Archive for October, 2009

Profiles In Profiling: Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

With Yao Ming missing the year, he’s the tallest rotation player in the NBA. He’s been with one team for longer than any player not named Kobe, Dirk, Pierce, or Duncan. He’s one of the best-shooting centers in the league. He’s been the starting center on an Eastern Conference championship team and a 66-win team. He’s one of the most successful true centers ever to come from Europe. Growing up, he was a point guard before he had a massive growth spurt. He missed two full years with injuries and many thought he’d never return. He’s the highest-paid player on the Cavs outside of Shaq and LeBron.

With all those odd and fantastic details to describe him, why does it seem like the best way to describe Zydrunas’ tenure as the Cavs’ starting center in the LeBron era as “quietly effective?” There’s no flash to Big Z’s game. However, Z’s contributions as a garbage man around the basket, a staunch defender of the rim, and an offensive security blanket made him one of the top centers in the league last year and the perfect center for a 66-win team, even if his wonky set of skills might not translate to the Cavs bench, let alone any other team.

First off, let’s talk about Big Z’s contributions on the defensive end. For much of his career, Zydrunas was considered a defensive liability. With his glacial lateral movement, he was often exploited one-on-one by quicker defensive players, and he could be exploited on the pick-and-roll on a regular basis. However, since Mike Brown came to town, Zydrunas’ defensive +/- have been consistently solid, staying in the +3 points per 100 possession range for every year since 04-05 (a significant change from 03-04, where big Z was a -3), and jumping to over +4 on the defensive end last season. Mike Brown, defensive savant that he is, has been able to create a defensive system where the power forward is the one jumping out on the perimeter to stop penetration and keep Big Z near the rim, where his length, timing, and shot-blocking ability have turned him into a bona fide defensive asset. (For those of you keeping score at home, Zydrunas, Delonte, Mo, and LeBron were all considered defensive liabilities at some point in their career, and they made up 4/5ths of the starting lineup on one of the best defensive teams in the league last year. Mike Brown’s defensive system FTW.) By devising a system that keeps Z near the rim with athletic 4s like Andy, (pre-injury) Ben Wallace, and Joe Smith jumping over the screens on the perimeter, Zydrunas turned his greatest weakness into a strength in the Cavalier system. As a post defender, Z is big and strong enough to keep opposing centers away from the rim, which means only centers with elite lateral movement or advanced moves from the midpost could exploit him, and there aren’t many of those around anymore. (More on this later, I promise.)

Offensively, Z was once a force in the low-post with some seriously weird footwork but a series of off-balance post moves that used his length, height, and touch around the rim to convert baskets from odd angles and positions that no other center could replicate. However, Z’s post game has seriously declined in recent years, and his current repertoire consists of a decent turnaround from the block, a sweeping hook that almost never goes in, or something that will lead to a traveling violation. Because of this, Zydrunas was one of the most perimeter-oriented centers in the league last season, taking only 35% of his shots “inside” and only shooting 51.6% on non-dunk/tip shots from around the basket, which isn’t a thrilling number. His non-post game around the basket is slightly better; Z has a maddening tendency to bring the ball down when he catches a pass near the rim and has almost no elevation or authority when he goes up for the finish, but does have soft hands and is a fabulous free throw shooter when he gets hacked.

For the past few seasons, Zydrunas’ offensive role has been simple: plan B. He has a fabulous midrange touch for a big man, and is comfortable shooting from 18 feet to the short corner from 3-point range. On most teams, this would have made him a novelty. On a team with a power forward with fantastic finishing ability but no range whatsoever and a franchise wing who lives on dunks and layups, this ability made him invaluable. Big Z is often referred to as a “pick-and-pop” player, but in reality he’s not all that effective in the pick-and-pop game: he shot about 38% from the elbows, and his shot loses much of its effectiveness when it’s rushed. His jumper was most effective when he got the ball as the safety valve on a stuffed ISO possession or pick-and-roll between Andy and LeBron, where Z’s man would come down to the paint to cover one of those two players and Zydrunas was allowed to get comfortable from his favorite spot on the left baseline, where he shot 48% from last season. 48% won’t beat a team by itself, but it was fantastic for keeping teams honest against LeBron and Andy’s devastating ability to finish if one of them was able to get the ball near the rim when they ran the pick-and-roll.

