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November 2013

Cowboys Prepping For Winter

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys

Not even 15 seconds into yesterday’s Thanksgiving matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the undermanned Oakland Raiders, it seemed like the Cowboys were looking to get an early start on their annual December swoon. Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams, filling in for the injured Dwyane Harris, fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff, resulting in a touchdown for the Raiders on the very first play of the game.

And as much as that 7-0 seemed like a fluke, Oakland got up as much as 21-7 with 1:56 left in the first half. At that point in the second quarter, Oakland had possessed the ball for all but 19 seconds of the period. The Raiders weren’t chewing clock by blowing Dallas off the ball in the running game, either. Oakland wasn’t able to run the ball effectively at any point in this game and averaged just two yards per carry. Instead, rookie Matt McGloin was picking the Cowboys apart on third down, targeting and burning Brandon Carr time and time again in man coverage.

Down 14 points at home in their historic Thanksgiving Day game to a team that wasn’t given a chance coming in, Dallas needed something from their offense heading in halftime if for no other reason than to boost morale, and though Dallas could have used it earlier in the half, Tony Romo delivered with a huge 70 yard drive to help stem the tide as the Cowboys ran into the lockerroom.

“We were in a hole there, down 14, and that drive at the end of the half, we really needed that,” Romo said after the game. “Especially with them starting the second half with the ball. I think that was as important as anything in the football game.”

In the second half, the Cowboys completely flipped the script on the Raiders, dominating the time of possession and scoring 17 straight points before a Sebastian Janikowski field goal in the final minute of the game ended Oakland’s two quarter scoring drought. Dallas went from having the ball for just over two minutes in the second quarter to icing the game by holding onto the ball for 21 of the 30 minutes in the second half.

Romo played an incredible second half given the circumstances. He was a perfect 12-of-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown in the final two quarters, and the only errant pass he threw in the second half was negated by a pass interference flag drawn by Dez Bryant. Given the offense’s struggles in the first half and the illness Romo was dealing with, this was a very impressive response from the Cowboys’ leader. It didn’t exactly warrant the Michael Jordan comparison that Bryant threw out during the post-game media scrum, but it was definitely essential to Dallas’ comeback efforts.

Once Romo helped get the Cowboys the lead, Dallas was able to do something that they haven’t been able to do in a long time: ice the game by running the ball. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ran the ball 12 times compared to just four pass attempts (attempts and sacks). This was a far cry from the times we’ve seen Dallas throwing the ball with a lead because their running game couldn’t keep the chains moving.

And while DeMarco Murray found the endzone three times in this game, he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and had a rough go of things early in the game. Instead, it was Lance Dunbar that feasted on the Raiders defense. Dunbar didn’t get his first carry of the game until the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter, but he made an impact instantly. He ran off tackle to the left for a six yard gain on his first play and then exploded for a 45 run right up the middle of the field on the very next snap.

“Lance did a nice job,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of Dunbar’s performance. “We put Lance in there and he finds a way to kind of work his way through those holes and make some positive plays for us. He is quick, he’s explosive, but … he is still a physical player that doesn’t get knocked around too much in there.”

Dunbar showed a great ability to plant his foot in the ground and change direction quickly. On some outside runs, Murray struggled when trying to find and explode through the right gaps. Dunbar’s size does make him less likely to serve as a full-time back, at least this season, but I’d venture to say that he’s got more natural ability than Murray. He’s a much more fluid runner and seemed to, as Garrett said, turn each one of his touches into a positive play (this is evident in his 6.8 yards per carry average) and he gets through the hole in a hurry with an incredible burst.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Dunbar hyper extended his left knee in this game. While the severity of the injury is not known, Dallas would sure love to be able to use Dunbar in these final few weeks, and the extra days off heading into a Monday night game next week should help with his recovery.

At 7-5 with an undefeated record in the division, the Cowboys are in pole position for the NFC East crown as we head down the stretch, but that coveted playoff birth won’t come easy. While Dallas’ next two opponents – the Bears and Packers – haven’t looked great of late, both teams are expecting their star quarterbacks to be back for their games against the Cowboys, and they too are competing in a very tough division race.

