The Outlet Pass: Dirk Back, AD's Child's Play, and Denver's Enjoyable Mess
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
1. Dirk Nowitzki Still Matters!
It’s sadly impossible to discuss Dirk Nowitzki without mentioning his age or the lame-duck defense he provides on a crummy team. But that conversation is also boring. So instead of harping on all Dirk can’t do, it’s a lot more informative (and fun) to frame his 20th season in a different way: What's his net value?
Nowitzki is still one of the five most lethal catch-and-shoot three-point threats in basketball. He’s knocking down 44.8 percent of those shots on nearly four tries per game. (Dirk’s overall three-point percentage is at a career high, which, you know, is really saying something.) Only three centers who launch at least 1.5 wide open threes per game are more accurate than Dirk’s 46.3 percent (Kevin Love, Kelly Olynyk, and Kristaps Porzingis).
Miraculously, he's yet to miss a game. And even though he starts at center, units that pit him at the four beside three guards and another big (usually Dwight Powell) have obliterated the league, with a great defense! Nowitzki never could switch out onto the perimeter, and whenever his man runs up to set a ball screen he behaves as if the paint were surrounded by an electric fence. It's considered a win whenever he draws the offense in for an inefficient look with the hope that his anticipation and knowledge of angles will be enough.
More times than not, pure doom is the unavoidable result.
But the Mavs are wise enough to adjust and get out of this predicament whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself. They'll send someone else up with the screener and let Dirk hide.
Even though not every team has someone like Steph Curry or Damian Lillard, an off-the-bounce firecracker who turn immobile bigs into sushi, Nowitzki’s vulnerability on defense remains a back-breaker. So much so that I'm writing about it now even though I swore I wouldn't in the opening sentence of this section.
But that shouldn’t cloud all the benefits he still yields, with a skill-set that has the timeless appeal of a shawl collar. He never turns it over, and his gravity is tattooed inside every opponent's limbic system. Nowitzki needs one dribble to carve up a mismatch, and even though he’s at the stage of his career where getting blocked by Marreese Speights is not a shock, his right palm remains one of the most comforting launch pads in the sport.
Including a 1-for-7 clunker against the New York Knicks, numbers from Nowitzki's last nine games have been vintage. He's averaging 15 points with a 61.2 True Shooting percentage, contributing in a way most elderly icons rarely do.
2. “Situation Matters” is Forever the Truest NBA-Related Statement
Malachi Richardson has not provided any reason to believe he'll still be a professional basketball player two years from now. Potentially related: The organization that drafted him has shown no indication they belong in the NBA.
This is an endless chicken/egg conundrum when evaluating young prospects. Maybe Richardson just isn’t good enough for this league? And maybe if he was drafted by a more competent team that has more reliable/skilled pieces around him, he’d grow inside an environment more conducive to development.
Nobody will ever know the answer to that question. However, what we do know is that the soil in Sacramento is blood red. For a variety of reasons, it’s long been a place where prospects die. Here’s a snapshot that helps explains why.
A lot of things are happening here, but watch Richardson. The Lakers entered the game playing physical defense. They were into the Kings all over the floor, switching with purpose, locked into Luke Walton’s gameplan.
After a few trips up and down the floor, Richardson responds by jab stepping towards the ball and then back-cutting to the rim. If on any number of different teams, he would continue into the paint, catch a bounce pass, and finish at the basket. Instead Zach Randolph’s presence complicates the play. The 36-year-old can’t space the floor and isn’t much of an offensive threat outside of mid and low-post touches that are ultimately more beneficial to himself than any of his teammates.
Randolph is positioned on the right block when Richardson starts his cut, and Julius Randle is ready to slide over and either contest him at the rim or take a charge. That burns. Even worse? Instead of reading what the defense gives, Cauley-Stein simply runs a play that is all but promised to deny any efficient looks at the cup.
He passes to De’Aaron Fox so the Kings can feed Z-Bo down low. It’s a small, ugly example of why situation really matters when analyzing young players who’re trying to make a name for themselves.
(Richardson was assigned to the G League earlier this week.)
3. How Can John Collins Fit In?
Five years ago, 13 NBA teams grabbed at least 30 percent of their own missed shots. Four years ago, the number of teams with an offensive rebound rate above that number dropped to 11. Three years ago, it dropped to eight. Last year, it plummeted down to four. And in 2018, only the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers (at 30.4 and 30.0 percent, respectively) are the only two teams grabbing at least 30 percent of their own missed shots.
