But first, the exquisite inevitability of the Joakim Noah extension.
One day later, Joakim Noah's extension -- by some estimations, premature or overly large -- remains a mystery. After all, while Noah has been the second-best player from what was supposed to be the best draft class since 2003 (which was the best since 1984), and a linchpin of the Bulls' hot, young future. He may not be the most skilled big man around, even if he was in college, but Noah boards, defends and just generally hits the ground running like few players in the game today.
And yet the contract, which will pay the scion of French tennis royalty $60 million over five seasons, seems premature, excessive, maybe even silly. Noah has never strung together an entire All-Star-ish season like, say, fellow 2007 alum Al Horford; that doesn't make him Andrew Bynum coming off of a breakout marred by injury. Noah is always a factor and increasingly, a force. What's more, while the Bulls could have waited to see if Noah continued to progress and then snatch him up as a restricted free agent, they decided to spare the formalities and reward him now.
It's hardly the most calculating plan for the future. Calculating, though, is not the same thing as calculated. Sometimes, being decisive and seemingly rash is the most shrewd move possible. The Noah deal falls into this category: an agreement struck ahead of schedule because without Joakim Noah maturing into a $12 million man very soon, the Bulls are back at square one.
Perhaps that's taking things too far. After all, many teams have been burned by continuing to pay for potential after that initial lottery gold rush; the Bulls also did just sign Carlos Boozer, a big dude who could on his own -- if healthy -- form quite the inside/outside tandem with franchise player Derrick Rose. Noah, though, has something that teams badly needs, a certain elan, corps d'esprit, or je ne sais quoi, that over the last couple years has frequently reached deep down inside and pulled some heart and soul from out of the sometimes dispassionate, frequently ramshackle, Bulls.
Love him or hate him, and all fluctuating numbers aside, the former Florida big man isn't just a ferocious competitor who, all jokes aside, is looking less and less rudimentary with each passing year. Next to Derrick Rose's impassive dynamism, and now, Carlos Boozer's querulous banging, it's alchemy playoff runs are made of. Factor in new head coach Tom Thibodeau, one of the finest basketball minds of his generation, and on paper, in theory, in the minds of their fans, their city, themselves, the Bulls are darn intriguing. Take away any of these factors, and they come crashing back to earth, a solid team still looking to take the leap.
Why pay Noah? Because while the 25 year-old center doesn't exactly thrill the way Andrew Bynum did in 2007, he's a presence. One that the Bulls absolutely need in place if they're going to compete at a high level. The deal happened because it had to happen. Is that circular? Obviously; it's the kind of explanation that, bordering on dogma, drives you crazy when it comes out of the mouth of coaches or executives. In this case, though, it's true. The Bulls want, nay, need, to believe that dragging out Noah's deal, and haggling next summer, would be a waste of time and morale. Never mind that by then, Noah might be worth even more. Going forward, the Bulls need Noah in their life. Losing him simply isn't an option.
That's the logic behind this sort of an extension: Teams know that they have made the right choice in the draft, and want to build around that player for a long time to come. In the case of a Durant, it's a no-brainer. So it will be with very shortly with Rose. At the same time, though, teams looking not just to secure sure things as cut their losses, but maintain a cohesive vision and a fine-tuned series of relationships, would do well to follow this strategy with "lesser" players. I would be remiss if I didn't somehow chalk this all up to the Thunder, even if Jeff Green remains in flux, and extending Russell Westbrook for big money is hardly a controversial idea.
Squint hard enough, though, and Noah's signing becomes less like a splurge, and more a statement about where this team is headed. It's not about idly gambling. Noah will get better; Thibodeau will make him even more of a rarefied nuisance; as Rose matures even further, one hopes, so will Noah improve as an offensive operator. Boozer, when he returns, will free Noah up to dive-bomb at odd angles when opponents least expect it -- at both ends of the court, and sometimes in-between.
This isn't about fear that Noah might fall into the wrong hands, but that, the way things are going, he belongs to the Bulls. Not in some creepy, quasi-colonial, Dan Gilbert way. More that, if there is a future for the Bulls -- especially the way this league is headed (we need a Heat leitmotif) -- it involves Noah. Exactly how Joakim Noah turns out remains a matter of some speculation. But when he's at his best, the team is something special. He doesn't have to snag 20 rebounds to alter the course of a game.
Noah will, in one way or another, end up being valuable. Will it be $12 million valuable? Maybe not, but he will make sure to earn that pay, and make sure the future's bright, on a nightly basis. He isn't just a necessary piece. Joakim Noah is the guy who convinces the Bulls that, come rain or shine, they're still building something big in Chicago. Lay the foundation, and the rest just might take care of itself. (BS)
Don't Give Up on Us
Mark Cuban, once a trendsetter among NBA owners looking to boost their teams' fortunes with the help of spreadsheet jockeys, has renounced the Moneyball era of basketball. Well, sort of. In a predictably jocular blog post, Cuban has announced to all who dare listen that you can't build an NBA roster based on statistics, no matter how advanced your formulas are.
