NBA

Teams Should Send Lifeboats for Veteran Cast-Offs

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Talented players get overpaid for runs or bench roles all the time.

You get why. The Houston Rockets traded for a great sixth man, and James Harden turned into an MVP. Even if it’s a low-odds bet, that type of pay-off is too hard to resist. Usually, those veterans become overpaid.

Sometimes you can see it coming in real time. I watched the 2016 playoff run when Bismack Biyombo became a crucial piece for the Raptors. He was a great defender! As soon as Orlando threw him that bag, however, it was over. $17 million a year? Jimmy Butler money? That’s not going to go well. He can’t be your centerpiece.

You know what he’s great for? Pick-and-roll defense. He’s an awesome rim protector, long and athletic enough to run different coverages. Sometimes you need that! Sometimes you need to cover a lead while your stars rest, and the defense needs to hit a new gear. Having that veteran can make a vital difference.

Why does it work?

First, the obvious. Veterans are more experienced, stronger and their game is more firm. In almost all winning scenarios, veterans over rookies. The advantage that these cast-offs have is a higher talent level.

Yes, Reggie Jackson as the guy doesn’t work consistently. We’ve seen it! It’s 18 a game on meh efficiency and a low seed. It’s the same with Blake Griffin! Those players are good enough to at least try it. Julius Randle & Derrick Rose have a pretty defined ceiling as your best guys, and it looked pretty rough sometimes, but it did work to some degree. They made the playoffs! Twenty Immanuel QuickleyObi Toppin pick and rolls a game isn’t making the playoffs.

You have to take context and role into account when looking at a player’s fit.

Reggie Jackson

The Highs

Before this, it was some splashes with OKC and his 15-16 season. When Reggie is on he can be a pretty efficient primary scorer. He’s a bit prone to tunnel vision as a combo guard, but if you need buckets, he gets them.

The Warts

Defense, vision and playstyle. He’s not a 10-assist guy– he’s a player who thrives on high usage. You have to give him the ball and some measure of offensive freedom to get the best of him. Like all guys who thrive that way, his defense can fall by the wayside. NBA ball is tough! Using nearly 30% of your team’s possessions and playing really good defense is almost impossible.

If your teammates need you to get them going, too? That weighs you down over a whole season.

Why It Worked

This won’t be the last time we say this– defense is easier with a smaller role and better players. Reggie has the frame to play elite defense– he’s 6’4 with seven-foot arms. That’s insane!

He wasn’t the primary guy. It’s a sliding order behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Batum was the pressure valve for them, filling in bits of playmaking and operating their sets. Reggie still got plenty of shots, but he didn’t have to set everybody else up all game, and the way he got his shots was easier.

If you’re used to being the primary guy, creating for everyone and getting your own buckets, you know what’s easier? Coming off a pin down and making something happen off the catch while the defense loads up on PG & Kawhi. That’s an easier shot!

Nicolas Batum

The Highs

This won’t be an all-Clippers piece, I swear. Batum’s best years were as a a secondary creator, tertiary scorer, and a pretty good defender with Portland. Run some plays, hit some jumpers, get to the rim, make things happen. 6’8 with a 7’1 wingspan, he’s quick enough to keep up with some guards and is strong against wings. That’s a valuable role player! He’s good at everything! 

The Warts

He’s not great at any one thing. His dribble isn’t guard-tight, his jumper is just decent, his passing ceiling is secondary guy. Picture a role player with a game like Gordon Hayward’s. He’s great at filling gaps, but his game has been worn down by injuries, workload and being a Hornet.

Why It Worked

He can still fill in gaps, has less to do, he’s not hurt nor a Hornet anymore! Sometimes it really is that simple. He’s been asked to do the little things the Clippers need and don’t have. For example:

The Clippers have some great isolation scorers, but little creation for others. There are plenty of sets where all Batum does is dribble up, initiate a play, and settle into being an off-ball threat. He’s valuable doing that! Sometimes you just need a guy to make the right pass on time. He cleans the boards, hits his shots, moves the ball and plays good defense. That’s a great role guy to have!

