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 Dexter Pittman, Mo Williams, and Juwan Howard.
Follow Dexter Pittman by throwing your entire weight into your friend's neck like a total jerk.
I tend to be a constant advocate of rookies and untested young players over worn down vets. In general, my thought goes, it's better to get new blood in the league and test out new players and styles than it is to rely on the old outmoded folks. If a player is in his mid-to-late twenties (or worse, mid-to-late 30s) without having ever made a cogent leap, signing him to be an end-of-the-bench asset is at the very best going to improve your team in the very short term, but in the long run his spot would be best filled if you rotated D-League talents until you found your own Jeremy Lin, Ben Wallace, or other undrafted gem. It takes more effort, mind you, and a larger focus on the part of the coaching staff and the front office devoted to developing young talent. But when it works right (See: Spurs, San Antonio) you'll have a scouting and player-molding system brilliant enough to keep an aging team with ever-present flaws and problems in constant drumbeat contention. Worse yet is when a player's been bad for two or three seasons and is edging into their late 30s -- you should never, in my view, be giving players like that decent-sized contracts if there's any way to test the waters with young blood, unless you absolutely only have a year or two to win a title with your core (a la the Kobe/Nash/Howard Lakers). If there's any chance you can keep your pieces (ahem, Miami!), you shouldn't waste all your money on vets who are edging ever so close to "fully washed up" -- you should be building a player development arm of the organization that can develop D-League talents to take those spots and excel in them. In my view.
If there's any single player that represents the flaws in that approach, it's probably Pittman. Immature (as we saw with his bush league performance in this year's playoffs), brash, and irrationally bad at basketball -- Pittman has very few NBA talents and has to some extent unreasonably squandered those he had to begin with. When Pittman entered the league, he was monstrously overweight for his relatively lacking height (and it wasn't "overweight with muscle", either). It took him almost two years to get his conditioning to an NBA-caliber level, and by the time he'd done that, the league had to some degree left him completely behind. In the meanwhile, he tried his hand at the D-League. He put up reasonably decent numbers (around 14 and 8 per game) but somehow managed to foul once every 7 minutes in the D-League. Generally, if you foul like that at the D-League level, you'll foul even quicker in the NBA -- this proved apt, as over his whole NBA career, Pittman is good for a foul every 4 minutes he stays on the court. His field goal percentage on right-at-the-rim shooting was OK (not phenomenal, and still below average, but above 60% is OK for a backup big man), but he simply can't do anything outside the immediate vicinity of the basket. No real success at post moves, absolutely no jump shot (and a tepid conversion rate from behind the free throw line), and poor NBA-level height and athleticism. Pittman's defense is, as well, pretty dang atrocious. He can't really cover NBA big men and he can't really guard the pick and roll. Even though he's gigantic, he can't even set very good screens unless he plays dirty. It's a rough picture for him.
The thing is, Pittman is still a better traditional big man than several of the abhorrent options the Heat have in their wheelhouse -- mainly, he can cogently outplay Juwan Howard and his game is far superior to Eddy Curry. Because of that, he can get a few minutes and show his "value" to the Heat by simply keeping those two off the court. But Pittman doesn't really bring anything to the table that you don't get from Turiaf (essentially a 100% upgrade to Pittman in every concievable fashion), he certainly doesn't outplay Udonis Haslem, and he's well short of Joel Anthony even on Joel's worst day. Compound that with the always-bears-repeating bush league hit he placed in last year's playoffs (which I maintain he should've gotten a LOT more time for -- that hit was about as dirty as hits come, and could've legitimately ended another player's career), and you have the absolute worst example of a player picked up as a young piece to complement stars. He doesn't seem to work particularly hard, he doesn't seem to care about the implications of his actions, and he doesn't seem to have enough talent to really stick in the league. In any development process you'll get a few bad apples, or talents that simply aren't what you expected they'd be. That's Pittman, I suppose. His failures don't really waver me from my general inclination towards higher D-League participation and fewer outmoded vets. But if anyone would do so, it'd probably be someone like him.
