to showcase his skills as a traditional point guard. There is nothing exciting about his game, but Satoransky just plays in a way that allows team’s to function better when he’s out there running the show. The problem for him in Washington was the presence of John Wall and Brad Beal in the backcourt combined with the unimaginative Scott Brooks on the sideline. That meant Satoransky, a natural point guard and poor outside shooter, was wedged into an off-ball role on the wing far more often than he allowed to be the primary ballhandler. Yet despite this less than ideal situation, Satoransky still managed to have the best plus/minus split of anyone on Washington who played at least 1,000 minutes.

So when a point-guard less Chicago team nabbed him over the summer, I felt like I had finally found the next Frye. The search was over! Except I forgot about that part where it was the Bulls. While Satoransky has a little bit more reign to handle and get the ball moving, Chicago is clearly designing this team to function around Zach LaVine in the starting unit and Coby White, their first round pick this year, off the bench. Satoransky is actually averaging less minutes with the Bulls this season than he did last year on a bad and injury-ravaged Wizards team. No fun.

Satoransky’s presence does, however, make for an interesting contrast on this Chicago team. LaVine and White are quite talented, young basketball players. They are also flawed in ways I’m not sure is changeable. LaVine’s comeback from an ACL tear is commendable and it does seem he wants to be a winning player, but he’s just not near that yet. There’s still too many bad shots in lieu of simple passes and the defending, is, well, a whole other thing.

White has a lot of Chris Paul-type shit to his game, which is fun! However, he shows little aptitude for the feel and command that has made Paul an archetypical point guard for 15 years. White is only 19, that’s definitely important to remember, but it’s not like that innate feel coming along as he gets older is a given. And his style of play, along with LaVine’s, has the Bulls in a weird place.

Satoransky is one of three, savvy winning players on this Bulls roster along with Thad Young and Otto Porter. I know it’s a lame, overused cliche, but those dudes all just know how to play. And in the (minuscule) 13 minutes they’ve been on the floor together, it shows!

(GP) (Min) (ORtg) (DRtg) (Net Rtg) (Ast%)

I would be willing to bet that as those three continue to spend time on the court together, other teams will fare poorly. I’d also probably guess their time will also be rather limited. And in true nihilism fashion, I’m not sure that really matters.

Satoransky being a Frye-like boon to this Bulls roster would have made for a fun story and potentially secured Chicago a playoff berth in the East. But the more the Bulls rely on Satoransky (or Young and Porter for that matter), the more likely it means things are not going well for White, LaVine and any of the other Chicago youngsters. Satoransky being used more and correctly, means White and LaVine are being used less. So maybe the fact Satoransky isn’t walking the path of Frye’s free agency fairytale will wind up being a good thing for the Bulls somehow.

  1. Kyle Lowry is playing a lot and that seems bad

Through the first four games of his season, including one that went to overtime, Lowry is averaging 39 minutes per game. Here is the full list of other players currently hitting that mark:

Note the fact that Lowry is 10 years old than the two (Just two!) other players on that list. It certainly seems noteworthy.

Now before diving into the minutes conversation about any player, it’s important to remember that Toronto is a pretty well-run organization. We also don’t have any sniff of the numbers their performance staff possesses when it comes to the work capacity of Lowry or any other Raptor. All that said, this early season trend with Lowry seems, we’ll say, sub-optimal for a number of reasons.

For starters, Lowry has been durable but not invincible. Over the course of his career, he’s missed at least ten games in six of the 12 seasons he’s been a regular member of a rotation (that would exclude his rookie year). Lowry’s highest, per game minute total was occurred during the 2016-17 season where averaged 37.4 minutes.

It seems like at this stage of his career, Lowry’s minutes peak should be behind him, not ahead of him. And I’m not sure it benefits Toronto to simply drive Lowry, and Fred VanVleet for that matter (who is averaging a shade over 38 minutes himself) into the ground. There isn’t exactly a plethora of options to replace someone like Kawhi Leonard, as I’ve written about at Yardbarker, but this seems like a classic coaching trap.

Playing Lowry nearly 40 minutes a night while he jacks up a career high number of 3-point attempts per game (he’s averaging 10.3) makes sense when you’re thinking game-to-game like an NBA head coach does. Yet if you take a step back, having to play Lowry this in order to win tells a bigger story about where Toronto is at post-Kawhi Leonard. If the Raptors were going to defend their title, it isn’t going to be because a 33-year-old Lowry plays nearly every minute of every game from now until June.

What Toronto realistically needs is a combination of players hitting new peaks during this season. Whether it’s Patrick McCaw, OG Anunoby or even the relatively unknown, Spanish-league shooting sensation, Matt Thomas, or probably a combination of all three, someone needs to be stepping up in a big way to truly raise the Raptors ceiling toward title contention once again.

