The Mozgov factor: The unexpected rise of the Russian Roy Hibbert

When I met Russia’s unassuming 7-foot center Timofey Mozgov in London during the 2012 Olympics, I did not predict him someday soon being crucial to the outcome of the NBA Finals.

Yet here he is, the anchor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ suddenly elite defense, their rim protector extraordinaire and occasional offensive relief valve, helping them to an unforeseen 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors.

Mozgov has been quite simply the most impactful defender at his position in these playoffs. He is holding opponents to just 39.0% shooting at the rim for the postseason, the stingiest number of any big man who made it past the first round.

Remember how Indiana’s Roy Hibbert made the defensive rule of verticality famous by mastering the art of jumping straight up to challenge opposing penetrators, arms pointing to the sky so as to avoid fouling? He was the bane of LeBron’s life and helped the Pacers take a series lead over the Heat in two of the last three postseasons.

Now LeBron has a Hibbert of his own, and he is a crucial member of James’ depleted but accidentally perfect cast of role players because he, like Matthew Dellavedova, provides a critical defensive ingredient that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving never could.

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The Spike Game: LeBron’s greatest night as a Cavalier

Going into Game 2 of the 2015 Finals on Sunday, a 2-0 Warriors lead was seen by many as a foregone conclusion. 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists later, LeBron James was memorably spiking the ball high off the Oracle Arena hardwood and into the Oakland sky with the series tied at 1-1 and his greatest night as a Cavalier in the books.

This was a special performance, and it stemmed from his improved shot selection.

I wrote after Game 1 about two competing versions of LeBron on offense, about how too many Bad LeBron sightings kept his 44-point night from being one of his better Finals performances.

In Game 2, he set the tone with a first half that was Good LeBron in the extreme: a player making the most of his talents as a passer, scorer and dominant physical force, carrying his team to a surprising lead.

In the first quarter, he attacked the paint time and again both off the dribble and out of the post-up. He took ten shots and I had to compile them all in one YouTube video because every single one of them was smart:

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Good LeBron, Bad LeBron: The greatness and imperfection of James’ 44-point Game 1

LeBron James put up 44 points in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals as the Cavaliers went down to defeat in overtime, failing to take advantage of what was probably their best chance to steal a game on the Warriors’ home floor. It was the highest-scoring Finals game of James’ career, and an at times dominant, yet at times frustrating performance.

In many ways, LeBron did a perfect job of exhibiting what I view as the good and the bad of his offensive game.

The good: He is an unstoppable scoring force who can bring a defense to its knees when he posts up, attacks the basket, and takes on-balance shots in the flow of the offense.

The bad: He too often bails out the defense with ill-advised, long-distance, low percentage shots, often fading away, completely outside of the flow of the offense. When he does this he fails to take advantage of his strengths and reduce his teammates to useless bystanders.

Good LeBron was on display in abundance, as he posted up no less than 26 times – surely as much as any time in his career. As an onlooker who often bemoaned his unwillingness or inability to do work in the low post throughout the first half of his career, it is refreshing and rewarding to see him going to his now beautifully-refined post game. Continue reading

A deeper consideration of Alvin Gentry’s strengths: Why he is perfect for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans

Over the weekend the New Orleans Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be their new head coach. They made the right choice.

This is the second bold move in the space of two weeks for GM Dell Demps, whose decision to fire Monty Williams was one that should have been more loudly applauded. It would have been easy to keep the affable Monty in place following a feel-good postseason berth, but the Pelicans are right to have aspirations that match the transcendent ability of star player Anthony Davis.

With Davis embarking on what could eventually go down as one of the greatest careers of all time, it was essential that the Pelicans chose the right man to lead him. That man, despite his once throwing up on the bench during one of the most important games of his coaching career, is Gentry.

Certainly on the face of it he is an unglamorous hire – a re-tread assistant coach who has won just two playoff series as a head coach in four different stops. Au contraire, Gentry is an offensive mastermind and great communicator with a knack for getting the best out of talented young stars in non-ideal situations. As an assistant he has made colossal contributions and as a head coach he has generally met or exceeded expectations whilst never being blessed with a proposition as promising as New Orleans’ until now.

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My 2015 NBA All-Star ballot

With a quarter of the regular season in the books, NBA All-Star balloting began in earnest yesterday.

Of course I took the first available opportunity to vote for my ten most deserving starters – three frontcourt players and two guards from each conference:

Western Conference

FC: Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

25.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 32.9 PER, 10-11 record

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In appreciation of Andrew Bogut, point center and elite defender

Andrew Bogut

Golden State center Andrew Bogut is averaging 7.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, hardly earth-shattering numbers. However, he has established himself as perhaps the best passing big man in the game as well as one of its finest rim protectors. He has helped lead the Warriors to a league-best 14-2 start and is due proper praise here.

Bogut is a newly-unleashed offensive fulcrum for the Warriors, who are stylistically and statistically much-improved on that end of the floor in large part due to his increased role. I wrote on the eve of the season that the Aussie could “get his Boris Diaw on” and be devastating as a passer in a motion-packed offense under new coach Steve Kerr. He has done exactly that.

Remarkably, Bogut is currently assisting on 18.7% of teammates’ buckets whilst he is on the floor, a distinctly Diaw-like number. Fittingly, Diaw is putting up an almost-identical 18.5% assist percentage.

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Is Steph Curry a legit MVP candidate?

The season is in its infant stages, but it is never too early to celebrate a player who is putting up 27.7 points, 7.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds and playing some impressive defense. That player is not LeBron James. It is the Warriors’ new and improved Stephen Curry.

Steph Curry

Coming into the season, Curry was 40/1 to be named MVP – the 11th favorite to win the award. Based on A) the news that Kevin Durant would miss 8 weeks through injury and B) my firm belief that the Warriors would be much improved under Steve Kerr, I wagered a harmless pound on him. At this stage I wish I had wagered £100.

With KD out and LeBron having a sluggish-by-his-standards start to the season and Cleveland playing .500 ball, the MVP race is, for now, wide open – making those odds look laughably long.

Whilst Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-generation force of nature who is doing unseemly things on the defensive end, the unwritten rule is that the MVP must win a bare minimum of 50 games. AD’s Pelicans may not even make the postseason. Besides, he is only 21 and has plenty of time to win several MVPs before he is done.

The time is now for Steph.

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Takeaways from the first three nights of the NBA season

It’s the opening week of the new NBA season, which means the League Pass fest is in full effect.

Here are my screenshot-backed observations from the first three nights.

This Spurs employee needs a manicure:

Spurs ring

It is not clear who is holding the ring here, but to whoever it is: Come on, dude. You’re on national TV. Don’t look like a tramp.

The Lakers’ season is already over:

Julius Randle

Just when you thought the Lakers could not get any more depressing, Julius Randle breaks his leg. A devastating blow for the lad, and a clear cue for the Lakers to embrace being as bad as possible and maintaining their top-five protected draft pick. With Jeremy Lin running the point like this, it seems inevitable.

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