The Only Stupid Question...
...is the one about going big in a shrinking league. Or is it?
I had to throw in a few extra exclamation points because my baby girl is starting Kindergarten today and I’m awash with emotion. I remember, before I had kids, when parents would talk glowingly about their kid doing their first this or finishing their first that…and just being absolutely perplexed. “Your life can’t really be so pathetic as to get excited over these sorts of trivial nothings?”
Well guess who joined the ranks of the pathetic. She might as well be graduating Harvard in my eyes.
I say all this to prepare you for a newsletter that is a tad bit out there, but given today’s events, I was feeling a bit adventurous, so why the hell not. Before we get there though, a Monday reminder that training camp is now just TWO weeks away! No better time to subscribe:
The Only Stupid Question...
Today’s question comes from a veteran of “Ask Macri,” Ray Marcano:
We focus a lot on Obi Toppin playing behind Julius Randle but —- and stay with me on this craziness —- is there a strange, gonzo universe in which the Knicks include RJ Barrett in a trade for a superstar and play Obi at the three and Julius at the four? I don’t think so but have thought about it.
Let’s put aside the part about trading RJ. Whether they should or shouldn’t or do or don’t will come down to a number of considerations, but I doubt Obi’s positional flexibility will be high atop that list. I’m also not really concerned with whether Toppin can start at the three or even play significant minutes there.
And still…I love this question. Why do I love this question? You know why…because it’s absurd on its face, and forces us to reconsider what we consider to be obvious truths.
Obi at the three? There’s only one man1 who could possibly think this is a good idea…
It’s crazy to think that this quote is nearly a decade old, and when Woody said it, there were already people pointing out how it made the Knicks coach seem like he was living in a bygone era.
That’s because the NBA was in the midst of a small-ball revolution. The days of the lumbering power forward who operated exclusively in the low post were already long gone, but the league was still in the midst of big changes. In the early part of the decade, the Miami Heat unlocked the full capability of their offense by putting Chris Bosh at the five. A few years later, the Warriors would take another step in that direction with 6'6" Draymond Green manning the middle. And of course, we saw the positive impact of small-ball locally when Carmelo Anthony manned the four for much of the 2012-13 season.
Fast forward to today, and signs of continued progress down the small-ball path can be seen everywhere. Finals MVP Giannis wrecking havoc at the five. The Clippers going playing large swaths of games with Marcus Morris - New York’s starting small forward from just a season ago - as the lone big. Seemingly every center besides Deandre Ayton getting played off the court at times in the postseason.
At the same time, quantifying the league’s direction as simply going “smaller” is inaccurate. Milwaukee’s title team, for as much as they utilized Antetokounmpo as a center, was huge, with linebacker-sized Jrue Holiday often being the “smallest” guy on the court. The Lakers rode their size to a title two years ago, and while it’s foolish to try and mimic anything a LeBron team does, the fact that they leaned into their size so often and so successfully is telling.
In essence, the M.O. of teams now is the same as it always has been: find matchup advantages and exploit them. It seems like everyone is going smaller, but I think that may just be because smaller guys are better at doing the things that everyone seems to need to be able to do to win on the biggest stage: shoot, put the ball on the floor, and think quickly on the fly.
To counteract this, teams seem to be placing higher and higher valuations on multi-positional defenders who can guard most if not all positions (See: the offensively limited Jonathan Isaac getting a four-year, $80 million extension immediately after tearing his ACL, purely based on the notion that he’ll someday be a difference-maker on the defensive end. Also: non-shooting Scottie Barnes getting picked one spot ahead of Jalen Suggs).
This brings us back to the most obvious trend, which is the devaluation of the center position. While it’s an oversimplification to bash centers who struggle to defend in space or to say that a center who can punish a switch on offense carries a much higher value, it’s fair to point out that this has become the most complicated position in the entire league to assess and properly value.
What’s less clear, and what today’s question really concerns, is whether these same qualifications and concerns about centers also translate to other big men who are considered more “traditional” fours, at least by today’s standards.
To wit: the notion of putting Obi at the three will immediate conjure fears that we’ll see a lot more of stuff like this:
This is Obi attempting to guard and ultimately fouling Danilo Gallinari in transition during the second quarter of Game 5 against Atlanta.
Gallo is pretty much a straight four at the point, although he moonlit as the occasional five in the playoffs. He has as much craft to his old man game as anyone in the league, but fleet of foot, he isn’t. Still, he catches Obi flat-footed for a millisecond here, which is more than enough time to make his move, springing towards the hoop and drawing the harm.
If Gallo is capable of doing this, then surely the majority of the league’s starting small forwards will go to town on Toppin whenever he has the misfortune of guarding them as a ball-handler on the perimeter, right?
Perhaps. But we also saw evidence of Obi looking somewhat spry guarding Gallo behind the arc later in the same game:
If we were to go back and examine all of Toppin’s defensive possessions throughout the season, I think we’d arrive at a couple of conclusions:
He got better as the year went on, and…
Even as he improved, it was still a mixed bag.
That last part could be taken as a knock, but it’s really anything but. The skill level of the average NBA rotation player has gotten to be so elite that there really aren’t too many remaining examples of players who never get burned, just like there are few rotation players who can’t ever hold their own on the defensive end. Most players, at least where one-on-one defense is concerned, fall into the same boat: they have their moments of good and bad.