_Follow Mo Williams on Twitter at __@mowilliams._
Did you know that for a fleeting period of his career with the Cavaliers, Mo Williams was the Cavaliers' franchise leader in something important? Seriously. This is something I realized near the middle of the Cavs' nightmare 2011 season, as I tried to figure out how the players were feeling. I'm pretty sure Austin Carr mentioned it once, as well, as though he wasn't sure if it was still accurate but noted that it had been accurate at some point. I did the legwork, checked the numbers, and found that it actually checked out. So, the fact in question -- for a not-insignificant portion of Mo Williams' career, he was the Cavaliers' franchise leader in free throw percentage. Crazy, huh? The leader (predictably) is who was in a time before Mo -- Mark Price. With the Cavs, Price went 1883 for 2078 on his free throws -- that's 90.6%, which is an insane figure on that many tries. Most franchises don't have anyone in their history who was quite that good from the line. Mo, though -- Mo was. For a time. His first season with the Cavaliers, he took a relatively large 222 free throws (primarily by taking every possible technical, and drawing a decent number of fouls). He shot 91.2% on them. Eldritch. Thus, after his first complete season (you needed at least one full season for the leaderboard), Mo Williams had literally supplanted Mark Price as the player with the franchise-best Cavalier-career free throw percentage.
But there's a point to this story beyond the silly trivia. As I looked back, I realized that he'd lost the crown during the Cavs' ill-fated 2010 season. Realizing this, I wanted to see when Williams took the single missed free throw where Williams dropped behind Price, never to return to the top again. I wondered whether that individual game would make for a good case study. The harder I looked, the more hilarious the picture I found: Mo Williams actually lost the title extremely early in the 2010 season, but kept fighting back to take the lead from Price every couple games. For most of the season, essentially any missed free throw would make Williams jump behind Price, and any 5-of-5 type day would vault him fleetingly beyond Price. This back and forth went on for the entire 2010 season, with Mo taking his last ever lead over Price on April 8th, 2010, in an absolutely excellent 35-point 10-assist contest (yes, Mo Williams had a 35-10 game) against the Chicago Bulls. He went 5-of-5 from the line, 6-11 from three, and 12-24 from the field overall. It was a good day. Then, as luck would have it, Mo Williams missed two free throws on the closing night of the 2010 NBA season, taking his career Cavalier free throw percentage down to 90.3% and forever taking second place to Price's ridiculous accomplishment. As things probably should be, all things considered.
Still, you have to wonder if Mo knew about it. Given that Austin Carr did -- and given how often Austin Carr blabs about random statistical accomplishments when interviewing players -- you have to assume Carr told him. Did it bother him somewhat that every single night he performed at a less-than-perfect level from the line, he was essentially putting a small place in franchise history on the chopping block? There's something fundamentally strange about contextualizing the performance of excellent free throw shooters like Williams, Nash, and Price. We act like every player should shoot 70-80% from the line, but when you get up to a level above 90%, you're starting to reach levels of consistent absurdity that honestly boggle my mind. Every 10 times you go up to the line, you miss ONCE. You experience more absolutely perfect games from behind the line than you do games where you miss more than a single shot. And think about the free throw itself -- it's the single area of the game where the offensive player is completely and utterly alone. Sometimes there are players around him (except in the case of the technical, which represents the ultimate desolation you can exact on a single player in an NBA game), sometimes there are fans screaming at him, but the actual action of the free throw -- the dribble, the cup, the follow -- are all as untouched as they can possibly be. No defense can touch the free throw. No hands extended, no stoppers, nothing.
It's the single area of basketball where the sport feels like baseball, in my view. There are so many moments in a baseball game that essentially distill the game down to a single performer. The catch in outfield, the pitcher's wind up, the batter post-release -- a baseball team may have a lot of component pieces, but when you look at the component parts, it's a lonely game. In some ways, I think the loneliness and isolation of baseball both represents the main reasons it spent so long being considered "America's national pastime" and the main reason it's rapidly hemorrhaging popularity -- much like how Thoreau's Walden reads as an insane tract of a ridiculous outmoded ideal to most modern teenagers, in an era where we're so interconnected that we can barely imagine true isolation, the desolation of baseball is harder to stomach and harder to watch for people today than people many years ago. The free throw hearkens back to baseball, and while it's easy to point to a player and say "you should do this better", when you actually look at a player who not only does it better but actually does it to a level that approaches an all-time greatness, you wonder how the hell they actually do it. Physically, you can imagine they just have a very pure stroke. (And in the case of Williams, you'd be right -- he has one of the best shooting strokes in the league, and it's beautiful to watch him shoot just about anything.) But what about the mental implications? Does a good free throw stroke mean that a player would thrive in a one-on-one game, or a game of horse? Is it indicative of something deeper -- could Mo Williams be the single player in the league who'd excel playing basketball in the vastness of space?
