Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brand New Day

Dear Readers,

Today is an exciting day for several reasons. Aside from the transition of power which has captured not only the attention of the nation but also the world, there is a much smaller transition which has captured the attention of a small corner of the interwebs: 48 Minutes of Hell is moving to a new location. From this day forward we will no longer be operating at blogspot and will only be publishing material at 48minutesofhell.com.

The second and equally if not far more exciting development is that 48 Minutes of Hell is proud to announce that we are a member of a new network being launched by ESPN. Entitled the TrueHoop Network, it was pioneered by the minds of Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz and will include several of the best NBA blogs available. Check them out.

In the meantime, set a bookmark to www.48minutesofhell.com.

-Graydon Gordian and Timothy Varner

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day Musing on "Spurs Culture"

Back in November Gregg Popovich was busy inculcating roster newbies into Spurs culture. Roger Mason Jr. summed it up this way:

"Honestly, it's beyond expectations,'' Mason said. "The most impressive thing that I've seen Pop do is, before the election, he had us watch a video on the civil rights movement. For me, you know he has the X's and O's and that he's a great coach, but stuff like that, you don't see that.''

On Monday, with San Antonio off to an uncharacteristic 0-2 start, with back-to-back games against the Mavericks and Timberwolves looming, Popovich devoted about 45 minutes before practice -- on the eve of a historic presidential election -- to a topic that had nothing to do with his players' place and moment in time, and everything to do with it.

"It was Dr. King. It was a bunch of current events on the struggles that a lot of African-Americans went through in the civil rights movement,'' Mason said. "It completely threw me off. But when I went home and reflected on it, I was like, Man, he's a special guy.''

I'm a cynic on these days--holidays when earnest reflection is typically exceeded by token sentimentalism. I know these days are important. I'm happy we take time to mark our calendars with the most significant events of our history. But still, I'm a cynic. Hallmark Cards, the tiresome prattle of pundits, and the counterfeit care of the news anchor tear all strike a deeply disingenuous tone to me. I prefer gifts out of season to a carefully scheduled parade of gift-wrap. I'm a cynic, but I'm not completely callous. I can be touched. But the honest atheist who will not celebrate Christmas (as Christmas) earns more respect from me than the man who fakes his fa la la way through.

Whether a father realizes it or not, the sincerity of his actions creates a culture for his children to live within. If he is unnecessarily absent, the sincerity of his absence creates a culture of longing and loneliness in which the children grow. If he only pays lip service I Love Yous, children will acquaint themselves with a culture of shallow, feigned affection. This kind of thing is inescapable, and adapts to scale. It's true for parents. It's true for teachers. It's true for presidents. It's true for coaches.

"Spurs culture" is something of a nebulous expression. But whatever it is, it aims to be sincere, and it seeks sincerity from its contributors. Gregg Popovich was able to connect with Roger Mason through 45 minutes of sincere, unscripted reflection on the triumphs of the civil rights era. I'm convinced these sort of moments have played major contributing roles during the Spurs' decade of dominance. One can not quantify the power of a culturally defining moment, and, drastically scaling down in terms of significance, neither can one quantify the relationship between a certain type of culture and winning.

At Center Court with Brett Hainline

Brett Hainline is the man over at Queen City Hoops, the best place on the net for Bobcats analysis. In addition to keeping close tabs on the Cats, Brett also manages a kick ass stats page--it includes Spurs stats, o ye faithful. Clamor on over. Brett and I discuss Popovich, Brown, and some other stuff below.