Two reasons: coaching and chemistry. Each coach has a different style and each player contributes differently depending on the players around them and the style of play and coaching. How a player on another team will fit into the coaching environment and system of your team cannot be answered by stats.That's one hell of an overstatement. The very type of anti-confidence Cuban displays here is exactly what allowed the Mavericks, Rockets and other teams to exploit, to some degree, an opening. Moneyball exists because some folks in powerful positions fail to find value in some part of the game (whether it be baseball or basketball) that actually has value. Advanced metrics in basketball help determine the most important facets of the game, and franchises that use the stats appropriately can better augment their attack and add the right players.
But beyond all that, Cuban's rebuke of stats shows a real lack of creativity. You want advanced metrics on how coaches mesh with players? I present the Coaching Tri-force Classification System.
Every facet of coaching is in here: style, focus, love/hate of rookies, gravitas and anger. Sure, it's incredibly confusing on first glance. But it's not like Henry Briggs introduced modern long division and everyone just got it, right? So let's delve in.
The first key feature is the Style Diamond, outlined in black. Consider it a rotated parallelogram version of a standard NBA map. The miniature target represents the coach. The y axis represents pace, with coaches likely to make their teams run up high and slower ones down low. The x axis constitutes the spread between a focus on offense or a focus on defense. Avery Johnson, clearly, runs a slow-it-down, defense-first system. Rick Carlisle has always adapted to his roster (a real treat), but tends to fall on the slower, more defensive-minded side of things. You'll note that all of those items are completely measurable with advanced statistics.
Now, to the Anger Index, outlined in white. This is fairly self-explanatory. If a coach has a propensity to scream, either at his own players, the officials, or in the case of Vinny Del Negro, opposing shooters, his Anger Meter will heat up. If a coach is more Dick Motta about things, the Anger Meter cools down toward yellow. The Anger Triangle above the Meter takes on the hue for clearer differentiation. As you can see above, Avery's blood boils, while Carlisle takes it easy (relative to most NBA coaches). The working formula uses substitution rate and technical foul count.
The Rookie Scale measures a coach's likelihood of playing rookies. The scale is -10 to 10; Johnson rarely gave rookies run in Dallas, and even played 36-year-old Darrell Armstrong nearly as much as a rookie (but obviously better) Devin Harris in the '06 playoffs. Rick Carlisle shows a bit of faith in rookies (Tayshaun Prince in the '03 playoffs, Rodrigue Beaubois last year), but it's often too little, too late. Rookie Scale is determined by a complex comparison of rookie quality and playing time relative to other rookies.
The Gravitas Spectrum is really straightforward: coaches with a record of success get respect. The working formula includes titles won as a coach and player, Coach of the Year awards, All-Star berths as a player and playoff wins as a coach.
To say advanced stats can't account for a coach's impact or fit with a player is to concede to the Holy Trinity and pray for rain. That's fine for fans, but the dudes in the business ought to have a bit more faith the cognitive abilities of their employees. Maybe Cuban can't figure out chemistry, but someone out there can. And when they do, they'll be working for another team, and Cuban will be facing an uphill battle to catch up. (TZ)
Rudy's Next Steps
Rudy Fernandez is sick of Nate McMillan, the Portland Trail Blazers and the NBA. So sick, in fact, he threatened to stay inside his Portland hotel room on media day. So sick that Rudy actually told Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick this weekend that "his decision to keep putting forth the effort in practice and games is 'day by day,'" thus becoming the first athlete in recorded history to give an earnest injury report on his own ego.
Fernandez wants the Blazers to release him from his $1.3 million contract so that he can pursue a deal in native Spain. He hasn't been satisfied as Brandon Roy's back-up, nor in McMillan's slogging gameplans. But new Blazers GM Rich Cho hasn't budged, and for good reason. Smart men don't set paper on fire, and no matter how incredibly infantine Rudy acts, he's still paper. He's still an asset to the Blazers.
But is the game unwinnable for Rudy? Not by a long shot! Fernandez has a whole host of potential actions to get what he's wants. For starters, he could ...
Mock the Blazers' previous misfortunes. Step 1: wear a Sam Bowie jersey to the practice facility. Step 2: wear the Bowie jersey and a Greg Oden mask (now available at your local hipster Halloween costume shop, usually on the same rack as the Sexy NBA Referee and Sexy Adonal Foyle costumes). Step 3: proceed to wearing an Oden jersey, with the Oden mask, three rolls of duct tape wrapped around the knee, a cane in hand and the scent of cheap brandy on the mouth. It would have worked better when Kevin Pritchard, the man who chose Oden, was still around. But the effect should still be powerful.