The key to staying on the floor or getting played off it, however, isn’t really shown in the clips above; it’s how well players are able to execute a team concept. No team exemplified success in this area (and the difference between individual and team defense) better than last year’s Knicks, who famously got almost no love when it came to end of season individual defensive recognition, but who held opponents to the fourth fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA.
You can be a good team defender, or at the very least an apt one, without being a great individual defender. Whether you are or aren’t comes down mostly to knowing where you have to be and when you have to be there. You need to be one of five components operating on a string. A half second hesitation on a close out or a half step too far into the paint on a dig can eventually lead to the difference between a contested shot and an open one.
A blown assignment altogether, on the other hand…
…can get you in Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse.
Obi’s confusion about whether he was supposed to stay with the roll man here led to an open Lou Williams corner three that put a significant dent in New York’s plans for a 4th quarter comeback.
At the same time, there’s a reason the Garden was chanting Toppin’s name during this game. His energy is infectious, and it’s impossible not to be tantalized by the flashes of a difference-making skill set on offense.
I took this question because of what I believe to be a special ceiling for Toppin, and the thought of going outside the box to find more minutes for him, even if its a handful of matchup-specific minutes once every few games, is an intriguing and worthwhile gambit. To me, the answer comes down to two things, one of which I’ve already alluded to:
Will it be that much more difficult for Toppin to be a solid team defender playing the three than the four2, and…
Will he be able to thrive enough on offense to make it worth it?
I’m oddly hopeful about the answer to question No. 1, mostly because I’m just not sure how much difference it makes on D if you have Obi at the four versus the three. Will he be guarding speedier players, and doing so far more on the perimeter than the interior? Almost certainly. But how is that so different from putting Derrick Rose (or any substandard one-on-one guard defender) at the one?
Rose succeeds in Thibodeau’s schemes because he knows them like the back of his hand, not because he’s able to prevent penetration or is particularly adept getting around a screen. But he funnels drivers where he’s supposed to and knows when and how to contest a shooter. It all works because the backbone of any Thibs defense is the center, and that player’s ability to protect the rim at all costs.
Obi’s progress on defense was encouraging enough to think what’s above his neck might someday help compensate for what’s below it in a significant way. Presuming New York can continue to have backstops like Mitch and Noel who can cover up for a variety of sins on the perimeter, it’s possible this just might work.
The tougher question to me is about his offense, and specifically, about his shooting. Right now, it’s subpar. You can survive with a stretch four who doesn’t really scare defenses. Making due with a three who isn’t consistent from the perimeter is tougher, so any conversation about Obi at SF is likely dependent on him getting pretty close to 40 percent from long range.
Let’s say he gets there. Where is that shooting more of a weapon? At the three, or the four? If he’s at the four, he’s likely going to be guarded by a bigger, slower player, and becoming a good deep-ball shooter will make it easier for him to put the ball on the floor against them:
I know, I know…I just got done arguing how having Obi himself as the bigger, slower defender on the perimeter isn’t that big of a deal. The bet here is that if and when Thibs takes my crazy advice, it won’t be against players who have moves like this in their bag, and will be instead be reserved for spot minutes against backups.
Back to the point at hand. Wings will be more apt to stay with a driving Obi, but on the flip side, Toppin should be able to take greater advantage of those smaller players in the post.
I say “should” with massive, flashing air quotes. There are, maybe, 10 players in the league who post up efficiently enough to make it a worthwhile offensive option, and they’re basically all future Hall-of-Famers. It’s why having Deandre Ayton was so huge for Phoenix; teams couldn’t go small against them because he’d punish anyone who did.
Can Obi get to that level? And how much of an advantage would he have playing small forward? According to NBA.com/stats, Toppin had just 22 post ups last season, which is not really a sample size worth examining. That said, he scored 1.05 points per possession on those plays, which is quite good. I’d also feel comfortable leaning on his college tape here, where he had a chance to dive far deeper into his bag than he did as a rookie:
At Dayton, Obi took advantage of players that were no match for him, but again, might that be replicated if he spent time on the wing?
At the end of the day, the answer to this question likely lies with Toppin himself. If his work ethic is what we think and hope it is, maybe he can continue to improve his post game, shooting, and foot speed on the perimeter to the point that this really becomes a conversation. Obviously body type and physical ability matter more than anything, but from a pure measurables standpoint, it’s not like Obi - who is 6'9"and 220 lbs. - would be completely out of character at the three compared to his peers:
Harrison Barnes: 6'8", 225 lbs., 31% of time at SF last season3
Doug McDermott: 6'7", 225 lbs., 23% of time at SF last season
Michael Porter Jr: 6'10", 218 lbs., 74% of time at SF last season
Jayson Tatum: 6'8", 210 lbs., 59% of time at SF last season
Bojan Bogdanovic: 6'7", 226 lbs., 45% of time at SF last season
Tobias Harris: 6'8", 226 lbs., 23% of time at SF in 2019-20
This is not to put Toppin in the same breath as these players, but it seems worth pointing out that they spend time at the three. It’s also not like other teams don’t trot out the occasional super big lineup. Chicago played 321 minutes of Vooch and Daniel Theis together last season, albeit with a negative 11.2 net rating.
All I’m saying is that Ray, you’re not completely insane for asking the question. The next great NBA revolution will be started by someone willing to think far outside the box. Will Obi at the three be that?
Probably not…but you never know until you try it.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
I kid, Woody, I kid. We miss you already. Good luck at Indiana!
Also, a newsletter topic for a different day: will the offensive benefits of playing him at the five outweigh the defensive conceits?
All position stats are according to Basketball Reference