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 Kosta Koufos, Luol Deng, and Nick Young.
It's a bit funny. The Denver Nuggets have a vast surfeit of depth, or so we're led to believe. They've got more wing talent than you can shake a stick at, several decent point guards, and a veritable army of big men. All of them are above replacement level, all of them have their individual strengths, and (in theory) a bench unit comprised of such players should be blowing every team off the court. But there's a problem with simply assessing players as above or below replacement level without properly contextualizing their stats, and the Nuggets (to me) seem to embody this gap. First, replacement level on defense is extremely situational and hard to assess without seeing players on the court together. Simple as that. A good rotating pick and roll defender is still going to look pretty bad if he's surrounded by players who can't defend worth a damn, while an individually solid post defender who's asked to protect the rim is rarely going to get a chance to show off his talents. A shutdown wing who has to roam instead of key in to a superstar may look worse than they'd look if they were acting as a shutdown wing. And so on and so forth. The role you play on defense is a lot more valuable than we tend to give heed, and can completely change how you look on defense in a scheme poorly suited for your defensive talents. Or, conversely, can make you look a lot better than you are.
The problem with Denver's roster right now isn't that they lack of good players. They have a great many solid offensive players, and by the end of the year, I'd be shocked if their offense wasn't floating around top 10 (although I still think spacing will be an issue without acquiring another three point shooter). The issue is their defense, which is currently completely rudderless -- and if I'm honest, I don't see that changing for a while. And I think the fact that Kosta Koufos represents their biggest hope on that end is a good indicator why. While the Nuggets have a ton of big men who are above-replacement-level and solid offensive players, only one of the Nuggets' big men is currently a plus defender -- Koufos. The other Denver big men can stumble into good defensive plays, from time to time (see: McGee's block average, Faried's occasional possessions of post brilliance) but none have been able to solidly capture that defensive intensity in a manner that screams "build the defense around me." And frankly, neither has Koufos. He's a decent pick and roll defender that appears to fall apart when matched by someone larger than he is. He doesn't do one-on-one coverage very well, but he can help defend plays. Unfortunately, given the other defensive frontcourt talent on the Nuggets, he doesn't JUST need to defend plays -- he also needs to do man-to-man post defense, and he needs to try and protect the rim, and he needs to do so many things to make this team hum defensively that his actual defensive skills get buried in the miasma.
It's not all bad for Denver. Iguodala's defense will come back, and that will help. But you cannot build a positive defensive team around a single positive defender that isn't defending the paint -- not against an NBA where 30-40% of each team's shots come around the rim, not against an NBA where slashing and paint scoring is the path of least resistance to putting a lot of points on the board. And so Koufos sits. He's a decent offensive player, I suppose, in a limited role -- he converts well at the rim and has a nice little baby hook he employs with some success from short range. He has absolutely no offensive game outside of 10 feet, and thankfully for Denver, he doesn't pretend he does -- ceasing to pretend you have a midrange game when you don't is one of those steps that good players take that indicates both the merits of self-restraint and a better self-awareness than most. He's an excellent rebounder, although it is worth noting that last season's excellent rebounding numbers come with the caveat that he played scant minutes and has rarely had to rebound against starting-caliber bigs. Still. Koufos is a good player, if a bit of a situational roleplayer. The fact that Karl looked at his big man rotation and assessed Koufos the starter isn't necessarily a knock on Koufos, but more a knock on the Nuggets' frontcourt as a defensive unit -- at their best, the Nuggets will hum offensively as few other teams in the league do. But the defensive troubles that allowed Miami to post an offensive rating of 126 points per 100 possessions against the poor team aren't going away as soon as Iguodala comes back to full form.