Or could the loneliness of the action -- the singular quality of the free throw, or moreso, the technical -- be lost in the sheer surfeit of souls that fills a sports stadium? It's a fair question to ask -- does Mo draw strength from the crowds, or strength from the action's loneliness? Imagine Mo Williams, the last man on Earth. He enters an empty gym, somehow armed with the knowledge that if he makes a single technical free throw, the whole world is saved. He takes a dribble. The gym, of course, is empty. The lights are bright. Outside, asteroids rain down from the heavens and flames lick the countryside. There is a flicker in his mind. A thought. A bead of sweat. Tension. He takes his dribble, grabs the ball, and looks up. As he's done a thousand times before, he rises from the crouch. He releases the ball, with his signature flick. His eyes are closed on the release, sublime in perfect confidence. He steps back as though to dap his teammates, the dead and gone who were never relevant in the first place. He opens his eyes to gaze upon the ball rising through the air, and careening towards the immaculate basket. A fleeting reminder of man's imperfections before death takes the last, or another in Mo's assembly line of expected successes?
And thus, Mo Williams lost the record. Second place, forevermore.
Follow Juwan Howard by buying a telegraph and saying hello.
One of the underrated stories from the Heat's championship, to me, was Juwan Howard finally achieving (in his now-sparkling championship ring) some level of personal validation for a long, lucrative career where he'd never been completely able to really deliver on the incredible promise he showed as a child. Despite forming arguably one of the first-ever modern superteams with the Fab Five at Michigan (and subsequently attempting to form a superteam in Miami only to be thwarted by a series of not-necessarily fair applications of cap rules), Howard had never touched a championship trophy up until now. Nor had any of the Fab Five. If Howard retires now -- and all indications are that he will -- the fact that the Fab Five's last fossil achieved a ring on the backs of the most modern and overwhelming superstar team in the league is actually a pretty neat story. Deadspin's Barry Petchesky wrote one of the best pieces on the finals covering this angle, in fact -- I beg you to read it. It's really good.
Beyond that, one of the interesting things about the Heat's title (and as a Cleveland fan, there weren't many) was watching what the hell Juwan Howard would do if he actually tasted the championship bubbly. The answer? Ridiculous, ridiculous things. I'm talking "hey, guys, remember the 90s" dancing on national TV during the title celebration. I'm talking rapping with Rick Ross. I'm talking trying to fight John Wall because that's how they played basketball in the 1940s. Wait, that happened way before he won a title. Well, crap. Look. Juwan Howard is 86 and a half years old, okay? Dude has a walking cane, as you can tell by this unbelievably credible source. Back in the old days (like, before sliced bread) they used to play basketball a certain way but you can't really play that way today because the balls aren't made of fig leaves and the points actually do matter. Sorry, Juwan. I know you played the president on West Wing or whatever but you need to chill out about this stuff before someone gets hurt. Like, probably you, dude. Your back is killing me now. No reason to be whipping out your dance move (singular) while you rap with Rick Ross about the virtues of handkerchiefs and hit Erik Spolestra with your walking stick because he doesn't know how to use a threshing machine. Come on. Not cool. Just stay calm, man. Or, as some might say -- chill out, Juwan Howard.
(And enjoy retirement, if you do retire. Juwan seems like a pretty decent guy, jokes aside.)
• • •
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. After almost a week of straight perfectos, yesterday's guesses were a bit rough. Someone got each of them right, but nobody got every one of them. Tie to Brian, Jkim, and "Chilai out, Juwan Howard." New batch for tomorrow:
- There are very few people in the league I legitimately despise writing about. Player #157 is one of them.
- He's older than most people think, but Player #158 should still command a high price when his Bulls contract runs out.
- The white Jared Jeffries. Hilarious, witty, and a patently decent player. But -- it's true -- perhaps a bit overheralded for his skills.
Again, apologies for yesterday's absence. I am way too busy lately. Been in the office for 10-12 hours a day, and have work to do at home besides. Also, I'm livetweeting the first console game I'm ever playing (Red Dead Redemption) -- follow me on Twitter if you want to hear a man screaming about cougars from about 9-11 every night, like clockwork. See you tomorrow.