The Outlet Pass: Kyrie's Evolution, Schroder's Speed, and Selfless Pelicans
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper - USA TODAY Sports
The NBA season is finally kinda sorta taking shape! Here's a deep look around at what's going on.
1. Why Doesn’t Brandon Ingram Shoot Threes?
The most simple (and obtuse) answer to this question is “he doesn’t have to!” At 20 years old, Ingram already averages about as many drives per game as LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo despite logging about five fewer minutes, and once near the rim he’s able to unwind his gangly limbs in a way that makes blocking his shot almost impossible.
Almost half of his shots occur right near the basket—still the most valuable real estate on a basketball court—where he’s quickly learning how to finish through contact and draw fouls. Ingram can score downhill, too. He has silky footwork in the open floor, with a Eurostep that looks like Super Mario hopping from one block to the next.
Ingram owned the entire second quarter of a recent win against the Memphis Grizzlies. Nobody on that team could stop him without grabbing or hacking. His first step always put him either past or even with his man, and at that point he already won. On one play he was smart enough to fake a dribble handoff with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, let his defender (James Ennis) relax on his heels for a split second, then drive the opposite way for a layup.
And then there was this sequence:
Normally a master of angles and space, Marc Gasol doesn’t shift down a level on the switch, believing he can either contain Ingram and force a long two, or at least bother his shot at the basket. But last year’s second overall pick has already realized that in most situations he doesn’t need to settle.
Plays like it are wonderful to see, but Ingram’s shot chart doubles as a frustrating development that makes life harder than it has to be for his spacing-starved teammates. For every three he attempts, he also launches 2.5 mid-range jumpers. That’s an ugly ratio for a prospect who shot over 40 percent beyond the arc at Duke.
His three-point rate is half of what it was as a rookie, down so low it’s only above two percent of wings in the entire league. Why? Heading into Thursday’s game against the Boston Celtics, he canned an impressive 39 percent of them. It’s too early to worry about all this, and signs of life found elsewhere in Ingram’s game are critical for the development of the entire Los Angeles Lakers organization. Still, he needs to turn a few of those long twos into three-point tries sooner rather than later. There’s no reason for him not to.
2. Dennis Schroder’s Speed is Officially Uncalled For
If you scan the entire NBA roster pool, you'll find dozens of unteachable physical advantages that allow players to thrive at the highest level. Schroder’s speed is one such example. His game isn’t based on deception or keen floor surveillance. No. The guy just has really long arms and is fast enough to beat just about anybody alive in a 35-foot speed dribble contest.
Schroder leads the NBA in drives per game by an extremely wide margin (his 20 per game are over seven more than Isaiah Thomas's league-leading total last season). That is absurd, and suddenly possible thanks to a jump shot defenses now have to respect. Schroder is shooting 40 percent beyond the arc and about 45 percent from the mid-range.
His speed doesn’t require a screen and only needs one dribble from the three-point line to the rim. There’s really nothing flashy about it. If you’re not down in a defensive stance when he has the ball a few feet in front of you, good night.
Defenses that switch bigs or even mobile wings and expect to keep him at bay are a special kind of toast. When this happens, Schroder will back up a few feet and build himself a makeshift runway. He almost always gets either an open three or a clear path into the paint. (Whenever Schroder blows by a defender and scores at the rim, Hawks PA announcer Ryan Cameron chants “GOT EEEEEM” and even though it kind of sounds like “SCOTTY” that doesn't make it any less awesome.)
Now averaging an efficient 22.6 points with one of the highest usage rates in the league, is it too early to start an All-Star campaign?
3. Trevor Ariza’s Ball Denial
This seems minor, but Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza is so good at identifying when his man is about to rise up and retrieve a swing pass on the weakside. He makes the extra effort to shadow him, deny the ball, and prevent the offense from utilizing both sides of the court early in the shot clock. It’s a subtle, winning play smart defenders (like Andre Iguodala) are known for, and Ariza does it as well and as often as anybody.
4. The Outlet Pass's Very First Twitter Mailbag Question is About Celtics Legend Kyrie Irving. Yay!
The short answer is it’s really hard (and besides the point) to wrack up a bunch of assists in an equal opportunity offense.