You can ask friends of mine, if you want. They'd all tell you the same thing -- I may not be a fan of the Bulls, but I am a completely unabashed Luol Deng fan. I think Deng is one of the best small forwards in the league, and believe him to be a target of too much unjust criticism for things he can't really control. He finds himself dogged on both ends -- criticism of his lower-than-expectations offense override the context in which he gets his numbers, while his defense is considered "nice" but a step below that of Iguodala or LeBron. His contract is constantly referenced as a gigantic, frustrating overpay and an albatross. He's constantly mentioned as trade bait. He plays injured and plays often, pooh-poohing injury in an effort to help his team out -- but because his statistics take a dive while injured, he tends to suffer the ill effects of his injury twice, both in the disappointment of having the injury and disappointment in his statistics. It's not fun. But let's discuss each of his trouble points one-by-one.
- Poor offensive player. Not really. His percentages aren't great, but Deng does have some skills. The biggest issue Deng faces isn't really his skillset causing problems but the Bulls' relatively flawed offensive scheme to begin with. Thibodeau's understanding of offense tends to lead him towards a halfcourt, grind-it-out offense that relieson wings popping for long twos and bigs flashing to accept short passes (which, incidentally, raises his assist rate -- he's a bit above average in that department). It's fundamentally similar to the Boston offense around Paul Pierce. The problem? Deng isn't Paul Pierce -- he's no midrange wizard. When Deng's healthy, he's a good three point shooter (36% last season!), and he's quite good at slashing to the rim. But instead, Thibodeau's general offensive schema has essentially forced Deng to take an absurd excess of midrange shots in his time as a Bull, which has laid to waste his efficiency numbers given how absolutely awful he is at them. Now that he's injured, his shot has a very bad wrist-related hitch, and his aggression in getting to the rim is harmed by his difficulty dribbling. So now the critics can point and go "Hey! Look! Deng sucks at offense!" Problem is he doesn't, and the falloff is essentially all related to his injury. But keep saying that, sure.
- Not super-elite defensively. I have to question this. Do the people that say this watch Deng play defense? The man's a beast, and although he's not quite the shutdown wizard Iguodala is, I'd argue that he's about as valuable as LeBron James in the regular season. What really differentiates Deng (and Tony Allen, to be fair) from Iguodala and James and the rest of the NBA's best large perimeter defenders is that Deng's motor never, EVER stops. The man has never taken a defensive possession off in his life, for better or worse -- he hustles up the court every possession, whether it's a fast break or a halfcourt grind-out. He's ubiquitous, surveying the court with an eagle eye for any defensive breakdown he needs to assist. He doesn't quit, and for as good as Thibodeau is at putting together defensive schemes, without Deng his defense would be far less potent. He's the best one-on-one defender in the Bulls' starting five and makes the whole defensive system move correctly when he's on the court. He's far more important to the Bulls' defense than most give him credit for.
- Overpaid relative to his production. Honestly? I just think this is wrong. Plain and simple. Yes, he's a bit under the league's best wings -- he's no Kobe, he's no Harden, he's no LeBron. But which of the sub-elite wings is he that much worse than? I'd assess him to be clearly superior to Rudy Gay or Danny Granger, two players with marginally better offensive games but significantly worse defensive games (although they're still positive defenders). Pierce is better (for now) but also gets paid $3 million more per season. Luol Deng signed a $71 million dollar contract, but it was pre-lockout and it lasts for 6 years. That's a touch over $12 million a year. Big money, but for Deng's defensive and offensive production and the NBA average contract size, it's not THAT egregious, nor is it so out-of-sorts as to seriously merit griping. Not to mention the elephant in the room -- Deng is consistently among the top 5-10 players in the game in terms of the minutes he's on the court, plays through injury, and simply gets way more burn than many of the players with contracts commensurate to his. The fact that the Bulls don't really need to price in a serious backup for Deng (not with the minutes he plays) has to be a relative value-add to the contract as well, even if I (and many others) feel he needs to stop playing all those minutes.
