Thursday, July 24, 2014

Jace Amaro and ranking the 2014 Big 12 tight ends

Over at Football Study Hall we're talking about how Jace Amaro has changed the landscape in the Big 12 and encouraged teams to utilize bigger bodies in the passing game more.

I have to acknowledge that David Bailiff has been doing this at Rice and putting TE's in the NFL for a few years now while utilizing them in spread sets. Brian Kelly and Notre Dame have also been at the forefront of utilizing the "Flex TE" position.

Aaron Hernandez with Urban Meyer and then Bill Belichek had a lot to do with this as well. Of course, Kansas State has not stopped using tight ends while everyone else in the Big 12 has gone spread happy.

Still, credit to Kliff Kingsbury for making the most out of Jace Amaro in this role and making it clear to every B12 team what they are missing if they don't incorporate big guys in spread sets. It was obvious that tight ends are valuable, OU obliterated people in 2008 with Jermaine Gresham after all, but this is one of the first times we'd seen how a non-blueblooded Air Raid team could unleash such a player.

Coach Grabowksi recently wrote a piece about using tight ends to the field and receivers to the boundary to create stress on a defense. Good extra reading on how teams can still use spacing and spread tactics while putting tight ends on the field.

Ultimately the biggest takeaway is this: defenses respond to being spread out by putting more speed on the field. If the spread out players are big bodies who can be physical blockers then the major response from a DC is nullified. You still need players with speed and range but now they'd better be pretty strong and physical as well.

If a running back loves making cuts behind the block of a fullback how much more does a Percy Harvin-type slot receiver love to make cuts on a screen pass behind a lead blocker on the perimeter?

With that in mind, here's a stab at ranking the 10 best tight ends in the B12 for 2014:

1. EJ Bibbs, 6-3, 261. Iowa State

I discussed Bibbs in depth in the Football Study Hall article. He's the most versatile and proven player at this position in the B12.

2. Blake Bell, 6-6, 255. Oklahoma

I'm just going to go out on a limb, believe rumors I've heard, and say that his size, athleticism, and alleged comfort running routes and catching balls is going to make him a match-up nightmare.

3. Zach Trujillo: 6-5, 256. Kansas State

KSU has big plans for Trujillo in their shallow cross and POP run/pass concepts. He's a solid receiver and blocker which means he's lethal in his sum impact.

4. Tre'Von Armstead, 6-6, 270. Baylor

If Armstead proves to have Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fluidity and hands, he'll shoot up this list. Simply for his value in making Baylor's pass protection and run-blocking intensely good, he finished 3rd.

5. Geoff Swaim, 6-4, 252. Texas

Swaim is one of the best blockers in the conference, perhaps even rivaling the massive Armstead. He's proficient as a lead-blocker out of the backfield or in-line. He has a chance to shoot up this list with a strong season as a receiver, we haven't seen him flexed out in space yet.

6. Jimmay Mundine: 6-2, 240. Kansas

Mundine will have every opportunity to have an impact in the new Kansas spread offense. If he can just catch a ball on a stop route and provide lead-blocking for Tony Pierson on the perimeter he'll have a big impact this season. Big guys are valuable in a game that's about the physical imposition of will.

7. Jimmy Seaton, 6-2, 250. Oklahoma State

It's likely that OSU will replace Seaton's hybrid H-back/TE snaps with the WR/RB hybrid Tyreek Hill, but there's still an opportunity for Seaton to have a big role as a lead blocker in the Cowboys' multiple option concepts. He's essentially a poor man's Geoff Swaim.

8. Cody Clay, 6-4, 251. West Virginia

Clay has a very similar role to Seaton in West Virginia's spread-option attack. Holgorsen would rather the ball go to someone explosive than someone plodding, but he will put people like Clay on the field at times in order to help escort the explosive guys to the end zone. He may see most of his snaps playing in the Diamond formation.

9. Griffin Gilbert, 6-5, 220. TCU

Gilbert had earned a role as a TE in the TCU offense in 2013 before getting injured and missing most of the season. In their new spread system he could mimic what he did in high school with his championship teams at Lake Travis; providing a huge target on fade routes and a big blocker in the screen game. It's not clear that he'll have a real role in 2014, however.

10. 2nd string TE for OU/Texas

 There are several players from OU and UT that are likely to emerge over the course of 2014 who may end up much higher on this list and play lots of snaps. Some potential names include MJ McFarland, Blake Whiteley, and Dominique Jones at Texas and Taylor McNamara or Isaac Ijalana at OU.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Baylor offense: Bryce Petty edition

Baylor has a big time match-up in early Austin against Strong's Longhorns. You can read a FREE preview of it at Inside Texas.

This should be a toughly contested game. While Baylor is often not as strong on the road, I think that's largely related to Briles and his boys been unused to big games and still lacking the needed confidence to take down a big team in a hostile environment.

Well, Baylor's already beaten Texas in Austin once and stomped them the last two times in Waco so I suspect they'll be more comfortable in 2014 and beyond. Additionally, their leader Bryce Petty has now played in several big games in environments like Jerry World, the BCS game, the game in Stillwater, and the contests with Texas and Oklahoma in Waco.

What's interesting about these future match-ups is how Baylor has evolved their approach with Petty at the helm. With RG3 this was a heavily read-option team that also incorporated pounding the ball on the ground and utilizing the play-action game.

The Baylor OL wasn't quite as good then as it is now and RG3 made things even tougher for them by tending to hold onto the ball and throwing after it was clear that receivers had broken free rather than with anticipation.

Of course, RG3 made up for that by being one of the best athletes the Big 12 has ever seen:

He had the legs to buy time and wait for someone to get open and he had the arm strength and accuracy to hit receivers deep downfield.

Because of his insane talents and the cast of receivers around him, the 2011 Baylor offense is still probably the best Briles offense the Big 12 has seen although the early 2013 Bear unit was a close match before losing Reese, Drango, Martin, and Seastrunk.

Although Petty is a phenomenal athlete in his own right, the offense has changed somewhat from the RG3 days with Petty at the helm to emphasize different parts of the playbook.

Here's the primary feature of the Bryce Petty Baylor offense:

This isn't a read-option play, although it does involve post-snap reads, but is actually just old school play-action with a Baylor flair. There are several points to hit here to explain what makes this a devastating concept.

1. The option routes by the receivers

Most teams are now dropping players in the box to handle Baylor's run game and relying on man-free coverage to jam up and handle the Baylor receivers. Once Tevin Reese (H on this diagram) went down that became a feasible task. Baylor's receivers had to adjust to beating press-man coverage, the run game was made somewhat less effective, and the Big 12 had some truly great corners in 2013.

However, this is still exceptionally tough overall because the receivers are running option routes that adjust to how they are covered. The outside receivers (X and Z) are running downfield. If they can fly past the corners, they will. If they find themselves running into off coverage, they'll peel back for easy yardage on the comeback.

The H slot receiver spot is the hardest to handle because he's basically running to open space in the middle of the field and he's usually doing it against an opponents' 3rd or 4th best coverage player. When that's Tevin Reese or Kendall Wright...good luck.

It's a little tricky to teach college receivers to run these option routes and understand the concepts and leverage that will enable them to make the right decisions but since it's Baylor's identity, they practice it relentlessly and master it.

As Manny Diaz said of this system, "It's genius is in its simplicity." This isn't really a "trick you, gimmick offense" but instead an execution-based offense. Baylor is lining up and just beating you by executing simple concepts that all feed off each other.

They do need a slot receiver to step up who can command attention in the middle of the field and prevent teams from sitting a safety on top of Goodley on the opposite end.

2. The threat of play-action

Baylor is no slouch at running the football, it's a key part of who they are. They'll run this play off split zone, like above, or off their power runs and the defense needs to be aware if it's a running play or else they can get run over.