Here’s the long answer. Much of what made the first six years of Irving’s career so marvelous was the spontaneous ingenuity behind (almost) every bucket. His live dribble was oil spattering on a hot pan. Uncontrollable, wild, and dangerous. Those characteristics cut both ways, though, and criticism spilled from the same mouths that his crossover dribble routinely left agape. Astonishment and disgust went hand in hand. He was selfish and spectacular, traits that helped create a polarizing figure whose flaws and strengths could seemingly never be disentangled.
Basic per game numbers are useless as standalone metrics to analyze any player, but especially one who’s now playing in such a completely different system than before. It’s early, but what we’ve so far seen from Irving in the dozen games he’s been a Celtic is someone who’s bottling all the effortless skill that made him an unstoppable scorer in Cleveland into a more measured attack.
So while none of his assist numbers have shot up to an obvious career high, his decisions are undeniably more charitable than they were on the Cavaliers. And altruistic players are forever more difficult to curb than those who’re one-dimensional.
Irving remains a basket-devouring highlight reel who can take over games at will in ways only three or four other dudes can, but in situations where, in year’s past, he’d take his man off the dribble and then pull up for a long two, now he’s going off the bounce to whip a perfect pocket pass to a popping Al Horford. Irving is more patient. After Horford does his damage for a few possessions, he’ll take advantage of a defense that’s now forced to tilt away from his constant threat.
Irving is working the ball from side to side, screening, cutting, flying off picks, and making defenders abandon principles they normally wouldn’t dare. Here’s an example from a recent win against the Atlanta Hawks. Irving convinces Kent Bazemore to help off the strongside corner—shattering one of the 10 Commandments of NBA defense—with a spin move, and Jayson Tatum makes him pay.
Irving leverages his mystical scoring ability to momentarily demolish a truth Bazemore already knows: an open corner three is a better shot than an off-balance, contested floater. It’s a brilliant setup.
He was always a capable passer, able to survey pick-and-roll coverages and then identify the correct read, but his decisions in Boston have been more fluid and unpredictable. He’ll catch a pass off a baseline cut and then, knowing every single defender on the opposing team has his full attention, whip a perfect pass with magnetic precision to an open shooter along the perimeter.
This answer is getting long, but one more point. Heading into this season, Irving’s inability to fling a cross-court jump pass to the opposite corner—much like James Harden, John Wall, and, of course, LeBron James do so well—was viewed as a concern. But in Brad Stevens’ offense, where on-ball screeners hardly ever roll to the basket and suck defenders in from the weakside, that specific tool is unnecessary.
Boston’s assist rate as a collective is higher when Irving is on the court than off it; even though individual numbers don’t reveal much change, he’s steadily embracing life as someone who values a superb pass over a merely satisfactory shot.
5. Kelly Olynyk’s Gravity
Whatever you think of Kelly Olynyk (he's a Greek God hiding amongst mortals), when he’s the lone big in a small lineup there’s almost nothing any defense can do. Quietly draining 50 percent of his shots from deep and ranking seventh league wide in True Shooting, Olynyk’s great NBA skill remains the ability to drag opposing rim protectors from the rim.
Sometimes he’ll force a center to hesitate on help, allowing one of his slash-happy teammates to make unimpeded progress towards the rim. And sometimes his man won’t even budge, stubbornly refusing to let Olynyk beat him from downtown, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere on the court. He Medusa’s Los Angeles Clippers center Willie Reed into a statue on this play.
The Miami Heat are nearly a top-five offense when Olynyk’s frontcourt partner is someone like James Johnson or Justise Winslow. When it’s Bam Adebayo or Hassan Whiteside, help on drives like the one seen above is able to come from other areas of the floor, and the offense doesn’t run nearly as smooth. In limited doses, Olynyk is one of those role players you can plug into any team in the NBA, and so far he’s having a blast in Miami.
