The Outlet Pass: Lonzo's Curse, Kerr's Adjustment, Westbrook's Defense
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
1. Philly’s Turnover Problem is...Getting Worse?
The Philadelphia 76ers have dropped eight of their last 10 games and would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. The easiest explanation for their slide—beyond Joel Embiid’s bad back—is turnovers.
Philly has committed a turnover on 19.3 percent of their possessions since an inexcusable home loss (on two day’s rest) against the Los Angeles Lakers back on December 7th. The gap between them and the second sloppiest team in the league over that stretch matches the gap between the 29th and 13th-ranked teams! Philly obviously ranks in last for turnover rate over the entire season, averaging almost two turnovers per game more than the 29th-ranked Lakers.
Of Philly’s seven leaders in usage percentage, J.J. Redick and Dario Saric are the only two who rank above the 50th percentile at their respective position in turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. Guards who’re supposed to protect the ball (like T.J. McConnell and Jerryd Bayless) are unnaturally loose with it.
This team is young, with key players who've only shared the court for a few months. Their struggle is understandable. It's also not new. The Sixers have enjoyed the NBA’s wobbliest offense for four of the last five years, and have preached ball movement and pace since Brett Brown became their head coach. For the second season in a row they rank first in passes per game and are currently second in both potential and secondary assists, per NBA.com.
They force passes into the post, turn down what the defense is offering, and play with a predictable exuberance. They sometimes respond to transition opportunities like a puppy that just heard you coo its name while holding a leash.
Some of their mistakes are thanks to an excessive unselfishness. They drive and kick and drive and kick and belabor sequences in search of a perfect opportunity instead of striking while the iron is hot. If the defense botches a switch and surrenders a long two, take the open shot!
Sometimes they go too early and lack patience. Sometimes Ben Simmons’s man (who usually boasts an expansive wingspan) leaves him idle on the perimeter and clogs up lanes that would otherwise exist if he were willing to shoot.
On the play above, Saric has Joel Embiid wide open as a trailing big but sees Jonas Valanciunas drifting towards the perimeter and likes the thought of attacking Kyle Lowry on a mismatch more than passing the ball. But instead of simplifying the play and feeding Embiid for a three, Saric puts it on the floor and drives straight into a mosh pit.
Philadelphia’s long-term upside obviously remains sky high. Their shot frequency is intelligent, but their intentions don't yet align with their execution. This was a known issue Philly's coaching staff and front office wanted to correct heading into the season. They don't need to treat the ball like it's a Faberge egg, but cutting out just half of their unforced errors could, alone, elevate their offense to a league-average level.
2. The San Antonio Spurs Remain Clairvoyant
Apart from a couple extended injuries to critical players and some iffy shooting from the outside (both long twos and above-the-break), the Spurs are basically still the Spurs. They’re mixing and matching, turning the regular season into Gregg Popovich’s public laboratory, where new faces are getting extended time with veteran vanguards, rest is a priority, and low-usage pieces are given an opportunity to bloom at a moment's notice.
One of San Antonio’s better lineups, a unit Popovich will likely trot out in the last few minutes of a tight playoff game (Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay, and LaMarcus Aldridge) has yet to play a minute this season. Leonard has played 12 possessions at power forward but San Antonio has generally embraced smaller groups this year, with Aldridge spending a majority of his time at center.
No team can stabilize an adjustment period like San Antonio. And through all their change lies an unparalleled unspoken chemistry every other roster—except the Golden State Warriors—wishes it had. This play from a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers is a good example that contains actual telepathy.
Patty Mills sets a cross screen to free Pau Gasol up on the left block, then flex cuts off Rudy Gay’s pindown for a potential three. When the Clippers switch to take away Mills, Gay throws his arm up and dives down the lane to drag a help defender (in this case Milos Teodosic) off Manu Ginobili in the weakside corner.
