The Other guys- Hack a Backups

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There’s no question that the NBA is a star driven league.

Every title-winning team has at least one dominant player, most have two and with the high level of talent in the league today, it’s become a near necessity for contenders to put together a roster with three All-Star  caliber players in order to have a realistic chance at winning. The desire to group stars together brought us multiple tanking efforts and offloading of contracts in the last few years, and while it is the stars that get you to the playoffs and ideally make the big plays for you, the back half of your roster is nearly as important.

Ever since Red Auerbach helped popularize the concept of the “Sixth Man” with the 50’s and 60’s Celtics, a powerful bench has been a key component for contending teams.

The teams of the 80’s had guys like Vinnie Johnson, Danny Ainge, Michael Cooper and Andrew Toney (Pistons, Celtics, Lakers and 76ers respectively). The 1990’s Bulls had John Paxson and Steve Kerr hit game winners, and there’s no way the 2000’s Lakers make the runs they did without guys like Rick Fox and Robert Horry. The Heat had Shane Battier and Chris Anderson and it’s impossible to overrate the impact of guys like Boris Diaw and Danny Green for the Spurs. I could go on all day about the number of important guys who don’t get top billing, but suffice it to say, winning or losing the biggest games often goes beyond the top players and boils down to the other guys.

Last years’ Playoffs may have been the high water mark for role players getting their 15 minutes of fame. In the first 3 rounds of the playoffs,  Kelly Olynyk swung the course of the playoffs with his part in Kevin Love’s shoulder injury, Matthew Dellavedova initiated scraps with Taj Gibson of the Bulls and Al Horford of the Hawks; helping to get them ejected in key moments and Thabo Sefalosha’s absence completely scrapped the Hawks’ offensive flow. The Warriors were on life support against the Memphis Grizzlies until Steve Kerr switched his defense to force the Memphis role players to take a larger part in the game. They were unable to step up their game, and the Warriors cruised from that point on. The Rockets were dead in the water when Kevin McHale got tired of James Harden’s B.S. and pulled him in Game 6 against the Clippers. With the league’s MVP runner-up on the bench, Houston went on a historic run led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in sports, but nothing prepared me for the headline “Clutch plays from Josh Smith key Rockets’ rally”.

Just when we thought we hit the apex of glue guy impact, everything climaxed in the Finals with Andre Iguodala winning the MVP award for his part in “slowing down” LeBron James. Even though he’s 2 percent body fat and looks like a superhero, Iggy represented the scrappy little guy. When he won that MVP, everyone who had ever come off the bench in a sport puffed their chest out a little bit; one of our own had helped beat the best player in the world. 

While we may have hit the super-sub apex last year, that doesn’t mean the importance of these guys has eroded in any way. I can’t say that I have all the answers, in fact, I probably have next to none of them, but that never stops me from trying to find them. It’s easy to pick out the stars in this years’ playoffs, but let’s take a look at which non-stars are going to swing the title.

https://i2.wp.com/assets.rollingstone.com/assets/2014/gallery/the-15-weirdest-and-worst-nba-free-throw-shooters-20140605/28191/_original/1035x691-20140603-shaq-x1800-1401812724.jpg

You’ve gotta love the Big Diesel.

The “Hack-A Backups”:

Thanks to a loophole in NBA rules, teams can profit from intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters in order to send them to the foul line for shot attempts. Savvy coaches have increasingly employed the use of the originally titled  “Hack a Shaq” strategy in recent years, and while I find the tactic distasteful and visually unpleasant, I can’t blame the coaches for doing it. It isn’t their job to play pretty basketball, it’s their job to win games. 

Since the NBA hasn’t legislated this strategy out of the game yet, it’s sure to impact the playoffs this year as the Rockets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder and Pistons all have starters who  shoot under 60% at the stripe, with the Pistons’ Andrew Drummond “leading” the way at 35% for the season.

While the Pistons are not a real contender by any means, they could at the very least be a little bit pesky in the first round.