They've fallen in love with using a tight end, often lined up as an H-back, to lend extra weight and variety to the play and they always have powerful backs that thrive at running through arm tackles or running over the defensive backs opponents put on the field to handle Baylor's spacing and speed.

3. The personnel in the protection

The left tackle for Baylor, Spencer Drango, is the best at his position in the conference and one of the best in the nation. The starting OL for Baylor in 2014 goes:

LT: Spencer Drango: 6'5", 315 pounds
LG: LaQuan McGowan: 6'6", 385 pounds
OC: Kyle Fuller: 6'5", 305 pounds
RG: Desmine Hilliard: 6'5" 340 pounds
RT: Troy Baker: 6'7", 305 pounds

The protections they love to use are "slide" protections in which they slide the entire OL left or right and pick up any blitzers on the side they slide away from with their TE and RB. You can see how this works in the diagram above.

These players for Baylor in 2014 are likely to be

TE: Tre'Von Armstead: 6'6", 270 pounds
RB: Shock Linwood: 5'9", 200 pounds

They essentially have an extra tackle on the field in Armstead to help shore up their protection then with sturdy Linwood to pick up any other defenders that make it through that massive wall of flesh. Or they can put speed back Johnny Jefferson on the field and have him slip out to catch a pass underneath if the downfield coverage is good.

So how do you attack this and protect your DBs from having to defend option routes forever?

Well, if you attack off the left edge you are going up against one of the best left tackles in America and he's already sliding out to meet you with leverage.

If you attack the middle you have to find some players that can navigate 1030 pounds of Baylor lineman.

The traditional way to attack a slide protection is to attack the side away from the slide. Strong and most coaches in America will usually call what's often called the "NCAA blitz" or "America's blitz."

The idea is to overload the TE and RB by bringing first the Sam linebacker (S) and then an inside linebacker after him (W in this case).

The problem against Baylor is that they have a solid right tackle in Troy Baker PLUS what amounts to an extra offensive tackle in TE Armstead. The chances of this blitz successfully overloading the right side of the Baylor protection aren't terribly great.

Undoubtedly great minds like Charlie Strong and Mike Stoops will work hard to overcome these difficulties and find ways to pressure the Bears but most will have to accept that when Baylor has their 
run game going and can run these play-action looks with 7-man max protections, you aren't going to be able to affect Petty as much as you might like.

Look for teams to try and drop eight into coverage some this year and rely on three great pass rushers to eventually work their way to Petty, but also expect Baylor to have even more options and threats from these concepts. It's going to be another fun year watching Briles match wits with the rest of the Big 12. Expect him to win more of these battles then he loses.

Friday, July 18, 2014

LSU, Wisconsin, and post-snap offensive reads

Consider this the companion post to my preview of LSU and Wisconsin's week 1 showdown.

Two things of note that aren't addressed in depth in the column:

First, not very many sportswriters are keen to dive into how it is that a state school in Wisconsin has constant access to massive and powerful offensive linemen. Why? Because doing so will inevitably take you down a road of demographics, genetics, and the differing traits in different human races.

It's implicitly understood by all and demonstrated in common recruiting practice that certain ethnicities, communities, and regions produce different traits in their athletes. Wisconsin's rural population with northern european ancestry produces big boned men who end up making for good linemen, tight ends, fullbacks, and linebackers.

In the future I hope to dive more into which communities tend to have which genetic traits and how that's reflected in the different football strategies of programs in different regions. The trick here is that if you acknowledge that a race or ethnicity has certain strengths, you also have to note that they have weaknesses, which is partly why this topic isn't frequently explored. The other reason is that no one wants to discourage the exception. There are always the exceptions to the rule who possess in abundance strengths that most other members of their community lack.

Secondly, I find the post-snap reads in LSU's run game to be fascinating. I suspect that the most effective plays in football, which will eventually grab hold of the college game in addition to the pro game, are those that involve multiple post-snap decisions by players with lots of focus and practice time devoted to getting these decisions right and in concert.

Spread-option offenses like Baylor and West Virginia are already becoming astonishingly simple and execution-based. We'll get more into that soon so don't be a stranger to "Concerning sports..."

How Big 12 defenses are choosing and using their safeties

The ability to have good tacklers in the middle of the field is becoming more and more essential against modern spread-option offenses, but the ability to have good coverage at all positions against the precision of modern spread passing games looms even larger.

Many spread offenses are now putting their best weapons at what I call B1 (outside receiver to the boundary), B2 (slot receiver to the boundary), and F3 (2nd slot receiver to the field). In these alignments, teams are able to isolate receivers to either get 1 on 1 match-ups to expose deep (B1) or match-ups against linebackers or deeply positioned safeties (B2 and F3).

F3 is in position to cause problems over the middle. Either the defense is going to shade the free safety (F) over to account for him, move the mike linebacker out wider to cover him, or drop down the strong safety ($). Solutions that involve shading over the free safety are going to leave B1 in great position against the corner across from him. 

Many teams will use the same receiver at F3 in the B2 spot when they play with two receivers to either side:

Now the free safety or will linebacker (W) are going to have to account for this cat and aren't necessarily well aligned to do so.

The worst part is that this swing player who may occupy B2 or F3 could be a mobile, flexed out tight end or it could be a lightning-quick receiver who will abuse a slower defender.

So how can teams deploy their defensive backs and linebackers in a way that will allow them to check off their task list to stop the spread-option run game and passing game without putting their players in vulnerable positions? We're going to focus today specifically on how they line up their players when the swing player is at F3.

First of all, you have to have at least one cornerback who can play the sideline without safety help over the top or there simply won't be many answers available that don't have glaring weaknesses. You also have to have players that can tackle at safety and nickel but aren't always a snap away from being exploited deep by a burner at B2, F2, or F3.

Teams have often put a strong run-stuffer at the boundary, free safety position because that player is operating in less space than the strong safety and may be playing in the box more. However, teams are starting to find ways to have versatility in what they can call coverage-wise against an offense while having answers that don't require all-world athletes at every position.

One emerging solution is to play a type of Quarters coverage called "Special" that allows a team like Kansas State to play safeties who are good tacklers but who need a cushion to handle playing over great receivers:

Here's the key, the field-side cornerback and the nickel need to be able to handle playing their receivers without deep help from the strong safety. That safety then pairs with the mike linebacker (M) to handle F3. The mike stays inside of him playing a "wall technique" that keeps him from getting inside of the strong safety. That safety then handles him on deep routes.

This provides the SS time to read the play for pass or run without getting set up to be burned over the top or down the seam by F3. Your SS can now be a player who's a good tackler but not necessarily a super-rangy coverage player.

On the weakside, you can have your corner and free safety trade-off who's responsible for playing the run on the edge and who's responsible for making sure the defense isn't beat deep. Again, your free safety doesn't have to be a player with cornerback-level speed or coverage abilities.

The trouble spot is at nickel, that player needs to be able to play like a cornerback against the #2 receiver. KSU has Randall Evans in that position, who's a solid cornerback with willingness to mix things up in the run game. Because of his versatility, KSU can deploy savvy tacklers like Dante Barnett at the safety spots.

If a team has a particularly good strong safety who can play even a little closer to the line of scrimmage they can mix things up with Cover-3:

The benefit of having a great player at strong safety here is that the mike's responsibilities against the passing game decrease to either covering the running back out of the backfield or helping on inside routes by the receivers.

The free safety again doesn't have to be a great coverage player, he simply needs to be a good tackler and smart enough to diagnose routes and plays and keep himself in position. The cornerbacks do need to be strong.

A team can disguise whether they are playing "special" or dropping the strong safety down to play cover-3 very easily before the snap

Another advantage to having this in the arsenal is the ability to mix in +1 blitzes where one of the linebackers attacks and every pass-rusher gets a 1-on-1 match-up. In that event, the non-blitzing linebacker covers the running back, the strong safety and nickel get F2 and F3, and the corners get the outside receivers while the free safety still plays over the top.

