The Manimal Evolves

Kenneth Faried has always tried to focus on the good qualities the term “energy guy” denotes, but as he entered his third NBA season, he increasingly found the descriptor a limiting backhanded compliment.

“They all used to say, ‘All he is, is an energy guy,’” Faried says. “That I was a guy who was gonna run and jump, and that I could only get you nine or 10 points, max.” Faried wanted to bust that stereotype. He’s an undersize power forward who has struggled on defense and relied mostly on cuts, offensive rebounds, and other forms of scavenging for his points. That was enough to give him a clear long-term place in the league. But scoring is fun, and scorers get paid. A Faried who could get buckets, and perhaps even draw help defenders on the block, is a different species of Manimal.

Faried had been agitating for an increased role in Denver’s offense since Brian Shaw took over as coach, but his chance didn’t really come until Ty Lawson went down with ankle and foot issues just before the All-Star break. Shaw told the team it would need to find other sources of scoring, and Faried volunteered that this might be the perfect time to lean on his post-up game.

The results have been, frankly, kind of stunning, and present the Nuggets with a dilemma they likely didn’t expect six months ago, when they asked a targeted handful of teams whether they might be interested in acquiring Faried in exchange for a 2014 first-round pick or quality wing player on a rookie deal, per sources around the league.

Only about 15 percent of the possessions Faried used up on offense before the All-Star break came via post-ups, per Synergy Sports. That’s a middling share for a starting NBA big man, amounting to fewer than two fieldgoal attempts per game in Faried’s case. Those numbers have exploded in Denver’s 26 games since the All-Star break. In that stretch, Faried is attempting nearly four shots per game via post-ups, per Synergy, and such plays have accounted for almost 30 percent of the possessions he has soaked up. Those numbers are on par with high-usage post-up bigs such as Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, and Amar’e Stoudemire, per Synergy. (As an aside, only three big men attempt at least eight shots per game via post-ups, and the guy at no. 4 in that category, Dwight Howard, attempts only six such shots. There’s a giant gap between the top three and the rest of the field, though shooting fouls muck up the numbers just a bit. Those three guys, in order: Al Jefferson, Zach Randolph, and LaMarcus Aldridge).

Best of all: Faried is shooting 56 percent on post-ups since the All-Star break. Look at that number again. Among all players who have recorded 75 post-ups this season, or about one per game, just one has shot better that: Shaun Livingston. “Now people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe he can get you 15 or 20 a night,’” Faried says. “And that I can do it without breaking a sweat.”

Faried has done this with essentially one move, which is both promising and problematic. He has relied completely on a right-handed hook he attempts from both blocks. When he’s on the left block, he launches it going middle off the dribble:

That’s a natural shot for a right-handed player. The right block is tougher, since going to his strong hand involves the confining baseline, but Faried leans on a modified version of the same move there:

Dependence on one move raises natural questions on what will happen to Faried’s post game once defenders start sitting on it more. “He can catch and score against good defenders now,” says George Karl, Faried’s former coach. “That’s something he probably didn’t have last year. But it will be interesting to see if he can finish with his left.”

Faried isn’t worried. He spent a week working with Hakeem Olajuwon two summers ago, and says Olajuwon taught him several counter moves to that righty hook — moves he polishes in practice. “Drop steps, quick spins — I’ve got all that,” he says. But the Dream delivered those counters with a caveat, Faried says: “His no. 1 rule was: If they don’t take your best move away, don’t use your counters. I’ve got counters. I just haven’t needed them. There’s no point if they can’t take my first move away.”

Faried isn’t tall or long, and he doesn’t have artful touch. But he uses his advantages — his speed, and even his relatively short stature.

The speed edge helps in lots of ways. If Faried can free himself for a quick dribble, he can get to his sweet spot and gather the ball before his defender is balanced enough to challenge the shot. Bulkier defenders are often backpedaling with their arms down when Faried is halfway through his shooting motion.

Faried has always run the floor like a maniac, but now he runs the floor for post-ups instead of just chasing leak-out dunks. Even if Faried’s defender keeps up with him, there are benefits to beating the other eight players down the floor. Faried can get a quick seal, catch an entry pass, and go to work before the defense is set — and before the second opposing big man has gotten into help position along the baseline:

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Trailing defenders, especially taller ones, might try to front Faried. But that doesn’t work as well when no other defender is behind the play to deter a lob pass over the front. Lawson hit Faried for an easy score seconds after this still:

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Lawson’s return has been helpful in this regard. Lawson is one of the rare players who can compete with Faried in transition mania, and the two often race up the floor together for whatever two-man opportunity might present itself. Lawson’s comfortable lobbing the ball over any fronting defender, and the two have developed a good feel for when Faried is ready for such a pass, Faried says.

“With Ty, it’s a little bit like a marriage,” Faried says. “If you don’t have chemistry and love being around your partner, it’s not gonna work. But we have great chemistry. We can yell at each other and still be friends.”

Faried has adjusted well to Lawson’s return in other ways. Lawson’s absence neutered Denver’s pick-and-roll game and left the team without an attacking point guard. Faried didn’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s driving lane when he posted up. “I just posted up whenever I wanted,” he says, laughing.

