Profiles In Profiling: Delonte West

October 20th, 2009 by John Krolik

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.