It’s slightly hypocritical to say you’re ‘more than a club’ and then act like your biggest rivals.
‘Mes Que Un Club’ adorns the seating at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
The motto ‘More Than a Club’ signifies Barcelona’s importance as an emblem of Catalanism, but also how the club produces some of the world’s greatest players in its academy, La Masia.
“We never stand still,” said Ryan Giggs as part of speech at Old Trafford in 2014, referencing Manchester United’s struggles after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, but also what the football club is supposed to represent.
“We always give youth a chance and we try and play attractive football.”
Both football clubs want to be known as places where young talent can grow, develop and continue a tradition. They want to be football teams that aren’t just a collection of players on a pitch.
But revolving your club around something like this becomes more difficult when, more recently, you have simply become yet another superclub.
Superclubs, a term which describes the world’s rich and powerful football clubs that dominate domestically and in Europe, use their accumulated wealth to acquire the best players and managers in the world.
For example, Paris Saint German spent over €400 million on two players (Neymar and Kylian Mbappe) and made their way to the Champions League Final – mainly off the back of the former’s brilliance. Real Madrid have always been honest and open with their intentions. The ‘Galacticos’ policy gave a name to their strategy of purchasing Europe’s superstar talent for incredible fees. Even Chelsea’s success has been, in part, down to the constant hiring and firing of several high profile managers.
Yet despite both club’s positions amongst the European elite, Barcelona and Manchester United have always felt they were not the same as these superclubs – trying to promote more elite talent from their youth setups rather than purchasing it.
Much of Sir Alex Ferguson’s early success at Manchester United was built upon the ‘Class of 92’ – a group of homegrown players that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Barcelona’s rise in the early nineties contained a midfielder that rose through the club’s youth ranks – Pep Guardiola. Guardiola used La Masia graduates years later, as the club’s manager, to dominate world football – calling upon players such as Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
They were both wealthy and dominant football clubs, but they also had an overriding principle they attempted to stick to. But as the landscape of global football changed over time, both appeared to admit they would have to spend more money to remain competitive.
Ferguson spent £19 million (a British record) on Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2001, £29 million on Rio Ferdinand in 2002, £26 million on Wayne Rooney in 2004, £30 million on Dimitar Berbatov in 2008 and £24 million on Robin van Persie in 2012. All were key figures at various points during Manchester United’s prolonged success.
Guardiola spent €34 million on Cesc Fàbregas in 2011, and after the manager left the club, Barcelona spent €88 million on Neymar in 2013 and €81 million on Luis Suarez in 2014. Fàbregas eventually moved back to England to join Chelsea, but Neymar and Suarez joined Messi to form a front three that helped Barcelona win the Treble in 2015.
Despite spending vast amounts of money, the sides still contained the youth products they had championed for so long – Giggs and Scholes had been important players in virtually all of Ferguson’s successful seasons at Manchester United, and that 2015 Barcelona team still contained Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta.
But after both clubs suffered the departure of the stabilising, and more consistent, parts of their success, their images of being ‘more than a club’ started to merge with that of any other superclub’s.
It’s hard to say you “give youth a chance” and “play attractive football”, and then hire José Mourinho as manager. It’s also equally as hard to say you have a “Barcelona way”, and then hire Ronald Koeman as manager.
Admittedly, some of the money Manchester United have spent more recently has secured high quality players (for example, Bruno Fernandes) but the same cannot be said for Barcelona. And understandably, not every young player that these teams produce will turn into a superstar.
But for clubs that proudly declared love for their own academies, they’ve spent humongous sums in recent years. These clubs claim to have identities, but stray further from them with each record breaking transfer – for every Marcus Rashford, you have a Harry Maguire, for every Ansu Fati, an Antoine Griezmann.
You cannot profess to be more than a club, and then act like all the others.
In honour of the Houston Rockets’ bizarre offseason, here’s another film breakdown involving one of their two stars – Russell Westbrook – and his historic game in 2017.
Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston. He reportedly wants a return to a role where he’s captain of the ship – but what does that look like? Well, it would look something like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s offence, when Westbrook was their star, after Kevin Durant left for Golden State. Put simply, the only time Russ doesn’t have the ball is when he’s resting on the bench.
That season, everything went through Westbrook, unlike in Houston, where James Harden is the man in charge. Interestingly enough, Harden posted the second highest Usage Percentage for a season in 2018-19 with 40.47. Two high usage and ball dominant players, that also can’t play off the ball, couldn’t mesh on the same team – who could have guessed?
Anyway, back to 2017. In this game against Denver, Westbrook was going for the single season triple-double record – and managed to get it, with his 42nd of the year. He ended up with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, on 53% shooting from the field, 41% from three-point range and 100% from the free-throw line (making all 11 attempts).
For Westbrook, these splits are surprisingly efficient, so it’s easy to see why this game is considered his best. What makes it more impressive is the fact that he was shooting from all over the floor, not just hitting layups and threes, as his shot chart shows.
To start, Westbrook was constantly getting to his spot at the elbow and making mid-range jump shots. At times he would gather the rebound from a Denver miss, walk the ball up the court and simply step into a shot.
If Westbrook wasn’t walking into a shot from a Denver miss, he’d be looking to assist his teammates – usually by making lead passes in transition.
In terms of specific actions, Westbrook used the pick and roll constantly against the Nuggets. The two-man game enabled Russ to easily get to his spots on the floor – which, as mentioned, usually included the elbow.
The offence was typically in Mid-Screen alignments, with a big screening for Westbrook in the middle of the court, the other big in the ‘dunker’s spot’ near the baseline, and a shooter in each corner (like below).
Denver’s drop coverage on pick and rolls helped get Westbrook going. Usually running the action with Steven Adams, Taj Gibson or Enes Kanter, the sinking Nuggets’ bigs allowed Westbrook to walk into open jumpers after his man had been screened. Like in this play, where Westbrook receives the screen from Kanter, and because Mason Plumlee is so deep into the lane, it allows Westbrook an open shot at the elbow.
Here, the drop coverage gives Westbrook space to drive towards the basket. He obliges, and finishes the layup whilst drawing a foul on Plumlee.
The main purpose of drop coverage is to invite mid-range shots, as they’re seen as inefficient in today’s NBA, but Denver’s drop coverage eventually led to Westbrook stepping outside the three-point arc to shoot. Here, again, the Denver defender (which in this case is Nikola Jokic) is so deep, it gives Westbrook an open look for three when coming around the Adams screen.
When the Nuggets didn’t drop on pick and rolls, Westbrook still created problems for them. He was too fast for any Denver big that would be defending the screen, so he could drive past them, and he was equally adept at finding his rolling big for assists.
In this play, Jokic doesn’t drop on the pick and roll, and switches onto Westbrook as he drives. Westbrook easily blows right past him, and all Jokic can do is foul.
Here Wilson Chandler hedges the ball screen to try and send Westbrook away from the basket. However, it allows Westbrook to make a nice pocket pass to Gibson, who hits the runner in the lane.
Billy Donovan, OKC’s head coach, was running various kinds of sets to get Westbrook the ball in different parts of the floor, or to give him opportunities to drive and create. It wasn’t just transition offence and ball screens.
Here, Westbrook hands off the ball to Semaj Christon, who reverses it to Andre Roberson. Westbrook cuts under the basket and receives a cross screen from Taj Gibson, and then collects the ball from Roberson on the opposite side.
