How the Warriors Title Affects the Draft
*Photo via NBA.com
When a champion is crowned in today’s NBA, you can almost feel the ripple effects of change resonate throughout the association. This is a copy-cat league, and teams are always looking at the success of other organizations to adopt and adapt their practices. When the 2005-06 “7 Seconds or Less” Suns revolutionized the game by “going small,” with Boris Diaw at center, the general perception was that small ball was a gimmick, unable to produce wins during the playoffs when the games slowed down and became more physical. Then, the Heat won back to back titles in 2012 and 2013 by playing Chris Bosh at center, opening up Pandora’s Box in terms of how small ball could work. Imitators soon followed.
When the Spurs won in 2014, they did so by relying on (guess who) Boris Diaw as the fulcrum to their “pace and space” style of play. Diaw is a brilliant passer and slasher for his size / girth, and a good enough shooter to keep teams honest. He, in part, enabled the Spurs to whip the ball around the floor, passing up good shots in order to find a great one.
The 2014-15 champion Golden State Warriors saw those Heat and Spurs title teams and one-upped them Penelope-style. The Warriors found success in the Finals by benching Second Team All-Defense center Andrew Bogut in favor of Draymond Green. Green, who measured in at 6' 5.75" without shoes at the NBA combine, makes Chris Bosh look like Gheorghe Mureșan. As a result, there has been much speculation that the traditional big man position is dead and that position-less basketball is the future of the NBA. This newly accepted school of thought will have implications on the players in this Thursday’s NBA draft.
Two different player prototypes that are currently in high demand include the “Swiss Army Knife” defender big-man and the two-way “3 & D” wing player.
“Swiss Army Knife” Defender
The stock of players with “defensive range” (ability to guard multiple positions) has seen considerable growth this year. Since defensive rule changes were implemented in the early 2000’s banning hand-checking on the perimeter, high pick and rolls have become even further engrained as an offensive staple. The best way to negate the advantage provided by a screen-setter is to simply switch the screen. However, a team that strictly adheres to traditional, position-oriented basketball will fall victim to mismatches due to those switches (i.e. slow-footed big men guarding speedy point guards). The Warriors found success by surrounding Steph Curry with four players between 6’6 and 6’8 who are able to guard multiple positions. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shawn Livingston, Harrison Barnes, and Klay Thompson all provided the Warriors the luxury of being able to switch the majority of opponents’ screens without giving up a mismatch. Teams around the league have noticed this strategy and begun to imitate (see: the Milwaukee Bucks). Watch as the Warriors switch de-facto center Draymond Green onto James Harden in the Western Conference Finals:
The prospects that will benefit most from this do-it-all defensive skill-set are Kentucky’s Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein and UCLA’s Kevon Looney.
Stats (all draft stats taken from DraftExpress.com):
Story: WCS proved his defensive prowess over the course of his collegiate career, culminating in the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award this past season. Part of what makes WCS a special player is his ability to use his length and athleticism to stay in front of ball handlers. Take a look at the way he moves his feet on players 6-8 inches smaller:
Watching him play over the course of the past three seasons, it’s evident that WCS gets his energy from great defensive plays, as opposed to shot-making, which is a rare trait in today’s NBA.
In years past, teams might have focused more on WCS’s nearly non-existent offensive game, but today his defensive versatility is being valued at a premium. He is the type of player that can come in right away and affect a basketball game. It would be truly surprising if he fell out of the lottery, despite his glaring offensive limitations.
NBA Comparison: Joakim Noah
Best Fit: New York Knicks (if and when they trade down from 4) – any replacement for Andrea Bargnani would look like a defensive mastermind, but WCS could legitimately fill the hole that Tyson Chandler left.