The Curious Case Of Kevin Love

This guy is too good to be here. A dominant interior force who worked hard on his outside game to better help a conten– wait, wait, wrong guy, we’re a couple months early.

The Curious Case Of Blake Griffin

THIS guy is too good to be here. A dominant interior force who worked hard on his outside game to better help a contender, at his peak he was an MVP candidate. Injuries and being on a bad Detroit Pistons team sapped some of his awesome interior game and made him look slower. His defensive limitations were becoming even more exposed, and his contract had become an albatross.

He famously hadn’t dunked in two years. Nobody was going to give an asset for him, so Detroit bought him out.

Surprisingly, a former super athlete with elite ball skills was able to do better without being the whole offence! He played good defense, hit big shots and was a superb role player.

They might not have been in his previous wheelhouse, but he made more plays like this in Brooklyn:

That’s a winning play! Even though they needed him mostly to be a standard big — DeAndre Jordan isn’t guarding Giannis anymore — he gave them more than that, and they came within an inch of winning against the Bucks.

Seriously, an inch.

Roles & Pressure Points

We’ve seen guys have their flaws hidden in smaller roles. All the things that seem difficult are a little easier when you have more energy. When you don’t have to set up and finish most possessions.

There’s a reason that most of these guys shoot up in value in the playoffs, however, and it has everything to do with the opposing team.

Everyone knows defense gets a little more intense in the playoffs. You’re facing one team that you know really well. The refs are letting you play a little more physical. There’s no back to backs. Everyone is trying their ass off because they don’t want to go home.

Add these factors to a very good defense — and in the playoffs, eventually you will face one — and they start to attack an offense’s weak points. The easy stuff isn’t there anymore. The way your team used to flow isn’t the same, and you won’t get the same shots. Maybe you have a pet play to get your great shooter the ball. The defense is all over the play, making it hard to catch and shoot. The shooter can’t do anything off the dribble. The possession is pretty much wasted!

Every year, guys with even one glaring weakness get exposed. Ben Simmons is good at almost every part of basketball besides shooting, and it doesn’t matter. Lou Williams‘s size causes defensive issues every year. They take something off the table and that inherently limits your team. The benefit of having these formerly overpaid veterans on your team is they have extra tools in case you need them.

Stay In Your Lane… Until We Need You

It’s really frustrating — to the team, coaches and fans — when trying to do too much messes with your scheme. If your job is to hit threes and defend wings, and you’re trying to run 14-second isolation plays, there’s a natural tension there.

Do that enough times in the regular season, and you have a locker-room problem. In the playoffs? When you’re going through a rough stretch and your lead guy is a little cold? When they’re hedging hard on your favorite set, and you need someone to punish the defense and get them out of it? That’s when you need one of your guys to step up.

If you’re lucky, it’ll be a shooter getting hot. A defense will panic and change the entire setup if a guy goes 3-for-5 from distance. If you could rely on that every time, every head coach would look like a genius. When you’re struggling and you need to keep your head afloat, teams need to manufacture good looks. It’s the difference between weathering a hot streak 12 to five, and getting ran off the court in a 14-0 run. That’s what keeps you in the game to make your run, and keep the team in a position to win.

There are some situations where it’s really helpful to have a veteran with more in their bag than just hitting open shots. Say, if your lead scorer is having an off night and the starting point guard is hurt?

Get The Vet

That’s why teams should be so aggressive getting veterans, especially on losing teams when they’re used to contenders. You can just see it in how hard they play. It’s impossible to watch Kevin Love’s effort level in Cleveland and think “now there’s a guy who loves playing for this team”, yet Blake Griffin was having fun as a Net. Go get that role player! There’s going to be a shooter/secondary creator, with injury problems because he’s playing starter minutes, who can really score, marooned on a team with 12 wins by the deadline. (It’s Eric Gordon. Go get Eric Gordon.).

Go out and get that vet!

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About Treye Seabrook-Fields

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