Nothing about it is remarkable until you notice when the ball leaves Parker’s fingers. He flings it across the court before Gay starts to roll, as Teodosic is still leaning towards Ginobili. It’s a pass that can’t be made without intuitive basketball bravery. And it's freaking awesome.
If the Spurs are on television, watch them. I guarantee you'll have a good time.
3. CJ McCollum’s “Sneaky Athleticism”
The adjective “sneaky-athletic” is 99.9 percent reserved for non-black players who are actually incredibly athletic. This year alone I’ve heard announcers use the phrase to describe Sam Dekker and Pat Connaughton, a pair of phenomenal athletes. Gordon Hayward still heard the label as recently as last season even though he’s always been a freak.
But guess what? Black players can be sneaky athletes too! And, as first-class Portland Trail Blazers color commentator Lamar Hurd has pointed out multiple times throughout this season, C.J. McCollum is a good example. Known for below-the-rim craftiness, an eagle-eye shot, and handle that’s clever enough to teleport him wherever he wants to go, the 26-year-old still gets up when he wants to.
That said, McCollum isn’t Steve Francis. Only five percent of his 572 shots have been dunks this season, which is a career low. His most recent one blessed this Earth when he went between his legs to cross up Josh Hart and drop a two-handed yam on Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. A solid “I don’t always drink beer” NBA moment. But that's why it's called "sneaky" athleticism!
4. Spencer Dinwiddie Might Be Pretty Good
Spencer Dinwiddie’s job in Brooklyn was muted heading into this season. A point guard on a non-guaranteed contract—embedded within a backcourt-stacked roster that just sacrificed cap space and a first-round pick for a fresh franchise player at the same position—it wasn’t realistic to assume Dinwiddie would have the ball in his hands as often as he should, could, or desired.
Even with enough size and length (he’s 6’6” with a 6’8” wingspan) to guard a couple positions, and an improving shot that justified minutes in a reserve role, the Nets had two lead ball handlers—D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin—who would serve as their primary scorers and facilitators, leaving Dinwiddie out in the cold. But with both out for most of the season, the 24-year-old has grabbed hold of a system any floor general would love to run.
So far, so good.
Heading into this week, Brooklyn’s point differential was 14.1 points per 100 possessions better with Dinwiddie on the floor (they performed like a 52-win team with him at point guard, per Cleaning the Glass) and he ranks 15th in Real Plus-Minus, ahead of Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, and Anthony Davis.
Injuries create opportunity—a chance for those in waiting to step up and shine in larger roles with greater responsibilities, theoretically beside (and against) superior talent. Dinwiddie is doing that with confidence—every so often he’ll launch a side-step three from a few feet behind the line, a la Kyrie Irving—and artistry.
He keeps his head up in the open floor and does a nice job feeding shooters as soon as they spring open. He's a no-frills playmaker who takes care of the ball and rarely attempts to do more than what's necessary to complete a play.
It'll be interesting to see how he adjusts when Russell returns and he shifts off the ball. Dinwiddie entered the league without an outside shot and now has one that defenses need to respect. He's also proven capable of stewarding a solid pick-and-roll attack without any of the nonsensical mistakes habitually made by Russell. His size allows him to defend both backcourt positions (his length really bothered John Wall when Brooklyn punked the Wizards last week) and he deserves as much playing time as anyone on the team.
5. Oladipo is Still Learning His Own Power
This is kinda funny. The Pacers fall into a switch they like then take their time to try and attack it. As Darren Collison backpedals to size up John Collins, Cory Joseph motions for Victor Oladipo to drop towards the baseline and drag Malcolm Delaney away from his help position. We refer to Delaney's reaction as a response to Oladipo's gravity, but this isn't gravity. It’s a magnetic vice grip.
Marco Belinelli wisely helps off Joseph and helps deter a drive to the cup, but go back and watch how closely Delaney shadows Oladipo. He's step for step! In the moment beforehand Indiana's new franchise player is almost like a teenage superhero who just levitated in his bedroom for the first time.