TV: Your recent piece entitled Defending a Bobcats Defense was tremendous. The Bobcats are on the come up since the Richardson trade, and, based on your numbers, Diaw's defense is a contributing factor. I'm guessing Larry Brown (who I assume pushed for the trade) did not run your fancy pants numbers before saying, "yeah, get me Bell and Diaw." To what extent do you believe veteran coaches and GMs can intuit the sort of stuff your data shows?
BH: I think coaches and GMs see enough basketball to tell who forces their man into tough shots, who gambles too much on defense, and who does a good job defending the pick and roll. But coaches have put Kobe on the All-Defensive teams 8 times, despite his sometimes flagging interest at the end of the court (before the Royal Order of Kobe Supporters tear me a new one – Kobe is a very good defender…when he tries – is that good enough to be among the league’s best for 8 seasons?) and that tells me that they can also buy into the hype and might be making some of their decisions on reputation. They saw his greatness – and then stopped looking hard at him (and others – he is not the only one to make it on his name). Like my post showed – stats can be used to paint a very detailed picture of a player’s influence on a game, far beyond just how someone scored against him. I think there is a limit to how much a person could intuitively track all the varied fields that paint a more complete picture of a defender’s abilities.
TV: Half a season in, what's your take on Larry Brown as the Bobcats coach?
BH: With the Bobcats seemingly headed towards merely matching last season’s win total…I am actually generally very pleased. Larry Brown has the team playing actual basketball and their defense is world’s better than last season – they currently stand 12th in the league in defensive efficiency (and even better since the Diaw trade), after finishing last year at 21st. The Bobcats are actually approaching being good at something. The offense is still a work in progress, but after a lot of early season struggling with more plays and complexity than they were accustomed, the Cats are making offensive progress. Overall, I can not complain (except about playing Juwan Howard over Ryan Hollins and Alexis Ajinca--the Cats are very unlikely to make the playoffs so why not give the kids a chance?).
TV: For some reason, the Popovich-Brown friendship fascinates me. How would you compare the two coaches, in light of one another?
BH: Stylistically, they seem very similar – their teams play old-school basketball (well, sort-of, depending on the era, old school was actually pretty up-tempo, but the style they play seems old-school), with a focus on defense and a slow pace. But…Pop – 13 seasons, 1 team. Larry Brown – 29 years (including ABA), 10 teams. In real world terms, one is the monogamous, long-married husband, the other a confirmed bachelor, moving from passing fancy to passing fancy. Do they secretly envy each other? What do they have in common to form their friendship around? I can only assume that, just like in real life, the answer is probably basketball.
TV: Do you think the Cats are stuck with Adam Morrison?
BH: Like an unwanted leg. Except I kind of want Adam around, just in case he winds up proving everyone wrong. I’d hate to see him moved elsewhere only to become a solid contributor (anything more seems like ridiculous fantasy at this point). Aside from being used in a trade to make salaries match, I do not see the Bobcats being able to trade him. After a decent start to the season, he has struggled mightily and probably forced the Bobcats into holding onto him for next year (which they already picked up, for the low, low sum of only $5 million – yay! Sigh.).
Brett and I exchanged questions this time around, so visit Queen City Hoops for my answers to a set of Spurs questions. And his game previews are not too shabby, either.

The Trade Season Tilt-A-Whirl: Twirl No. 1

ESPN's Daily Dime has Spurs Nation talking about San Antonio's alleged interest in Nick Collison. Nick Collison? Really?

  • excellent rebound rate
  • good defender
  • high FG%
One member of a Spurs message board fired up The Trade Machine and discovered that a salary dump of Vaughn, Oberto, and Udoka for Collison satisfies the CBA. Even if the Spurs included a 2009 second round draft pick(s) into the equation, one wonders if Presti would give up Collison for so little talent in return? The big variable here is how much of Fabricio Oberto's 2009/10 contract is guaranteed. The usual sites disagree, but some indicate that next season's contract is only partially guaranteed. If that is the case, Presti could clear 18 million or more (depending on Oberto's contract) from his future cap--he would head into next summer with a payroll somewhere in the low to mid-30s.

Right now, it looks as if only Memphis is likely to be in the same cap space neighborhood as OKC. But how much money is Michael Heisley willing to spend in a bad economy? In other words, would Sam Presti want cash to spend in a buyer's market? And in a year when the competition for talent is scarce? More specifically, does Presti want to add a Carlos Boozer or David Lee--with money enough left for, say, Zaza Pachulia--to his core of Durant, Green and Westbrook? This might be the perfect storm of opportunity for the ambitious young GM. Turning Nick Collison into Carlos Boozer would be a neat party trick.

