The Outlet Pass: The NBA's Most Depressing 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Team
Also: Donovan Mitchell is a sonic boom, Cleveland's defense is a historical train-wreck, Mike D'Antoni is (still) brilliant, why trading Danilo Gallinari makes sense, and more!
Luke Kennard is Detroit’s Last Hope
Since they defeated the Golden State Warriors on December 1, the only teams with a higher losing percentage than the Detroit Pistons are the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re 6-17 with a point differential that makes the Phoenix Suns feel good about themselves, and their present and future feels tinted by a Bandersnatch-ian hue. This isn’t the franchise to play Choose Your Own Adventure with. Everything is bleak, filled with immense frustration and suffering.
Scene 1: Dwane Casey sits at his office desk when Tom Gores knocks on the door and tell him that Stanley Johnson should play at least 35 minutes every night.
Option 1: Casey silently nods his head and then starts to cry under his desk after Gores walks away.
Option 2: He picks up a freshly poured cup of coffee and dumps it on his lap.
Scene 2: Five minutes after a diehard Pistons fan decides to renew their season tickets, Andre Drummond starts a Twitter thread that outlines why he should get more post touches.
Option 1: The fan throws their phone at the ground and stomps on it until their foot hurts.
Option 2: The fan quietly stares out the window, spends five minutes pondering the human condition, and then renounces God.
Last night’s meaningful win over the Orlando Magic notwithstanding, little beyond the fact that Blake Griffin will make the All-Star team is pleasant right now. The Pistons have no cap space this summer, Reggie Jackson looks like he was recently buried in Pet Semetary, and Drummond is shooting below 50 percent. Apart from praying they strike gold in this year’s draft, Luke Kennard, an under-utilized off guard, represents their only source of hope. This isn’t what any Pistons fan wants to hear, but it’s about time Casey sticks with his sophomore and turns a blind eye to all the frustrating tendencies that frequently upset him and his staff.
Kennard’s skill-set makes him an intriguing, helpful prospect. But confidence issues appear to dog him. Whenever he passes up an open shot—something that’s happening less and less but still happens more than it should—an angel loses its wings and a week slices off Casey’s life.
He’s not always that shy (Kennard is starting to automatically pull up whenever his man ducks under a screen or sags a few feet back), but those moments are as brutal as they are strange. Kennard is a really good shooter! He’s crafty off the dribble and plays with unteachable awareness. The Pistons are +8.0 when he shares the floor with Griffin and Drummond—which rarely happens.
And—as one of his only stats better than last year—he’s finishing at the rim. The volume is low, and Kennard will never be known for his explosiveness, but the man knows how to navigate off the ball and really loves his pivot foot.
Maybe it’s me being a total sucker for sweet-shooting southpaws, but I firmly believe Kennard can be a secondary playmaker on a good team. Until then, the Pistons should give him an opportunity to fill that role. What other options do they have?
Donovan Mitchell (Finally) Looks Like an All-Star
Donovan Mitchell wasn’t bad until a couple weeks ago, but he didn’t pick up where he left off, either. Instead, at 22, he was an inefficient primary option on a team that was struggling to reach the high yet reasonable expectations that entirely depended on Mitchell making a natural step forward.
In December, his True Shooting percentage was 47.3, and the Utah Jazz were never better on offense than when he sat. (Between November 1 and the new year, he only made 27.3 percent of his threes while jacking up 6.6 per game. Bad!) But—cross your fingers Jazz fans—that slump appears to be over, as Mitchell has recently looked like an awesome albeit unsustainable slaughterhouse. He just won his first Player of the Week award (with Ricky Rubio out of the lineup), and has been unguardable at all three levels. Over his last ten games, Mitchell is averaging 26 points, five assists, and four boards on 45.6/41.4/84.3 shooting splits.
Mitchell still struggles to finish at the rim, in part because he’s one of the boldest and most inventive 22-year-olds you’ll ever see. He’s also unconventional, someone who likes to slow down as he nears the basket or hop off the wrong foot in an attempt to offset a shot-blocker’s timing. But given his strength, insane athleticism (let us never forget that he won the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie, wearing a Vince Carter Raptors jersey), and ability to change speeds whenever he wants, these feel like habits he’ll eventually overcome. Most of his misses are the result of him feeling a real burden to score. They’re attempted against well-positioned defenders that have help, and shouldn’t be tried in the first place.
