Friday, May 24, 2013

MOCK What You Don't Understand

With the lottery done, it's time to take a crack at my first mock draft of the year.  This year is tough because Cleveland could take Nerlens Noel or Otto Porter at #1, and either option creates a radically different lottery.

Predictably, the Cavs are playing it close to the vest.  I'll do my best to jump into their heads at this point and take it from there.

1. Cleveland:  Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky

Ultimately, while Porter is a very good prospect who has a fairly high floor, he doesn't set himself apart as a prospect you just can't afford to pass on.  Noel, on the other hand, has a chance to be a game-changer on the defensive end.  If you're going to compare him to a current or former NBA player, I would compare him to Theo Ratliff, who for a decade was one of the game's pre-eminent defensive big men.  These guys don't come around all that often (although this is the second straight year one of them is coming out of Kentucky...)  At any rate, until someone convinces me it's Porter, this is my guess.

2.  Orlando: Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas

You can make a case for Trey Burke here, as the thoroughly average Jameer Nelson has only one year left on his contract.  But McLemore has all the classic NBA shooting guard skills, and not being undersized for his position gives him more reliable upside than Burke, at a position that is as big a need as point guard.

3.  Washington:  Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown

And he doesn't even have to leave town!  The Wiz have their long-term backcourt set with John Wall and Bradley Beal.  Anthony Bennett is a possibility here, as that is also a position of need, but at #3 you can't really pass up on Porter.

4.  Charlotte:  Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV

The Hornets (yes, we can say that again!) need skill and athleticism in the frontcourt, and Bennett brings plenty.  His body type is definitely that of a power forward, although ideally you'd like him to be a couple of inches taller.  But the Canadian can handle, shoot, and has a legit back to the basket game.

5.  Phoenix: Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana

Oladipo is a top level athlete who projects to be an elite defender, but it's the emergence of his offensive game that has vaulted him up draft boards. Even top shooting guards like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Brandon Paul had a hard time stopping Oladipo off the dribble, and his three point shot reached a surprising level of refinement.  Because of his defense, you could argue that he's a safer bet than even McLemore... and if his offensive game continues to progress, he could be a major piece for the Suns.

6.  New Orleans:  Trey Burke, PG, Michigan

Burke took incredible strides as a sophomore under John Beilein, progressing from a scoring lead guard  to a true playmaker, someone who could run an offense while also possessing the ability to take over a game.  He is already a plus three-point shooter, and despite his size he is a handful in the lane who can get all the way to the rim even at a hair under 6' tall.  His defense improved mightily as a sophomore, as well.  If he were three inches taller, he would be the clear #2 pick in this draft.  As it is, the Pelicans should have a long term starter in Burke.

7.  Sacramento:  Cody Zeller, PF/C, Indiana

I have long believed that Zeller would make a better pro than he was a college player, as NBA 4's are going to have a hard time dealing with Zeller both on the perimeter and in the post.  Zeller showed in Chicago that he's plenty athletic to match up with power forwards, and as he adds strength he should be able to give minutes at center, too.  He's a nice insurance policy for the Demarcus Cousins wild card, and a compelling player to pair with Cousins in a potentially imposing frontcourt.

8.  Detroit:  Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Syracuse

C.J. McCollum is a popular pick here, but I can't see the Pistons going for another 6'3", score-first combo guard.  MCW has incredible size and athleticism for the position, and he's a true point guard.  If he develops the same court sense, he could be a bigger Rajon Rondo.  And if he fixes his jump shot - which recent testing suggests may be happening - his upside is almost unlimited.  He would make an ideal backcourt mate for Brandon Knight.

9. Minnesota:  Shabazz Muhammad, SG/SF, UCLA

Minnesota needs athleticism on the wings.  Muhammad is not an elite wing athlete.  But he can score, and the T'Wolves need someone who can do that, too.  Muhammad may only be a scorer, but he lacks the baggage of someone like Michael Beasley.  In a perfect world, Oladipo is the guy Minnesota would want here, and for that reason the T'Wolves might be a candidate to trade up.

10.  Portland:  Alex Len, C, Maryland

The jury remains out on Meyers Leonard, and you can never have too much size.  With Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers are pretty set outside.  Len, a pure low-post center, would be a nice complement to the face-up game of LaMarcus Aldridge.

11.  Philadelphia:  Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Duke

Philly needs size, and Plumlee is both big and athletic.  He can play in the low post, and run the floor with almost any big man in the game.

12.  Oklahoma City:  C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Lehigh

This is both good value and a good fit.  McCollum could back up Russell Westbrook as well as play with him, providing the backcourt scoring that James Harden took with him to Houston.

