Sunday, December 28, 2014

Clearing up Tempo: Trying to Figure out Vivek and Pete D's Plan

Mike Malone (left) and his rotation and defensive style didn't mesh into the up-tempo style that Vivek Ranadive (right) and GM Pete D'Alessandro want to install. Can they replicate the model of the successful up-tempo NBA team?

(From a FanPost I originally wrote on Sactown Royalty; you can check out the original post here)

I am new to this blog, but it is obvious that this is a great community and I just want to be able to add in any way possible. This is my first fanpost here, and I'm just trying to bring some perspective in terms of what I think Vivek and Pete D are trying to do. I will make a couple of primers first before I write this post:

  1. I didn't agree with the Malone firing. I think they should have just rode it out for this year and if they really wanted to make a style change, just do it after the year, whether Malone was successful or not. A coaching change is always messy, and to do it during the season is asinine. Imagine if theWarriors fired Jackson mid-year last season? In the end, it looked like the right decision for the Warriors, but there is always going to be initial kick-back from fans. At least in the off-season, it doesn't affect play since there are no games. Doing it mid-year is always lose-lose because their is an adjustment, people are going to be upset with the change (both players and fans) in some way (less so when they fired Reggie Theus). It was going to be lose-lose regardless and I'm surprised Vivek and Pete didn't really think about that more in their decision.
  2. I think it's WAYYYYY too early to say Vivek is a poor owner by any stretch of the imagination. All new owners make boner moves. That has especially been the case with so many new owner coming into the fold, especially owners who were known for being entrepreneurs. Mark Cuban famously let Steve Nash walk. Robert Pera let Lionel Hollins go after he led them to the Western Conference Finals for a coach had never been an NBA coach before. Joe Lacob fired Mark Jackson even after Stephen Curry publicly vouched for him and the media was doing everything in their power to keep him employed. New owners get carried away. They do dumb signings, make rash decisions and so on, but eventually they get a handle of it and figure out what works and what doesn't. I haven't agreed with the Malone firing, but to say Vivek has failed or let us down as Kings fans as an owner or to compare him to the Maloofs is ridiculous and simply looking in the temporary.
Okay, now that those two things are out of the way, I am going to try to look more into what Vivek and Pete D are doing, and I think one of the main issues of contention is the misinterpretation of tempo. It is obvious that Vivek wants to be an up-tempo team (I just say Vivek because I think Pete may be fine either/or. It was obvious that his one want in the draft was Embiid. After watching nearly every Kansas game last year due to living in Kansas City, I don't think Embiid would have fit in that style because he is a true post player, much like Cousins, and have those two towers in there would have definitely killed that Vivek dream. I think Pete just wants to make the best team possible with the resources they have and worry about style after they assemble the roster; this is just my own opinion). The common theme though is that most people think "up-tempo" means all offense, which is not necessarily the case. Again, a lot of this stems from the backlash from the "7 seconds or less" Suns and the failed "Run and Gun" Westhead Nuggets teams of the 90's. But just because you are up-tempo doesn't mean you're automatically lousy defensively. All it means is that by playing a higher tempo you're adding more possessions to the game with the hope that by extending the game you're giving yourself more shot opportunities while also wrecking on the depth of the other team who is not used to playing that style. That is really the goal of being "up-tempo", and how teams approach being up-tempo varies from team to team. For example, people know Nolan Richardson's Arkansas teams and Shaka Smart's team for their defense (40 minutes of hell and HAVOC, respectively). But they also played the fastest tempos in college basketball in their time. They were "run and gun" but people didn't think of their offense, but their defense. So, it just goes to show you that being a "fast-paced" basketball team doesn't marry you to one side of the ball; it just means you want to extend the game with more possessions.

