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 Chris Duhon, Kawhi Leonard, and Joakim Noah.
I've got a game for you. It's fun, although perhaps a bit cruel. Go on twitter. If you don't have an account, get one. You can stop using it afterwards. Go around twitter and find a bunch of Knicks fans. Jared Dubin, the Knickerblogger guys, Dan Devine, my pal Wes, et cetera. Find them. Engage them in conversation. Discuss the finer points of basketball. Get some frozen yogurt. The finer things in life, you know. Become fast friends, and learn about why they're Knicks fans. Learn of their struggles, their triumphs, their woe. Truly internalize all of this, and realize that in the end we're all just wayward sport-obsessed souls with a penchant for exaggeration trying to one-up the other on an ever-spinning carousel of misery and disappointment. Eventually they will say something you find ridiculous -- whether it be a paean to Carmelo you don't understand, a statement of confidence in their team you don't get, or a statement about New York's mettle that makes no sense to anyone who doesn't live there. At this moment you will step back, crack your knuckles, and type out the following words.
"The New York Knicks paid Chris Duhon almost $12 million dollars to play the game of basketball." ... Okay, yep, so that's where this game becomes cruel. Sorry, Knicks fans. In truth, the only reason I'm bringing this exercise in a few cheap laughs up is the simple fact that there's virtually nothing else to talk about with Duhon at this point. His single fleeting moment of relevance in the past two years has been rooted to this incredible GIF. That's it. On the court, to say Duhon's been busted the last few years is to underrate things. He hasn't really looked like an NBA player in years, and while he had a decent season behind the arc this last year, I have my doubts he'll really extend that to next year. And the good season behind the arc was scarcely enough to override Duhon's other huge problems -- for one thing, he shot under 50% at the rim, which is remarkably bad even for a guard. Compound that with his turnovers and you have a problem -- Duhon is absolutely a turnover machine, and last year posted the 12th highest turnover rate in the entire league. The worst part about that? He played significantly more minutes than any of the players above him! It'd be one thing if he was some lock-down Gary Payton type on defense, but he's really not. He's a decently physical defender who can't really stay with quicker point guards (read: everyone but Jason Kidd) for more than 2 or 3 minutes a night, but does have the lateral mobility to bother guards-off-the-bench when he has the chance.
I've heard several people say that Duhon is important to the Lakers' title quest this season, and I agree. He's very important. The problem is that Duhon being important is a really big problem. He's a disgustingly bad offensive player and his defense (while situationally valuable) is completely undermined by his poor command of team offense and his weakness under even the most cursory of ball pressure. Despite that, with Nash at the point where he can't at all be counted on for more than 30 a night (and 28 might even be pushing it), that leaves 18-20 minutes without a point guard. Of the Lakers' pu pu platter of busted-down backup point guards, Duhon may very well be the best option. And knowing Mike Brown, he's certainly the one you can most expect Brown to trust -- Brown doesn't like young players much, and he always likes to play a solid defender over a solid offensive player when the players are of similar repute. Can a team win when they dominate by 20 to 30 points for 30 minutes a night and immediately hemorrhage the margin with their star point guard off the floor? Good question. As a teaching example, I'd point towards the other end of the floor with the Boston Celtics of last year's playoffs. Not with Rondo, no -- with Kevin Garnett. With Garnett on the floor, the Celtics absolutely obliterated the competition, allowing only 92 points per 100 possessions. With Garnett off? The Celtics allowed (and I swear to god this is not a typo) 118 points per 100 possessions. KIND OF A BIG DIFFERENCE. I could see a similar effect taking hold with Nash and the Laker offense in the playoffs in this upcoming season, simply because the Lakers' alternate options are so incredibly bad at the game of basketball.
Today, I take some time out of my day at 48 Minutes of Hell to discuss Kawhi Leonard, expectations, and the role he plays on a philosophically adaptive offense like the San Antonio Spurs. Fans weren't really expecting Leonard to be the player he's manifested as, in more ways than one. Which leads to an interesting dichotomy -- fans are both excited for all the new things he's displayed and expectant that some of his still latent collegian talents will eventually develop into strong assets for his pro game as well. I'm one such fan. The thing I didn't touch on, and the one thing I probably should, is that this isn't necessarily how things are going to go. There's so much promise and potential here, it's easy to conflate the yet-to-happen with the things we've seen. We haven't seen proof Kawhi Leonard is going to be an excellent NBA defender yet. We've seen inklings, to whet our curiosity, but we haven't seen it definitively. Until we do, there's no guarantee it ever happens. But I take a more hopeful view with Leonard, perhaps because I like his game, perhaps because he's still so young. As one might note -- when the Spurs were eliminated in that soul-crushing Game 6 loss, Leonard couldn't legally drink. Imagine what he'll be with Artest's pet Henny!
Most people know that Kawhi is a great three point shooter. At least, he was one in the NBA -- it's worth noting (once again) that he was absolutely atrocious from behind the arc in college, hence why nobody expected he'd suddenly be good at it on the NBA level. One of the notable things that most people don't realize, though, is that Leonard isn't your everyday corner-bomber. While he takes a lot of threes from the corner, he also takes (and makes) more from above the arc than most would expect. In particular, in the 2012 NBA playoffs, Leonard shot 13 of his 40 three pointers from above the break. He made 7 -- 54%, for those counting. Yes, he took more corner threes -- 27 of his 40 threes were corner shots, but he doesn't only shoot corner shots. In fact, during his first regular season, he took far more above-the-break threes than corner three pointers, and his lack of hesitance with the shot is one of the reasons the Spurs offense moves so fluidly. It's easier to camp on the corners when you know for a fact every shooter makes their home there. When you have a shooter or two who regularly moves out and shoots on a dime or a break, the defense becomes that much more disoriented. There's that much more space they need to cover if they want to muffle your team. And while the Spurs use a lot of corner three pointers, with Neal and Leonard and Manu in the fold, the Spurs offense relies almost as much on effective use of wide open above-the-break threes.