On the court Collison is an ideal fit for San Antonio, but is he worth jeopardizing their 2010 cap space? I'm not sure. Perhaps, there is a different way to ask the question. Are the Spurs playing for championships now or later? Collison is not a bit player. His presence would immediately shore up the frontline.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's the Personnel, Pop

Jeff McDonald has turned in a should-read article replete with quotes from Coach Popovich about the Spurs lackluster defense. This is typical Popovich banter, always pre-packaged and ready for arrival in mid-January. But somehow, this season, Pop's analysis strikes me as more than a motivational ploy.

We've recently written that the Spurs are not as good as their record. Popovich seems to agree: “The only thing that's saving us is that everybody else is beating everybody else up, so our record looks basically as good as anybody else's,” Popovich said. “It's fool's gold, as far as I'm concerned.”

According to McDonald, the first game stat Pop looks at is field goal percentage defense. Basketbawful wrote about this area of concern a couple weeks back, saying:
This kind of shocked me, but the Spurs are only 21st in the league in field goal percentage defense (45.7), which is barely better than the Heat (45.8) and Warriors (also 45.8). The fact that they're one of the best teams in PPG allowed but one of the worst teams in FGP allowed tells you pretty much all you need to know about the pace of their games.
It's hard to argue with the evidence, especially if you've watched any games of late. The 76ers might the toughest match up in the league for San Antonio. Their athletic 3s and 4s recently obliterated the Spurs defense, and notably Bruce Bowen. Young and Iguodala cruised to 27 and 21 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the laterally-challenged Bowen and Finley registered plus/minuses of -13 and -26. Philly scored at will.

The painful truth is that the Spurs have hard-to-overcome personnel issues--not insurmountable, but terribly problematic. The Spurs will struggle to defend athletic wings. Bowen's decline causes one to wonder how effectively the Spurs will successfully limit the offense of playoff go to scorers, such as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. In their recent game against the Lakers, Pop only gave Bowen 6 minutes of playing time (although, truth be told, I suspect Bowen was given the short hook because of offensive, not defensive, limitations). As I noted after the game:
The Spurs played last night's game with basically one swing player: Michael Finley. Ime Udoka didn't make it off the bench and Bruce Bowen logged a mere 6 minutes. The Spurs used a trio of Hill, Mason, Ginobili at one point. In the '08 Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant averaged 29.2 points on 53% shooting. Nothing had changed last night. It looks as if Popovich has decided that Bowen can't slow Bryant, so he might as well put his team in a better position to trade baskets.
Coincidentally, might this offer a partial account for Pop's frequent forays into small ball?

When the Spurs play Kurt Thomas and Tim Duncan together, they have a front court whose foot speed is closer to slow and plodding than quick and nimble. This creates difficulties against 4s and 5s that can score by facing the basket and putting the ball on the floor. This is obviously qualified by the fact that Thomas and Duncan are on most short-lists of good defensive big men. It's no surprise then that they are an effective tandem against certain, if not most, line ups. This criticism is only relative to quick, athletic frontcourters. Thomas and Duncan can't stick with the long speedsters. Pop doesn't have a body on his bench to play alongside Duncan that is particularly suited to defend athletic, turn and face bigs. Austin Croshere is not the solution to this problem, no matter how much he potentially helps elsewhere.

Another issue along the frontline, one that certainly contributes to an opponent's field goal percentage, is the Spurs' lack of a second shot blocker. Kurt Thomas, again, is a good defender, but he's not exactly the Sultan of Swat. Duncan hasn't played alongside a great shot-altering center since David Robinson, with Rasho Nesterovic checking in as the closest qualifier. The Spurs defense, as most readers of this site know, attempts to force perimeter players baseline and funnel them into the clutches of its shot blockers. Although it's not an absolute necessity, the Spurs D is better outfitted with twin towers who can spike the set of opposing penetration.