So, this is becoming a favorite way to design a defense today. In terms of roster construction, to be able to mix in these two coverages and have answers for the stress points:

-A team needs a nickelback who can play some man coverage but isn't soft against the run. He could be the 3rd best cornerback or a safety who's strong in coverage.

-The team needs a free safety who's a good tackler, understands where to be, and has enough speed to get downhill. He doesn't have to be able to flip his hips to turn and run with receivers, he just needs to be fast in a straight line because deep alignments and good reads will generally protect him from having to turn and run.

-The strong safety can be similar to the free safety but he's perhaps a better athlete and better closer to the line of scrimmage. He needn't be as good in coverage as a cornerback, or even the nickel, because he'll either have help from a linebacker or he'll have the free safety behind him to help.

Finding players who can handle those assignments is pretty doable for a lot of teams. As it stands currently amongst the Big 12's top Ds:

Kansas St is great at playing "Special" but they don't have a strong safety yet who would be very effective playing Cover-3 or matching up with F3 on blitzes. They're relying on Dylan Schellenberg there currently, who can play deep but can't turn and run with speedsters.

Oklahoma has the players to use all of this. They have Quentin Hayes, who can drop down and play strong safety or nickel and they have Julian Wilson who could do the same but may play corner. They also have Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd, two players that are great tacklers and just need more experience to be reliable as free safeties. They might even have enough athleticism to play the SS position as well. Freshman Steven Parker also has the hips to play at SS whenever he's ready to contribute.

Baylor generally relies on a different solution (shading over the free safety) that requires a super-stud at the free safety position and a strong safety who's assignments are similar to that of the nickel in "special." Whether Orion Stewart can handle that solution as their free safety will have a big impact on the Bears' attempt to repeat as B12 champions.

Oklahoma St is a big question mark as all of their major safeties from 2013 have left the program.

TCU uses "special" and a few other solutions by virtue of being loaded with versatile athletes in their secondary.

Iowa St lost some very solid safeties in Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield who allowed them to mix in both coverages. They stand to take a step back in their secondary and may have to simplify.

Kansas has found the nickel and safeties to mix in both of these types of coverage and also have some athleticism at linebacker as well. They could be one of the B12's most versatile defenses in 2014 but need impact players on the DL to maximize.

West Virginia and Texas Tech will mix in soft versions of either of these solutions. Tech hasn't had the athletes to be very aggressive with how tight they play in coverage but they mix in a lot of different looks. WV is starting to accumulate some talents that could take them up a notch.

Expect these tactics to play a big role in helping some of these teams find answers for offensive problems that are becoming harder and harder to solve.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why I put Glenn Gronkowski on my 1st team All-Big 12 ballot

Glenn Gronkowski is a fullback who plays for Kansas State. I entered his name in one of my two slots for "1st team running backs" on my All-Big 12 ballot. Why, you may ask?

In today's world of college football, the fullback is a marginalized figure. Teams don't go out of their way to find and recruit fullbacks for their teams but often will plug in a 3rd string linebacker, a slow but clever running back, or a walk-on who's eager for punishment. The position's skill set requires as many mental components as physical ones so it's not necessarily important to find athletes with prized traits to man the position.

Consequently, such players don't generate much recruiting buzz, and in today's world of college football coverage if you don't create buzz in recruiting you are climbing uphill to gain recognition in the game.

Additionally, the position has fallen out of favor because one-back offensive philosophies have tremendous influence in the game today, so few people will consider a fullback to be that influential a player.

Of course, fullbacks are finding increased roles for spread teams looking to run the ball with smashmouth tactics. A spread team can find a good fullback invaluable for several reasons:

1. He allows them to insert a blocker anywhere across the line of scrimmage against a spread out front.

It's hard to get defenders to the point of attack quickly if they are spaced out by the offensive formation but it's very easy to get a fullback to the point of attack.

2. He's easier to find and recruit

Whereas a tight end needs to be big and long enough to stretch the seam vertically and tangle with defensive ends, a fullback isn't running many vertical routes and he gets to build up a head of steam before he tries to block a linebacker or defensive lineman. The number of human bodies in existence who can handle the role of a fullback > than the number of human bodies who can handle the roles of a tight end.

3. Option?

If he can handle the ball, you can run some triple option with a fullback. You can do it without one just as easily, but I'm just sayin. You can also run triple-option with the RB as a dive player and a motioning WR as the pitch man but then have a lead blocker on the edge with the fullback. Or pitch it inside to him on shovel option. Fullbacks can fit in with spread-option tactics without a great degree of imagination. Especially if he can run routes to the flat and allow the RB to run around downfield.

4. Extra versatility

Got a running back who's dangerous as a receiver? Got a quarterback who's dangerous as a runner? Having a good blocker in at fullback to do the dirty work of making blocks in the run or pass game can free up these players to pursue their extracurricular activities.

The Big 12 has already seen a few productive fullbacks that were worth even more attention than they received (Trey Millard, Braden Wilson, and Kye Staley all come to mind). While he's the famous little brother of some well known NFL stars and thus less vulnerable to being overlooked, I'm nevertheless determined to do my part and see that Gronk is recognized for all that he offers the Kansas State offense.

What does he offer specifically?

1. Run blocking in the Wildcat offense

The Wildcat offense heavily relies on 3 very effective running plays that require lead blocking from the fullback position:

Zarc (Zone Read with an arc block leading the way for the QB)

This play is nasty because defenses are designed to meet the threat of the running back with fast filling linebackers so they don't necessarily have anyone in great position to beat the fullback's block at a point on the field that would limit the QB's running paths. Jake Waters is a solid runner but he absolutely shredded some people running this concept.

Stretch and Hammer (Lead Zone)

This is basically "Iso" with zone principles executed by the offensive line. Gronk leads the way and takes out an inside linebacker. You'll notice that you can't necessarily key the fullback to know where the ball is going in this offense, though it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on him.

Lead QB Draw

KSU ran this effectively with Sams, who could read the LBs and make the cutback run if they flowed too hard to the fullback, and then added pass reads to run it effectively with the less explosive Waters.

2. Versatility from a spread set

With Gronk in the backfield next to Waters, the Wildcats can use four-WR formations and still have some great 6-man protection options:

It's a sensible reaction to try and blitz KSU when they spread their formations out so that you can prevent them from taking deep shots to the inimitable Tyler Lockett. Well that's hard to do with Gronk back there because his 6-man protections are going to be better than if it's a small RB back there.

Then there's what he offers in the passing game:

Welcome to the nightmarish future of offensive football. You want to send your linebackers hard to the line of scrimmage to meet Gronk's blocks and close off pathways for the KSU runners? Have fun guarding this.

You can expect option plays like that to become even more common across football and in the KSU arsenal in 2014, we'll have to get to that in another post.

Glenn Gronkowski's abilities as a blocker, runner, and receiver allow KSU to unlock a lot of different parts of their playbook that are frankly pretty nasty and terrifying to consider for a defensive coordinator.

Name two Big 12 running backs that present more threats for an offense than Gronk and I'll consider bumping him down. In the meantime, better recognize...

Previewing the Texas 2014 schedule: Kansas

Over at Inside Texas we've reached the B12 conference schedule where Texas opens play against Kansas, you can read it for free here.

I'm guessing this is the last chance for Charlie Weiss to make something out of that program, like a bowl berth, before he's sacked. When a team like Baylor is rising to the level of perennial contender the excuses for Weiss' failure to have even the slightest taste of success there are running out. There's also the fact that only two coaches ago the program reached BCS bowl.

