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The Dwight Howard Problem

Buddy Grizzard looks at Dwight Howard in Atlanta and the traditional big man in the NBA.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Atlanta Hawks attempted a bizarre experiment last season, moving on from perimeter-oriented center Al Horford and signing traditional, post-centric center Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million deal. In the wake of a first-round playoff series loss to the Washington Wizards in which Howard rode the bench through multiple fourth quarters, the fallout was swift. Mike Budenholzer relinquished his title as President of Basketball Operations while staying on as the coach, Wes Wilcox transitioned from GM to an advisory position, and the Hawks hired Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk as the new head of basketball ops. In the wake of this transformation, the question remains: Was this the result of a bad bet on an individual player and personality in Howard, or was it a failure by the Hawks to spot the larger NBA trend of moving away from traditional post players?

In the early morning of April 28, hours before the Hawks would be eliminated at home in Game 6 against the Wizards, Howard was pulled over for speeding and had his car towed due to no insurance. The incident seemed to confirm every negative story that’s ever been reported about Howard and he immediately became a scapegoat for Atlanta’s first-round playoff failure. Wrote the Associated Press of the task facing Schlenk:

“Perhaps the most pressing issue is Howard, who still has two more years on his contract. Once one of the league’s most dominating players, the 6-foot-11 center endured a disappointing debut season with the Hawks and looked totally out of place by the playoffs.”

But was Howard’s first season in Atlanta really a disappointment? Was he truly to blame for the Hawks’ failure to get past the Wizards? Howard’s 63.3 percent field goal shooting this season was a career-high and sixth-best in the NBA. His 12.7 rebounds per game were fifth in the league and his highest average since the 2011-12 season in which he averaged 20.6 points and 14.5 rebounds. Howard was also sixth in double-doubles and 20th in blocked shots. For perspective, here is a player comparison for last regular season, courtesy of BasketballReference.com, of Howard, Timofey Mozgov (signed to a four-year, $64 million contract by the Lakers last summer) and the Knicks’ Joakim Noah (four years, $72 million).

Mozgov and Noah have obviously been huge disappointments, each playing about half as many minutes as Howard this season. But a comparison of Howard’s Player Efficiency Rating (20.8, 35th) or per 36 minute stats (16.4 points, 15.4 rebounds) to Mozgov and Noah shows what a comparative bargain he is. In addition, the Hawks were able to sign Howard to a short, three-year deal. With only two years remaining on Howard’s deal, he’s not nearly the albatross the other two centers are. If Howard continues to produce in 2017-18, his contract isn’t immovable.

The true comparison for Howard, however, is with Horford, the center he replaced in Atlanta’s starting lineup. After Horford averaged a mere 3.5 rebounds in Atlanta’s four-game sweep to the Cavaliers in the 2016 second round, the Hawks likely saw Howard as a means to upgrade rebounding and rim defense. Horford stumbled against the Cavaliers again in this season’s playoffs, averaging only 4.2 rebounds and posting a team-worst aggregate -97 (his -64 in last year’s Atlanta-Cleveland series was worse than every Hawk except Kent Bazemore). But the fact remains that Horford, a perimeter-oriented center who can guard the pick and roll, guard perimeter players at the three-point line, and positively impact his team with passing, has led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals in two of the last four seasons.

In the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors don’t have a traditional post player playing more minutes than Zaza Pachulia’s 13.6. The closest allegory to a player like Howard playing significant minutes in these Finals is Tristan Thompson, who is playing just under 22 minutes per game for the Cavaliers. The comparison is imperfect. Thompson is vastly superior to Howard in both defending and running the pick and roll. But he’s a roleplayer depended on for defense, rim protection and rebounding, much like Howard’s role toward the latter stages of his career. Even with Thompson’s greater versatility, the Warriors have found success by throwing multiple bodies at him to keep him off the offensive glass. And if he leaves Draymond Green to defend a drive, Green can make him pay by spotting up at the three-point line.

Budenholzer’s inability to retain the multi-dimensional Horford contributed to his downfall as a front office executive. But the death knell for the era of the plodding frontcourt player may have sounded the moment former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie bypassed Kristaps Porzingis to draft Jahlil Okafor. Porzingis was better than advertised defensively and has become the centerpiece of the Knicks’ rebuilding efforts. Okafor has been among Philadelphia’s least productive players according to on/off splits. Executives will likewise need to approach the upcoming draft with caution as it’s littered with prospects like Jarrett Allen in the mid first round, prospects whose skillsets trend toward the archaic big man role that has less and less of a place in the modern game.

For Howard, as he remains a top 40 player in PER, the jury remains out on whether he will continue to impact winning. In Games 1-5 of the Wizards series, the Hawks were easily better with Howard on the court than any other starter, which puts the lie to the lazy narratives blaming him for Atlanta’s failure to get out of the first round. Specifically, in Game 2 and Game 5, close losses when Budenholzer left Howard on the bench in the fourth quarter, the Hawks performed no worse with Howard on the court than the bulk of the starters.

For the Hawks to maximize Howard’s value for the remainder of his contract and maximize the chances another team will accept him in a trade, he must transform his shot profile. Howard remains among the NBA’s least efficient post players, managing only .84 points per possession on post-ups, which ranks in the 38th percentile. By contrast, Howard averages a supremely efficient 1.18 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls, which ranks in the 84th percentile. Sadly, Howard used only 98 possessions as the roll man last season compared to nearly 300 post-up possessions. That number needs to be completely flipped next season. It should be Howard’s goal to attempt at least 300 possessions as the roll man while limiting his post-ups to 100 for the season. Accomplish that shot profile transformation, and Howard will be able to maximize his talents in the remaining years of his contract.

But for the NBA as a whole, look for the trend to continue away from players like Howard and Detroit’s Andre Drummond. The era when post players dominated the NBA is more than a decade in the rearview mirror. Hassan Whiteside recently commented that he plans to develop his outside shot, a dead giveaway that he understands how the role of big men in the NBA is changing. This change will be further cemented if the Warriors, with a pair of multi-talented big men in Green and Kevin Durant, continue to dominate the Western Conference and the NBA Finals conversation for years to come.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2018@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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