Dallas’ final two games of the season will be against the division rivals in Washington and Philadelphia. Anything can happen against the Redskins and with the Eagles riding a three-game winning streak thanks to some extremely impressive performances by second year quarterback Nick Foles (he had 7 touchdowns against this Raiders team earlier this month), this season may very well come down to the wire for the Cowboys.

So how does Dallas avoid continuing what has been a troubling trend with their play as soon as Santa starts packing his sleigh? The Cowboys are focusing on execution and preparation.

“We just have to continue to execute,” linebacker Sean Lee, who told me he feels optimistic about being able to play against the Bears next Monday, said. “We need to continue to understand what winning football teams do, and that’s finding a way to create turnovers, playing great defense and getting the ball back to our offense.”

“The key in these last four games is that we’re going to have to peak (as a team).”

“We’ve just got to come out and work every single day,” wide receiver Miles Austin said. “We have to be prepared each and every week and we have to be prepared for a tough Bears team next Monday night.”

While keying in on the minute details that tend to decide close games is a good way to prepare for an important stretch of games, Romo is taking an Al Davis-like approach.

“We just need to win some games,” Romo said after the game. “I think more than anything you’ve just got to keep stacking wins together and see where you’re at at the end. Our football team continues to try and improve each week that goes by and I think we’re playing some of our better football right now.”

We have been here before with the Cowboys. We’ve seen them play good football through Thanksgiving and come so close to the playoffs that they can taste it, only to do overdo it on the turkey and wind up in a month-long hibernation.

The Cowboys are in full control of their destiny from here on out. If they finish strong, they’ll earn themselves a playoff spot. And if things come together at the right time, this may be the year that Dallas finally rediscovers their post-season success.

A Second Chance

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USATSI_7582961_154512334_lowres

At the end of the third quarter of last night’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors, the Mavs held one of their usual TV timeout competitions. This particular contest is sponsored by a luxury appliance store called StarPower that has three locations in and around the Dallas area and gives a random fan a chance to win four different prizes. The grand prize last night was a 70″ television, but it required the contestant to make a halfcourt shot to win it.

After missing about 10 attempts from the three-point line before moving back to halfcourt, it didn’t seem like the contestant had much of a chance to get the television. But as soon as he let go of the ball, you could tell that it had the trajectory necessary to go in. The ball hit off the top of the box on the backboard and bounced right towards the net. With a little more touch, that ball might of rolled in off the front rim, but instead it made a loud thump and spilled out.

The crowd oohed and aahed about how close he was to winning and the Mavs players threw their towels up in disbelief, but the contest wasn’t quite over. Thanks to some prodding by the Mavs’ emcee, the CEO of the company, Steven Pidgeon, granted the contestant a second shot in the spirit of Thanksgiving. I’m sure you can guess what happened next: the fan lined up his shot, took a running start and launched the ball from center court. Nothing but net.

Luckily for Monta Ellis, Pidgeon wasn’t the only one in the American Airlines Center last night that believes in second chances.

***

Three years ago, if Monta Ellis had four points entering the fourth quarter, you could bet your life savings that he’d find a way to double digits by the end of the game no matter how many shots it took. Only 13 times in Ellis’ career has he failed to score in double digits when he’s played at least 32 minutes, and it only happened five times when he was a Warrior. Back in those days, Ellis put up impressive scoring numbers, but as we’ve come to know more about offensive efficiency and the value of certain shots, we can look back at those numbers and view them as empty stats.

Sure, he scored a lot, but he was a volume shooter that relied heavily on his ability to tough mid-range shots, which is the worst shot in basketball when it comes to expected value, and while he has always shown promise as a passer, his role was to be a scorer, and he rarely met a shot he didn’t like.

The Warriors were among the first to realize this, and as Stephen Curry began to emerge as a star, they decided to part ways with Monta. They traded Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks in March of 2012 in exchange for Andrew Bogut. The trade has worked out really well for the Warriors, who have thrived on both ends of the floor with a healthy Bogut on the floor. Golden State even did a good job replacing Ellis’ scoring production at the two guard with Klay Thompson, who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective and complements Curry extremely well.

