As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, and Steve Novak.
Follow__ Brook Lopez__ by engaging in chill time with the Green Lantern.
It took a while, but I've finally bought in. Thanks to constant bickering with @uuords and other Nets fans, I've come to believe something I never thought I'd say -- over the full season, Brook Lopez has a reasonably good shot at__ improving the Nets' defense. I had to watch a bunch of tape to really buy into the idea, especially since I still don't think Lopez is a positive contributor on that end. Because I don't. At all. Lopez is flat-footed and oftentimes virtually immobile on the defensive end. He covers pick and rolls about as effectively as I'd cover a whale, and his shot blocking -- while decent by the numbers -- tends to vastly overstate his ability to defend the post. He blocks shots, but he doesn't really get good position on any of the blocks, and he's got a bad habit of letting slick big men slip behind him for easy off-hand layups. Compounding the problem, Lopez is consistently slow to get back in transition, and that's not a skill that's likely to get much better any time soon -- in dealing his somewhat tricky foot problems, the chances of Lopez seriously going all-out to stop a transition break end-to-end on a regular basis are minimal to none. As with any seven footer, actually.
But here's the thing. I'm a big fan of analysis by replacement, especially when dealing with teams like this year's Nets, who are featuring key new pieces and a generally completely revamped roster. And while I think Lopez is a pretty poor defender, I also think he's dramatically better than anything the Nets put on the court last season at the center position. Consider -- the 2012 Nets were a team that was giving Johan Petro, the hollow husk of Mehmet Okur, and the shadow of Shelden Williams serious burn at the center position. On offense, Lopez -- a legitimately talented post player and a serious midrange shooter despite his enormous size -- is an obvious upgrade to anything the Nets put out in the frontcourt. But on defense, despite his faults, Lopez is STILL an upgrade. Consider his intrinsic skills versus any of those three players:
Johan Petro is exceedingly slow -- he's as slow as Lopez, but without any of the strength. His pick and roll coverage is quite literally just as bad, and unlike Lopez, he isn't even a largebody center to make up for it. He's 7'0", but clearly stands a shade under Lopez and fouls roughly once every 7 minutes on the court, a pretty ridiculous rate.
Mehmet Okur finally lost it in 2012. He was playing injured, sure, but the man simply couldn't move at an NBA level anymore. He couldn't jump adequately, he couldn't pretend to front a man in the post, and his pick and roll coverage was confused and hesitant.
Shelden Williams is 6'9". According to his team-reported height, at least. I'd venture he's more of a 6'8" or 6'7", watching him on the court and comparing him to guards and the centers he'd face. I entreat you -- go find someone who you've got 5-6 inches on and see how effectively he fronts you in the post. And... yep, that's the joke.
Lopez is an exceedingly disappointing defender for his size. His mobility is such that you really wonder how high his ceiling is on that end, and his rebounding (which is excruciatingly disappointing for his size and skill level) tends to indicate a player whose defensive engagement is decidedly less than it should be. But even with his foibles, even with his flaws? I cannot in good conscience say that Brook Lopez is going to do a markedly worse job defending the post than the Petro/Okur/Williams pu pu platter Avery Johnson put out last season. Simply can't. None of those three players bring any discernible defensive skills to the table -- at least Lopez is 7 feet tall with a strong frame and a decent head on his shoulders. And now that the Nets have a team that actually has a good cast around Lopez and Williams, chances are reasonably high they can develop a system around those several "talents" that at least improves the Nets a slight bit on the defensive end. I'm dubious about claims that they'll be above average, but they could scrape league average with Brook Lopez manning the middle. Especially if they keep developing new schemes like the ones they showed off in their first game.
Some fun facts about Brook Lopez. Off the court, he's best described as a "chill surfer bro who likes comic books and jokes." Emphasis on the comic books, actually. Do you remember when the NBA commissioned Marvel to draw team covers based on various superheroes? Lopez does, and due to his being a massive comics aficionado, ESPN's J.A. Adande interviewed him to prove whether Lopez really was a comic guy or not by quizzing him on the identity of some of the more obscure covers. Shockingly, Lopez got them all without skipping a beat, including some obscure comic named "Alpha Flight" that I had honestly never heard of before. So good on him. He and his brother are also writing a comic book, which makes me think I really need to meet up with Lopez and give him some tips. I once wrote and drew a comic book approaching Rod Blagojevich through the lens of "The Grand Inquisitor" and Joe Biden's thirst for humanity's ever-present end. This, I feel, makes me an expert on the subject and a clearly credentialed advice-giving gentleman in the field of comic books. So, yeah. Hit me up whenever, Brook. I have some great tips for you.
