Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Importance of Being Average

 Although the Orlando Magic (44-26) are currently fourth in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, they have just as good a chance of making it to the NBA Finals as any other team in the conference.  They have by far the best center in the league in Dwight Howard.  They'll probably face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, and they'll probably get a nice rest before their second round series after they outscore the Hawks by a combined 100 points in a four game sweep (one point for each million Atlanta overpaid Joe Johnson last summer).  And most importantly, they finally have an average power forward.  His name is Brandon Bass, and he does "power forward things."
Image Via blogs.orlandosentinel.com

For the past few years, Orlando has put four 3-point shooters next to Dwight.  Dwight's ability to dominate the interior on both ends of the floor made this a decent strategy, albeit a gimmicky one.  Usually, a power forward's job is to crash the boards and mix it up in the paint.  Orlando's power forward never did that, because Orlando's power forward was Rashard Lewis, who was an excellent 3-point shooter, a small forward masquerading as a power forward, and Joe Johnson's hero ("If Lewis is getting paid $118 million to shoot jumpers, imagine what I can get to be the leader of a mediocre Atlanta team that will never be a threat anyway!").

Rashard Lewis is a solid player, but he is what he is.  What he is isn't what a dominant center has historically needed.  Shaquille O’Neal had Horace Grant, Udonis Haslem, and A.C. Green when he had his greatest successes.  Hakeem Olajuwon had Otis Thorpe.  David Robinson had his best team success pre-Tim Duncan with Dennis Rodman in 1995.  Wilt Chamberlain finally beat Bill Russell in 1967 when he had Luke Jackson backing him up.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had his greatest successes with lunch-pail players like Kurt Rambis doing the dirty work.  Dominant centers have been at their best when they've had a traditional, role-playing power forward next to them that can play solid defense, grab rebounds after the center has went to alter the opposition's shot, make smart passes, and be efficiently opportunistic when the center draws a double-team.

The past few years, Orlando has gone deep into the playoffs only to lose because their offense slows down against playoff defenses that close out hard on the 3-point shooters. Critics have blamed Howard for this, citing that he is their offensive anchor, and therefore is responsible for the team’s drop-off in offense.  I get that before this season, Howard didn't have the best post arsenal.  But the guy who covers for the team's unorthodox defensive lineup (Lewis should steal Joe Johnson's ill-gotten money, put it in a bag with $59 million of his own cash from the Orlando contract, and mail it to Dwight, because no GM in their right mind would sign Lewis to that amount of money to put him at power forward if they didn't have a top 10 defensive center all-time on their team already) while still expending large amounts of energy running the floor and crashing the offensive glass should not have to shoulder that much blame.  That's too much to ask of anybody, even an amazing athlete like Howard.

This year, Howard has shown massive improvements as a scorer.  He has improved as an offensive anchor.  The new Howard is unproven in the playoffs though.  Now that Orlando has thankfully traded Lewis, Bass should see more minutes alongside Howard in the playoffs.  Why?  Because with the help of Bass, Howard won’t need to expend enormous amounts of energy on both ends of the floor; he'll have a tough guy inside covering for him and helping him out on defense.  This will allow Howard a fair shake at proving himself as an improved playoff isolation scorer, because he'll have more energy to do so.

There is regular season evidence that suggests Bass is the key for Orlando.  According to this website, Orlando plays a large amount of minutes with a lineup of Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Bass and Howard.  That lineup plays the most minutes for the team.  Ryan Anderson is the other player that gets significant minutes at the power forward position.  He's the inexpensive version of Lewis- a 3-point shooter who spreads the floor in the same gimmicky fashion as Mr. Moneybags.  When Anderson is on the floor in place of Bass (with Howard, Richardson, Nelson, Turkoglu), the team has a worse plus/minus rating.  They get better on offense with Anderson, but much worse on defense.  That lineup with Anderson plays the third-most minutes of any lineup for Orlando.

Unlike in The Matrix, Mr. Anderson's impact probably won't translate for Orlando in the playoffs anyway.  As was said earlier, playoff defenses will learn how to shut down those gimmicky 3-point shooters as a series progresses.  If Dwight has enough energy to dominate on offense consistently, Orlando's offense will be fine, because teams usually don't find a way of defending a true offensive anchor (which is what Dwight may very well be now).  The impact of Bass will most likely stay constant, however, mainly because a role player's defensive effectiveness is controlled by that player's effort.  (And also because his name is Brandon Sam Bass.  How bad-ass is that?  How bad-ass would it be if he legally changed his name to Brandon Bad-Ass Sam Bass?) 

Bass' contributions offensively will be felt as well.  As I said in a previous post, there are different ways of playing off-ball than just shooting 3's.  Bass can still knock down mid-range jumpers.  Or cut to the middle.  Or offensive rebound.  You know, just some average power forward things.

I don't know if Orlando can beat Miami, Boston, or Chicago.  But Brandon Bass helps give the Magic a better chance to win a title than they've had in recent years.

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