Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. What more could we provide? Today's short pieces are as follows.
- MIA vs OKC: A Crisis of Confidence (by Jacob Harmon)
- TRADES #1: Sacramento Gives Up, or: Morey's Margins (by Aaron McGuire)
Read on after the jump.
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MIA vs OKC: A Crisis of Confidence
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to our insistence on taking our own All-Star break, we tabled the publication of this Outlet piece until now. It discusses Oklahoma City's 110-100 home loss to the Miami Heat last Thursday. It's here now, though!]
“We’re not as bad as we played tonight.” - Scott Brooks
Having suffered through yet another match-up between Miami and Oklahoma City, critical examination is tough -- it’s hard to know where to begin. Lots to process, especially as a fan of one of the concerned teams. Going into the Finals this past summer, my confidence in the Thunder’s ability to win was overwhelming, and not for reasons I felt were artificial, or reasons couched in narrative. I was confident in the pick because despite all the hype, OKC vs. Miami has never been about Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. It's about the supporting casts around the stars. And in evaluating the match-up I've always felt the Thunder had the decided edge. I still do, on paper. Maybe the problem really is coaching, as people often emphasize. I can't argue with most of the questions. Why does Scott Brooks insist on fielding a lineup of two bigs against the Heat when they get continually obliterated by Chris Bosh and LeBron James? Maybe it's all about confidence. Putting the same guys out there and putting them through the fire in the hope they'll put it together. As a fan, I'm not sure about the wisdom of that strategy, but I do think that aspect of the Thunder's cohesion is something worth looking at. Because more than anything, I think Oklahoma City's repeated inability to execute against Miami has less to do with a lack of talent or ability and more to do with an intangible problem.
The real rub of this matchup (as far as I see it) is psychological. If anyone's expecting Miami and Oklahoma City to be the Celtics/Lakers of the new generation, they’ve miscast the roles. To me, this feels more like Pistons/Bulls. Different conferences, different levels of play. But psychologically? That’s what it feels like. It’s the stark disappearance of role-players, the physical play, the inability to confidently exploit advantages, and the dogged futility of the less experienced leading men trying to will the team to glory. It’s the visible mental frustration that manifests in different ways; whether it be Kevin Durant’s furious slapping of the hardwood or Thabo Sefolosha’s blank stare as he watches a loose ball bounce to a slow roll and does nothing. The Thunder have a dogged inability to "play their game" against the Heat, and it always seems to be less a talent disparity than it is the inevitable breakdown of execution that happens when you’re playing a game that only two or three players actually think they’re capable of winning. Watching the Thunder offense, it’s difficult to accuse Westbrook or Durant of hero ball when they’re scanning for an open pass that no one else on the floor looks interested in shooting. Miami's defense fluctuates on a nightly basis, especially with Ray Allen on the floor, and they do an excellent job at guarding the inside pass, so it's little surprise when Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka bobble what would be an open look under the basket. But it's not the Miami defense that prevents Kevin Martin from losing his man on a screen, or Serge Ibaka spotting up at his usual spots, or getting in position to rebound. There's no reason for Durant and Westbrook to settle for long contested jumpers even when provided mismatches to exploit. On defense, there's no reason Shane Battier is continually abandoned on the wing despite being virtually useless anywhere else on offense. These are all issues that the Thunder don't really have on a nightly basis, or against teams that are the Heat's peer in execution (like the Spurs or the Clippers).
Of course, in modern NBA analysis we don't make much of the psychology of a match-up. It's all a little too "the look"-y. But once you've gone beyond evaluating the tangible how and why of a loss, there remain questions of the how and the why those issues cropped up, and continue to crop up. It's the same reason a talented kid can struggle mightily to beat his Dad or older brother at the object of his talents. The Thunder strike me as both convinced they should win, and frustrated mightily by their inability to meet that expectation. They find it impossible to play their rival like they're any other team, and that inevitably sinks them. Much like the Bulls and Pistons rivalry all those years ago, there will come a time when this changes. Miami has an old roster, Oklahoma City a young one. The passage of time and the inevitability of the NBA’s salary restrictions favor the Thunder in the long term. But there are no certainties in this league. The threat of injury, competition, and other unknowables looms large and threatening over any assumptions one can make. There’s only the now, and in the wake of an ugly game and another loss to a bitter rival, the Thunder seem to need confidence above anything else.