For every time he makes you feel like someone slipped LSD in your morning coffee...
...Mitchell belches out something like this:
But that’s all fine. Whenever he high-steps into the paint with the ball extended out and over his head, good things usually happen. And numbers aside, how many players can inject adrenaline straight into your veins with more force than Mitchell at his apex? He’s a sonic boom. The one-handed tomahawk he recently unleashed on JaVale McGee’s forehead was spine-tinglingly R-rated; the basketball equivalent to that time Bart almost killed his father and exploded his house.
It was also a prideful declaration: My sophomore slump just evaporated. Also: I’m an All-Star. Mitchell won’t make 44 percent of his pull-up threes the rest of the year (as he recently has been), but that shot's potential centripetal force can have a real impact on a defense.
Right now, defenders still duck under screens and dare him to pull the trigger. They’d rather see that than a lob to Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors, or for Mitchell to pirouette into the paint and then kick out to Joe Ingles, Kyle Korver, or Jae Crowder for an open three. But the equation changes if he keeps making them at a high rate. And the tighter defenses play him, the better chance he has to blow by and wreak havoc at the rim.
Over the last 10 games, no player is averaging more shots from drives than Mitchell. And as a general rule of thumb, anyone whose launch pad sits between the free-throw line and dotted circle is awesome:
When conducting a pick-and-roll, Mitchell combines Kemba Walker’s slipperiness with the swift strength of a boxer. He loves rejecting his screen with a filthy crossover, skiing downhill, then changing speeds on a big man who suddenly wishes he could crawl into a hole and wait for the storm to pass.
Utah’s offense has not been good this year with Mitchell running point, and going back to last season they were less efficient when Rubio didn’t play and Mitchell did. But—even though he’s fine operating off the ball, punching off a pin-down or blowing by a hard closeout that was created by his teammate’s slash-and-kick—sometimes it still feels like Rubio is a pair of training wheels stuck to the franchise player. Zero disrespect to someone who consistently makes his team better, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Utah didn’t feel much pressure to re-sign Rubio this summer. Accentuating Mitchell as their dynamic primary playmaker, with Gobert at the five and a slew of two-way snipers up and down the roster feels like a pretty good plan.
(To counter my own point, a steady diet of high pick-and-rolls is a polite request for inefficiency in today’s NBA, and even though Mitchell is unstoppable executing them in crunch time, he’ll need to attack in myriad ways over the next few years to reach his true offensive ceiling.)
In the meantime, Mitchell’s All-Star case is far from bulletproof. His slow start will be really hard to overcome—both statistically and in the mind of most voters—and the Western Conference remains a boneyard for guards. (Separating yourself from the pack isn’t easy. Look for yourself.) But he’s trending in the right direction, has the 12th-highest usage rate in the league (sandwiched between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard), and recency bias may become his best friend if the Jazz take advantage of their home-heavy schedule while he delivers 30-point shockwaves every night. Embers from that special player who bum rushed the league a year ago are really starting to glow; when Mitchell is on there’s really nothing like it.
What if the Clippers Sold High on Danilo Gallinari?
One of the most surprising delights of Los Angeles’s season has been Danilo Gallinari’s transformation into Cal Ripken, Jr. Gallo has been everything good health promises he should be: a potent outside shooter, relentless mismatch, frequent vacationer at the free-throw line, and a generally bad defender. The team is promoting his All-Star candidacy and even though he almost definitely won’t make it, right on! Gallo is seventh in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, making a laughable 56 percent of his wide-open threes, averaging more points than he ever has, with career highs in points, rebounds, and PER.
He’s due $22.6 million next season, which is fair if he stays healthy and continues to produce at this level. But that’s no small “if” for someone who’s played in at least 63 games only twice this decade. And that brings us to an interesting thought exercise. I don’t think the Clippers will (or necessarily should) sell high on his contract, but doing so may then give them the borderline-impossible-but-technically-achievable chance to sign two marquee free agents without losing Tobias Harris, who’s four years younger than Gallo.
It’s complicated, but maybe the Clippers should consider offloading Gallinari for a cheap man’s version of himself in an effort to replace his salary with Harris’s cap hold this summer? Moving Gallo also may mean they can keep their lottery-protected draft pick, pending what they actually get back. Not a lot of teams that have expiring contracts will be motivated to take on that much salary next season and hypothetical trade partners aren’t easy to come by, but here are a few.