Westbrook then receives a screen from Steven Adams, who slips his man and rolls to the rim. Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris attempt to trap Westbrook, but he manages to get the ball to Adams, who easily scores over the smaller rotating defender.
On this out of bounds play, Westbrook inbounds a floated pass to Victor Oladipo, then receives a pin down screen from Adams to get the ball back at the top of the key. This allows him to isolate, get to his spot and hit the elbow jump shot.
The strangest part of the game happened in the fourth quarter, which also happened to be the part of the game that perfectly sums up Russell Westbrook. There was a 4-minute stretch where everyone in the building knew that Westbrook only needed one more assist for the triple-double record. And Westbrook wasn’t shy about trying to get it.
Westbrook passed to Kanter out of a pick and roll, but he was called for a travel when rolling towards the rim. In the next offensive possession, Russ passed to Sabonis only for him to miss an open 20-footer. Later on, Westbrook again passed to Sabonis – but he passed out of the 20-footer this time. On a drive, Russ dumped it off to Sabonis (for a third time) and he missed a jump hook inside the paint. Semaj Christon finally hit a corner three off a Westbrook kick out, with 4:17 left in the fourth quarter, to give him the record.
Then the Thunder tried to win the game.
That Christon three was the start of a 13 to four OKC run, that brought them back to within four with 29.8 seconds remaining. The Thunder then ran this out of bounds play, in a Single Stack set, where Westbrook and Oladipo are stacked just outside the lane on the right of the court. Oladipo comes off a pin down from Adams, and moves towards the inbounder as if he’s to receive the ball. At the same time, Adams sets another pin down, but for Westbrook – who comes off that screen, catches the ball and drives to the hoop. He adjusts in the air as the Denver defenders collapse around him, and finishes at the rim.
After getting the stop at the other end, OKC have the ball with 2.9 seconds left and are down two. It all came down to this final out of bounds play.
The two OKC bigs are stationed at the elbows, while Westbrook is at the top and Oladipo is on the right wing. Westbrook cuts towards the basket, which cues Jeremi Grant and Oladipo’s cuts to the corners. As they get to the corners, Westbrook runs up the court back to where he started, coming off a pin down from Adams – but the Nuggets are switching defenders and do a great job of communicating, which stops Singler getting the ball to Westbrook. With no time-outs left, he has to inbound the ball to Adams.
This is where everything breaks down, and Russell Westbrook hits, arguably, the most iconic shot of his MVP season.
Adams fakes the hand-off one way, then Westbrook changes direction and goes back to his left. Adams then dumps the ball off to Westbrook, who has enough space to hit the deep game winning three-pointer.
If you trade for Russ and make him your star, this is the show you’re buying a ticket for. The ball is in his hands to start the game, and the ball is in his hands to end the game.
As expected, Harden was up to his old tricks – working in isolation offence to shoot layups, three pointers, or get fouled.
Harden drove to the rim on countless occasions, utilising his trademark crossover dribble to do so. He’s such an impressive ball handler and is so strong, he was almost impossible to knock off balance. As such, he easily finished through contact or drew fouls.
He was also hitting his step-back threes, as per usual.
The Rockets ran either a four-out or five-out offence, which basically means how many offensive players are stationed outside of the three-point line. For example, a five-out offence would start with all five players outside the three-point line. Tyson Chandler started the game for Houston, so he obviously dictated that it was four-out to begin with.
Later, when there was no Chandler, it became five-out.
The benefits of having shooters spread out around Harden have been well documented, and these benefits were seen against the Hawks. There was space in the paint for Harden to drive into, as defenders didn’t want to help off Houston’s shooters. Harden’s two-point attempt shot chart shows how close to the basket he was getting – and he only missed twice.
So how exactly did James Harden get to 60? Firstly, he was looking for switches to get himself a favourable matchup. In the play below, Chandler set the screen on Harden’s man, forcing the switch onto Jabari Parker – all for Harden to size him up and hit the three-pointer.
To get the switch on this play, Harden did something a little different. Russell Westbrook was the ball handler, and Harden was the screener. This forced DeAndre’ Bembry onto Westbrook, and Evan Turner onto Harden. Harden then drew the foul on his three-point attempt. He, of course, hit all three free throws.
Going back to Jabari Parker, Harden went at him a lot.
He was even turning down screens to attack him off the dribble (and draw fouls).
One-on-one defence was a struggle for Atlanta at times. Jabari obviously had his problems, and DeAndre’ Bembry was also matched up against Harden, but to no avail. Whoever guarded him, Harden still managed to score.
This led to Atlanta defending Harden in various ways. Double-teaming became the next logical step, but the problem with that logic is that Harden is one of the best passers in the NBA. Here, Jabari Parker and De’Andre Hunter doubled Harden, and he drew them to the right side-line to create space at the three-point line for PJ Tucker. Ben McLemore’s cut from the left corner to the top of the key occupied Bembry, so Harden got an assist by passing out of the double team to Tucker, who hit his open three.
The Hawks even tried triple-teaming Harden at one point. But Harden reacted quickly enough to find the open man in the corner for three.
On pick and rolls Atlanta would sometimes trap Harden, trying to force the ball out of his hands. However, that strategy didn’t work too well. In the play below, Harden got a pick from Ben McLemore, and Trae Young and De’Andre Hunter tried to trap him – only for Harden to make a beautiful bounce pass to McLemore who got by Parker for the dunk.
However, Houston didn’t just run isolation plays or pick and rolls for Harden – he moved off the ball quite frequently, with the Rockets utilising Westbrook as the primary ball handler.
The Rockets often ran Chicago action – which is a pin down screen into a dribble hand off. Here, Tucker set the pin down for Westbrook, who then collected the hand off from Chandler. Although it did slow down towards the end of the action, Hunter was ball watching – so Harden made a backdoor cut for an easy layup.
Houston’s head coach Mike D’Antoni also took a page out of Gregg Popovich’s playbook, running Motion Strong for Harden. Motion Strong is where two players set two pin down screens (basically stagger screens) to get a shooter open off the ball. Here, Tucker and Chandler set the pin downs for Harden, who managed to escape from Hunter into enough to space to catch the pass from Westbrook, set himself, and hit the three.
Here, the Rockets try Motion Strong again, but Jabari Parker actually did a great job of reading it and disrupting the pass. This forced Houston to reset.
Westbrook then drove and kicked to Tucker on the wing. But Harden didn’t just stand still and expect to receive the ball in order to create something himself. He cut off the back of Trae Young, got a nice bounce pass from Tucker, and made the layup with no resistance.
In fitting fashion, Harden eventually got his 60th point at the free throw line. His playing style has its detractors, but he’s arguably the best scorer in the entire NBA.
New Houston head coach Stephen Silas said he wants the Rockets to be “a little bit more versatile on the offensive end,” this coming season, suggesting that the team’s scoring output won’t be completely geared around Harden isolation plays. But on this night against the Hawks, James Harden showed the advantages of doing just that.
This was a little different and fun to do – maybe if I can figure out how to edit videos, I can diagram some of the plays and actions teams run. It also may seem a bit strange to look at a game almost a year old, but you’ve got to start somewhere, I guess!
Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn, Giovani Lo Celso and Vinicius were all taken off at the interval for Pierre-Emile Hoejbjerg, Erik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son – then Gareth Bale was soon replaced by Harry Kane. What was striking about Spurs in the first half was their ability to bypass Antwerp’s press, but then create very few chances.
