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Taking ‘Em to Secondary School – Lecture 1: ‘Stachenomics

“A cinema villain essentially needs a moustache so he can twiddle with it gleefully as he cooks up his next nasty plan.”

  • Mel Brooks

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bat signalWith all of the talk about Batmans and Robins, let’s take a look at the Jim Gordons of the 2016 playoffs.

“The NBA is watered down” says Tracy McGrady.

I think the lack of so many perceived “Superstars” speaks more to the fact that the NBA talent pool has become so deep in the past few years that standing out from the crop has become particularly difficult – comparable to the “unicorn” startups in Silicon Valley/SoCal (whose founders, consequently, are the only ones who can afford to get within 50 ft. of where Steph Curry live).

For reference, there’s players like James Harden, who did not even place in MVP voting; he dragged the corpse of a team co-starring a disengaged, aging, man-childish, candy addicted big man as the second best player to the 8th seed in the West, all the while averaging 29 – 7.5 – 6.1 and posting 3rd place in win shares.

My point is this –  top tier players in the NBA are so damn dynamic that it makes the field seem less competitive when, in reality, we are starting to see increased versatility at every single position. A decade ago, point guards barely could shoot threes (see Isiah Thomas); now even power forwards are generally expected to.

The increased versatility of role players and non-stars came alongside the complete rethinking of the very concept of positions, and led to more complexity in the profiles of players who would formerly be relegated to a role-player status. I am going to completely avoid the topic of the Byron Scott lead Lakers, because, maybe the steps backwards the Lakers took from modern basketball are enough to cancel out the trend and perhaps even the inevitable entropy of the universe.   

What follows is a case study on the emergence of some of the secondary duos on 2016 playoff teams. I am looking for guys who take the term “role-player” and turn it upside down, or completely break the perceived limits of their role.  What you’re hearing is the school-bell ringing: it’s time for the first class of Secondary School – “Stachenomics”, with a focus on the scoring embargo that Turkey and New Zealand placed on San Antonio, Texas.

The Stache Brothers, aka Mario and Luigi, aka what every teenage boy imagines growing a mustache makes them into.

PHOTO: ILLUSTRATION: BRUCE MACPHERSON

PHOTO: ILLUSTRATION: BRUCE MACPHERSON

Kanter-Adams lineups ended the Spurs series outscoring San Antonio by 21.8 points per 100 possessions.

What can I write about these two that has not already been written: whether that is Kanter getting the Thunder addicted to Halal food, or Adams insanely quotable post-game interviews.  In the 2016 playoffs, Westbrook has been Donkey Kong and KD has been Princess Peach, both chilling at the top of the map doing top 5 player things; meanwhile, Kanter and Adams have done the dirty work – like Italian plumbers – jumping over players, barrels and fireballs to make sure princess Durant can get his.

My prevailing ‘Stachenomic theory on this duo is twofold: 

First, if they did a fusion dance or a mind meld they would make one of the best centers in the league, talent-wise.

Kanter-Adams-Fusion3

Kanter is the type of guy who could put up 25 and 10 if given the minutes; Adams is a defensive and athletic monster who plays with intensity of a Matthew Dellavedova who ate a super mushroom. Kanter delivers more baby soft lay-ups than Adams says the word “mate”.

Adams has been defensively polished since he came in the NBA; but his impeccable defensive timing, and the small annoyance plays that draw the aggression from the opposing team have made him the cog of the Thunder’s post season defensive renaissance. He brings signature Westbrook intensity to his work on defense.

Here is a clip of the dude doing man’s work two years ago:

And this insanity from game 2:

[KGVID width=”1000″ height=”563″]https://www.almightyballer.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/xky0.mp4[/KGVID]

Kanter combinedImagine a big man who dunks all over the place and plays with amazing lateral quickness on defense like Adams, except add the soft touch of Kanter: The Thunder essentially have that, and it was something even Popovich the Great struggled (and failed) to adjust to.  In game 6 he was just throwing the kitchen sink at the lineup to see if anything would get the Spurs offense flowing while ,somehow, also slowing down the Thunder’s complete control of the interior.

My second theory is that they are learning from each other.

Kanter was once so god-awful on defense that he was so much so considered a liability by the Jazz that they eventually chose to shift to the defensively minded breakout, Rudy Gobert. Key issues include: mediocre lateral speed, a tendency to not keep his arms up while defending, ineptitude at making post-players struggle to establish position, and his signature looks of complete confusion on defensive rotations.