Some of the candidates that I'd be considering for that job would include:

Dino Babers: Babers coached under Briles at Baylor from 2008 to 2011 and taught their wide receivers and special teams. In 2012 he took control of Eastern Illinois University, a program in the playoff subdivision, and installed the Art Briles offense. In year one they finished 7-5 overall and 6-1 in conference before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

In his second year they finished 12-2 with a perfect 8-0 record in conference play and a quarterfinals exit in the playoffs. Babers was then hired by Bowling Green as head coach.

His QB for those two years, Jimmy Garoppolo broke school records set by Tony Romo and threw for 5050 yards and 53 touchdowns as a senior in 2013. The New England Patriots drafted him in the 2nd round, which should provide an interesting 2nd test case of how Briles-QBs do in the NFL and perhaps indicate how scouts will evaluate Bryce Petty for 2015.

Kevin Kelley: "The coach who never punts" of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Coach Kelley routinely transforms undersized players who don't draw attention from major universities into 1500 yard receivers.

Besides never punting and always using the onsides kick in order to accumulate as many possible possessions for his team as possible, Kelley runs a crazy, innovative offense that is probably the future of football.

Rather than relying on perfect timing or precision from athletes, the Pulaski offense is all about post-snap decisions and reactions to what defenses are doing. Players are taught how to win leverage battles all over the field while the QB is responsible for scanning, understanding what's happening, and putting the ball where it should go.

Kansas is never going to have the best talent in the Big 12 so it simply doesn't make sense to hire old pro coaches like Weiss and Campo to try and win recruiting battles against veteran college coaches and then teach inferior athletes to try and out-execute better players in classic schemes.

That will never work. What they need are coaches that can actually provide strategic advantages of their opponents by attempting things that other teams are too afraid to try.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Overpaying Is WORSE Than Walking Away With Nothing

A lot is being said right now about the "right" way to build an NBA team from a financial standpoint. The San Antonio Spurs, of ZERO max-contract players just dethroned (pants'd really) the star-studded Heatles and everyone is sure that the new way forward requires star players taking "discounts."

That is not the case. Too often front office decisions are made based on the premise that talent is rare and losing a "good" player is something that should be avoided at all costs. This is especially true for teams that don't have a lot of "good" players. That's why you hear people say "better to overpay (fill in the blank) than to lose him for nothing."  Great teams and great organizations do not think like this.  Well managed, cap-conscious teams make great efforts to ensure that every decision is favorable to the team's total formula.

To look at that you should know that last year in the NBA 2.025 BILLION dollars were paid out in salary and in exchange 1230 wins changed hands.  Those 2 numbers are important because teams that manage the cap well manage those 2 factors well: 1. How much (millions) am I paying? 2. How much (wins) am I getting?

The ratio of those 2 numbers is 0.61 wins for every million dollars spent.  That means if you are average at negotiating deals for top talent you can expect your team to win you 0.61 wins for every million dollars you invest.  Teams better at evaluating talent yield a higher number and teams that are bad yield a lower number.

To understand these numbers take a look at the cap/production of the New Orleans Pelicans:

  • Salary is in millions
  • The second column is "wins produced"; for more info on that see
  • The third is Wins Produced per million dollars, keep in mind that average is 0.61, anything higher means that player is outproducing his contract
  • The last column is "extra wins" or a total of how much that guy is giving you beyond what you're paying for; a negative number means he didn't earn his full salary
Anthony Davis5.411.72.28.4
Eric Gordon14.32.10.1-6.6
Al-F Aminu3.
Tyreke Evans10.33.70.4-2.6
Brian Roberts0.
Anthony Morrow12.32.31.7
Austin Rivers2.3-0.9-0.4-2.3
Jrue Holiday*
Ryan Anderson*


*= 20+ games missed due to injury

The Pelicans are a great team to look at because Eric Gordon was a guy about whom it was widely thought "better to overpay than to lose him for nothing." They are classically obsessed with "good players" over "valuable investments" to the point that I believe they have already squandered their chance to build a long term contender around Anthony Davis, a nuclear, super-powered mega-star.

In the case of Eric Gordon think about this: 
If you had a salesman at your company who was bringing in $100,000 of net revenue and he said "pay me 150k or I'm gone" it would be a no brainer. He'd be gone. It's better to be looking for new salesmen than to take a 50k loss just to know you have a "good" salesman. He's only good if he makes the company more successful on net.
Instead of passing on Gordon and having 14 million dollars that could have (on AVERAGE!!!) bought them about 8.5 more wins they got 2 from Eric Gordon. Good players don't make good rosters -- economical ones do.

Let's take a look at the most economical roster in the league, you guessed it...

Tim Duncan 10.3 9 0.9 2.7
Marco Belinelli 2.8 6.7 2.4 5.0
Tony Parker 12.5 3.6 0.3 -4.0
Boris Diaw 4.7 3.8 0.8 0.9
Kawhi Leonard 1.9 11.8 6.2 10.6
Danny Green 3.8 6.5 1.7 4.2
Manu Ginobili 7.5 5.9 0.8 1.3
Patty Mills 1.1 5 4.5 4.3
Tiago Splitter 10 4.2 0.4 -1.9


The Spurs are riddled with players who, while not phenomenal, are bringing net benefit to the team. This is compounded by the fact they get superstar production form Kawhi Leonard at a rookie scale 1.9 million dollars, but even without him they would have been a 50 win team while spending less than league average on their team.

If you're going to wrap up major money in a guy you need to believe that he will earn more than you're paying. Paying Eric Gordon 15 million, even in the best case scenario, is like having 25% of your stock portfolio buried in the ground.  You need to try and earn big dividends on every deal. Even the Spurs miss sometimes so it's important to have lots of +2 and +4 guys to round out the mistakes.

To build a great roster you have to think about every move through the lens of "does paying x for what this guy will give us make sense?" The Spurs have let many "good" players slip through their fingers over the years but almost all of those were sound financial decisions. Those guys, while good, were not worth the money on the table. In this offseason where guys are changing hands and your team is tempted to overpay for a guy because "it's better than walking away with nothing" ask yourself "is this a good investment?"

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How teams avoid boom/bust cycles in recruiting

NCAA college football programs are only allowed to have 85 players on scholarship.

It's a simple rule that's been taken for granted for a long time, but it has a profound impact on how teams are built. Consider the following:

Ideally a team would always have talented upperclassmen to stock all of their positions on the field and certainly they'd prefer that their QB was a talented junior or senior with a few years in the system.

Well how many quarterbacks does a team have to sign every year in order to guarantee that they have a talented upperclassman who can run the offense every year? Oklahoma and Texas have generally averaged about 1 QB per signing class. This means that they need to be 50% on their evaluation and development at QB to ensure that they always have two good players at the position.

To ensure that there's enough separation (what if the two good players are only a year apart?) to avoid a down year you'd need to hit even higher than 50% or you'd need to sign more quarterbacks.

This is the trickiest position to manage, and one that most often leads to boom or bust cycles for programs (Vince/Colt=Boom! Gilbert-concussed Ash/Case=Bust!). Coaches that can't avoid boom or bust cycles that seriously alter the fortunes of their teams get fired.

But how do you avoid it? You take more QBs? That might work, but if you are taking the cream of the crop every year you are likely to end up with players who will transfer if they don't get their chance to start sooner than later.

Do you take less talented or less polished players who will be more likely to stick around? Do you de-emphasize the role of the QB position in your offense?

Then there's the other positions on the field. Can you afford to assign more scholarships to QB or other essential positions without subjecting yourself to major boom/bust cycles at other positions? In today's economy when nations attempt to fuel growth with debt only to see speculation blow up in their faces, it's a relevant question to ask of university football.

"Hey new coach of University X making three million per year, what's your strategy for avoiding unwieldy speculation in high school talent futures?"

There are a few strategies teams can employ to avoid this problem and though they're rarely examined they are crucial strategies for strong programs. Anywhere you see a program with longevity of success, you will generally find a few of these strategies being utilized.

