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 Quincy Pondexter, Kurt Thomas, and Paul Millsap.
Quincy Pondexter isn't a terrible player, or even a particularly bad one. His stats aren't great, but he had a definite use for last year's Grizzlies team, and his statistics underrate the fact that he's a very decent wing defender. Off-ball, on-ball, whatever -- Pondexter has solid defensive fundamentals, with a good handle on creatively slipping out of screens and a relatively solid sense of space. Doesn't foul a ton for a wing, too, which means he can stay on the court in pressure situations without giving an inch. Very reasonable talent. Offensively, his three is a bit broken (as I'll discuss in a second), but he does have a decent rate of rim-conversion (and an above-average talent at getting to the rim, as well!) and a decent long two that would tend to imply that he may shoot better later in his career. His usage is relatively low and he isn't very heavily utilized on offense, but he has some upside value as a 3-and-D player in his future. If he can learn to shoot threes, that is.
The issue with Pondexter is less what he is and more what he isn't, much like the general problem with the last few years of Grizzlies. For years, the Grizzlies have needed better three point shooters. NEED them. Their offense -- as is -- has the potential to be a fantastic top-10 unit, if only they'd properly fill it out and get a few players who can knock down a consistent three around their two bruising low-post threats. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies have continued to pick up 3-and-D players ad infinitum that produce the D, but can't really make threes. At least not outside of extremely situational roles. In the case of Pondexter, his 30% three point shooting has less upside than you'd perhaps think. Pondexter understands that he isn't a fantastic shooter, and as such, he takes virtually all of his three pointers from the corners. That means he's taking, essentially, the easiest three point shots he can. Last season, exactly 70% of his three point shots came from the corners, the closest and easiest three point shot.
Pondexter converted only 34% of those 49 three point shots -- of all three point shots he took outside the corner, Pondexter converted on only a startling 20% of them. So the net result is a player who -- essentially -- understands his limitations and doesn't overstep them, but is well below average on the corner three (the league as a whole averaged 39% from the corner last season) and astonishingly below average on any shot outside the corners. Partly because he's rarely open, partly because of an internal lack of skill. This matches the general trend in Memphis -- just about everyone on the Memphis team can play at least reasonably solid defense, but beyond Mike Conley, virtually nobody on the team can make a reasonable percentage of their threes. The Bayless acquisition might help, if Bayless can keep his percentages at his career highs of last season. But what the Grizzlies honestly need is a player that teams earnestly fearfrom the three point line -- doing so will help open the floor and make the other three point shooters just a tad bit more open. One or two players like that, and the Grizzlies' offense could be as title-ready as their defense. Teams would most likely key into those few players, leaving the Pondexters and Allens of the world the space to improve their numbers and turn the offense into a brilliant machine. Here's hoping the Grizzlies wise up to their potential and can wrangle up a few ringers -- before age steals Randolph away and they find it's just a bit too late.
Follow Kurt Thomas by staying at your job for the rest of your life.
Kurt Thomas is the oldest player in the NBA this season. Due to this -- at some point -- Thomas is probably going to fall off the rails and stop being productive. But his sheer longevity has reached a level where it (in and of itself) is pretty impressive. There are exactly ten big men who lasted in the league at the age of 40 or older -- if he can survive the coming season and comes back at the minimum for one more go-around (a likely possibility, if he can avoid injury -- the man loves the game), he'll leave the league as a 42 year old. Which is about as crazy as it sounds! In the 65 year history of the league, a grand total of three other big men made it that far -- Kevin Willis, Dikembe Mutombo, and Robert Parish. Being old-for-your-job is rarely an accomplishment worthy of note, but in Thomas' case, he's made it so far you really have to tip your cap. Especially being, as he is, a relatively limited player -- Thomas is solid, but he's never really been a phenomenal player at any stage of his career. He's essentially always been a limited-but-useful player with a good attitude and a singular focus on helping his team.
As for what he gives the Knicks, given his age and condition? Not a whole lot, but he gives enough that he'll probably remain somewhat useful. Even at his age, Thomas is still a great rebounder to have coming off the bench, and his last-season defensive rebounding mark was virtually exactly the same as his career average. On defense he tends to take a few more possessions off than he used to, simply by dint of his declining athleticism and the slow creep of his size disadvantage taking effect. While Thomas plays like a classical center, it's a little-known truth that Thomas is actually 6'9" -- far shorter than most of the players he's so good at guarding. As he gets older and loses more and more of his lift, the general size disadvantage his effort always overrode is beginning to take a toll on his game. Not immediately, but it's getting there. So that could, unfortunately, detract from the defensive mark he makes on the court. As always, offensively, Thomas makes his bread on a relatively well-developed pick-and-pop midrange game -- he can drain shots from the midrange and the long two like few other centers can, and that in and of itself provides value. Additionally so because his shot has shown no real falloff with age -- he shoots about as well now as he did 10 years ago.