Ellis had a rougher go of things. He was paired with Brandon Jennings, perhaps the only other player in the league who likes shots as much as Ellis, in the Bucks backcourt, and although the Laverne and Shirley campaign was fun, that duo was never going to succeed. As things failed to unfold as Milwaukee had hoped, Ellis was happy to be armed with the ability to opt out of his contract and eye free agency during the off-season.

The market for Ellis was an interesting one. He was somewhat of a secondary target as most of the teams with ample cap space awaited a decision for Dwight Howard and a lot of teams shied away because of the niche he had carved out as a shot-first player. Once Howard chose Houston, the Kings, Hawks and Mavericks started to pursue Ellis. According to some reports, Milwaukee even jumped in and offered Ellis a lucrative four year contract, but after weighing all of his options, Ellis felt like Dallas’ three-year, $25 million offer was the best deal for him.

***

This seemed like a paradoxical marriage at first. Under Mark Cuban’s progressive leadership, the Mavs have been among the forerunners in the advanced statistics movement in the NBA, and those cutting edge numbers have always sliced holes in Ellis’ game like a knife into your Thanksgiving turkey. His Player Efficiency Rating had never risen above 18.9, his teams regularly performed better defensively with him on the bench, his true shooting percentage was middling at best due to his shot selection and he was using over a quarter of his team’s possessions while performing at an average level offensively.

If Dallas made all of their decisions based on stats, they wouldn’t have made a call to Ellis’ agent, much less an offer. But the Mavs have always shown that they will take a chance on a troubled or toilsome player if they see the talent. Last season is a great example of Dallas signing a couple of players who had yet to find their way in the league in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. Rick Carlisle is easily one of the best handful of coaches in the league and an incalculable upgrade over Ellis’ former coaches, and Cuban has faith in his ability to turn players’ careers around. There’s no doubt that Ellis has the most potential out of all of the reclamation projects that the Mavs have taken on and their expectations for Monta were high from day one.

“Each team is different,” Carlisle said before last night’s game, expounding that Ellis has had to adapt to different scenarios throughout his career. “He’s picked up somethings over the years. We’re a different team (than Golden State or Milwaukee) and he’s obviously very important to us.”

Dallas has become an attractive destination for many free agents because of the different mentality and ambiance that Carlisle has helped establish within the organization. There’s a feeling amongst  players that Carlisle is very good at adapting to their strengths while still getting them to fit into his famed “flow” system.

The beauty of Carlisle’s scheme is within its simplicity. It’s more of a philosophy than a system. Carlisle runs a number of creative set plays, but Dallas’ fluidity on offense is a product of the team-first attitude that he lives by. Dallas moves the ball as well as any team in the league when they are rolling and they shared the ball all the way to a title in 2011.

Go back and watch that playoff run and you’ll see that a lot of the Mavs’ offense came from basic actions like a Dirk Nowitzki post-up or pick-and-roll, with the extra or skip pass picking apart the defense. When you have skilled offensive players that demand a lot of attention, you can create a deadly offense simply by letting the ball flow in and out of their hands.

“In our flow game, one of the intricacies is to get the ball to the best players at the right time,” Carlisle explains.

Ellis provides a dynamic that the Mavericks have not had a lot of during Carlisle’s tenure: the ability to breakdown a defense off the dribble. The only real glimpse we saw of this was J.J. Barea’s performance during that Finals run, and you saw the effect his ability to turn the corner on pick-and-rolls had on Miami and the Lakers.

Ellis is obviously a much more athletic player than Barea in addition to having an all-around skillset, so there was no reason to believe that Ellis couldn’t have a career year under a coach that would be able to curtail his inefficient looks a bit. Ellis is currently taking about one fewer mid-range shot per game this season compared to last year and he’s making them at a much higher clip.

