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 Amir Johnson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Vernon Macklin.
Every day, I give riddles as to the next day's trio. The riddle I gave yesterday for Johnson implied that he was expected to take a larger role after the departure of a team's superstar, and that he had failed. I stretched a bit for the sake of the riddle -- I wasn't totally fair to say that, although there is a good point to be made. Few people pay much attention to him, but when you do, you realize that Amir Johnson's per minute numbers really aren't bad at all. Look at just this last season. He was in the top 10% of big men for field goal percentage from both the rim and the 3-9 foot post-up range. He wasn't very good outside of 10 feet (and has never been in his career), but that wasn't a huge deal, because he made his free throws (mostly) and took over 60% of his shots from inside that range. Although he didn't take very many free throws, he was efficient enough from the field to essentially completely offset that. His rebounding was slightly above average, with his defensive rebounding below-average but his offensive rebounding far above average to carry the boat. Sure, his assist rate is relatively low and his turnover rate is sky high. But with offense that efficient and per-minute numbers that solid, it was sort of confusing that he didn't get more minutes.
Or perhaps not. In the last two seasons, Johnson has shown himself to be dramatically more effective in smaller minutes than larger minutes -- his two best games last season (a 19-11-3 against Minnesota on 9 shots and an 18-13-2 against Washington on 13 shots) happened with Amir getting just barely above his minutes average -- he played 30 minutes in the Minnesota game and 26 in the Washington game. I don't know if it's fatigue, happenstance, or what. But Johnson doesn't tend to translate his per-minute productivity very well over a longer span of time -- he played almost 38 minutes in a loss to the Bobcats this season, and while his rebounding was solid (15 rebounds) his shooting was completely busted (at 3-9 -- with all baskets coming in the second half, albeit). In general, when Johnson plays a lot of minutes or is given a lot of shots, it's actually rather rare for his per-minute numbers to seriously translate to the sorts of 15-10 performances you'd expect if you threw him a few extra shots and kept him in for a full 36 minutes. He's a classic low-usage by design player -- he doesn't lack the ball because coaches are trying to keep him down, he lacks the ball because he and his coach have come to an understanding about how much usage you need to lop off to make him an efficient, useful player.
Which does have relatively strong implications. It means that the general hypetrain regarding Johnson was -- and still is, to some extent -- unwarranted. Before the fact and after the fact. I don't know whether Triano or Casey have ever outright stated that they wanted Johnson to "replace" Chris Bosh, but I know for a fact I've heard multiple Raptors fans express serious disappointment with Johnson's development. I'm not sure that's fair. While Johnson has gotten over his early-career bouts with foul trouble, not every NBA player has the ability to play the ironman and get on the court for 34-38 minutes a night. For many reasons. They may not have the breath for it, like the asthma-striken Roy Hibbert. They may not have the sheer ability to do it, like the foul-trouble magnet of an early career Amir Johnson. Or, they could be like Johnson is today. They probably could play more minutes, but they've been previously worse on a per-minute basis when they do that. Their defense falls off as they get more tired, their offense sloughs off efficiency if you pump their usage up too high, and they simply don't have the constitution to do it. Regrettable? Yes. Some per-minute mavens are productive potential stars just waiting for a broader role. Look at Kevin Love. But for every Kevin Love, you have others like Johnson, who are per-minute mavens precisely because of their role -- a broader one would just detract from the things he's already good at. He and his coaches get that, and his minutes are managed accordingly.
Gotta admit. While today's set isn't exactly a bunch of heralded superstars, this list has three of the top ten player names in the NBA. Amir Johnson is cool simply because "Amir" is one of the coolest names a guy can have, and juxtaposed with the plain-jane "Johnson" last name makes it hilarious. Vernon Macklin may not be long for the league, but I've always thought Vernon was an underrated name -- V-names are rather rare in the first place, and Vernon has the flexibility to call yourself V, Vern, Vernie, Von, or Big V. (I don't know why you would call yourself "Big V", but we'll put that out there anyway.) Macklin is just a cool last name -- rolls off the tongue, and can be pronounced a variety of different ways. Mack-lin, McLean, Mak-line, Mickey Mou--... just those first three, thanks. And then there's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, which is for my money the best non-Pooh name in the league. It's just so ornate. It sounds like royalty -- which makes sense, because he's actually a prince. It's ornate, simple, and spectacular. It's a great name.
