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 Serge Ibaka, Jon Brockman, and Gerald Green.
I understand the distaste for blocks. I really do. There are a surfeit of cautionary tales in the NBA, highlighting legitimately atrocious defensive players that have been lionized as defensive masterminds for the vast majority of their careers. Look at JaVale McGee, a player whose gaudy block totals utterly miss the point on his defensive failings. Look at Marcus Camby in his last few years, with his athleticism waning and his ability to cover pick and rolls fading. Look at Tyrus Thomas, whose high block rates have consistently hidden the fact that he's a relatively awful defender. Blocks are by definition useful -- it is a statistical fact that the opposing team shoots 0% on shots that are blocked. But it's more accurate to think of blocks as a matter of position, and a matter of percentages.
If you have a player like JaVale McGee, for every shot he blocks he has several each game where he got into position for the blocks but didn't get it, leaving the opponent open for a shot that any NBA player worth his salt could convert 70% of the time or more. Which is why being a good shot blocker isn't necessarily a positive thing for the defense -- that 0% on blocked shots is neat, but if they're shooting 70% on shots that player guards that aren't blocked, it becomes a matter of which they have more of. And even the NBA's BEST shot blockers only block one shot for every five or six field goals they guard. And if, like the defensively flawed block-masters, they're giving up easy position and easy buckets on the block attempts they don't convert? Well, that creates the equation:
You probably are aware of this already, but in case you aren't -- allowing 58% shooting is not a very good outcome for a defensive player. And these numbers will happen regularly to a shot blocker who hasn't learned how to keep his position and guard off the block. When the player keeps position well and can challenge for the block without substantially losing position -- like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett -- they begin to add a lot more value. This is the dismal calculus behind the defensively moribund group that blocks a lot of shots but gives up open ones when they don't succeed, and this is why they don't really help a team's overall picture. A block -- in and of itself -- is a very useful tool. As I said -- the opposition shoots 0% on a blocked shot. By definition. But if a shot blocker's block position gets him out of position defensively, it can be hard to justify going for the block -- most players can't shoot 55-58% when they're guarded, and in the aggregate, it'd be better for most of these folks to focus on improving the all-around defense at the expense of the obvious block highlights. Fewer box score stats, sure. But it'd help the team, even if it isn't as visually jarring.
The thing that gets me about Serge Ibaka is that he's hardly the defensive sieve most take him for -- he's certainly not as good as some people think, but he's certainly not bad. There is a significant distinction between a player whose defense is poor-to-average and a player who's average. While Ibaka isn't in spitting distance of an elite defender -- yet -- he's a strong player with solid defensive fundamentals. His block totals are inflated and do include some questionable calls -- Ibaka's block totals are slightly better at home than away, and that's partly because he seems to get more leeway on goaltending calls when the Thunder are home. But if you look past the goaltending, Ibaka is a reasonably good defensive player close to the basket. He doesn't tend to let his block-hungry ways put him horribly out of position when he's defending a player one-on-one in the post, and that's the first step that a block wizard needs to take to become a positive defensive player in the aggregate. His main defensive problem is, ironically, the same exact problem that's dogging a rapidly aging Pau Gasol -- while Ibaka can guard close to the basket quite well and does have decent instincts to blow up weak-side play coverage with his blocks and steals, he simply cannot guard perimeter big men. At all. They either drive past him with impunity or bury a barrage of long range shots, and until he figures out a better way to defend them (or spends more time as the nominal paint-protecting center next to Nick Collison), he's going to run himself into trouble defensively. Despite his solid post defense, his inability to guard players like Bosh and Dirk and Jefferson consistently dogs him.