The adjustment to life as a legitimate offensive superstar is not an overnight process; Oladipo is still learning how he can sometimes have an even greater impact off the ball than with it in his hands. The biggest surprise in the NBA is still absorbing new information about himself, and it's a wonderful thing to see.
6. Russell Westbrook’s Conflicting Defense
I’ve watched nearly half of Oklahoma City’s games this year and still don’t know if Russell Westbrook is having a good season on the defensive end. That’s partly because the reigning MVP is an impulsive gambler who’s addicted to the thrill that attaches itself to that exact moment a steal feels attainable. He's constantly chasing that high.
On some nights this creates turnovers that galvanize the Thunder and momentarily make everyone in the organization feel invincible. On others, these attempted steals have a crippling effect that limit how good the team can be.
Oklahoma City’s defense is very good with Westbrook on the floor and slightly worse when he sits. (Worth noting: the Thunder can’t get stops when Westbrook doesn’t have Andre Roberson by his side.) Continuing on a five-year trend, the percentage of OKC’s steals that lead to transition plays shoots through the roof when he’s in the game—currently at a career-best 17.2 percent.
It’s a style of play that makes Westbrook the overwhelming force he is. The man plays with an uncontrollable rage and force that, quite honestly, can’t be honed for 48 minutes in a disciplined environment or system. He runs and jumps and smashes, and so much of that is born from reckless defensive play.
OKC is 12-3 in December, currently riding a six-game winning streak that includes victories over the Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, and Denver Nuggets. More often than not during this stretch, Westbrook has been a game-changing hell spawn on both ends. Only Paul George, Thaddeus Young, and Robert Covington average more deflections per game, and nobody recovers more loose balls.
Among all players who’ve defended at least 80 pick-and-rolls this year, Westbrook has contributed to a higher percentage of possessions that result in turnovers than anyone else, according to Synergy Sports. But sometimes his obsession with the basketball gets the best of him. Nobody—no-buh-dee—loves that thing more than him.
That’s always complicated his approach. Westbrook will cut corners or even fall into a trance, when the ball is so close that he can basically smell its full-grain leather skin (gross). Look at this play from Wednesday night’s win against Toronto.
With his eyes locked onto a DeMar DeRozan-Jakob Poeltl pick-and-roll, Westbrook loses track of Kyle Lowry, then isn’t sure if he should switch onto Serge Ibaka. He was literally hypnotized. But the Thunder will take it, so long as he continues to wreak havoc as often as he does, creating momentum-turning events with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old on Christmas morning.
More importantly, Westbrook’s irresponsible intensity assuages the stress from Oklahoma City’s inconsistent half-court offense. He bestows easy baskets for himself and others; it works in this specific environment—more so than a solid, bend-don’t-break approach probably would.
7. Wayne Ellington is The Hand Off King
Avery Bradley is the only player who’s ended more total possessions off a hand off than Wayne Ellington this season. According to Synergy Sports, last year the increasingly lethal play type accounted for 16.7 percent of his offensive possessions. Right now that number is at 27.9 percent and he ranks in the 89th percentile.
In the half-court, racing around screens, looping through the paint and around the baseline, from one end of the floor to the other, he’s a nuclear-powered wind-up doll. It’s particularly diabolical (and an aesthetic joy) whenever Miami deploys action that allows Ellington to sprint off a screen and directly into a dribble hand off.
Miami is its best self when Ellington is on the floor and its worst self when he sits, per NBA.com. He’s shooting 44 percent from deep when a defender is within four feet (“tight” and “very tight” coverage), and playing with Kelly Olynyk (a big who possesses passing/perimeter skills) instead of Hassan Whiteside and Willie Reed—as he did last season—has regularly afforded him the extra beat he needs to get a shot off. An incredible 86 percent of all his shots are threes.
Ellington just turned 30 but he’s hitting free agency this summer, at the exact right time. Assuming Miami can’t afford that next deal, whichever team pays him should do their best to utilize Ellington’s strengths and continue to keep the fat out of his game.
