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 Carl Landry, LeBron James, and Marreese Speights.
While he's not a flashy player, no one can impugn Landry's skill -- what he does, he does well. And he does it with a hilarious disregard for his size. Seriously -- he's an NBA big man that stands around 6'7" or 6'8" -- he's listed as 6'9", but visually, there's absolutely no way he's actually that tall. Despite the genuine size disadvantage, Landry has perfected the use of angles and movement to become an incredible paint scorer. He's consistently among the absolute best at-rim finishers in the league (69% last year!), and his 3-9 foot post-up game is (surprisingly) not bad at all -- he shoots well above position average from that range. Despite, again, his size. People often get on his case for taking too many jumpers, but I'm not sure that's entirely fair. While Landry does take more jumpers than most big men, he's also more efficient with them -- his 42% from the true midrange was in the top 25% of all power forwards last year, and his free throw form (a scintillating 80%) indicates his shooting is actually just that good. And while he's awful from the long two and a nonentity from three, he actually takes fewer long twos than 50% of his PF brethren, in terms of the percentage of his shots from that range. He seems to have a decent understanding of what works and what doesn't for him, offensively. And when something works for Landry on the offensive end, it really works.
Unfortunately, the game is played on two ends, and Landry's size makes him a pretty awful defensive player. At no point in 2012 did Landry find a consistent place in Monty Williams' rotations, and from the looks of it, the reasons were primarily on his lacking grasp of and ability to capitalize on the Hornets' defensive schemes. Often I'd cry foul and say the coach needs to find better ways to utilize enigmatic talents like Landry, but in this case, I don't think I can -- Landry simply looked lost on the defensive end, lost in a system that required at least some modicum of size to complete the rotation and close the circuit. When Landry was on the court, he actually improved the Hornets' offense by a full two points per 100 possessions -- the problem was, he gave exactly that back on the defensive end, meaning they were virtually the same team with him as without him.His synergy numbers are rough, his adjusted plus/minus looks even worse than the raw on/off numbers, and visually you always get the sense with Landry that he's simply far too over-matched size-wise to compete on the defensive end. It's sad, although honestly not entirely unexpected. You can be a good defender as an undersized guard -- as an undersized big, you need to have an absolutely ridiculous grasp of steals and positioning to be even a slight positive on the defensive end, and that's something you don't tend to have if you weren't naturally blessed with it.
Yesterday, commenter Mike noted something about Landry that I thought was interesting -- he said that Landry's generally so-so performance after his first few years was a function of age and exhaustion, as Landry was both older than the average rookie and had put on more minutes in college than most rookies. Curious to test that, I looked up Landry's minutes played in college. While I couldn't find any data on his minutes played at Alcorn State, I did find his minutes at Purdue -- he played 1915 minutes over 3 seasons, with his highest season by far being his senior year at 1035. Basketball Reference's college search engine only goes back to the 2010 season, but in the last 3 seasons, there have been (kind of surprisingly, actually) a total of 97 seasons where a college player played more minutes than Landry's highest minutes total season. It looks like roughly one third of these players made the NBA, as well. Unless he played 1000-2000 minutes in a single season at Alcorn State, he's probably got a relatively comparable college minutes total to most NBA players -- a tiny bit above average, most likely, but overall not a giant leap from the norm. He turned 29 eight days ago, so in terms of calendar age, it's true that he's above the norm. But there's no wealth of evidence pointing to Landry suffering a far-too-high minutes total. I'm far more sympathetic to Mike's point that Landry's ACL injuries have sapped his game from the strong promise he showed in Houston as a rookie and a sophomore -- Landry's suffered more than his fair share of those, and really shouldn't be held accountable for that. It's certainly not his playing style or anything endemic to Landry's game that caused them.
Maybe it's the cramped hotel rooms. We'll call it that.
I don't really know how to introduce this capsule. I suppose I'll describe my thought process. LeBron James is all at once responsible for some of my most beloved and my most painful sports memories. As a Cleveland fan (who, yes, enjoys the Spurs as well), I found myself enthralled by James in Cleveland, and as many did, I thought him a man who represented my goals and ideals. I thought him a hero, an immortal, an icon. He left, and I lost all respect for him. I began to question the things I saw, the dominance I enjoyed, the sincerity of his time with the Cavaliers. I rooted for the Heat to fall. I rooted for LeBron to fail. I rooted for comeuppance, for karma, for anything.
And then, well, it happened. Carlisle's schemes were too good, LeBron was too timid, his legs too tired. The Heat fell, LeBron gasped for breath, and I didn't really know what to do. It was what I wanted, theoretically. But I didn't like the Mavs, either, and I suddenly realized I didn't really care. Not much. Revenge is not an emotion I'm usually partial to, and while I found the Cavaliers' upset of the Heat late in the 2011 season one of the greatest games I've ever had the pleasure of watching, I couldn't really rationalize getting myself excited and happy to see the Heat lose. It was the same thing this past year -- I watched exactly two games of the 2012 finals, and derived no enjoyment out of either. Yes, the Thunder found themselves outmatched. I suppose my vengeance for the Western Conference Finals should have been quelled. It wasn't, though. I didn't care if the Heat beat the Thunder. I wanted the Spurs to beat the Thunder. I didn't care if the Mavs beat the Heat. I wanted the Cavs to beat the Heat. Et cetera, et cetera.
