Where’s the Love?

It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. 

Listen to me Kevin. It’s not your fault.

Kevin Love is a limited big. He doesn’t have the length or the instincts to be a rim protector or an above-average defender in any real sense. Teams will focus their attack on him, attempting to isolate him and feast on his weaknesses while simultaneously pulling him out of position and wearing him down.

His offensive game at the best of times consists of a combination of low-post magic and strong shooting from the perimeter. Love is one of the best pick and pop bigs in the league, and his perimeter and post games can complement one another beautifully. Love is able to open space for himself to face up and drive from the perimeter based on his deadly shooting when he starts on the move. It’s not the speed that’s important, which is good, because outrunning every defender isn’t an option.

His combination of power and skill is the real key. Coming off a pick, the option for his defender to hang back toward the rim doesn’t exist; that’s just conceding points. Instead, defending bigs have to close out, and quickly, allowing Love to put them on the wrong foot and get a path to the lane. From there his size, post skill, and superior passing make him a nightmare for defenses. The dream in Minnesota was always for these skills to combine with Ricky Rubio’s slick passing to give the team an unstoppable pick and pop attack. That didn’t consistently happen for a number of reasons, but of all the decisions made by the T’wolves over the past several years, that’s one of the few that made any sense.

The Cavs have nearly eliminated that part of his game, instead placing him on the weakside perimeter as Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are operating with the ball. Spot ups have accounted for nearly a quarter of Love’s chances according to stats.nba.com, and the trickle down effect on his game is measurable.

Love is averaging by far the fewest offensive rebounds of his career on account of being so far from the rim when a shot goes up. He’s also shooting just 43% from the field, a turn of events that can be directly traced to the drop off in the number of shots he is attempting at the rim.

Posting him up gives some similar advantages to the pick and pop, mostly thanks to the double teams he can draw, but at least the Cavs seem interested in exploring that possibility, with another quarter of his possessions being counted as post up opportunities. Nonetheless, positioning Love as a safety valve for long stretches is a waste of his enormous talents.

A team could absolutely build an elite offense around Love, and could easily support him on defense. Such a team would need solid rim protection at center, a good pick and pop guard or two, and sound shooting and defense on the wings. That’s basically the strategy every team is gearing themselves toward anyway.

The best current real-world example of such a team is probably the Grizzlies. Replace Zach Randolph with Love and Memphis would be as good, if not better, than they are now. Randolph benefits from having Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, and Marc Gasol around him. He too is limited (even more so than Love in some ways), but the team is set up to limit his weaknesses and highlight his strengths.

There are certain guys – the aforementioned LeBron and younger Gasol are probably the best examples in the game – who would fit in with any team. You do not need to worry about how LeBron’s game will suffer under various circumstances; it won’t. These players are all at least average at every relevant skill, and as a result there’s no weakness to hide, no quirks that need to be indulged to maximize their abilities.

These are complete players, and they are fantastic to have on your team, but there simply aren’t enough of them to go around. Love’s game may not totally mesh with Cleveland at the moment, but it may be in their best interests to involve him more directly in ways that prop up his particular approach to the game. LeBron will be fine, but there’s so much more to access from this inside-out offensive machine than what the Cavs are currently getting.

Love shouldn’t be blamed for his dropoff in production after spending a season in a system that basically only used him as a floor-spacer for long stretches. We’ve all been deprived of seeing a fully-utilized Love doing all of the crazy things that he can do. The 80 foot outlet passes are still there, and whether he seeks out another team that can support him better or Cleveland learns to integrate him more fully, hopefully the rest of his immense skills can be put on display again in the near future.

Rise and Fall of the Contenders

All things considered, the Bulls are having a pretty good season. Despite a myriad of injuries, they are comfortably in the top half of the East and will likely enjoy homecourt advantage in the 1st round of the playoffs. With some luck, injuries to Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler won’t keep those players out into the playoffs, with current timetables for both indicating that there’s a decent possibility that they’ll even get in a few games prior to end of the regular season to get their rhythm back. Chicago’s season may have seen some setbacks, but the emergence of Butler and the resurgence of Pau Gasol is enough to give hope that a healthy roster can challenge anyone in the East.

