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 Ivan Johnson, James Harden, and Patrick Patterson.
Follow Ivan Johnson by taking a page of Rasheed's legacy.
“My thing is, I don’t really watch basketball so I don’t know who anybody is. I know the major players like LeBron, Kobe, Wade but all the extra ones I don’t know. Even if I did know them, I’m not going to be afraid. We are playing basketball.”
Have you ever wondered what the NBA would look like if, from here on out, it was played in a horrifying alternate reality where the players all suited up with guns, knives, and all manner of arcane weaponry before taking a step on the court? Ever considered the possibility that the aforementioned dystopic "court" was actually a hotbed of scorching asphault? Ever pondered who would be the NBA player best suited to run down scores of his former teammates in a 10 cylinder roving deathtrap? Just mowing them all down, immobile atop his instrument of destruction, unfeeling as he ends the lives of those he once called friends. He is the tough, the gritty, the loud. He is the man with the diamond grill and the heart of stone. He is the gatling gun from Red Dead Redemption, applied to humanity. He is the unflinching picture of stoic sensibilities.
He is Ivan Johnson.
Okay, seriously. It takes a rare sort of complexion to actually create that sort of a scenario in my mind. No player before Johnson really brought that kind of vivid dystopian imagery to my head. And if someone like Darko never did, I have my doubts that any others ever will. It's like I'm Johnny Smith and Johnson's Greg Stillson. I don't know how it happens, I don't know where in God's name it comes from, but I know for a fact it's in the cards. A possibility. A looming potentiality. Someday, this situation just "feels" right. It feels like something that would happen to Ivan Johnson, his teammates, and his coaches. Just this Mad Max world taken straight from the pages of a shock-and-awe story, with Ivan Johnson playing the central role as the antagonist, protagonist, and orthodontist to the toothache we call humanity. Never had a chance to read a piece about him? Let me try to fill in the gaps. Johnson's tough. Ridiculously tough. "Banned-from-two-pro-leagues" tough. Some hardscrabble stuff.
Which isn't to say that "tough" is the only descriptor of his game. He's genuinely a useful backup, in ways that go beyond his aggression. He's a pretty good rebounder in limited burn -- not overwhelmingly tall or physically talented, but he wrests boards from the air with a welcome abandon. His offensive game is a bit limited -- not a good outside shooter by any stretch of the imagination, and he takes too many for that to be the case. Sky high turnover rate, and for some reason, tends to take over the ball a bit. Needs to work on that, definitively. But Johnson's big value comes on the other end -- he's one of the best bulldog bench-defenders there are. His approach tends to be summarized in the quote I began this piece with -- he doesn't care who you are, what you've won, where you've come from. All he really cares about is the idea that nobody's identity really matters. They're playing basketball, not poker. He gets intensely physical, muddy, and rough when he steps on the court. That's just his deal. And honestly? When you defend with the raw intensity that Johnson does, you're going to stay in this league for quite some time.
He has issues, mind you. The turnovers, the fouls, the technicals -- all those are harmful, and will serve to curtail his playing time significantly going forward. But his defense is really quite solid, individually. I'm not entirely sure how well he works within the team concept, defensively. His high-intensity high-voltage style on the defensive end is best described as the defensive equivalent of a volume shooter's style on offense. He gets the defensive highlights with his blocks and physical shoves, and he sort of forces you to pay attention to him. But if opposing coaches gameplan around him and run misdirection plays, his defense isn't insurmountable. It's not a cog in an overwhelming team concept any more than Monta Ellis is a cog in an overwhelming team offense. He's an individual performer on the defensive end, to this point, and while he can certainly emerge to be more than that he simply hasn't yet. Entering next season at the age of 28 (and 1/3 of the way to the age of 29), Johnson isn't quite young enough that he can be expected to get remarkably better. But as he adapts to the game and learns some tricks of the trade, I'd expect him to build his value and stick around a good while -- 4 or 5 years, minimum. After that, we'll see. For now, though? Solid player. Solid guy. Solid backbone to every nightmare I'll have for the next 4 months. Thanks, Ivan Johnson.