Let’s start with fireworks: What about Gallinari to the Philadelphia 76ers for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, and Justin Patton? Would Sixers ownership agree to absorb that 2019-2020 money for someone who perfectly complements their big three but hurts their depth and doesn’t solve some defensive issues that may crop up during the playoffs? Gallo would all but shut the door on their financial flexibility, too, but imagine him on the floor in a tight playoff game with Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick. Then ask yourself what Philly will do in the event Butler flees as a free agent? Can they sign anyone better than Gallinari? The Sixers have been extremely good with Chandler in that starting unit, but Gallo opens up a completely different dimension. It’s interesting to think about.
Now let’s go rapid fire: Gallo to the Sacramento Kings for Iman Shumpert and Nemanja Bjelica? Or the Minnesota Timberwolves for Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver? Or the Utah Jazz for Derrick Favors and Georges Niang? Or the Charlotte Hornets for Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Devonte Graham? (The Clippers don’t do that unless they know MKG will opt out of his $13 million option.)
These are semi-realistic deals that would do really interesting things to L.A.’s cap situation this summer. Signing two max stars is a possibility either way, but if only one feels certain, they can shop around without losing Harris and still have plenty leftover for another useful role player (like Danny Green?!). It’s fun to think about.
Never Forget How Good Mike D’Antoni is
When Mike D’Antoni won Coach of the Month because James Harden went from “MVP candidate” to “tectonic shift,” it was funny. But in all seriousness, yes, D'Antoni lets Harden be Harden, but not every coach would be comfortable doing that! And contrary to popular belief, D’Antoni doesn’t spend the duration of each game with his legs crossed, arms folded, wondering if he should order popcorn. Those moments when he really coaches (i.e. calls plays) are some of the team’s most entertaining, particularly after a time-out when everyone in the world expects Harden to shoot.
Here’s an example. Some of its success is thanks to Cleveland having one of the least competent defenses in the history of Western Civilization (more on that later), but credit D’Antoni when it’s due.
As Harden comes off Clint Capela’s pindown to catch a pass on the opposite wing, Gerald Green shuffles in front of PJ Tucker’s man. Harden throws a perfect pass before the screen is even set, and Tucker drills the open shot. It’s a straightforward action that isn’t particularly difficult to stop. There’s no misdirection and only one player (Harden) moves more than a few steps. But D’Antoni still knows how to catch defenses by surprise. Even if Houston’s best play is “give Harden the ball then get out of the way,” here’s evidence that there are more layers that make this offense go.
Cleveland Has the Worst Defense in NBA History
Years from now, someone will produce an engrossing documentary that attempts to describe just how unimaginably awful the Cleveland Cavaliers played defense during the 2018-19 season. From non-existent effort in transition, to constant miscommunication, to over-helping off good shooters and treating bad ones like Steph Curry, to lineups that have no business in an NBA game, we may never again see professional defense played as poorly as they’re doing it right now.
Remember last year, when Cleveland allowed 111.0 points per 100 possessions and were accurately viewed as a laughingstock? What’s happening now makes that group look like the 2004 San Antonio Spurs. Since they traded George Hill, Cleveland’s defensive rating is not only a league-worst 120.3, but the gap between them and the 29th-ranked New York Knicks is the same as the 29th-ranked Knicks and the 15th-ranked Philadelphia 76ers!
Opposing field goal percentages are 3.6 percent higher than their normal average. That’s almost TWICE as high as Phoenix, the next worst team. You have to go back to 2015 to find anyone (the Minnesota Timberwolves right after they traded Kevin Love) even close to that realm of terrible. Cleveland gets obliterated at the rim and allows a league-high 46 percent on long twos (bad luck that they probably earn in some way I won’t ever know because figuring it out means watching the Cavaliers play lots of basketball and life is just too short for that).
Larry Nance’s injury hurts and there seem to always be new faces in and out of the rotation. But what is a greater indication of any one team trying to tank than lineups that feature Cameron Payne, Matthew Dellavedova, and Jordan Clarkson at the same time? Cleveland ranks near or at the bottom of almost every hustle stat listed in the NBA’s stats page, and what’s most incredible about their complete collapse is that they’re doing it while not totally falling apart in transition, where they’ve been about average. Their demons spring in the half-court, where opponents have their way at a rate that’s completely unheard of in recent memory. (The Cavs had the worst half-court defense in the league last season. Since they traded Hill, they’re nearly eight points worse than that! How is this even possible?)