Ellis is also taking fewer threes and is taking the majority of his shots from inside the paint. In addition to Carlisle making it a point to get Ellis better looks and sharing the backcourt with a true point guard like Jose Calderon for the first time in his career, playing with Dirk Nowitzki has also opened up the floor for Ellis. Teams are afraid to have their bigs help too much on pick-and-rolls out of fear that Dirk will burn them on the pop, so Ellis has more to space to operate when he turns the corner than he could have ever dreamed of.

The advanced numbers back up the theory that Dirk has played a large role in getting Ellis more efficient looks. The two have played 376 minutes together this season (4th most used combo on the team) and the Mavs score 110.8 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor (Miami leads the league in offensive rating at 110.6 points per 100 possessions). While the defense is a bit spotty during those minutes, Dallas does have a very strong net rating of +7.8 points per 100 possessions, and when Dirk is on the floor, only 16.5% of Ellis’ points come on mid-range attempts compared to 28.6% when Dirk is off the floor.

When Ellis is in full attack mode, the Mavericks are at their best, and so far this season nobody has been better at getting to the rim and creating great looks for himself and his teammates. According to NBA.com/Stats’ player tracking data (data through 11/27), Ellis leads the league in total drives to the rim this season at 170, total points scored on drives at 129, drives per game at 11.3, points per game on drives at 8.6 and he’s second in the amount of points per game that his team scores off of his drives at 13.9 points per game (Ty Lawson is first).

“Playing within the system,” Ellis said when I asked him what the biggest difference is for him as a player since his time with the Warriors. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that can shoot the ball, and I’m just doing what coach asks me to do. Really just picking my spots and attacking and making plays.”

There have been times in the past when fans have called for Ellis to tone down his game, but with the Mavericks, a team that is coached far too well to let him revert to his old habits, that assertive mindset that defines Ellis has been a more than welcome addition to a team that lacked the kind of playmaking ability that he brings to the table.

***

“Momma said there would be nights like this,” Ellis said when he was asked of his poor shooting performance last night.

Ellis was just 2-of-16 against his former team, scoring just four points on the night. In the past, seeing that kind of line next to Ellis’ name would signify an abysmal performance in which he did nothing but hurt the team. But last night was different, and a sign of the growth he’s shown so far this season.

For just the second time in his career, Ellis scored fewer than 10 points while dishing out 10 or more assists, countering every miss of his own with a great pass to set up a teammate, including a critical dumpoff pass to Samuel Dalembert for a dunk in the final minute and a half of the game. And while he could have easily moped around on defense while he waited his shot to start falling like he has been known to do, Ellis responded to the challenge defensively, giving maximum effort on that end of the floor against bigger wings like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, whom the Warriors love to post-up when they get a mismatch. Ellis’ work defensively made sure that wasn’t the case last night.

“Defensively, it was one of (Monta’s) better defensive games,” Carlisle said. “He was frustrated during the game but it did not affect him on the defensive end and it did not affect his playmaking. He’s playing hurt (back stiffness), he’s having a rough shooting night, and yet he was still a major factor making winning plays. It’s huge for us.”

Due to the development of some disturbing tendencies during his dubious stays in Golden State and Milwaukee, Ellis was written off by a lot of people around the league. Many doubted his ability to ever contribute to a contender or to make a difference for a playoff team and willingly passed at the chance to add him to their team this off-season.

Mark Cuban and the Mavs weren’t amongst those that saw Ellis as a lost cause. They saw the potential of a star in Ellis and entrusted Carlisle with the responsibility of extracting the best out of him. The early returns from this partnership are extremely positive for both parties and Ellis, who was drafted out of high school, is a younger nine-year vet at 28 years old. So as he enters into his prime years, Ellis has finally found himself a basketball home that allows him to maximize his skillset, and now all that is left is for Ellis to continue to prove all those who doubted him wrong.

Back Again

in NBA by
spursd

When you put your heart and soul into something, pouring out your blood, sweat and tears while working towards a goal, the desolate feeling that comes with dejection or failure is hard to describe. Falling short of something that you’ve been dying to achieve – whether it’s the promotion you feel you deserve or that college acceptance letter you’ve stood at the mailbox waiting for each day – can be the most deflating thing in the world. You begin to question why you’d exert such energy and effort into something that can be so cruel and devastating and sometimes even detach yourself from whatever it is you are doing to protect yourself from ever being let down that way again.