(Wait, I can't just end the capsule at having sung his name's praises? ... okay, okay.)
I like Mbah a Moute a lot, honestly. Although, to start with the obvious: there's a good reason he hasn't ever played more than 27 minutes a night in a single season. While his defense is spectacular and his hustle is incontrovertible, his offense is extremely touch-and-go. He can finish at the rim if you set him up with just the right shot, but he's also prone to turning the ball over or offensive-charging a savvy defender. He's one of the few players who you can say with 100% certainty would be completely unable to score on himself if he was playing a clone in an open gym -- the game would end in 0-0 frustration, played into the infinite until they finally tire of trying to do the impossible. His offensive skillset is so threadbare and minimalist that it's simply impossible to envision a world where Mbah a Moute could score on himself. He'd cut off the driving lanes and either take the charge or block the shot on every single excursion to the rim. It'd be hilarious, in a sad way. Neither clone would score on the other. Eternal equilibrium.
It's hard to give serious minutes to a player with offensive limitations as far-reaching as Mbah a Moute. But he does carve out a good 25-27 minutes a night simply by playing the way he's always played -- incredible, game-changing defense from the wing and solid rebounding all the while. With an offensive skillset like his, it's very hard to play Mbah a Moute for long stretches without a high-volume scorer by his side. In that sense, it's actually a good thing for the Bucks that they've acquired Monta Ellis. Ellis and Jennings can go 6-7 possessions straight having taken every shot on the floor -- if they do that, that's 6-7 possessions where Mbah a Moute hasn't had to worry about serious offensive responsibilities, which makes it easier for him to play larger minutes. If Ellis and Jennings shoot as often as I'm personally expecting, it could actually help make the team a bit more than the sum of its parts by allowing Mbah a Moute and Udoh to see more floor time without having to disappoint on the offensive end. We'll have to see, obviously -- if Ellis and Jennings can't score at least slightly efficiently, there's no way this works. But in my head, I can see this working out pretty well, with the defensive savants focusing on that end while the high-volume chuckers just keep throwing up shots to keep the ball out of the defensive stars' hands. Ellis and Jennings may end up with pretty strange numbers, and the entire team may have weird stats. It could go up in flames. But I could see a possibility that it works a lot better than most people expect, and that's probably the possibility that made Hammond approve of the deal.
While Mbah a Moute's defense isn't best-in-the-league level, it's certainly up there -- he's among the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and his rebounding is very good for a wing. The problem is, again, one of range. He shoots under 25% from outside the immediate vicinity of the rim, and that's a pointed 25% -- it's so bad, he simply shouldn't shoot from those ranges. At all. Ever. This has led many, including John Hollinger, to assert that Mbah a Moute should be playing the four. Defensively, though, Mbah a Moute is far more of a fit at the three. Me? I think he should play the three, regardless of how awful his offense fits for that role -- he's a positive defender whose use is almost entirely on that end, and the team (as I just explicated) just combined two of the most ball-dominant guards it possibly could. With Mbah a Moute set to see far fewer shots than he's ever seen before (most likely), what's to lose by playing him at his natural position and simply not running offensive plays for him? Defenses will be able to shade off him and apply added pressure to Ellis and Jennings, sure, but the exact same thing was true at the four. I think the Bucks would be best served by trying to keep Mbah a Moute on the wing, playing him 25-30 minutes a night, and seeing if the volume-scorer + defensive-savant strategy can work. I don't know if it can, but it's their best and only chance of competing for the central division title, so why not give it a shot?