So, that's that. This isn't to say that Deng is absent of problems, obviously. He should've gotten surgery on his torn wrist ligament during the offseason, and while I realize he wants to play tough and help his team, without Rose this Bulls team is relatively shiftless. It'd be far more valuable to his franchise and his life as a whole if he just got the surgery, recovered, and came back without the injury-forced hitch in his shooting stroke. I realize he wanted to play for his country, and quite frankly, I'm glad he did. But immediately after his Olympic play ended he should've gotten the surgery. Yes, he'd be out a month or two. No, I don't think anyone knowledgeable on the face of the earth would begrudge him for it. And as I mentioned -- he plays more minutes than just about anyone, which is both a value-add and a curse. It's a value-add because you don't need to worry about getting a particularly competent backup -- when your backup only has rotational room to play 5-10 minutes a night (considering smallball/largeball lineups), the franchise can fill it with minimum guys and experience little-to-no dropoff. It's a curse because Deng's offensive statistics (and occasional defensive possessions) may be significantly more inefficient than he'd produce if he played the 33-35 MPG nights of is peers.
While I love Deng's game, I love his off-court endeavors and past quite a bit more. He's one of the most likeable talents to ever attend Duke University (in a group with Kyrie Irving and Grant Hill), and he's lived through more than you or I could ever dream. Deng was born in a nine child family in the war-torn nation of Sudan, moving to Egypt at a young age to escape the ongoing civil war. After he got out and got his NBA contract, it would've been pretty easy for Deng to simply throw money at it and look past it. He doesn't. He's been personally extremely involved in Sudanese charities, with a special emphasis on the Lost Boys of Sudan. The "Lost Boys" part refers to one of the tens of thousands of boys of the Nuer or Dinka ethnic groups displaced or orphaned during Sudan's grisly civil war. I don't know if any of you have ever read Dave Egger's book, "What is the What" -- it's not commonly assigned reading. But if you haven't, I strongly suggest you carve out some time for it. It's the story of one of Sudan's Lost Boys who escapes, makes his way to America, and is mugged and troubled. Among other things, of course, like his history and the road he traveled. It's a great work in more ways than one, and it's rather representative of the program Luol Deng has put his heart and soul into helping. And there's a good reason for that, as well -- Deng is of the Dinka tribe, so he himself is technically of the lost boy designation.
Deng escaped the brunt of the horrors his peers underwent, but they're widely considered the most traumatized large-scale group of children to ever survive a war. They often had to walk -- rarely with shoes -- for years, searching for safe refuge in a journey where their journeying peers fell to death around them to starvation, wild animals, and soldiers. Then there were the lost girls, taken as hostages and sexually assaulted by massive armies before being sold into slavery. The worst part about the plight of the Lost Girls (relative to the Lost Boys) is that as they were sold to different families, they "technically" aren't eligible for the same supported resettlement to America that the Lost Boys are (through the charity foundations Deng supports). Which is pretty awful, much like virtually everything related to that period of Sudanese history. It's an incredible gift that we get to watch Luol Deng perform at this level, and it's a gift that Deng has achieved the success he has. He's established his own charity foundation, one that works to build schools in Sudan. He and his family visit Sudan yearly, often helping with government work and the establishment of a new independent state in south Sudan.
He's a hero, plain and simple -- one of the best people in the NBA, for sure. And for all the whining and hand-wringing about him being "overpaid"... can we all step back for a second and admit that a man who builds schools by his own hand to help build back a war-torn nation probably "deserves" about as much money as the world can give him? Yes? We can be on the same page for a minute? Good. Now go ahead and return to calling him an overpaid fraud-star, if you'd like -- just know that you'll hear virtually this entire capsule restated in the course of a minute if you say that to me personally. Fair warning, you know.
The nice thing about having a few of these left for the NBA season is that, occasionally, I'll see a player do something that absolutely needs to be in their capsule. Must be there. A singular moment in a random game that just exemplifies that player's style or general approach to the game. Today, for Nick Young, we have one such video that was taken from last night's game between the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers, Young's new team. The place? Philadelphia. The time? First quarter, right around the end. The action? SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS.
