As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with Jason Maxiell, Hamed Haddadi, and Al Jefferson.
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Follow Jason Maxiell on Twitter at @JasonMaxiell.
I'm going to assume that most of our readers have graduated something. Not primary school, mind you -- college or high school is where it's at. Assuming you have, I'm also assuming most everyone has a sense of what it's like to hit that lull that comes gently wrapped with every student's senior year. You know what I mean -- if not from your own experience, from that of your friends. There's this feeling that wells up inside the heart of the graduate to-be. Essentially, if you're so close to the finish line, why expend that much effort finishing it out? Colloquially called "senioritis", the so-called disease presents with symptoms of missed assignments, comically lacking study habits, and incessant tardiness. The thing that amuses me about it is that it isn't simply something endemic to school -- I've seen two of my coworkers retire among the five jobs I've worked in my life, and the exact same thing applied to their work. As soon as they knew their retirement was coming through, their work became slipshod and their work ethic crumbled. Whether it was a fellow transcriptionist in college or a business analyst at a large organization, no presence was safe from the crumbling work ethic of the nearly-departed.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Jason Maxiell. It strikes me as a little weird, but when I watch Maxiell play, I don't get the sense that he's a player long for this league. I get the sense, actually, that he's essentially got senioritis. He's going to be gone pretty soon. It just looks like Maxiell plays with a foot out the door. Not out the door of the Pistons, necessarily, but of the league in general. This isn't incredibly surprising, on a broad scale. He's never been a particularly fantastic player. But his age is frankly rather shocking when you look at his play. Honestly? I thought he was over 30 when I was watching some Synergy footage to start this post. 32-33 was my guess. But no, he's 29. The problem with Maxiell isn't his age so much as his conditioning -- while he was an effective player in his youth as a raw athlete, as his athleticism wanes his ability to contribute anything tangible to a basketball team has waned just as badly. Why? Simply put, Maxiell never developed any real skills beyond his athletic dominance. He can't shoot a free throw to save his life, he has no pet post moves beyond his dunks, and his rebounding is incredibly anemic -- for a center or a power forward, it really doesn't matter which. So when the athleticism wanes, his entire game goes downhill.
As for the defense? As a young player, Maxiell was a reasonably competent defender. As he's aged and lost his leap, he's also lost a lot of mobility and quickness, which has turned him from a "bad" perimeter defender to a "holy crap, are you kidding me" perimeter defender. Open shots galore, if you put him on a strong shooter like Pau Gasol or Tim Duncan. His post defense is better, because he doesn't need to move as much, but it's still not good. This is all pretty sad, actually, as years ago Maxiell really looked to be a strong prospect. Undersized, sure, but a blue collar worker and showed flashes of being a potentially excellent defender. As his weight's ballooned and his conditioning has fallen off, he's lost the speed and leap that helped him stay a step ahead of his assignment. And then his size -- extremely small for a center, and even small for a forward at 6'7" -- comes to rear its ugly head and his defensive competency ends. He's still got the basic instincts, but with lessened speed he simply can't measure up to his old defensive chops. And it's because of this -- and, of course, his ridiculously poor touch and worsening finishing abiltiy -- that I wonder if Maxiell is even going to get a new contract after the Pistons ride out his current expiring deal. We'll see, I suppose.
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_Follow Hamed Haddadi on Twitter at @HamedHaddadi15. (Do it. Really. He's cool.)__
Hamed Haddadi is 27 years old, so he hasn't reached the "falloff" stage quite yet. His skillset? Decent. He's a really good rebounder, which is great, and last season he finally showed off an improved field goal percentage courtesy of a more controlled selection of offense. Before last year, he tended to take a third of his shots as long, just-inside-the-three-point-line jumpers. He simply wasn't very good at them, converting under 33% of them in every season prior. This year, he revamped his offense a tiny bit simply by refusing to get suckered into taking extremely long jump shots. Still lost the ball a lot (seriously, a lot -- he'd average 4 turnovers a night in a world where he kept his averages up for a full 36 minutes), especially on post-ups, but he converted a better percentage and got his free throw form back to a well-above-average 70% after a poor season from there the year before. And his rebounding/shot-blocking was as effective as ever. His per-36 numbers impress, as 12-12 with 5 blocks is an impressive sum for a backup center. The issue with Haddadi is less the skillset, which is great, and more the ability to play big minutes. There's a reason he averaged only 6 minutes a contest last season, and it's not that Lionel Hollins hates him.
