We've spent a lot of time this week talking about Klay Thompson's NBA Draft prospects -- rightfully so, in our eyes, given that he's likely going to be the highest drafted Cougar ever. But while we're proud of Thompson's accomplishments, we'll only be following his pro career from afar. What we're truly interested in is what this team is going to do without him.
For two years, Thompson has been the unquestioned focal point of WSU's offense, with 29.5 percent and 32.0 percent of the Cougars' possessions ending with a Thompson make, miss, turnover or assist over that span. The former ranked 62nd nationally, the latter 15th. Few players in the country have been relied upon as heavily by their teams in the past two seasons as Thompson.
Which, of course, means there's now going to be a huge hole where Thompson once was that coach Ken Bone has to figure out a creative way to fill.
And wouldn't you know it! I've got a idea -- one that is quite a ways outside the box.
The fundamental task of any coach is to get the greatest results possible out of his talent. Some coaches do that primarily by finding players to fit a certain scheme that the coach believes can give his lesser talent an advantage over more gifted teams.
Of course, we got an up-close-and-personal view of that philosophy for six years. Dick Bennett didn't start running the pack line defense and blocker/mover motion offense early in his coaching career because he loved it. He did it because it was the only way he could win. I remember interviewing Bennett a couple of years into his tenure at WSU, and I asked him a question about his slow-down style. To say he bristled would be a slight understatement.
I lost the exact quote long ago, but his message was simple: I'd love to run up and down the floor, but that would be stupid, because I don't have players that can win that way.
Now, I don't know if he was being 100 percent truthful in that; he had some pretty decent athletes at Wisconsin yet still held on to his way of doing things, but it makes sense that he would, since he had tremendous success everywhere he went coaching that way. It worked for him. And it worked for WSU.
However, that sort of approach takes a pretty big commitment, both from the coach and from the university administration. Bennett made it clear to fans and athletics director Jim Sterk that WSU wasn't going to experience immediate success -- "I'm going to try to build a program, and programs don't come overnight," Bennett said. "You can build a team overnight, but not a program" -- and Sterk assured Bennett he was OK with that. He knew Bennett would get it turned around if he had enough time, because he had demonstrated it again and again.
Most coaches don't get that kind of time. Most coaches don't get to "begin with people you can lose with," as Bennett famously said at his introductory press conference. Most coaches need to win right away with the guys they inherit, or they're going to find themselves on the hot seat within a few years, because they don't have a track record to point to.
So, despite their own personal preferences for the way they think basketball should be played, they do what they have to do: Change their approach -- sometimes dramatically -- to fit the talent on hand.
As we explored a few weeks ago, that's exactly what Ken Bone has done in his six years as a Division I head coach. Bone obviously felt like his best chance of success at Portland State was to take talent from wherever he could get it and then figure out how to use it, an approach he's continued at WSU by gaining players such as Reggie Moore, Mychal Ladd and Royce Woolridge through unconventional means.
Because his stylistic markers have fluctuated so dramatically, it's fair to say that very few options are off the table when it comes to speculating about how Bone might try to cope with the loss of Thompson, something we got a little glimpse of at the end of the season when he was forced to sit out against UCLA after his marijuana arrest.
About the only thing Bone hasn't done in six years is employ a dramatic slow-down offense -- his lowest adjusted tempo was 65.7 in his last year at Portland State. However, that year showed that he wasn't completely against slowing it down on a game-by-game basis, as his team played in sub-60 possession games seven times. And that's exactly what the Cougars did against the Bruins.
Without either Thompson or Moore available, Bone employed a slow-down, high post attack that surprised and befuddled the Bruins to the tune of 32 points on 28 possessions in the first half, a stellar 1.14 points per trip. (That he implemented something so different from what WSU had been doing all year in a day and saw those kinds of results is nothing short of amazing. But I digress.) Of course, that offense was positively dreadful in the second half (16 points on 27 possessions), but I think you can chalk that up to UCLA adjusting and WSU just not having the horses to see it through to the finish, something that should be pretty obvious when a pair of walk-ons combine for 39 minutes.
Might that be the direction Bone decides to go with his full compliment of players on the 2011-2012 squad?
On some level, it does make sense. When you look at the roster, you see guys such as Abe Lodwick and Brock Motum who are reasonably decent passers, can shoot the jumper a little bit, and are good enough at moving without the ball. Motum especially benefited in the UCLA game. Diving to the basket away from the ball also plays into Marcus Capers' limited offensive strengths, and guys such as Faisal Aden and Ladd possess spot-up shooting skills that play in any offense.
But the one thing this offense does is limit the impact Moore can have on a game. A point guard dominating the ball just doesn't fit, which is exactly why you see teams running this "Princeton" style offense -- they usually don't have a dynamic play maker with Moore's talent handling the ball.