13.  Dallas:  Dennis Schroeder, PG, Germany

This 19 year-old emerged late with lightning quickness, a pure point guard's skills, and a competent jump shot.  Who better to usher him into the NBA than countryman Dirk Nowitzki?  Dallas is heading into a rebuilding phase, and Schroeder has the potential to grow into a fixture.

14.  Utah: Dario Saric, SF, Croatia

With a need at the point, the Jazz would have loved to see Schroeder or Carter-Williams still on the board here. Instead they go for the upside of this versatile, 19 year-old import.  At 6'10", Saric possesses some real point-forward skills, a streaky jumper that should improve, and a basketball IQ perhaps unmatched in the draft.

15. Milwaukee:  Sergey Karasev, SF, Russia

Milwaukee needs shooting (even after acquiring JJ Redick), and the small forward position is the Bucks' most unsettled.  Karasev may be the best shooter in the draft.

16.  Boston:  Giannis Adetokuompo, SF, Greece

Adetokuompo is perhaps the most intriguing player in the draft.  A long, athletic freak at 6'9", he often plays point guard for his Greek league team.  Incredibly raw at only 18 years old, Giannis is likely to be stashed in Europe for 2-3 years... making him ready to come over right as Boston's rebuilding is in full swing.  There is no one at #16 that will be an immediate boon to a rebuilding team, so this is a perfect opportunity for the Celtics to shoot for the stars.

17.  Atlanta:  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Georgia

Good size, solid athleticism, solid shooting, and the ability to create make Caldwell-Pope an intriguing choice for a rebuilding Hawks team.  He still needs to improve as a finisher and on the defensive end, but with the right coaching, the upside is there.

18.  Atlanta:  Kelly Olynyk, PF/C, Gonzaga

Olynyk has an impressive skill game for a player of his size, able to shoot from the perimeter and dribble-drive. Too good a value to pass up here.

19.  Cleveland:  Reggie Bullock, SF, North Carolina

Not a sexy pick, and probably a reach here (which makes the Cavs a candidate to trade down), but Bullock would slot in nicely at the 3 between Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.  Bullock has size and length, making him an above average defender at a premium NBA position, and he's a terrific standstill jump shooter to stretch the floor for Uncle Drew.

20.  Chicago: Gorgui Dieng, PF/C, Louisville

A lot depends on whether the Bulls think they will be able to retain Marco Belinelli.  Not possessing his Larry Bird rights, the Bulls - in luxury tax territory - can only sign minimum-salary players.  Belinelli probably played himself into more market value, however he has a very good role as the third wing on a potential contender.  If he leaves, I would look for Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. in this spot.  But for now, Dieng would give the Bulls an extra big man who can give them some of what they lost when Houston pried Omer Asik away.  Dieng can defend and block shots, pass out of the high post, and has the potential to make a staple out of the foul line jumper.  Pitt C Steven Adams would be a possibility here, too, and possesses more upside, but Dieng is more likely to contribute right away, and this is what the Bulls need.  The Bulls don't have minutes to give for on-the-job training, and Tom Thibodeau has a higher threshold for throwing rookies out on the floor than most coaches.  Adams would likely be a better pick 3 or 4 years down the line... but the Bulls need to compete now.

21.  Utah: Steven Adams, C, Pitt

The young Kiwi has excellent athleticism and should be able to play defense at the NBA level fairly soon.  His offensive game is a work in progress, but he does show signs that it's there.  For a rebuilding team, Adams is a high-value pick at #21.  Getting Saric and Adams would be a very good draft for the Jazz.

22. Brooklyn:  Jamaal Franklin, SG, San Diego State

Franklin led the Aztecs in virtually every statistical category as a junior. He needs to improve his jumper, but he has excellent length, is well-built, athletic, and versatile.  While he may be a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none, Franklin's outstanding motor should at least ensure he can be a rotation contributor, perhaps like Ronnie Brewer when he was in Utah.  With MarShon Brooks on the outs with the Nets, Franklin would give them the option of going small with Joe Johnson at the 3 and Gerald Wallace at the 4.

23.  Indiana:  Shane Larkin, PG, Miami

Larkin emerged as an explosive player for the 'Canes as a sophomore.  His size will always be an issue, and he doesn't have Trey Burke's repertoire to overcome that.  But he has the potential to be a long term high-end backup or low-end starter - and for the Pacers a nice game-ready complement to George Hill.

24.  New York:  Jeff Withey, C, Kansas

The Knicks need everything... and the Knicks need nothing.  But they are definitely in "win-now" mode, so if they can get a guy who can help them off the bench right away, that would be a win at #24.  Withey is not the strongest, and he doesn't have a terribly impressive offensive game, but he is a gifted shot blocker and can defend the rim when Tyson Chandler is not in the game.