Story: Basketball scout Marc D’Amico says, “Kevon Looney is the kind of guy you want on your team in the modern NBA game” (NBA.com). The reason is not because his 11.6 ppg on 47% field goal shooting was particularly impressive. Rather, Looney has scouts drooling over his impossibly long arms and his potential to become a lock-down defender on both the perimeter and lower block. The combination of his length, instincts and uncommon foot speed for his size are what this guy a potential mid-first round steal. Watch Looney put all of his defensive talents on display from switching screens to closing out on shooters to standing his ground on the low block:
NBA Comparison: Amir Johnson
Best Fit: Boston Celtics at 16 would be a mutually beneficial pick. Looney would quickly round into an upgrade to Brandon Bass, and Looney’s style would fit right in with Stevens’ aggressive defensive system.
“3 & D” Wings
Historically, NBA swing men could enjoy a long career by being a “specialist” in one particular area. However, just as versatility has become a differentiating factor for big men, the same can be said about wing players as well. NBA teams have become more nuanced and even ruthless when it comes to exploiting weaknesses of opposing wings. If you’re a stud defensive player who cannot shoot, opposing defenses will leave you wide open and force you to beat them (a la Tony Allen or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). If, conversely, you’re a plus offensive player who cannot defend, opposing offenses will run you through endless pick and rolls until your head spins (Damien Lillard / Kyrie Irving). Even if you’re an All-NBA level slasher / scorer but struggle with your jump shot, defenses will sag off of you and force you to pull up (Rudy Gay / DeMar DeRozan). Two-way players who can shoot the ball well and play defense (sometimes referred to as 3 & D players) are becoming arguably more valuable than players who are spectacular on one end and a liability on the other. That is why some analysts are making the argument that Draymond Green is even more valuable than Kevin Love, despite Love’s superstar ability on the offensive end. The prospects that stand to benefit the most from this skill-set are Duke’s Justise Winslow and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson.
Story: Justise Winslow catapulted himself into the top-5 pick conversation with his stellar play in March. What really sets Winslow apart from the field is the lack of holes in his game. According to 538, Winslow figures to have the lowest probability of busting among the top five college prospects:
Justise does not have any one attribute that is superstar quality (besides his name). However, he is arguably the safest pick because he has the total NBA package, able to dribble, shoot, pass, defend and rebound at an NBA level, without any glaring deficiencies in his game. As long as he continues working on his range, Justise Winslow should be a solid two way player for a long time.
NBA Comparison: Kawhi Leonard
Best Fit: Denver Nuggets at 7th overall – The Nuggets will be re-tooling and need a potential star to build around. Winslow is the type of physical specimen that can thrive in the high altitude and he will be a considerable upgrade from Randy Foye, who is better served as a 6th man / heat check type.
Stanley Johnson projects to be a consummate 3 & D wing player. At 242 lbs, Johnson has the strength and quickness to defend the perimeter and effectively wall off the paint against other large wings. Johnson showed flashes of his shooting stroke at Arizona, but I expect he’ll prove his gym rat reputation true by getting his 3 point field goal percentage north of 40% within his first couple years in the league. The video below indicates he has the catch and shoot ability, now it’s just about finding consistency.
NBA Comparison: Jimmy Butler
Best Fit: Detroit Pistons at 8th overall – there’s a reason I used the Van Gundy link for Johnson. Namesakes aside, Stanley is the consummate aggressive, workhorse type of player that Stan Van Gundy will love. Also, he should develop the stroke to provide some desperately needed floor spacing alongside Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, and the rest of the poor-shooting Pistons. Stanley should be able to start right away by supplanting the incumbent starter Cartier Martin. Martin is (apparently) a 6 year veteran in the league who is coming off a season that saw him shoot 18.2% from behind the arc. Said Martin, “It was a pretty bad year, I ain't lying.” No he ain’t. Detroit will welcome Johnson with open arms.
As the league continues to evolve, different skill-sets will fluctuate in perceived value, favoring different players. Today’s NBA particularly values defensive versatility from bigs and well-rounded games from wings. Though these players are all clearly extraordinary basketball talents, they are also lucky to be joining the game at the perfect time.