1) Recruit to a system and embrace the lower-ranked players

Scholarship limits DEMAND careful evaluation of players. If you bring aboard players who are a bad schematic or cultural fit, you increase your vulnerability if the other players you signed simply aren't very good players or have limited ceilings.

But, what if you have a strict structure to your team and have clear roles for the positions in your offense and defense? Everyone has to adapt to the talent they have, but that doesn't mean they don't have a system in mind with multiple possibilities when they choose their players.

If you know what your linebackers should look like, you can carefully recruit and sign the players that meet this description and ensure a higher hit rate of finding players that will make your system successful. Perhaps you even have certain positions where you take archetypes and others where you aim for talent and plan on being flexible and inventive.

For instance: A spread team may vacillate between utilizing a tight end or a versatile fullback with play books and schemes in place in the event that the team has a good tight end or has a good fullback worth featuring in the offense. See the Oklahoma Sooners in the Bob Stoops era.

Recruiting to a system is particularly effective for recruiting the more difficult positions such as QB or OL. If your quarterback has a list of needed competencies that is less than the sum total of all quarterbacking skills and attributes, you can take multiple three-star kids and find great success.

2) Invest more scholarships in key spots

Offensive and defensive linemen are notorious for not panning out consistently in the college game. If you are 6'5" and 280 pounds it might be great fun to destroy your peers at the high school level but when you get to college and are expected to eat, sleep, and breathe football in between grappling with other similarly massive people you may lose your drive.

Especially when surrounded by all the narcissistic temptations of being a young man in college, much less a semi-famous one. Linemen often get to college and eat their way out of top form, are unable to eat their way into top form, injure themselves, or flame out for any other dozen reasons that players aren't successful. They do so more often than other positions, however, because more can go wrong.

Given the importance in football of controlling the trenches, many teams rely on having advantages along the lines. To do that, you may have to invest more scholarships there.

Mike Gundy of Oklahoma St has determined that his team is good enough at developing offensive players and reliant enough on good DL play that he'd better utilize more scholarships on defense in order to keep his team stocked with impactful linemen.

Additionally, Oklahoma St can't necessarily attract all the top DL recruits so they need numbers in order to find project players with upside in the hopes that enough of them will develop to give them good defensive lines from year to year.

To do this, you'd better be really good at evaluating and developing talent at other spots. Another coach might say "we're great at developing linemen, but our wide receiver recruiting is a veritable crap shoot..." and weight his scholarships to ensuring the presence of weapons in his WR corp. It's all about leveraging your own advantages and resources.

3) Over-sign

This is the controversial strategy of Nick Saban and some other SEC programs and it works as follows: You sign enormous classes of players every year and you effectively cut older players that haven't panned out in your program by forcing them to transfer to another school, having them retire if they have finished their degree, or "encouraging" them to take a medical hardship to clear the scholarship spot for a new, young player.

When considering the practices of some major institutions, the insistence by the NCAA that these are "amateurs" and "student-athletes" begins to sound rather hollow.

Over-signing allows a program to dole out more scholarships and cut ties with misses, but still on a relatively small scale. It's helpful, but it doesn't totally free a team from the limitations of only having 85 scholarship players when fall practice starts.

4) Encourage walk-ons

There can be no doubt that a major factor in the success of Tom Osborne's 90's Nebraska teams or of Bill Snyder's Kansas St teams are the huge role that their walk-on program has played.

Both teams consistently saw their rosters filled out with athletic, in-state players who weren't on scholarship from the football team (although you have wonder if boosters are at all involved in subsidizing the cost) but who's ranks frequently produce contributors.

Kansas St regularly finds contributors to their special teams, their 2-deep, and even their star ranks from the walk-on program. While the school doesn't recruit the top players in the nation every year, they do recruit to their system and they do acquire tons of walk-ons which makes them less vulnerable to the boom/bust cycle of speculating on the talent of high school boys.

However, schools like Kansas St and Nebraska probably have an easier pathway to building a robust walk-on program than a program like USC. If you are a solid player in a metro area, there are likely a lot of eyeballs on you and lots of scholarship options for you to take. USC isn't offering? Well why walk-on when you can play for free at Oregon, UCLA, or Boise St?

On the other hand, are you a rural kid who grew up loving Wisconsin but haven't been seen by many scouts, even in the Big 10? Perhaps you'd be willing to walk-on and earn a spot with the Badgers, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Especially if you still have some financial assistance in doing so...I'm not saying boosters cheat in this way, but I wouldn't be shocked.

Really the worst strategy to take, or at least the worst strategy anyone is likely to attempt, is to try and just take the best talent available in a given year at the expense of signing projects or playing walk-ons and hoping it will result in a cohesive team.

Do this, and you ensure that your program will be caught speculating on unworthy scholarship investments at some point and be subject to down seasons. Then, you just might lose your job. The government is not going to bail you out.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The rise of the undersized linebacker

Allow me to introduce you to an unheralded gem from Texas high school football. A player from Cedar Park, Texas named Thomas Hutchings.

His highlight film reveals a fast and powerful linebacker with the change of direction, balance, and leverage to dominate Texas 5A ball and find a role in the college game's wide open offenses. He's hand timed as running a 4.45 40 (whatever his real speed is, it's no higher than 4.6, imo), who can squat 490 pounds, bench 400, and clean 250.

Here's the problem, he's 5'10" and 210 pounds. Because of his short height, he has zero scholarship offers from D1 universities heading into his senior year.

Scouts don't love short players for a few reasons, some valid and some not. Scouts often create a stereotype of the ideal player to meet a position's requirements and then get overly caught up in the stereotype rather than finding people who can check off the essential competencies that led to the creation of the stereotype in the first place.

For instance, people often look for tall quarterbacks with strong arms. Why? Because tall people can often see the field more clearly and because a strong arm will deliver the ball into tighter windows and open up more of the field for the offense to attack. This is a totally reasonable metric for evaluating players.

But if a QB is shorter and doesn't have elite arm strength but is still seeing the field, spreading the ball around, and hitting tight windows then who cares if he doesn't match the stereotype? Drew Brees is nodding right now.

At linebacker, you'd like to see longer players for two reasons:

1) They have an easier time fighting blocks because they can create more separation between their own body and a larger blocker.

2) They can use that length to disrupt passing windows or otherwise aid in pass coverage.

The essential points to note here are that you are looking for someone who beats blocks and is good in coverage. Those are the competencies you are looking to check off as a scout. A look at Hutchings highlight film reveals a player who's exceptional at using his low center of gravity, tremendous power, and blazing fast feet to beat blockers without the aid of great length. You also see a player with the kind of change of direction, overall speed, and football IQ to make for a good coverage player.

Many players who are taller lack the change of direction and lateral speed to play linebacker and often their poor positioning leads to them getting blocked despite their length. After all, if an OL reaches a linebacker with an angle he's still going to have a bigger frame and longer arms than the linebacker. The 6'2" 240 pounder will be driven back just as the 5'10" 210 pounder would be.

Here's the biggest kicker, a look around college football today demonstrates that sub 6'0" linebackers are DOMINATING the landscape. Let's take a look around, shall we?

Big 12

Eddie Lackey: 5'10" 220, Baylor

Lackey was probably the best linebacker in the B12 in 2013 and played both the Will and Mike positions for Baylor. His speed allowed him to make interceptions, win the edge vs runs, and just fly around the field. Ask Baylor if they'd like another Eddie Lackey on their team. Their recruitment of speedy, 6'0" LB Clay Johnston suggests the answer is a resounding YES!

Jonathan Truman: 5'11" 215, Kansas State

Truman plays Will linebacker for KSU and made Bruce Feldman's freak list thanks to his ability to bench 430, squat 535, and clean 400. Sound familiar? He was a walk-on to KSU and wasn't originally offered many scholarships because of his height, now there's a chance he'll finish on the All-Big 12 teams after 2014.

