Sullinger, Jones And The Burden of Scrutiny

The smile on Jared Sullinger’s face was hardly indicative of the frustration he was experiencing upon being faced with the same health-related questions and criticisms he was hearing for the umpteenth time.

“Not really,” says Sullinger in response to whether reports of his back issues have been getting to him. “Most of [the reporters] have never even played the game before, so what can they say?”

One could argue that young NBA prospects have never been better prepared to endure the public scrutiny, attention and second-guessing that comes with their introduction to the pros. Of course, one could also argue that the degree of scrutiny, attention or second-guessing has never been higher.

Regardless, these are still young men in their early 20′s being forced to contend with a repetitive and often vaguely attacking line of questioning as they continue to position themselves ahead of next Friday’s draft.

On Thursday in Toronto, in what Raptors’ vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski called “a real heavyweight workout”, Ohio State’s Sullinger showcased his abilities against Baylor’s Perry Jones III, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and UNC’s John Henson. The common thread among all four is their status as prospective NBA big men.

But, at least in the case of Sullinger and Jones III, there is a common chip to be found on their broad shoulders.

Sullinger’s prickliness, in particular, was on display on Thursday, a surprise from a player with a reputation for being mild-mannered. But while some may be quick to chalk his moody, snappy disposition up to being an immature 20-year old, it may not be that simple.

Think about things from his perspective: you are coming off two successful years as the go-to guy with the Buckeyes and are now working towards draft day through continued battles with a group of rival power forward prospects while so many others shy away from competitive workouts. And yet, all you’ve encountered along the way is negativity – questions about your health, your draft stock, your decision not to go pro a year earlier and, ironically, reports of a potentially costly red flag from NBA doctors even as you participate in full contact drills.

Jones III, who has participated in several workouts already with Sullinger, can relate.

The athletic 6’11″ forward boasts a muscular physique and 7’2″ wingspan, prompting many observers to expect more out of him that what he displayed in two years at Baylor (13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds). Despite playing a critical role as a scoring and passing threat out of the post on two talented Bears squads that also featured Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, questions about Jones’ motor were still rampant.

“I can’t worry about what’s being said about me or what people think I should do different,” says Jones. “[...] For me, it’s all about finding a way to block out a lot of what the critics are saying but, at the same time, also use it as motivation.”

Who’s to say that there isn’t any legitimacy to the criticisms being levied at this trio of prospects? It’s hard to see Sullinger’s injury reports being completely baseless and Stefanski wasn’t ready to extinguish the speculation when asked about the health of the former Buckeye (he would only say that “our doctors will look at everything”).

Meanwhile, the unpredictability of Jones, perhaps, best illustrated through the 20-year-old’s projected “Best Case / Worst Case” comparables on DraftExpress.com (best case: Rudy Gay / Josh Smith hybrid, worst case: Yi Jianlian).

At this stage, no one – not even Anthony Davis – is a sure thing. As with so many other drafts, there will likely be a player to fall through the cracks on account of over-evaluation.

If it turns out to be one of these men, it will represent yet another case of nitpicking taken too far.

Miami’s Role Players Got It Done

Nearly every game of the 2012 NBA Finals has been decided late in the fourth quarter – and things weren’t looking great for the Miami Heat as things got deeper into the final frame of Game 4.

LeBron James was hobbled with leg cramps and, despite a clutch three with under three minutes to play, required two bench stints late.  Dwyane Wade played through, but appeared to be slowed by some lower back soreness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, Russell Westbrook was playing like a man possessed, scoring 17 of his 43 points in the fourth.

Enter Mario “Mother—-ing” Chalmers.

Chalmers answered his point guard counterpart with 12 fourth quarter points (25 in total), including his team’s final five to preserve what was just a three-point, one-possession lead. His numbers were certainly boosted by Westbrook’s ill-advised three-shot foul with five seconds remaining on the shot clock (13.8 on the game clock), but the Kansas alum still had to convert his three crucial free throws to send his team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

On Tuesday, Chalmers filled the Shane Battier role. That is, the secondary Heat player to shine during these NBA Finals and, arguably, play as significant role as that of the Big Three. Battier was held to just one made three-pointer in Game 4, snapping a multi-trey streak in the Finals that had seen him make 11 shots from deep (compared to just four misses) over the first three games against the Thunder.

Earlier in the game, it had been little-used guards Norris Cole and James Jones who helped stabilize a listless Heat squad that seemed to be lacking energy. All of their 11 combined points (in addition to 3-5 shooting from long range) came in a first half that was dominated by Oklahoma City. Cole’s driving lay-up shot late in the first quarter stopped the bleeding after what was a 10-0 Thunder run, while his three at the buzzer of the opening quarter provided some life to his team despite a double digit deficit and sparked a 16-0 Miami run (they never trailed by more than five the rest of the way).

Yes, it’s been the play of James, Wade and Chris Bosh that has gotten the Heat to within one victory of an NBA championship, but every title hopeful needs supporting role players to step up when the situation calls for it.

It turns out that the critics who suggested three players couldn’t win a championship were right; good thing that the Heat’s Big Three have had help.

Warts Begin To Show For Young Thunder

It’s a credit to Kevin Durant and co. that it’s taken as long as it has for the Oklahoma City Thunder to have come under scrutiny and to face legitimate questions about whether they are ready to win a title.

However, after leaving little room for criticism through three rounds of exceptional play and an inspired showing over the first two games of the NBA Finals, the team’s inherent inexperience finally began to reveal itself in Sunday night’s Game 3 loss.