You know, sometimes I wonder what to think about Joakim Noah. It's not that he's a bad player -- he's very good. But the ways his stats indicate he's good generally don't match 100% to the visual aesthetics of his game. You watch Noah and you get the sense that he's a sea-changing defensive presence, his limber body control and wide reach allowing him to get his hands on seemingly every possession he sits through on the defensive end. You watch him play and you imagine him on just about any other team in the league -- the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat, the Nets -- and you imagine how amazing he could be as the crux of their defensive attack. He visually looks like that kind of a defender, at least in his ability to scout the point of attack on any individual possession and focus his efforts in to what viscerally looks like the most threatening offensive play the opposing team could run. His wingspan, his focus, and his monstrous talent at cleaning the glass are amazing (tangent: underrated fact about Noah -- he's one of the best rebounders in the NBA, and I have a feeling that he'd absolutely DESTROY the glass on a team where he wasn't next to Carlos Freakin' Boozer). He just feels defensively dominant.
And yet... the numbers haven't really backed that up for years. In fact, they've implied the opposite. Noah's on-and-off court numbers have indicated the last few years that the Bulls play markedly better defense when he's off the floor, INCLUDING the time he doesn't share with Carlos Boozer. Part of this is obvious. Asik and Gibson are the best bench big men in the NBA, and both would start on 20-25 teams in the league. Slotting them in against bench big men is not only hilarious, it's straight-up unfair. It's like Manu Ginobili or James Harden versus a bench shooting guard -- I mean, really, talk about an absurd mismatch. Of COURSE Asik and Gibson are going to lead to better results defensively -- they're playing worse competition. Except... this trend also extends to Noah's minutes versus bench players. And just in a general sense. It's really weird. But you know what's weirder? Joakim Noah -- the owner of one of the weirdest set-shots in the NBA, the player who has an effective field goal percentage well below the position average despite taking way fewer shots than most at his position do (and having a below-average percentage at the rim, which usually kills centers like him), the player who's usually among the first pieces mentioned when people bemoan the lack of offensive talent around Derrick Rose -- has consistently and markedly improved the Bulls offense over the past two years. Seriously. The on/off court numbers are relatively impressive, and this effect actually gets more pronounced when Derrick Rose is on the bench.
So, you might wonder. Why in God's name would that ever happen? Good question. There are a lot of useful things Noah brings to the table offensively, some of which are common knowledge and some of which aren't. First one: his free throw percentage is downright excellent for a starting center in the NBA, hovering in the mid 70s despite his odd looking release. Many defenses rely on fouling the center as a last-resort type "well, we can't defend your team, so let's make the center shoot a bunch of free throws." With Noah on the court it's impossible to really do that. Secondly, Noah's passing is absolutely brilliant, and while Noah rarely ends up with gaudy assist totals I wouldn't be surprised at all if he led the league in secondary hockey assists, or more specifically brilliant passes where he sets Rose up with two or three good offensive options through an excellent hockey-feed. He's a magnificent high-post setup man, and in a league where centers rarely have the quickness to steal, this can be invaluable to a functioning offense. Finally, the simple truth -- Noah seems to know every single person on the team. Watching him and the Bulls is fun, partly because he simply has great chemistry with just about everyone wearing the red and black. He knows their tendencies, their skills, their limitations. He sets great screens on the offensive end, and he's invaluable for getting Chicago's cavalcade of shooters open. Frankly, he just knows what everyone SHOULD doing on the offensive end, and he makes it happen. Which in turn makes him a more valuable asset for Chicago on the offensive end than he is on the defensive end, even if he's a better defensive player personally than he is an offensive player.
Off the court, Noah is the NBA's chillest bro, a man who I've heard from multiple sources "loves 4/20" and "is definitely up for chill time." He should live in the international house. (Shout out to the <15 people who will understand that joke.) I've heard several stories of people meeting Noah outside of the arena, and just about every one of them has been awesome. I'll cop to not necessarily being a huge fan of his, at least ever since his random slam on Cleveland straight out of nowhere, but the stories of how fun Noah is in real life do tend to assuage any concerns I have about him as a jerk. He seems to be a good-natured guy with a generally fun-to-watch game, an excellent sense of perspective, and a penchant for not-taking-himself-too-seriously. Good dude. Chicago fans should feel lucky they've locked this guy up for the price they did and the duration they did. He's a treasure, and the Noah-Rose core should continue to be a potent pairing well into this decade. Not bad for a guy who would've been a Knick if Isiah wasn't so hung up on getting Eddy Curry.
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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. Congrats to Luke, the only one to get 3/3 on yesterday's riddles.
- It's sort of remarkable how poorly Player #178 has acquainted himself with the NBA. I realize his size is troubling, but he was so good in college you'd think he could've risen past it. Not so, alas.
- If there's anyone that's going to improve at the behest of Steve Nash in Los Angeles, it would be Player #179. They should put him alongside Nash as much as possible.
- Player #180 is another example of a player who in recent seasons has matched the Troy Murphy "instant falloff" archetype. His new team is still taking a risk on him, that's for sure.
Have a good day.