Invoke the spirit of Bill Walton. A year removed from Portland's only major professional sports championship, and just months after being named NBA MVP, Walton began calling the Blazers' medical staff every name in the book. He felt his knee and foot injuries had been mismanaged by the team docs, and someone in Portland was killing his vibe, and screw the noise, man. He had to sit out a full season -- the season after his MVP award, mind you -- to reach free agency and bolt. (In his infinite wisdom, he bolted for ... the brand new Clippers. Well done, Big Red.)
Rudy could sit, just like Walton did. The Blazers didn't cave back then, and they probably wouldn't cave now. But Walton ended up getting what he wanted eventually, and didn't even have to apologize for, oh, 20 years.
Personally insult his bosses. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or in this case, maybe the shove. Tell Paul Allen that Larry Ellison's yacht is incredible. Hang a life-sized poster of Steve Jobs in your locker. Comment to McMillan that you loved him in all those Tyler Perry movies, playing the role of whatever role Tyler Perry was playing. And hey, we know Rudy isn't above going blue ...
Downgrade his effort from "day-to-day" to questionable. Make 'em guess. Some days, the effort feels great. On others, it's too inflamed to allow for full-contract practice. Sorry, coach.
Fake his own heavenly ascension. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Remedios the Beauty simply ascends to heaven while doing the laundry one morning. Why couldn't Rudy do the same? He is dreamy and wise beyond his years, after all, just like Remedios. Some slick special effects and a jet to Madrid could leave the Pacific Northwest believing Rudy had joined the angels; a new scruffy beard, a fresh name and a quiet slip back into the Spanish basketball machine could end this whole stand-off on a positive note. "Rudy Hernandez" just has to be careful when he's assigned to check Roy at the 2012 Olympics. You're a teammate with a guy for two years and you learn his musk. (TZ)
The Works Season Previews: Los Angeles Clippers
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. Today, the Clippers.
TZ: As expected, despite the team's location, cap space and brilliant young talent base, the top free agent the Clippers landed was either Randy Foye or Ryan Gomes. (I couldn't pick just one.) Is this a blessing in disguise? Will the lack of a megalith like LeBron James better allow Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe to develop and eventually win?
BS: Yeah, when Travis Outlaw is the one who got away, it's been a bad, bad summer. But hey, on the bright side, Eric Gordon managed to distinguish himself in Turkey, Eric Bledsoe is settling into the PG position, and at press time, Blake Griffin was alive, well, and ready to start his rookie season. Granted, Baron Davis and Chris Kaman keep this team either competitive or dragged down by the expectations of the aging. Hopefully, though, these youngsters who are well on their way, and some older dudes still capable of contributing can strike some magical balance, whereby the kids get seasoned and the vets feel young forever. The mean involved there is approximately the value of having landed a prized millennial free agent. There, I feel better already. The other plus here is that, from night to night, this team can change it's tune about whether it's out to compete, or remains a work in progress. The wild card is Aminu. That sentence will never wear itself out.
TZ: Griffin in college always received near-holy deference from scouts, writers and even fans. As a pro, given the demoralizing injury last year, Griffin has become pitiable. If he breaks out, does all that converge into creating Kevin Durant 2.0, in terms of public image?
BS: Sometimes we really do hate each other. I totally disagree on the Blake Griffin narrative. If anything, given how potent, and PG-plentiful, the 2009 draft class ended up being, Griffin is kind of on the defensive as the big dude picked for his awesome bigness. After the form he flashed at the pro-ish level before going down, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that he dominated the college ranks based strictly on overwhelming size -- although his play in the NCAA could come off as a highly-advanced, light-on-its-feet, form of physical comedy at times.
Griffin isn't just tall; he's supremely athletic, composed, and free throw woes aside, isn't as rudimentary as his Oklahoma years sometimes suggest. That's what made the 2009 pre- and postseasons so key in establishing his credibility. But I think this means that he has gone from tease, maybe even bust-watch, to in the thick of a 2009 talent pool that's only getting gleamier. Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, and Brandon Jennings are a hard act to hang with. He went before everyone. Does he have to outshine them all to not turn into an object lesson in why size doesn't win out every time in the war room, part two to the Durant/Greg Oden debate? Who knows. But Griffin definitely starts this year with more than a little to prove.
TZ: Who will sabotage the Clippers more, Baron Davis or Vinny Del Negro?
BS: I am asked at least three times a day if Davis is still on the Clippers, and have to remind myself even more often that Del Negro is the coach of this squad. Davis could get caught up in the spirit -- headstrong as he is, dude also loves it when a team is really flowing -- provided it's there. Otherwise, get ready for the Clippers to return back to the abyss of unwatchable. Del Negro, on the other hand, is more a lost opportunity than anything else. He's neutral, subtraction by lack of addition. A team without a coach will have certain obvious flaws. Baron, though, can actually mess up whatever this intriguing nucleus starts to get together. The worst Vinny D can do is make a collect call from someone else's cell phone.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.