Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Changing Shape of the NBA

From year to year, there are subtle changes that take place that add wrinkles to the game of basketball as we know it. In the 1980s, the three-point shot revolutionized or ruined the game depending on whom you ask. In the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s, Detroit’s “Bad Boys” emphasized defense and ultra-physical play. With this, the emphasis shifted from the glory days of “Showtime” of the ‘80s Lakers to a bogged-down style in which coaches preached defense at the expense of aesthetically beautiful basketball.

Organizations drafted size over talent with regularity, which signified a defined overvaluation of project centers and power forwards. The rationale for this trend is that every championship team in recent memory excluding Jordan’s Bulls had a dominating center who anchors the paint. Below is a list of first-round picks since 1996 on project bigs that have gone wildly wrong. In certain cases, I have listed players selected after the project bigs (busts) who have become franchise players, all-stars or starters.

Vitaly Potapenko: 12th overall – Kobe Bryant at 13, Peja Stojakovic at 14, Steve Nash at 15, Jermaine O’Neal at 17
Martin Muursepp: 25th overall
Priest Lauderdale: 28th overall

Adonal Foyle: 8th overall
Chris Anstey: 18th overall

Michael Olowokandi: 1st overall
Vladimir Stepania: 27th overall

Alek Redojevic: 12th overall –Corey Maggette at 13, Ron Artest at 16, Andrei Kirilenko at 24, Manu Ginobili at 57
Frederic Weis: 15th overall
Cal Bowdler: 17th overall

Jerome Moiso: 11th overall
Dalibor Bagaric Benston: 24th overall
Jake Tsakalidis: 25th overall
Mamadou N’diaye: 26th overall

Michael Bradley: 17th overall – Zach Randolph at 19, Gerald Wallace at 25, Samuel Dalembert at 26, Jamaal Tinsley at 27, Tony Parker at 28, Gilbert Arenas at 30

Nickoloz Tskitishvili: 5th overall – Nene Hilario at 7, Amare Stoudemire at 9, Caron Butler at 10
Curtis Borchardt: 18th overall – Tayshaun Prince at 23, Nenad Krstic at 24, Carlos Boozer at 35

Zarko Cabarkarpa: 17th overall– Boris Diaw at 21, Leandro Barbosa at 28, Josh Howard at 29, Mo Williams at 47

Rafael Araujo: 8th overall – Andre Iguodala at 9, Al Jefferson at 15, Josh Smith at 17, Kevin Martin at 26
Robert Swift: 12th overall
Pavel Podkolzine: 21st overall

However, this trend began changing in 2005 when 7-footers who used to be 1st-round selections and be given guaranteed money were now second-round selections. Were the lottery busts of Tskitishvili and Araujo the last straw for many NBA general managers (GMs)? Probably not. Starting in 2005, league GMs began veering away from using high selections on players who are likely flagged as project-type bigs. Of course, there exists a caveat that some organizations, like the Seattle Supersonics, enjoy drafting project bigs (e.g. Robert Swift – 2004, Johan Petro – 2005, Saer Sene – 2006) in order to fill their bench.

In 2005, high school star Andrew Bynum was selected 10th by the Los AngelesLakers in what was considered a reach by a number of experts. Meanwhile, other project bigs, such as Martynas Andriuskevicius and Andray Blatche, garnered first-round consideration prior to the draft, but were selected 44th and 49th, respectively.

In 2006, three project centers – Patrick O’Bryant, Saer Sene and Hilton Armstrong – were selected in the lottery portion of the first round. However, it was clear to the GMs selecting after the lottery portion of a relatively weak draft that reaching for a big would not be the way to go. In fact, no centers were drafted between picks 13 and 33 – a far-cry from even five years ago.

Thus, the paradigm shift amplified to new degrees as NBA teams continued to stockpile their roster with smaller, skilled players who are quick and have a long wingspan.

In this year’s edition of the draft, the strongest since 2003, it was a no-brainer that the first ten picks would be dominated by a host of established forwards and centers with high upside. What many, including myself, did not expect was the neglect for size unless it was a position of absolute need. Just ask Tiago Splitter, Josh McRoberts and Glen Davis. All three slipped considerably further than most mock drafts and experts had projected and only Tiago (who was a large buyout) was drafted in the 1st round.

A further example of the league’s changing shape is what transpired in the second round of this year’s draft. Unheralded guards Adam Haluska and Jared Jordan were selected prior to two well-known 7-footers, Marc Gasol and Aaron Gray. On its face, most people would say, “So what?” Nowadays, it’s not just the Phoenix Suns (and now, the Memphis Grizzlies) who are espousing the run n’ gun style of ball which requires quicker, more skilled personnel. Organizations are no longer pacified by drafting overvalued space-eaters who struggle with running the floor and will now reach for shooting specialists (Haluska) and disciplined distributors (Jordan).

While you may not see it now because the real games have not begun yet, the shape of the NBA is changing.

It’s smaller with three guard lineups which used to be shunned.

It’s quicker with a frenetic pace that only slows down when veteran teams are strategizing and pacing themselves.

It’s more skilled with four to five players on each team being able to dribble, drive and kick.

It’s longer with taller energy guys who replace skill-deficient big men that simply take up space and are unable to take the measures necessary to make hustle plays.

After 48 minutes, you can be guaranteed that this paradigm shift taking shape as we speak in the Association will ultimately result in a stronger game, both fundamentally and aesthetically.

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