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 Thabo Sefolosha, Kirk Hinrich, and Austin Daye.
Standing tall for a wing at a picture-perfect 6'7", Thabo Sefolosha has ample size to defend both guard positions. He does it with a breathtaking efficiency, too, on both an individual and a scheme-breaking level. That is to say, he can either isolate onto a guard and shut them down or float on defense and destroy plays with his relentless energy. Not all defenders are that versatile. Few are, in fact. While the 2012 playoffs featured a lot of excellent performances -- LeBron's explosion against the Celtics, Westbrook's pantheon finals night, Duncan's dominant series-opening smash against the hapless Clippers -- I don't think any of them resonated with me as much as Sefolosha's unfettered brutality in game three of the Western Conference Finals. It was Sefolosha at his absolute scheme-busting best. The Spurs could scarcely run a play without Sefolosha's long arms destroying the rhythm -- the man broke up more action than a parochial school Bishop. In that game, he had 6 steals -- in the last decade, only three players have ever posted more in a single playoff game. And it still felt like the statline underrated him! One of the most dominant defensive performances I've ever seen from a backcourt player. And yes, that does include Bruce Bowen.
Unfortunately, Sefolosha suffers from a problem that usually shows up in reverse for the average NBA wing. Most wings are solid scorers that can't defend a lick, whose poor defense keeps them off the court when the games begin to matter. Your Jamal Crawfords, your Nick Youngs, your Gary Neals. They can't really play more than 20 or 30 minutes a night before their disgustingly poor defense starts to actively torpedo their team's chances. Sefolosha, on the other hand? He suffers the opposite flaw -- while his defense is so good you absolutely need to get him minutes, his offense is so bad that you'd be best to keep him off the court. Defenses tend to give him 4-5 feet of room without really caring -- you could hang a neon "come and get us!" sign on Sefolosha's locker and leave a coupon for free continental breakfast at the three point line. He's still not going to hurt you, usually. In fact, when he does, the Thunder tend to become unbeatable straight out of nowhere. One of the biggest things that sunk the Spurs in last year's Western Conference Finals was a Sefolosha-related shocker that completely annihilated the Spurs' general defensive scheme against the Thunder -- that is to say, Thabo started draining threes. Lots of them.
It's certainly possible that Sefolosha's sudden outbreak in the Western Conference Finals was a fluke -- after all, in the Finals, Sefolosha resumed his usual practice of "making nothing whatsoever" and made Spurs fans everywhere tear their hair out in woe and dismay. But I don't think he took particularly poor threes, either, and his form looked (to me) fundamentally better in 2012 than it did in 2011 -- his overall shooting was fluky, but with a better release, it looked more natural and it seemed more likely that he'd be able to make at least some element of his high-percentage three point shooting stick going forward. And it's worth noting that had Sefalosha made another wide open three or two -- not a ton more, just one or two -- the Thunder would've been up 3-2 going back to Oklahoma City in the Finals. Or even better. Which kind of underlines the point. If Thabo Sefolosha can add even a modicum of an offensive skill to his myriad defensive talents, it blows up the ceiling of a team that's already a title contender without it. If -- and yes, it's an if -- but if Sefolosha can actually grow into his slowly-improving three point shot, he could very well spearhead a Thunder defense improved enough to fully stifle Dwyane Wade and force LeBron into classic Cavalier mode. And if that happens? The Thunder could beat the Heat, and do it pretty handily. It's not all on Sefolosha -- many members of that team could improve and make this a reality. But I have an odd feeling that the Thabo we saw in the Western Conference Finals is closer to the Thabo we'll see this season.
For teams that aren't Oklahoma-dreaming? A scary thought, to be sure.
Follow Kirk Hinrich by fighting Klingon warships.
I'm sure Kirk Hinrich is a really nice guy. Positive, even. In his relatively long NBA career, I've never read a single negative word about him from a player or a coach. He comes in, does his job, doesn't really complain that much. Works hard, too. Nobody really has anything mean to say about him, and that's probably telling. He isn't exciting, obviously -- in an effort to tell reports fun facts about himself, Hinrich once shared that he "actually made his own Myspace page." Cool story, bro... but that would probably be way more interesting if he'd provided a bio more complicated than "I play basketball." His favorite movie is Old School and his most interesting purchase after his first big NBA contract was a Hummer H2. He's basically the exact same as I would be if I was an NBA player, at least in off-court stories -- vanilla to a fault, well-organized, buttoned up. A simple man with simple plans.
But you know what? Regardless of how nice a guy he probably is, I have to cry foul here. It's not his fault, but... seriously, HE'S the Bulls' big offseason acquisition? Kirk Hinrich? I hate to be the bearer of bad news to the Bulls' front office, but Hinrich was extraordinarily awful last season and he's been a sub-par NBA player for almost 2 years now. He's suffered a laundry list of annoying, nagging injuries that have sapped his game and made his once-formidable defense into a bit of a sieve. Crafty guards realize that the Hinrich of today is nowhere near as mobile and active as the Hinrich of yesteryear, and they use this to their advantage. Hinrich's decreased mobility means that he has to take a longer, costlier path if he wants to get around a screen these days -- this means he's virtually always on his heels when a shot goes off out of a well-run screen play. His synergy stats are a bit deceiving -- the more tape you watch, the more you realize just how far he fell off on defense last season. There was clear discomfort and clear stickiness to the way he moved across the court when he was tasked with defending on-ball.
