Marshall, Lillard Have Questions To Answer

Kendall Marshall and Damian Lillard are both point guard, but that’s where the similarities end.

Marshall is the steady floor general – a pass-first playmaker who had more assists (9.8) than points (8.1) per game last season as the creator for the talent-laden North Carolina Tar Heels.

Lillard is tougher to get a grasp on, based on his do-it-all career as the first (and, really, only) scoring option as a member of the mid-major Weber State Wildcats. What we do know is that he is a fast-rising competitor with an NBA-ready shot who is coming off a four-year college career.

Awkward as comparisons between the two very different players may be, they are inherently necessary for lottery teams who may be in need of point guard help, such as the Toronto Raptors.

Executive vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski, the designated team voice after draft workouts on Tuesday involving the two prospects, stopped short of drawing any comparisons, but highlighted their inherent differences in describing Marshall and Lillard individually.

“[Marshall's] basketball IQ is very, very good and he sees the floor well,” says Stefanski of the North Carolina product.

On Lillard, the former Nets’ and Sixers’ GM focused on an entirely different set of qualities.

“He’s a tough kid – he competes,” says Stefanski. “He comes from a smaller school than these other guys and I think that’s part of his competition and his willingness to work hard.”

That’s not to say that Marshall isn’t tough, nor does it suggest that Lillard isn’t a smart basketball player. It does, however, speak to the difficulties of the whole draft process, particularly when agents typically don’t allow for one-on-one workouts between similarly-projected players.

For example, Marshall appeared in an afternoon session against lower-rated prospects like Devoe Joseph, while Lillard’s workout saw him fly solo.

While they didn’t go up against one another on Tuesday (in a literal sense, anyway), they are both battling heavy scrutiny over perceived areas of weakness through the draft workout process.

For Marshall, the Toronto stop marked his first workout coming off a wrist injury that was actually revealed to be an elbow injury.

“I fractured my elbow as well,” acknowledges Marshall. “The doctors never looked at it until about three weeks ago, so it was a late development. I wish I could’ve started my rehab earlier, but thankfully it’s not something that would’ve took surgery, so it’s just a matter of time.”

The 20-year-old isn’t in denial about the effects of the injury, but he is encouraged by its early progress and believes that he should be ready to go sooner rather than later.

“It felt pretty good,” replies Marshall when asked about the arm after Tuesday’s workout. “Obviously there’s still some soreness, some pain, but I’m able to get through it. My conditioning isn’t where I want it to be, but it’s still at a good level so I’m excited about moving forward from here.”

For Lillard, it’s a question of competition – specifically how the level of competition he faced at Weber State will translate in the pros. The Wildcats, after all, went 14-2 in the notoriously weak Big Sky Conference last season before dropping the Conference championship 85-66 to Montana. Although, to be fair, the loss can’t be blamed on the 22-year-old, who tallied 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the game.

While Marshall played with three other potential lottery picks (Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller), Lillard feels that he was able to develop a multifaceted game by being a do-it-all player. He does, however, acknowledge that it’ll be nice to take a slightly scaled back role on a more balanced NBA club.

“That’s something I’m looking forward to,” Lillard admits,” not having a huge responsibility and having to carry a team. I can show off other parts of my game.”

With no point guard expected to go in the top five and only two likely to be lottery picks come June 28, the ‘one’ isn’t exactly a strong position heading into the deep 2012 draft. No wonder, then, that the two top players at the position both face significant unresolved questions.

How Marshall and Lillard answer those questions will speak volumes of their maturity and preparation as NBA players.

Why I’m Cheering For Miami

If you’re looking for insightful projections into just what will happen once the NBA Finals kick off in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, you can find the two cents of many Hoops Addict correspondents here. This piece comes less from the perspective of an NBA analyst and more from a fan of the game, as well as its narrative.

The fundamental storyline of these Finals leans heavily in favor of the Thunder. Among the leading men of the two clubs, Miami’s LeBron James is the hated villain for a generation of fans unwilling to forget his painfully misguided “Decision”, while OKC’s Kevin Durant is the anti-LeBron – a down-to-Earth superstar that quietly re-upped with the franchise that drafted him while James and co. were doing this.

