The frontcourt and how it might work

July 8th, 2011 by John Krolik

One of my key NBA theories is that the best teams in the league have frontcourts combinations that click. There’s no cut-and-dry model to it, but if you look at the most successful teams from the past few seasons, their PF/C combinations all had a kind of special chemistry; they knew how to compliment each other offensively and cover for each other defensively.

One thing I regret about the whole LeBron situation is that I’m afraid people will forget just how special the 66-win 08-09 Cavs were, and a lot of what made them special was that they had that frontcourt alchemy. Anderson Varejao (and Ben Wallace, before he broke his leg) were both perfect power forwards defensively and centers offensively. They showed hard out on the perimeter to shut down opposing pick-and-roll play, recovered back to cover the paint, and were always there to contest shots at the rim. On offense, they didn’t take bad shots, always looked for lanes to the rim, and made great cuts. (Wallace wasn’t nearly as good at finishing at the rim as Andy, but he almost made up for it with his passing, which was surprisingly really good.)

Guys who play power forward on defense and center on offense can only work if you have a guy who can be a legitimate center on defense and stretch the floor offensively. The Cavs had that guy in Big Z, who had a career year in 2008-09. Before Mike Brown came in, Big Z was regarded as a defensive liability because of his glacial movement. With Brown’s system working and Varejao and Wallace covering the perimeter, Z was able to stay near the paint and protect the rim without having to move too much, which was a huge, huge deal. Offensively, Z was a machine with his patented set shot, making an impressive 44% of his long 2s and even hitting some corner threes to keep the defense honest. Z had no answer for Dwight Howard in the Conference Finals, and that does deserve mention, but Mike Brown, Andy, Big Ben, and Z had something special going that season. (I feel a LOT of credit should be given to Brown for this — Spoelstra is a darn good defensive coach, and he couldn’t keep Z on the floor defensively in the playoffs.)

Then the Shaq trade happened, followed by the Jamison trade, with both moves sacrificing that special chemistry in order to theoretically help the Cavs match up with Howard, Lewis, and the Magic. I don’t want to be too hard on those moves, so I’ll just say that they doomed the franchise.

When Shaq took Z’s hard-earned spot, crowded the paint, didn’t put in the work on defense, and fired up flat jump-hook after flat jump-hook offensively, the Cavs lost the chemistry that made them special, and the FrankenCavs were completely picked apart by Boston. (Yes, making short-term moves can be blamed on LeBron’s imminent free agency, and LeBron sucked in the last few games of the Boston series. I’m not forgetting that, but non-LeBron things happened to the Cavs in 2009-10.)

The Cavs still have Varejao, and they drafted someone they hope will be a Ben Wallace clone in Tristan “is not Jonas Valanciunas” Thompson. The problem is that they don’t have 2008-09 Big Z, and guys who can protect the rim and stretch the floor don’t grow on trees. So let’s take a look at some of the frontcourt combinations the Cavs can throw out next season, and how they might work:

1. Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison

Varejao is a very good defensive center. He can guard the post shockingly well, and he makes up for his lack of shot-blocking by his ability to move his feet, contest shots without fouling, and taking charges. The problem is that he’s not as good defensively at the 5 as he is at the 4, where he can really use his mobility more. Offensively, he’s an ideal modern center. He makes great cuts, he can finish at the rim, and he crashes the glass. He can also play the high-post a little bit and knocks down his mid-range jumper more often than you think. (He’s also developed a bit of a dribble game and post moves, and his shot-fake is bizarrely, bizarrely effective.)

If you’re a long-time reader, you know how I feel about Jamison. He can stretch the floor, but he forces too many shots from the perimeter and in the paint, and he’s the worst defensive forward I have ever seen in my life. When he gets put in the pick-and-roll, it’s 4-on-5 basketball. It’s that simple. Varejao is good defensively as a center, but he’s not Dwight Howard, and can’t cover for Jamison. Still, this is probably your opening-night starting frontcourt.

2. Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao

There are three hopes here.

1. That Thompson’s shot-blocking and strength will allow him to make up for his lack of size and allow him to play effective defense at the center position. This can happen — how many true post-up threats are left in the NBA? I’m very much a believer that this is a drive-and-kick league now, and daring the other team’s center to beat you by scoring from the post is not that bad of a defensive strategy.

2. That Thompson can be a passable offensive center. I know he can’t shoot. I know he can’t score from the post. I know he can’t really pass. I’m not asking for TT to be Tim Duncan here. All I want are some good cuts, some strong finishes at the rim, and some garbage baskets. He doesn’t need to be a threat offensively, he just needs to do enough to prevent the Cavs from playing 4-on-5 offensively. Considering that Thompson shot 54% from the field, didn’t finish well at the rim, and didn’t make half of his free throws, I’m skeptical about this proposition. Oh well. It’s not like there were any 7-footers available at the #4 spot who made 70% of their field goals and 90% of their free throws against high-level competition.

3. That Andy’s high-post skills will have evolved enough to allow him to be a passable 4 on offense. Varejao did make a surprising amount of his long 2s last season, and did make some shocking overall progress with his offensive game. However, he spent the entire year injured, and now he’s locked out. When Andy missed the beginning of the season a few years back because of a contract holdout, he apparently spent his time eating everything that couldn’t outrun him. I am skeptical about this proposition as well. Still, this frontcourt might be able to play some real defense, which would be a very welcome change.

(I would have been more excited about Bismack than TT — part of that has to do with the fact that Bismack is, by all accounts, really special defensively, but maybe I’m swayed by the fact that BB is just a cooler pick than TT. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. Also, Biyombo made more than half of his free throws. Have I mentioned that the free throw thing really, really bugs me?)

Ryan Hollins and Anderson Varejao

Watch out for this — it could work, especially with Baron and Kyrie constantly getting into the paint and keeping the defense off-balance enough to keep the lack of outside shooting from crowding the paint. Hollins showed some flashes at the end of the season, and Varejao was playing his ass off at the beginning of it. This could work better than you think. If Hollins stops fouling everything that moves. And Andy, again, can actually make progress as an offensive four. CATCH THE FEVER!

Tristian Thompson and Antawn Jamison

This is where Thompson becomes redundant with Varejao, but it’s not like the Cavs used their #4 pick on a player whose skills overlap with their best frontcourt player or anything. Hopefully TT’s shot-blocking will cover for Jamison’s defense, which is an affront to all that is good and happy.

Tristian Thompson and Ryan Hollins

This will not work offensively, like at all, and Hollins isn’t good enough defensively to make up for that.

Ryan Hollins and Antawn Jamison

I mean, it’ll be entertaining, in a strange way.

Baron Davis/Kyrie Irving/Ramon Sessions/Christian Eyenga/Anderson Varejao

Okay, this is just something I’d do if I was playing 2K12. Still, I would legitimately like to see Eyenga try his hand at the 4-he’s got the shot-blocking and mobility to do it defensively, he could cut to the basket instead of trying to make plays off the dribble, and he can shoot just enough to keep the defense honest. And again, I’m a believer in the “dare them to beat you with post-up buckets” theory.

With that insane idea, I leave you. Be well, everyone.