6. Tyreke Evans is My President
The need for some NBA players to avoid, at all costs, an end-of-quarter half-court heave, so as not to disrupt their pristine field goal percentage, is such an artistic habit. Earlier this season, Carmelo Anthony purposefully waited until the buzzer went off before he launched up a prayer...and it went in.
But Evans recently decided subtlety wasn’t for him, and painted an even more elaborate masterpiece last week.
The ball might as well have been literally made of lava the way Evans reacted to its touch. The effort made to avoid this shot is magical, from a guy who, going back to last season, is making 43.4 percent of his attempts from deep over the past 25 games.
Semi-related: Despite those numbers, defenders still give Evans all the space and time he needs to fire away, and gravity tends to be more of a reaction to reputation than production—Evans’ reputation is deservedly that of a very bad outside shooter.
7. No Offense to Dwight Powell But I Do Not Enjoy Watching Dwight Powell
What I’m about to write has almost nothing to do with Dwight Powell, but, at the same time, it has everything to do with Dwight Powell. The Dallas Mavericks look so much worse than I thought they’d be. Two unforeseeable reasons (among countless others) help explain why: 1) Seth Curry is hurt, 2) Nerlens Noel is basically not on the team.
I was naive enough to think Rick Carlisle would embrace his future by unleashing Dennis Smith Jr. in small lineups that pit Harrison Barnes at the four and Noel at the five. Instead, Noel has only started six games, while Dirk Nowitzki has started five games at center, and Dallas’ offense executes most of its action inside a jar of molasses, with a league-high 83.7 percent of their possessions taking place in the half-court.
Barnes battled Marcin Gortat for the opening tip on Tuesday night because Nowitzki cannot bring two feet off the ground at the same time. They won that game, and in Noel’s 206 minutes the Mavs have been outscored by a team-low 20 points per 100 possessions. But apart from the gravity Dirk still provides (mandatory disclaimer: Dirk is a hero and every letter of criticism is painful to type), ceding some of his minutes (and basically all of Powell’s) to Noel is probably the right move.
At this stage, deploying Nowitzki at center for 10 minutes a night is like attempting to climb Mt. Everest in a windbreaker. The Mavericks have allowed 122.6 points per 100 possessions with those lineups, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s not great. They’re 2-10, rank 28th in point differential, and even though his minutes seem to be taking a downturn, every time I watch Powell play it reminds me how decent this team maybe can still be if they give Noel more than 15 minutes of playing time a night and embrace their youth.
8. The Pelicans are Passing!
New Orleans has emerged as one of the best passing teams in the NBA. They rank fourth in secondary assists and assist opportunities while averaging over 20 more passes per game than they did last season. (The increase is even higher when compared to how they played after the All-Star break, when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins.)
According to Synergy Sports, the Warriors are the only team that’s attempted more shots off of a cut than New Orleans, and only six have been more efficient from such possessions. Much of this is because Cousins is one of the boldest passers at his position (non-Jokic division). It’s also because with so little outside shooting surrounding two Goliaths, passing is their best route to success.
Here’s a pet play New Orleans loves to run that’s almost always good for a bucket. Cousins and Anthony Davis are interchangeable in the action, but for this example we start with AD at the right elbow extended and Boogie thumping down low towards the opposite block. Everything looks simple at first: E’Twaun Moore passes to Davis and then races to pick Cousins’ man, allowing him to flash open across the paint for an easy two.
But stopping something so straightforward would be too easy, so in order to occupy Indiana’s attention and freeze its help defenders, Cousins opens the possession up by setting his own down screen on Ian Clark.
The Pelicans are bludgeoning teams by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when Davis and Cousins share the floor, with an assist rate that would’ve ranked third last season. Precarious three-point shooting be damned, nobody will want to play the Pelicans in a seven-game series if they qualify for the playoffs.
9. Alex Abrines Makes The Thunder Clap
November has not been kind to the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the NBA’s worst offense, they’ve now lost three straight games and face the rapidly improving Denver Nuggets on Thursday night. We’re dealing with in an incredibly small sample size, but one possible correlation to their sudden malaise may be the decrease of Alex Abrines’ playing time. (He spent 42 minutes on the bench in a humiliating loss against the Sacramento Kings.)
