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Basketball / Tale of two teams

Baron!The Bay Area: Where Baron hap­pens. Pho­to: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Liv­ing in the Bay Area, I've watched Baron Davis and Don Nel­son breathe life into the corpse of the Gold­en State War­riors by play­ing fast, loose, undis­ci­plined, unpre­dictable bas­ket­ball. When they're click­ing, the War­riors are invig­o­rat­ing and life-affirm­ing. Nel­lie doesn't bur­den the team with struc­ture — they don't real­ly run an "offense" or play "defense" in the tra­di­tion­al sens­es — instead, they rely on the play­ers' abil­i­ties to impro­vise, pull their oppo­nents out of their own struc­tures, and wear them down with run­ning and gun­ning.

Playground electicity

When the War­riors are good, they're like the best play­ground bas­ket­ball team you could ever imag­ine. What makes them all the more excit­ing is that their ros­ter lacks key tra­di­tion­al dimen­sions asso­ci­at­ed with suc­cess­ful teams. They com­pete with­out the tra­di­tion­al man-moun­tain in the low-post to take on Shaq, Yao, Dun­can, or Pau; instead, Andris Biedrins, who has very lit­tle in the way of a J and doesn't ever try to play fac­ing the bas­ket, uses his quick­ness and hops to rebound, fol­low, and gen­er­al­ly sur­prise oppo­nents with his abil­i­ty to keep War­rior pos­ses­sions alive. (Check out where The Wages of Wins ranked Biedrins for the 2006–2007 sea­son) Spoil­er: He's #1 on the team, with 11.7 to Baron's 9.7. On the guard front, Baron and Stephen Jack­son and Mon­ta Ellis don't real­ly run an offense as much as they weave through defens­es in per­pet­u­al one-on-fives, dri­ving to the rim, dish­ing to team­mates. Baron has a (admit­ted­ly deserved) rep­u­ta­tion as a shoot-first point guard, but he defers to oth­ers when they're hot and his team­mates seem to feed off his ener­gy. Mon­ta, more of a two-guard than a point, some­how can't shoot the three, but he can blow by just about any­one and he's one of the bet­ter fin­ish­ers in the league right now. 6'9" Al Har­ring­ton is more reli­able from behind the arc than he is with his back to the bas­ket; Wages of Wins doesn't think much of him, but it's hard to deny the prob­lems that he cre­ates for defens­es when he's in the game. Stephen Jack­son — Stack Jack, as Baron calls him — is the glue; when he's in the game, every­one is bet­ter. Seri­ous­ly, who wouldn't want to play with him? He's got everyone's back.

DarnellDar­nell can't do it alone. Pho­to: Nick Krug, Lawrence Jour­nal-World.

Con­trast the War­riors with the oth­er team that I fol­low, the Kansas Jay­hawks. Where the War­riors are dan­ger­ous, inscrutable, fierce com­peti­tors who save their best for big games, the Jay­hawks have been the oppo­site: soft, pre­dictable, vul­ner­a­ble when the game is on the line. Where the War­riors have at least three guys who thrive in pres­sure sit­u­a­tions — Baron, Stack Jack, and Har­ring­ton — the Jay­hawks have eight guys who could start on any team in Amer­i­ca, but not one who wants to take over a game. Last week, I trekked to Ora­cle with Justin, Mara, and Lynne (Lynne? Blog?), and we watched the War­riors wear down the Celtics and, in the final moments, dri­ve a dag­ger into their hearts. Three days lat­er, I watched the Jay­hawks wilt in the final moments against a very, very fired up Okla­homa State team. Part of the prob­lem is that Kansas sim­ply doesn't have reli­able offen­sive weapons; anoth­er part is that teams love beat­ing the Hawks, and each Jay­hawk oppo­nent is play­ing its biggest game of the sea­son. Col­lege bas­ket­ball is dif­fer­ent in that regard. Mes­sage boards don't rejoice each time the Lak­ers lose a game, but oh how peo­ple love to see teams like Kansas (Google: "kansas" + "choke"), Duke (Google: "duke" + "choke"), and Ken­tucky (Google: "ken­tucky" + "choke") lose. Which is fine. If peo­ple didn't real­ly react this way, the wins wouldn't be as much fun.The root of the Hawks' prob­lem is offen­sive, though. The War­riors are stocked with guys who can cre­ate their own shot, but Kansas has to rely on Mario Chalmers and Sher­ron Collins (and, to some extent, Rus­sell Robin­son) to break down defens­es and spring Bran­don Rush on the perime­ter or Dar­rell Arthur inside. Like the War­riors, the Hawks don't run a struc­tured offense with inter­change­able parts; they rely on ath­leti­cism. This lack of dimen­sion is eas­i­ly exploit­ed by teams who effec­tive­ly pres­sure the Hawks' guards, and who run big guys out to trap the ball at the three-point line. Add to this mix the fact that Kansas guards can­not seem to defend oppos­ing guards, and there's no ques­tion that they've got some big prob­lems to solve before mid-March.