When healthy, Eric Gordon is a max-level player. Most people don't remember quite how good he was with the Clippers, but it bears repeating -- in the pre-Paul era, the Clippers were 48-70 with Gordon and 13-35 without him. He vastly improved the look of that Clipper team, in a way that neither Blake Griffin or any of the Clippers' other players could. What most people don't quite understand, though, is that his main use isn't necessarily on the offensive end -- Gordon is a phenomenal scorer, and absolutely one of the best scoring guards in the game. But he's even better on the defensive end, where he has a borderline perfect combination of grit, footwork, and weight to effectively challenge just about any perimeter player in the NBA. Despite being a bit short for a perimeter player, he plays defense in the Avery Bradley mold -- gets up in a player's grill, uses his speed to stay with him without lunging, and uses his surprisingly heavy weight for a little guy to body guys up if anyone tries to post him up. What's more, he has a genuinely excellent sense of when to poke the ball away and when to stay put on his man -- he recovers well off of steal attempts despite regularly converting more of them than almost anyone in the league.
As for his scoring, he can kill you from anywhere -- his shot looked pretty off last year, but when healthy, Gordon is an absolutely lights-out shooter. His three point shot is one of the purest of any young guard, and he's traditionally been great at it -- over 35% from three in every year but last year, and a high-usage 37% on his career so far. He generally shoots an above-position-average percentage from every range on the floor, despite having spent most of his career as the primary scoring option on his (albeit awful) teams. Even if the team is awful, it takes a seriously skilled player to put up an efficient and comprehensive scoring package when faced with the number of doubles and traps that Gordon faced with the Clippers in his first few years and the Hornets last year. Additionally, he's gradually improved his ability to get to the line, which has helped his efficiency even more. I don't think there should be any real doubt that Gordon -- when healthy, exogenous to all personal complaints -- really does deserve his max deal. He's one of the better bulldog perimeter defenders in the NBA when he's locked in, he's the best shooter under 25, and he's been gradually making his game more efficient. Gordon is really, really good. And extremely slept on.
Of course, then there's the injury thing.
... And the "selling out your coach and team" thing.
So, there's that. I have a friend who went to Illinois who absolutely despises Gordon, and has spent the last 2 or 3 years vehemently insisting that eventually the NBA would be made to see what a jerk he was. I didn't really believe him, but I can safely say I was mistaken -- the Eric Gordon saga has gone on to the point that I can't reasonably assert otherwise. On a smaller scale, he's essentially doing exactly the same thing Dwight Howard did in Orlando -- he's putting unreasonable pressure on the Hornets to not only give him the money he wants, but move him to whatever city he wants for cents on the dollar! I understand that Gordon wants to go to Phoenix, and I understand that he never really had much of a choice as to whether he'd get moved in the Chris Paul trade. But completely unloading on the franchise you're (theoretically) going to play for while outright refusing to build a productive relationship with your extremely solid young coach or anyone else on the team is really not the way to go.
The lack of transparency from both sides in the Gordon affair is stunning, and while it doesn't reflect immensely well on the Hornets, there's no doubt in my mind it reflects far worse on Gordon. If he feels pain, he should be able to convince the organization of it without resorting to a media middleman. He should be able to describe it without contradicting himself. And he should be able to give a better answer than "out indefinitely" when asked whether he'd be back this season. I'm not sure whether the injuries are structural or not, and frankly, it certainly doesn't seem like he has much of an idea himself. If they are, the Hornets and Gordon need to patch things up and figure out how to address the media in concert -- if they aren't, then what the hell is going on? All that said, I really love watching Gordon, and I'm really hoping he comes back strong soon. His shooting stroke is brilliant, and there's honestly nothing quite like watching Eric Gordon play defense when he's locked in. I'll share -- here's my absolute favorite basketball-related Youtube video. Not a Spur, not a Cav, not even an NBA play -- it's Eric Gordon playing NASTY defense in the 2010 gold medal game.