 25.  L.A. Clippers:  Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, Michigan

Hardaway stood out at the Chicago camp, earning high marks for his intensity and professionalism. At Michigan he displayed an NBA-level perimeter jump shot, but an ability to create was never in evidence, and his commitment to defense did not begin to surface until well into his junior season.  But he has the length, tested well athletically in Chicago, appears willing to work at it, and if he's properly taught he might become more than an adequate defender.  Even just being able to stretch a defense while defending his position would make him an NBA rotation player - and exactly what the Clippers need.  If his ability to create exists but was simply not utilized within the structure of John Beilein's offense, he could be a hidden gem.

26.  Minnesota:  Glen Rice Jr., SG/SF, D-League

So, we get back-to-back sons of '90s NBA stars here.  Minnesota needs athletes on the wings, and Rice brings brings size and athleticism.  He brings some baggage, too, having been benched by Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech, then the next year dismissed from the team by Brian Gregory.  But once he got to the D-League, the former top prospect out of high school emerged as a prolific scorer. He's not great as a creator, but like his father he's a plus standstill sniper, which should fit well with Ricky Rubio.  He has the physical tools to defend, but will need some solid instruction and motivation to develop.  All told, this would be a nice high-upside value pick this late.

27.  Denver:  Erick Green, PG, Virginia Tech

Andre Miller can't play forever, so Denver needs to start cultivating a new backup to Ty Lawson.  Green is primarily a scorer with the ability to get - and make - perimeter shots.  But he does have the ability to run an offense, and is adept in the pick-and-roll game that is such an NBA staple.  With a 6'7" wingspan, Green has the potential to log some minutes alongside Lawson should last year's first round pick, Frenchman Evan Fournier, not develop.

28.  San Antonio:  Lucas Nogueira, C, Brazil

"Bebe" has a physical profile that is reminiscent of Denver's JaVale McGee.  The 20 year-old is rail thin at 6'11", but is a freakish athlete and can dominate the defensive end of the floor.  If he gets stronger and adds a modicum of offensive skill, Nogueira could become a difference-maker.  He might be best off stashed overseas for another year or two, which is fine by the Spurs.  A potential Marcus Camby clone.

29.  Oklahoma City:  Rudy Gobert, C, France

Gobert does not have much of an offensive game beyond dunking - which he can do almost without jumping thanks to possessing the wingspan of an Airbus.  His athletic testing in Chicago was underwhelming, but there is only so athletic you need to be with a 9'7" standing vertical.  He's 19 and needs a lot of development.  But the Thunder would probably prefer not to add two rookies right now anyway, and are looking ahead to the day they replace Kendrick Perkins.

30.  Phoenix:  Mouhammadou Jaiteh, C, France

Yet another physically impressive foreign center for a team that is willing to wait on long-term potential and isn't looking for immediate help.  Despite being the second youngest player in the draft, not turning 19 until November, Jaiteh wants to make his way to the NBA quickly.  The Suns will hope he can grow along with them.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What is Derrick Rose's value-added, anyway?

The year before winning the lottery and drafting Derrick Rose, the Bulls won 33 games. And in Rose's first two years under the generally confused Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls finished an even 41-41 each year.

Del Negro was dismissed after Rose's second year - which was also the Summer of Lebron/Wade/Bosh/David Lee/Joe Johnson... during which the Bulls landed Carlos Boozer/C.J. Watson/Kyle Korver.

Boozer was widely considered to be a flop, infuriating fans with his disdain for defense and passivity on offense. Watson and Korver were nice bench players, supporting iron man Luol Deng with the fabled "Bench Mob". Little the Bulls added that summer would have portended a big step forward for the team.

Yet, incredibly, the Bulls jumped from 41 to 62 wins, finished with the league's best record, advanced to the East finals, and lost to Miami in 5 games (although by a total of a mere 11 points in the series).

Adding Rose, for his first two years, added 8 wins over what the Bulls were before his arrival.

Adding Tom Thibodeau, on the other hand, added 21 wins. Rose deservedly won MVP. Luol Deng was transformed, in the eyes of Bulls fans, from a terrible John Paxson contract decision to one of the game's best small forwards. Joakim Noah has continued his upward trajectory and has emerged into a legitimate All-Star capable of leading the way to victory on the road in a playoff game seven.

It is fair to ask, then, if the driving force behind the Bulls' competitiveness is not merely the individual brilliance of Derrick Rose, but rather, the style of play and relentless professional culture instilled by Thibodeau - carried out through linchpins Noah and Deng.