When the ball went back to Hugo Lloris, Antwerp would be high up the pitch, stopping simple balls out from the goalkeeper to the two central midfielders, centre backs or full backs.
Lloris wasn’t afraid to kick the ball long – which seemed to be the right approach. Vinicius and Gareth Bale both showed at times they were able to win the first ball, and then other members of the front four were able to pick up the knock downs, or flick ons, and move towards Antwerp’s goal.
The issue with Tottenham’s build up play came afterwards. The passing was very deliberate and to feet most of the time – with nothing direct, or even penetrative, being made besides Lloris’s kicks. Dele Alli gave the ball away in the final third, and in the opposition’s penalty area, several times mainly due to a lack of off ball movement. There were no Tottenham players moving Antwerp defenders around, or running into space.
However, Antwerp moved well off the ball. When Haroun’s run wasn’t tracked because Reguilon didn’t tag Miyoshi off to Lo Celso, Davies was pulled out wide forcing Winks to follow Mbokani’s run.
Refaelov moved into what would have been Wink’s zone and manged to get a shot away.
Antwerp’s goal actually came from their press and Tottenham’s lack of movement. Spurs were forced back to Ben Davies, who couldn’t see any options, only to be pressured by Mbokani who won the ball.
This led to a two on one, and Mbokani squared it to Refaelov who scored.
Despite the changes in the second half it appeared the ship had sailed for Spurs. They were much more direct, made better runs and tried to be more aggressive in their passing, but still struggled to find the right ball in a crowded final third. The Belgian side were more than happy to sit back, invite Tottenham’s pressure and attack on the counter – creating chances doing so.
Even when Kane dropped deep (as he has done numerous times this season) and Son and Moura pushed on, Antwerp still defended incredibly well. Kane could drag one centre back away from Antwerp’s back line, but they still had another two in their three-man defence, meaning they would be in a position to recover.
Is this a problem for Spurs going forward? Probably not. They moved off the ball much better in the second half, and the issues that led to their loss appeared, on the surface, to be personnel based. Davies has normally been a left back under Mourinho, despite playing at centre back in the previous Europa League game against LASK, and he was given a hard time by Mbokani. The front four, that offered little to no movement, were completely replaced by the hour mark.
Maybe in a parallel universe we would be talking about Johnny Manziel and Patrick Mahomes playing against each other. Or Manziel would be the one with the NFL MVP award, and Mahomes would be the quarterback out of the league. All the decisions they made, didn’t make, or didn’t even choose to make, play out in an infinite number of worlds.
But in this universe, it was a decision that Mahomes indeed chose to make that was the Big Bang that gave life to this comparison. During the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-10 win over the New England Patriots this season, Mahomes took the snap at 10:57 in the fourth quarter on New England’s 39-yard line, facing a third and eight. He then ran left for 18 yards, before stepping out of bounds.
He looked to the crowd and made a gesture with his hands. That was it. Something that simple. It wasn’t Manziel’s money sign, he was merely trying to hype up the substantially reduced crowd. But it did start the reactor of comparison, parallels, and everything that may have happened if the universe had allowed it.
Mahomes is everything the former Texas A&M quarterback could have been, or maybe, should have been. Mahomes is the NFL equivalent of Manziel in college.
There’s also the off the field image Manziel had. You can get away with partying all the time when you’re great, but there’s a reason the ones that don’t party all the time also happen to be the great ones.
Manziel and Mahomes took over their respective football worlds, demonstrated by the fact that both won major honours so young. Both were new, fresh and exciting – taking the NFL and CFB by storm. Manziel at Texas A&M was fun. Mahomes in his MVP season was fun. They were special – and Mahomes certainly still is.
Both played in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense, which is one of the “most quarterback friendly” systems a team can use. It’s a heavily pass orientated scheme, making plays quick and simple. It also involves running to the line as fast as possible to make adjustments, all to catch out any defenders. Plenty of quarterbacks that came out of the Air Raid system failed to make the jump to the NFL, mainly because pro systems are so much more complex. Even though more and more teams are now utilising aspects of the Air Raid offense, and quarterbacks currently in the NFL are products of the system, it still has its critics.
Manziel’s performance in the NFL shows why those Air Raid critics exist, but the performance of Mahomes in the NFL also proves many of them wrong. But again, the similarities reappear – products of Air Raid, products of Kingsbury.
In terms of playing style, comparing Manziel in 2012 to Mahomes in 2018, again, leads to parallels. Both have big arms, and always looked to get the ball downfield. Both were praised for their abilities to make things happen when plays broke down. Scrambling and extending plays were huge weapons for both in their award laden years, before delivering unconventional, side arm, or underarm throws to receivers. They were gunslingers in the purest sense of the word. Manziel would throw to Mike Evans, Mahomes to Tyreek Hill – both receivers took advantage of their physical skills to respectively outmuscle and outpace defensive backs.
Their biggest strengths were also their biggest flaws. Both threw risky passes downfield and took too many unnecessary risks in college. Mahomes ironed those out, but Manziel? Not so much. He could get by on his athleticism at Texas A&M, but not in the NFL.
Manziel in college showed the promise of everything Mahomes became. In another world Manziel is drafted by another team and had Andy Reid as his coach. He then wouldn’t end up with the Cleveland Browns, the one place where, recently, the only thing they guarantee to quarterbacks is disappointment. Or in yet another world Mahomes goes to Cleveland and turns around the franchise. So many things could, should, or would have been, and it’s so easy to say that. But the two were kindred spirits – electric, young quarterbacks with the footballing world at their feet.
In retrospect it’s sad, so much could have been for Johnny Football. Infinite universes mean infinite possibilities and who knows what’s happening in another world at this moment. They were so similar, but when it mattered most, they were so different.
Manziel and Mahomes were even born in the same city in Texas. What could have been for one, has been for another.
This is a little bit different to what I normally do, but I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a little shorter and less stats heavy, but I thought it was worth a post. Next time I’ll more than likely be back to what could be considered regularly scheduled programming.
Death, taxes, and Nottingham Forest sacking their manager. It’s nice to know that in 2020 some things haven’t changed.
On the 6th of October Sabri Lamouchi’s contract with Nottingham Forest was terminated, and he was immediately replaced by Chris Hughton. Hughton has experience in the Championship, winning promotion with Newcastle and Brighton – but there’s so much to unpack after the end of Lamouchi’s reign.
No wins in his last 11 games in charge. Four wins in his last 20 in charge.
Hughton has to restore confidence to a squad that capitulated on the final day of last season – losing their playoff spot on goal difference, thanks to a 4-1 loss at home to Stoke. Forest could have confirmed their playoff place in the second to last game of the season, but they were unable to get a point against a Barnsley team that only avoided relegation because Wigan went into administration. The hangover from the disaster of the final day is obviously still pounding in the Forest players’ heads, especially with the short turnaround in-between last season and this – leaving no time for the dust to settle, or for Lamouchi to properly address what went wrong.
Forest are third from bottom in the Championship, and Hughton came into a similar situation when he took over at Brighton in 2014, when a team that finished sixth the year before were only one place above the relegation zone. In his first full season they finished third (only on goal difference) and the following season resulted in Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League.
Hughton’s biggest task is, obviously, getting Forest scoring again. In Lamouchi’s last 20 games, they scored 16 goals. This season Forest have only scored once. Since they beat Leeds 2-0 at home last season, only five teams in the Championship scored less goals for the remainder of that campaign. Only Wycombe have scored less than them in the Championship this season.