Haddadi's conditioning is simply not very good for an NBA big, and even a modicum of floor time tends to exhaust the poor guy. Haddadi's NBA career high for minutes is 21, which is remarkable given how productive he's been in his limited minutes. He simply lags out and gets tired if you leave him in too long, and Haddadi's defensive game is a little bit rough around the edges. He's got size and talent, but as with many of the players we've been covering recently, his decreased mobility makes it hard for him to cover guys with serious NBA quickness. In particular, Haddadi gets tired covering teams that run the pick and roll into the ground, which made him doubly ineffective last season against San Antonio. He only saw a combined three minutes in the four SAS-MEM games last season, and in those minutes, he got winded quickly. Green and Parker ran pick and rolls straight into him, and he simply couldn't cover. That's the issue with Haddadi -- other teams are aware of his conditioning, and while he's an effective per-minute player, if you run your offense with the express purpose to exhaust Haddadi (and take advantage of his mobility concerns) you'll usually succeed.
As for the personal aspect, Haddadi is Iranian. Just as Omri Casspi is cool for being from Israel, I do hold happiness at the knowledge that Haddadi was able to make it from Iran. And just as I respect Casspi for overcoming obstacles and boundaries, I respect the hell out of Haddadi. There isn't quite as personal a touch with Haddadi, as I'm Jewish, but the respect is still there. And on the subject of politics -- one important thing to note with Haddadi is the controversy he was involved in back in 2010, where Clippers announcers Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith both got themselves suspended a game for making absurd jokes on-air at the expense of Haddadi's ethnicity. Unlike what some in the media and blogosphere thought at the time, the suspension wasn't simply because the two of them dreadfully mispronounced Iran. At all. The suspension was rooted in two key problems -- the first was the dismissive nature of their comments regarding Haddadi, and the second was a tasteless joke likening Haddadi to Borat and saying Sacha Baron Cohen should play him in a movie. For the first, I think it's a reasonable gripe. There's nothing crazy or ridiculous about a decent player coming out of a country that rarely produces them, and the idea that we should be shocked or appalled that someone from Iran made the NBA is as ridiculous and culturally stunted as the idea that we should be shocked that someone from Israel or the Virgin Islands or any other unusual country makes the league. It's ignorant at best and dismissive at worst.
As for the joke... the whole Borat film is about a quasi-Kazakh culture. Kazakhstan and Iran are separated by two nations, and feature completely different cultures. Even if Borat was a perfectly respectable representation of Kazakh culture, the comparison wouldn't make sense. But it's not -- it's a quasi-insulting (though admittedly somewhat funny) mockery of their culture, and by essentially saying that it's a mockery of the entire middle east, you're taking an already somewhat offensive concept and making it that much worse. I think you can make an argument that the suspension was unwarranted, but I've yet to really hear anyone make it. (Though, now that I've posted this, I expect a twenty page rebuttal from @SherwoodStrauss defending Lawler and Smith.) I might be a little over-inclined to defend Haddadi here, though, because I really like Hamed Haddadi. Not as a player, necessarily -- I love his skillset, but the conditioning is extremely problematic. No, I really like him because he actually interacts with fans, even if the fan didn't mention him in the tweet. I mean, look at this. It's hilarious. He's a really funny guy to follow on twitter -- makes a lot of jokes (mostly good ones) and uses smiley faces like they're going out of style. Very worthy follow, I think, and seems by all accounts to be a ridiculously nice guy. Brightens my day. Big ups to Leigh Ellis of the Basketball Jones for pointing me in Haddadi's direction.
