The Spurs, Greivis Vasquez and the Melo-to-Miami rumors.
“Gimme some Raptors news” — Kenny Smith, TBJ sound drop
Never has that phrase ever rang true more than right now. There is absolutely no Raptors news to speak of. There’s some assorted draft tidbits that have come out, like which players they’re working out and whatnot, but aside from that, there’s nothing.
Looking into the future, there doesn’t seem very much change is on the horizon. The Raptors’ main priorities this offseason seem to be re-signing their free-agents. If they are successful, they will have no cap room left to sign anyone else of significance. If a trade is to be made, it will likely involve jettisoning expiring contracts of little value for assets equally devoid of worth.
Of course, there’s a good reason for not changing — they fared pretty well last season. However, as a blogger, lack of change leads to lack of news, which makes my job much tougher. Hence, I’m resorting to a listicle to fill these (web) pages with some assorted thoughts.
The San Antonio Spurs and basketball art
Coming into the series, I predicted that the Spurs would win in a “hard five, or easy six games”. Although it was silly to be so bold, it was hard to pick against the Spurs’ flying death machine. The Spurs are as close as it comes to basketball art. Their play is well-orchestrated, their passing is finely tuned, their play is well-layered and their attention to detail is precise. It’s strange that they’re only now receiving the notice and praise that they’ve always deserved when they have played like the best team in the world for nearly a year.
And yet, so many pundits picked Miami to win the series. That’s understandable, I guess, as Miami has its three stars — including the best player in the world — and are back-to-back champions. But notice how their advantages are not on-court technicalities like rebounding, three-point shooting, or breadth in their playbook. Rather, they had narratives on their side.
Basketball, to some extent, is a black box. It’s complicated, it’s unpredictable, and it’s a headache and a half to have to think about the game. That’s why we have created heuristics to consume it, and the media has reinforced it. It’s easy to think of the game with the broad strokes: LeBron, Wade, Bosh vs. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, or talent vs. depth. The storylines are presented in chunks of well-rationed narratives so we can easily digest them, and it’s done for a good reason — how many of us are actually focusing on the nuts and bolts? We’re looking at the painting for it’s wide strokes.
But that’s not how the game is played, and the Spurs’ dominance is an example of such. If you look closer at the painting, you’ll see the meticulous brushstrokes of the Spurs’ play. It’s a grand design that easily dwarfs Miami’s. It’s brilliant. Every movement is choreographed and detailed. Their play is a science and every decision is backed with reason. LeBron’s brilliance is great, and he can singularly win games for Miami, but his Heat are simply outclassed.
Greivis Vasquez and the value of point guards
By virtue of their job description, point guards have always played a central role in a team’s offense. The game of basketball has been historically dominated by hulking centers, but it’s slowly migrated to the perimeter. In decades past, centers like Wilt, Russell, Mikan, Kareem, Hakeem, Parish, McHale and Shaq roamed the paint. Now, the best the league can offer are defense-first pivots like Dwight, Noah and Marc Gasol. It’s a guard’s league now.
Part of that is attributable to the implementation of the three-point line. Scoring an extra point from distance evens out the disproportionate scoring efficiency between bigs and smalls in the paint. Without the three-point line, guards like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard would be far less effective.
However there are inherent imbalance between point guards and big men by virtue of their positions. On average, a guard is better at perimeter shooting, passing, dribbling and playmaking, whereas bigs are better rebounders, shot-blockers and finishers. There are special players who can transcend these broad descriptions — LeBron comes to mind — but on average, the differences hold true.
Given their natural skill advantages, the obvious move is to specialize. It’s a matter of basic Ricardian economics — if you have a comparative advantage, specialize and trade. Point guards are better at performing the key determinants of offense, so they focus on that. By comparison, bigs have a much bigger impact on a team’s defense, so they also specialize, and the two sides trade. The team itself is essentially a market.
And that’s not to say that bigs can never impact the offense or guards can’t help on defense. Guards would be far less effective without bigs to set screens (see Indiana’s offense) and bigs would easily foul out if their perimeter players are constantly allowing penetration (see the Jose Calderon era). It’s just a matter of how best to divvy up responsibilities across a team.
This brings me to Greivis Vasquez, who is a restricted free-agent this summer. In 61 games with the Raptors this season, he averaged 9.5 points 2.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game which was good for a 14.2 PER and .096 WS/48 (league average for both). By all accounts, those are pedestrian numbers.
And yet, he was integral to the success of the team. He ranked fourth in simple +/- at +3.8 (per 82games) and similarly ranked fifth in terms of ESPN’s real plus-minus. Delving deeper, he was tremendously effective in two-point guard lineups alongside Lowry, especially in the playoffs. He leverages his skillset — ability to shoot, handle the ball, operate in the pick-and-roll, his height — into being the team’s third or fourth best offensive player (depends on how much you value Amir’s screen setting).
Point guards are everywhere, but good ones that will likely come at a discount as Vasquez will, are few and far between. Ujiri was wise to nab him in the Gay trade. If he can lock him into a cheaper deal ($12 million over three years, third year team option), it would be a huge boon for the team.
Another superstar taking their talents to South Beach?
Have you seen this Carmelo Anthony to Miami rumor? Well if you’ve been anywhere near a sports website recently, you probably would have. It’s not like ESPN would shove something like this down your throat, especially not when it came from their own reporters, right? Nah, they’d never do that. They’re all scout boys and honorable. They would never exploit a situation to further their own cause. It would be way too much work to create giant personalities, pull the rug from underneath them, shit on them when they’re down and make a 30-for-30 about their redemption. Nah, you got no worries, LeBron.
Anywho, the rumor makes for a great jumping off point about the league as a whole. During the last round of CBA negotiations, the NBA owners decried poor and acted in the interests of preserving small-market teams. Their ultimate goal was to keep costs down (again, ask ESPN) and screw its workers (lol), but the new legislation did make the formation of new superteams difficult.
And yet, here’s ‘Melo reportedly leaving money on the table to reinforce a superteam. I’m not entirely interested in what happens to competitive balance — look no further than the impact of Bosh and ‘Bron leaving had on us and Cleveland — because it’s a foregone conclusion. Rather, it’s a sign of something else altogether: the NBA is going to the big-leagues.
The NBA is more popular than ever. This translates over to stars, as they’re reaping in ancillary benefits from the league’s rise through endorsement deals. Think of how often you see LeBron or Chris Paul or Kevin Durant on TV ads, and recall to yesteryears with Kobe and Shaq — NBA stars are far more visible than they were in the past. Even Damian Lillard, who is just a sophomore, signed a $100 million-plus deal with Adidas.
What’s worrisome isn’t the escalation of the league, but it’s the relative proportions that are notable. The CBA is only renegotiated once or twice per decade, whereas endorsements are subject to far less lag. With every increased dollar paid from endorsement, the relative power of the CBA/NBA salary is weakened. Who cares about haggling over a few million in salary when they’ll just make it back from the endorsements?
And that’s the ‘Melo situation says to me. He’s considering worming his way to a bigger spotlight — eyes will always be on LeBron — and he’s willing to take a “paycut” to do so, because it’s actually more profitable.
Plus, winning a title would be nice. The Spurs cant dominate forever, can they?