Look, I usually try to avoid putting too much into a single play, but this is the single most representative play I've ever seen in my life. I have to have watched it 10-20 times at this point. Look at Young's complete and utter clock awareness -- he turned away from the arena shot clocks with almost 15 seconds on the clock, then ran into the corner without ever coming close to setting his feet or checking the clock again. The Sixers deserve some blame for passing him the ball in the first place, but my assumption would be that nobody on Earth really would think that a pass to someone as closely-guarded as that would actually lead to a shot. Young turns, and before he can even see the basket, he jumps to shoot -- not straight up, as one would generally expect, but backwards heading towards the corner. It's a Dirk-style fadeaway, only from so far into the corner that he's essentially taking it from behind the basket. After the shot, he doesn't seem to make any emotional gestures or faces that would indicate any awareness of what he's done. Just a sort of a shrug, and a slow "I guess I'll get back on defense... even though we had the last shot with enough time to run an actual play."
That's Nick Young for you. The man has never met a shot he didn't like. Ever. I don't know whether he was born this way or whether Gilbert Arenas -- one of Young's best friends in Washington -- helped bring out his latent chucker. But that's what Nick Young does. He makes Monta Ellis look like a willing distributor, last year posting one of the lowest assist rates in the entire league. For all his love of shots, the only real assist Nick Young enjoys is one that has a chance to go into the basket and score a bucket for Swaggy P himself. He's a massive black hole, essentially. Repeat after me, NBA friends: don't pass Nick Young the ball. Because if you DO decide to pass Nick Young the ball, be prepared -- Nick Young has the paperwork signed and notarized to adopt the ball as a child and put it under protective custody. You are not seeing that ball again without supervised visits, bud. To Young's credit, he's a bit more efficient than most chucking guards -- he shoots around 38% on his career from three point territory and he's not that bad from the long midrange. The problem is, he has no sense of self-control or ability to self-regulate his shots to eliminate all the bad ones. He takes more contested midrange shots per-minute-on-the-court than almost anyone in the league, doesn't play defense (or, rather, doesn't play effective defense -- he puts no effort in staying on his man and ballhawks without the ability to actually convert on steals). He's a 6'6" guard that rebounds as poorly as Earl Boykins, and has a handle that's high enough that he has trouble controlling the ball in pressure situations unless he shoots it within 2 or 3 seconds of getting the ball. (Hint: he will do that.)
As for why the Philadelphia 76ers felt they needed to get rid of Lou Williams only to pay Nick Young a higher salary? I... I really don't know. I covered this in the Lou Williams capsule earlier this year, but Williams was somewhat of an underrated player. He was a good passer, a solid shooter, and (although he tended to isolate a bit much in crunch time) so good at handling the ball without stupid turnovers that you felt relatively safe with Lou Williams running crunch time offense, especially since Holiday wasn't quite ready to do it yet. Nick Young? I'd feel about as safe giving him the keys to my crunch time offense as I would giving him the scalpel to perform open-heart surgery on an ailing grandmother. ESPECIALLY when dealing with an offense where you really want Andrew Bynum taking your shots in crunch time -- does anyone seriously think Young is going to pass to Bynum when the game's on the line? Or, perhaps more aptly, does anyone seriously think Young is going to pass to him if he's open? Maybe he's not, in which case Young will pass to him in order to "prove" that Nick Young needs to be the one taking the shots. I don't know. But in any event, he's a Sixer now. So I suppose we'll have to see if the Philadelphia organization's faith in Young is worthy.
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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. Bunch of 2/3 guesses yesterday, but nobody got Luol Deng. (Seriously, he's the best player on the Bulls. Why does nobody realize he exists? WHY DOES NOBODY TALK ABOUT HIM?!) Anyway. Good job to Chilai, BaronZbimg, and J for good guesses.
- For Player #259... NOTHING IS EASY WHATSOEVER.
- Player #260 had high hopes going into this season. Through 4 games, though, he's been pretty awful. His decent career per-minute rebounding numbers have balked, his scoring has been inefficient, and he's been abhorrent defensively. One hopes he'll get better soon, or else his team will go from cellar-dweller to "worst in the league" very quickly.
- Player #261 is injured. Again. Contract looks bad. Again. But he's pretty solid when he's healthy, and could be a big asset in a push for a better position in their conference if he comes back. They need him. Because this one looks like a very bad team without him.
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