As pace ratchets up, lineups continue to shrink, big men launch more threes, and piercing defenders as they backpedal to protect their own basket becomes more and more of an offensive priority, the value of transition defense increases while offensive rebounds feel stale. It used to be that sending one or two bigs into the paint was an acceptable strategy, but even that has become a self-defeating approach against most teams.
For big men who’re really good at creating extra opportunities by crashing the glass, this is slightly problematic and may even reduce their worth. John Collins is an intriguing example. Already one of the most active offensive rebounders in the league, the 20-year-old rookie is reckless but also fun. Good things sometimes happen when he races into the paint. But all in all, the bad probably outweighs the good.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Atlanta allows fewer transition opportunities with Collins on the floor, but off live rebounds opponents score 20.7 more points per 100 transition plays when he’s out there. That is...a lot of points.
It's wrong to blame Collins for what happens above, but plays like this aren't out of the ordinary, either. He's trailing the ball as a roll man, prepared to clean up if Isaiah Taylor misses shot. Unfortunately, he gets boxed out by a point guard and, as the only legitimate rim protector on the floor, leaves his own basket naked as Kyle Kuzma sprints ahead for the and-one finish.
Over time he'll hopefully learn how to balance the floor a little better, but to some degree this is who Collins is, a cast-iron tumbleweed down the lane who blitzes pick-and-rolls and plays on a trampoline while everyone else jumps off wood. (Strange stat: he’s missed a league-high 16 dunks this year, per Basketball-Reference.)
The Hawks hope his range can stretch to the corner, where he's 1-for-3 in Atlanta's last four games after going 0-for-2 in his first 31, but time will tell how effective he can be if/when they decide to reel Collins in from attacking the offensive glass as often as he currently does.
4. The Denver Nuggets Are An Enjoyable Mess
I have no idea what to make of this team. The audio technically hasn’t stopped on Mike Malone’s game of musical chairs, but the song feels like it’s about to end. Paul Millsap’s hard cast is off and he should be back around the All-Star break. Until then, fun stuff is happening that may/may not translate to winning basketball.
Gary Harris is behaving in ways that remind Nuggets play-by-play announcer Chris Marlowe of Julius Erving. The Jazz probably don’t feel too bad about forking over Trey Lyles for a pick that became Donovan Mitchell (more on him later), but the third-year pro just turned 22 and in Denver’s last ten games averaged 17 points and eight rebounds while making 53.3 percent of his shots and 40 percent of his threes. He’s a keeper who’s sucked up any minutes Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arthur hoped were theirs after Millsap went down.
Lyles was dominant against his former team last week, feasting on a small frontline that allowed him to showcase the type of physical post game that’ll make him so much more useful than your average stretch four (or five).
This team is treading water with a different look than they began the season with, and it will likely change some more before the end. Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee (whose skin tone wafts between ghost and radish) are an awkward albeit effective frontcourt duo. Both can pass, one can shoot, and they do a decent job executing Malone’s blitz-heavy scheme. (Teams that short the pick-and-roll have had success against Jokic, though.)
In his sixth season, Will Barton is playing point guard for the first time, and actually doing a fine job balancing his self-serving (that’s meant as a compliment) nature with traditional duties the position calls for. Denver is really good when he’s on the ball and really bad when he’s off it, per Cleaning the Glass, and as a backup who's often facing second-unit ball-handlers, Barton’s height and length tends to create mismatches that either he or a teammate can take advantage of. (How many backup point guards are 6’6”?)
They should be extremely dangerous once Millsap returns and Malone's rotation stabilizes. A Lyles-Millsap frontcourt will be cool and Plumlee as a backup five playing 10 minutes a night is overpaid but nice to have.
5. Terry Rozier vs. Delon Wright
These two have a lot in common. Both are backup guards on pseudo-championship contenders, were drafted in 2016, and feel like increasingly promising variables for their respective teams. Both are good enough to tip the scales in a close playoff series and each is enjoying somewhat of a breakout season.
Both of these guys are awesome to watch and will be talking points throughout the playoffs. Here's a stat: Wright is shooting 57.8 percent on drives to the rim, which ranks seventh among the 161 players who’ve driven the ball at least 100 times this season. Rozier ranks 157th, shooting just 32.2 percent.
Rozier's obscene athleticism (and lower age) make me feel like his ceiling is slightly higher. The Celtics are untouchable when he's making threes. On the other hand, Wright is wildly efficient, has great size, and plays with more confidence. For the here and now, he's a better option.