A team’s performance is dictated from the top down and, for perhaps the first time this postseason, the Thunder didn’t get the spark they were hoping for from their franchise star. After owning the fourth quarter through two games, Durant’s foul situation left him timid offensively and looking decidedly out of sorts. He had as many made field goals in the final frame as turnovers (two) and missed his only two free throws of the quarter.

As bad as Durant’s crunch time scoring was, his defensive miscues may have proven more costly. The 23-year-old has gradually allowed himself to be goaded into a primarily one-on-one battle with LeBron James during the series, which contributed to his aforementioned foul trouble (he picked up his fourth mid-way through the third quarter and his fifth with nearly four minutes remaining in what was a six-point game).

That fifth foul was particularly ill-advised, coming on a hard-charging James without offering much resistance to his field goal attempt from in close.

Of course, Durant’s performance wasn’t without its positives (25 points, 11-19 shooting) and, to be fair, it isn’t as though he was the lone blue-clad performer to underwhelm. Late in the third quarter, with OKC still clinging to a nine-point lead, the club committed an inexcusable set of back-to-back fouls on Heat shooters beyond the arc. Over-zealous play on the part of Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher, who should certainly know better, gave Shane Battier and James Jones six free throw attempts (they converted all of them) and shifted momentum firmly towards Miami.

Westbrook, meanwhile, was another case altogether. After taking a defiant tone after Game 2 in expressing his unwillingness to alter his attacking style of play, the Thunder point guard’s strong resolve continued to cost his club. The UCLA product remained a ball stopper and rhythm killer, failing to get perimeter shooters like James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Fisher (combined 8-26 shooting) involved.

That Scott Brooks benched Westbrook for a five-minute stretch of the third quarter indicates that the 23-year-old’s individualism is becoming a problem for his team.

As is the case with so many young teams, turnovers also became a problem late for the Thunder (14 in the game, five in the fourth quarter). While they weren’t as costly as they could have been (Miami actually scored only two fourth quarter points off turnovers), they did rob OKC of a must-score possession with 16.2 seconds remaining and spoke volumes of a team that appears to be growing increasingly unsure of themselves.

To say that the Thunder are blowing the series is both overly simplistic and unfair to both Finals teams. After all, Sunday’s game saw them lose by just a six-point margin to a Heat squad that is playing some of their best basketball of the year (you can’t blame Durant for failing to stop James when no one in the league can do so).

Still, cracks in the Thunder’s veneer are beginning to reveal themselves and they could have significant implications over the rest of these NBA Finals.

The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[...] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.

Why The 2-3-2 Format Doesn’t Work

For a guy who has spent the past 25 years overseeing the development of the NBA into the major money-making entity that it is today, you’d think David Stern would be inclined to embrace progressive change. But ask him about the NBA Finals’ 2-3-2 format, and he ultimately harkens back to complaints from legendary Celtics head coach Red Auerbach about how play quality declines late in play-off series as jet lag and travel-related fatigue sets in.

These would be legitimate, viable concerns were they not about a quarter century out of date, made at a time when air travel was far from luxurious for tall, long-legged individuals and basketball players, in general, were not offered the cushy star treatment they currently enjoy. In addition to enjoying favorable treatment, today’s star player is better conditioned and is accustomed to an 82-game regular season grind across 30 NBA cities with numerous games occurring in back-to-back situations.

All this to say that “travel fatigue” no longer holds up as an adequate explanation for an archaic play-off format that seems to have no redeeming element beyond saving teams a few bucks in travel costs.

As the team with a better regular season record in a given play-off series (as the Lakers are in these NBA Finals), you have earned the added benefit of an additional home game and to be on your own turf should a decisive Game 7 be required. It seems like an unfair advantage, however, to award that team with the final two games in a series. As it stands, even if the Celtics were to claim their two remaining games at home, they would still have to win one of two games in L.A.

Compare that to the more traditional 2-2-1-1-1 set-up, whereby the Celtics – in keeping with the hypothetical scenario from the previous paragraph – would be heading home from L.A. up 3-2 instead of bidding farewell to the TD Garden. Meanwhile, if the Lakers can build on their 2-1 series lead over the next two games, they either win the series outright or head home with two opportunities to clinch the title.

In the World Series and Stanley Cup Finals, each team is afforded at least one potential series-deciding home game in the event of a seven-game series. In any potential Game 6, the team without home court advantage (in this case, the Celtics) hosts either with their backs against the wall or with a chance to clinch. In Game 7, the team with home court advantage would be guaranteed to host with the series knotted up at three games apiece. Now, in the NBA Finals, unless the Lakers triumph in Game 4, any series-deciding game will take place at the Staples Center.

It may seem a bit overblown to critique the distribution of home games over the course of a seven-game series when, regardless of who plays where in which game, there will still be four home games allocated for one team and three for the other. But even if you are to accept that the order of the games doesn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, it still seems strikingly illogical to not have consistency across the entire postseason.

Yes, the 2-3-2 format is exclusive property of the Finals and does not apply to any other play-off round leading up to it. When Los Angeles secured their spot in the Finals at the conclusion of their six-game Western Conference Final against the Suns, they did so in front of a hostile Phoenix crowd, a factor they won’t have to worry about once Game 6 of the Finals rolls around.

It simply defies logic to maintain a certain format through three rounds of play, only to abandon it once the ultimate, deciding series takes place.

So maybe none of it really matters. After all, through three Finals games so far, the road team has taken two. It certainly shouldn’t be the first item on Stern’s to-do list moving forward (I’ll save my officiating rant for another day).

But, there is something inherently unfair, outdated and inconsistent about the 2-3-2 format and it’s time to move on.