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Friday, March 22, 2019

Thunder Not Storming Into the Playoffs

The Oklahoma City Thunder went 37-20 before All-Star Weekend, including a 10-2 mark in the final 12 games before the midseason (or two thirds season, to be precise) break. They boasted a strong offense (115.4 ppg) and an elite defense (110.2 ppg allowed) resulting in a +5.2 ppg point differential that suggested that they were legit contenders to at least reach the Western Conference Finals. Paul George had emerged as a top five MVP candidate, while Russell Westbrook was on pace to "quietly" average a triple double for the third straight season.

The Thunder faced a tough schedule down the stretch, so it was reasonable to expect that they might slip just a bit in the standings--but their 5-10 record since All-Star Weekend is a puzzling collapse of epic proportions. While the Thunder face little risk of missing the playoffs entirely, they have plummeted to the eighth seed, which means nearly certain first round elimination at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

Usually, when a team falls apart it is possible to pinpoint the root cause or causes of the team's demise but the Thunder's implosion does not lend itself to a simple explanation. Their scoring has declined by nearly 5 ppg and their points allowed has increased by over 4 ppg. Their spg average has dropped from 10.2 to 7.1 and, not surprisingly, they are also forcing 2.5 less turnovers per game. Combine that with a decline in both rebounding and field goal percentage and the result is that the Thunder are losing the "possession" game in terms of both totals and efficiency.

While it is not clear what the problem is, one can expect one person to receive a large portion of the blame after what seems to be an almost inevitable first round loss: Westbrook.

In the abstract, it may make some sense to "blame" a team's best player when that team does not do well, but it is worth remembering that when the Thunder were playing well the media narrative was that George, not Westbrook, was Oklahoma City's best player.

Westbrook has averaged 28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 7.6 apg since All-Star Weekend, compared to 21.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 11.2 apg prior to All-Star Weekend. He is still on pace to average a triple double for the third straight season. Westbrook's field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage have increased significantly since All-Star Weekend, while his free throw percentage has only declined slightly (Westbrook's poor free throw shooting throughout the season is puzzling considering that he is a better than .800 free throw shooter during his career). Critics may argue that Westbrook is shooting too much and not passing enough but that argument does not carry much objective weight considering that Westbrook's shooting percentages have risen as his usage has surged. Do his declining assist numbers "prove" that he is unwilling or unable to pass, or do they suggest that his supporting cast has been less than supportive? My main criticism of Westbrook over the past 15 games is that he foolishly collected his 16th technical foul of the season, which resulted in an automatic suspension, likely costing Oklahoma City a win against Miami.

If George is going to get the credit for the time frame when the Thunder were a third seed pressing to possibly be the second seed, then he cannot be held blameless for the Thunder's free fall. George averaged 28.7 ppg on .453/.406/.837 FG%/3FG%/FT% shooting splits prior to All-Star Weekend but in the past 15 games he has scored 25.3 ppg on .381/.314/.827 shooting splits. He has missed three games due to injury during that stretch (the Thunder went 1-2 while he sat out) and he is reportedly battling injuries to both shoulders.

Steven Adams, the team's fourth leading scorer and third best player, has also seen his scoring average and field goal percentage decline in the past 15 games, and the same is true of the Thunder's third leading scorer, Dennis Schroder, who for most of the season has been a great spark plug off of the bench.

Of course, it is not surprising that several individual players have declining numbers on a team that has dramatically transformed from an elite squad to a team that, statistically, resembles a lottery team; those individual numbers define but do not explain why the Thunder have fallen apart despite not suffering an obvious problem in terms of serious injuries/bad chemistry/strategic changes.

My eye test suggests that Westbrook looks bouncier and physically more capable than he did earlier in the season, when it seemed as if his knee surgery had affected his explosiveness and/or confidence--but while Westbrook is regaining his old swagger, the rest of the team has lost its way. What makes this even more odd is that for the past several years the Thunder's success has been directly connected to Westbrook's explosiveness and dominance: the better he played, the better the Thunder did.

It is only a matter of time before some "genius" trots out the tired "Westbrook's ball dominance is killing the Thunder" narrative but the reality is that the Thunder's problems do not seem to be connected in any meaningful way with Westbrook; he is doing his part but, unlike in seasons past, that has not been enough to lift the team. It will be interesting to see if Westbrook elects to shoulder an even larger load as the season winds down; that could potentially be a recipe to lift the Thunder out of eighth place but a one man show is not going to advance very far in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Three Great Practitioners of the Step Back Move

Contrary to popular belief, the step back move is not a recent invention. It has been around for several decades, and many of the NBA's greatest scorers and/or shooters included the step back in their repertoires. It is not clear who was the first player to regularly utilize the step back move but three of its greatest practitioners are Adrian Dantley, Larry Bird and Dell Curry. Each player put his own stamp on the move.