A big part of that  comes from the Pistons’ ability to beat teams up on the glass and with their pick and roll game on offense. Reggie Jackson morphed from an overpaid malcontent to a terrifying comet attacking off of Drummond screens. When defenses collapse on Jackson, it leaves Drummond free to catch and finish at the rim with a high level of success (5th in the league in Field Goal Percentage and Points in the Paint Per game). If they sag off of Jackson, he’s comfortable getting his own buckets (15.6 points per game on pull ups and drives). While this strategy has been effective,  unfortunately, teams have forced Stan Van Gundy to sub Drummond out of games all season by going to the “hack-a” strategy early and often.

Similarly, a big portion of the Los Angeles Clippers’ success comes from the dominance of Deandre Jordan in the painted area.

With his 70% field goal effort this season, he now has 4 of the top 6 seasons in NBA history.  He catches a lot of flack for his offensive shortcomings; the refrain of “all he does is dunk” gets thrown around a lot, but if you can dunk on guys all game, it would be foolish to do anything else. He’ll never be a complete offensive player, but watching him and Chris Paul run the pick and roll is a thing of beauty. When you combine his athleticism with Blake Griffin’s passing and offensive game, the Clips are a legitimate title contender. Like in Detroit, teams are able to force Doc Rivers’ hand by fouling Jordan early and often, and Doc has to choose between benching DeAndre or potentially torpedoing the offensive game plan.   In both cases they have to bring in limited big men- Cole Aldrich in L.A. and Aaron Baynes in Detroit- and their game plan completely changes. They both perform admirably given their limitations, but when you lose a max-level big man, it’s bound to affect you negatively.

The Thunder and Warriors both have starting big men with free throw deficiencies in Steven Adams and Andrew Bogut respectively, but unlike the other 2 teams, they have capable, if very different, backups for their big men.

The Warriors proved last year that they don’t need Andrew Bogut on the floor to win. The momentum of the Finals swung when Kerr made the decision to bench Bogut and switch entirely to small ball. They were able to switch every screen on defense and spread the floor on offense, effectively neutralizing the Cavaliers’ big men. Despite his big contract and veteran status, Bogut took the benching like a pro and hasn’t missed a bit with his on court production.  This season has been a continuation of what worked in the Finals. Bogut is still one of the best rim protectors in the game, but when he goes to the bench, the Warriors hit a whole different level of awesomeness with their small-ball “Lineup of Death”. They insert Iguodala at Power Forward, Draymond Green at Center and move the ball and attack teams with a reckless abandon, outscoring teams by 46.1 points per 100 possessions.  Unless teams can find a way to pound the Dubs on the glass, they can continue to decimate teams with this lineup.

Like Golden State, Oklahoma City has a defensive minded and offensively and athletically limited starter in Steven Adams.

Also like Bogut, he’s a horrendous free throw shooter who tends to take the team out of rhythm offensively. The similarities end when Adams goes to the bench and they bring in offensive stud Enes Kanter to spell Adams. While he’s probably the worst defensive big man in the game, Kanter has proven time after time that he can fill it up as well as anyone else. Unlike Golden State’s backup lineup, this OKC unit experiences a drop off in efficiency, going from outscoring opponents by 23.5 points per 100 possessions with the starters to 18.1 points per 100 with Kanter. That differential is nothing to sneeze at, and they’re still an effective unit, thanks to Kanter’s scoring and Westbrook and Durant’s overall brilliance, but it’s a definite drop off. A bigger chunk of the defensive burden shifts to Serge Ibaka and he does a good job of blocking shots, but he’s often taken out of position and has to bang with the other teams’ center. Even if defense and rebounding are better aligned to his skill set, Ibaka’s increased jump-shooting and decreased rebounding show that he’s much happier with a more offensively focused role. By having to cover for Kanter, Ibaka is not able to focus as much on the offensive end of the floor and his attitude suffers a bit for it. It’s not a quantifiable change, but those things add up, and titles are won and lost based on the little things.The Thunder have the best top-3 in the game, and Steven Adams complements them almost perfectly. When he has to sit, they go from a well-rounded team to one that has to bludgeon people offensively to win games. This is okay in the first round, but it won’t fly against the big boys in San Antonio or Golden State.

There is more than one type of important role player; in part two, we’ll take a look at my favorite group of guys, in honor of Vinnie Johnson, “The Microwaves”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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