The Cost of Player Appeasement
The NBA is a players league. This should hardly be news to even the most casual of basketball followers, but it cannot be overstated. Coaches lose their jobs and general managers pull a 180-degree turn with their teams’ direction at the hands of the athlete. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say that this doesn’t work out when a team’s goal is to compete.
This season, we’ve seen many cases of head coaches bending to the will of their players for the security of their jobs, possibly at the cost of team success. A prime example can be found in Houston, where Dwight Howard isn’t interested in being a pick-and-roll player. So says former teammate Steve Nash:
“He didn’t seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more” (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles)
It seems Rockets coach Kevin McHale has decided not to try and force an offense on Howard that he isn’t comfortable running and allowing him to work in the post more. (Forthcoming statistics provided by mySynergySports) Just 8.7% of Dwight’s offense has come as a pick-and-roll man this season compared to 11.4% in 2013. Subsequently, his post ups make up a 47.7% chunk of his offense, up from 45.2% last year.
The problem is that Howard’s a much bigger help to his team’s offense as a screener, scoring .57 points per possession down low this season to 1.18 PPP as a pick man. The huge gap is partially due to how ineffective Howard’s post-ups are with Omer Asik on the floor with him – which has been commonplace – but a similar image appears in the prior season’s statistics. In 2013, Howard connected 0.74 PPP on post-ups – a steep decline from his 1.29 PPP clip in the pick-and-roll.
The Rockets offense hasn’t suffered because of Howard’s lack of willingness to diversify his approach, but it has stagnated. Last year Houston assisted on 17.4% of their field goals to this year’s 14.6%, a gleaming hole in the team’s scoring that the Knicks took advantage of on Thursday night. New York single-covered Howard in the second half, forcing him to find his offense in the post. He finished with 7 points on 1-5 shooting while Houston narrowly escaped with a victory.
New York’s Mike Woodson has also made an analogous and questionable move, in moving last year’s Sixth Man of the Year winner J.R. Smith into the starting five.
On a team whose bench is depleted of scorers and whose starters are struggling on the defensive end, starting an inconsistent, shot-happy, non-100% player coming off a suspension doesn’t seem like the right way to go. Smith disagrees, firmly believing he is a #STARTER on this team.
Woodson’s intentions are foggy here, especially how quickly he shot down the idea of Smith starting at the forefront of the 2013 season, before his elbow to the throat of Jason Terry in the postseason, the slump, injury and suspension that followed. Whatever the case, the addition of Smith to the Knicks’ starting five has been a trainwreck.
New York is a full 10.4 points per 100 possessions worse with J.R. on the court, yet Woodson has shown no interest in demoting the struggling swingman. I guess Smith’s .393 TS% isn’t a clear enough message that playing him starter’s minutes is the wrong move.
The Knicks aren’t the only team in the empire state dealing with this issue. Brooklyn’s Kevin Garnett has tied head coach Jason Kidd in a knot. Before the season began, Kidd conveyed his plans to sit the aging Garnett on the latter of back-to-backs. Garnett didn’t take this well:
“I understand what he’s saying. He just wants to make sure I’m durable. … I just don’t want to be told anything.” (via Adi Joseph of USA Today Sports)
As it turns out, Garnett had it go his way. In the Nets’ single back-to-back this season, Garnett played in both contests. His minutes per game are at a career-low, but the number is still on the high end. Garnett’s played like a hollowed out shell of his former self, to the point where it may be in Kidd’s best interest to bench him and limit his minutes more drastically. “The Big Ticket” is shooting just 30% from the field, and the Nets are 12.7 points per 100 possessions better with Garnett on the pine as opposed to in the game.
These three scenarios won’t end well if the spoon-feeding continues, but this is just one end of the spectrum. Not all players struggle with ego, many are happily doing as their coaches ask and have benefited their team as a result.
Take Jeremy Lin losing his starting spot this year to Patrick Beverley with no resistance.
“I think for me, I am just focused on basketball… Controlling what I can control and playing my brand of basketball when I’m out there and doing what’s best for us,” said Lin in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
Lin’s replacement with Beverley was a defensive-minded adjustment, with Patrick being the stingier defender and Lin more of an offensive threat. The change was for the better thus far looking at the Rockets’ DRTG at 100.9, a considerable improvement from the 103.5 showing in 2013 when “Linsanity” was a full-time starter. Lin is also a beneficiary, as his USG% has received a bump but his TS% exploded from 0.538 last season to 0.671 this year.
The Atlanta Hawks’ best player, Al Horford, isn’t playing in his favorite position and the team is thriving despite this. “I was hoping to play more in the power forward position… I understand that now I have to go play some center. I would like to play a little more power forward,” Horford said speaking to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Horford has played at the center for the lion’s share of his minutes and it has proved worthwhile for both himself and his Hawks team, now 6-4, as of Saturday night, and in the league’s top five in ORTG and AST%. Horford’s stat line has been off the charts, averaging 20.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes on 55% shooting from the field.
A comparable situation lies in Phoenix, where the Suns pulled off one of the biggest sneaky-good moves of the summer in trading for Eric Bledsoe. The thunderbolt point guard was thrust into a starting role after leading the Clippers bench last year, sliding former starting one Goran Dragic to the off-guard position.
This is unfamiliar territory for Dragic, and despite the trade rumors circling his name Goran has committed himself to his new role – and the team is reaping the benefits. Phoenix’s (healthy) starting five of Bledsoe-Dragic-Tucker-Frye-Plumlee, their second-most played lineup, has a NetRTG of +9, good for 8th best among lineups that have played 59+ minutes this season.
This dynamic two-PG lineup has helped lead the Suns to a surprising 5-4 record, a feat that might have not been accomplished if Dragic didn’t play along. Supporting this notion is Phoenix’s most-played lineup, a paltry -7.7 NetRTG and it’s only difference being Gerald Green in for a hurt Dragic.
Appealing to a player’s needs is nothing to glance over. Team chemistry is fragile, and it’s importance in many teams’ quest for an NBA title is often underappreciated by the public. However when it’s time for a coach to do his job and get the best out of his team on the hardwood, the best organizations put the player’s needs in the backseat. And the best players – the ones who ultimately want nothing more than an NBA championship – oblige, knowing it’s for the best.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics provided by NBA.com/stats and are based on games played prior to the night of 11/17/13