As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Amare Stoudemire, Eduardo Najera, and Ryan Gomes.
Pretty apt timing, I suppose. Oftentimes the vagaries of random distributions have me posting a capsule just before some brand-new story completely changes the game for that particular player. See: the fact that I posted a Capsule (Plus) on Harden not less than a week before he got traded. Timely! Today's the inverse, though -- Amare Stoudemire's final injury assessment dropped yesterday, and I'm in a unique position to discuss it in the frame of these capsules. Before I do, I'll start with an assessment of his game, where he was, and where he is. And I'll cop and say it now, to set the frame. In his prime, Amare was one of the best offensive big men in the history of the game. Not just "in the league", or "in his era" -- Prime Amare is among the very best offensive bigs in the history of the game. Just look at his 2008 season. Amare AVERAGED 25 points on just 15 shots a game. In just 34 minutes per game! Insanely good. Despite that heavy usage, Amare shot 59% from the field. That was good enough to slot him in as 5th in the entire league at field goal percentage. People might scoff, saying that his entire game was an at-rim cacophony of smashes and dunks.
Those people would be very, very wrong.
While most of his shots came at the rim (7/15), he took 8 shots per game outside the rim, and a significant percentage from each of the cardinal three distances (3-9 feet, 10-15 foot midrange, 15-23 foot long two). Amare Stoudemire -- that "rim-only" player -- made 48% from 3-9 feet, 51% from the true midrange, and 48% from 16-23 feet. Which would put him in the top 25% of ALL league players from every single one of those ranges, had he put those numbers up last year -- not just big men, although he'd probably be top 5% among all big men in each. Eldritch. While that was a moderately fluky season, in some ways, it was quite representative of Amare as a whole -- his offensive game didn't used to be completely one-sided (as it's now become), and he used to flourish as a pick-and-pop big man who was impossible to effectively guard. Give him the space to shoot? He'd fire, and kill you. Get too close? He'd drive past you and mutilate the rim. Play picture-perfect defense? He'd still have a 40-45% chance of making the dang shot. A barely sub-prime Steve Nash helped a lot, and the attention Shaq drew down low helped him keep his great start going as the season went on. Were the game played on offense alone, Amare would be a living legend.
Of course, it's not. And when the final book is written on Amare's career, any retelling that doesn't include fair mention of his defense is like a discussion of the history of the British empire written without mention of the empire's transgressions in conquest. It's the giant elephant in the room with Amare. And that's primarily because -- quite frankly -- it didn't have to be. One thing Knicks fans always complained to me about after the Amare signing was that I was being too harsh on Amare's defense. When he plays up to his potential, he's a great defender! Look at all these possessions! They'd point out individual moments of defensive brilliance, competency, and well-formed decisioning. And that's fine. But that's precisely the characteristic that makes Amare such a frustrating nut to crack on the defensive end. When Amare is focused, he's a relatively decent possession-by-possession defender. But his main issue isn't some constant drumbeat of awful defense -- Amare's main identifying factor on the defensive end is the "one possession on, two possessions off" concept. This describes the constant pattern where Amare will -- after every positive defensive possession, immediately follow the possession up with two absent absent possessions, getting lost and barely contesting even the most easily guarded of shots. It's so predictable, teams like the Spurs were able to leverage the mere expectation of Amare's poor possessions into a cohesive offensive strategy -- after Amare would have a good defensive possession, the Spurs would consistently make sure to dump the ball to Duncan and let him go to work on Amare. More often than not? Score the basket, with little delay.
Which leads to a rather interesting dichotomy. Amare had excellent defensive possessions, in his prime. Shot blocks out of nowhere that completely blew up a good opposing possession, excellent man defense, et cetera. But he'd always -- ALWAYS -- follow them up with so many awful ones that you never quite knew what the hell to think about his defense. It was like having a relief pitcher who was absolutely guaranteed to strike out the 1st man in the batting order, the 4th, and the 7th on a nightly basis... only to give up home runs to the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th. It didn't matter the quality of the hitters. He could be pitching to the best player in the entire league at the 4th spot, and he'd always strike them out. He could be pitching to a just-deceased 90-year-old with a whiffleball bat in the 9th spot. Homers! Homers! EVERYWHERE! How do you even scheme a player like that, defensively? D'Antoni had lots of trouble with Amare, but it wasn't really D'Antoni's fault -- there is absolutely no way to actually gameplan a competent defensive scheme around someone that contributes it in such a touch-and-go manner. You end up with a player whose offense is so phenomenally brilliant that he's be an all-time legend when it comes to scoring big men... but a player whose defense is so easy to break within-game, you can scarcely even imagine it.