Conventional wisdom says that superstars win championships, and more often than not this is true. However, there are precedents for teams winning titles with just a lot of very good players. The most oft-cited example was the Larry Brown Pistons, who won a title without a single player who could be argued was even in the top 3 at his position, but had five - Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace - who were all in the top half dozen. Further, the Spurs have a very clear shot at winning the West this year with an aging nucleus and not a single player that could still be called a superstar.

When Reggie Rose made the unfortunate comment this winter that he felt the Bulls had not done enough to build around Derrick, he said that it could affect his decision to push it and come back this season. As we sit at one year and one week since the injury with Derrick still not back on the court, it's hard to avoid the disturbing reality that Reggie gave us a very clear insight into the thinking of Team Rose: throw this season away.

Trouble is... they were wrong. In Rose's absence, Carlos Boozer had his best year as a Bull. This is interesting because for his first two years in Chicago, Boozer actually played much better when Rose was out and he was a bigger part of the offense. Noah and Deng both made the All-Star team. The mercurial Nate Robinson stepped forward with scoring binges that won games for the Bulls, most memorably in Game 4 against the Nets. Jimmy Butler blossomed into a very solid bench player, a three-position defensive stopper with an emerging offensive game. He even acquitted himself well in a starting role and provided hope that with further improvement of his jump shot he might well be the answer at the shooting guard position. (After watching the development of Noah, does anyone want to bet against Thibodeau's ability to get one more level of improvement out of Butler?) Even afterthought signing Marco Belinelli stepped up with some big games when called upon, in keeping with Thibodeau's "we need everyone" mantra.

Forgetting all about the tempest surrounding Rose's return, it is very fair to ask not whether Rose has a good enough supporting cast, but whether Rose or what you could get in TRADE for Rose would give better support for Thibodeau, Noah and Deng.

Very few NBA coaches truly add value. Their function is to provide a little strategic and tactical direction but also to keep players who make more money than they do all pulling in the same direction. College coaches might scheme and develop their way to the Final Four, but conventional wisdom says that coaches can't do that in the NBA.

We have mounting evidence that Thibodeau is one of the few coaches - perhaps the NBA's only coach - who adds value in much the way a superstar player does. And once you accept that premise, a range of options present themselves in the quest to build a Championship team that perhaps we might not have considered before.

And if Derrick Rose wants to play in his hometown for the long haul, it's something that the protective circle around him might want to think hard about.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Rose Conundrum

The Bulls are headed for Brooklyn for a climactic Game 7 after losing one of the gutsiest efforts you will ever see from a basketball team.  Kirk Hinrich missed his second straight game with a calf injury.  Luol Deng's viral infection was so bad that he had to have a spinal tap before the game to rule out viral meningitis. Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson fell victim to the same bug - with Robinson literally throwing up on the bench during timeouts. Joakim Noah continues to gut his way through plantar fascitis, while Taj Gibson continues to wear a knee brace.

And Derrick Rose, at one year plus four days since tearing his ACL, continues to sit on the bench in a suit.

Kirk Hinrich spoke with the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson on Tuesday. He talked about needing to give Rose "the benefit of the doubt", and how the team "trusts" Rose.

What incredible subtext there.

You cannot give someone the benefit of the doubt if there isn't some doubt there.

And you would not need to trust Rose if you could plainly see by watching him on the practice court that he's not ready.

Appearing on 670 The Score on Wednesday, Johnson maintains that Bulls - even privately - continue to back Rose. But an experienced reporter like K.C. must understand that no one speaks to the team's beat writer on the basis of confidentiality. If you don't want a story even in the bloodstream, you don't tell it to a reporter, even "privately".  Just because they haven't told him doesn't mean they're not thinking hard about this, as the subtext of Hinrich's comments reveal.

Rose has deservedly earned a great deal of capital with his teammates, and even if they were miffed by his continued absence, it is highly unlikely they would throw him under the bus even even on the deepest of background.

(What will be interesting is when we hear from guys like Rip Hamilton and Nazr Mohammed after the season when they are no longer Bulls - and they no longer need to concern themselves with the integrity of the clubhouse or facing Bulls teammates.)

While the freak-of-nature return of Adrian Peterson is not a fair benchmark for Rose, let's at least try to form a coherent context for his continued absence.

Iman Shumpert tore his ACL on April 28, 2012 - the day before Rose.  He returned for the Knicks on January 17 - nearly four months ago.

Jamal Crawford tore his ACL early in his career, with the Bulls, and missed 8 months.

Ricky Rubio tore his ACL on March 9, 2012 - seven weeks before Rose - and returned to the court for the Timberwolves on December 15.  He was out just over nine months.