And really, it's not just the screen action. This whole trend of declining defensive efficacy is made far worse by the fact that he can't honestly stay as close on a moving target as he used to in the first place, leading to a lot of blown coverages. He had some relatively successful attempts to draw more charges as a substitute for fundamentally sound defense, but beyond that, his defensive powers were pretty anemic last year. Wouldn't be the end of the world if he'd been picked up to be a bench-locked guard with a bit of versatility to spell Rose and play beside him. Shoot the three, play some D. Unfortunately, that isn't really what they wanted, and by signing him to a multi-year deal that locked them into a tricky cap situation, the Bulls ensured that Hinrich (healthy or not) would be a key part of their rotation going forward. And instead of simply being able to let him be as he may and develop as a tertiary player, the Rose injury pole-vaults Hinrich front and center from the shores of a wasted few years into the tepid waters of high expectations. Hinrich is not Derrick Rose. Even at his best, he was nowhere close. But these last few years, Hinrich been more awful than most people even really understand.
To wit: last year, the good Captain posted...
- An assist rate of 16%... which rates in the bottom 10% of all point guards. Rose, a "non-traditional" point, posted an assist rate of 40%.
- A turnover rate of 16%... because a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is exactly what you want in your "pure" floor general, right?
- Awful efficiency despite a 13% usage rate... which is barely a third of what Derrick Rose gave the Bulls before.
I don't have anything against Hinrich, and this is absolutely nothing personal. I kind of hope he has a nice comeback -- it'd be a cool story, and the city of Chicago seems to have a nice love for him from his years toiling for the franchise. But I simply don't see the hype, even if it really is only coming from the Bulls' front office. So-called veteran leadership really isn't worth the investment the Bulls made, here -- I just don't get what the Bulls front office is doing. And while there's a non-negligible chance that Hinrich finally throws off the injury-monkey and returns to his pre-trade highs... I certainly wouldn't bet on it. And I sure as hell wouldn't give him a two-year guaranteed contract that virtually requires that he keep producing at that kind of a level to make the whole endeavor worth it. I suppose the Bulls organization just has more faith than I -- we'll see if that was warranted soon enough.
Austin Daye has had his chances. He's been with the Pistons for 3 years running, developing at something approximating a snail's pace and losing out on chances at starter's minutes just about every season he's played. Daye has a lot of talent, and offensively, there have always been a few really nice positives to his game. He's got a nice looking stroke from behind the arc, and in his sophomore year, Daye put up an effortless 40% from beyond the three point line that had many (myself included) thinking he had a decent potential as a trey-draining wing with a penchant for timely shots that doesn't really kill your team anywhere else on the court. That was the ideal, and after his sophomore season, it looked like Daye was well on his way to achieving that. Turned out to be little more than a flukey-nice season in the middle of two far more concerning seasons of absent jumpers and shaken confidence. Not a good look, Austin. Really need to work on that.
On defense? Nothing really special. Sort of crummy, even. He's slightly bouncy, at least, and his instincts for following spot-up shooters aren't too bad. His bounciness leads to a useful split-second advantage when it comes to contesting a spot-up -- not insanely meaningful, but in a game of millimeters like defending a spot-up shooter, every little bit counts for bunch. What he gains in the spot-up reaction time he gives back in everything else, though -- he isn't good at assessing direction shifts when the offense keys in to force him to make a play, and he's a tweener to the core. Too spindly to guard big men, too lumbering to guard guards. And at the pure wing, playing as a small forward, he's simply not athletic enough to make any of the defensive plays that are incumbent on him to make. The other big problem is that his defense has literally shown zero improvement in three years of league play. You'd think, by now, that Daye would've shown something. Some semblance of a defensive skill. Alas. The passion doesn't seem to be there.
Daye does do a few things pretty well. Rather ironically, while we all discuss his shooting, his best area on the floor has traditionally been his around-the-rim game. Last season he made around 66% of his shots at the rim -- well above average for a wing player -- and a reasonably decent amount of his post-ups. His big problem? Not enough of either -- despite the nice conversion rates, Daye took barely 15% of his shots from the around-the-rim area, among the bottom 10% of all wings in the game. He took almost two thirds of his shots from beyond 15 feet despite shooting well under 25% from that distance, too. Absolutely incomprehensible. Daye's future with the Pistons is pretty murky -- he spent this last summer putting on weight in an effort to play in the frontcourt instead of on the wing, and while I admit that his at-rim numbers look promising, I have my doubts he'll ever be a passable defender from the 4 and he's putting himself in competition for minutes with the Pistons' two best players, Monroe and Drummond. Just a sort of strange move. All things considered, it's hard to see how he fits on this team going forward. And entering this final year of his rookie deal, Daye really needs to show something this season if he intends to stay in the NBA. Because if he doesn't, chances are high he's shilling his wares in Europe in no less than 12 months. Stakes are pretty high.
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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. Several 2/3 answers -- I admit, I would've been pretty surprised if anyone placed Daye. Shout-outs to Geezer, J, Atori, and @MillerNBA.
- Player #235 was a total freaking tool in college. I should know. I was there.
- Actually, Player #236 sort of was as well. Don't know this quite as well as I do with #235, but I've heard some rumors.
- And you know what? Player #237 was a phenomenal jerk too, but he was such a spectacular one I can't help but respect and root for him. Now that we aren't in college.
I will be -- for once -- actually delivering on the "two post" promise! I have the second set of capsules for today just about done and queued up. Includes a HUGE rant about the NCAA, heh. I'll edit them on my lunch break. They'll drop around 1 or 2 PM, eastern time. Most likely. See you then.
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