Big Z’s other main function as a “security blanket” was his ability to convert tip-ins on the offensive glass; for whatever reason, Z doesn’t need to bring offensive rebounds down before he tips them in, and converted tip-in attempts at 60% last season, one of the best marks in the league. Whenever the weak-side defender would come over to stop penetration and stop a layup, Z would be there to clean up the mess, and it helped the team tremendously.

And from the high post, Z’s smarts and passing ability make up for his utter inability to put the ball on the floor. While he doesn’t approach his countryman Sabonis in terms of passing ability, Z is a smart playmaker who knows how to make the simple and correct play when he gets the ball near the elbow.

Now Z goes to the bench, which I have some extremely mixed feelings about.

First, the good: the elephant in the room when discussing Z’s effectiveness is the fact he’s consistently looked worse in the playoffs, when the opposing bigs get more athletic and the game speeds up. Last playoffs, he took a higher proportion of jumpers than he did in the regular season, and his % on those jumpers fell from 44.2% to 36.5%. When those jumpers get rushed and Z has to take them from awkward positions, they’re simply not all that effective of a weapon. And on the other end of the floor, the news is even worse; Z is fantastic defensively against penetrating guards and hulking bigs. However, bigs with serious skills or serious speed can embarrass Z, and that was never more evident than it was in last year’s ECF when Dwight Howard absolutely blew by Z at every opportunity. Now Shaq has been brought in to solve this problem; it’ll be a while until Cavs fans figure out if that was the correct solution, but at least the brass didn’t pretend that Z would be able to stop the league’s elite bigs next season.

However, the question now is how Z will be effective off the bench; his offensive go-to moves, the wide-open baseline J, the catch-and-layup, and the tip-in, are all products of penetration by other players. As a #1 or #2 option, I’m not sure Z can get it done when the defense is focused on him. The more good things those on the floor are doing, the more Z can play his game. His 39.5% FG percentage coming off the bench this season is less than heartening, despite his stellar performance tonight. To put it simply, I’m worried that Z’s skills were perfectly suited to playing with a finisher at power forward that can’t shoot and LeBron James, and that he won’t be playing with them off the bench.

So that’s what I have for now on Big Z, the Cavs’ silent warrior for the past decade. This is Z’s last year on his current contract, and likely his last year in Cleveland. And as much as I’d love to see his time with the Cavs celebrated in the most grandiose of manners, Z contentedly moving to the bench, giving up the best parts of his game for the betterment of the team, might be as good of a representation of what he’s brought to the Cavs as any grand gesture could be.

Profiles In Profiling: Delonte West

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Note  #1: Sorry for the hiatus. In addition to normal busyness, my site got attacked by some malicious code sometime on Friday that was preventing me from making or editing posts and I couldn’t figure out until today because I’m horrible with computers. I guess getting attacked by code is how you know your blog’s made it, or something. And also, here’s a link that works to my SLAM Cavs Preview.

Note #2: I’m still not quite on board with S-Jax. He’s a true 3, he’s a better creator than scorer, and he’s got some bad chucking-related habits that I’m not sure he’d kick. Plus, any benefits he could have in the short-term are offset by his ridiculous contract, which would handcuff the Cavs for the next several years. I do get that the brass has to treat this season as a do-or-die situation, but the risk of him becoming a Hughes-like Albatross is just too great for me to be happy about.

Note #3: Obviously, this profile is written with a big caveat due to Delonte’s health problems this off-season: Mike Brown has confirmed that he won’t start at the beginning of the season, although he says he will be in the rotation. But overall, it’s an open question whether or not Delonte’s troubles will prevent him from sustaining the form he was in last season.

It’s not often that you see a player reinvent himself as many times as Delonte West over the course of his first few years in the league. He was drafted after a stellar career playing 2nd banana to Jameer Nelson in St. Joe’s backcourt, and was seen by many as someone who would find a niche in the NBA as a pure shooter. Over the first few years of his career, he had moderate success as a point guard, alternately starting or coming off the bench, then saw his efficiency drop off when Rajon Rondo forced him to become a combo guard in Boston. As a guard off the bench in Seattle, he really started to struggle, seeing his shot and overall efficiency fall off.