Lamouchi’s Forest were never a free scoring or possession dominant side, opting to play on the break, and only Leeds and Hull scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship last year. In the league, Forest only scored three goals in a match six times (conversely, they scored once in a match 23 times) and in just one of those games had more than 50% possession – a 3-1 win at home against Luton Town. Forest won only twice all season when having the ball more than their opponents.
According to WhoScored, Lamouchi’s most used formation was the 4-2-3-1 below:
A lot of Forest’s defensive success came from sitting deep and staying compact, usually in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 (the latter especially this season).
In defensive transitional phases Ben Watson would usually look to break up play, allowing the rest of the side to get back, aggressively trying to win the ball. This would slow down the opposing team, and if the ball was won, would let Forest break before the other team is set. But this did sometimes leave space in-behind – for example, against Leeds. Instead of trying to get into a position to block the passing lane through to Pablo Hernandez, Watson tried to win the ball from Mateusz Klich. But when he didn’t get to the ball, Klich was able to pass to Hernandez, who ran into the space Bamford created and scored.
However, Forest’s defensive numbers didn’t quite tell the whole story last season. Having the fifth best defensive record in the Championship was mainly due to the brilliance of Brice Samba – no other team in the top seven allowed more shots on target.
Forest would usually change into a 3-2-5 formation when attacking, with Watson dropping deep to collect from Tobias Figueiredo or Joe Worrall. The other central midfielders (Samba Sow or Tiago Silva) would become the ‘2’ but one had licence to make runs into the box.
When transitioning from defence to attack, the key to Lamouchi’s system was the energy and pace of the two fullbacks (usually Matty Cash and Yuri Ribeiro) – they helped bring the ball, or the team, up the pitch. Their speed (and the speed of Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi) was important on the counter, and it also helped create overloads on the wings. This would let either the fullback or the winger come inside into the half spaces. Lolley and Ameobi could cut inside and shoot, but the overloads were mainly used to create one on one situations.
Lewis Grabban’s importance cannot be understated, and not just because he became the first Forest striker since 2002-03 to score 20 goals in a season. He constantly pounced upon, and profited from, defender’s mistakes, and ran the right (or inside right) channel to find space. This, combined with late runs from midfield on counter attacks and Grabban’s excellent hold-up play, created opportunities for Forest. Tiago Silva’s goal against Cardiff, for example, saw Watson win the ball and pass to Silva, who then played the ball over the top to Grabban who was running the inside right channel. Alfa Semedo’s run occupied two defenders, then Grabban crossed from the right to Silva (who made a late run into the space Semedo’s run had created) who scored.
These late arriving midfield runs have unfortunately been seen less this season. For instance, Jack Colback made several runs into space during Forest’s 1-0 loss against Huddersfield on the 25th of September – but simply wasn’t picked out. This, and an over reliance on Lewis Grabban, means goals have been hard to come by.
Grabban scored 35% of Forest’s goals in the Championship last season, and no other Forest player got into double figures in the league. Along with his 21% shot conversion rate, this meant he had to get the ball if Forest were to score – but Grabban has only scored four goals in his last 20 games. However, it’s not as if the team aren’t creating chances for the 32-year-old, as Luke Freeman’s cross against Cardiff would testify.
Is Lamouchi responsible for runners not being found or for his star striker not scoring? Possibly not, and Lyle Taylor has been brought in as cover for Grabban, and to provide a different option off the bench. But there’s obviously a lack of confidence, and a fear of getting things wrong, running throughout the whole side, and Lamouchi’s system clearly depended upon Grabban’s efficiency in front of goal.
It’ll be interesting to see what Hughton does with Grabban after having a similarly prolific striker in Glenn Murray when Brighton were promoted in 2017. WhoScored notes the below 4-4-2 as that same Brighton side’s most used formation.
Looking at Brighton in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 (playoff and promotion) seasons, the team usually morphed into a 2-3-5 when attacking – this let the fullbacks overlap the wingers and created crossing angles. It also provided width which would let Anthony Knockaert cut inside from the right, to either shoot or run at defenders.
Under Hughton, Brighton were a counter attacking team, much like Lamouchi’s Forest. In 2016-17, no one scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship than Brighton. Glenn Murray scored 23 times that year, which was 31% of Brighton’s goals. However, three other Brighton players got into double figures for goals in the league – Anthony Knockaert, Sam Baldock and Tomer Hemed – with Knockaert being named Championship player of the season, scoring 15 goals and creating seven others. A lot of their attacking play involved getting the ball to Knockaert on the counter (or in one-on-one situations) and giving him the license to create.
Brighton were also amongst the best defensive teams in the division that season. David Stockdale conceded 40 goals (no team conceded less) and only Newcastle allowed less shots on target (140, to Brighton’s 154). Normally, Brighton defended in their 4-4-2, staying relatively compact, with the two strikers lightly pressing the defenders or goalkeeper when they were on the ball.
When Brighton were in the Premier League under Hughton, they would line up slightly differently. They opted mainly for a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1 (according to WhoScored) which was more than likely to avoid being outnumbered in midfield and to help with defending.
There’s certainly a deep squad at Forest, and they have players with Championship experience – but does their current squad fit Hughton’s system?
If he is to opt for a 4-4-2, Taylor would obviously start with Grabban. Joe Lolley, or maybe even to a certain extent Sammy Ameobi, can fill the Knockaert role – even if Knockaert himself has been linked with a loan move to the club. Shane Duffy was similar to Ben Watson when trying to win the ball, or disrupt play, whenever the opposition initially passed into midfield. Maybe a defensive change could replace Watson’s aggressive tackling in transition after his move away from Forest, despite Jack Colback’s return to the club. But if he decides to play with only one striker, the side could remain relatively unchanged.
It may take time for Hughton to settle upon the best set of defenders and midfielders for his system, as Forest have more than enough of both in the squad. He has shown he can get teams promoted, but he will need time. Exactly the kind of time he had at Brighton.
But time isn’t something Evangelos Marinakis has shown he’s been willing to give.
No one knows what will happen. Maybe Hughton will be gone by Christmas. Keep your phone on loud Gary Brazil.
Another international break is here, and Gareth Southgate has reasons to be excited and terrified in equal measure.
With the weekend’s, shall we say, eventful round of Premier League fixtures behind us, England are back. But what happened in those same fixtures seem like a microcosm for what the Three Lions are going to have to deal with over their next few games.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that England have one of the best front threes in international football. But the same sentiment cannot be echoed for their goalkeeping and centre back situations.
What makes this international break interesting is the depth and influx of attacking talent England seem to have.
The usual front three suspects (Sterling, Kane and Sancho) were all called up for the three matches against Wales, Belgium and Denmark. Everyone’s favourite footballer right now, Marcus Rashford, was also called up – and he, again, is normally a part of the set-up. There have also been call ups for Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings. Mason Greenwood impressed enough towards the end of last season to be included in the squad for the previous two matches against Iceland and Denmark.
Meanwhile, Harry Kane’s ‘new’ position has seemed to pique some interest. When Tottenham Hotspur beat Southampton 5-2 on the 20th of September, a lot was made of how Kane dropped deep and played the passes forward to Heung-Min Son, who was running beyond him. And rightly so – he assisted on all four of Son’s goals whilst still managing to get on the scoresheet himself.
“Harry Kane, in my opinion, changed the game,” said Jose Mourinho, when talking about the second half of that match.
“His movement was tremendous, his link play was absolutely incredible, and he allowed Son to play in a different position.”