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TRADES: Trade Talk, Trades Today, & Trade Tectonics (with Aaron McGuire)
Hey, folks! Today's a very special trade deadline Outlet. Here's why. As the day goes on, I'll be updating this post to react to today's various trades with short reaction pieces and other such accoutrements! Isn't that fun? Isn't that just the dickens? (It isn't, but pretend with me.) To start us off, I've got a few reactions to the hilariously minor trades conducted yesterday evening. Amazing! (EDITOR'S NOTE: Why are you so excited? [EDITOR'S NOTE #2: Wait, you're also the editor. Why are you talking to yourself in the third person?]) ... Let's go!
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MOREY'S MARGINS (Or, Sacramento Gives Up)
Patrick Patterson (2-yr/$2.5 mil per), Cole Aldrich (1-yr/$2.5 mil per), Toney Douglas (1-yr/$2.1 mil per), $1 Million.
Thomas Robinson (4-yr/$3.5 mil per), Francisco Garcia (1-yr/$6.1 mil per), Tyler Honeycutt (3-yr/$0.8 mil per).
I'm not Daryl Morey's biggest fan. As a statistician, most assume that I'm all over his work -- not quite. I've always respected his focus on process, and I think he generally wins trades in the aggregate. But I've also always had a general feeling that Morey focuses a bit too much on the margins. His drafting has regularly been shaky, and with the single exception of the Harden trade (among his greatest accomplishments, in my book), the vast majority of Morey's moves have seemed lateral in nature rather than fundamental course-changes. This is a bit of a problem when his team has only once been a particularly legitimate title contender, and it seemed like Morey's moves consistently got the Rockets ensconced the NBA's most hopeless state: stark mediocrity. When Morey was criticized this summer as having thought his way into a box with his marginal trades and his work was panned as a blow to the NBA's statistical "movement" (insofar as one exists at all), I was a bit irritated.
See, statistical thinking and applying analytic rigor to one's decisionmaking certainly doesn't necessitate Morey's overarching strategy. There are plenty of counterexamples to that, like Rich Cho, R.C. Buford, and Sam Presti. In fact, I'd argue that Morey's focus on the margins while ensconced in mediocrity is decidedly non-statistical, but that's a discussion for another day. There's a broader debate here that's way too complicated and multifaceted for a few paragraphs of exposition. The point here is simply to point out the obvious. These small moves, these little nudges? That's Morey's calling. Isn't quite the be-all and end-all of the job, but it's a very important part of it. And it's a role that Morey plays extremely well, as yesterday's trade demonstrated. Just look at this move from the Rockets' perspective. Their outbound value is extremely low. Patrick Patterson is a decent player, and a lot better than I thought he was going into this season. Seriously. He's been awesome. But he's somewhat low upside on the whole, and he's making only maginally less than Thomas Robinson is -- and he's only got one more year left on his deal, while Robinson has four! Cole Aldrich has disappointed over a compressed career, and Toney Douglas is... well... Toney Douglas.
Then you look at their haul. It's a no-brainer. Thomas Robinson isn't an excellent player, yet -- he's also a rookie. Robinson has played fewer than 1000 NBA minutes and he's spent his career-to-date at one of the worst player development teams in the NBA. The man has talent, even if it hasn't been exceedingly obvious in his NBA burn so far. Garcia is an expiring contract who happens to be an excellent locker room guy (and who should provide a fine substitute in the Marcus Morris role for the rest of the season), and Honeycutt is an extraordinarily cheap prospect whose contract is only partially guaranteed for $100,000 next year if the Rockets decide they don't want him. All things considered? It's a lateral move -- they don't move the needle much on this season's potential (a fun first round series, possibly challenge for a 2nd round bloodbath) while opening up the prospect that Robinson develops into a solid big man and helps address their long-term gap next to Asik in their front line. It's a trade made on the margins from which Morey makes his mark. It's possible Robinson never develops and the trade ends up being a loss for the Rockets, but as it stands, it's hard for the trade to make them that much worse or that much better. Some beautifully lateral movement on a promising young team.