San Antonio’s title defense should have been more spirited. They too have suffered from injuries, and the tough competition in the Western Conference has meant that they sit only in a tie for 6th, rather than their usual perch near the top of the standings. No team will ever be a favorite to survive four straight series on the road, much less to survive them coming out of the bloodbath that is the West bracket. On top of that, key contributors like Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard have missed valuable time that may have slowed their development.

The Rose situation has put a damper over the entire Bulls’ season, but it’s not like he’s been completely terrible. All-Star Rose may still be a thing, although MVP Rose certainly is not. While he’s been the big story, Rose’s actual impact on the team’s success this season vs. the last couple hasn’t been that dramatic. They’ll be better with him, of course, if for no other reason than limiting Kirk Hinrich’s involvement, but other factors have been more important this season. Butler’s improvement, for instance, has been enormous, as has the upgrade from Carlos Boozer to Gasol in the coveted “aging power forward who can’t guard anyone” role. Losing Butler to his elbow injury has been very painful. Joakim Noah’s ongoing injury struggles and Taj Gibson’s absence have only exacerbated the team’s problems.

Meanwhile in Texas, everything’s starting to look up for the Spurs. Leonard and Mills are back, Tim Duncan is still, inexplicably, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker continues to thrive as the engine driving the Spurs’ offense. Since the start of the calendar year the team has gone a very respectable 19-9, and they’ve managed to avoid the battle for 8th while leaving themselves only 2.5 games back of 4th and homecourt advantage in the 1st round. Not too shabby for a team considered to be done after their title run.

When these two teams met on Sunday, their respective trajectories could not have been more clear. Bolstered by strong defense, especially from Leonard, and a brilliant performance attacking the rim from Parker, along with great supporting work from Mills and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs simply outplayed Chicago. Even a strong push in the 3rd quarter, helped along by none other than the immortal Nazr Mohammed, was snuffed out by Parker repeatedly slicing into the lane for layups. The statistical anomaly of Duncan failing to register a field goal for the first time in his two-decade career simply didn’t matter due to San Antonio’s perimeter dominance.

The West is never easy, but in a season with this much going on, a healthy Spurs team could absolutely make the finals. They probably won’t, but that’s more a matter of statistics than a reflection of the quality of the team; they’re as good healthy as they’ve ever been, and right this instant, they’re healthy. There’s obviously no guarantee that will hold up through the playoffs, but even starting in the bottom of the bracket they’d stand a decent shot in every series.

The same can’t be said for the current incarnation of the Bulls. With Noah not right and Rose and Butler ailing, there’s only so much this team can do. If Noah’s issues disintegrate and Butler comes back at 100%, Chicago will definitely be a painful matchup for any opponent, albeit one without the firepower needed to make it out of the East, much less win a championship. Rose could return, but counting on him to bounce back from injury at this point is about like a frog trying to ferry a scorpion. We all know how it ends. Even if he is healthy, his current (and likely future) incarnation simply won’t be enough.

Threat of Ice Leads to Throwback Game Experience

On Wednesday, the threat of inclement weather nearly lead to the cancellation of the Hawks-Mavericks tilt in Atlanta.

The effect of the uncertainty was noticeable on the players, but the effect on the atmosphere of the arena stood out even more. The Hawks have made significant changes to their game presentation this season, including the introduction of a giant projector that lights up the floor for pregame introductions and halftime, as well as the usual collection of cheerleaders, trampoline dunkers, and a parachuting plush cow drop from the rafters.

On Wednesday, there were no cows, cheerleaders, or trampoline dunkers. Hell, there were barely any concession stands open. A crew of what appeared to be about five, including the team’s mascot, Harry the Hawk, instead was left to put together a decidedly more low-tech version of in-game entertainment.

Things got off to a bit of a slow start. Pregame intros were conducted without the use of the arena-rattling intro music and projector magic – in fact the projector wasn’t used once during the game. In its place was the standard “Ryan Cameron calls out the players’ names and they go through a high-five line” setup. Just before tip Kent Bazemore grabbed a microphone to thank the crowd for bothering to show up.

The first quarter’s timeout entertainment was mostly a collection of pre-taped video segments played on the jumbotron, several of them recognizable from earlier in the season; it was the sort of sponsored segment that would feature all of the players being asked whether they prefer the Simpsons or Family Guy, or showing Al Horford and Kyle Korver playing the pyramid game. A few of the more entertaining ones throughout the night featured players’ reactions to a still of Mike Scott with his head between the legs of a Bulls’ player in a game and their attempts to pronounce a German word introduced by Dennis Schroder.