It would have been very easy to understand the Spurs feeling that way after their soul crushing loss to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals. In a series that portrayed one of their legendary stars as a shell of himself, another as a hampered and ineffective player in the final two games of the season and the most iconic of them all as the unfortunate microcosm for the entire season, with his last minute hookshot in game seven coming up short, San Antonio was defeated on the game’s biggest stage for the first time ever in a fashion that they will never be able to get over. After investing everything they hand, both physically and emotionally, into that season and series, with several bodies breaking down as they inched towards the finish line, it would not have been surprising to see the Spurs come out of the gates flat this season.

Or perhaps it would have been. After all, San Antonio’s entire identity under Gregg Popovich revolves around the idea of the ancient stonecutter and his rock. It has always been about the process for Popovich and never the results. While the result of the 2013 Finals was as traumatic as you can get in sports, this is a team that was never going to stray away from its process. Thus, it’s no shock to see the Spurs playing as well as ever to begin the season. Though the Spurs haven’t had all that difficult of a schedule to this point, they’ve started the year 10-1, making this start one of their best opening stretches in the past decade.

What’s interesting about the way the Spurs have started this season is that they aren’t playing well offensively, at least compared to the standard they set over the past couple of seasons. They are still 10th in the league in offensive rating, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but they aren’t quite operating with the same fluidity as they have in recent years.

A big reason for that is that Tim Duncan is off to one of the worst starts of his career. Duncan is shooting just 37% so far this season, which is shocking for someone that has never been below even 48% from the field since his rookie season. Duncan’s large dip in field goal percentage is due to a combination of him missing shots around the rim and having absolutely no rhythm with his jumper. Duncan is shooting just 22% on mid-range shots this season according to NBA.com/Stats, and he’s shooting just 58% at the rim. Now, Duncan has had some shooting woes before and his jumper will likely come back at some point. What’s more concerning is his field goal percentage at the rim, as regression in that area generally means that father time is beginning to take his toll. Manu Ginobili is also struggling to find his shot, as he’s making just 29% of his threes on the year, but he’s done a pretty good job of running things with the second unit and he’s passing well.

There is still a lot of time for the numbers to even out, so it’s too early in the season to panic about either Duncan or Ginobili having down years. What’s great for the Spurs is that they’ve put together a strategy that renders the struggles of Duncan and Ginobili irrelevant. As long as Parker is running the show and San Antonio’s shooters are spacing the floor (although Kawhi Leonard is also off to a rough start with his shot), the Spurs are going to be able to score at a top 10 rate. This a team that used to need to be even higher than that on the offensive efficiency rankings to be considered a real contender, but now that the Spurs have put together one of the league’s best defensive units, they’re able to rely on their ability to get stops for the first time in quite a few years.

San Antonio officially made the transformation to an elite defensive squad last season, but they’ve been even better to start this year. They currently rank second in basketball in defensive efficiency (allowing just 91.5 points per 100 possessions), trailing only the Indiana Pacers, who are also 10-1, and they’ve executed their defensive gameplan with has much precision as ever. The Spurs’ primary goal defensively is to force as many mid-range shots as possible while preventing two things: 1) dribble penetration to the middle of the floor and 2)  corner threes.

They do so by downing some side pick-and-rolls and by play soft coverage on high ball screens, dropping their bigs to the foul line in order to contain the ball-handler while limiting weakside help from the corners. Splitter and Duncan have become very good at following this plan, and their work is made clear in the stats. So far this season, the Spurs have given up the fourth fewest shots in the restricted area in the league and the fifth fewest corner threes while forcing the fifth most mid-range shot attempts. In today’s NBA, that is a winning formula, and the Spurs have followed it to a 10-1 start.

