Sometimes the smallest changes can have a large impact. In this post we'll take a look at a very small tweak each player can make that may yield large, long-term impact.
1). Marc Gasol - Rebound Free Throws. Criticism of Marc Gasol is mild. The common refrain is for Gasol to be more assertive on offense. For whatever reason, "being more assertive" is seen as a small change. But it's not. Gasol is a fundamentally democratic player, each play an act of collective, rather than individual, expression.
Would it be nice for Gasol to take over and carry the Grizzlies offense every night? Of course it would. But Gasol values efficiency, and carrying an offense night in and night out is often an inefficient choice. And that reality is increasingly true for big men, as defenses become more adept at denying post passes and clogging the lane. You can count on less than one hand the number of players that anchor both their team's offense AND defense (and do so at an elite level) every night: LeBron James and Chris Paul do. Dwight Howard has, and may again. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did, but can't anymore. Paul George may still yet.
Gasol is at the edge of this handful of elite two-way players. We've seen him, in spurts, tantalize us with his twin arsenals of low and high post moves. But from the best, we always want one thing: more. I'd argue to resist the temptation to ask Gasol to score 20 points a night, and be happy with 14.5 and 4 assists. Those extra 5.5 points may be a bridge too far.
So here is a micro-change for Gasol refuses to go for offensive rebounds on free throw attempts. It annoys me. This is my biggest issue with his game. He is very nearly a perfect basketball player.
2). Mike Conley - More Free-Throw Attempts - Conley continued his steady progression last year, posting a career high 18.3 PER - 1.5 points better than his previous best. The strange thing about Conley's breakout season was that he didn't break out, at least not in a statistical sense. Most of his numbers were flat, or actually went down. In fact, the only area Conley's improved was getting to the line.
This improvement roughly coincided with the Rudy trade and an increased focus on Conley pick and rolls. Through the first four months of the season, here's a breakdown of Conley's FT attempts: 2 (October, 1 game), 3.16 (November), 3.42 (December) and 2.5 (January). But then in February, March and April, his attempts per game rose to 3.45, 4.76 and 3.88 respectively. For the full year, Conley made 54 more free throws than his previous career best. For a +80% FT shooter, that translates into about a half point per game uptick in scoring.
It's difficult to imagine Conley generating more steals or assists. But if Conley can extend his post-Rudy trade FTa over a full season, he will mine even more efficiency in his game.
3). Tayshaun Prince - Replace Long 2's with 3's - Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Tayshaun is the test case for that question. Many fans seem ready to usher Tayshaun - if not into the Trade Machine - then at least out of the starting lineup. While the Spurs showed playing Tayshaun and Tony together against championship caliber teams is not tenable, not every team is the Spurs. Tayshaun still has value. And he could have more.
Check out Tayshaun's shot chart. Hint: green is good.
The numbers above the break can be chucked due to sample size, but check out the corners. 50 attempts is by no means a large sample, and his 3% will decrease as attempts go up, but there is reason to think that Tayshaun can be at least an average shooter from the corners. Tayshaun's issue, for whatever reason, is that he doesn't trust his long range shot. He pump fakes the 3 point shot, for what I can only assume is a shot he is more comfortable taking, the mid-range jumper. But let's do the math: he is passing up a shot worth 1 point more, for another shot that he makes less often (1.23 points per shot on 3's vs a terrible .79 points per shot from mid range). In the angrily red section on the left, you will notice 110 attempts on an atrocious 30.9% shooting. Not optimal, sir.
Can an old dog change learn new tricks? Some can; others can't. Instincts are born out of repetition, and Tayshaun has a long history of pumpfakes to unlearn. In any event, it will be interesting to watch.
4). Zach Randolph - Cut Off the Ball - Randolph has never quite been the same since his leg injury. His repertoire of post moves has been less crisp. Fewer defenders are wiling to concede an open mid range jumper because ZBo's first step is not quite what it once was. This in turn, has caused his mid-range shooting to fall from 39.5% in 2010-2011, to 36.5% in 2012, to 34.4% last year.
Yet, despite erosion in both mid-range shooting and isolation postups, the news is not all bleak for ZBo. He has managed to stay incredibly productive because he is an elite offensive rebounder. Many other players would have seen a precipitous drop in their stats, and it is a testament to ZBo's hard work and willingness to slightly alter his game that he has remained a near elite power forward without a truly elite post game.
It is time to add another tool to the arsenal: cutting into the lane without the ball. Defenses are too good for an offense to expect to casually throw the ball into the post, and frankly, the days of ZBo as an every night postup threat are waning.
But he is still a large human being and - Spoiler Alert! - large human beings are a threat on the basketball court. In the following clip, the Clippers deny a pass to ZBo in the post, only to have the Grizzlies counter with a little Marc Gasol to ZBo brilliance.
Gasol delivers a swoon-worthy bounce pass from the high post area, but it is the perfectly timed release by ZBo that makes the pass possible. This was by design. The Grizzlies expected the Clippers to front ZBo in the post, and responded with a quick reversal of the ball that created a passing lane. Using Gasol as the facilitator is especially effective because it draws the other big man away from the basket.
The Grizzlies should exploit ZBo's large body with weakside action, perhaps with Mike Miller sprinting around a ZBo fake "screen" that suddenly becomes ZBo sprinting towards the rim with the ball already on its way.
5). Tony Allen - Quit Looking For the Foul - We're not looking for miracles here. Expecting TA to make layups is a bit of a stretch. Rather, I hope to see him tweak the way he takes layups. Often, Tony goes into the lane looking for contact, contorting his body to catch the hip or outstretched arm of a defender. But defenders have recognized this. And so have the refs.