Right now, Toronto is just trying to will something that might not there by putting an immense load on Lowry. The team has started 3-1, so its a little hard to argue with the results so far. But as the season unfolds, Lowry’s minutes management might be the talking point of Toronto’s season.

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  1. Which Lionel Messi will Steph Curry be?

So, umm, the Warriors might actually be kinda, sorta…..bad. It’s early days, but two-straight blowouts to open the season certainly shook up my perception of where this Golden State team would be minus Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and some key vets. I wrote during last summer’s Finals that Curry is an insane offensive force whose closest comparison isn’t even a basketball player; it’s Lionel Messi.

It was with that in mind that I just basically assumed that Curry would shoulder a massive burden and simply get the job done. In my head, the Warriors would be slightly worse, but mostly fine as Curry’s incredible ability to generate shots would lift the depleted supporting cast around him. After all, we’re talking about the guy who had the highest offensive rating in the NBA last season.

Yet the Messi I’d compare Curry to right now isn’t the Barcelona Messi. That Messi is currently dragging a flawed iteration of the proud Catalonia club team toward another La Liga title. Instead, the Messi that Curry reminds me of now is the one that has struggled to uplift an ill-equipped Argentinean national team.

Looking up and down the Warriors roster and it’s a laundry list of players just not near the point of being able to take advantage of Curry’s immense gravity on the basketball court. Golden State has seven players 22 or younger on their roster. Five of them are playing at least 14 minutes per game.

Even the younger “veterans” the team has brought in to round out the roster lack any proof they’re rotation-caliber players on a title-contending team. That group includes Glen Robinson III, Alec Burks, Willie Cauley-Stein (when he’s healthy) and even D’Angelo Russell. Those players are a far cry from what Golden State had helping their stars to all those Finals appearances.

I’m not saying that the Warriors are doomed. What has changed for me is my understanding of just how far one of the most impactful offensive players in the history of the sport can do for a supporting cast that is unproven and underwhelming. Maybe Curry can be Barcelona Messi, but after the Warriors first three games, it seems less certain.

Let the Q&A Begin!

You asked, I tried my best to give a worthwhile answer

So here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… answers to your questions! And by the way, y’all thought of some really good stuff. Some of them were really fun to mull over. In the end, I whittled it down to five that should cover a decent chunk of the basketball spectrum. For those of you whose questions I didn’t get to, I will (or have already) reply privately with at least a short response.

Thanks to all of you that took the time to send in some truly thoughtful and fun questions. But to avoid wasting anymore of your time, let’s get to it!

Josh asks….

In player development, is it sometimes better to focus on further refining and elevating what the player already excels at? Or is it instead better to focus on a weakness?

When I first started working with basketball players, I would have told you without hesitation that you need to focus on a player’s weakness. After doing this for nearly a decade, my answer has not only changed drastically, but I’m not even sure it fits into a tidy response. In pretty much every way, the approach is wholly dependent on the player and his situation.

That said, the one non-negotiable weakness I’d address would be shooting. No matter what, if a player can’t knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers, it’s going to cost him money in likely both the short and long term. You can insert your basketball adage about shooters in this space and those exists because they’re true. Shooting earns minutes, breaths life into and also extends careers. It’s just an immensely valuable skill.

All that said, even the idea of devoting a lot of emphasis on helping refining someone’s outside shot during sessions comes with some caveats. Depending on the player’s future role, training time, etc, factors may pop up where expanding his energy on getting up a ton of shots just doesn’t produce much return.

I think the best way to approach this question in a vacuum is to actually avoid the idea of thinking of a player’s game in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Instead, the approach should be more focused on what he/she does on the floor. Every basketball player has gotten to this point by adapting — it’s basic evolution. During their formative years, they figured out ways to be good at basketball based on their size-skill-athleticism.

The biggest mistake I made early on was trying to transpose an ideal set of skills onto a player without factoring in the ingrained approach they already have developed through the rigors of competition. Basically I’d try to give Player X some type of shot/pass/approach without factoring in whether he/she was capable of utilizing or said technique when things went live. Everyone is built different. Some players are like sponges that can add new things into their games after a few reps. Others you can drill something a thousand times and it never carries over. Neither player is inherently better or worse, but they need to have their player development treated differently.

Since this is getting heavy-handed and ambiguous, I’ll try to illustrate with a real life example. One of the NBA guys my old business worked with years back was small, quick point guard who had never even practiced floaters before the NBA. Given his size, athleticism and mentality, we went with the idea of giving him a lot of Tony Parker stuff — drilling tons of floaters with all different kinds of footwork. The following season, he barely shot any floaters. So while we had addressed a perceived weakness it didn’t help anything.