No scheme is bad enough at this level to yield these results. It’s largely driven by personnel. One anonymous Cavalier recently told Cleveland.com as much: “We don't have good defenders. Period...Watch the tape. You can see it. You can't hide them. Those teams will find the two of them in particular and attack, attack, attack. There are times when analytics and numbers are just numbers. This is not one of those times."
Not to bury the lede, but according to Basketball-Reference, Cleveland’s defense is indeed the worst the NBA’s seen since at least 1974. Seven months ago this organization was in the NBA Finals. If the basketball gods let Zion Williamson go here, I will stop believing in basketball gods.
Free Troy Brown, Jr.
Despite their sudden alteration into a collection of people who care about their jobs (minus the occasional lollygag by Trevor Ariza), this remains a lost season for the Washington Wizards. John Wall is gone and Otto Porter is coming off the bench. They can still make the playoffs—combining the NBA’s third-easiest schedule from here on with Brad Beal’s transformation into a walking inferno doesn’t hurt—but doing so would be fruitless. Instead, the capped-out Wizards should have their eyes on the future. This isn’t a call to tank, but instead a plea to play one of the only young assets they have, just to get a better idea of what he can be.
Troy Brown, Jr. is still 19 years old. He makes mistakes. But as the 15th overall pick in last year’s draft, he’s an important part of Washington’s future, both as a cost-controlled asset and someone who can actually get better every year. Why not play him now and let him soak in the experience of being in an NBA rotation, when losing games isn’t the worst thing in the world?
Almost any other franchise in this exact situation would have different priorities, but Brown Jr.’s inconsistent playing time is a symptom of the same organizational issues that have plagued Washington for years. There’s a widespread allergy to anyone who embodies the future. Foresight is a crime. Will Sam Dekker be on the next Wizards team that’s good? How about Ariza or Jeff Green? There’s no downside here, especially because Brown doesn’t even look terrible whenever he gets a chance! He’s active on defense, knows when to cut, and plays hard. Give your first-round pick some minutes, Washington!
Shout out to Jake Layman
Carrying over a trend we saw last season, the Portland Trail Blazers are very good when their four clear-cut starters—Dame Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic—share the floor. So far as fifth cogs go, the Blazers are a juggernaut when Evan Turner lets McCollum and Lillard operate off the ball, and they’re overpowering when Moe Harkless is healthy enough to start. But Jake Layman (perfectly labeled “Snake” by his teammates and coaches) is an interesting bellwether who fits right in.
A ghost in his first two seasons, Layman’s emergence as a self-aware, reliable, and perfect complement to everyone else on the roster has definitely helped. In 25 games as a starter, he’s posted a 63.2 True Shooting percentage without stepping on anybody else’s toes. He doesn’t make plays for others, is just OK spotting up behind the three-point line, and won’t be asked to defend the other team’s top scorer, but he often takes care of whoever he is defending. And Portland’s coaches love to open games and quarters by utilizing his freakish athleticism on choreographed lobs that give the entire team juice.
(Earlier this season, Rajon Rondo walked over to Portland’s coaching staff during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers and raised his eyebrows. That boy has bounce. Layman still hears players and pundits describe him as having "sneaky athleticism" but it doesn’t bother him. “I think that just comes with [being white],” he told VICE Sports, smiling.)
Terry Stotts won’t stop going to these actions until the defense wises up, either. And when that happens, Layman has enough skill to bully a smaller defender who switches on him in the post (as he did to Jamal Murray in a recent loss against the Denver Nuggets). He’s constantly moving, screening, cutting, back-tapping his teammates’ misses, and hoping the defense momentarily forgets he has dunk-contest-caliber hops as they preoccupy themselves with Lillard and McCollum.
“I think understanding your role is big in this league,” Layman tells VICE Sports. “I understand when I’m out there I’m not out there to go one-on-one against guys. I’m out there to be screening off the ball, guarding people, making plays, offensive rebounds here and there. So just kind of those little things.”
It’s a restricted role that Layman found comfort in before he even entered the NBA (his usage rate as a senior at the University of Maryland was fifth-highest on his own team). Now, he’s essentially Portland’s grapefruit spoon, filling a very specific (and important, if you enjoy grapefruit) need on a team that routinely needs someone to be content in a low-maintenance position. If he continues to perform this well, into and through the playoffs, it won’t be the worst time to hit restricted free agency, either. Layman is one of this season’s better stories.