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 Gary Neal, Jose Calderon, and Bismack Biyombo.
Yesterday's end-of-post riddle, used to describe Gary Neal, may surprise many who are aware that I'm a Spurs fan.
Player #262 has no conscience, and will take shots regardless of the in-game situation or his likelihood of making the shot. He's still extraordinarily effective at it, though, and will probably get a very nice contract next offseason after he playing a strong bench role on a very good team this year.
"What? A Spurs fan basically calling a Spur a chucker? You wouldn't!"
Well, yes, I would. Because it's true. Gary Neal is a good player, and over the last two years he's been among the most bang-for-your-buck contracts in the league. The man's been making less than a million dollars a year to put up Jamal Crawford-type numbers, with better percentages and a bit of a stronger handle. But none of that truly hides or obfuscates the fact that "no conscience" is exactly the way any seasoned NBA scribe would describe him. And none of this is really a bad thing, in a vacuum. I don't love Neal's split-second decisions with a massive amount of time left to run the offense, but in the aggregate, they help. Neal's insane split-second decisions are often incredibly stupid, but they work. They make the defense doubt itself, and help instill fear of the offense into any solid defense. Suddenly, the defense is overcommitting a shade to try and prevent another random basket out of nowhere. They tighten. They make mistakes. The creases appear. And then the Spurs offensive machine goes to work and takes advantage.
While that's all true, I also didn't say it was a bad thing. I wasn't kidding when I said he was extraordinarily effective at it -- he is. Neal has the lovely distinction of being one of the least-assisted guards in the league despite being one of the best three point shooters around. To wit, here are the top ten 3 point shooters in the league with a minimum of 3 attempts per game:
- Stephen Curry -- 45.5% on 4.7 shots a game (78.2% assisted)
- Ray Allen -- 45.3% on 5.1 shots a game (93.4% assisted)
- Brandon Rush -- 45.2% on 3.4 shots a game (94.9% assisted)
- Jordan Farmar -- 44.0% on 3.2 shots a game (83.6% assisted)
- Danny Green -- 43.6% on 3.5 shots a game (93.1% assisted)
- Kyle Korver -- 43.5% on 4.2 shots a game (93.2% assisted)
- Jerryd Bayless -- 42.3% on 3.4 shots a game (77.3% assisted)
- Richard Jefferson -- 42.0% on 4.6 shots a game (96.3% assisted)
- Matt Bonner -- 42.0% on 3.8 shots a game (99.0% assisted)
- Gary Neal -- 41.9% on 3.5 shots a game (54.2% assisted)
Notice anything funny about Neal's line, there? It's the percent assisted, which I demarcated in red. That measures how many of their shots were assisted on behind the arc. Neal's percentage assisted is supernaturally low -- the only guard with a lower percentage of his threes assisted in the top 30 than Neal was Kyrie Irving. The man can shoot, and he makes them at a top-10 clip despite taking an insane amount of them off the dribble and outside of any set play. He's the yin to Matt Bonner's yang, and quite literally the exact opposite of what Bonner gives the Spurs on the court. Whereas Bonner represents the threat if a team lets a set play execute to completion, Neal represents the threat of what happens if a team doesn't. What happens if you force the mismatch and the Spurs have to chuck one up? Well, they have Neal, a fearless and patently absurd pressure valve that helps make defending the Spurs less a matter of shutting down plays and more a manner of shutting down fate -- the difference between the offensively solid and the offensively elite. So good on you, Gary Neal.
The one issue with Neal -- and it is a relatively tricky one for his prospects as more than a pressure valve -- is that he can't do all that much else. And what's worse, his defense is absolutely awful. The Spurs have been a consistently worse defensive team with Neal on the court during his career, and that's not for no reason. To compensate, the Spurs have tried to develop his skills as a backup point guard. This hasn't worked particularly well, however, and while he's a remotely passable backup point guard in certain situations he's no great shakes at setting up offense for players who aren't named "Gary Neal." Which means he can't really share the court with anyone who's better than he is at offense. Which will be an issue going forward. Another issue is that he simply doesn't rate out well on the tertiary statistics, even compared to his position, where few players do. His rebound rate was pathetic (even for a guard, he was below par), he rarely drew charges (in his rookie season, Neal drew zero charges in 1,683 minutes of play), and his steal/block rates are bad enough to be hilarious (he has blocked 6 shots in his entire NBA career). A player that shoots like Neal does will be a highly valued member of just about any NBA team, and my guess is the Spurs will end up flipping him in a trade sometime this season for another defensive big off the bench, in anticipation of Neal getting an offer sheet the Spurs can't reasonably match in restricted free agency. But I suppose we'll see -- personally, I thought they'd do the same with Dejuan Blair last season.
Although Jose Calderon has his issues, I'll start with something most don't realize -- Calderon is one of the top passers in the league. Really! He posted one of the highest assist rates in the league, putting up the 3rd highest rate among point guards getting more than 20 minutes a contest. It's very fun to watch Calderon pass, and his personal offensive talents make it even easier for him to do his job distributing. If Calderon wasn't one of the best shooting point guards in the league (which he is -- deadly shooter off the dribble from just about everywhere on the court), he wouldn't ever draw double teams -- if he didn't draw doubles, it'd be far more rare for him to get a chance to dazzle with one of his patented bounce-out-of-the-double passes or needle-threading dishes through two defenders to a cutting Raptor. His offense is brilliant, and it's a pity that at his age he has too much trouble generating his own to resort to it often. He rated out as one of the lowest-usage point guards in the NBA, which would be fine if he wasn't so incredibly efficient that even just a few more shots would've dramatically helped his dismal offensive team. He's got a perhaps worse problem than Rajon Rondo -- Rondo doesn't generate much of his own offense because he's not fantastic at it. Calderon doesn't generate much of his own offense because... he's old? Other than a general inability to get into the paint, aptly noted by John Hollinger in his own player profiles, Calderon's passivity on the offensive end given his efficiency has always been a bit annoying, and the one bugaboo that keeps his offense from being as elite as the numbers imply.