What he instead continued to turn to during his minutes were lots of pull jumpers, off-balance leaners and finishes around the rim that required crazy amounts of spin given the angles he took to get there. Would floaters have been better in those spots and shored up a weakness he had in his mid-paint efficacy? Absolutely. But it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to use them.

It was then the head of my old training group came up with the idea we jokingly referred to as “steering into the skid.” Instead of traditionally trying to shore up a weakness, the next summer we tried a different approach: we simply trained the shots he actually got to. From working on spinning the ball off the glass to weighting reps of jumpers to floaters heavily in favor of the former and mixing in some of his own, unique off-balance shots we refined the things he already did — even if it wasn’t the ideal way of doing things.

Now this response makes it seem like it’s better just to hammer home what a player is already good at. And in some cases, that works. But at the same time, what a player does well may also not be a style of play that helps teams win and/or gets them paid. It’s all really tricky.

Plus, I’ve had plenty of other guys who had an approach more conducive to adding things to their game that shored up a weakness. One particular sponge got introduced to the concept of a dribble-hold (keeping a defender going over a screen on his back while the rest of the play kept moving) and utilized it a ton the next season. The hard part is, it’s really hard to tell who is capable of what until deep into the process.

From the outside looking in, it’s natural to want to approach these big picture questions with a response that paints the picture of an idyllic process that culminates in a fully-formed player. In reality, this shit is messy. And I’m not sure even the things my experience (and science!) have taught me are right — there are just so many moving parts. So I guess the best process when looking at player development is just to remember it’s all dependent on the individual and go from there.

Nicholas asks….

What’s different about the USA Basketball/FIBA international game versus the NBA? Choose your angle, but it would be nice to know how Coach Pop is going to approach the tournament differently than the NBA. 

I figure since the FIBA tournament is the next big thing coming up on the basketball schedule, I would be wise to include a question about it.

As far as the differences go, well, there’s quite a few. Obviously the rules — the 3-point line being the big one — create a different dynamic to the game itself. I’d probably be doing y’all a disservice if I just listed the way different rules impact the style of play.

How Pop approaching coaching Team USA is a different story. I just can’t help but see this as his opportunity to go full-Pop. And by that I mean, lean hard into all his socialist, old-school tendencies.

For years with the Spurs, Pop has been the king of rotation roulette. You never know who was going to play, when they will and for how long. It’s been something increasingly jarring to the players and has led to Pop leaving a lot on the table when it came to optimizing his rotation. In that regard, he is the closest thing the NBA has had to a college coach, mostly because he has the juice to treat grown men like NCAA kids without losing credibility.

Now when it comes to the NBA, being bad at rotation management is kind of a big deal. That’s mostly because we have a lot of public-facing tools at our disposal to understand it. The international game, and this tournament in particular, has a lot in common with college basketball. In general when it comes to international basketball, coaches have more institutional power, there isn’t much emphasis on analytics, ball and player movement are both more necessary but also overused and lineup management is almost laughably incoherent. And when it comes to the this tournament, it’s such a short-lived event based off a small sample size, no one is going to capable of really drilling down nuanced takes on minor coaching leaks.

So my guess is that with Team USA, you see all the Spursian things Pop has brought to the table turned up to 11. I would be shocked if every player suited up didn’t get some run in a given game — as in 12-man rotations will probably be the norm. I’m also assuming that there will be a ton of side-to-side ball movement and Pop will swap entire 5-man lineups of players if the ball sticks in someone’s hands for more than his famous half-second of allotted time before we know what’s happening. He does those things already in San Antonio, but there’s nothing really holding him back from doing it whenever he feels like this current, watered down version of Team USA isn’t on the level he wants.

But while such an approach may be antithetical to winning in a lot of ways (by that I mean opposes the golden rule of always playing your best players as much as possible), it may have more appeal to some fans. Between the influence of data, health concerns, salary cap and never-ending analysis, NBA basketball has become a lot more cerebral than emotive. My guess is Pop is going to relish the idea of going back to the old-school roots of just getting a team to come together, share the ball and play super hard. It’ll be Norman Dale in red, white and blue.

I’m not sure it’ll be all that great to watch, but it will definitely be different.

Brian asks….

What NBA teams have you the most intrigued this year?

I got this question from a few different people. I’m guessing in some form or fashion, I’ll tackle such a question more in depth closer to the season. But since people were asking, I decided to give short responses for the time being about a few teams that I’ll be keeping an eye on.