Blake Slaughter: 5'9" 227, Kansas State

Slaughter led KSU in tackles in 2013 playing their Mike linebacker position. He's not amazing but he wasn't bad and nor was he tall.

Jeremiah George: 5'11" 234, Iowa State

George led the entire league in 2013 in total tackles and added 2 interceptions and 6 pass break-ups. He played middle linebacker.

Shaun Lewis: 5'11" 226, Oklahoma State

Lewis was a 4 year starter for the Cowboys as their "Sam" linebacker who played a hybrid safety/linebacker position and excelled in coverage and as an edge blitzer. As an upperclassman he would move inside to the mike linebacker position in the Cowboys' 3rd down/dime packages and control the middle of the field as a Tampa-2 player.

Eric Striker: 5'11" 215, Oklahoma

Striker might be the most dominant defensive player in the B12 in 2014. He played a Jack outside linebacker for OU's 3-4 defense in 2013 and this year will move out to a field position similar to what Shaun Lewis played for OSU. His ability to get out in coverage, play the run on the edge, and be a virtually unblockable blitzer on the edge makes him a terrifying weapon.

Other leagues?

Okay, you may ask, hasn't the B12 had some low recruiting rankings in recent years? Are undersized linebackers all they have available? Isn't that conference known more for wonky spread offenses than defense and linebackers?

Well, in the B1G they had

Chris Borland: 5'11" 245, Wisconsin

The ferocious Badger inside linebacker had 111 tackles, 4 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss this year playing in the B1G. They'd blitz him off the edge on 3rd down as well and found him a versatile weapon. All-American player.

Denicos Allen: 5'11" 218, Michigan State

Allen was one of the key playmakers in Michigan State's elite defense and led their defense with 98 tackles, 16.5 of which occurred behind the line of scrimmage.

and in the vaunted SEC

Denzel Nkemdiche: 5'11" 207, Ole Miss

When healthy, the older and smaller Nkemdiche was an impact player at one of Ole Miss' outside linebacker spots.

Serderius Bryant: 5'9" 220, Ole Miss

When Nkemdiche went down, Bryant stepped into his spot and had 78 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, in that same "Spur" position which is more or less equivalent to a Will linebacker position in another scheme.

Sharrod Golightly: 5'10" 205, South Carolina

Golightly played a hybrid position for South Carolina, also known as a "Spur" although in this instance it's more akin to Shaun Lewis' LB/S field linebacker role then the position at Ole Miss.

Robinson Therezie: 5'9" 212, Auburn

Therezie played the Sam/S position as well and returns for another run with an experienced Tiger LB corp in 2014.

Here's the takeaway: the demands of defending modern offenses puts a premium on change of direction but the linebacker position still requires some balance, bulk, and power in order to beat blocks and bring down ball carriers.

These traits come up more often with shorter, even sub 6'0" linebackers. At the nickel/lb hybrid positions in particular, more and more teams are looking for fierce athletes who can pack a punch but also move around in space. Other teams are even using these players as 3-4 outside backers (thanks Elvis Dumervil!) and Will linebackers because of their ability to get to the places on the field where defenses need them.

Thomas Hutchings will be a steal for whichever program stops viewing shorter players like this as a stopgap or plan B and actually prioritizes the athleticism and traits here that have been proven to be essential in today's game.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How Diggs and Jinkens will define Texas' defensive packages

Over at Inside Texas I project Texas' defensive strategies for stopping spread to run and spread to pass Big 12 opponents. (This one's free!)

B12 offenses essentially all fit into "spread to run" or "spread to pass" boxes with some overlap between the Air Raid teams that have integrated more packaged plays such as West Virginia or Oklahoma State.

Previewing Week 1 games: Arkansas vs Auburn

Over at SB Nation I'm previewing the big Week 1 games in college football, starting with Auburn vs Arkansas.

The big takeaway from researching this article was that Auburn is every bit as dangerous in 2014 as they became in 2014. While they may not have the same kind of run game dominance with Jay Prosch and Greg Robinson moving on, they'll still be good there with their big TE's, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Nick Marshall.

The bigger issues are whether their passing game comes together and if the defense can find a new elite trait to replace the ability of last year's unit to launch an unrelenting assault on opponents' QBs with waves of pass-rushers.

If the passing game comes together, this team has a host of weapons that could be utilized, including Sammie Coates, who might be the most physically dominant receiver in the nation.

If it doesn't come together as much as could be hoped, Auburn will still have one of the nation's best running games. Meanwhile, the defense needs to take a step forward behind some athletic DL, a more experienced LB corp, and a solid secondary.

I'm not sure if any of the players on defense will get this unit into the top 15 defenses but it's possible they'll pair a very good offense with a top 20 or top 30 defense that's great at making opponents work for everything they get.

I'm considering Auburn for my projected 4 playoff teams, but their schedule may prove too difficult with an early trap game at Kansas State and then road tests against Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss as well as a home date against LSU and potentially the SEC title game.

Regardless of how their schedule shakes out, this is likely one of the 4 best teams in the nation next year.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

How up-tempo strategies both hurt and help big programs

The hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offensive trend that's sweeping across both college and professional football is leaving a lot of classic strategies in its destructive wake. After watching Oklahoma obliterate opposing teams in 2008 and continue to put up gaudy offensive numbers hence after while being joined by Oregon, Baylor, and Auburn I boldly proclaimed that the HUNH was the best possible offense to install at a big time college football program.

Well in reality it is and it isn't. In some ways, it can help them considerably, in other ways it does not. I'm going to broach just a few of the helpful and harmful impacts the HUNH has had on college football strategy at major programs:

1). Positive: The rare hybrid players become more valuable
     Negative: Personnel packages go out the window

As we've covered in the "basketball on grass" series, there are few things more devastating than an offense that can run a play from the I-formation one snap and then rush to the line and run another play from an empty formation within 15 seconds without substituting.

Defenses often prefer to defend an offense by matching formations and situations. "Oh you're going to line up in the I-formation on 1st and 10? We're going to bring in a big defensive group and make a play call to stop the run. What are you doing? Empty formation? You're throwing it? Oh shoot, let's get Kowalski off the field, now!"

If the offense can be in the I-Formation running the ball downhill or in an empty formation throwing a quick pass from the same personnel group...then the defense has no chance to substitute and get their best responses on the field.

Alabama, Florida, LSU, all of them rely somewhat on matching offensive formations with the right defensive package to defend them. This is why Saban hates the no-huddle, it invalidates one of his favorite defensive strategies.

The kinds of players that make this possible such as the running back who can run routes, the fullback who can carry the ball, the tight end who can run routes and block, the dual-threat QB, these aren't particularly common players. It takes a lot of athleticism and coordination to master all of the roles that make something like Oregon's "Flying V" possible.

Save for the smaller schools that are better at evaluating prospects, the big schools generally have more access to the types of players that make these strategies especially devastating.

The downside here is that a lot of big time programs are fielding great defenses by recruiting tons of specialized athletes and then deploying them in different personnel packages.

Big time programs often rely on the following syllogism for finding advantages:

1. While playing great offense requires skill, playing great defense depends on having athleticism to respond to the offensive players. For instance, a corner needs to be quick than the WR because the receiver already knows where he's going before it happens.

2. Great athletes are more rare.

3. Big time schools can get more great athletes than smaller programs.

4. Big time schools can field the best defenses.

Now, of course big time defensive schools also have a better shot at finding versatile, hybrid defenders but in the meantime they have to give up some of their favorite strategies AND give up on making use of bigger rosters with their package-heavy defenses if they want to stop HUNH teams.