When Delonte came to the Cavaliers, he was seen as the throw-in in a trade that also yielded Wally Z, Ben Wallace, and Joe Smith. Soon after the trade, he established himself as an effective point guard for the team, taking over the starting job almost immediately and providing a much-needed infusion of playmaking skill into the Cavalier backcourt. In the playoffs, he hit a massive game-winning three against Washington, and was maybe the most consistent Cav outside of LeBron in the Boston series.

However, last offseason Delonte wasn’t seen as a vital piece after the Mo Williams trade; Danny Ferry was able to get him to agree to a lowball offer, and most people assumed he would get his minutes coming off the bench behind Williams. However, he reinvented himself in 08-09 as the undersized 2 guard he was at St. Joes (playing alongside a player with a lot of similarities to his old backcourt mate Jameer), and had a career year, becoming a vital cog in the Cavs’ system, easily the most valuable player from the massive trade he was involved in, and again being one of the few non-LeBron bright spots in the Cavs’ elimination series.

Delonte was, to put it simply, a revelation at the 2-guard spot last season. The first component to his stellar play was the improvement of his three-point stroke: in his final season in Boston, Delonte’s 3-point % was a solid but not stellar 36.5%, and in Seattle that percentage dropped down to 33.9%. It bounced back a little after the trade, going back up to 36.7% with the Cavaliers in 07-08, but in 08-09 Delonte posted a career-high 40% mark and was a huge help stretching the floor for LeBron. Delonte has a slightly awkward lefty three-point shot that he needs to set his feet to get accurate from behind the arc; 92% of his three-point tries last season were assisted.

Delonte’s ability to stretch the defense with the catch-and-shoot game and shoot specialist percentages was absolutely vital. Few players have the same combination of shooting ability and tough perimeter defense that Delonte had last season; his abilities in those areas put him in the category of “three-and-D” players (I link myself when I get lonely) like Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, James Posey, Shane Battier, or Courtney Lee that often play valuable supporting roles for great teams. Having a player who can stretch the floor late in the game often means playing a specialist like Boobie Gibson or Wally Z, who forced MB to have to give up something defensively; getting that from a player who can be trusted on defense is a huge, huge deal.

The rest of Delonte’s offensive game was also extremely solid for the Cavaliers in 08-09. Delonte doesn’t possess elite athleticism, does have a somewhat awkward release on his jumper, and his ballhandling is extremely stiff with below-average change of direction ability. Because of that, Delonte isn’t going to bury teams with a flurry of points or assists offensively, and has trouble getting good shooting looks or driving and kicking against a defense that’s focused on him when Delonte is asked to run an offensive unit.

However, when Delonte gets the ball when a defense is out of position because they’re reacting to LeBron, Mo, or somebody else, his toughness and basketball IQ make him an extremely dangerous player on secondary penetration. Delonte is very good at knowing when he has time to shoot a three and when to catch a closing defender off-guard with a drive. When he does that, he’s proficient in three areas. Delonte was very good as a midrange jump shooter, shooting a very respectable 41.6% on his midrange Js with 78% of those attempts coming off the bench. Delonte likes to set up his midrange jumper, which he generally takes anywhere from just below the free-throw line extended to the top of the key, with a hard lateral drive before shaking his defender with a nice array of step-back moves.

These moves give him good looks at the basket despite his low release point, somewhat slow motion, and lack of elevation on his jumper-Mike Brown was so impressed by Delonte’s footwork from midrange that he made a tape of Delonte’s jumper setups to show to his son, who plays basketball and is also left-handed. Delonte also does a fabulous job keeping his midrange attempts from actual midrange and not the “zone of death” just inside the three-point line, which is where efficiency comes to die.

Delonte is also a tremendous finisher for a player his size, posting a fabulous 61.6% mark on “inside” shots, which is one of the best marks for a guard in the entire league. And since Delonte shoots 83% from the line, he’s just an extremely dangerous player when he’s able to get himself to the basket, which unfortunately isn’t terribly often.