6. Kyle Kuzma Has Staples Center in the Palm of His Hand
Over the holiday season, I tried to purchase Kyle Kuzma themed socks for my editor, who is a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. (I own Larry Bird socks from the same company and since Kuzma is to the Lakers what Bird was to the Celtics, this felt like a nice gift.) But for reasons that aren’t clear, Kuzma socks do not exist. I had to order Brandon Ingram socks instead.
It’s not weird for Ingram to have his own socks. He’s a promising stud who deserves them. But it’s a criminal offense that Kuzma socks aren’t manufactured by the hundred thousand every day. He is awesome, and the only benefit to having Kuzma come off the bench (seriously why does he come off the bench) is it gives the Staples Center crowd an opportunity to serenade him with a glorious "KOOOOOOOOZ" rally cry.
Recent slump aside, Kuzma has a decent shot at becoming the greatest Laker ever. Everything about him (except everything he does on defense) is fantastic.
7. The Hassan Whiteside/Bam Adebayo Tandem is Pure Madness
Miami has won six straight games since getting completely annihilated by the Brooklyn Nets on December 29th. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics have a better shot at making the playoffs in the East, and since December 1st only the Golden State Warriors and Raptors have more wins.
Miami has the point differential of an average team since then, though. Neither their offense nor their defense ranks in the top 10 and Derrick Jones Jr. (who I adore) has started their last two games at shooting guard on a two-way contract. A few weeks back I wrote about Miami’s bad luck, and it seems like regression to the mean in several categories has been their best friend.
I’m all for experimentation, especially when things aren’t quite right and a few key players are injured, but Erik Spoelstra’s recent call to play Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo at the same time is really out there. But maybe Spoelstra is more “crazy like a fox” than just regular deranged, and I kind of like when a coach catches the opponent off guard with something they had zero time to even consider.
Spoelstra’s used it in three games, all since Whiteside—who does not look good—returned the day after Christmas. In 27 minutes, Miami is -1 when those two centers share the court. Their offense is predictably impotent but they’ve rationalized Spoelstra’s decision with impressive play on the defensive end.
However, watch some film and it’s obvious these two wouldn’t work against a team that's actually outlined a decent strategy to take advantage. Against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, Whiteside’s entire second stint came with Adebayo (who from this moment forth I will exclusively refer to as “Bam”) on the floor. (Miami was +6 in 6:47.) But, honestly, the Pacers could’ve made life much easier for themselves and chose not to.
It starts with poor Bam getting snuffed out on a roll because there’s absolutely no space for him to operate. More disturbing developments soon follow on the other end. Watch Thaddeus Young, who’s being guarded by Whiteside. Instead of shuffling out to the corner and forcing one of the league’s least mobile big men to worry for at least a second about surrendering an open three, Young does Whiteside a favor and stands just outside the paint while Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis run a pick-and-roll on the other side of the floor.
The Pacers want to clear out that side and run a two-man game with arguably their most skilled offensive tandem. That’s not a bad idea. If Bam is too focused on stopping Oladipo’s middle drive then it doesn’t matter where Young (who’s below league-average on corner threes this year) stands. But Indy ultimately turns the ball over because Bam knows Whiteside is in position to help on Oladipo, allowing him to step back and cover Sabonis sooner than the Pacers want.
By not spacing the floor as best he can, Young ultimately does Miami a favor. Here’s another example.
Bam is guarding Al Jefferson and Whiteside is on Young, so the Pacers bring Thaddeus up to set a ball screen. So far, so good...until you realize Al Jefferson is Al Jefferson, drifting towards the same spot where Oladipo wants to finish. Instead of crossing Whiteside up and going left, Oladipo goes in-and-out, stays on the right side, and careens straight into a cluster of terrible.
The Heat are doing the Pacers a favor here, but they politely decline the opportunity to take advantage. It’s a good example of how numbers in a small sample size can be manipulated to say whatever you want. Miami has been excellent on defense when Whiteside and Bam share the floor, but so far that says far more about their opposition than themselves.
Spoelstra knows this, of course. And there’s a difference between trotting those two out against Jefferson and Young than Horford and Tatum or Kawhi and Aldridge. There’s a reason any combination of two pick-and-roll centers that can’t space the floor don’t spend a lot of time together in today’s NBA.