The real magic started when the brave few in-game entertainment crew members started to get creative. Harry the Hawk performed his usual routine, but the others were forced into some more interesting skits, most of which involved dressing up one of the guys in various costumes. He started out with a simple routine wherein, dressed in a blue inflatable suit and a Dirk Nowitzki jersey, he was chased by Harry around the court during a timeout before being dragged out. During another timeout later in the game he showed up in one section wearing roughly 15 giveaway t-shirts, which he then stripped out of one by one, tossing them into the crowd. At some point he came out in an Angry Birds costume, and finally, when the final horn sounded, he was seen wandering around the court in a robe and oversized boxing gloves.

Absent the usual array of sponsored on-court timeout filler or a halftime performance, a lot of the dead time was filled by Harry helping out two kids in an obviously improvised race, trying to launch an overhead, facing-the-wrong-direction halfcourt shot (a staple of his performance that got a lot more play last night), or just throwing it over to Sir Foster, the brilliant in-game keyboard player, and letting him chew up a couple of minutes with keyboard versions of Outkast songs. It was not unlike what you’d expect to see in a documentary about the ABA, or at least a game at Philips Arena prior to this season.

The ABA feel to the proceedings was not helped by the comedy of errors in the first quarter. The game clock malfunctioned at least three times, a staple of Philips in the pre-Budenholzer era. Then there was what appeared to be a roof leak dripping on an area outside one of the 3-point lines, which mystically repaired itself to allow the action to continue.

Between the sparseness of the crowd, the lack of in-game theatrics, and the slow start by the Hawks on the floor, it seemed like something straight out of 2009. For a long time, the poor crowds and underdeveloped arena experience were something of a trademark. For various reasons that’s started to change, helped along in large part by the fact that it’s more fun to watch a good team than a mediocre or bad one. CEO Steve Koonin has also made a major effort to beef up the entertainment side of things, leading to things like implementing the projector system and booking T.I. for the home opener.

For one night, though, it was all back to the barest basics, and it was surprisingly fun once things got rolling. Fittingly, the night ended with the Hawks mounting a comeback and handily beating Dallas, who went cold from the field in the 2nd half. Koonin quickly grabbing the mic to wish everyone a safe ride home. It turned out that for most in attendance that wouldn’t be a problem – the snow and ice had mostly been relegated to an area far north of the city, but an overreaction to the weather just added to the experience.

What Does Your Buyout Market Big Say About You?

The buyout season usually kicks into gear following the trade deadline, but things are going a little differently this season. You can throw out Josh Smith, whose dismissal by the Pistons was just bizarre, but even without him the early returns may be big for teams looking to add some depth thanks to the parting of ways between the Knicks and Amare Stoudemire and the impending buyout of Larry Sanders from the Milwaukee Bucks.

Sanders and Stoudemire are entering mid-season free agency from distinctly different places. Sanders’ antics have cost him a small fortune in fines and the missed games due to injury and suspensions have really piled up. His enormous defensive potential is clearly evident when he is healthy and allowed to play, as he roams around the paint swatting shots and generally deterring effective finishing while he’s around the basket. The offensive side of things may be a tad dicier, with his inability to convert any shot that’s not right next to the basket making him a one-dimensional roll man.

Offensive warts aside, he’s shown a ton of value as a D-and-dunks big when he can avoid lighting up off the court or trying to punch out an entire nightclub. His inability to dodge those latter issues are far more troubling, and are certainly the reason Milwaukee has had enough of him, but that doesn’t mean that some nice team couldn’t change his errant ways.

Amare sits on the other end of the spectrum. By all accounts he actually wants to play, and aside from an ill-fated confrontation with a fire extinguisher a while back and some ongoing immaturity concerns he doesn’t seem to be a bad guy to have around these days. Sure, he has fallen off from his defensive highs as a limited defender to become a raging inferno of ineffectiveness on that end. And yeah, with the high-flyer act he put on in Phoenix with Steve Nash feeding him gone there may not be much more to his game than “toss it to him in the high post” or “let’s hope this pick and roll goes really well”, but he is hitting his shots at the rim, just like he always does, and while the numbers are off this season, he’s historically been reliable with his solid midrange jumper.