Going forward, he may start for the Knicks for a short period of time while they wait for Amare to return. Assuming, of course, that Woodson doesn't realize the Carmelo-as-PF experiment works very well for the Knicks and maximizes Carmelo's talents. I'm not sure he will -- he's kind of clueless about innovations like that, and tended to be really stodgy and uncreative in Atlanta, back in the day. He may end up being a more effective starter than Amare would be in his current state, though -- while you completely lose all of Amare's rim-rocking off-ball cuts, you gain a solid presence on defense and better picks. And, frankly, a slightly better midrange shot. On a team with a ball-dominant scorer like Carmelo, it's often better to surround him with players that have specific situational uses and let Melo do the majority of the freewheeling -- Thomas actually fits that role better than Amare did last season, so it's possible Amare's absence will be good for the Knicks even if Woodson doesn't go strong into the "Melo-as-PF" experiment. Still. Even when Amare comes back, Thomas should help their bench depth a bit, and provide a nice presence in the locker room. Can't play more than 10-15 minutes a night, but those minutes should help. He's something of a role model for role-players, in general -- it's hard to imagine any role-player ever carving out a better career than Thomas has. Clock your hours, do your job, pay your dues. Good things sometimes happen. That's the "moral" of the Kurt Thomas story, if there ever was one, and always a welcome one to see in the locker room.
Follow Paul Millsap by attending Grambling in Grambling.
Here are a few things most people don't know about Paul Millsap.
- Despite Millsap's height, he's regularly among the league leaders in at-rim percentage. Seriously! He's a crafty finisher, not necessarily an emphatic one. Of Millsap's 306 at-rim field goal attempts (top 20 in the league), a scant 57 of them were dunks. Compare that to, say, Blake Griffin. He took 475 shots at the rim, but 192 of his attempts were dunks. His percentage isn't supremely low, but as Jazz fans would note, he gets a definitively lower percentage of his at-rim field goals from dunks than Jefferson, Favors, or Kanter. Crafty, though. Lots of tip-ins, side scoops, short shots. Very creative, very effective.
- The Jazz defended better with Millsap on the court than with Millsap off, which is a bit shocking given his size and his visually-unimpressive defense. The key to Millsap's defense, in my view, tends to be rooted in the expectations of the offensive player who gets him on a switch -- most bigs tend to expect Millsap will lay off due to his size, but he hustles and gets into his man's body on post-ups. He's also got deceptively long arms, as Millsap features a 7'1" wingspan in a 6'6" frame -- this helps him in the steals department, as Millsap's regularly among the league leaders in steal percentage despite being way larger than every other steal-talented player. Overall, he's a decent individual defender, but none of his defensive talents really fit into a team defensive concept -- his lack of size and guard-esque defensive game is rare for a big man, and very hard to build a scheme around.
- When fans name the toughest players in the NBA, they rarely tab Millsap as one of them. They go for the obvious -- Kobe, Nash, Manu, et cetera. All things considered, though, Millsap should probably be in the conversation. He takes a beating in the post almost every night, guarding far taller players and far stronger men. He plays through more injuries than virtually ANYONE gives him credit for, last season playing through a badly sprained wrist to end the year and a variety of minor maladies throughout his career. Look at the 2011 season, for instance. Over the course of that season, Millsap dealt with the following issues: tendonitis, a purple-bruised left big toe (that one lasted the entire season), a dislocated pinkie, a badly bruised thumb, occasional back spasms, a sprained ankle, a bad flu, and other minor things. How many games did all of these conditions lead him to miss, in 2011? SIX GAMES. That's it. Make no mistake -- Millsap is among the toughest players in the league, and if I really had to choose, I'd probably name him the toughest.