Which is all well and good, but there are always two vantage points by which to analyze a trade. In that respect, Houston's success at getting the better of Sacramento must be juxtaposed with Sacramento's complete inability to develop their players, as well as their complete inability flip them for good value. Just about every year in recent memory, the Kings have flipped a promising asset or two for virtually nothing. The players tend to go on to be decent-to-good on other teams, blossoming into legitimate NBA players they may have never indicated in the dysfunction and miasma of their Kings tenure. This trade is no exception. Robinson is no scrub, even if he's playing like it -- he's the reigning 5th pick in the draft, and with some good player development, it isn't hard to see him becoming a minor force in the league. But trading him for value would've involved less financial savings, you know. The Maloofs sent out $10.3 million in salary to receive $6.6 million in salary -- a savings of $3.7 million, without even mentioning the $1 million they pocket that the Rockets threw in for fun. Morey won another trade on the margins, but by god -- it was a trade with the Maloofs. You know the old trope about how one man's playing chess and the other's playing checkers? It's worse than that for Joe and Gavin. In a league of men playing three dimensional Star Trek chess, the Maloofs aren't just playing checkers -- they're damn near playing Parcheesi. I'm so sorry, Kings fans.
• • •
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE (or, Exception Handling)
Dexter Pittman (1-yr/$0.8 mil per), MIA's 2013 2nd Round Pick.
$850,000 trade exception, the rights to Ricky Sanchez.
I'll be quick with this one -- this was a decent deal for both teams. Really! Many would balk at the Heat's inability to get anything better than a trade exception for a second round pick, but in this particular case, it's not a useless exception -- the Heat look to be capped out for the forseeable LeBron-featured future, and the trade exception lets them be buyers the next time a team like Golden State puts a low-salary second rounder like Charles Jenkins or Jeremy Tyler on the market (as I'll discuss later). Or, alternatively, when a team like the Knicks puts Ronnie Brewer on the market! These aren't moves that are going to rock the world, but freeing dead weight space to take on salary becomes exceedingly important when you're as capped out and lacking options as next year's Miami team. (As does freeing up roster spots.) Keeping LeBron James in Florida is going to take a few low-price assets. Trading away an obvious clunker in Dexter Pittman for the possibility of a future low-priced trade steal is always decent deal, even if it costs them a nearly worthless second round pick. As for Memphis? Pittman's a relatively terrible player that can nevertheless play a few minutes a game to give their real stars a bit of rest. That should help them out a bit. The second round pick is nearly worthless, but given their increased budget on scouting and analytics, they'll probably be able to squeeze a bit of value out of it.
No, it's not a blockbuster. But it's a decent trade for both sides. Good stuff.
• • •
WHAT IN THE WASHINGTON (or, The Celtics Get Lucky)
Jordan Crawford (2-yr/$1.7 mil per).
Leandro Barbosa (1-yr/$1.2 mil per), Jason Collins (1-yr/$1.3 mil per).
Alright, I understand that Jordan Crawford hasn't been an exceedingly good player in Washington. But he hasn't been an unmitigated failure, either -- giving him up for naught more than an ACL-torn Barbosa and a balky (and generally useless) Jason Collins reeks of making a move simply to make a move. It doesn't help matters that the move saves Washington no money this season and just $2.1 million dollars next season -- hardly a sum worthy of a trade to free up, even if it nominally puts them "under the cap." I realize, again, that Crawford isn't a phenomenal player. But you can do a lot worse for a salary that low, and trading for absolutely no benefit has never made much sense to me. In Boston's case, I'm not sure this trade helps them that much, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Crawford can be a stopgap point guard for 5-10 minutes a game, and he'll help the Celtics put shots up when they get into one of their classic Boston ruts. As things stand, he's essentially a copy of Jason Terry. But at least Crawford's a young piece with a bit of upside, and the potential to get better. It's a lucky deal for Boston that should help them solidify their playoff push. And it's a confusing deal for Washington that doesn't help much, either now OR later.