Dallas: Doncic and Porzingis are a fascinating young duo. Not sure the Mavericks have enough around them, but curious to see what type of results that twosome can pull off this year.

Utah & Milwaukee: All of the shooting.

Houston: I mean, who isn’t interested to see how Mike D’Antoni handles Westbrook and Harden?

Golden State: Steph Curry will have to be a monster to keep them near the top of the West. Can he do that and will D’Angelo Russell help much?

Orlando: Just kidding! Even if they wind up being decent, I can’t imagine it being at all interesting to non-Magic fans.

Aryeh asks….

As a S&C professional, are there any drills/exercises/equipment/modalities that you think are either under- or over-used amongst basketball athletes? Basically I’m curious if there’s anything you typically like to implement that is absent in a lot of other basketball training environments or if there’s anything that’s commonly used that you prefer to stay away from.

I love that there are strength coaches like Aryeh out there asking questions like this one. That said, I always hesitate to answer this stuff like I’m some type of expert because there are probably dozens of better, more experienced strength coaches doing great things in basketball that I don’t compare to. So with that in mind, I’ll keep it simple.

A lot of the influence in the programming I’ve used the past few years has come from the need to get guys out of pain. I know I already wrote a long newsletter at length about that topic, so I will do my best not to regurgitate it in this response. I think in the grand scope of trying to get guys (or girls!) out of a pain, a strength coach can never error in terms of working too much on deceleration or just getting really good on one leg. Both those things factor into the big picture work of getting your athletes moving better and (hopefully) without pain.

The one thing that has always amazed me the most is just how much of a struggle it can be for basketball players to control the force they produce on landings. Sometimes you see guys that can damn near fly come down in such a jarring fashion (During controlled jumps even!) that it’s literally cringe-worthy. That’s why a lot of programming I’ve used in past years had a fair amount of single leg deceleration stuff (hurdle hops and the like) than I’ve seen used in most places. It’s just something most basketball players never work on.

You still have to be cautious because it still requires force production to, ya know, have your athlete jump in the air, but on the whole, I’d say it’s a glaring omission in a lot of S&C programming. In some ways, Instagram ruins this (and a lot of other things!) because to “sell” training, putting out stuff of guys going bonkers on a Vertimax or doing all kinds of explosive movements with a bevy of bells and whistles involved looks way cooler. Having a kid do a single-leg jump over a mini-hurdle with a controlled landing isn’t getting you likes, page views and future clients. But the latter addresses a crucial aspect when it comes to the needs of the basketball population.

Now that said, it needs to work in concert with what the athlete is doing on the basketball court and for the rest of his programming. Doing a bunch of jumping all week in the weight room when your athletes than go do high-intensity training on the court seems like a recipe for problems, especially if there’s already persistent knee pain involved. But when it fits, anything you can do when it comes to teaching basketball players — or just athletes, especially young ones, in general — how to stop and control the force they produce will help them a great deal.

Bret asks….

Sekou Doumbouya was the youngest player selected in this summer's draft… if you were in charge of his development program for season one, what would you focus on and why?

Figure this is a good way to bookend the newsletter given the first question. But I think this one is pretty simple. In year one in the NBA, Doumbouya is just trying survive. For a wing like him, he needs to have a very simple skillset, especially given he’s on a team featuring Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson.

I’ve already touched on the importance of being able to knock down shots above, so I can skip over how heavy of an emphasis I’d have on both volume and situational catch-and-shoot reps. But aside from that, I’d structure a lot of Doumbouya’s player development work on attacking closeouts, with some very simple dribble-hand off reads sprinkled in over the course of each week. And to be honest, the non-closeout work would almost be more to break the monotony over the year than anything else.

Given what I know of his game and athleticism, I would do my best to create situational drills — using video room interns or any additional help staff — where Doumbouya would have to make reads against rotations. I’ve watched some film of the kid and he has, well, we’ll call it a nonchalance in his approach sometimes. I’d both try to make sure ingrain a mentality of ripping the rim off each time he attacked downhill and structure the games so he was rewarded for dunking over help staff coming over to contest (using a pad or another gadget to simulate NBA length).

However, a lot of attacking closeouts in the NBA doesn’t result in just scoring. I’d also be sure to mix in situations where he made passes off his drives. Sometimes it’d be games just based off making the right read against rotation help. Other times just drilling him making a pass after attacking downhill, then getting back out for a shot. This would all be augmented by just hammering home the notion that this is what will be required of him in any minutes he’d see in Year 1.

At such a young age, I’m not sure he’d be able to get himself ready for NBA minutes right away. But I think this approach would at least given him a foundational skill set to be ready for a move into the rotation next season.

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