Having Lawson back means Faried has to pick his spots more carefully to avoid gumming up the offense. He has to set more screens for Lawson, and when he’s not involved in the pick-and-roll, he has to find a little hiding spot along the baseline — a place far enough from the rim to be (almost) out of the way, but close enough that Faried might be able to catch the ball and do something useful with it.

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It’s not ideal spacing; Faried is still a non-shooter, so he’s never going to spot up for corner 3s, and he’s not of much use hanging behind the 3-point arc.

But it’s the best Denver can do with two big men, and Shaw, fresh from stints as an assistant on behemoth teams in L.A. and Indiana, is a big believer in using two big men at almost all times — at least when Denver is healthy.

And so Faried has learned to lay in wait along the baseline on the weak side, darting in for instant post-ups only when Lawson halts an initial pick-and-roll and swings the ball to Faried’s side of the floor:

“I got smarter at it,” Faried says. “I learned when to post up, when to get out, and how to get out.”

Faried has turned his size deficit into an advantage. He can overpower larger guys by bending even lower to the ground, shifting more of his weight to his legs and midsection, and using his ass as a weapon. I mean, a guy Faried’s size should not be able to do this to Marc Gasol:

“I’m already short,” he says. “But I bend my knees and make myself even smaller. If I can do that and hit you in a certain spot, I can move you back.” Faried can be a viciously physical player. He moves larger humans with scary bodychecks and shoulder blocks as he establishes position. He is kind of a bully, in a good way. “When you’re bullied your whole life because you’re skinny, I guess maybe you become one yourself in certain situations,” he says.

All of this has changed the leaguewide conversation on Faried. There just wasn’t much excitement about him in front offices at the start of this season. He’s 24, so he’s not super-young. He’s probably going to top out as an average NBA defender, if he reaches that point. The Nuggets have been worse defensively with him on the floor in each of Faried’s three seasons, and his size will always be an issue on the block; opponents have hit 51 percent of post-up shots against Faried this season, per Synergy. That is a roasting. Denver has to send him help, which has bad ripple effects elsewhere. Playing with better defensive teammates should help in the long run, but the Faried/Timofey Mozgov pairing hasn’t fared much better than the disastrous Faried/J.J. Hickson and Faried/JaVale McGee tandems, per NBA.com.

Faried has improved defending in space and against the pick-and-roll, an area of defense in which his inconsistency used to drive Karl “crazy,” the coach says. He’s steadier on his feet, more under control, with a better understanding of what an opposing offense is trying to do.

He’s also fast enough to defend the pick-and-roll in lots of different ways. He can blitz out at ball handlers, trapping them near midcourt, and switch onto smaller players. That is an increasingly important skill for NBA big men. If the offensive player setting the screen has no post-up game, a switch is almost risk-free — provided the big guy defending the screener can hop onto a guard without issue. A middling guy like Brandon Bass has gotten situational mileage out of this very switch.

Faried’s insane offensive rebounding is a form of defense in itself. Karl says that during last year’s first-round series, the Warriors sent an extra player, usually a guard, down toward the paint on Denver shot attempts just to help box out Faried. Such extra attention can make it difficult for Denver opponents to turn misses into fast breaks.

Faried is never going to be an elite defender. He’s short, without a long wingspan to compensate, and a player going balls-out on offense can only reserve so much energy for the other end. He’s better at rotating over from the weak side to challenge shots than he used to be, but he’s still a beat late sometimes. And he has had trouble navigating on-the-fly decisions, especially plays in which his big-man teammate tries to initiate an improvisational switch:

But he’s better, and his improved post game has opened some eyes. Denver was willing to trade Faried in part because it feared he would demand an eight-figure salary in free agency, and perhaps even draw an offer sheet from another team carrying that kind of payday. (Faried is eligible for an extension after this season, and if he and the Nuggets can’t agree on one before October 31, he will become a restricted free agent after next season.) That’s too much for a below-average defender who can’t shoot or get buckets in the half-court, especially under Shaw, who prizes well-rounded bigs.

This version of Faried requires more thought. His effort and spirit have value on their own. “He brings a great deal of confidence to a team,” Karl says. “A team that plays hard every night, and has that in their personality, is harder to beat than a skilled team that doesn’t play hard every night.”

Denver will be near the tax next season, the last of Faried’s rookie deal, but it could in theory work itself under the cap ahead of 2015-16 — the first season of Faried’s next contract. A pile of big contracts expire after that 2015-16 season, meaning a hefty deal for Faried wouldn’t necessarily cripple Denver’s long-term flexibility.

And the NBA can be funny about player value. I was among a legion of skeptics suggesting it would be borderline impossible to build a top-10 defense around Al Jefferson at center, but the Bobcats and Steve Clifford have proved me wrong. The abject horribleness of the East has helped, and the Bobcats still have zero rim protection, but scheme, coaching, and teammates matter. D.J. Augustin had one foot out of the league, but now he’s a Chicago savior. Luol Deng is a wonderful all-around talent, but he hasn’t moved the needle much in Cleveland.

Just when you think you’ve figured this league out, something surprises. Faried says he hasn’t talked about an extension yet with the front office, and that he’d like to stay. “Ty and I — we’re the cornerstones of the franchise now,” he says. “It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

Giving huge money to a minus big-man defender is a risk, but Faried has changed the conversation about him. Maybe he’s not “just” an energy guy.

Filed Under: NBA, Denver Nuggets

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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