In the lead-up to the 2013-14 NBA season, Grantland will examine key players — X factors — for contending teams.
Earlier this week, Mike Dunleavy, 12-year NBA veteran and first-year Chicago Bull, was asked for his early impressions about playing for coach Tom Thibodeau.
"(Thibodeau's intensity) is higher than anything I've played at at the NBA level," Dunleavy said. “Very similar to going back to college and (playing for) Coach K. It just doesn't matter if you're playing against each other in practice, a preseason game, regular season game, you need to bring a high intensity and you need to get better every time."
Rare is the preseason game that gets the hallowed “absolutely must DVR” status. I can recall reserving precious DVR space for both Chris Paul’s debut with the Clippers and the Lakers’ first preseason game last season, which within the first two minutes featured a Steve Nash–Pau Gasol–Dwight Howard passing sequence on a pick-and-roll that ended with a Howard alley-oop dunk. It was terrifying. The Lakers were terrifying. We know how that turned out.
It was not surprising to walk in the gym here in Las Vegas, nearly 90 minutes before tipoff of Thursday’s first Summer League game, and find Tom Thibodeau already sitting courtside, the first NBA higher-up in the building. Thibodeau is a legendary basketball junkie, fresh off one of the most successful three-season spans of any first-time NBA head coach. The principles of the defense he helped pioneer in Boston during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run have spread around the league, and Thibodeau’s ability to coax his players into almost maniacally consistent adherence to those rules is a major reason Chicago kept winning games last season amid an unending flood of injuries. With Derrick Rose set to return next season at full health, the Bulls look primed to resume their fierce pursuit of Miami’s perch atop the Eastern Conference.
Thibodeau sat down with Grantland for an extensive one-on-one about all things Bulls — but not all things Thibodeau.
It’s been quite the offseason for the Los Angeles Clippers. By re-signing Chris Paul, snatching Doc Rivers away from the Celtics, turning Eric Bledsoe’s potential and Caron Butler’s contract into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and retaining Matt Barnes, the Clips have been remolded as a true Western Conference power.
Paul’s presence on the roster essentially guarantees Los Angeles a top-flight offense and should alleviate any cause for concern related to the dreary and unimaginative system Rivers’s Celtics used for the last few years. Over the past six seasons, Paul’s teams have scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court — good enough to place in the top four in efficiency in any of those seasons. Paul already has wonderful chemistry with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the pick-and-roll, and the dead-eye shooting of Redick (39.0 percent from beyond the arc in his career) and Dudley (40.5 percent) should make that trio even more dangerous by manufacturing more room for Paul and the Clippers’ bigs to operate in the middle of the floor.
The concerns for this Clippers team will come on the defensive end. Griffin, Jordan, and backup center Ryan Hollins are the only players on the current roster taller than 6-foot-7. None of them could be described as a game-changing defender at this point in his career, or even a consistently above-average one. Griffin and Jordan each improved last season, but both still struggled to defend pick-and-rolls and were often a half-step slow or late when called on to rotate behind the play. Any good defensive coach will tell you those half-steps cumulatively make up the difference between a top defense and a middling one, and after a strong start to the season, the Clippers defense could only be described as middling.
Popular consensus holds that when looking to fill a head coaching vacancy, hiring a coach with prior NBA head coaching experience is the smart, safe move. Congratulations, NBA team! You’ve chosen an “experienced, veteran coach” who “knows the league” and “has seen everything!” You’re ready to take on the world. Funny story: That’s basically a bunch of bullshit.
Gregg Popovich, who took over as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996, is the longest-tenured head coach in the NBA. Because he’s thought of as such an experienced old hand now, it’s easy to forget he was a first-timer when he installed himself as head coach 17 seasons ago. (Popovich was hired as the team’s general manager and vice-president of basketball operations in 1994. He replaced Bob Hill as head coach in December 1996 after firing Hill 18 games into the season.) In today’s NBA, that makes him something of a rarity.
Starting with the hiring of Popovich, there have been 150 full-time head coaching hires (meaning ones that weren’t interim coaches being given the full-time job, à la Mike Woodson in New York or Frank Vogel in Indiana) made by NBA teams prior to this season. Of those 150 openings, 90 were filled by “retreads,” those who had previously been an NBA head coach.
“Retread” carries negative connotations, so most teams sell the “experienced” angle I referenced earlier. When your favorite team hires someone who has been a head coach elsewhere, you can set the over/under for combined uses of “been there before,” “winning culture,” and “proven record of success” at the introductory press conference at somewhere around 73.5.
A survey of the players and coaches making moves last night in Brooklyn.
1. Joakim Noah
There will be a lot said about grit and heart and all that today, and while a good portion of the praise heaped on Noah this morning will really be subtweets about Derrick Rose, Noah really does deserve every key punched and bit of ink spilled. His plantar fasciitis kept him out for a majority of the last month of the season, and for anyone who’s watched the Bulls this year, it’s not hard to imagine what sort of injury it takes to earn a minutes limit.
Luol Deng should get some credit for again quietly leading the league in playing time, but it’s Noah who’s provided the life for this Bulls team all year. It’s no coincidence that Chicago got blown out with him playing only 13 minutes in Game 1, and it’s no coincidence that the Bulls were lifted by his presence last night. When Noah game came back in the fourth quarter, a 14-point Bulls lead had shrunk to five, and all he did, on consecutive possessions, was follow up a dunk with a diving-out-of-bounds save to Nate Robinson for the game-sealing 3. And let’s not talk about his reaction after sending back a Brook Lopez hook in the final minute. I might get too emotional.