At the NBA level, whether people realize it or not, up-tempo has been successful as of late. The Spurs had the 10th highest tempo last year, and yet they rated as the 3rd best team according to defensive rating. The Warriors this season are playing the fastest pace this year and they not only have the best defensive rating in the league, but also one of the best records as well. You can win while being up-tempo in the NBA. Heck, even the D'Antoni Suns, despite ranking in the bottom of the league in points per game, were always around league average when it came to defensive rating, and that is a big reason why they won between 50-60 games a year and made a habit of going deep in the playoffs, even if didn't result in a title. 
So what makes up-tempo teams good? A complementing defensive system and depth. The defensive system of a fastbreak team can't be similar to what a slower-paced team does. You can't combine D'Antoni's offensive system with Tom Thibodeau's system defensively for example. It doesn't work and what happens is one suffers greatly or both offense and defense becomes mediocre because they don't mesh with each other. That is one of the big problems with the Kings now. Their faster paced offensive system right now being pushed is not meshing with the old defensive system of Malone, which requires a lot of effort on hedges, switches and help. It's just demanding too much of our guys, and that is a big reason why teams are getting so many open looks. Guys get freaking tired and understandably so, and when a player is tired, the effect is more evident on defense. 
In addition to complementing system, up-tempo teams need that depth because of the demands of that style of play. Because our offense and defense are not meshed together yet, that has meant depth is even more important because of the effort required on both sides. But there is such a drop-off in talent from the first to the second and that is a big reason this team has struggled as of late, especially with the faster paced games. The depth just isn't there yet and either needs to be developed or replaced in order to make this team more effective.

And I think that is why Vivek and even Pete felt the need to make a change because of those two reasons. I'm guessing they felt Malone's defensive system just wasn't going to fit in what they wanted to do. Malone wants to be Thibs, and Vivek wants D'Antoni or Pop. And piggybacking on that, Malone relied more on his first unit (another Thibs quality) and didn't seem to trust his bench as heavily as a more up-tempo coach would (like Pop or D'Antoni). So they made the change, knowing those two factors were going to constantly clash and put the team in that "middle ground" which ultimately would lead them nowhere. 
I think the Kings can be an up-tempo team and still win games and be effective defensively. First off, we are only 6 games into this whole change, and there is naturally going to be growing pains. it sucks that the Kings didn't beat the Knicks by 40, but hey, some ups and downs are going to happen with change. It is obvious in the Kings' struggles in early defense and their fatigue showing when defending the pick and roll and drives to the basket. And the funny thing is, all these fans and players pining for Malone's old system don't realize it's there, it's just being played a lot less effectively because games are being played at a higher pace. And because it's being played at a higher pace, the flaws are showing more because there are more possessions (while more possessions can help some teams, it can also expose bad teams because the better team will usually prevail over the longer course of time; a reason why you see less upsets in the NBA playoffs than the NCAA Tournament). And, its also good to remember that even though we like to think differently, this defense wasn't lighting the world by any means even before Malone got fired (24th in defensive rating this year; 23rd last year). So while there was progress, the close wins early may have been a product of getting "lucky" rather than actually being effective, especially on defense and the true colors are just showing now. 
Though some may not want to admit it, there are a lot of teams doing up-tempo well now (Warriors, Mavs, Rockets and Blazers all rank in Top-10 in tempo) and have done it well before, including championship teams. Not everyone has to be the Larry Brown Detroit Pistons to be competitive. The great thing about basketball is that you can accomplish success in a myriad of different ways, and there isn't one style or method to winning. For every slug it out Pistons team there is a Spurs team using their depth and fast-paced style to win an NBA title. I think the Kings can fall in that latter category in due time, but not with this current defensive system, coach and a roster that relies heavily on the first unit.

But I am hopeful Vivek and Pete are figuring it out, and I think much like the Warriors a few years ago, the pieces are being put together to finally re-build the franchise to what it was back in the early 2000's and perhaps even greater. At the very least, this team is competitive, fun to watch (infuriating at times but still enjoyable) and still garners hope, and that's a hell of a lot better than what is going on in some franchises that are tanking for draft picks like Philly and Detroit.

If TL;DR: Up-tempo correlates to possessions not necessarily offense or defense; Malone's rotation and defensive system doesn't fit into the successful up-tempo team mold; Spurs are up-tempo and GOOD at defense; Vivek and Pete need to find that coach that can utilize depth and a complementing defensive system to the up-tempo offense.

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