The numbers reflect this too. Last year, Tony attempted 1.2 less FT's per 36 mins than his career average. It was the first time he averaged less than 4 FTa/36 mins in his career. He did have 12 more FTa than the previous year, but that was on over 100 more FG attempts in the lane.
Drawing fouls is an art. Go too hard and you're called for charging. Avoid defenders and you make an easy shot much more difficult. Make it too obvious you want the whistle, you may not get it. Clearly Tony was doing something right in years past. Cue up the iPad Grindfather. Watch that tape. And get to the line!
6). Kosta Koufos - Defend in Space - I have been a fan of Koufos for about a year, and a fan of his contract since he signed it. He is exactly the type of player that you don't want to change. He is elite at what he does: finishing around the rim, rebounding, and blocking shots. Any expansion of that will probably lead to growing pains. But the point of this article is to ask players to step outside of their comfort zone, and make small changes that may yield long term results.
That's why - especially if he wants to play with Marc Gasol - he needs to be confortable guarding in space.
The above video clip shows Koufos's best qualities: an assortment of flip shots with both hands, rebounds out of his area and, for the purposes of this post, great defense without fouling (1:15 and 2:03 mark). If Koufos could occasionally guard say, Blake Griffin or Lamarcus Aldridge, and do a reasonable job on them, it would take quite a bit of pressure off of Marc Gasol, and pave the way for the Twin Towers to play together.
7). Ed Davis - Set Picks - I covered this here. Davis rarely makes contact on picks. Sometimes he is in too much of a hurry to dive towards the rim. Other times he doesn't provide a big enough target. Regardless, this is a simple thing that Ed can do to really open up offense for not only his teammates, but also himself.
8). Jon Leuer - Not a Stretch 4 - He's a WHITEWASH 3! We've already established that the Grizz throwing out a WHITEWASH is of dire importance. The lineup, on the verge of near extinction for over a decade, has been nursed back to health by the Timberwolves and Jazz in recent years. Jon Leuer must be comfortable as the WHITEWASH 3 for this lineup to be released into the wild again. Pairing his hopefully improved outside shooting with Calathes, Miller, Koufos and Gasol, will give the Grizzlies the lineup with the highest Basketball IQ in the NBA.
9). Quincy Pondexter - Dribble Thrice - While I am tempted to say a recommitment to defense is QPon's most pressing minor issue (his status as a plus defender is slightly overstated), I would go even smaller scale and say he just needs to be comfortable dribbling three times in a row. Doesn't sound like much, but it's a less than insignificant adjustment for a player that spots up in the corners.
The league is filled with players that pump fake the three, take one or two dribbles, and shoot a mid range jumper. It is a safe, open shot. It is also, (unless your name is Marc Gasol or Mike Conley), a bad one. Defenses are increasingly wising up to this and encouraging players to take it. The real way to scramble a defense is to pump fake and not take the open shot. Dribble into the uncomfortable areas and force the defense to commit. Pondexter is big enough that he may be a really good finisher in this way. But progress will be slow. Fighting the urge to take a mid-range jumper and barrel into large human beings takes time.
10). Nick Calathes - Look for Your Own - Though we don't know quite what to expect from Calathes, he will need to make a small change to his approach. The European game asks point guards to run the offense, rather than look for their own shots. Calathes can't be deferential with the Grizzlies reserves. He needs to attack, get into the lane, and be a scoring threat. The early returns from Grizzlies preseason are encouraging in this regard, but this trend must continue.
11). Jerryd Bayless - Guard Multiple Positions - Last year, Bayless had a near monopoly on the backup guard spot, the occasional terrible cameo from Keyon Dooling notwithstanding. But Bayless minutes are under attack this year - from rookies Calathes and Franklin, as well as WHITEWASH! 3 Jon Leuer - and he must prove to be more flexible on defense if he wants to find a role on offense.
There is almost always an opponent you can hide your worst defender on. The Heat just won a championship playing the Orange-Traffic-Cone-Formerly-Known-As-Ray-Allen on defense. Bayless is nowhere near a terrible defender; he's average, with good athleticism. But he also is subject to lapses of concentration and, less occasionally, effort. In the preseason, Coach Joerger has trotted out Conley-Calathes-Bayless lineups to get maximum ball-handling on the court at once. And while I don't know if Bayless can guard Chauncey Billups (Coach Hollins throwback trolling alert), Bayless must prove to be flexible on defense if he wants to see anywhere close to last season's minutes. He may occasionally have to guard a player much bigger than him, if Calathes (who is bigger, but not as athletic - can't fit the bill.
12). Mike Miller - Quit Diving on the Court - Seriously. My knees hurt watching you. My twitter feed has suggested sticking Miller in cryogenic stasis (I prefer ">Carbonite myself) until late January would be a great strategy. If anyone has a surplus of Carbonite, you know, just laying around, please FedEx it to the FedEx Forum. It will go to good use.
13). Jamaal Franklin "That Backflip Tho" Guy - I don't know what to expect from Franklin long term. I do think there's a reasonable chance that he will have at least one game "Jamaal Franklin Game" - a random Wednesday game in Sacramento - where he just MSH's (Makes Stuff Happen) all over the court. In general, he just needs to make the game easy. Focus on one thing. In college, he did a bit of everything. Do one thing and do it well, much like "That Backflip Tho" Guy.
"That Backflip Tho" Guy ain't concerned with fighting crime. Dude just wants to do backflips and tell the world about it. Jamaal Franklin should find his backflip, whatever it may be, and do it over and over and over again.