Monday, January 26, 2009

Thinking BOLD

With extremely deep teams like the Blazers, Lakers, Jazz, and Houston, this season, the second unit, or bench squad, has become nearly as important as the starters.

Teams like the Nuggets, Spurs, Cavs, and Magic have developed benches this year and remain at the top of their divisions due to that added depth. While injury-plagued teams like Houston and the Jazz have hung in the playoff race mainly due to their depth.

On the flipside, good to very good teams like the triple H trio of the Heat, Hawks, and Hornets haven’t been able to take that next step due to their thin benches.

In light of all this, it’s definitely time for some gut checks from certain NBA stars who say they want to win, who say they want to do whatever it takes… Well, it’s time for some NBA teams, namely, NBA coaches, to be BOLD.

There were a few teams that started this bold thinking. Ironically, the team who has a rep for being boring, has taken some of the boldest steps over the past few seasons…and you know what? They’ve won the whole damn thing four times. From mining the wealth of European stars to sitting stars for the entire fourth quarter in potentially winnable games, the Spurs have been that BOLD team.

They also did a little move that has helped make them one of the greatest franchises in league history. That would be bringing Manu Ginobili, a superstar talent, off the bench.

This season, other teams have followed suit.

Exhibit A: the Los Angeles Lakers, who, admittedly, copied the Ginobili experiment and asked Lamar Odom, who had pretty much started every single game of his career, to lead the bench mob.

The result? The Lakers have the best bench in the entire league. Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic along with Odom change the entire pace of the game and play frenetic, fast-paced ball, that aggressively traps and oftentimes fullcourt presses and makes life miserable for the opposition who has to try and adapt to two different styles and basically gets a group of starters playing off the bench.

As a side result to that, the Lakers 7-foot future, Andrew Bynum, is starting to blossom playing alongside all the veterans. Pau Gasol has meshed perfectly with the 21-year-old and Kobe Bryant and Fisher are looking to get him the ball.

Oh yeah, the Lakers sport the best record in the West (35-8). Pretty nifty outcome for thinking bold, wouldn’t you agree?

Exhibit B: the Utah Jazz, who, despite all the injuries to key players have remained in the playoff hunt. They started the season bringing Andrei Kirilenko off the bench, and before Boozer and then Milsap went down with injuries, that little trick was working like a $5,000, well, nicely.

Hopefully, you can see where this post is headed.

Aside from exhibits A & B, there is also the recent Jermaine O’Neal experiment. The Raptors have been fortunate enough to have Andrea Bargnani absolutely balling (20 points and 7 boards on 50 percent shooting in January) and have the luxury, much like the Lakers and pre-injured Jazz, of bringing a known star talent off the bench. While O’Neal’s star has faded considerably, so far, the bold move is paying off. The team has since rattled off a couple in a row (yeah, the Kings and Bulls, but still).

As for some of the other teams in the league, they have not been thinking boldly, and have clung to the tried and tested and the old school ways of coaching.

Maybe it’s Terry Porter and Michael Curry’s coaching styles that are preventing them from seeing the larger picture. Maybe it’s the fact that they are first year coaches (well, fairly new to coaching in Porter’s case) with big shoes to fill. Maybe it’s the high profile star power that they are dealing with. Or perhaps it's a combination of all of these things

Whatever it is, the obvious solution is staring them in the face and they are refusing to go with it.

I’ve been talking about bringing Nash off the bench for quite some time now. Check here for that blog.

Recapping, it gives the Suns two strong units. Nash, if playing his style of basketball (run and gun) can turn anyone into a viable contributor. But force him to slow down and play with Shaq? Then we have his highest turnover percentage of his career (worse than his rookie campaign) and his lowest FG percentage in four years.