8. Maxi Kleber is the NBA’s Most Underrated Rookie
Maxi Kleber’s skill-set is noiseless, but every now and then he makes a compelling play that shifts the game's momentum in Dallas' favor; it’s hard not to appreciate all the smart ways he helps out.
The 25-year-old German rookie takes charges, blocks shots, knocks down open threes, and sprints the floor. He can rise for a lob, impede a downhill-charging guard’s progress in the paint without fouling, and never needs the ball to positively impact his team.
So much of Kleber’s role is thankless—sometimes he’ll venture off his man to block a shot he has no chance at, leaving his man free to gobble up the rebound—but he's a reliable starter on what might be the best bad team this league's seen in years.
9. Lonzo’s Subtle Genius Can Be His Own Worst Enemy
This fair and nuanced assessment of “What Lonzo Ball Can Be” vs. “What Lonzo Ball Can Do” by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz should remind everyone who reads it how difficult it is to gauge Ball’s unique all-around impact while shooting percentages and scoring prowess are, sadly, the end-all, be-all way to explore a prospect’s potential.
Ball moves like a bold splash of spontaneity. He plays hard and everything he does is with purpose (watch his defensive intensity running back on defense whenever he misses a shot). It’s still hard to know if his game is retrograde or cutting edge, but two sequences from L.A.’s close loss against the Trail Blazers summoned a pair of examples that detail Ball’s brilliance and how it can sometimes hold him back. (This is random, but I don’t think there’s another point guard alive who I’d rather play pickup basketball with.)
At first glance this initial play looks like a regular lob to Julius Randle, but let’s quickly unpack why it’s so effective, and how it easily could've gone wrong.
Ball notices that Evan Turner has anticipated the pass and rotated off Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the weakside corner to break it up. He’s already in the paint when Randle crosses the free-throw line. So instead of throwing it up towards the hoop and simply hoping his teammate can beat Turner to it, Ball’s pass never climbs higher than the rim. It’s tossed low and short, in an area where only Randle can catch it without limiting his ability to make something happen after doing so.
It’s an understated split-second adjustment to not only avoid a turnover, but create something positive while knowing the defense is aware of what he wants to do. It's almost like Ball has a basketball-specific, light-speed-quick Google Maps installed in his brain. He sees an initial path, then course corrects several times midway through in a way that can't be taught.
Four Trail Blazers are in the paint when Lonzo lets go of the ball. It’s the type of pass a player might wish he made watching it over again the next day in a film session. The game is already starting to move in slow motion for Ball, a pass-first savant whose assist-to-usage ratio ranks in the 78th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass.
The next play is another pass to Randle. Unlike the first it’s not structured in half-court offense and instead arrives in the comfortable confines of chaos, where Ball is at his best.
It’s a tie game with about 80 seconds left. After a scramble in transition—created by one of Ball’s patented throwaheads—Josh Hart finds his fellow rookie wide open on the wing. Instead of launching the open three, Ball can’t help himself and hits Randle, who’s even more open in the dunker’s spot. Randle is hacked and only makes one of the subsequent free throws.
This sequence would’ve probably ended in an assisted dunk had Randle expected the ball, but he takes too long to gather himself and gifts Zach Collins and Shabazz Napier enough time to recover back and commit the foul. On the other hand, Ball had a wide open shot.
In L.A.’s last five games, he’s 15-for-34 from behind the three-point line (44.1 percent). The free-throw line remains a concern—as does his ability to finish around the rim—but that normalize a bit as the season goes on and he continues to grow. He isn’t normally passive in these situations and shouldn’t be deemed benevolent to the point of self-harm. Ball isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, either.
The pass was smart and should’ve/could’ve led to an exclamatory finish. But a wide open three with Portland’s best rebounder racing out to contest the shot might've been slightly more appropriate.
