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 leaves turn frosty, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last full week. Not quite done yet, but close. Today we continue with Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Timofey Mozgov.
As an NBA center, there tend to be two general offensive paths any individual player can adopt. You can either:
Become a post-up monster, demanding all your offense on-the-block or on smart cuts to the rim. Alternatively...
Become a "long range" shooter who can make a jump shot from 15-20 feet pull the opposing C out of the paint to free up lanes.
It's quite rare to find a center who effectively does both. Centers who can make long shots tend to get pigeonholed into the type and called on to do it all the time. Centers who can post up with monstrous results don't tend to work their outside game to an extent that it's game-ready. The general reason is rather simple -- the skillsets are quite different, and players who excel at one end of the spectrum very rarely excel on the other end. Posting up well requires skills that disagree with those required for shooting pure jumpshots. With post-ups, you need a fundamental sense of how to contort and alter the minutiae of movement and angle to squeeze in a skin-of-your-teeth roll. With jump shots, you need to do the same thing thousands of times, a developed devotion to muscle memory and an understanding of the different shot you take at each differing angle. They aren't mutually exclusive, but they're close.
Still, of those two general paths, I don't know if I even need to tell you which one Frye embodies. He's the second, and even by the standards of most centers, he's an odd variation on the form. See, centers simply don't make three pointers. Even noted long-range centers -- like Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan -- tend to be toothless beyond the arc, Duncan's famous make notwithstanding. To shoot an above average percentage from beyond the arc, as a center, you need to shoot 15% from three point territory. That's it. Only three center-designated players shot over 30% from three last season -- Channing Frye, Josh Harrellson, and Boris Diaw. The fact that Frye actually managed to put up not only an above 30% performance but a positively solid one (his EFG% on three point shots was 52%, a brilliant number) was exceedingly impressive. It also begged the question, as Frye's game has begged the question for almost his entire Phoenix tenure -- why don't more teams sign three point shooting centers? Sure, some centers have a long range game, but virtually nobody plays centers who actually make three point shots. Why not?
I've wondered about this for a while, and while watching tape of Frye, I think I figured it out. The offensive style -- while original -- is little more than a poor gimmick when it's applied in an actualized in-game situation, even if the theoretical basis is solid. The reason? First, if you're slender enough to get off a three point shot under any pressure whatsoever without the help of a transcendent offensive structure to get you open (see: Boris Diaw), you probably aren't going to be able to bang in the post with the post-up threats of the league. More importantly, though, players that act as legitimate three point threats from the center position leave themselves almost completely out of the equation for offensive rebounds, and often float too far out on the defensive end as well in hopes of leaking out for a transition three. Offensive rebounds aren't incredibly important to a functioning offense, but you need to at least have the threat of the rebound -- if not, the opposing team tends to find it easier to game plan the boards and increase their defensive rebounding totals. Which puts a rather large burden on the Phoenix offense -- it's as though you know for a fact you're only going to get one shot, so you darn well better make it a good one. The rebounding problems (coupled with the issues when skinny, slender, lanky centers when faced against centers of the first type) make Frye's contributions less than the sum of their parts. Interesting contributions, but less all the same.
As for those contributions on their face? His defense is rather awful, and his offense is a bit one-dimensional -- he can shoot threes and finish off loopy cuts but he can't really do all that much else. No good post moves, startlingly bad at lay-ups, et cetera. A pure jump shooter if there ever was one. And a phenomenally poor rebounding talent, for what it's worth -- among the worst of any big man. On the plus side, he doesn't try to act outside his role all that often, which is good. And as a change-of-pace big guy off the bench, he's got a limited amount of value. A poor man's 2009 Rashard Lewis, if you will. Off the court, he's a nice dude -- he's one of the few players on Tumblr, and while his isn't especially interesting I've grown to like the way he engages with fans on it and humanizes his road back from his heart condition. I really do hope he comes back strong next season -- Frye has never been one of my favorite players, but at some point, you do simply become interested in the whole "three point shooting center" thing. It's original, it's weird, and it's a fun style to watch. As long as you blind yourself to the subpar defense and the rebounding for a little bit. Here's hoping he recoups.