I know people who still despise him. I know people who can't stand him. And I know others who belittle and insult those people, because they think it petty. That's too harsh, in my view. Just because some Cavs fans -- like myself -- have gotten "past" it to the point that they don't actively despise him doesn't mean every Cavs fan should be the same. I don't think I'll ever really LIKE LeBron again, and I admit, I haven't watched a single LeBron game with the Heat that I've actually been able to enjoy. It still stings. But one of the beautiful things about sports fandom is that everything is different. No two fans are the same, no two ways of approaching the game are the same. Just because I don't despise him doesn't mean another Cavs fan isn't entitled to his own anger. What I share is my personal story, not that of anyone else. It's mine and mine alone. And that's the way it should be.
Today, I wrote about LeBron James. I opened up about myself. I relived some strong feelings.
And, at last, I closed the book.
Not totally sure what to say about Speights. I suppose I'll start with his skills. First, he's got a GREAT knack for rebounding on the defensive end. He's never played enough minutes for it to be totally noticeable, but his defensive rebounding percentage has hovered around 20% for three years in a row, which is fantastic, and generally ends up being in the top 30 or so leaguewide. For a nice bench big man, you could do far worse than rebounding like that. He couples that with a reasonably decent turnover rate despite a reasonably high usage percentage, which is a nice little wrinkle. Last season he showed another useful and underrated talent: an increasing ability to keep himself in the game. That is to say, he drastically cut down his foul rate, and barely found himself in foul trouble all year. For a team that was lacking in depth in the frontcourt for most of the season after the Arthur and Randolph injuries, this was essentially invaluable. These are all good traits to have, and when you combine that with the solid durability he's shown in the last two years, you have a player most would be surprised is making less than $5 million over the next two years.
Well, you might be surprised. Until you watched him. While Speights has a lot of talent and athletic potential, when actualized, his performance on the offensive end is pretty lacking. He's consistently found himself among the bottom 25% of bigs in at-rim percentage, which reflects a general unwillingness to either go hard to the rim or learn some decent post moves. His offensive numbers are actually extremely weird for a big man -- last season, for instance, Speights shot a blistering 46.6% on 16-23 foot two point shots -- which was among the highest totals in the entire league, let alone for just big men. He also took over a third of his shots from that location, which meant that he well understood his offensive talents. As well, he found himself among the top 25% of big men in his free throw percentage, making a patently decent 77% of his shots at the line with a solid free throw rate. For a big man who shows that kind of proficiency at shooting, you have to wonder why he's never tried to develop a three point game -- he took just 3 threes last season, and while he missed them all, Speights was so abysmal from every area of the floor beyond the line and the long two that you start to wonder if he actually needs to develop that shot to keep his minutes up. After all -- his defense is awful.
Now, look. A lot of very smart analysts thought that Speights showed defensive improvement in Memphis last season. Count me as one of the folks who disagrees. I admit, he looked a tad better, but I think that's more a function of who he played with. In 2011, he spent only 155 of his 558 minutes on the court with Elton Brand, the Sixers' best defensive big man. The vast majority of his 733 minutes in 2011 were played in lineups featuring both Speights and Thaddeus Young, which was (in retrospect) a really awful idea. Neither of them are supremely amazing defensive players, especially when playing out of position at center. When you combine the two of them, you're left lacking a rim protector and with a defense that at least visually looks like one of the worst you can possibly put together. In Memphis, Lionel Hollins finally corrected this ridiculous lineup decision by letting Speights play most of his minutes (905/1345) placed next to Marc Gasol, one of the best defensive big man in the game today. Of course he's going to look better -- it doesn't mean his personal defense has actually actively improved, it simply means that he's not being mishandled and poorly utilized. Often, when a player is said to have made strides on the defensive end, the strides are less a result of the player actually playing better and more a function of a team realizing they've been misusing him for years, or better yet, a team trading him elsewhere.
Off the court, Speights seems like a fun guy. His twitter feed is pretty entertaining, and he's known for getting into random beefs with random people. (Ed. Note: I originally typed "rondom" instead of random. Just thought you guys should know.) One of the more amusing examples of this comes from the good folks over at Liberty Ballers, where writer Jordan Sams was able to interview Speights and ended up awkwardly addressing a twitter beef in what sounds like one of the silliest interview-starting conversations in the world. The interview gets into some interesting things, like Speights' outside hobbies (bowling, college football video games, laughing), which Sixer is the best at picking up the ladies (he refuses to say), which Sixer is the funniest (Evan Turner, which I simply cannot fathom), and plays word association with the names of his Sixer teammates (for my money, the best one is when Speights goes completely silent at mention of Spencer Hawes. Because that's what I do at any mention of Spencer Hawes.) Also: he shares his #1 nap of all time, which is some seriously apt investigative journalism on the part of Sams. It's a solid interview. Go check it out. Otherwise, follow him on Twitter and bask in the marvel of his curious offensive game, even more curious defense, and funny personality.
• • •
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. Got a few 3/3s yesterday -- Mike, Mike L, Chilai, and Geezer all got them right. Good job.
- I think I can safely say that Mike D was spewing B.S. when he said this guy was the best shooter he's ever seen. Still solid, tho.
- Sort of a fluky season -- I don't think he's ACTUALLY that good. If so, though, Bucks got a crazy good deal.
- Ever wondered how the Thunder can be a better team next year, outside of youth? Look no further than Player #195.
Have a good day.