Ball is already excellent at planting his teammates in positions to succeed, but for him and his team to be the absolute best they can be, he'll eventually need to seek out his own openings even more than he already is.
10. Steve Kerr’s Christmas Day Adjustment Was Masterful
This rivalry will never get old to me. Even though it was the 73rd time they’ve played each other since 2015, NBA basketball soars to a higher level of strategic peculiarities whenever the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors compete. This time around, the core characters were fundamentally the same, but slight changes around the margin affected how these two great teams did battle.
The Warriors started rookie Jordan Bell over incumbent center Zaza Pachulia on Christmas Day because he provides a bit more defensive mobility against a Cleveland team that plays Kevin Love (instead of Tristan Thompson) at the five.
This made sense, but immediately played into Tyronn Lue’s strategy on the other end. With no Steph Curry, Cleveland ramped up its already-aggressive pick-and-roll defense with a single-minded focus to squeeze the ball from Kevin Durant’s hands every chance they could. From the start, this is what it looked like: Bell sets a high screen for KD and Love stays high to double him. Bell then rolls into space and misses an ugly bankshot.
In the second half, Steve Kerr made a fantastic adjustment. Knowing Cleveland would trap, he had Durant and Bell start on the right side of the floor. (Draymond Green opens the clip seen below by instructing Bell to direct Durant towards the sideline with his screen, so that Love can’t quickly recover to the middle of the floor.)
The Cavs fall for it. Love once again doubles the ball, but this time Draymond is at the top of the key instead of in the paint, as he was before. When Durant hits Bell, the rookie immediately flings it to Green then takes off for the hoop, momentarily freezing LeBron James in the paint and forcing him to either stop the ball or stick with the roller. It’s a beautifully choreographed action that ends with Golden State’s most satisfying two points of the day.
11. Tyus Jones is Minnesota’s Ideal (Temporary) Caretaker
Jeff Teague left Minnesota’s overtime win against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night after a body fell into his knee at a gruesome angle. An MRI was scheduled for Thursday morning and as I write this it feels more likely than not that the Timberwolves will be without their starting point guard for the foreseeable future.
In that case, in Teague’s place will be Tyus Jones, a third-year guard who’s quietly one of the best defenders at his position, takes care of the ball, and is shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc. The surface-level ripple effect of Teague’s injury is that Minnesota will need to replace a dangerous pick-and-roll presence who can get into the paint at will. But having a low-usage hawk in his place will only provide Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns with even more touches and opportunities.
So far, that’s been a good thing. In 180 possessions this year, Minnesota’s starting five with Jones instead of Teague has outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. A huge reason why is they don’t turn the ball over. Fewer options can sometimes be a good thing. It simplifies how they want attack and less risk is involved.
But Jones really makes his mark ripping the ball from the other team. As someone who’s sat near the top of the NBA’s leaderboard in steal rate his entire career, the 21-year-old’s thievery is instant and swift, and more often than not he accumulates them without having to gamble or lunge out of position.
He’s recorded at least three steals in six games this year—including a seven-steal performance against the Phoenix Suns. Three of which came in under 15 minutes of playing time.
Minnesota’s transition offense off steals has been elite the past two seasons whenever he’s on the floor, and when Jones digs down into the post, he sprints out to the perimeter after a pass is made. Few guards are willing to close out on shooters as quickly as Jones. If he’s suddenly playing 34 minutes per game, there’s a good chance that winning habit will wane, but he’s a smart player who (hot take coming through!) might complement his star teammates even better than Teague.
The suffering will be felt further down the depth chart. Aaron Brooks turns 33 in a couple weeks and hasn’t had a meaningful/positive NBA role in three years. Teague’s injury could open the door for Butler or Wiggins to assume more playmaking responsibility. (It remains to be seen whether that’s a good thing given how many minutes they’re already playing, though.)
If Teague’s knee is torn, the Timberwolves should still be able to make the playoffs because Jones is an ideal shepherd. But their health-related margin for error is officially at zero.