The full picture is pretty neat, with Millsap. He gives you a big man who -- while undersized -- combines a lethal scoring instinct at the rim with above-average rebounding and solid defense. His toughness and general demeanor is immensely valuable in and of itself, and while he isn't quite suited for a starring role in a key defense, his individually-decent defense means he could play a starring role in a team with a defensive superstar next to him. His offense is above average from every area of the floor but the true midrange, as he has a decently effective long two that he's developed over the last few years, and his post-up game is far better than most players at any height. He's one of the best cutters in the game, as well -- despite Utah's lack of a passing point guard last season, Millsap rated out as one of the most effective players scoring off of cuts in the sport. Above average assist rate, below average turnover rate. Higher usage than most big men, too -- it's not like you can really find fault in low sample size, for a player that scores as much as Millsap does.
Had he been in the Eastern Conference, Millsap would've been a clear pick for the all-star team -- and even in the west, there were some who felt he deserved it. Myself included. Now, though? An offseason later, after a good preseason from Kanter (who has reportedly looked incredible in the Utah preseason -- I haven't been paying a wealth of attention, because I'm always extremely wary of preseason, but he's looked good) and a good postseason from Favors (who solidified his status as the primary cog of the future in Utah's machinations), many Jazz fans I've talked to would like to see Millsap or Jefferson moved. Or both, even. It's actually pretty funny, since both of them were fringe all-stars and Millsap probably deserved to make the team -- it's not often that two all-star caliber bigs come to market. Still, it's an open question how much value the Jazz are going to be able to get from a trade of either -- Millsap's too quixotic, Jefferson's too expensive. And with Millsap's injury concerns, there is the additional rumbling fear that Millsap could be headed for an early fall, as the injuries finally accumulate too quickly and sap his game before he's reached his true prime. That's going to artificially deflate his trade value, unfortunately for the Jazz.
Looking at the trade potential on its face, though... what do the Jazz really need? More talent at the guard positions, beyond just Mo Williams and Alec Burks. If they could find a way to flip Millsap or Jefferson for a player like Arron Afflalo, they could very well be set as a possible contender. As-is, though, given their problems with fit and their generally idiosyncratic games, the Jazz may run into trouble finding a suitor that can offer what they need. And they probably aren't going to get a true value-match for a player as underheralded as Millsap or Jefferson. I think, if they end up trading Millsap this season, they may find themselves settling for a package with salary relief, a few young prospects (say, Matthews/Williams via POR, Green/Neal via SAS, Calderon/Johnson via TOR, or some similarly underwhelming package), and a pick or some money besides. It's an open question whether that's all that much better than just playing out the string with their monstrously stacked frontcourt and hoping to flip them in an offseason to a desperate team for (perhaps) a bit more value than they could get at the deadline. You know, like the Rockets flipped Dalembert and the Blazers flipped Felton this past offseason. I'm not really sure, though. The ongoing "will they, won't they" trade saga with the Jazz front office and their loaded frontcourt is going to be one of the more interesting subplots this season, and I highly recommend paying close attention to it.
And also, a programming note. The statsheet is correct -- Paul Millsap is the last Jazz player I'll be covering in the capsules. Oh my! The Jazz are the first team to complete their full contingent of players. Had to happen to someone eventually. They'll also be the only team whose capsules will be completely done before the season starts. Congratulations, I suppose? If you're a Jazz fan who'd like to see my assessments of the individual members of your team, you can now go to the 2013 Jazz page in the Gothic Ginobili Capsule Directory to locate the capsules of every non-rookie rotation player of your incoming team. Thanks for following the series, and I do hope you'll stick around and read sporadically going forward. Even if I'm done with your current team, there are certainly some current and former Jazzmen on the way -- Kirilenko, for one! In any event, thanks for following and reading.
Good luck this season, Jazz fans. See you in the playoffs.
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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. Okman and Chilai got today's spot-on. Nice guessing.
- Player #232 is a very good defender. If he can ever get the whole "offensive end of the court" part of the game, he could be one of the 3 or 4 best players on a champion. Might become one anyway, given that stacked team. Heh.
- Player #233 is the aging and wizened skipper. Atlanta, Washington, and other teams galore have fared well with his services. Huge dropoff for his current team, though. And I'm not sure he deserved the one-minded obsession the team had with his acquisition in the first place.
- Player #234 has been something of a disappointment for his current team. Great at-rim numbers, but unless he can ever make a shot? Rotation fodder. At best.
Just a note. On Friday, I'll be doing one of my semi-regular Q&A sessions. Gothic Ginobili is significantly more popular now than it was back when the last few occurred, so I'm guessing there will be a few more questions than there used to be. I'll probably be answering questions for most of the day, but if you'd like to get in questions early, please email your questions to staff (at) gothicginobili (dot) com. Thanks. Happy midweek.
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