I'll try to focus this capsule more on the personal side of the ledger than the basketball side, but for the sake of completeness, I'll start with the essence of Jefferson's game. He's the prototypical player whose game looks better the worse his team is. His defense isn't very good (nor has it ever been), but he does put a semblance of effort in. That makes him stand out among players on a poor defensive team only to look increasingly incompetent when put in a situation with good defensive players around him. His offense takes this concept to a whole other level -- Jefferson is one of the rare players whose shooting percentages never got that much worse when you incrementally increased his usage rate, which made him shoot somewhere around the same 45-36-75 range no matter if he was taking 5 shots a night or 20. This tends to lead smart people to assume (as the Spurs did when they first traded for him in 2009) that on decreased usage he'd post markedly more efficient numbers. That wasn't the case, nor has ever really been the case. His primary value as a scorer is in his ability to put up those extra shots without losing much efficiency -- it's hard to really get much added efficiency from Jefferson's game, even when he lowers his usage. Which is why he's currently out of the Warriors rotation not one year removed from starting for a 60 win team. He's relatively durable, but even that comes with some hilarious foibles -- in 2008, during the best season of his career, he ended up missing games because he thumped his chest too hard and tore something. I can't bear to quit you, RJ.
As for the personal sphere, that's where things get sort of interesting. At least to anyone who's talked to Dewey about him. See, Jefferson may not be Alex Dewey's favorite player, but he's Dewey's focus player. He's the case study for nearly everything Dewey writes or thinks about. Most people don't understand why that is, and I've decided to spend this capsule attempting to explain it. The key with understanding Richard Jefferson, for me, is to grasp the fact that he's a fundamentally regular person. He's simply normal. Average. He's a relatively smart guy who isn't too smart, a relatively lucky guy who isn't too lucky, a relatively boring man who isn't too boring. I feel like I've watched billions of hours of Jefferson interviews over the years due to the frequency Dewey and I talk about him -- I haven't, but it certainly feels that way. One ACTUAL interview stands out above the rest. In 2009, Jefferson went on -- of all things! -- the Howard Stern show to explain why exactly he left his fiancee at the alter and backed out on their marriage. I doubt you'll have the time to watch it, simply because it's obscenely long -- it appears as a three part series (1, 2, 3) on YouTube and the combined run time is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 minutes. Quite a slog. But if you're ever in the market for a single interview that encapsulates the kind of person Jefferson appears to be, you can't do a single one better than the Howard Stern tape.
In the tape, Jefferson explains why it was a poor personal decision to get into the marriage, and explained his thought process behind leaving her at the alter instead of going through with a marriage he wasn't sure about. And you know what? It was compelling, well thought out, and overall wholly reasonable -- most people instinctively balk at the motives and thought process of those who break engagements at the last minute, including me. But he'd clearly thought it through and done his best and made the most of a bad situation. By the end of the interview I'd essentially come to his view on the marriage, despite being ready to tear him apart at the slightest misstep. It was sort of shocking to listen to, given that my only real experience with Jefferson before that interview was from afar. I thought him something of an overrated fraud-star, and by extension I'd assumed him to be a relatively feckless, boring, and unreasonable jerk. Jefferson is none of those things. He's a soft-spoken man with a good head on his shoulders and a strangely advanced sense of context and his place in the world. He's not perfect, and he knows that. He's not some kind of MVP-caliber player, and he knows that too. He's simply Richard Jefferson, and he's come to terms with who he is and found personal happiness. That's beautiful, in some ways -- achieving actualization of the self by setting reasonable personal goals is an ideal we don't tend to get exposed to very often, even though it's by far the most reasonable way to achieve personal happiness.
To summarize, I think it's worth your time to bring up one of the more apt conversations I've had with Dewey regarding RJ. It occurred after the Lakers' tight win over Golden State a few days ago. Unedited:
Alex: so, RJ didn't play a single minute against the lakers
Alex: he only played the game before because stephen curry literally fouled out
Alex: the worst part is... he looks really decent whenever he's played. but the warriors are rolling and even if they weren't mark jackson has to develop draymond green and harrison barnes, so RJ has no place in the lineup
Alex: it's like... noooooo
Alex: also he can't be traded
Alex: he is a living contract albatross at this point
Aaron: yeah, that's awful, but it's awful in this very blessed way
Aaron: which is the essence of rj to me. every negative aspect is the result of a better and equal positive aspect
Alex: it's awful, and it's also absolutely hilarious for exactly the same reasons.
Alex: "oh, yeah, the warriors are rolling. they're great. the spurs have stephen jackson and kawhi leonard. the bucks are doing well too. even the nets are good for god's sake. arizona's #4, just beat duke a couple years ago. only... RJ can't play. oh, he's not injured, not really. just everything around him got so much better that he's not good enough to play anymore. also he can't complain because that would be a jerk thing to do."