But that all ignores the biggest problem with Calderon. That is, defense. People get on Steve Nash's case for his poor defense, and that's fine. Nash is not a good defender. But Jose Calderon is much, much worse -- and what's worse for Calderon is that he's gotten absolutely no better as the defense around him has improved. It was a bit easier to say "well, perhaps it's the surrounding personnel" when he was on Triano-led teams that were shiftless and useless on the defensive end. It's significantly harder to blame the supporting cast when, like last year, the team was defensively solid overall but still awful with Calderon on the court. The issue here is partly one of reputation -- Calderon has developed a deserved reputation for terrible defense, which has caused opposing teams to take advantage of his blown coverage more often on an in-game basis than they would if there wasn't five years of scouting backing it up. You don't see most coaches making a similar effort to force their guards to challenge rookies nearly as much as they force challenges to Calderon, and that's simply because there's a much higher margin of error on how the rookie will defend. The rookie could be good, or could be bad, or could be so average that it doesn't impart a serious defensive advantage. But Calderon has been doing this so long that everyone who knows anything about the league knows about his matador defense, which makes it an attractive target and an over-leveraged strategy on the defensive end against Toronto. Or, at least, it would be over-leveraged... if it didn't keep working.
Bismack Biyombo had a pretty subpar rookie season, at least on the offensive end. While the broader struggles of the Bobcats tended to demand a more singular focus in their historic futility, few people understand just how bad Biyombo was at producing even a minimal amount of offense. Biyombo didn't have a single above-average shooting range in his rookie year -- he was below the position average at the rim, from 3-9 feet, from 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet. Often by quite a bit, too, as he rated out the 13th worst center in the league from 3-9 feet and the 4th worst from 10-15. Pretty rough. He compounded those miscues by posting a top-tier turnover rate (not in a good way -- he was among the bottom 25% of all centers in controlling the ball) and an awful rebounding rate. Add to that his absurdly poor assist rate, and you don't really have the recipe for a good year. About the only thing Biyombo did well was get to the free throw line, posting a top tier FTA/FGA mark for a center. Unfortunately, even that wasn't really his doing -- his percentage from the line was sub-50%, so desperate defenses would often succumb to the temptations of Smack-a-Bismack to send him to the line and avoid playing defense.
On defense, Biyombo was passable and promising. He was probably the best defensive talent on the Bobcats, although I caution that such a statement is hardly saying much. His block percentage was extraordinarily high, rating out as 5th overall in the entire league. I'm always a wary man when it comes to conflating a high block percentage with a solid defensive skillset, but frankly, he does have a solid defensive skillset and it goes far beyond the blocks alone. His wingspan is enormous and his spindly mobility is well-suited to cause havoc if he develops correctly. His weakside defense was already relatively decent. His big problems? Defending one-on-one, and blowing up plays that were directly sent his way. He was shiftless at disrupting the pick and roll last season and relatively poor in the post. With time, those should improve. But if they don't, his block totals aren't going to really help his team all that much, as last year's results tended to indicate -- the Bobcats were actually a worse defensive team with Biyombo on the court than off it, which is absurd to conceptualize in a vacuum given how poor their defense was overall.
In my view, the nicest thing I can really say with respect to Paul Silas' work on the 2011 Bobcats was rooted in the fact that Biyombo and Walker finally began to earn the minutes they should've been playing all year as the year wound down. I understand that when you play as poorly as Biyombo played, it's hard to get you minutes. That's reasonable. But the team was quite literally one of the worst teams of all time, and Silas (to his credit) eventually realized it. After a certain point, it's really hard to get that much worse, and you might as well start giving your super-raw rookies a ton of burn as you assess what they bring to the table. Silas seemed to get it in the abstract, and Biyombo's minutes did get larger as the season went along. To wit: Biyombo averaged more minutes per game every consecutive month of the season -- he averaged just 10 MPG in December, 13 in January, 24 in February, 29 in March, 31 in April. I do think they should've gone up a tad more and a tad earlier, but Silas deserves a lot of credit for catching on at all. All too often, coaches never realize their players need more minutes. He still continued his aggravating trend of pulling with early foul trouble and generally keeping Biyombo on a short leash even after he decided to start him, but we'll let that slide. For now.
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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. Today's sole 3/3 comes on behalf of @MillerNBA, who is good at this game.
- Player #265 has broken the hearts of many-a good team. Well, one good team and a few terrible teams. He's back on the "terrible" end of the spectrum now.
- Player #266 has started more NBA Finals games at center than Dwight Howard. This is without question my favorite piece of non-Trey Johnson NBA Trivia. He only started 9 games last season, so he's falling off (HEH), but it's still hilarious.
- I don't really get why Player #267 decided to play hardball with his contract until training camp ended -- few contenders are really going to want to try and meld him into their schemes without any camp burn. AND he probably won't get a bigger contract than the minimum anymore anyway! Good work, dude.
Was hoping to get 6 sets done this week. Looks unlikely, but 5 should be possible.
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