While the early returns from the offense are somewhat surprising, they certainly won’t dictate a deviation from the process. San Antonio will run the same stuff they have for the past two seasons and, eventually, their shots are going to fall. Parker is playing extremely well and Marco Belinelli has given Pop another weapon that has fit in well with the offense, so all they need to get back into rhythm offensively is for Duncan, Ginobili and Leonard to snap out of their respective funks. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s less heralded, but every bit as important, defensive process is producing its best results in several years, and their continuity at that end of the floor has them back in contention for the title for yet another year.

Where’s Omer Going?

in NBA by
omer

Just as I sat down to write an article about how the Dwight Howard-Omer Asik duo had been extremely ineffective this season and how it was time for Kevin McHale to split them up for good, the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen reported that Asik has asked the Rockets to trade him, all but making the decision for McHale. Despite an injury to third string center Greg Smith and some foul trouble for Dwight, Asik didn’t see the floor in last night’s game against the Knicks as McHale instead resorted to playing Terrence Jones at the five for stretches.

It’s not surprising that Asik has asked for a trade. In fact, we heard these whispers before the season even began as Asik made it clear he was unhappy that the Rockets had acquired Howard. Houston tried to get Asik to buy-in by playing with the idea of a twin towers starting line-up, but it was a disaster from the get go. In the 93 minutes that Asik and Howard have played together this season, the Rockets have given up 103.1 points per 100 possessions, way above their intended mark with two elite defensive players on the floor. Much more troubling was the fact that Houston scored just 87.3 points per 100 possessions with the twin towers on the floor; for perspective, the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats had an offensive rating of 92.3 points per 100 possessions two seasons ago.

With Asik asking for a trade for the second time and with him not seeing the floor last night (he only played four minutes against Philly on Wednesday as well), it’s likely that Daryl Morey will be taking a seriously look at the market for his 27-year old center. It should be an active one, as Asik demonstrated last season that he’s one of the few big men in the game capable of anchoring a top notch defense. Here are some scenarios that I think the Rockets should look into with the goal being to find a better complement at power forward for Dwight Howard.

New Orleans Pelicans

The very first and most prevalent trade rumor surrounding Asik involves Pelicans sixth man Ryan Anderson. Unfortunately for the Rockets, Anderson has missed the first portion of this season with a broken toe, and in his absence the Pelicans have had a ton of trouble scoring the basketball. The Pelicans, who entered the season with playoff expectations, are now 3-6 and may be less likely to part ways with their most dangerous offensive option. Their defense has also been poor, so an Anderson-for-Asik swap would make sense in that it would give New Orleans one of the best defensive frontcourts in basketball with Asik and Anthony Davis, who looks like a superstar right now, but I’m not sure this deal is on the table right now due to Anderson’s health and New Orlean’s poor start.

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks would be an interesting trade partner for the Rockets. Samuel Dalembert has looked pretty good to start the season for Dallas, but Asik is on another level defensively and is younger. He could probably offer elite level defense for another handful of seasons, making for a solid frontcourt partner as Dirk Nowitzki plays out the final chapter of his career. If the trade occurred in a month from now, when most free agents signed this summer become eligible to be moved, Dallas could even move Dalembert to the Rockets along with the expiring contracts of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter.

Houston would gain a solid smallball big in Marion that can act as the team’s primary defender on Kevin Durant in the post-season and a very good scoring guard off the bench in Vince Carter. The bump in the road that will keep this from happening is that the Mavs look like a playoff contender right now, so depleting their wing depth wouldn’t be ideal. That said, if they are going to make a move with the future in mind, trading a pair of veterans on expiring contracts wouldn’t be the worst idea, and Asik is certainly a worthwhile asset.

Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks

It has been reported that the Knicks recently offered shooting guard Iman Shumpert to the Nuggets in attempt to secure power forward Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets brushed off the offer, but I wonder if they’d change their stance on Faried if they could get a defensive anchor like Asik. It’d be a bit wonky to have both Asik and JaVale McGee on the books for a combined $18 million, but it seems clear that McGee is not a franchise caliber player and perhaps the Nuggets could begin shopping him once he recovers from the stress fracture on his left leg he recently suffered.