Well, guess what? Playing alongside Adams has taught Kanter how to play serviceable defense, because the secret stuff was inside him the whole time. During the Spurs series, Donovan gave more and more minutes to Kanter. Kanter’s season average was 21 min per game, but in the Spurs/Thunder game 6, he was up to 30 minutes. Obviously, this is a reflection on the fact that he is not killing the team defensively while he is on the court: in fact, the games where he saw the most minutes are the games where the Spurs struggled the MOST on offense.  That includes their worst playoff half ever – a meager 31 points.

tumblr_lx8nrb2LrO1qk4a0ho1_500Time for the shocking ‘stache stat of the week, Class, sponsored by Stan Van Ron Jeremy: OKC’s defense was 9% more efficient defensively with Kanter on the court against SA during the conference semis, than they were when he was on the bench. That number may seem small, but 9% is the difference between the defensive efficiency of a middling team, and an elite defensive team. Kanter still struggles with the pick-and-roll, however, as the Spurs scored a point per play against Kanter in the pick-and-roll. He is essentially the defensive opposite of Ibaka, who excels at pick-and-rolls/switches but often gets abused one-on-one.

In Adams’ case, he was once primarily a DeAndre-esque dunk and D-type player, but the 22 years old seems to be picking up some of his companion’s pet moves: I am talking slick spins to get himself in the lane for dunks, baby hooks, and more use of the high glass than the Burj Khalifa. Note how, in the video below, he almost converts a difficult and-one off the high glass. At this rate it will only be a matter of time before Mark Cuban is blowing up his phone while Chandler Parsons weaves him a friendship bracelet.

Adams is still raw offensively, but he’s showing a lot of skill at getting to the rim and making cuts when Westbrook draws a double.  Adams has become the primary benefactor of Westbrook’s signature bullet-speed lobs.

How will they be used against Golden State?

The evolution of this Thunder squad, spearheaded by the development of their young bigs, has raised some interesting questions on how OKC’s big ball will match up against Golden States “death lineup”. Golden State’s small ball lineup is the Kanye West of the NBA: they do not care about reality, limits, how Twitter works, or how good your squad is. They will do what they want when they want with a blind disregard for Charles Barkley’s “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” level of denial. 

Below are the best lineups of the regular season; obviously the Kanter/Adams combo is one that emerged during the post-season, so we do not have a season full of data to show you.  During the post season, the lineup has averaged 60% shooting and out-rebounded their opponent’s in every game.

chart

I would look at this duo’s past performance against Golden State, but, surprisingly, the lineup only clocked 5 minutes total and only played in only one game against Golden State in the regular season. This either shows Donovan’s dedication to experimenting against Golden State, or that he was hiding a hand. The issue is that Kerr has already experimented, and has a counter-punch to most any lineup the enemy could throw at him.  Not even the esteemed Doctor Carter could predict the lineups and sets we will see in this series, but I will give it my best shot.

Who do they guard?

The Kanter/Adams combo will face two duos in the Warriors series, depending on if they are  going big or small. When teams go big against Golden State’s “death” lineups, they usually place their bigs on Barnes and Iggy to avoid letting more intimidating scoring/passing threats, like Draymond, get their’s more easily. I envision Adams guarding Barnes because of Adam’s ability to stretch out to the three-point line faster. Kanter will likely end up on Iggy, which is someone you can afford to have shooting threes if you have to choose anyone from the death lineup to be shooting more.

If Kanter’s solid defense persists, he could stop Iggy from scoring inside.  Regardless, he will likely get abused if Iggy runs pick-and-rolls with Draymond or switches him on to Klay or – god forbid – Curry. Below you can see Iggy abusing Mozgov in last years finals, who, albeit, is slower than Kanter, but was considered to be a better defender at the time. Golden State used their small lineup repeatedly to either try to force the slower Mozgov into guarding one of their elite shooters, or shred him with a pick and roll.

Like I mentioned earlier, Kanter, despite his improvements, is not great against the pick-and-roll – especially with a solid passer like Iggy running it.  The success of the Kanter/Adams duo will rely on help from Russ or Roberson, both of whom were able to preemptively cut off some of Pop’s go-to plays during the previous series.  The ‘Stache lineup can slow down the death lineup, but its success will fully depend on mistake-free reactions from their perimeter defenders, all of whom need to be able to react to the screen and pass heavy GSW offense. There is no doubt that OKC’s bigs will be pulled uncomfortably far from the basket, and mitigating this will depend on the team sets being able to compensate for Kanter’s lack of quickness.