Delonte is a more than adequate passer for the shooting guard position, averaging 5 assists per 48 minutes and 4.2 assists for every turnover, and his assist ratio put him in the top 10 among shooting guards. (In fact, almost every shooting guard with a higher assist ratio than Delonte played significantly less minutes.) Delonte isn’t a true drive-and-kick player or “push” guard, but he’s always willing to make the correct pass if the open man presents himself and push the break when the Cavs have a clear advantage. Playing alongside another combo guard in Mo Williams, Delonte’s mix of looking for his own shot and looking for a teammate depending on the situation made his fit in the backcourt absolutely perfect in 08-09.

However, the best part about Delonte’s play last season was his defense. Many feared that Delonte wouldn’t be able to cover two-guards full time over the course of a season because of his lack of size. As it turned out, that assessment could not have been more wrong. Not only was Delonte comfortable guarding any two-guard in the league, he was the team’s de facto defensive stopper, often taking the toughest perimeter assignment on defense for the vast majority of the game. Despite LeBron’s defensive acumen, this was a huge boost for the Cavaliers. Not only did having a non-LeBron perimeter stopper allow LeBron to save his energy for offense, but LeBron wreaks so much havoc on the weak-side defensively that he’s almost as valuable there defensively until crunch-time, when the game becomes much more about teams putting the ball in their best players’ hands and ISOing up.

Delonte’s defensive numbers were absolutely amazing. He posted a career-high 1.5 steals per game without ever seeming to take bad gambles, kicked his habit of trying for miracle blocks instead of playing fundamental defense, held his man to a below-average 14.1 PER despite covering stellar players on a regular basis, and had one of the best defensive +/- ratings in the entire league. And of course, whenever tracking defensive stats the real question is how good defensively the team ended up being, and the Cavs were as good as it got. Delonte’s lack of size didn’t end up being an issue-the league is getting faster and faster, more two-point backcourts are coming into play, and more and more players’ games revolve around getting around people rather than shooting over them. (This is why I worry about Anthony Parker defensively at the 2.) And of course, Delonte is as tough as they come, never stops going 100%, has extremely quick hands, knows his defensive angles, and is much faster without the ball than he is with it. When he made Charley Rosen’s all-defensive team, he earned maybe the highest of compliments from Rosen when Rosen referred to him as a “nasty-minded” defensive player. LeBron made the flashy plays and got the DPOY votes on the Cavs, but their elite defense wouldn’t have worked without Anderson Varejao and Delonte West anchoring the interior and perimeter defense on every play.

So that’s Delonte West-Stellar defensively, above-average in all areas offensively except for shot creation, no weaknesses to speak of-the perfect two-guard for a team with plenty of shot-creators. Or, that was Delonte last season. Whether he’ll be that way this season is up in the air. But whether it’s optimism or just a celebration of what was, Delonte West’s 08-09 season was about as spectacular as it gets from an unspectacular player.

Let’s Everybody Get their recap on!

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Jesus20Raves.jpg raver image by AmIDreaming78

Alright, so the tough part of my week finally appears to be over and I can focus on the important things in life, namely Cavs basketball. Thanks to NBA TV, I finally got a look at the new-look Cavs against the Wizards tonight, and here are some things that I thought.

-An Anthony Randolph/JaVale McGee frontcourt would probably be the most awesome thing ever.

-Boobie looked absolutely horrendous tonight; hopefully he’ll fit in better as a scorer off the bench, but he’s just not a point guard, at all, period, at this point.

-ULTIMATE JAWAD: 4-6 from beyond the arc tonight. As much as anything else, tonight’s game was proof that pretty much any legitimate NBA perimeter player is capable of knocking down open threes.

-On that subject, when the Cavs got Moon, pretty much every email I got from Raptors and Heat fans was a variation on the following: “He’s talented, but just wait until he starts launching threes. You will begin bludgeoning yourself with progressively sharper objects.” Even though Moon was efficient overall tonight, I saw what they were talking about. He’s a solid 3-point shooter when he sets his feet, but he sure does fall in love with that deep jumper.

-Anthony Parker: absolutely solid in all areas, from what I saw tonight.

-I’m more and more convinced in my statement that JJ Hickson is the most offensively talented big LeBron has ever played with until Shaq arrived. He’s got all the tools down low, and his shot selection tonight was impressive.