Unfortunately, age and nagging injuries have by large margin sapped his game of that offense. The defensive incompetence is still there, with the exact same "on one, off two" construction that made him so easy to score on as a younger man. But the offensive bravado has waned, leaving him with but a bitter shell of the varied moves he used to have outside the basket. He can still finish -- kind of -- although his finishing has declined from "far and away best in class" to "semi-effective lumbering as though he's a broken-leg elephant" levels. He still finishes well, but he simply can't finish as often as he used to, and while his numbers are still very good (even last season, Amare was in the top 25% of all big men in at-rim percentage!) the share of his shot distribution these at-rim forays took up was less than ever before. He took 60% of his shots from outside the rim, and unfortunately, he looked completely awful doing it. Just an abysmal display of post moves, and his long jumper looks completely broken at this point. Massive hitch in his shot, massive problems getting the ball off quick enough to beat the defense, massive inefficiency. Rough news. Amare shot barely 33% from outside 10 feet, and to the neutral observer, that seemed positively charitable. Still, even as you combine this with his falling-off-a-cliff rebounding, I'm not sure Amare's absence really helps the Knicks in any forseeable way. Part of the point with the Knicks' elderly signings was that the team would have depth so long as the young pieces stayed on the court. We're now heading for a situation where Novak, Melo, Thomas, Sheed, and Camby have to play a combined 96 minutes a game in the frontcourt to cover for both Chandler and Amare. That's... not optimal, no.
Amare isn't great, anymore, and his offensive game's decline has made his defensive problems that much more prominent. But he's not the worst player in the world. He's still one of the better finishers at the rim, if you set him up in a good spot. He's still valuable if used in a situational role, and isn't allowed to dominate the ball. No, the Knicks shouldn't be running their offense through him. No, he's not a player you want to have a usage rate above 20 going forward. But if you used him situationally, much like you use Tyson Chandler's offense? You can still extract some value from Amare's game. And you can avoid playing a trio of 38+ big men over 25 minutes a night to cover for absences they don't have the capability to withstand. Yes, the Melo-at-PF experiment is a noble one -- and if it works out, it could save the Knicks season. But you can't really help but feel sorry for Amare at this point. The injuries are mounting and sapping his game far younger than anyone could've ever expected, and the entire situation screams "worst case scenario" -- there's no world where Knicks fans or the Knicks front office could've reasonably expected that Amare would look like this just two years into the contract. His game has been creeping to the point where he's now a more effective off-ball sixth man than an important starter on the team. And now he has to miss potentially two months of his season recovering from yet another surgery? Cripes. Amare is a classy, smart, and generally kind man. I wouldn't wish this kind of within-career hellstorm on anyone, and especially not anyone dealing with the New York media. So, while I've never been Amare's grandest fan... please get better, Amare. Hope you're back soon.
Yesterday I covered Jason Terry, a player I really dislike. Today, apparently, I need to write yet another one of these blasted things about a player I rather irrationally dislike. Thanks, random numbers! Today's player isn't a player I dislike for many emphatic reasons, though, like Terry -- with Terry, I can't stand him for all he is, and for how he composes and carries himself. All that stuff. I'm a hater in totality. "The hatingest hater who ever did was, I tell you what." Eduardo Najera, though? How could anyone hate Najera like that? I dislike him for a single, solitary moment. One instance, one fleeting second in the span of a long NBA career. Which is kind of funny, really -- off the court, I must confess, Najera seems like one of the good guys. Extremely smart player, one whose post-playing career looks to (potentially) make him a name to remember. He was recently hired as the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Mavericks' D-League affiliate. He'll also have part-ownership of the franchise and will consult closely with Del Harris -- as that article notes, that has the potential to be a very fortuitous relationship for Najera. Eleven of Del Harris' coaching assistants have made it as NBA coaches at some point in their coaching career. Najera's certainly smart enough for it, someday.
As the first player drafted out of Mexico in the history of the league, Najera acquitted himself reasonably well over his career. He was never a star by any means whatsoever, or even a particularly useful asset. But he had a few seasons of 6-and-6 type performance, and his defense was always semi-decent. A bit dirty, but semi-decent. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a barrage of injuries around the 2009 season that devastated his game. Unfortunately for the Nets, they'd just so happened to sign him to a 4-year $12 million dollar deal with no real way out directly before that happened. Which, by the way, was kind of funny -- he was coming off a 47% shooting season where he averaged just 10-7 per 36 minutes despite playing on an immensely fast-paced team. I realize 4/12 isn't THAT huge with the league as a frame of reference... but really? After that season? Four years. Boy, I don't know. Najera maintained in the league for four years after that, his contract a constant wheel-greasing piece in trade machinations all over the place. He bounced around, offering a milquetoast-style version of the game he used to happily peddle -- lots of semi-dirty screens, a lack of a real offensive skillset, and a decent locker room presence on generally losing teams. Solid, I suppose, though not quite what you're expecting on a 4 year $12 million dollar contract.