There are, however, two main issues with this overly simplistic outline of what will be a multi-layered series. Not only is it an outdated take that fails to account for James’ recent growth as both a player and a person (as well as the exceptionally unique pressure he faces), but it fails to acknowledge the rest of what are two diverse, varied rosters of interesting players.

But first, a few words on James. Much has changed since he turned the better part of the country against him and the Heat by taking his talents to South Beach. His tone-deaf demonstrations of self praise and premature celebration have been replaced by a hoodie-wearing symbol of support for Trayvon Martin in precisely the type of socially conscious display that superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been famously loathe to engage in.

On the basketball side of things, he has been lauded as a great teammate who is leading by example in both selflessness and worth ethic. While LeBron critics may choose to focus in on his disappearing act during the 2010-11 postseason, his 2011-12 playoff stat line currently reads 30.8/9.6/5.1.

At the same time, while the public perception of the 27-year-old may not have changed much, there might be at least a partially enhanced understanding of just what it’s like to be in his shoes. A Newsday story from last week features the now-famous words of teammate Shane Battier explaining what life is like for LBJ:

“He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.”

James’ team-first approach may have been helped along by his inherently likable supporting cast. Dwyane Wade has officially ceded top dog duty his younger and more physically imposing teammate, but he retains far-reaching popularity that has pretty well remained untainted by anti-Heat backlash.

Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was maligned as the undeserving member of the “Big 3″ before finding success this season by growing comfortable in his third-option role and even serving as an emotional rallying point in his Conference Finals return.

Outside of the three dominant personalities of the Heat, several character guys round out a roster of players who seem to genuinely enjoy each other. Battier has lost a step, but continues to be a valuable glue guy and reigns as a much-respected veteran in the locker room. Ronny Turiaf and Juwan Howard aren’t getting consistent minutes, but they both offer visible support from the bench.

Meanwhile, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller have all learned how to best complement their superstar teammates while not being afraid to get their own looks (Chalmers, in particular, has no problem taking open shots in clutch situations).

No disrespect to the equally (if not more) likable Thunder, but this is LeBron’s time. Lost in the digital, 24-hour news cycle age is the pure simplicity of watching the greats win. Durant (and, to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook) may well be among those greats, but he’s also just 23 with plenty of prime years ahead of him. With James turning 28 later this year, he is firmly within what should be his prime.

When he earns himself an NBA championship ring (even if he doesn’t win six, or seven, or eight…), we will have all been witnesses.

Clippers Ride Their Reserves Into Round Two

As the Los Angeles Clippers pursued their first playoff series victory since 2006 and just their second since 1976, you had to know that entry into the second round wouldn’t come in routine fashion.

So it was natural, then, that securing a date with the Spurs in the Western Conference semis required a full seven games and a win on the road in the deciding Game 7 with the Clippers’ star tandem (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) hobbled. Leave it to L.A.’s previously perennial laughingstocks to slumber through three fairly uninspired quarters of the decisive game, only to unexpectedly come alive with a 27-16 fourth quarter eruption to seal the series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

In a way, it brings to mind the achievements of their lovable loser brother-in-arms from the soccer world, Manchester City, who rallied with two injury time goals on Sunday to win their first English Premier League championship in 44 years.

Although Paul is being credited with legitimizing the club after an off-season trade from New Orleans and Griffin continues to be one of the NBA’s foremost must-see players, they were nowhere to be found when the Clips went on their difference-making run. Instead, it was the unit internally known as “the Goon Squad,” the unlikely quintet of Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young and Mo Williams, that turned what had been a one-point deficit to start the fourth into a 71-61 advantage during what was a 15-5 run.