Corey Brewer of the Timberwolves, an athletic wing player, tore his ACL on November 29, 2008.  He played 33 minutes in Minnesota's opener 11 months later after playing the whole preseason.

Rose was cleared to return to practice on January 31 - over three months ago, 9 months out from the injury.

Rose was cleared for game action - his knee deemed 100% sound - on March 9... seven weeks ago, just over 10 months out from the injury.

The Tribune's Johnson, during an interview with the Mac and Spiegs show on the Score, said that he believes Rose has made a "strategic decision not to play this year".

For $16 million and while the Bulls are fighting through non-stop carnage, we're past the point where this is acceptable anymore.  That kind of "strategic decision" can't stay in Rose's hands indefinitely, not this long after he has been cleared.

By contrast, just today the Knicks' Shumpert had this to say:

"I'm not really thinking about my knee. We've just got to win games. I've got the whole summer to work on things, to get myself to where I want to be individually, athletically. But right now, with what we've got and how my knee feels, it's good enough to play and I've got to go out there and make plays."

Shumpert and Rose were injured on back to back days, yet Shumpert came back four months earlier (and counting).

One can understand where this excessive caution comes from. Derrick's brother, Reggie, tore his ACL and never came back the same from it. And Rose has had a protective circle around him for his entire life, shielding him from the dangers of his Englewood neighborhood and managing his college recruitment. Derrick has likely never made a weighty decision in his life and may not be equipped to make this one, either. This isn't a matter of motivation, and those who question Rose's desire are missing the mark badly. This is a matter of decision-making capacity.

But all of this represents mildly informed speculation. What we know is this:

The Rose brush fire would be incredibly easy to douse if the Bulls wanted to.  Tom Thibodeau could say on any day: Derrick still doesn't look nearly like himself out there, and we don't want him pushing it. He's too valuable to take even a small risk with.  

Instead, Thibs just tells us every day that Rose is improving, getting closer... which tells us nothing about where he actually is right now.

By the same token, Hinrich could easily say: Trust me, guys, I'm on the practice floor with him every day. That's not Derrick Rose. He's not ready yet.

Instead Hinrich speaks of having to give Rose the benefit of the doubt.

The Bulls are not telling us that Rose doesn't look ready, or hasn't been declared fit by their medical and training staff. They're telling us that he hasn't declared himself ready to play yet - and every indication is that he and his camp made the decision long ago to run out the clock on this season.

If Rose truly is not ready to play yet for some physical reason, then we should be very worried at this point.  Given that his timeline has already extended past that of almost every other NBA ACL injury in the last decade,  there would exist a real chance that Rose may in fact never be the same explosive player again.

(Note: the Score's Dan Bernstein maintains that he has been told, off the record, by people who see Rose in practice that he is dominating and looks as physically impressive as ever.)

And if Rose cannot mentally get himself in a place where he can play as he always has, even after weeks upon weeks going full speed on the practice floor, then we need to be concerned that he will never again be the warrior who plays the game with abandon and no regard for his body.  Mentally, he may be permanently damaged goods.

We're past 12 months now. If he really can't play, for either mental or physical reasons, then don't we have a real problem here?

But if this, as Johnson believes, is a "strategic decision", and Rose has outsourced his own free will to his hyper-protective big brother, then this gets sticky.

If the Bulls, after going up 3-1 over Brooklyn, proceed to drop three straight in the wake of Hinrich's injury - or if the Bulls prevail in Game 7 but face Miami without Rose - it's almost impossible to imagine that Rose will not have spent a great deal of his hard-earned capital with his teammates, the Bulls organization, and the fans.

And then it would no longer be possible to view Rose as categorically untouchable as the Bulls seek to compete for a Championship.

If New Orleans would part with a top-3 pick (which would presumably be used on Michigan PG Trey Burke) along with the himself-recovering Eric Gordon, would the Bulls not have to consider that for Rose?

If Charlotte landed the #1 pick (presumably Kansas SG Ben McLemore) and were willing to package that with PG Kemba Walker (nearly 18 points and 6 assists a game this season at age 22), would you not have to consider that, too?

If Philadelphia would part with Jrue Holiday (18 points, 8 assists this year at age 22) along with the disappointing but still young and serviceable Evan Turner, and the #11 pick... that, too, would have to be considered.

Such scenarios would have once been beyond unthinkable. Rose was not only an electrifying player but the ultimate competitor and perhaps sports' most humble and likable superstar, not to mention a hometown hero.

But we are now reaching a threshold where either something might be very wrong with him, or if not, then his relationship with the team and city is on the verge of backsliding catastrophically.