This brings us back to McDonald's sobering piece:

“We suck on ‘D,'” Popovich said, with the “D” standing for defense.

That was the entire text of Popovich's State of the Team address, as succinct as it was devastating. All follow-up questions fishing for a silver lining were quickly rebuffed.

Do you mean all game long, or just in fourth quarters?

“No, pretty much throughout,” Popovich said. “Both individually and team-wise, we suck. We're pretty consistent that way.”

Surely there is a way to fix this problem, some sliver of hope on the horizon?

“I don't know if I have an answer to that,” Popovich said. “If I did, we wouldn't suck quite so bad.”

The Spurs can always seek to address their personnel issues through trades or free agent acquisitions, except that they are extremely short-handed on assets and teams are not looking to give away the sort of player(s) the Spurs need in return. Even if the Spurs were able to land a player who has the physical wherewithal to stand in the gap, there is no certainty he could learn the system quickly enough to boost the Spurs back into the realm of the elite. These defensive issues pose the most critical challenge to the 2008/9 championship run. Color me anxious.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Match-Up of the Night: The Curse of Graydon vs. Poor Scheduling

Although I have only lived in Chicago for a little over a year, I am almost legendary amongst Chicago sports fans. For you see I have attended 8 Chicago sporting events and never once has the home town team won. Cubs, Bears, Bulls, doesn't matter. If I am present they lose. For the most part this is frustrating because I like Chicago sports teams and wish them the best. But one day a year this is a sure fire way to ensure I fall asleep with a smile on my face: The day the Spurs come town.

Alas, I am not in Chicago. I am in Washington D.C. So I am not only missing the game (which is frustrating enough in its own right), but there is now the slightest chance we might lose when originally there was no shot whatsoever at a Bulls victory. Poor scheduling on my part (really, poor scheduling on whoever thought the inauguration should be in January. It's the east coast people. Can't we do this in May?).

Anyways, in their first meeting this season an under-staffed Spurs squad (Parker was still out) managed to top the Bulls 98-88. I characterized that contest as a chance to compare Hill and Rose and despite whatever media hype may surround the first round pick, Hill had the better game. But Rose has continued to improve over the season while Hill's momentum has slowed a bit. The Bulls are also coming off of a particularly impressive performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who I happen to believe are the best team in the NBA. The Spurs, on the other hand, let their post-Laker momentum slip a bit as they got thoroughly handled by a surging Sixers squad. The game starts at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Match-Up of the Night: Consistent Perimeter Shooting vs. Hot Perimeter Shooting

I've never understood why the Spurs are labeled as a boring team. Ok, scratch that. I understand that people find our slow pace of play and defensive-minded style to be boring. But the spurs let it fly from the perimeter at an alarming rate and however worrying it may be from the perspective of offensive efficiency, I happen to find barrages of three pointers to be exciting. Which is why I am excited for this evening's contest with the 76ers.

Traditionally Philly doesn't take a lot of outside shots (for the majority of the season they have had the fewest 3-point attempts of any team). But under new coach Tony DiLeo the Sixers have started to heat up from from beyond the arc:
The Sixers are near the bottom of the NBA in 3-point shooting (32.2 percent), but they've connected on 34 of 70 attempts (48.6) during their [5 game] winning streak.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have lived and died by the long ball for a good season or two now. A look up and down the roster will reveal a whole bevy of players who love nothing more than making it rain from 24 feet away from the basket. But, unlike the Sixers, we do so at an impressively consistent rate. Bonner and Mason are amongst the top three in the league in 3-point percentage (1st and 3rd, respectively). And Ginobili, Bowen, Finley, and even Udoka can hit outside shots at a decent rate. Although the average fan may not think of Spurs-Sixers as an exciting match-up, there's a good reason to believe these two squads may provide us with a bit of fireworks this evening.