For today's James Harden capsule, I once again got a tad fancy with my framing. I readily admit this. I spent many hours trying to figure out the best way to cast Harden and his general game into the Capsule (Plus) framework I've built over the past few months -- I felt there was something untapped that I had to say about him, but wasn't really sure how to reach it. On what seems like the 5th or 6th go-around, partly due to a completely unexpected assist from Nick Flynt, I finally figured something out. The angle needed to be as odd and off-the-wall as Harden for the capsule to really come together -- it needed to touch on his odd mental makeup, his strange career trajectory, and the generally lacking aesthetics of his hyper-efficient game. I needed something that could bring this all together and allow a closer examination into the concept of self-sufficiency that, in my view, guides most everything that Harden does. But of course! I needed... an isolated elitist ranching utopia!
... Wait, what?
Harden is a similar sort of odd duck, if you take him in his proper context. Here, you have a player that actually sent Sam Presti a letter detailing the many reasons why he'd be an excellent fit in Oklahoma City. A player who understood -- before he was old enough to legally drink! -- that he wanted to be the quixotic sixth-man on a star-studded future contender. He had played with Durant and Westbrook through AAU ball, but as relative equals -- before Miami had come together, before the Lakers had their sterling offseason, before the "superteam" became a much-ballyhooed reality. Before all that, Harden himself could see so clearly the outlines of a superteam, so clearly delineated roles, he did his part to actively seek it out. More than most players, Harden deserves credit for the way he found his team. He did as much to form the Thunder's big three as Westbrook or Durant did themselves. And this is, admittedly, something of an oddball route. Most people accept their draft position as an exogenous factor they can't really control. Harden wanted to take control in an offseason only to cede control in the real season. An odd way to go.
The Rockets waived a lot of players this summer. Jon Leuer, Josh Harrellson, Luis Scola -- all waived. Four others, too! Had you told me the Rockets would end up waiving seven players during the offseason, there's one player I would've bet just about anything on them sending off. Relatively low ceiling, a low-promise sophomore campaign, and a general situation where it looks like he'll get virtually no playing time going forward. At least if they're smart. He's not young, and while he'd probably dominate an overseas league with his sheer size, he's a rather situational player in the NBA. Would've bet quite a lot that they'd waive him. The "him", of course, is Patrick Patterson. The past-tense is because, indeed, the Rockets didn't waive him. They decided to pick up his $2 million dollar team option and give him another stab at their rotation. If they were willing to waive Harrellson and Leuer, why bring back Patterson? I'm not so sure.
Patterson had, by all accounts, a pretty substandard year for the Rockets last year. He played more minutes, which was a big plus. Simply having the ability to play 20 NBA minutes at a time is a skill many of the league's most productive back-ups don't have. So that's a good sign, if you state it devoid of context. The problem is, Patterson's productivity essentially bottomed out in those minutes, at least from his rookie ideals -- McHale chose to inexplicably utilize Patterson as a long midrange pivot-man, taking him away from the basket and running play after play intended to get Patterson a spot-up long two or a midrange shot. The results? Mixed at best. He wasn't bad at those shots -- indeed, Patterson posted a well-above average percentage from both the midrange and the long two for a big man. But were they great shots? Heck no. Patterson shot about 43% from the long two and 38% from midrange -- both solid in comparison to other players taking those shots, but if you're forcing a player to do virtually nothing else, he needs to be a lot more above average than that.
This goes double given Patterson's general disinterest on the defensive end, either on the boards or on his man. He posted one of the lowest defensive rebounding percentages among any bigs in the league last season, with only five power forwards carving out a worse percentage than his 13.7 -- Tyler Hansbrough, Jared Jeffries, Anthony Tolliver, Nick Collison, and Ekpe Udoh. His man-to-man defense was substandard as well, at least in my view. He has the size and the tools to be a good defender but he needs quite a bit of help to overcome his generally NBA-lacking mobility, and he struggles badly when he's tasked with defending smaller players on the perimeter. Furthermore, while he's strong in the aggregate, he doesn't tend to use his strength all that well on the block -- he can be a bulldog in the right situations, but those aren't particularly common. It's worth noting that the numbers don't totally bear out my interpretation here -- his Synergy stats aren't world-beating but they aren't bad, although last year's Rockets played worse on both ends when Patterson took the court. Perhaps in large part due to his oddly defined role and his defensive disinterest.