Asik could help give Brian Shaw a defensive minded big to build around and, in this scenario, Shumpert would give the Rockets a strong perimeter defender that can shoot threes and flourish in an up-and-down system. Such a move would make Parsons the de facto power forward, and I like that. Plus, a Beverley-Shumpert backcourt may have enough defensive talent to cure Houston’s deadly ills on the perimeter defensively. The Rockets could also deal directly with the Nuggets and get back an interesting, if mostly OK, return. Houston could add a pair of wing players in Wilson Chandler and Evan Fournier for Asik and have it work as Asik’s deal fits into Andre Iguodala’s trade exception.

Boston Celtics

Though they are tanking, putting a stout defensive center into place would make some sense for the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo and Asik would make for a great defensive duo for Brad Stevens to work with. Most everybody on Boston’s roster should be available outside of Rondo (although I tried to talk myself into Jeremy Lin and Asik for Rondo), so Morey could go after any number of different combinations. I like the idea of adding Brandon Bass, who isn’t a true stretch four but provides enough spacing to make things work, and Courtney Lee, a wing player that can shoot threes and provide decent enough defense coming to Houston. Bass and Howard played together in Orlando and had an offensive rating of 105.3 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 95.8 points per 100 possessions during their 1,246 minutes together in 2010-11.

Philadelphia 76ers

Of the plausible scenarios, this would be the best case for Houston. The 76ers are expected to move one of their major assets (either Thaddeus Young or Evan Turner) this season and the Rockets could capitalize big time by making an offer involving Asik and Young. Young is one of the best tweener forwards in basketball, capable of defending at a high level in the post and on the perimeter with a great ability to finish at the rim offensively. The only thing keeping Young from being an all-star is his lack of a consistent jumper, but he does everything else at a positive level, making him one of the more intriguing young players in the league.

Houston could also pry Spencer Hawes, a 25-year old center in the last year of his deal, from Philly in a trade, although it would cost them Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas for salary reasons. Hawes is off to a blazing start to the season and would be the perfect back-up center for Houston; he’s a stretch big that can rebound, block shots and pass the ball, so the spread pick-and-roll attack centered around Jeremy Lin and Hawes wouldn’t have much trouble scoring at a very efficient rate. And Hawes could even play next to Howard since his ability to knockdown outside shots makes him a much better match to share the floor with Howard than Asik.

DeJuan Blair Is Fitting In With Dallas

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blair

When the San Antonio Spurs acquired Boris Diaw in March of 2012, which coincided with the emergence of Tiago Splitter as the clear starting big man next to Tim Duncan, the writing was on the wall for DeJuan Blair. Blair had been a nice energy player that produced fairly well for the Spurs, but in Diaw and Splitter, the Spurs had two players who much better fit their archetype for a complementary big than Blair did. Diaw was a true floor spacer that was versatile defensively and moved the ball extremely well while Splitter was one of the best roll men in the league that sucked in defenses with his hard cuts to the rim while attacking as a solid rim protector to help Duncan wall off the paint.

With those qualities being more of a priority for San Antonio, Blair was subjected to the smallest role of his career last season (he played just 14 minutes a game) and only played six minutes a game in the post-season, mostly in mop up duty. Blair waited for an opportunity to get back into the rotation, but nothing ever arose, and it was pretty clear that Blair would be moving on as soon as the confetti began to pour down in Miami.

Blair didn’t have to move very far to find a new home as the Mavericks scooped him up on a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum. Given that Blair is still just 24 years old, it seems clear that his decision to take a cheap one-year deal was about him wanting to reestablish himself as a solid rotation player after spending most of last season on the bench. Oddly enough, Blair may have had to spend some more time on the bench to begin this season if it weren’t for an injury to Brandan Wright that has kept Dallas’ usual third big man out of the line-up. But with Wright nursing his shoulder injury, Blair was given a huge opportunity to earn himself a spot in the rotation for Dallas to start the season, and he’s done more than enough to establish himself as a weapon for Rick Carlisle.