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Follow Al Jefferson on Twitter. Wait, don't, he doesn't have one.
For an offensive-minded center, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Al Jefferson. Don't look at the overall percentage, where the sub-0.500 field goal percentage may make you think he's poor. Al Jefferson shoots above average from every shot location, which is pretty phenomenal. His field goal percentage is low not because of some failing of his own but because the Utah offense essentially needs him to be taking as many long shots as possible. The Jazz are a solid team with a lot of great talent, but until they track down a three point sniper that can really fill it up outside the arc, they're going to have problems -- they currently rely quite a lot on Al Jefferson's ability to spread the floor by taking long shots. Not threes, obviously. Jefferson's no three-point bomber. But Jefferson took 8 shots a game last year from outside 10 feet -- a ridiculous total. But in the same way that Tim Duncan sets up the Spurs offense by taking his long set shot and Kevin Garnett sets up Boston the same way, the Jazz absolutely need a center who can make shots like that. With no reliable three point shooters to spread the floor and a whole lot of cutters, the Jazz have never really had any reliable way to create spacing without Big Al's long balls. Which explains the distribution, and how an excellent center who's an above average shooter from every location on the floor somehow manages to shoot under 50% in a solid season.
As for the defense, well, I implied as much in the first sentence, where I told you he was offensive-minded! That's the problem with Jefferson that really bugs me. I'm a firm advocate for the belief that the defense of a center matters infinitely more than the defense of a guard. My thought has always been that in a very general sense, since the hand-check revolution, a defensively skilled big man is about four times as valuable as a defensively skilled wing, and that wing is about four times as valuable as a defensively skilled guard. The same holds true in an inverse sense, for how harmful a poor defender can be -- a defensively incompetent big man is about four times as harmful as a defensively incompetent wing, and that wing is about four times as harmful as a defensively deficient guard. The logic goes like so -- a center not only can patrol the paint, they essentially have to. In the modern NBA, post hand-check, even the most skilled defensive guard on earth can't really hope to keep Tony Parker ahead of him. The responsibility for guarding players like Tony therefore falls to the last line of defense -- that is, the big men. Wing players end up with a bit more leeway, as fewer wings have the speed to take full advantage of the current rulebook, but they too suffer from the problem at hand -- if a wing player drives and gets past their defender, the last line of defense is again tasked with picking up their man. You know. The big man.
The "four times" number is a bit arbitrary, but the point remains -- the big man has to clean up mistakes. In the modern league, that's basically the only way for a defense to function. Big men need to be able to function as the primary cog in the defense, because if they can't, functioning as a good defense becomes difficult. In a defense like Miami, LeBron and Wade hawk passing lanes and switch enough that they essentially function as big men -- in a possessional sense it's sometimes obscured but in last year's playoffs we finally saw LeBron perform openly as a big, in Bosh's absence. Bosh has developed into a very solid "final presence" in the paint, and while I mock Joel Anthony, he has value as a defender only. Al Jefferson? He's a really bad defender, and because of that, I have trouble thinking of him as anything more than a slightly-above-average center. Defense is simply that important as a center, and while Jefferson is a prolific shot-blocker... he's one of the worst pick and roll defenders in the league, he essentially pays no attention to the weakside whatsoever, and just doesn't rotate. His athleticism is lacking and his effort is worse. So despite his offensive talents -- which are incredible -- he's not an overly valuable player to a playoff team in this league. I can totally understand people who disagree with me, as Jefferson's offense is really really good. And almost underrated. But personally, I can't shake the feeling that the defense undermines it all. Sorry, Al.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Commenter J wins this set, getting a perfect 3/3. Good work, J! I really need to make these harder.
- Another Jazzman here. Funny looking, but I know people who are virtually in love with Player #76.
- Honestly thought he'd retire this year -- Player #77 completely and utterly fell off last year. Instead? New LA contract! Yay!
- Seemed like a lotto steal early in the season, but fell out of the rotation by the end of the year. Still think Player #78 can be good.
See you later today. Might be very late, but I'll be getting back on track from last week's missed three.