Going back to the beginning of the season, there was no guarantee that any of the five men would even be in Lob City right now. Martin opened the 2011-12 season in China after signing a one-year deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers during the lockout (he was free to sign with Los Angeles on February 3). Evans was a free agent without many suitors (he wasn’t even offered a contract by his former team, the bottom-feeding Toronto Raptors). Bledsoe began the season on the sidelines while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and, like Williams, faced heavy competition for minutes in the backcourt from Paul, Randy Foye and Chauncey Billups. Young was one of several talented headaches the going-nowhere Washington Wizards.

But for a 6:14 stretch in the club’s biggest game of the season, all five men put any talk of the Clippers being a three-man team (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) on the back burner (not to mention all the flopping / whining talk targeting the team). Instead, they’ve offered up hope of depth, which will be a key issue going into their second round encounter with the firing-on-all-cylinders Spurs.

We don’t know the extent of Paul’s groin woes or Griffin’s sprained knee, but anything less than 100% will be problematic. Paul will need to be at full health to keep Tony Parker in check, while a healthy, explosive Griffin would have a big opportunity to exploit San Antonio’s weakness in playing above the rim.

Once again, then, the secondary Clips will have a chance to come up big. Evans will be asked to bang down low against Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair, while Martin will have to get his mid-range game going (he did on Sunday with 11 points on 5-7 shooting). Bledsoe will be critical in easing the pressure on Paul and may even get the bulk of the Parker assignment. Young and Williams, meanwhile, will look to offer long range shooting options, while also trying to keep San Antonio’s impressive group of young supporting players (Danny Green, Gary Neal and James Anderson) at bay.

You won’t see many folks projecting much more than maybe one victory for the Clippers in their second round tilt (including in our own, well-written series preview). Of course, those same people probably wouldn’t have projected a team needing  to rely on significant, Game 7 production from Martin-Evans-Bledsoe-Young-Williams – and to get it.

The Year Of The Coach

Last fall, once the lockout was settled and the shortened, 66-game schedule was set into motion, much analysis hinged on the nature of the schedule and its effects. Would young teams hold a distinct edge? How prevalent would injuries become? What damage would the dreaded back-to-back-to-back sets do?

While the slate was certainly grueling and claimed its fair share of casualties, it also brought out the best among the NBA’s coaching fraternity, rewarding those who best managed their roster through the trials and tribulations of 66 games in 120 days.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls reigned atop their respective Western and Eastern Conferences at season’s end and earned No. 1 seeds in the postseason. Popovich, who earned his second career Red Auerbach Trophy on Tuesday as the 2011-12 Coach of the Year, masterfully controlled Tim Duncan’s minutes and incorporated a slew of no-name role players, while Thibodeau, the previous Auerbach recipient, kept his Bulls committed even as Derrick Rose suffered through an injury-marred campaign.

Pops helped his aging star stay fresh and survive the grind by keeping Duncan to a career-low 28.2 minutes per game while resting him through eight contests (including being tagged with a “DNP-Old” in March). In his place, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and, most recently, Boris Diaw filled the void up front. While Popovich was managing Duncan’s minutes, he also eased the burden on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli by successfully incorporating under-rated assets like Danny Green, Gary Neal, James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard. Through two postseason games vs. Utah, only Parker has averaged more than 30 minutes, while nine other Spurs have played 13.5 or more minutes per game.

In Chicago, Thibodeau has been facing the music after leaving Rose in the game in the final minutes of a Game 1 blowout over Philly, a decision which led to the reigning MVP’s season-ending ACL tear. However, the second-year coach also oversaw a 50-win Bulls team that led the league in both opposing points per game (88.17), as well as their own rebounds per game (46.67).  That being said, the club’s first Rose-less playoff effort was underwhelming and ‘Thibs’ will be critical in helping Chicago bounce back as the series shifts to Philadelphia.

Beyond the Conference leaders, coaches have wielded – and will continue to wield – significant influence in the play of their club. The Spurs are up against the Jazz and head coach Tyrone Corbin, who has quickly transitioned past Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan on the strength of a front line that includes Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and building blocks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, as well as the play of a re-energized Devin Harris. The Bulls, meanwhile, are deadlocked through two games at 1-1, with Doug Collins serving as the opposing Sixers’ emotional impetus. Since taking over from Eddie Jordan after Philly suffered through a 27-win campaign, Collins has led the club to consecutive playoff appearances.