Aaron: "but he's making too much money to be traded, which means his family has too much security for him to waive his contract. "
Alex: yeah, that's the best part. rj could opt-out theoretically. it just makes no sense for him financially
In a nutshell, that's what RJ's made of. Some sad parts, some awful parts, but always in this weirdly blessed way.
Acceptable, regular, decent. Richard Jefferson, everyone. Give him a hand.
Unfortunately, Timofey Mozgov is not very good. He's not very good in exactly the opposite way most people would expect him to not be good -- most instinctively expect white foreign players to be stiffs on defense and rangy knobs on offense. A proclivity for midrange shots, allergic to the rim, et cetera. Mozgov? He's an at-rim player at the core, taking almost 60% of his shots in the immediate basket area over his entire career. Unfortunately for his teams, he's not very good at those -- his mark of 56% ranks among the lowest-of-the-low for big men, and he's cursed with particularly poor form on his dunks. Most players make 95-100% of their dunk attempts -- over his career, Mozgov's only made about 85%. Rough news. He also has a terrible hook shot that's funny to watch but depressing to contemplate, and he tends to miss about 50% of his layup attempts. Compound all that with his awful jump shot and his completely nonexistent handle (his turnover rate of 20% sounds bad, but it looks even worse when you watch him a bunch) and you have an offensive skillset that's about as far from NBA-ready as you can get.
This isn't to say he's useless, though -- he's stuck around for a reason. Mozgov is a mammoth of a man, and mammoths are useful on defense. He's a solid post defender, with a knack for using his size to keep big guys out of position. Not the BEST pick and roll recovery guy around, but he's not awful and he'll always challenge the shot. Very rare to see Mozgov actively take off a possession, defensively -- this can work to his disadvantage at times because it leads him to appear on the receiving end of quite a few highlight reel dunks, but you should remember that the only reason he's around to get dunked on is that he's trying to provide the most resistance he can. His rebounding isn't very good, but he has one skill beyond his defense that's obscenely useful when correctly utilized. I refer to his off-ball screens, of course! Dear lord, the screens. Mozgov's enormity isn't always helpful, like on times he's slow to get to spot-up shooters or slow to get up and down the court. But when you ask him to stand in the way of a tiny guard or provide the screen to slip up the other team's defensive assignments? The man stands. He's bulky, immobile, and surprisingly dedicated -- often, if you watch his minutes closely, you'll see him set 2-3 successful screens in a single possession.
Given his screen-setting and his general defensive prowess, I'd expect him to stick around a while. His offense is so bad he'll never play more than 15-20 minutes a night, even for a dismal team, but the life of a tertiary player isn't that bad. His ceiling is low and his prospects for serious career enhancement slim, but the D and the screens will be enough to keep him on the minimum. Off the court, the man's pretty funny. I highly recommend checking out some of his quotes from this article. My favorite is the exchange in the end, where he admits he's never heard of Wilt Chamberlain and expresses shock at the idea that Wilt was able to score 100 points, noting that Wilt would've needed "at least" 50 shots to make it happen prior to the three point era. He isn't the greatest English speaker ever, but he's got a touch of that Fesenko English-as-a-second-language charm. It's colloquial and fun. I highly recommend this classic Mozgov blog post, which happened after his semi-famous 23-14 game against Detroit where he busted out and looked (for one night only) like a phenomenal NBA center, on both ends of the court. Nice guy. I certainly hope he sticks around, if only for us to keep getting posts like those two. Or this one, where he discussed who pays when the Nuggets go out to dinner. Can't read enough of the guy's journal. Too much fun. (And special thanks to Alexander Chernykh, the intrepid Russian hoopster who translates his blog posts for the people like me whose Russian is rusty. Fun fact: I used to actually know Russian. I took two years of it in college. Just don't remember enough to read Mozgov's journal entries, evidently.)
• • •
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. Props to Dr. No, our first 3/3 in a while. Come to think of it, he could be the last -- there are only two more chances for readers to register 3/3 guesses. Come one, come all! Guess like your lives depend on it!
Player #364 was once compared to LaMarcus Aldridge. Favorably. Times have changed since then, and now he's almost out of the league.
Player #365 starred in one of the most inexplicable and hilarious steroid scandals in the history of the league. Also: threes!
Player #366 couldn't stick with the Spurs, but he showed some good stuff in the preseason. Here's hoping he makes it back up to the big leagues soon.
Join me later today for a second set. Shocking!
• • •