As for why I dislike him? This moment, from the 2010 playoffs, where Najera essentially tried to kill Manu Ginobili. ... OK, no, he didn't try to kill him. It was essentially a classic clothesline with a twist, though, and it was one of the dirtiest-looking hits I've seen in playoff basketball. The Mavs had already accidentally broken Manu's nose earlier in the series -- Najera decided to take it a step further by actively going for Manu's nose on the foul, but missing. He had to settle for grabbing Manu's neck as he dragged him out of the sky from a lightly-contested fastbreak layup attempt. It was nasty. Graydon Gordian once posited that the hard foul could be a thing of beauty. A singular moment of frustrated self-loathing, a gasping breath for air and a not-so-subtle way of admitting that a team simply can't hope to guard a player. Which is fine. And in that series, it was exactly what the foul represented -- Manu obliterated the Mavericks' defense for the entire game, and the foul represented the collective frustration of the Mavericks and their fans for styling on them to such a degree that only a broken nose and a hit to the neck would stop his onslaught.
... but my GOD man, did you really have to grab his neck?
In the quietest amnesty waiver ever, the Clippers let go of Ryan Gomes this July. I say quietest because it's one of the first things I've come across in these capsules that I honestly do not remember happening. I watch NBA news voraciously, mind you, and I tend to think I'm pretty plugged in. Always on the Twitters, this one. But I somehow completely missed Gomes! Which is actually... kind of ironic, as my pal Jaryd would attest. In the first incarnation of these capsules, I tried to make sure I (at a bare minimum) covered the regular starting lineups of every team. Despite thinking I'd gotten them, I quickly realized that I had totally forgotten Gomes (the Clippers' regular starter in 2011), only remembering to write his capsule late in the game and adding 70 players to the original list primarily as cover for actually getting Gomes down. Also, fun fact -- although they don't look similar and their games are completely different, I constantly get Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye's names mixed up in my head. If I refer to him as Foye in this capsule (at the time I write this, I've had to correct the error 4 times already), now you know why. Anyway. The amnesty isn't altogether surprising, as Gomes was astonishingly bad last year. Let's put it in context -- in 2011, Gomes started 62 of the 76 games he played in. He averaged 28 minutes a game. His numbers declined a bit from his 2010 career highs, shooting 34% from three instead of 37% and drawing way fewer free throws. But he wasn't AWFUL, and he had a few uses. Decent rebounding from the wing, could occasionally put the ball into play, and virtually never turned the ball over. Replacement level.
Last season? Gomes played in just 32 of 66 games, and started two of them. He went from averaging 27.6 minutes a night to 13.3, almost out of nowhere. After making more than 70 three pointers a year over the last three years, Gomes made four in 2012. No, not per game. Four made threes. The entire season. On 29 attempts. That's... not good. He compounded that by shooting poorly from every other range as well, upping his turnovers, and lowering his foul rate even more. Gomes played extremely poorly last year, and given that, the amnesty isn't really surprising. Frankly, I'm more surprised that teams have been so reluctant to give him another shot. Gomes is dealing with chronic injuries that are sapping his game, and I totally understand not bringing him back on account of this. But the same could be said for Sasha Pavlovic, or Derek Fisher, or any number of crusty veteran reclamation projects that continue to get re-signed and given heavy burn. He turned 30 less than two months back, and most teams are A-OK giving a flyer on a wing in the 29-32 range so long as they aren't that far from their peak production. Gomes fits that bill, and while he's dealing with some injuries, he's not that far off from his peak. I can't say I think he'd be a great player if they brought him back, just somewhat surprising that nobody's taken a flyer yet. Perhaps teams are learning.
... Or, like me, they continually forget that Gomes exists at all. Doh!
• • •
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. Props to J, Geezer, Sir Thursday, and @MillerNBA for their expert guessing.
- Player #250 shocked last year. Won't be quite as effective from three this year in (assuredly) more than 17 games, but my lord, this guy was better than anyone had any reason to expect.
- Last night was a good reminder. If multiple possessions a game end in a Player #251, his team is not doing it right.
- Player #252 was a decent defender, even as a rookie last season. But the offense REALLY needs some work.
Another day, another... something. If you happened to miss Dewey's excellent post on the problems with power rankings yesterday, I highly recommend checking that one out. Also, I did a short recap of the DAL/LAL nightcap for ESPN's Daily Dime, which you can see in the Around the Association column here. So check that out too, if you're in the mood.
• • •