2). Positive: Faster pace means more plays, more need for depth, and more emphasis on execution
     Negative: Scholarship limits, eligibility limits, and simplified play books erase some big program advantages

Part of the reason the move to the HUNH was so perfect for Oklahoma was that it allowed them to focus their offense around execution. They tended to have the best athletes in the Big 12 so on a typical outside zone play they could expect to find success in the form of a solid or even explosive run perhaps as often as 75% of the time.

Well the more times you create a situation where you are running outside zone, the more likely it is that the odds will play into your favor. If you have back-ups who can come in and wear out the opponent then those odds even increase over the course of the game.

By the time the Sooners got deep into the 3rd quarter or into the 4th quarter, outside zone was often giving them nearly 100% odds of having a successful play as opposing DL became exhausted by the effort needed to beat reach blocks by Duke Robinson or Trent Williams.

The problems relate to nullifying the advantages big programs have in assembling staff and accumulating players.

Because everyone plays by the same 85 man scholarship limit, there's only a certain extent to which a big time program can accumulate top players. Furthermore, eligibility limitations mean that a good deal of their roster includes underclassmen who aren't ready to perform at a high level on the field. Alabama might have two four-star linebackers that you don't have, but neither of them understand how to make their coverage drops yet.

If a top program struggles to evaluate athletes to their system then their advantage in depth over opponents is virtually nil. What's more, assembling a top staff of schemers and thinkers becomes less valuable if the game moves more and more towards players making choices on the field.

At that point, it all becomes about who can teach the best and it could be a long while before the best teachers are all accumulated in the ranks of the big programs.

Finally, sometimes the 4/5 star players that big programs target are valued highly because of athletic traits but aren't necessarily the brightest players. If the game moves towards players having to make decisions and calls on the field, then some of those less athletic but more cerebral 2/3 star players that smaller programs can always find and snatch up become more valuable.


Most of the trends and changes brought by the HUNH offense can be used to benefit top programs, but they will require either considerable adaptation by coaches at those programs or gradual attrition of the non-HUNH coaches before new ones take over.

In either event, smaller schools can stand to benefit from the arrival of the HUNH and enjoy fantastic offensive success at the expense of their opponents. If a smaller school can find some of those rare hybrid players that make the HUNH really dangerous from the bowl of leftover 2/3-star recruits? Even more so.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Why the Lakers (or someone) should offer Lance Stephenson the max

The Lakers should offer Lance Stephenson the max because Indiana probably wouldn't be able to match. Consequently either the Lakers would then secure Lance's services or they'd cripple the Pacers' financial flexibility and possibly earn themselves some free money when Indiana is forced to pay the luxury tax.

It's very straightforward. I think the argument that Lance Stephenson is worth the financial investment is similarly straightforward. I'll give it to you in 6 parts:

1). Lance Stephenson is a very good basketball player

Despite playing in a wretched offense with bad spacing, Stephenson shot 49% from the field in 2013 including 35% from behind the arc. He rebounds exceptionally well, he passes well, and at 6'5" 230 pounds with a 6'10" wingspan he can guard multiple positions along the perimeter.

It's very easy to build a good backcourt around Lance. His point guard needn't be an excellent distributor because Stephenson can share that burden. He also provides the floor spacing and defense that often disqualify other players from seeing heavy minutes in all situations.

Anything you could want in a foundational backcourt piece, Lance Stephenson provides.

2). Lance Stephenson plays a position where there aren't many superstars

Yesterday's shooting guard heroes are not the impact players they once were. Dwyane Wade just made a convincing argument that he's no longer a max player or a foundational piece of a championship team. Kobe Bryant hasn't played basketball in a while and the last time he was seen he was being described as a "DH." Manu Ginobili provides brilliance in short sparks and likely won't for too many more seasons.

While the NBA is chock full of elite point guards, not very many teams currently have excellent shooting guards that are worth building around. A team with a great shooting guard then has a sort competitive advantage over the rest of the league.

Right now if you went by numbers rather than reputation, you'd probably have to rank Lance Stephenson as the 2nd best shooting guard in the NBA behind James Harden.

If you expand the list to "2-way wings you can run offense through" he'd still likely end up in your top 10. He'll definitely be in the top 10 or even top 5 for the next four years of his career. Is it worth offering one of the league's ten best wing players a max deal to ensure he's on your team? I'd say yes, especially if you have lots of cap space and few good players.

3). Lance Stephenson is 23 years old

In general, I'm not a fan of investing in perimeter players long-term. Too many of them rely on athleticism and health that becomes awfully shaky when they reach 30. The number of guards who either have the skills or develop the skills to thrive when they get older are too few.

The ones that do match that description are either very competitive and driven, like Kobe or MJ, already relied more on skills than athleticism like Steve Nash, or have great size like Jason Kidd (who was also skilled and competitive enough to evolve his game as he aged).

Lance actually matches several of those descriptors, but it doesn't really matter because he's only 23 years old anyhow. If the Lakers (or someone) signed him to a $60 million deal for 4 years he'd be 27 when it concluded with potential to even get better as a player before or after the deal is done!

This is not the big risk some people are suggesting.

4). Kobe Bryant is donezo

Kobe had already lost his ability to be a good, much less lockdown, defensive player before he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Now he's pushing an old body to recover, which is a method that often results in more injuries.

It's very likely that the days of Kobe having a full, healthy-ish season are done. Even if he does come back at or near the level he was at before the latest injury, he could co-exist on the same team as Lance.

Kobe is also big, he's 6'6" with a 6'11" wingspan. You could assign Kobe the task of guarding either an opposing small forward or the least threatening offensive player in the opposing back court. Thanks to their combined abilities to handle the ball, the remaining guard for the Lakers could be a limited sharpshooter to help with spacing.

One thing's for sure, Kobe Bryant isn't dragging any teams to the playoffs in the West, much less the Finals, without considerable help from his teammates. He couldn't do it without a Center when he was a younger man and he certainly won't do it without considerable help as an elder.

Lance Stephenson makes the Lakers a legit team in the short term and gives them a backcourt piece to build around whenever the time comes to send Kobe out to live on the farm.

5). The criticisms of Lance are foolish

"Lance Stephenson talked trash to LeBron James and blew on his ear during a game! You can't give a max contract to a guy like that!"

This is just foolishness. Tony Parker had an affair with a teammates' wife at a much older age than 23 and I'm pretty sure the Spurs don't regret their investment into his contract. If Stephenson is a bit over-exuberant and childish while being a fierce competitor I'm not terribly worried. I'd be more worried if he was failing to improve as a player or if he was doing this while playing ineffectively.

"He hasn't proven anything!"

If you wait for a young guard to prove he's worth a max contract there's a good chance that he'll be past his prime when you finally offer it to him. The Rockets demonstrated the proper way to do this when they signed James Harden to a max deal.

Harden hadn't carried a team before, but he'd played excellently as a 6th man for OKC and carried their offense at times during the NBA playoffs. That's about as much as you're likely to see from such a player before they break out in a starring role.

6) Lance provides the Lakers with a plan

I'm not sure the Lakers have a plan right now. They are paying Kobe $25 million per season to tweet his wisdom to the world and shun his teammates, they're paying Nash $8 million per season to make thoughtful documentaries, and they just drafted PF Julius Randle with the 7th pick in the draft.

The smart play would be to embrace the youth movement and find some youth worth building around. Randle may or may not be a piece of the puzzle, Lance could definitely be a key cog on a contender. He already is, in Indiana. If the two of them pan out, all of a sudden the Lakers become an attractive place for free agents in 2015-16.

Do you know who's a free agent in that offseason? Potentially: Kevin Love, Goran Dragic, Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Nikola Vucevic, and some other worthy pieces.

The following year you see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the open market.

If the plan is to attract free agents or forced trades to LA, which has been the traditional path to greatness for the Lakers, then acquiring a piece like Lance Stephenson is the way to go.