Despite Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s “two or three little points” for Spurs before they faced his old club, Kane was indeed incredible – and he appeared in similar positions when Spurs beat Manchester United 6-1 this weekend. He sat deeper at times, and Son was the one furthest forward. Kane again assisted him for Tottenham’s second.
But dropping deeper is something he’s done before for England, if not incredibly often. In the 2018 World Cup, more than likely due to Southgate’s 3-5-2, he was the one who would retrieve the ball in more withdrawn positions, and look for Sterling’s forward runs as a way to bring England up the pitch.
Abraham, Calvert-Lewin and Ings must provide something different it seems.
Abraham scored 15 goals last year, even if he’s now behind Timo Werner at Chelsea, and Ings scored only one goal fewer than the Premier League’s top scorer, Jamie Vardy, last season. Being central strikers it’s hard for them to break into the side above Kane, but that’s what makes Dominic Calvert-Lewin such an intriguing proposition.
If Southgate doesn’t want someone to drop deep, and feels that his midfield can help get the team forward and bring others into play, Calvert-Lewin (in current form) would prove useful. He was called a “complete striker” by Carlo Ancelotti, although many would say that he’s not as complete as Kane.
Emulating Filippo Inzaghi was the challenge set by his manager, as Ancelotti wanted Calvert-Lewin to become more of a poacher.
“Now I’m focusing on getting in-between the sticks and putting the ball in the back of the net.
“Not to say that I’m a carbon copy of Pippo Inzaghi, but there are elements of his game that I’ve been showing in my game at the moment.”
Calvert-Lewin has scored nine goals in six games so far this season. All have been after taking very few touches, and all have been in the box. He’s shown his strength and ability in the air, along with great movement in the penalty area. Not to describe Calvert-Lewin as ‘just’ a poacher, or to claim that he’s a better finisher than Kane, but he provides more depth and a different option for England in the forward areas.
But Kane has been England’s number nine, captain, and focal point for so long. Playing as the furthest man forward is why he’s got 32 goals in 47 caps. But does he need a rest? It has been a point of contention recently, so don’t be surprised if Dominic Calvert-Lewin gets his first cap for England in a start against Wales.
While getting the ball in the back of the net doesn’t seem like it will be a problem for England, keeping it out of their own net might be.
After this weekend, the goalkeeping situation seems bad. However, it doesn’t appear to be a serious concern.
Of the three goalkeepers selected for England by Southgate, Dean Henderson had the best weekend by simply not playing.
Ancelotti didn’t seem too worried, saying: “Nothing happened – we have three points.”
So, Pickford shouldn’t fear losing his place. Southgate obviously has confidence in him, and rightly so – some of the best performances of Pickford’s career have come for England. He’s shown he can make big saves and his distribution has proved key for mounting counter attacks in the past.
The people in front of Pickford probably will be fearing for their places. This weekend the centre back play was ugly. At best.
Two of the centre backs called up, and the two that would arguably be the first-choice pairing, played in back lines on Sunday that let in 13 goals between them.
Harry Maguire’s lack of pace has been an issue for Manchester United for longer than just this season. You could also argue that he was at fault for three of Tottenham’s goals this weekend. Pulling down his own teammate, who was trying to clear the ball, was probably his lowest moment against Spurs – and Ndombele scored because of it.
Both Maguire and Gomez are more than struggling for form. John Stones must be rueing the fact he’s not got a decent run for Manchester City in so long. That and the £60 million spent on Ruben Dias.
Because of the play of Maguire and Gomez, we may get a look at a Michael Keane and Eric Dier partnership at some point in the next week, or possibly a return to the 3-5-2. Many of the other defenders in the squad are used to playing with three centre backs for their clubs – including Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka. Plus, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier played well in that system during the 2018 World Cup.
It all depends on what Gareth Southgate wants to do. He may tweak some things against Wales. That’s what International Friendlies are for, right?
Obviously, Greenwood and Sterling aren’t going to appear in the next three games, and that could mean Harvey Barnes and Jack Grealish play in more forward-thinking roles for England. Grealish plays out wide for Aston Villa, allowing him to see the whole pitch and create, while Barnes can play close to the striker – as he does for Leicester.
Everything considered, we’ll soon see how Southgate decides to set England up. But one thing is for sure – he has choices to make, both good and bad.
76ers fans trusted The Process for years, but it seems as if the franchise has stalled – so when will the real breakthrough come?
If ‘The Process‘ was this generation of 76ers players’ debut album, it was a triumph of sorts, like many artists often find with their initial work.
The debut lets audiences and fans know how the artist could sound throughout their career, encapsulating all their work up until that point. The second release is always heavily anticipated, and people are excited due to the potential the debut offered.
The Process had two stand out tracks for Philadelphia – All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Embiid, on his day, is the best big man in the NBA. He can do it all, shoot well for a big, rebound, get in the low-post and score and protect the rim. Simmons is a constant triple-double threat and a fantastic defender capable of forcing turnovers and guarding every position.
Embiid embraced The Process more than anyone. It became his nickname, and he the embodiment of the rewards that losing in the NBA can bring. Perhaps it was fitting that in Game 3 of this years’ first round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, after being doubled, Embiid’s cross-court pass to Tobias Harris was intercepted by Marcus Smart with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter.
It led to Jaylen Brown converting an and-one at the other end to put the Celtics up 95-94. The 76ers eventually lost the game 102-94, and went down 3-0 in the series – all but sealing their first round exit. The exit, and sweep, was confirmed with a 110-106 loss in Game 4.
Despite the pass, the loss wasn’t entirely on Embiid’s shoulders. The Philadelphia 76ers are finishing up their difficult second album.
It could be argued the 2018-19 was the follow up, but NBA teams don’t seem to be seasonal. You think of them when multiple seasons are grouped together. The Big Three in Miami that spanned 2011 to 2014. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers from 1999 to 2004. These are successful iterations yes, but they are never remembered in terms of a single season.
The beginnings of this 76ers debut album came in the 2017/18 season.
Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year, helping Philadelphia to a 52-30 record – improving their win total by 24 from the previous year. Embiid was an All-Star and selected for both All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. The young side won their first round playoff series against the Miami Heat in five games. They lost in the second round to the Celtics, but the future looked bright.
The following season appeared to the be the end of the first album.
The acquisitions of J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris signalled intent. For the 2018/19 season, the 76ers were no longer trying to lose. They were trying to win. And they went all in, trading assets gained from the lean years, including Robert Covington and Dario Šarić, to get Butler from Minnesota.
Simmons made his first All-Star appearance this season alongside Embiid, who again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. They again won their first round playoff series in five games, this time against the Brooklyn Nets.
Now think of Only in Dreams by Weezer from their first album.
The emotional, bittersweet crescendo to an influential project. Some things aren’t meant to be, and are only meant for dreams. The 76ers took the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the second round, only to lose in possibly the most heartbreaking of fashions. A buzzer beating game winner in Game 7.
A shot that bounced and hung upon the rim for an eternity. A shot that was made over Joel Embiid’s outstretched arm. The emotion of the situation was encapsulated in his tears when he knew he was going home.
You have your whole life to write your debut, but only a year to make the follow up.
The start of this current 2019/20 season was the start of the difficult second album.
People were excited, many picking Embiid to win MVP. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, but had signed Al Horford and re-signed Tobias Harris. They were on big contracts, but the 76ers seemed to be righting the wrongs of The Process days.