Starting J Rich, Amare, Shaq, Grant Hill and Barbosa or even Dee Brown, would allow J-Rich to have a more useful impact in the offense. Shaq has won four titles in his career, and they’ve all been playing with a great wing player. Now, this Shaq isn’t close to 3peat Shaq, nor is he quite Heat Shaq, and, J-Rich ain’t even a poor-man’s Kobe, but neither is he a catch and shoot, fourth option. With Shaq and J-Rich, the duo-dynamic is there.

With this lineup, Grant Hill can run point forward and be in charge of the main ball handling duties. Besides, in a half court offense that focuses around Shaq, all a team simply needs is a point guard who can dump the ball into the post and shoot the long ball (think Scott Skiles, think old Jason Williams, think Ron Harper, think Brian Shaw). Leandro Barbosa might not be as smart a player as any of them, but he’s definitely at least as talented.

With the starters set, Shaq accumulating fouls on the defense early, battering the bigs, abusing the post, with about 3 minutes left in the first quarter, that’s when the Suns will unleash the hounds. A second unit of Nash, Barbosa, Barnes, Amundson and Amare would be devastatingly fast and explosive.

Bringing a two-time MVP off the bench, now that’s thinking BOLDLY.

Which brings me to another former MVP who should be coming off the bench. How many conference finals have the Detroit Pistons been to the past six years?


They accomplished this feat based not on any superstar talent (though, Mr. Billups is proving that he’s definitely a working man’s superstar—think a point guard’s version of Brandon Roy). Instead, they built a strong team unit, that knew how to play well together—very well, excellent in fact.

Ben Wallace/Antonio McDyess, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Chauncey Billups.

Sure, over the years, they’ve replaced core guys here and there. The first being Wallace. The team quickly filled his hole with McDyess and Jason Maxiell. Despite the change, they didn’t really miss a beat.

This season, wisely predicting the emergence of Rodney Stuckey after easing him into the system last year, they sent Chauncey packing to “renew” the point guard position like they did with the center/power forward spot two years before.

But instead of continuing this natural cycle, they’ve tried to force a square peg into a round hole.

AI’s the Detroit’s Yoko Ono.

No disrespect to the Answer, but the question is where should he play, and the solution is on the second unit.

A superstar coming off the bench? Yes, think Ginobili.

But Ginobili is no Allen Iverson…right from both sides of that argument.

So, instead, let’s look at this in a different light. Do you remember way back in 2001, back when Iverson was the face of the Sixers franchise? Do you remember who the other faces he was playing with were?

Nope, neither does anyone else. The point is, he won his MVP that year and took that team to the finals with a group of nobodies (sorry Mutumbo).

If AI is options 1,2 and 3 on a second unit featuring Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell, irregardless of the noticeable regression in his game this season, he will kill second units like it’s 2001. He’s still AI. He’s still a top 10 shooting guard.

On this Detroit team, his rightful place is to lead a second unit squad. His place is to kill second units.

He’s not here to change the flow of that tight as hip hugger jeans’ camaraderie and team-first approach. Let’s face it, try as he might, AI isn’t a team-oriented guy. He’s a great, great teammate, but not a team player. There’s no team in AI.

Bringing Iverson off the bench would not only keep that first unit flowing like they have for the past six years, but it would also allow the youngins to develop into the system. Look how beautifully Stuckey has progressed in this model.

AI is most likely only a one year rental. Why has Curry allowed him to muck up the system? Let's be real. Iverson's got zero rings. He got close, but he’s never won anything. The Pistons system got them a ring and another finals appearance.

In Phoenix, the newbie, Shaq, is the one with the rings. Despite it previously being Nash’s team, going with the ring bearer isn’t a bad idea.

But in both cases, BOLD thinking needs to be adopted. Bringing both of the former MVP guards off the bench will boost both squads into the elite class, giving them both elite starting units and elite benches.
Remember, not everyone can be Boston and mesh superstar talent together.
The Lakers have been bold this year, and they have a huge depth advantage as well as the best bench in the league and are poised to represent the West in the Finals once again.
The Spurs have been bold for years and have four rings to show for it.
And, there’s no BOLDER statement than winning a ring…

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