8. Serge Ibaka, Doing Stuff Off The Bounce
For nearly his entire career, Ibaka’s function on the offensive end was to make open shots created by All-Star teammates. His jumper grew to become a lethal weapon from the mid-range before it stretched out behind the three-point line, allowing him to operate as an ideal complementary piece who didn’t need the ball in his hands to positively impact the game.
On the other end, he covered more ground than confetti.
This year we’re seeing a different player, and one the Raptors absolutely need if they want to diversify their attack and punish defenders who load up to stop DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. One way to measure it is how Ibaka creates for himself after his initial shot gets taken away. Here’s a review of his recent work on drives to the basket, per NBA.com:
2013-14 season: 94 total drives; shot 41.2 percent,
2014-15 season: 77 total drives; shot 41.5 percent
2015-16 season: 70 total drives; shot 48.6 percent
2016-17 season: 115 total drives (with Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors); shot 41.8 percent
Everything is different this year. We’re still over a month away from the All-Star break and Ibaka has already logged 110 total drives. Even more impressive is the fact that he’s shooting 62.7 percent on them, which ranks second among all players in the entire league who’ve tallied at least 100 so far.
This is a critical development for Toronto, and speaks more to Ibaka’s evolution than the situation he’s in. The Raptors are dominant when he’s at the five, but the 28-year-old still plays a majority of his minutes with another big who doesn’t stretch the floor by his side, be it Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Bebe Nogueira, or Pascal Siakam.
Ibaka isn’t Horford. He doesn’t pump-and-go with his mind on finding an open corner three-point shooter or drawing the other big man’s defender in so he can softly lob the ball towards the rim. But his refined aggressiveness (and touch in traffic) is partially responsible for Toronto’s top-five offense.
9. Nobody Makes Basketball Look Easier Than Anthony Davis
Approximately 95 percent of Anthony Davis’s time on a basketball court is spent with him being far and away the best player out there. None of his teammates—sorry Boogie—come close. Nobody on 25 other teams appears near the same conversation. Davis’s true rival on most nights is decision fatigue. There are so many different ways for him to savage the opposition that it eventually bogs down what he should actually do.
As a rule of thumb: Good things happen when he’s around the basket. Two years ago, Davis shot 67.7 percent in the restricted area. The league average was 60.2 percent and they accounted for just under a third of all his field goal attempts. This season, his accuracy and volume have both increased by 10 percent.
He is so dominant that defenses still fall for Rajon Rondo’s “Rajon Rondo Move” even though he’s literally been doing it for 10 years.
The Pelicans understand this, and one reason they play at a faster pace is so Davis can catch a throw-ahead pass from Rondo or Jrue Holiday, then immediately go to work against his man, or isolate on a mismatch. There isn’t a defender alive who can stop Davis one-on-one.
Often, the most convenient way to show off Davis’s dominance arrives in the simplest ways, which might explain why—Ron Baker’s broken face aside—he slides just below the radar in casual discussions about the league’s very best players.
It is 25 times more difficult to change a lightbulb than design a play that results in Davis catching the ball above the rim and dropping it through the net. There’s nothing fancy about this sideline out of bounds action, and minus the part where Anthony Tolliver turns into a fluttering plastic bag the moment Holiday back screens him, the Detroit Pistons actually do a decent job defending it.
Avery Bradley recognizes they want to throw a lob to Davis so he immediately switches onto him, gets low and tries to drive Davis out of position. A for effort. Rondo responds by throwing a pass well out of Bradley’s reach, and the Pelicans trot down the floor two points richer. It’s straightforward and clean. A play that isn’t complicated because it doesn’t have to be. There’s no dummy action or misdirection. Let’s just throw the ball up to our best player and let him take care of it.
The Pelicans are 20-20. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 63 percent chance of making the playoffs and if the season ended today they’d have a delightful first-round re-match (of sorts) against the defending champs. It’s so freaking weird to say it like this, but Davis is quietly having the best season of his career. An endless reserve of knick-knack injuries have caused him to miss five games and leave two or three others early, but at the end of the day nobody’s points are accumulated with less strain than his.
Not everyone can win MVP or even be in the conversation, but look at AD’s on-off numbers (in an environment where Cousins is usually on when he isn’t, the Pelicans are a 55-win team with Davis and a 25-win team that doesn’t play defense without), then glance at his stats (is 64 percent True Shooting good?). It’s not his fault that E’Twaun Moore is integral when his play should be more of a luxury, or that New Orleans’ front office plugs DeAndre Liggins in for Tony Allen, who was in for Solomon Hill, and think that’s totally reasonable.