Popovich and Thibodeau finished 1-2 in Coach of the Year voting, but it wasn’t for a lack of other worthy candidates. Frank Vogel engineered a balanced, cohesive (albeit star-less) group of Pacers to their best record since 2004-05. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy navigated his team through the Dwight Howard saga (of which he was centrally involved) and has kept them believing in themselves without Howard in tow. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and OKC’s Scotty Brooks continued to massage the egos of their respective superstar talents and helped boost them by incorporating an improved group of supporting players. Even Rick Carlisle, who didn’t exactly get his Dallas Mavericks off to the type of title defense they had hoped for, helped establish a team-oriented defensive identity that (somewhat) made up for the loss of newly-named Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.

In a season that challenged coaches to balance their rotations and navigate their key players through a demanding grind, it’s fitting that some of the league’s best withstood the challenges. If you’re looking to examine the best coaching minds in the NBA, you could do worse than starting with Popovich and Thibodeau.

 

Postseason’s Subtle Impact Players

They aren’t quite the kind of world-renown superstars that can be easily identified by just their first names, ala LeBron, Kobe, Dwayne, Dirk, Carmelo and Dwight. They also aren’t primed to win the NBA scoring title (Kevin Durant) or reigning as league MVP (Derrick Rose).

However, they could still shift the balance of this year’s playoffs and, potentially, represent the difference for their clubs between a deep run and a first round exit. Here are a few of the prospective game changers that could shape the postseason.

Tony Allen
Arguably the league’s best perimeter defender, Allen is a major part of the reason that the Memphis Grizzlies are viewed as a potential wild card in the wide open Western Conference. He will be of particular value in a first round tilt with the L.A. Clippers, as he will get the bulk of the defensive assignment on Chris Paul, but could be switched off to defend Caron Butler, Nick Young and even Blake Griffin.

Ramon Sessions
Going from filling a back-up point guard role on a lottery-bound Cavs team to a starting job with the Lakers might have made Sessions the biggest trade deadline winner. After improving his points and assists averages out West, he’s offered every indication that he can be a meaningful contributor to the Lake Show this postseason. L.A. will either meet Dallas or Denver in first round action, meaning that Sessions will be matched up against either Jason Kidd or Ty Lawson. In either scenario, the 26-year-old should hold a distinct edge at the position.

Jameer Nelson
No one has stepped up to fill the Dwight Howard void in Orlando quite like Nelson, who has averaged 16.6 points and 7.6 assists per game since Howard’s season – and, possibly, his Magic tenure – came to a close at the end of March (note: I excluded an April 22 game in Denver in which Nelson played just two minutes). Nelson isn’t the only Magic player who could take charge, but he’s historically seen his scoring rise in the postseason (14.9 career playoff scoring average to 12.4 in the regular season) while other void-filling candidates on the Magic like Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson have seen their scoring decline come the NBA’s second season.

Al Jefferson
It’s been a long journey back to the playoffs for Jefferson, who will snap a seven-year drought this spring. He will lead a hungry Utah Jazz team that relies heavy on its young rotation of talented bigs that, aside from the former Celtic, includes Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. As the underdog No. 8 seeds heading into a series against the No. 1 San Antonio Spurs, Jefferson and his frontcourt cohorts (the Jazz own the league’s third-best rebounding average) offer one of the few distinct advantages held by Utah. They may be able to own the paint against Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter.

Avery Bradley
It would seem overly simplistic to suggest that Boston’s turn-around this season could be credited to the insertion of Bradley into the starting five if the numbers didn’t back it up. Since the University of Texas star stepped in for Ray Allen at the shooting guard spot on March 25, the club has gone 13-4 in Bradley’s 17 of 18 games started. At a time when 14 of the previous 15 Defensive Player of the Year winners have been big men and, outside of Allen, elite perimeter defenders seem to be on the decline (Shane Battier, Metta World Peace), Bradley seems to be staking his claim at the next great stopper on the wing.