Dantley was perhaps the NBA's deadliest scorer in the early 1980s, averaging at least 30 ppg for four straight seasons (though Dantley only played 22 games in the 1982-83 season). Dantley averaged 24.3 ppg during his career while shooting .540 from the field. He won two scoring titles (1981, 1984) and he had five seasons during which he averaged at least 28 ppg while ranking in the top three in scoring (1980-82, 1984, 1986). Dantley led the league in free throws made five times; he was a master of drawing fouls and he did so in a very fundamentally sound way with impeccable footwork and ball fakes.

He stood just 6-5 but he was a technician who had tremendous lower body strength, deceptive quickness and very strong hands. Dantley could score in the paint against any defender at any time. He also had a reliable midrange jumper, plus the ability to drive and finish strongly if his defender crowded him when he faced up. What many people may have forgotten--or not known in the first place--is that the step back was one of his staple moves. Dantley would catch the ball on either wing or at the foul line extended and then either back his defender down for a few dribbles before utilizing the step back or else face up and back his defender off with a jab step before using the step back. If the defender stopped the drive and the pull up jumper, then Dantley would use a jab step to set up his step back into a 15-18 foot jump shot.

Check out the brief video embedded in NBA.com's Adrian Dantley profile. Near the end of the video, you can see a typical example of Dantley's step back move. Note that Dantley did not travel, nor did he push off. The entire sequence is fundamentally sound.

If I had to pick one player's step back as the deadliest of all-time, I would go with Larry Bird. Here is a typical example, as Bird makes Dominique Wilkins fall before burying a step back jumper:



While Dantley utilized the step back as a midrange move, Bird used the stepback almost anywhere on the court, including well behind the three point line. If a defender crowded Bird and Bird did not see an opening to drive (or did not want to deal with a shotblocker lurking in the paint), then Bird used a jab step to set up his step back. Bird stood 6-9 and shot the ball with a quick, high release that made his shot almost unblockable.

Bird matched Dantley with a 24.3 ppg career scoring average and during a four season stretch in the 1980s he averaged at least 25.8 ppg each year while ranking in the top four in scoring each year. Bird was a gifted passer, but he was primarily a scorer and he was not bashful about shooting; he ranked in the top 10 in field goal attempts in eight of his 12 full seasons.

Dell Curry is best known to younger fans as Stephen Curry's father but Dell was a tremendous shooter in his own right. He ranks 37th in career ABA/NBA three point field goal percentage, ahead of luminaries including Ray Allen, Glen Rice, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin and Larry Bird. Curry won the 1994 Sixth Man of the Year award and he was a consistent double figure scorer for playoff teams. Unlike his son, Dell did not dribble very much. His specialty was the catch and shoot three pointer but when he dribbled he often did so to set up the step back. Similar to Bird, Curry loved to create space by using a jab step to get the defender leaning the wrong way and then step back into a quick shot before the defender could recover. Bird and Dantley were more credible threats to drive and they often set up their moves with multiple dribbles, but Curry was the master of the one dribble step back: his first option was always the catch and shoot but if he caught the ball with a defender in his face he had an uncanny ability to take one dribble, step back and fire a three pointer seemingly in one smooth motion.

As a player, I never quite got the hang of Bird's version of the stepback, probably because I was never a driving threat the way that Bird was; if I made a jab step, the driving threat was not highly credible in most circumstances and thus defenders who knew my game still played me for the three point shot. I used the Dantley back down step back against smaller opponents--particularly in one on one games when I did not have to worry about a secondary defender--but I did not have Dantley's knack for using the step back against taller opponents. Curry's step back, though, became a major weapon for me. Not many rec league players in the late 1980s/early 1990s shot one dribble step back three pointers, and many old-school players considered it to be a low percentage shot but Curry showed that if your eyes are on the target and your hands are positioned correctly then it can be a deadly shot.

The best thing about the Dantley, Bird and Curry step backs is that all three players executed the move without traveling or committing offensive fouls. It was an advanced move but it was also a move grounded in fundamentals.

What about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant? Both utilized the step back at times but both players specialized more in the turnaround jumper as opposed to utilizing the step back jumper as a main weapon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:41 PM

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