Blair is averaging 20 minutes per game off the bench for the Mavs so far this season and is averaging nine points and a career high eight rebounds per game. Blair is also shooting a career high 56% from the field right now and his minimalistic production has made him one of the more efficient players in the league. Blair is not being asked to step out of his comfort zone and he’s simply functioning as a smart big man that knows how to work his way into the paint and how to finish near the rim. When Blair is on the floor, the Mavs are scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank second in the league behind the Heat over the course of a full season, because he is very good at naturally flowing into action and creating space for himself in the paint. In an offense that thrives on these things, Blair has become a very nice complement for Dirk Nowitzki and a functional small-ball center (at least offensively).

Blair has played 165 minutes so far this season, and 94 of them have come alongside Dirk Nowitzki. With that duo on the floor, the Mavs are scoring a team high 117.9 points per 100 possessions and rebounding a team high 55.8% of available boards. Blair is also a key cog in two of Dallas’ five most used line-ups so far this season. Outside of the starting line-up, the Gal Mekel-Vince Carter-Jae Crowder-Nowitzki-Blair unit has gotten the most run so far, and that group is scoring like crazy at 127.8 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to 83.1 points per 100 possessions. In a limited sample size, that is easily the best line-up the Mavs have put on the floor this season statistically.

With Dirk stretching defenses and pulling power forwards away from the basket, Blair has a lot of room to operate when he is involved in a pick-and-roll, and he’s become very good at finishing on the move. Blair may have the best floater in the league for a big man and if the backline of the defense is there as he rolls, he’ll bust out the runner. Take a look at how well Blair finds space on these pick-and-rolls and how Dirk’s presence commands the attention of the weakside defenders.

I like the way that Carlisle is using Blair. He’s essentially using a three man big rotation with Dirk, Blair and Samuel Dalembert. Blair either plays alongside of Dirk or acts as the center in a smallball line-up with Shawn Marion or Jae Crowder acting as the de facto power forward. Carlisle could be doing this so that he can insert Wright back into the rotation by getting him some minutes alongside Blair, but I actually like the way the Mavs have punted on the idea of playing lockdown defense (they were never going to be great on that end of the floor) and are instead trying to put together explosive offensive line-ups that can create some turnovers (Dallas is forcing over 18 turnovers a game, a top three mark in the NBA) and outscore the opposition.

Blair’s rebounding has helped make these small and defensive deficient line-ups work for the Mavericks. Blair is pulling down 49.2% of contested rebounds this season according to NBA.com’s SportVu data, the sixth best mark in the league amongst rotation players. Blair’s 21.3% rebound rate is second in the league behind Dwight Howard for players that average at least 20 minutes per game and his offensive rebound rate (20.1%) is tops in basketball. Blair has always been regarded for his rebounding, and when he’s also contributed at a high level scoring wise (even if it just means occupying space), he becomes a solid rotation player.

The issue, of course, is defense. Dallas clearly doesn’t mind that Blair is a minus defender, or at least they care less than San Antonio (defense is the only thing that can explain their decision to sign Jeff Ayres rather than keeping Blair around), but against elite teams that have guards that can get to the rim, that Blair-Nowitzki frontline is going to have serious trouble. I’m not entirely sure that this is a fatal flaw simply because the Mavs are so good offensively that their scoring can cover up these problems, but it may be something that Carlisle will have to play with if the team goes through a rut in the middle of the year.

While Blair is poor defensively, he’s shown enough ability to earn himself a permanent spot in the rotation for the Mavericks. His ability to score around the rim and to mosey into the paint for great looks on cuts and off of pick-and-rolls has been big for the Mavs’ second unit and he continues to be one of the best rebounders in the league. If Blair is able to keep up this level of production, or something close to it, for the rest of the season, there won’t be a ton of difference statistically between Blair and Kenneth Faried, who appears to be one of the more coveted assets in the league right now. Blair may not be as athletic and perhaps he is slightly less talented than Faried, but there’s no doubt that he can be just as effective, and his one-year deal with the Mavs should pay major dividends for both sides in the off-season. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that long-term contract that Blair will seek in the summer was signed by Mark Cuban.

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