The 2015 Finals was ultimately a case study on big vs small, and small came out on top. The death of the Cavs was at the hands of the aforementioned liability of Mozgov on pick-and-rolls and switches, LeBron’s sole status as a shot-creator, and the unreliability of the team’s collective post-game.  Regardless, Cleveland did have success slowing the game down to limit the stellar transition play of Golden State.  This OKC team is observably better than the injury-riddled Cav’s team that Golden State faced in 2015, and the ‘Stache bro’s are each more talented than Mozgov and TT combined.  Unfortunately for OKC, this Golden State team has improved greatly since last year.  I would expect both Kerr and Donovan to be looking to the 2015 playoffs to parse out which elements made small ball effective versus Cleveland’s bigs.

Last year, when Cleveland had TT and Mozgov starting, they were eating the Warriors alive on the boards. When bigs crash the offensive boards, they have to get the rebound, because otherwise the team allows 4 on 2 fast-breaks (which the Warriors are pretty good at converting). Even if you get 50% of offensive rebounds (extremely high), the other 50% of the time you’re probably giving up a transition point or two (or three.) I would expect OKC to dedicate one of their bigs to covering transition and the other to crashing the boards on most possessions.

Who guards them?


The Warriors’ death lineup is exceptionally talented on defense. Draymond is an immovable post defender who plays bigger than he really is. Barnes isn’t nearly as proficient, but the Warriors are excellent with their help defending and rotations. Their on-ball wing defense is excellent as well, anchored by Klay who has an amazing ability to read plays.  Their ability to seamlessly switch 1-5, using speed to compensate for Steph’s lack of size, is unparalleled.

maxresdefault-1Draymond and Adams may have been best mates in a former life, made evident by their love of mind games on the court – in this series, however, they might get in a fist fight. Although I think they will primarily place Dray on Kanter to limit his post presence, it will also fall on him to stop some of Adams dunk cuts, which he will do so more successfully than the less mobile Aldridge and Duncan were.  Whichever big-man Barnes covers will be able to out muscle him, in spite of Barnes surprising strength. Either Kanter or Adams – or both – will likely have a playoff career high in this series due to the sheer offensive pace at which this series will be played.

The fact that OKC has two stars who truly warrant double teams will present massive issues to how Golden State typically covers the interior. The more help defense that Draymond is forced to provide, the more Adams dunks and Kanter mid-range or high-post buckets open up. This lineup will also face a lot of Ezeli and Bogut, both of whom are not necessarily scoring options, but both of whom are incredible defensive players; Ezeli’s pick-and-roll defense, in particular, is already increasing his free agency value. I see the Golden State 2 big line-up being able to contain Adams and Kanter (assuming Bogut is fully healthy), but consequently being a wash on offense when both centers share the floor. At least Bogut and Adams can shoot the shit about Cricket while holding each other to single digits.

Expectations

This match-up will rely on which coach is better at adapting, the amount of minutes we see the ‘Stache bros on the floor, if Kanter can maintain his improved defense, and the degree to which Golden state can ride Bogut’s defense. With Bogut in, Ibaka’s three shooting becomes more valuable on spreading Golden State thin, especially because Bogut is not an elite post scorer capable of abusing Ibaka inside like Aldridge did.  In the end, Golden State has the less severe turnover to mistake ratio than the Thunder, so they take it.  Expect OKC’s big lineup to be one of the many punches thrown in this series (maybe literally).

As formidable as the Kanter Adams lineup has been in the last month or two, the Warriors group simply has much more demonstrated success. They’re way more consistent (they won 73 games), and have shown they can deal with any adversity they face. I don’t think they’ll out-rebound the Thunder, because Russ and Roberson dominate opposing guards on the boards, but time and time again, the Warriors beat good teams with all kinds of different strengths.

Can I see OKC taking a few games away from the Warriors?  Sure. I imagine a few of these games will be close: OKC might even be able to take the series; but taking the series will require more players than Adams and Kanter to take leaps. OKC will need more shot creation and less turnovers team wide (especially when KD runs the point), and Ibaka will need to re-assert his value if Golden State finds ways to repeatedly exploit Kanter. I can easily see this game going to seven, but I would not bet any amount of money on a Thunder victory, despite the emergence of their new and valuable front-court duo: all of Golden State’s role players already seem to have graduated secondary school (except Curry, who went to the hyperbolic time chamber to train).

bellSee you next time;

Class dismissed.

By Mitch Suchan