But as often happens, the second album fails to live up to expectations. Think The Klaxons’ Surfing the Void, or MGMT’s Congratulations. Maybe a better case is that of The Stone Roses. An iconic self-titled debut came out in 1989, but The Second Coming was seen as a disappointment from a band that offered so much.
Philadelphia seemed poised to be a defensive monster, they had length on the wings, size in the middle (in the form of Horford and Embiid) and the disruptive force of Simmons who would guard any team’s best player. The Philadelphia 76ers were a popular choice to make it to the NBA Finals.
The Stone Roses soon broke up after their second release, and maybe the same will happen with the 76ers.
An underwhelming season this year was aptly rewarded with the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The team’s lack of spacing has been well documented, with only eight teams in the NBA attempting less three-pointers per-game. They were the 6th best defensive team in terms of points allowed per-game, but the 10th worst team in terms of points scored per-game. Simmons famously doesn’t shoot three-pointers, and he kills the team’s spacing further when he simply stands in the ‘dunker’s spot’ when he’s not handling the ball.
Horford and Harris are the 76ers’ highest paid players, making $31 million and $28 million this year respectively, and unfortunately, helped dig the hole that got the team swept. Through the first three playoff games, Horford had averages of 5.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 40 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was also a -11 when on the court. Harris had averages of 14.3 PPG, 33.3 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was a -12.3.
The front office has to take some blame. Coach Brett Brown has to as well, and he’ll more than likely pay with his job. Yes, Simmons is out with an injury, but they should be putting up more of a fight.
As such, the second album ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper.
But where do they start with their third record? The issue that remains is the one that has always plagued the 76ers – can Embiid and Simmons play together?
Embiid has career averages of 23.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG and a 48% Field Goal Percentage. Good numbers. However, whilst in the NBA, he has had issues with injuries and his conditioning.
Embiid’s strengths offensively are in the post. He can shoot from the outside, and shoots 31.9% from three for his career, but he should get down low. He has an array of post moves unlike anyone else in the league, but how the 76ers are currently set up doesn’t help Embiid.
It was summed perfectly up at the beginning of Game 3 against Boston this year (below).
Firstly, because of how much of a threat he is, the Celtics were quadruple teaming Embiid when he was trying to post up. The defenders helped off of the 76ers’ poor shooters and crowded the Philadelphia big man, attempting to force a turnover and weren’t letting him establish post position.
Horford’s position at the opposite block wasn’t helping either, with Tatum situated to try and cut off a pass to him, or Richardson just behind him. Even a pass to Milton at the top could let a defender recover in time, and the same can be said for a pass to Harris in Embiid’s near corner. There’s no movement off the ball, and it left Embiid to either try and draw a foul, shoot a contested shot or force a risky pass.
Would Simmons solve this problem? With his lack of shooting probably not, but at least he can run an offence, properly pass to Embiid to help him establish post position and is a threat to move or cut off the ball. Simmons’s absence in this series obviously hurt Philadelphia – especially defensively, with Boston’s strength being their wing players, the same players that Simmons would guard.
If Embiid excels in the half court, Simmons does in the full court.
Ben Simmons has career averages of 16.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 8 APG and a 56% Field Goal Percentage. He’s an excellent ball handler with terrific vision who can drive towards the basket and finish (shown by his high FG%).
In a career performance against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year, you can see where he’s at his best (below).
Simmons ran the floor and collapsed the Brooklyn defenders around him with his drive to the hoop. This opened up the shooters spaced around the three-point line, who he kicked out to for a shot. However, his lack of shooting is why he was able to drive – teams allow him to build up a head of steam because he’s not a threat from the outside.
Curiously enough there was no Embiid in this game. Embiid’s presence clogs up the lane for Simmons, but Simmons’s presence also clogs up the paint for Embiid. Defenders can help off Simmons when he’s not in the paint because of his reluctance to shoot.
Out of Simmons’s 648 shot attempts this season, 624 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 96.3% of his total shots. He doesn’t shoot from outside.
Out of Embiid’s 806 shot attempts this year, 390 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 48.4% of his total shots. Embiid actually attempted 239 mid-range shots compared to 238 in the restricted area. He should be closer to the basket, but it seems he’s settling for outside jumpers, possibly due to the spacing. He can shoot those shots, but that doesn’t always mean he should.
The Guard/Forward should be the one shooting from further out when compared to their Center, but this isn’t the case for Embiid and Simmons.
The two can play together, but it appears it doesn’t optimise either’s skillset. Do the 76ers carry on as they are, and remain a team that never makes it out of the second round? Or do they move on from one of Simmons or Embiid in a bid to maximise the other’s potential and make a breakthrough?
If Philadelphia want to move on, who do they trade? A Guard/Forward that won’t shoot outside of the painted area, or a big man that’s hardly ever in shape? The team also has to deal with the heavy contracts they gave to the underperforming Horford and Harris, who would be incredibly hard to move. More than likely they move on from Brett Brown, and try this team with a new Head Coach. The duo has at least one more year together.
But they may be hesitant to move anyone. Trades haven’t turned out well for the 76ers recently. It must hurt their fans to see players they traded away such as Landry Shamet, Jimmy Butler, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz all play (and play well) for other teams this post-season.
But if they trade Simmons or Embiid, they need knock down shooters. Embiid needs movement when he’s in the post. He also needs someone to run the pick and roll with who has a jump shot – so defenders cannot simply go under screens and wall off the paint.
Simmons needs shooters and movement also, but possibly in a system more like Giannis Antetokounmpo has in Milwaukee. One transition based, where he can make plays with his vision or even be the roll man in pick and roll situations – again, surrounded by shooting.
They could create a system that involves all of these aspects for the two players, but it would almost always leave one stuck in an ineffective offensive position.
The Philadelphia 76ers are in the sessions for their third album. How do they break into the Conference Finals? How do they break into the mainstream?
The third album can catapult an artist to global superstardom, perfecting a formula that appeases fans and critics alike. Radiohead’s third was OK Computer. Blur had Parklife. The Clash released London Calling. Springsteen’s third album was Born to Run.
It’s a delicate situation to be in, but if the right decisions are made, a third album will be universally celebrated and all those involved hailed as geniuses. Or it can cement a band’s position as a flash in the pan whose early success simply wasn’t sustainable.
Which will the Philadelphia 76ers be?
All my information is from Basketball-Reference and stats.nba.com. Harris and Horford played a lot better in Game 4, but it was their sub-par play that added to Philly’s mess anyway. I also hope Harris is OK after taking that nasty fall. I’ve been gone a while with dissertation and other stuff, but I’m hopefully going to be writing more for my blog soon. If people read what I post it would very much be appreciated.
The Utah Jazz played the New Orleans Pelicans and the LA Clippers played the LA Lakers when the NBA returned on Thursday. Here’s a bit of a dissection of, and comment on, the endings of both games.
Two close games both decided by the final possession is exactly what everyone wanted when the NBA came back, and that’s exactly what the NBA delivered. The Jazz beat the Pelicans 106-104, and the Lakers beat the Clippers 103-101 – with Brandon Ingram and LeBron James showing how games can be both won and lost.
As Utah and New Orleans played first, let’s start there.
Rudy Gobert made two free throws to give the Jazz the lead with 6.9 seconds left, and the Pelicans called a time out. Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry ran a nice looking play to get J.J. Redick an open shot at the end.