• • •
BASSY BIG MOUTH GOES NORTH (or, The Raptors Sign Sebastian Ellis)
Sebastian Telfair (1-yr/$1.6 mil per).
Hamed Haddadi (1-yr/$1.3 mil per), Toronto ??? 2nd Round Draft Pick.
In this case, it's a matter of both sides filling a need. Phoenix needs to free up playing time for Kendall Marshall, Toronto needs a backup for Kyle Lowry that isn't John Lucas III. Telfair isn't having a terrible season, and as a time-share backup, Toronto could do worse. As for Haddadi... he hasn't played a minute for the Raptors since the Rudy Gay trade, and it's highly unlikely he plays any in Phoenix. Barring a magical recovery from his shortness of breath and generally poor fitness, he's never going to be able to play more than 5-10 minutes a game of comfortable play, no matter how efficiently he acquits himself in those minutes. There's a place in the league for guys like that, but it's a short and fleeting place. And one that I'd reckon Haddadi's already spent up.
• • •
ERIC MAYNOR: FREE MAN (or, Portland Please Don't Kill His ACL)
Eric Maynor (1-yr/$2.3 mil per).
OKLAHOMA CITY GETS:
Trade exception of $2.3 million, the rights to Georgios Printezis.
In Eric Maynor's player capsule, I discussed how I thought his addition to Oklahoma City would portend an improvement in the Thunder's chances of winning the finals. A good backup point guard like Maynor would, theoretically, take some of the onus off of Westbrook and Harden to dominate the ball and allow the Thunder to work on their off-ball movement. When healthy, Maynor was one of the better "true" backup point guards the league had to offer. He passed well, shot decently, and had decent-if-not-spectacular ball control. His defense didn't disappoint TOO much and his overall game was aesthetically pleasing. That's all been absent this season, where his play has been one of Oklahoma city's few disappointments in what's been an overall excellent season. Maynor's been bad enough that this move -- a trade where they're giving Maynor away for what amounts to nothing more than a player that'll never wear a Thunder jersey and a trade exception that a cost-cutting front office is unlikely to ever get use out of. In this case, the Thunder don't seem to be trading Maynor away for an asset. They're trading him to give him a better shot at his next contract with more minutes and a bigger role, given that Reggie Jackson has entirely supplanted the role Maynor was slated to fill in the first place. A stand-up move from a stand-up franchise, even if it didn't really result in any value-added to their team picture.
As a final note: Portland? Please don't let his knees explode. Much obliged.
• • •
DECK CHAIRS ON THE TITANIC (or, Interchangeable Parts)
Anthony Morrow (1-yr/$4.0 mil per).
Dahntay Jones (1-yr/$2.9 mil per)
Anthony Morrow, despite being one of the greatest three point shooters in the history of the league (I'm not kidding! Go look!), hasn't gotten a whole hell of a lot of burn in Atlanta to date. This isn't for no reason. Despite being a phenomenal three point talent, Morrow is among the worst defenders in the league and does virtually nothing else on the court -- he has nothing remotely approaching a passable close-to-the-basket move, he doesn't have a handle to speak of, and he has an annoying tendency to foul more than a wing safely should. Still, he's among the best three point shooters to ever play the game, and that's worth a few million to most teams out there. As for Dahntay Jones? He's a decent defender who's having one of the worst seasons in his entire career -- he's shooting 35% from the field and 21% from three, and doing little of note otherwise. That's remarkably bad no matter how good you are defensively, and with his defense having a relative off-year, he's a rough player to watch. Still, his acquisition saves Danny Ferry a few hundred thousand in the transaction by chopping off their late-season payments to Morrow for the lesser Jones, and with Morrow unable to crack their rotation, it probably won't be a big problem if Jones plays poorly and doesn't make the cut himself. The Mavericks have to improve quite a lot just to get to the Western playoffs -- Morrow doesn't necessarily help them do that, but it has a shot of helping them further amplify their strength behind the three point line. And in any event, rolling the dice on a Jones replacement probably makes sense. Not exactly a game changing move, but that's not a surprise -- none of the moves ANYONE made today changed the game.