Seriously, watch this clip. Watch it once, watch it twice, buy a digital picture frame and put it on eternal repeat. It's the best single-man defensive possession I've ever seen and few are anywhere close. It's art. Gordon switches onto three men in the course of one possession, single-handedly cuts off two open driving lanes, denies the ball to a good Turkish shooter, and almost steals the ball 4 times. And he doesn't even just force a bad shot -- he forces an ERASED shot, blocking the ball off a three point shooter into the crowd! Yes, yes. International game. I don't care. This is one of the gems. Get better, Gordon. Really need to see you doing this in the NBA again, because my God, it's fun to watch.
This summer, the New York Knicks made several seemingly strange decisions, when it came to the personnel they signed and the direction they decided to go as a unit. To this point, it's all coming up roses for them. Kidd has been great, and with Felton looking decent and Lin looking hobbled, they look (for now) like a team whose moves were a bit smarter than the commentariat -- myself included! -- had initially expected. So, long story short, I may have been a bit over-agressive in my critique the moves, and would like to publicly admit that. The Knicks seem to be in the clear, at least for now -- my thought after the signings was less that they were individually poor moves and more that as a whole they left a team with few internal avenues for improvement with players that would only last one or two more years, if even that. Basically, the idea that the Knicks team we see now is the best Knicks team we'll see with this core. But given that this Knicks team does look like a minor contender with Melo playing like he is and the cast stepping up, that's not a terrible place to be after years of being a marginalized lottery team with an outsized payroll and a dismal organization.
All that said, there was one move I really liked for the Knicks even before I got a chance to watch this team on the floor, even if it was rather quiet. That move was signing a 28-year-old Steve Novak to a 4-year, $15 million deal. On its face, it seems pretty marginal -- and I suppose it was. But I can't get over how good of a price that is for someone with an outsized impact. Steve Novak is essentially Matt Bonner with a more conventional shot release -- it doesn't take him 15 years to get off his shot, and in fact, he's quick enough with it that he's in Korver's general sphere as one of the quickest shooters in the league. Almost every NBA player makes 50-60% of their threes in practice, but Novak's pinpoint form and incredible command of the three is almost surreal. I read once that the Spurs do a general shooting competition in practice, and someone in the front office keeps statistics on what percentages players shoot. Matt Bonner tended to win them, before Novak showed up in late 2011. After that? Novak won just about every internal three point competition for months, shooting some insane number like 95% on his practice threes. Steve Novak is REALLY GOOD at shooting threes, is the main takeaway here.
And unlike Bonner, his more conventional (albeit extremely quick) release doesn't become instantly less useful in a playoff situation -- in fact, because of his quick trigger, players like Korver and Novak actually become more useful in playoff scenarios. Essentially, if they get even a sliver of open airspace, they can hoist an open three. Matt Bonner, conversely, needs roughly twelve blocks of open space in the playoffs to shoot an open three -- the more athletic defenders that good teams have in droves always swarm him mercilessly, and with his slow release, he can never seem to get a legitimately open shot off in a playoff scenario. Novak is completely different, and while they're similarly worthless inside the arc, defensively, and on the boards... Novak's ability to shoot quickly and accurately gives him serious value in playoff situations and as a floor-spacing wizard in the regular season. The attention Novak demands helps shooters like Felton, Kidd, and Smith get more open. It helps free the paint up for more drives. And it's simply an efficient, effective, and proven offensive weapon that helps the Knicks' spacing and helps the machine work, and they locked a great shooter down in his shooting prime for less than $4 million a year. Sounds pretty solid to me. Great move by the Knicks.
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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. Only four people guessed yesterday. That's the fewest we've had since, like, EARLY capsule days! Crazy. Anyway, shout-out for 2/3 guesses from Mike L, Sir Thursday, and Chilai.
Player #286 blocks shots. A lot of them. He also was metaphorically robbed during the all-star break last year... which he responded to by coming a hair away from metaphorically robbing NBA history to end the season.
Capsule #287 features a player whose silly Loch Ness inspired nickname is far more notable than... well, anything about his game.
Player #288 is living the dream. Quixotic, almost-out-of-the-league journeyman to a reasonably paid spot starter. Good work. "Make that green, son."
I'm going to a Mark Knopfler & Bob Dylan concert tonight! Knopfler's my favorite ever, and Dylan's one of my favs as well. I even ponied up and got some seriously decent seats. Exciting times in the life of Aaron McGuire, folks.
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