It starts with Lonzo Ball (#2) inbounding for the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday (#11 for the Pelicans) sets a screen for Brandon Ingram (#14 for the Pelicans) who runs to the left wing to collect the ball. At the same time, J.J. Redick (#4 for the Pelicans) is running along the baseline towards the left block.
Ingram gets the ball on the left wing. Holiday and Redick stop at the left block and Derrick Favors (#22 for the Pelicans) stands at the top of the key.
As soon as Ingram gets the ball he moves towards the right wing, apparently about to use the screen Favors is setting at the top to get open and away from the Jazz’s Royce O’Neale (#23). At the same time, Ball runs towards Holiday who are both about to set screens for Redick to get him open at the three point line. Notice where Favors is looking.
Watching the left corner, Favors knows that it’s time to move away from the screen he’s faking to set, and move just inside the three point line. Redick uses the double screen to run towards Favors, and Ingram carries on towards the right wing. Gobert (#22 for the Jazz and circled) is obviously concerned with a drive towards the basket, so wanting to protect the paint he watches Ingram.
Favors is now in position to screen Joe Ingles (#2 for the Jazz), who is fighting through the initial screen set by Ball, for Redick. Ingram stops his run to the wing short.
Maybe he’s concerned with a deflection, but instead of passing, Ingram carries on towards the right wing. He side steps, and takes his shot.
The ball rims in and out. The buzzer sounds. The Pelicans lose.
Ingram was New Orleans’ leading scorer in that game with 23 points, and had a brilliant first half – so he must have been feeling it and didn’t want to pass. Gentry set up a great play to get a great shooter, in Redick, open – but it all went to waste.
It was interesting that the first game ended like that, and then the second game, in the Clippers vs the Lakers, ended how it did. Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel opted not to call a timeout and run a set play, but instead chose to let LeBron James dictate the possession.
The Clippers’ Paul George just hit a three pointer (as he had been doing all game) to tie the game at 101 points each. LeBron (#23 for the Lakers) walks the ball up to the left wing for the Lakers and is met by Kawhi Leonard (#2 for the Clippers). After LeBron ran the clock down, Danny Green (#14 for the Lakers) comes out to meet Leonard.
This gets LeBron the switch away from one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, and onto Marcus Morris (#31 for the Clippers), and so he drives to the basket. Notice how every other Laker is beyond the three point line. LeBron surrounded by three point shooters has been unplayable for years.
Is Anthony Davis (#3 for the Lakers) a shooter? Maybe? You have to respect him, and the other Lakers, from that distance, and if he gets the ball his legs are so long he can take a single step and be at the rim anyway. The Clippers can’t afford to leave the shooters open and collapse in on LeBron.
LeBron takes a tough shot just by the free throw line, expecting a foul. Nothing’s called. But despite being surrounded by every Clipper on the floor, LeBron follows his own miss and puts the ball in the basket for the win.
Nothing is ran from a timeout to get anyone an open shot. It’s all LeBron James.
And It worked.
LeBron followed that with some fantastic defence on Leonard and then Paul George on the Clippers’ final possession. He stopped Leonard’s initial drive and fake, then when Leonard had to kick it out to George, LeBron switched and moved his feet to make George drive to his left. As George is right handed, going to his left makes the shot harder, and as such he misses his three at the end.
The lack of Zion Williamson down the stretch for the Pelicans was curious. Even though he was only playing in short “bursts”, and was on a minutes restriction, you would have assumed he could manage the final few minutes of the game. Plus, with him on the court they probably would have been able to score a couple of extra baskets and win. As they were 4 games behind the eight seeded Memphis Grizzlies before tip-off, they needed to win as many games as possible to get into the Playoffs. An odd decision, but if Ingram hits that final shot none of this even matters.
The Clippers didn’t have Montrezl Harrell or Lou Williams, so maybe at full strength they could have won that game against the Lakers. Anthony Davis was superb, leading all scorers with 34 points and also played some great defence – stopping, and altering, all kinds of shot attempts. The prospect of an all Los Angeles Western Conference Finals is still as exciting as ever.
So there were two games, two endings, two strategies and two outcomes. The parallels are interesting to see.
Maybe it mirrors the fact that the Lakers are number one in the Western Conference standings, and that the Pelicans are number eleven.
Or maybe it shows one of the best things about basketball. You can draw up the perfect play and have your tactics spot on, but sometimes it all comes down to one simple question.
Who’s got the better player?
This “Anatomy of a…” topic might be something I carry on, I’m not sure, I’ll see how it goes. Although I am aware with the LeBron ‘analysis’ it’s just drawing circles around things. It really is that simple at times I guess. These NBA posts I’m writing might be a little delayed due to time differences and the like, but I hope someone reads them!
You could talk me into thinking that almost anyone has a chance at winning the NBA Championship this year – from the Raptors repeating, to Kawhi or LeBron winning a ring with their third different teams. With 22 teams heading to Orlando, here’s a few other things I’m looking at as the NBA goes Disney.
As the National Basketball Association becomes the National Bubble Association, and that bubble floats on down to Orlando, I’ve got an eye on plenty of things in the Sunshine State.
The league was suspended at the beginning of March and finally comes back on the 30th of July, when the Utah Jazz play the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angles Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the obvious excitement surrounding the situation, I want to touch upon a few topics before the opening tip.
Will the season be finished?
The biggest (and most obvious) problem surrounding any sport right now is Coronavirus. What will happen if someone tests positive, and then, a whole team? I’m sure the NBA has plans in place, but it’s still a scary prospect nevertheless.
According to Google, as of the 24th of July, Florida have almost 390,000 confirmed cases. New York and California are the only American states with more. That makes it a strange place to hold the remainder of the NBA season. I’m not sure that when Vesuvius erupted the people of Pompeii wanted to jump straight into the volcano as their city was getting covered in ash and lava (was there lava? I’m not sure but I like the analogy).
But as time has gone on, I’ve become more and more optimistic at the thought of the season being completed, especially after this:
Will there be a high number of injuries?
Obviously, no one has played competitive basketball since March, so it’ll take them a while to get back up to speed – I don’t think anyone would be surprised at that or would criticise anyone for it. Everyone will be well rested but rusty, and it will be interesting to see how many minutes of game time players get to begin with. I know there are preseason scrimmage games (being played right now, actually) but they aren’t the same.
Someone like the Lakers, with the number one seed all but theirs, will probably ease LeBron and Anthony Davis into the remaining regular season games. Then they’d ramp up their minutes so they peak, in terms of conditioning, for the playoffs. Someone like the Pelicans however, need to win as many games as possible. So do they want to try and to claw their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament (more on that in a moment), but risk injuries to Zion Williamson (who has only played 19 games this season anyway)? Injuries happen, I understand that, but do you really want to risk your young superstar?
As explained by Tifo, in the Bundesliga the number of injuries per game in post-lockdown matches almost tripled – albiet in a small sample size, and with a very small number of injuries per game anyway. They also point out that after the NFL Lockout in 2011, preseason was cut dramatically. This led to 10 players rupturing their Achilles tendon in the first 12 days of training. The injury rate was twice the normal level for the first month of games also.
It wouldn’t be strange therefore, for something similar to happen in the NBA. This may lead to teams being overly cautious with players, especially with Kawhi Leonard for example, who is known to miss games due to “load management” (basically managing his health by avoiding injury and fatigue to be fresh for the playoffs).
But will fitness and seeding mean (from teams at the top of the standings, all the way down to teams at the bottom) that we’ll see more of the young guys, and possibly some worse basketball? We’ll see. They need to get their legs under them yes, but the playoffs are all that matter.