Going forward, the path is pretty clear. Patterson needs to hone his defensive skillset and infuse it with much more of focus on some aspect he can excel at -- whether through shedding some weight for added pick and roll mobility or adding some weight for stronger post defense. Given the Asik acquisition, I'd assume his best shot going forward would be to lose the weight, and try to create a game-changing defensive pairing as the big forward next to Asik. Barring that, he simply needs McHale to throw him a bone and let him shoot a few more times at the rim, and use his decent midrange as a pressure valve rather than the be-all and end-all of his offense. Patterson has the pieces to be a decent player, at some point -- he simply isn't quite there yet, and given the sheer number of players the Rockets jettisoned this past offseason, I would've guessed they'd have given up on him. They haven't, and now the onus is on him, McHale, and the franchise as a whole to make sure that wasn't a silly decision. Let's stay tuned.
LATE ADDENDUM: Something I was genuinely unaware of that I probably should've known -- Patterson had surgery during the lockout. So, I'll state that outright here. In this case, I have to fault the Rockets organization more than Patterson himself for the majority of his problems last season. Apologies for the miss. I watch a lot, research a ton, and try to fairly evaluate every player for these capsules. But I admit that things will fall through the cracks from time to time in a 370 part series. In my defense, one can generally tell when a player has been out for surgery by a scattered return-to-play schedule. Patterson didn't really have that, as he played on the third game of the season and had already been tabbed for 20 minutes a night by his 5th game of the year. I figured he was playing that much after a healthy offseason because, quite frankly, when a player gets surgery very few teams push him back into peak usage so quickly. Patterson shouldn't have played quite that much quite that quickly, not with the surgery as an ever-present factor.
ANOTHER ADDENDUM: There's also one other thing I probably should have emphasized -- I'm not saying that Patterson necessarily should have been waived. If he improves, his play on a $2 million dollar deal is reasonably solid. I'm saying that given the Rockets' waiving/trading of Scola, Leuer, and Harrellson (all of whom were significantly better than Patterson last year, and all of whom I believe have roughly the upside that Patterson shows), I would expect the Rockets to waive someone like Patterson. It's a mark of an organization that has a lot of confidence in him, not necessarily a huge mistake or a big problem. As I said in the last paragraph, Patterson isn't a lost cause -- at 23, though, he's a reasonably old-for-his-draft player who seems somewhat low upside to my eyes. If he's utilized correctly and improves back to his rookie highs, he'll be a fine player. I don't think he'll be better than Leuer (who is far more slept on than he should be after a very good rookie season) or Harrellson (whose situational role is a lot more interesting and flexible than that of Patterson), but he could be good and he could surpass my expectations relatively handily if they stop using him the way they did last season.
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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. 3/3 guesses from Utsav and Okman last Friday. Good work, folks.
- Perhaps better than you think -- still not very good, though. This former husky has NBA in his blood, his uncle being a former Bulls player. Hates Doakes.
- Player #230 may still be passable this year -- he wasn't bad last year, by any means. But when you get THAT old, every year you don't collapse into dust is a "good" year for you.
- He's clearly one of the three or four best players on his team, and as a solid big, most teams could use a guy like Player #231. But his position is so incoherent and his fit so poor with his current team, it's likely he'll be traded for cents on the dollar. A pity -- not two years ago, he was burying clutch shots and demolishing the Heat.
Apologies for the lack of capsules yesterday. The next 10-15 players are going to be relatively short by my standards, so I'll have a shot at getting a few double-dip days. Here's hoping I don't have to scramble as much tomorrow. Also: season's in one week. Wow. Get ready.
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