Even though he’s not shooting the ball well and contributes in almost no other way, Oklahoma City has been deadly with Abrines on the floor. For the season, his net rating ranks first among all players who don’t play for the Golden State Warriors (minimum 10 appearances with a 15-minute average).
In their last three games, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has cut Abrines’ minutes in half, and eliminated any late-game overlap where he can share the floor with Russell Westbrook. The reigning MVP has been a beast in limited time with Abrines by his side, but the rotation has yet to give them much of an opportunity to shine together.
With so few outside shooters on this roster who can complement Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Westbrook, Donovan should try and have arguably his best three-point threat on the floor as often as he can.
10. Jusuf Nurkic and the Power of Context
If I could build a team from scratch with any starting center in the league, Jusuf Nurkic would not crack the top 10. But if I had to pick a center to blend with the Portland Trail Blazers, he’d sit near the top of the list. (Of course they can do better, but we all could. This is real life.)
A bunch of Nurkic’s production is the result of defenses restricting Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the pick-and-roll, but at the end of the day how much does that really matter? He’s a fine decision maker who ranks in the 81st percentile in assist rate at his position. When opponents trap high screens and allow Nurkic to attack in a 4-on-3 situation, good things usually happen.
He hasn’t been efficient scoring the ball—especially around the basket—and Portland’s offense has hummed when he’s on the pine (partly because the Blazers have a slew of big men who’re playing great), but Nurkic’s all-around presence is beneficial in so many different ways.
Not a rim protector per se, Nurkic’s positional defense has been rock solid. Here he is stopping one of the harder actions in the league: a Paul George pindown.
The Thunder run this knowing the strain it puts on an opposing big who, more likely than not, suddenly finds himself responsible for his own man (the screener) and George (a natural flamethrower). It’s uncomfortable. Come up too close and Adams rolls free for a pocket pass. Sag back too far and grant George with an open teardrop. But Nurkic covers enough ground to take both options away—with some help on the backside thanks to Andre Roberson having less gravitational pull than Mercury—and is able to force a tough floater.
Later on in the same game Oklahoma City tried a similar action, except this time they ran George off a stagger that involved Carmelo. It ended even worse, with Nurkic anticipating the same move and rejecting George at the rim.
11. A Random Appreciation of Goran Dragic
Few are as relentlessly no-nonsense, overlooked and underappreciated, as Dragic. Year after year, all he does is get to the basket on demand. No big deal. The 31-year-old attacks with the rage of a blustery oceanside. Wave after wave after wave. There are no brakes.
Turn the ball over and allow him to streak up the left side and the smartest defensive strategy instantly becomes “cede two points and get ready for the next possession.” There’s more to him, though, even beyond the wonderful 40 percent three-point shooting. Dragic constantly probes in the half-court, dipping behind defenses along the baseline and emerging on the other side with a passing lane, open shot, or advantageous switch. It’s very Steve Nash-ian of him.
But buried beneath all the strong qualities he brings to the table on a nightly basis is the unfortunate reality that Dragic is merely “very good” at a bunch of different things instead of “standalone great” at one thing he can be applauded for. He’s lost in a revolving door of virtuosity at his position, and every so often we should all acknowledge just how awesome Dragic is at all the difficult things he does.
12. A Few Words About Devin Booker
Devin Booker is a schismatic figure, which is stupid and sad. He turned 21 last week and has spent his entire career in one of the most egregiously dysfunctional environments that the NBA knows. The more I watch him, the more I wonder what he'd look like on a different team, developing in a more structured, professional, and satisfying environment, under great coaching and beside players who know what they're doing.
What happens if he's drafted by the Miami Heat or Utah Jazz? Sure, the opportunity to play would not have been the same in his first two years, and his role when on the floor would be far less colorful than it is, but, again, he's still only 21! He scored 70 points in—an admittedly sketchy environment—one game!
Not all Booker's flaws are Phoenix's fault, but it's fair to wonder how much further along he'd be as a defender within a setting where he's forced to keep up on that end. Let's celebrate the good he's accomplished in spite of his surroundings instead of condemning all he's yet to learn.