It’s the classic ‘rest versus rust’ – do you rest and stay fit, healthy and fresh, or do you play, keep playing, and maintain your rhythm?
Will we get a play-in tournament?
The bubble sees a new addition to the playoff system. It allows the possibility of the number eight and nine seeds in each conference having a mini-tournament for the final playoff spot. According to the NBA itself:
“If the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, no play-in tournament will be necessary. The final playoff berth will simply go to the team with the eighth best record (regular-season games + seeding games).
But if the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, then we’ll have a battle for the final spot between those two teams.
The tournament will basically be a best-of-two series — where the No. 9 seed will have to win two head-to-head matchups to take over the No. 8 spot.”
So if the number eight seed has less than five wins more than the number nine seed, we get an extra two games.
Looking at the standings in the West, the prospect of this is actually pretty tasty:
The Suns are only six games back with the final eight “seeding” (or regular season) games left to play. This means that if any team puts a decent run together, and a team ahead of them stumbles, they could trigger the tournament.
This opens up a whole host of possibilities and storylines. Will the young stars Ja Morant or Zion Williamson get playoff reps in their Rookie years? Will the Spurs keep their 22 year playoff streak alive? Can Damian Lillard drag his Blazers into the playoffs?
Yes, the Wizards are six games behind the Nets, and five and a half behind the Magic. But they’re without their best player in Bradley Beal, and they’re missing David Bertans who had a great season up to the suspension. So even if they do make the play-in tournament (which they won’t) and beat the Magic (which they won’t), they get the dubious honour of being swept by the Bucks in the first round. The Nets might slip down the standings and be caught, considering half their team isn’t going – but the Wizards have been garbage this year and don’t deserve that playoff spot anyway.
It’s a little bit of added fun I guess? Who are we to turn down more basketball at this point?
What will happen in the Eastern Conference?
Honestly, I could talk myself into thinking that any of the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics or 76ers could win the East this year. Allow me to try and talk you into it also.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA, the best Defensive Rating in the NBA (101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, almost 3 points higher than the Raptors), the best Net Rating in the NBA (meaning on average they’re 10.7 points better off than the other team, per game, per 100 possessions), score the most points per game in the NBA (118.6) and probably have the league’s MVP for the second straight year in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Giannis is clearly the conference’s best player, and has no Kawhi Leonard to slow him down this year. They have to go to The Finals.
The Toronto Raptors have the third best record in the NBA (behind the Bucks and the Lakers) the best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game (106.5), the second best Defensive Rating in the NBA (104.9) and arguably the NBA’s best coach in Nick Nurse.
They’ve done all of this with a heap of injuries this season, with Nurse getting the best out of players no-one has ever heard of, like Chris Boucher (exactly). The only worry is that they may lack that go-to scorer who’s needed at the end of a tight playoff game. Lowry is great but he’s not that player, and never has been, so Pascal Siakam has to step up.
Siakam has been a first time All-Star this year and will get some deserved All-NBA votes (probably third team) – but he’s got to prove he can be the scorer they need. 23 and a half points a game is great (the best of his career by a mile) but his shooting percentages have gone down from last season. However, that’s to be expected if he’s taking more shots as Kawhi isn’t there anymore. The Raptors will win with their defence though, so 23 and a half might be all they need.
If Siakam has a good playoff run, the Raptors will go deep. They have to be the dark horse for the title.
The Boston Celtics are no strangers to making deep playoff runs under Brad Stevens, taking LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games in the Conference Finals in 2018. Boston have the second best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game, behind the Raptors by .3 points. Similarly to those Raptors, they’re going to win games by defending well. Both teams score 113 points per game, 11th and 12th in the NBA.
The difference between the two is that the Celtics have stars. Kemba is cold blooded, but Jayson Tatum is the big baller in Boston. All-Star, probably All-NBA, and a field goal percentage just under 45% at 21 years old. The sky’s the limit, but this year he could really take over.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the most interesting team in the East. Defensively they’re a top 10 team, but offensively they’re pretty average. The lack of any home playoff games is a huge loss for them too, as their home record of 29-2 is the best in the league. The 76ers’ hopes rest upon the shoulders of their star players.
If Joel Embiid plays to the level he’s capable of, and to the level that had some people pick him for MVP before this season, he’s unplayable – there’s no player in the NBA quite like him. I’m a huge Ben Simmons fan, he’s a brilliant defender (he leads the league in steals) and has the capability to defend players one through four. His issue of not shooting from the outside and it clogging up the paint is well documented. Even though he’s shot threes this season (and to be honest, the form looks pretty good) he’s not doing it enough. If they can solve the Al Horford conundrum, and not have a player earning $28 million this year coming off the bench, he would solve so many of their offensive problems and drastically improve their title chances.
Philadelphia will be worth keeping an eye on. Especially because, in my opinion, anything less than a Conference Finals appearance and coach Brett Brown will more than likely be fired.
I can’t really see the Heat or the Pacers doing any real damage in the playoffs – my money’s on Giannis and the Bucks.
The Lakers and Clippers are everyone’s pick to meet in the Conference Finals, and they’re currently first and second in the conference respectively. Both are fantastic defensively, but the Lakers hold a slight edge. Opponent points per game are 106.9 for the Lakers, to the Clippers’ 109.7. The Lakers have a 105.5 defensive rating and the Clippers’ rating is 106.6. Offensively they’re very close, Clippers score the 5th most points per game, and the Lakers the 7th (116.2 to 114.3). The Battle of Los Angeles is pretty evenly matched.
LeBron’s revenge tour, that isn’t really a revenge tour because no-one doubted him, but is a revenge tour because he was injured last year and wasn’t in the playoffs (I don’t get it either, but his Instagram is flooded with revenge tour hashtags), continues in Disney Land. What a tour it’s been. This season he’s averaging the most assists per game of his career (which also leads the league) with 10.6 – all at the tender age of 35. Averages of just over 25 and half points and just under eight rebounds per game mean he’s been an MVP candidate all year. He has his best teammate since Dwyane Wade in Anthony Davis, who is the possibly the Defensive Player of the Year. No Avery Bradleyis a huge loss, but his replacement, J.R. Smith, does have Finals experience.
In terms of the playoffs, LeBron’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt and the ring – but so has Kawhi.
Leonard (averaging essentially 27 points and seven rebounds per game this year) has defended LeBron brilliantly in the past. His run to the title with the Raptors last year reminded everyone how good he is. He had averages of 30.5 points and just over nine rebounds per game. The issue with the Clippers is chemistry. Their best lineup (Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams) has played just 56 minutes together all season. But they are +13.8 (meaning they’re 13.8 points better off than the other team, per 100 possessions) when they do play. So they might be fine. If any coach can figure it out, it’s Doc Rivers.
All in all, the Western Conference Finals should be fun.
Who’s going to win it all?
It’s down to three teams – Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. No fans in attendance would mean that no one would see the Clippers’ first ever title, or the Bucks’ first title in almost 50 years.
If I had to pick conference winners, I’d say that the Bucks would beat the Raptors four games to two, and that the Lakers would beat the Clippers four games to three.
In the finals, Bucks vs Lakers, the Lakers win in six games. I can’t bet against LeBron.
Basketball is nearly back!
I got all of my stats and numbers from Basketball Reference and stats.nba.com. I would try and write something witty, funny, or something about what’ll I’ll write next here, but I’m still upset about Forest.