-Of course, Shaq was impressive tonight-while I thought he could have been more aggressive when single-covered by Oberto, he was much more comfortable than I thought he’d be in pick-and-roll sets, which is a huge, huge deal.

-Andre Barrett: Threatening to be the next Tarence Kinsey. I love him quite irrationally.

-Yup, Gilbert’s back. Looks like Cavs-Wizards 4 might be in the works after all this post-season.

-Finally, while he was in the wrong-colored jersey, it’s always fun to watch a pure shooter of Mike Miller’s caliber in a groove like he was tonight. Every time there was an open three, it was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely amazing to watch, even if Miller continues to operate under the delusion that he’s a point guard.

-Alright, campers, talk to you tomorrow. Here’s a gratuitous clip from Glee.

Hey, Here’s A thing You should do

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Last night was spent on a Cavs preview for SLAM, which probably has a lot of relevance to what I do here, so go and check that out. Will try to get back on the horse tonight; to give you a peek behind the curtain, between stuff for ESPN and SLAM and a paper and story for school, I’ve written 16,000 words since Sunday night. So It’s been kinda crazy. Go check out the preview, and let’s all meet up back here after the game tonight.

Friday Fun!

Friday, October 9th, 2009

First off, what I did last night: 2,000 words on Pau Gasol for de SLAM. Check it out.

Shaq says this Cavs team is the best team he’s ever been on. “We’ve been to a lot of cities, but Cleveland ROCKS THE HARDEST!” O-kay.

Ilgauskas for Jax rumor: NOOOOOOOOOO. I don’t want the cap space tied up. Period. Multiple periods. Written about this before.

Alright, fun times. Getting pretty close to the real thing. Get excited.

The first preseason game and other stuff too

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

-Notes from the first preseason game, which unfortunately I didn’t get to watch. (Damn you, League Pass. And the fact I went through the play-by-play and pretended to be Austin Carr is probably indicative of a serious mental disorder.) But anyways, here are my thoughts from the box and highlights, which should be taken with a grain of salt:

-LeBron seems to be into form early, with 15 points on 7 shots in 15 minutes, a nice dunk, and a three. The 4-6 from the line makes me nervous, but maybe I just need an ulcer.

-Can’t really say a whole lot about Shaq’s debut-I really, really, really want to see what effect it’s having on the spacing with him and AV in there at the same time, but the 15 in 15 from LeBron helps to quiet my biggest fear, which is that the lane’s going to be too clogged up for LeBron to drive this season.

-0 perimeter players other than LeBron with one field goal today, which is not fantastic. But a team-high 4 assists from Boobie, which is nice. (Not as nice: 3 of his 4 shots coming from inside the arc. YOU ARE A SHOOTING SPECIALIST, BOOBIE.)

-JJ Hickson going 6-9 is probably the good news of the night-if he can legitimately make the rotation this year, it makes a lot of things easier for Mike Brown when he’s making his rotations. And he did have a nice block on Augustin, although the fact he was horrendously late on his rotation when he made that block gives me pause.

-2 steals for Zydrunas Ilgauskas. That doesn’t happen a lot. I still worry about how he’s going to adjust his game to coming off the bench.

-The Delonte DNP: Definitely news of some kind, but since nobody really knows what’s going on, it’s tricky to talk about it. Get better, Delonte.

-Other stuff:

-In hopefully the last “incident” of LeBron’s ridiculous off-season, apparently Braylon Edwards punched one of LeBron’s friends or something. Sticking to his strengths, Braylon has apparently dropped any feud with LeBron, and hopefully this will all go away fairly soon.

-Hollinger’s player projections are out: Only LeBron and Shaq are projected to have significantly above-average PERs, with Z and Mo Williams coming in slightly above average. I don’t disagree with any of Hollinger’s assessments, and was in fact stunned by how accurate a lot of his Cavs observations were, but it’s fascinating to see how few objectively above-average players the Cavs feature. As I’ll get to in my player profiles, last season’s starters were stunning on how much of their value was derived from their “fit” rather than their ability in a vacuum.

-Alright, that’s all for right now. This week: player profiles, for serious. Stay tuned.