None of that is going to move the needle too much, but a team like the Mavericks (who are the odds-on favorites to land Stoudemire’s services) could certainly use someone to score a few points when Dirk Nowitzki hits the bench. Leave the defense to the rest of the lineup.

While Dallas’s frontrunner status in the Amare pursuit renders this more of an academic than a practical exercise, it will still be telling to see which teams will chase which big. Do you court the enigmatic pogo-stick center with game-changing defensive potential and youth on his side (but who may burn the place down with style), or the safe older power forward who can score you a few points without causing any off-court headaches (but that’s it)?

This organizational personality test will show the teams that are desperate for upside and think they can keep their locker room in order and those that crave the scoring stability that known quantity Stoudemire brings. A playoff team looking at Sanders is showing that it doesn’t trust its current roster to make much, if any noise in the postseason, while one looking at Amare believes it can cover for the defensive lapses, or at least live with the bleeding in exchange for a little bit more firepower. Neither is a particularly appetizing option, but no player reaches the buyout market without their share of problems. So now all suitors have to ask themselves is which of the two (if either) they’re willing to bring aboard.

The Quiet Revival of Linsanity

Perhaps the heights of Linsanity were too bizarre and the situation too perfect to recreate. An expectation-laden Knicks team struggling with injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire suddenly found hope in the undrafted guy from Harvard. Jeremy Lin got 35 games of pure, ridiculous excitement as he put New York on his back and provided a little bit of magic before running into the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh buzzsaw in Miami.

Lin’s brilliance during that stretch briefly raised expectations for what his career could become. The big numbers in the box score (both good and bad) were somehow all positive indicators. The points and assists? Obviously All-Star caliber. The high turnover rate? Secretly a sign that he wasn’t even hitting his ceiling yet.

Only after the season, when he was poached by a crafty Rockets’ front office – leading to one of the most bizarre and desperate stories in free agency history as the Knicks, aware that they could not keep Lin, tried to hide from Rockets’ officials to avoid receiving his offer sheet – did the expectations wane. At the time of the signing, it was expected that Lin would be given the reins to the Houston offense, while fellow free agent signing Omer Asik was left to protect the rim and veteran Kevin Martin provided wing scoring.

Fortunately for the Rockets, but probably not Lin, they swung a deal to send Martin and several other pieces to Oklahoma City in the now-infamous James Harden deal. That left Lin as the secondary ball-handler in his own backcourt, and he never adequately adjusted to the role. This past offseason, after two years of mediocre numbers in Houston, he was shipped out to L.A. to create cap space for a Bosh signing that never came to pass.

With the Lakers he was again relegated to playing 2nd fiddle, this time to Kobe Bryant. With that, his slide into irrelevance became complete. No one gives a crap about the guy next to the guy making the headlines. And Kobe can make a headline. From his inefficient, shot-happy start to his kind-of tragic, left-handed finale, Kobe was, is, and will be the only reason anyone pays attention to the Lakers this season.

But maybe that’s all for the best. There, in the surprisingly obscure post-Kobe wasteland that is the Lakers’ roster, Lin can thrive. For the first time since Melo returned from injury to wrest control of a suddenly-surging Knicks team from Lin’s hands, he’ll have a shot at showing what he can accomplish as the primary ball handler on the wing. Sure, he’s going to be passing to Ed Davis, Robert Sacre, Jordan Hill, and a washed up Carlos Boozer, but at least he’ll have the ball…when he’s on the floor – he’s already coming off the bench behind Jordan Clarkson.

Hidden in his newfound obscurity is the fact that Lin is a pretty good point guard. He’s good for about 15 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes under normal circumstances, and with added responsibility he could easily eclipse those numbers. His shooting has steadily improved each season, with his 36% mark from long distance placing him right around the league average, an improvement from his bricky early days.

Lin is only 26, and this is his 5th season in the NBA. He probably won’t get much better than he is right now, but for the first time in ages he might at least have the opportunity to put his full talents on display. There are precious few reasons to tune in to a Lakers game these days; for my money, seeing Lin get his chance is probably the most compelling one.