Davis is a legend before his 25th birthday.
10. Manu Ginobili Should Be An All-Star Because He’s Manu Ginobili
Results from the NBA’s first All-Star fan vote were released last week, and only nine players (four in the backcourt) tallied a larger demand than Ginobili in the Western Conference. He is 40 years old, which makes that amazing.
After an unnatural dip last season in which only 24 percent of his shots were attempted at the rim—understandable to those who would not dare to even look at a basketball ever again after suffering through all Ginobili has—he’s attacking with the spryness of a 35-year-old once again. (Alex Len isn’t Joel Embiid, but come on.)
On the very next play, Ginobili cut off Danuel House’s drive then blocked the two-way player’s shot without fouling or knocking the ball out of bounds. Ten seconds after that, Ginobili trailed the fast break for an open three. The Spurs are demonstrably better when he’s on the floor, including in smaller lineups that feature LaMarcus Aldridge at the five.
Somehow, Ginobili—one of the most unique, memorable, and effective geniuses in NBA history—has only qualified for the All-Star game twice (for those counting at home that’s five fewer appearances than Joe Johnson!). Even if Gregg Popovich recently joked about Ginobili’s career lasting at least another five years, let’s assume (and be wrong) that 2018 is his last run in a relevant role. All-Star games were created for people like him.
11. Donovan Mitchell’s Hands Are His Life
Utah’s new franchise priority makes at least three incomprehensible plays every game. Whether it’s a whiplash-inducing skip pass, a right-handed finger roll on the left side of the rim, launching a casual 30 footer, or violently finishing a lob after the pass forces him to reach back beyond the glass’s lower corner to punish the rim.
Mitchell is a marvel, and I think his hands might be responsible. At last year’s NBA combine, they measured in at the same length and width as Frank Kaminsky’s. (Kaminsky is seven-feet tall. Mitchell is 6’3” in shoes.) They aren’t Kawhi Leonard-esque meat cleavers, but larger than the average primary ball-handler (Michael Carter-Williams’s hands measured an inch shorter both ways); useful tools that help him complete some of his more complex and creative action. Look at this freaking pass!
Obviously, a lot more goes into plays like this than the length of Mitchell’s middle finger, but from how he yo-yo’s the ball in traffic to perfectly manipulating its trajectory on passes like the one seen above, Mitchell’s large hands don’t hurt. Teams care about this sort of thing more than you think.
12. The Phoenix Suns Are Huge Fans of Self-Mutilation
This team’s margin for error can glide through a keyhole, but for all the excuses about their lack of talent, they're so bad because they commit more preventable mental errors (some because they're lazy, others thanks to inexperience) than anybody in the league.
Some mistakes are larger than others, but each one affects their bottom line. Look at this droopy pass Devin Booker makes to T.J. Warren that leads him to bobble it.
Instead of Marquese Chriss ending the possession with an open corner three (where he’s 2-for-12 on the year, but still), Warren reverses the ball back to Booker for another side pick-and-roll that Denver’s defense is already loaded up to stop. (Chriss’s arms go limp at his side once he realizes he isn’t getting the ball. I laughed.)
This play reminds me of an extremely zen thing Phil Jackson once said. I’m paraphrasing here, but “everything matters” is essentially it. Throwing even the most routine pass off target can have an avalanche effect on everything that follows. Open corner threes turn into contested fadeaways. It’s devastating precisely because it’s preventable.
Here’s another play from the same game that touches on a different type of mistake. I can’t tell if this sideline out-of-bounds play drawn up by Jay Triano fell apart because of poor execution or just a dumb rookie mistake, but either way it’s the type of problem Phoenix can and should nip in the bud.
Tyler Ulis runs a high pick-and-roll with Greg Monroe that draws Lyles and Harris into the paint. Once again, Chriss is left alone in the corner, so Ulis beelines a cross-court pass that should result in another efficient shot. Instead, as Monroe rumbles through the paint, Josh Jackson runs in from the perimeter to, um, I’m not exactly sure what he's doing. More likely than not, he’s trying to set a screen on Lyles that will ensure Chriss enough time to shoot. But if that's his plan he had a funny way of pulling it off.
All Jackson does is lead Harris towards the corner and let him switch onto the ball. Now Chriss is out of options. He can’t drive because Jackson is clogging the lane, and he can’t shoot because Harris is inside his jersey. Another promising possession is ruined.