THAT is why he wasn't DPoY last year -- it wasn't that his block total was particularly false or unremarkable, or that he spends so much time hunting blocks he had no other defensive talents at all. He does. Watch him in the post, watch how he keeps position when he goes for block attempts -- he's improved dramatically, and he's approaching very good levels there. His problem is lacking defensive accomplishment on perimeter players and getting drawn outside the basket, not anything he's doing in the basket range. It's an important distinction, as one indicates a player who's merely average all over and the other indicates a high-quality defender with one key easy-to-exploit weakness that will hurt the Thunder until he figures it out. Also, he's an underrated offensive player who lacks a go-to move but who has a phenomenal long two point shot, electric finishing, a decent array of post moves, and a nose for scooping up offensive boards without ceding his ability to get back on defense that's absolutely crucial to the Thunder's offense -- without the extra possessions, they'd be somewhat pedestrian. But the extra possessions really help bring them over the top. Oh, also. Serge Ibaka made 12/12 shots in the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
... now, please excuse me while I go out back and vomit.
I'm really glad Jon Brockman made the cut. I have a TON of things to say about Jon Brockman, so it's good to finally get them out there. Brockman is the classic hammer-not-a-toolbox player -- he has a single skill. Not "oh, well, he can do ___ but also ___ a little worse" type. He legitimately can only do one thing. He can rebound. On an NBA level, he can't really do a damn thing otherwise, and last year put a strong and present emphasis on that fact. Jon Brockman:
Shot 11-for-27 at the rim. That's... that's 40%. AT THE RIM.
Was blocked eight times on the season. He registered one block himself. ... Not quite optimal.
Posted a turnover rate of 16.2, one of the highest in the entire league.
On the other hand, the kid can rebound. Quite well. He earned playing time his rookie year in Sacramento by being relentless on the boards, and even as his playing time has evaporated in the last few years, his rebounding skill has remained. On his career, he's averaging an offensive rebound percentage of 15.2% (ridiculously good) and a defensive rebound percentage of 19.4% (also ridiculously good). If he had a single other skill -- just one other wrinkle to throw in with his rebounding -- he'd probably be in line for a decent post-rookie deal. But as the bulletpoints sort of indicate, he's quite lacking otherwise -- and that's only on offense. On defense he's been improperly miscast as a center the last few years, which has predictably drained his playing time as coaches realize he can't jump to contest and his lateral movement is low-tier for an NBA player. His rebounding is based more on hard work and effort than inherent athletic skill, and that effort doesn't translate well when he's guarding players that have 5-6 inches on his 6'7" frame.
He was traded this summer to Houston's veritable army of oddly sized fours, and actually ended up getting waived right before the season began. This made me sad, a bit. Not because Brockman is great, or even a good fit -- he was a good choice for a waiver by the Rockets, as he's a situational player whose situational skill is fully covered by Parsons and Asik. It made me sad because he missed much of training camp after a freak injury where a workout elastic band slipped off his foot and recoiled to hit him in the eye. He had to be hospitalized and missed much of camp, which is always sad to see -- you never like seeing roleplayers like Brockman miss camp with freak injuries, knowing that the only way they really had available to make the team in the first place was to prove that they'd improved with a good training camp. This also makes me sad because I like using the "Brock Ness Monster" nickname, even if it is incredibly played out.
And that's all she wrote. Good luck getting back into the league, Nessie.
(By the way, the intro was a joke. As probably became obvious about 5 sentences in, I had -- and still have -- virtually nothing to say about Jon Brockman. Alas.)
Follow Gerald Green by hitting the trail on the iron rail, way out there alone.
Gerald Green did a very good job on the court last year. He did a good enough job that most people don't fully recognize how ridiculously above expectations he was playing. Here are some facts about Gerald Green's patently ridiculous performance in his 5th year as a classic journeyman: Green shot in the top half of all shooting guards from every single one of the Hoopdata "cardinal ranges" -- at the rim, from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, 16-23 feet, and three pointers. This included 71% at the rim (the only guard/forward who took more shots and shot better than Green from that range was Manu Ginobili) and 64% from 3-9 feet. The 3-9 foot mark is good enough it deserves special mention. Most people expect that NBA players convert a lot of their shots from 3-9 feet -- it's reasonably close to the basket, and classic post move territory.