Off the court, Mbah a Moute is notable as a Cameroonian prince. He's also notable as -- reportedly -- an extremely nice guy. He didn't start playing basketball until his mid-teens, which probably starts to explain many of his issues on the offensive end of the court. It's harder to learn how to shoot when you didn't start shooting until you were midway through puberty. Pretty cool accomplishment for him to be this good despite that. One of the coolest things about Mbah a Moute is that he's one of the last remaining regularly-updating player bloggers. There were never a great wealth of them, mind you -- Stephon Marbury had a blog at one point, as did Gerald Henderson, but I'm having trouble thinking of more off the top of my head. He throws Truehoop a bone from time to time and gives Henry Abbott scouting reports to put up at the blog. Absolutely amazing, in my view -- while I occasionally disagree with him, Mbah a Moute puts an incredible amount of time and effort into his scouting and knowledge sharing for his blogging exploits. It's a great set of posts. Hard to organize them all together, but here's an example from the playoffs, and here's his note on the Thunder. Highly recommended reading, and I highly recommend keeping tabs on Truehoop when the reports go up. Quite a lot of fun.
I can see why most are somewhat low on the wonderful Mr. Macklin. His free throw stroke was bad, his general offensive skillset was nigh nonexistent, and he didn't really rate out too well by his tertiaries. Some would point to his field goal percentage as a stat in his favor -- I'd note that he took over 70% of his shots at the rim and rated in the bottom 25% of big men in his at-rim conversion percentage. Some would note he had one of the lowest turnover rates in the league -- I'd note that he accomplished that primarily due to his usage rate being virtually nil. Some would note that his rebounding was really, really good for a rookie -- I'd note that... well... there's no dark side whatsoever to that statement, he rebounded phenomenally well in limited minutes. Which does get to my point -- while I can see exactly why most people aren't high on him, I actually think he has/had a chance to be a decent player in the NBA.
Sure, his offense isn't great. Pretty sub-par, even, for an NBA-level big man. Making only 55% of your at-rim baskets as an NBA big is usually one's death knell in the league. But his rebounding numbers were really, really good. That's not a useless skill, especially not when you pair it with what Macklin was bringing on the side -- solid defense, a nose for the ball, and an emphasis on running the coach's playbook. Macklin's numbers were produced in 135 garbage time minutes, but look at what he did in the D-League -- he averaged 14-14 while tearing other D-League big men apart, defensively. That, combined with solid per-minute stats in garbage time, tends to indicate a player whose ceiling is at the very least that of a patently decent NBA backup. He also has decent size -- he's a legitimate 6'10" and combines that with solid length (his 7'4" wingspan is definitively NBA-quality). If he puts on a few pounds, he could be a bullish low post defender. His instincts already look relatively decent in the pick and roll, too -- I really do feel like he's got a shot at being a nice spot-minutes player providing defense off the bench with some vicious rebounding besides.
So, how's he going to look on next year's Pistons? Invisible, unfortunately. Due to the Pistons' surfeit of intriguing new big men, Macklin is on the outs. He didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Pistons and has reluctantly parted ways with the organization, going to Europe via the Turkish league, via the "Royal Hali Gazintep" team. While he had several training camp invitations, he decided against going to camp in favor of getting consistent minutes overseas and trying his luck again next year. Patrick Hayes at PistonPowered touched on this earlier this summer, and noted something I think more people need to recognize. It was really hard to be a second round pick during last year's lockout-shortened season. You can see the impact all over the place -- Jon Leuer, Vernon Macklin, and Josh Harrellson were all waived despite putting up signs of being productive NBA-level talent. Without a proper training camp or a preseason to establish their names and games in the hearts of their coaches, it was really difficult for a non-marquee rookie to gain traction with their coach. Keep that in mind, as the second round gems of last year try to carve out a place once more in this year. Or, as in the case of Macklin, simply fade out of the league and hope they'll call him back in a year.
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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. No 3/3 guesses, but someone got each of the 3 riddles right, so I will count that as a victory for myself. The winning 2/3 guesses go to Okman, Matt, Chilai, and Der_K.
- Player #226 rocks a diamond grill. And backboards, too.
- Player #227 regularly loses his birds. Will be a Player Capsule (Plus).
- Player #228's team waived virtually everyone this summer. Except for him. Their reasons? ... I have no idea.
Have a good weekend, folks.
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