With 2:15 left in the third quarter at the United Center last night, the Bulls and Sixers made their ways to the proper benches for a TV timeout. It was that time in the night when a footrace between animated breakfast food comes on the video board, and as the racers were announced (Dashing Donut, Cuppy Coffee, and Biggie Bagel), people in the crowd reached for their cards to find out in which Dunkin’ Donuts product they had a rooting interest. My friend made a joke about how Larry Bird must hate all this, but aside from that, I see little problem in providing fans with interstitial bits of entertainment. Plus, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is delicious.
The troubling part came when we noticed that joining the viewing public was the majority of the 76ers bench. Down 11, two days after a double-digit loss to D-League Orlando followed by a public chastising by its coach, most of the Philly roster was more invested in Dashing Donut’s triumph than in whatever Doug Collins had to say.
Chicago and Philadelphia, it would seem, are in similar situations. Both are in their third year of playing for a demanding head coach who occasionally sounds like he ate a pack of Marlboro Reds for lunch. Both have spent this season without the star that was supposed to define their rosters. And both came into last night’s game mired in their worst stretch of the season. It was something, then, to watch how each responded at their lowest point. It’s not that the Sixers’ starters shared their apathy of their bench-dwelling teammates in their 93-82 loss; it’s that none of them were Joakim Noah.
Over the last three seasons, the Bulls have cycled through a bundle of shooting guards, or reasonable facsimiles of shooting guards, in trying to find just one that combines “B”-level shooting, defense, passing, and good health. They’ve tried John Salmons, Keith Bogans, Kirk Hinrich, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton, and Marco Belinelli, and none have quite provided the ideal combination. Chicago, when whole, has a legit top-10 player in Derrick Rose, a very good all-around wing in Luol Deng, and a prized collection of skilled big men. They don’t need a star at shooting guard; they just need someone who can do everything at a decent level without compromising the team in any one area.
With his team nursing a 94-86 lead in the waning moments of last night’s game against Philadelphia, Chicago center Joakim Noah crouched low on the left block as Evan Turner attempted the second of two free throws. As the ball arced toward the rim, Philly’s backup center, the lumbering Spencer Hawes, took one step toward the baseline, spun off his left foot, and put Noah onto his back.
It was an odd sight considering the state of unrelenting fervor Noah brings to the court, but it’s hard to find Noah at fault for the momentary letdown. The play came as Noah was putting the finishing touches on his sixth outing in the past 12 days in which he’s played at least 41 minutes. In fact, in back-to-back games against the Clippers and Sixers, Noah played a staggering 87 minutes, raising his season average to a mind-boggling 40.1 — a number that no big man has put up since Tim Duncan averaged 40.6 during the 2001-02 season.
With the absence of Derrick Rose, this type of usage has been born out of desperation. Last year, a deep Bulls bench featuring Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, and C.J. Watson went a long way toward picking up the slack as Rose missed 27 games with an assortment of injuries. This year, those four all have new addresses, a product of the Bulls’ offseason effort to cut costs. They’ve been replaced by an assortment of bargain-priced veterans and unproven young players. Though there have been some surprising developments — most notably the steady play of second-year wing Jimmy Butler and Warriors castoff Nate Robinson — the bench is still significantly lacking compared to a year ago.
It's baaaaaack. The NBA Shootaround crew is here to go over the best and brightest story lines coming out of media day and the opening days of NBA training camp. Basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball!!!
Kobe Clearly Still Mad About the Ellen Kid; Lying About Having the Ball in Hands; Wishes He Were a Transformer
Quick sidebar: Does Craig Sager make it through a day of his life on Earth without having a professional basketball player question his ability to dress himself or ... ask questions? It's the FIRST DAY and Kobe is already treating him like an emotional speed bag. This dude's life is Groundhog Day and the day he is reliving is the first day of high school, with 6-foot-6 guys stuffing him in a locker. The humanity!
Anyway, Kobe's back. Despite the new constellation of supernovas in Lakers purple, no star burns brighter than no. 24. And don't you ever forget it. Somehow Bryant was able to spend media day at once shirking responsibility (on handling the ball less this season: "Thank God") and reasserting his dominance over his surroundings ("I get to be Megatron"). (Yes, he was referring to being able to "run routes," à la Calvin Johnson, while new point guard Steve Nash takes care of the ball ... but let's just pretend he meant he gets to be the evil Transformer. It's much more on-brand.)
This made me giddy. Putting aside that I am willfully misinterpreting what he said, do you know how extra-Kobe Kobe Bryant is going to have to be this year to make sure we're all paying attention to him? In the face of the media-friendly Nash, the confounding Dwight Howard, and the downright weird Metta World Peace, Bryant is going to have to be in full Prince Joffrey mode. I can't wait to watch the throne this season.
— Chris Ryan
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
The Chicago Bears intercepted Tony Romo five times, returning two for touchdowns, in a 34-18 rout of the Cowboys. In the press box, angry Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tersely addressed his servant. "Lyle, please maneuver my face into a frown for the cameras," he said. "And don't mope about it. You already have second-hand botulism, it's not like it can get worse."