If the plan is to suck and get more draft choices then by all means, let Indiana or someone else have him. Personally, I'd go with option A and go get Lance.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Texas football schedule: UCLA

Over at Inside Texas we continue to examine the match-ups for Texas against each opponent on the schedule. This time we cover UCLA (free!).

Some of the main points about UCLA include the fact that they have a really solid OL, a potentially great DL, and a future NFL player at QB. Those are more or less exactly where you want to have premium talent on the football field, especially if you can pair it with experienced, if only average, talent at the skill positions and the defensive backfield.

As it happens, the Bruins have a very experienced secondary and some veteran pieces at WR and RB as well. Provided that Brett Hundley is working hard this offseason, and you'd better believe he is since this is essentially a contract year for him, there's the potential that UCLA will be able to build a really strong team around these strengths.

This is probably the 2nd most talented team on the schedule, I'm sure you can guess who #1 is.

How LeBron can position himself to win more championships

It's not clear where LeBron James is going to end up for the 2014-15 NBA season, although most signs point to him resigning in Miami for a max deal that will set him up for big earnings on his next contract after the NBA signs a new TV deal and the salary cap is adjusted to reflect the inevitable cash infusion that follows.

Since LeBron James has played in the last four NBA Finals, vowed to win enough rings to require more than one hand to accommodate, and is at a stage in his career where he's drawing comparisons to people like Michael Jordan, it's worth considering what set-up will allow him to continue to accumulate rings.

Building around LeBron James is almost the easiest task a GM could undertake. James can guard anyone on the floor save for pounding low-post players that can exhaust him and limit his effectiveness on the offensive end. He's a phenomenal defensive weapon, especially in the 4th quarter, for erasing an opposing team's best perimeter creator on offense.

On offense, he's developed his game to the extent that you can't sag off him without risking a deluge of jump shots, he can blow by most defenders and finish at the rim, and he's continuing his inevitable evolution into an eventual point-power forward who can facilitate offense from the block as easily as he's done on the perimeter.

Barring major injury, it's likely that LeBron James will be a highly effective player well into his 30's due to his tremendous power, passing, and overall skill that will allow him to thrive in the post even when he can no longer blow by opponents with the dribble.

Lineup flexibility afforded by James' endless skills is huge. The Heat need only surround him with shooters and some players who can protect him from exhausting defensive assignments on the block. They aren't grounded by traditional positional designations because of James' versatility as a defender, ball-handler, and facilitator.

The only kind of player that is easier to build around is a two-way center. A center who can score and pass out of the post on offense and protect the rim on defense is actually easier to build a team around than LeBron James. They are easy to design systems around and they tend to enjoy long careers since they don't rely as much on athleticism. See Duncan, Kareem, Garnett, Parish, Wilt, Russell, Shaq, etc.

You can witness this in Miami's defensive strategy during their four-year Finals run.

Because the Heat lacked a classic rim protector but had an abundance of athleticism thanks to the presence of their big 3, Spoelstra designed a defense that is built around scrambling, trapping, and aggressive play on the perimeter. He leveraged their traits as a team into an elite defensive unit despite not having a classic big man to make things easy on the back end. They aggressively attacked an offenses' first and second options and forced ball movement to players who were less threatening.

Well, this strategy has finally seen it's end. It's been brought down by a combination of beautiful offense by the Spurs that was capable of lighting up the scoreboard by moving the ball to 4th and even 5th options and it was brought down by the decline of Dwyane Wade.

Wade is no longer an elite player and he's too old and broken down to uphold his end of the deal in Spoelstra's defensive strategy. At 29 and 30 years old, James and Bosh aren't going to be able to maintain this strategy for much longer either. Since the Heat are more or less tied down to Bosh and Wade because of their contracts, they have limited options in rebuilding around James. Of course, he leveraged Bosh and Wade into giving up their player options to make big piles of money in 2014 but we can assume that they are going to replace those options with long-term deals that will keep Miami's cap tied to Bosh and Wade.

Since James has become a de-facto GM (and perhaps the most powerful man in the NBA), he has three options for building a championship team around himself:

1) He can run it back with the Heat and new role players

Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem, Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, it's not inconceivable that the Heat could rebuild their bench with players that have something more in the tank than this crew.

Shawn Marion has been mentioned as a possible fit and he could allow Miami to continue their small ball strategies while protecting James from guarding players like David West and instead give that onerous assignment to Marion. They'd also re-elevate their defense to elite levels since Marion is a phenomenal defensive player. At least in the short term, this would be a very effective band-aid.

If the Heat found enough quality players on the discount rack they could even phase Dwyane Wade into a 6th man role in which he still plays 30 minutes a game but he comes off the bench and leads the 2nd unit while James is finally allowed to take breathers in playoff games and doesn't burn himself out and shorten his career.

The problem with this scenario is that the Heat are still married to their exhaustively aggressive defensive strategy if they want to field an elite defense unless they find a rim protector in the scrap heap of the NBA free agent pool. This isn't particularly likely. Rim protectors are precious commodities that are usually highly valued and there aren't a ton of them on the open market. Who could Miami bring aboard that would allow them to move Bosh to power forward and still have an elite defense?

They took a great risk in testing whether Oden could fill that role. He can't, time to move on to a new plan.

2) He can join an explosive offensive team like Golden State or the LA Clippers

Most scenarios in which this happens aren't very likely and will usually involve the Clippers giving away DeAndre Jordan or the Warriors either giving up Bogut or relying on his health. In either event, it's not likely that James would be playing on a great defensive team since Bogut's health is so unreliable and Blake Griffin is hardly a defensive leviathan. Additionally, I'd be curious to see how a team with Griffin, CP3, and James is able to play effectively half-court offense with only 1 ball on the floor.

In any event, James could form an elite offensive team in many different places around the country but they'd be in the same boat as the Miami Heat; forced either to adapt a frantic defensive pace to make up for the lack of a rim protector on the back end or just outscore people. That's not going to win championships, especially if he's in the West.

For the record, offensively I think the best next step for James is to play in a Triangle offense that will make his transition into a post player who dominates into his 30's a much more straightforward task. The Triangle offense accomplished this aim for both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant after they lost some of their explosiveness, it can do the same for James, perhaps even more so.

3) He can team up with a big man

While Chris Bosh has been the consummate teammate in Miami, adapting his game to fly around the perimeter on defense and give up the post-scoring that made him famous in exchange for 18 footers and corner-3's, he was always one of the iffy parts of the Big 3 formula. Signing Bosh to the max along with two other pricey players made it next to impossible for Miami to support the big 3 with a rim protector as it's simply too costly.

The other iffy part was where Wade was included for huge money despite being an injury-prone perimeter player who overly relies on his athleticism and was approaching the make or break age of 32 in a hurry. We saw how that worked out. It was great for the first four years, now it's falling apart.

LeBron James can't maintain the heavy minute toll of the regular season and playoffs forever, even though he's built like a tank. In addition to transitioning into playing more on the block on offense rather than relying on the dribble, James would greatly benefit from playing in a defensive system that shifted the main burden onto a rim protector on the back end.

The best long-term scenarios for James would be one where his defensive prowess is unleashed playing in front of a good, defensive big man while he's able to take breaks on offense while another player carries the load offensively.

Playing in Chicago with Rose and Noah, in Houston with Harden and Howard, or in Atlanta with Millsap and Horford would represent some of his best options for easing back his burden and creating the opportunity to play for championships throughout his career.

If the Knicks had a better big man than Samuel Dalembert then playing in New York under Phil Jackson's tutelage would be an intriguing option as well.

LeBron James is finally reaching the point in his career where he needs to make further adjustments to his teammates and his game in order to achieve longevity of excellence. He's clearly a very intelligent player as he's stayed in excellent position to do so by evolving his skill set and maintaining contract flexibility. The big question is whether he'll recognize how playing with a big man on defense is the only missing ingredient to filling the rest of his fingers with rings.