In practice, this assumption is ridiculously false. NBA big men average 39% from 3-9 feet, NBA wings average 35% from 3-9 feet, and point guards average 36% from 3-9 feet -- if you go by league averages, shots of the 3-9 foot persuasion are actually less effective than long midrange jumpers or midrange shots. Significantly so. There were 168 players last year who averaged over 25 minutes a night -- only 11 of them shot over 50% on 3-9 foot shots. The 3-9 foot post-up is an aesthetically pleasing sight, but it's one that has been becoming less and less useful over time. Which makes Green's mark last season all the more impressive -- shooting 64% from 3-9 feet completely blows away the shooting guard average of 35%, and makes the 3-9 foot shot a legitimately useful offensive weapon. Green made the Nets offense a full 4 points per 100 possessions better when he took the court last season, and being able to turn traditionally atrocious offensive ranges into legitimate threats was one of the main reasons why. (It also didn't hurt that he, again, shot above-average from every single place on the court. Wanted to space the floor? Send him out for his improved perimeter game. Wanted to get in close? The man rocked rims like a high school battle of the garage bands, wouldn't you know.)
If you really wanted to nitpick, you could find a few things wrong with his game last season. His defense was -- while statistically proficient -- partly backed by playing the weakest perimeter player the Nets could safely hide him on. It was also backed by his dismal backups -- your on/off court stats tend to look really good when your backups are completely awful, and with noted sieve MarShon Brooks behind him, Green's defense tended to look a bit better by the numbers than it actually was. Not that it was bad, just not quite as good as numbers would indicate. You also could nitpick about his sticky fingers -- when Green got the ball last season, he barely ever passed up a shot, and posted one of the lowest assist rates among all the guard/forwards in the league. But you could also nitpick by saying his usage was a bit low for someone who was having an offensive season as lights-out as Green was, so taking that criticism in context of the assist rate criticism, you get a less-critical look that's far more leaning to the side of Green doing everything he could possibly do to use offensive possessions at the expense of teammates that simply couldn't make a shot.
Pretty crazy stuff. Unfortunately for him, some of this can probably be safely considered a fluke. If Gerald Green can consistently make that sort of a percentage from 3-9 feet, he may end up being the best short-range finishing guard of this generation. I have a distinct feeling that's not going to happen. And as efficient as he was, it's also worth noting that absolutely nobody was struggling when facing the late-season Nets last year. The Nets were atrocious, and it does to some level remain to be seen what Green does on a team where other teams actually feel the need to scout for him. So far, the verdict hasn't been great out of Indiana -- his struggles have been one of the main reasons the Pacers have struggled, and while I highly expect him to rebound, it's definitely an inauspicious start for the poor guy. But I wouldn't dwell on it much -- it's doubtful he will. Green is used to far more substantial problems than a ill-starting slump on a new contract, as he's one of very few players to have been cut in every league he ever played for. He was cut by his high school team, despite being a McDonald's All-American. He was cut by the Houston Rockets. He was cut by an overseas team after 3 years abroad, and had he not gotten a D-League call-up in the middle of last season, he may have abandoned basketball altogether.
But he got called up, he performed incredibly well, and now he's a key rotation piece on an Indiana team that (while poor now) should end the season playing quite good ball. The man has fought back from a dismal start to his career and made something of himself. I have a lot of respect for Gerald Green's struggle, and while I get that Indiana fans may be disappointed with him so far, give him a chance -- the man's a hard worker who has more than put in his time. Let him prove his worth.
Good luck out there, Gerald.
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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. Mike L, Chilai, Der_K, and Sir Thursday correctly isolated the 3/3 guess. Good work fellas. (I believe you are all fellas. If I am wrong, I greatly apologize.)
Player #289 looks exactly like Andre Miller now. EXACTLY. I was really confused when I started watching his new team the first game after they signed him.
Player #290 is one of the few players Chicago lost that didn't really matter -- he was not a very good bench player and they probably upgraded on him. He's been even worse to start this season, too, so that's... that's a thing, I guess.
Repeat after me: Player #291 went to St. Benedicts. Ergo, he does not have sexual feelings for men. In a similar story, I'm afraid of spiders, so I cannot safely use the World Wide Web.
I'm in Arizona now. Feels weird, bro.
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