In that respect, there's a chance you might not see the offense change much at all from last year. The ball was in Thompson's hands the majority of the time, with the Cougs running lots of ball screen action designed to give Thompson three options: Shoot, drive or hit an open screener as he peels away. Moore obviously isn't the shooter that Thompson is off the bounce, but when he's 100 percent healthy, he's a much better penetrator than Thompson will ever be and probably a better passer (although I always feel like Thompson is vastly underrated in this respect).
I don't think there's any way Moore uses 30 percent of WSU's possessions this season, but it's possible you could see him up around 26 to 28 percent if Bone decides to hitch his wagon to the mercurial guard. And if Moore dedicates himself to his craft this offseason the way Thompson did the last two years and is able to improve his use of screens as well as his footwork on jumpers, this could be a reasonably successful strategy.
There is a problem, though. There has to be some kind of legitimate post game for this sort of halfcourt offense to really work, and we've got no reason to believe that anyone who will be on this roster can provide that consistently.
So, what other options are available?
I think one error people make is to look at the newcomers and wonder how they'll fit in with what's already here. There's this natural inclination to defer to the upperclassmen because they're supposed to be the best players. We're also intimately familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.
But what if we looked at Ladd, DaVonte Lacy, Greg Sequele and D.J. Shelton and said, "These are four of the most talented players on the roster -- how can we maximize that talent now, rather than waiting a year or two for it to develop?"
Here's my solution.
Run. A lot.
Like 72 possessions a game -- that's Washington territory.
You might look at the roster and think that's totally nuts, what with guys like Motum, Lodwick, Patrick Simon and Charlie Enquist figuring to log moderate to heavy minutes. While Lodwick is more athletic than most give him credit for, nobody's ever going to confuse him with an NBA-style wing, and Aden certainly doesn't do a lot of finishing around the rim.
But how about Moore, Capers, Ladd, Lacy, Sequele and Shelton? When you throw redshirt guard Dexter Kernich-Drew into the mix, that's seven really athletic guys who can run the floor. And I think you stand to gain more by maximizing the strengths of these guys than by attempting to maximize the strengths of the other guys.
Moore can be effective in a halfcourt game, but I think it's clear he's at his best when he's creating in open spaces. Allowing him to push the ball as hard as he can would open up that opportunity, as he can either find the open man or finish himself at the rim. I know it's hard to remember what Moore was like two years ago, but the ability to do this is still in there.
Capers, Ladd and Lacy are all guards who can also finish around the rim in various capacities, and I've been told that Kernich-Drew can do the same. This sort of philosophy would especially benefit Capers, who, by the end of last year, had virtually no value in the halfcourt game; to expect him to suddenly develop some sort of halfcourt skill set seems a little silly.
Additionally, Ladd and Lacy are two guys who can also push the ball themselves. I've seen Lacy do it myself, and I've been told by those that have watched Ladd that he can also do it. Some of you might even argue Capers could lead a break, too, but I don't like his decision making while dribbling at full speed. At any rate, you've got at least three guys I'd trust to lead a break.
We also know that both Sequele and Shelton are raw offensively, but both can run and jump. This allows them to trail the break and crash the glass as James Watson did so effectively two years ago. Force them into a halfcourt system and you dramatically reduce their ability to be effective; allow them to roam free, and you're just might get some significant contributions. I think you can get much of the same from Lodwick, just to a lesser extent.
But what about Motum, Simon and Aden?
To be honest, I haven't seen anything the past two years with Motum that leads me to believe this is a guy we should be attempting to build anything around. Does he do some nice things on offense from time to time? Sure. But he's a horrendous rebounder and shot blocker, which largely makes him a marginal defender save for the occasional drawn charge which, while not without value, does not make somebody a great defender. He'll still see minutes, since you can get away with having a not super athletic guy on the floor in an uptempo offense if the other four are, but this setup won't be kind to him. And I just don't see that as as big of a problem as some of you probably will.
Simon and Aden, though, do provide value, in the form of transition shooting -- something Ladd and Lodwick could also do, depending on how the break unfolds and the personnel on the floor at the time. This is essential when the other team knows you're trying to run, because you've got to be able to do something else when your opponent inevitably clogs the lane.
Is this all way, way outside the box? Sure.
But I think it all comes down to net gain, and maximizing the abilities of the more athletic guys -- while simultaneously giving significant experience to the guys you're hoping to build around -- does that. Getting substantial offensive contributions out of some of the older guys is going to be like squeezing water from a rock no matter what you do; why not give some of the younger guys a chance to shine in a system that will be friendly to them?