The Outlet Pass: Caris LeVert is Ascending Before Our Very Eyes
Also: a Q&A with Ish Smith, how P.J. Tucker is trying to save Houston's defense, DeAndre Jordan's subtle decline, Pascal Siakam's energy, and more.
Q&A: Ish Smith
VICE Sports: I know it’s only been a couple of weeks but I’m looking at your assist rate and it’s down noticeably, you’re shooting more threes. How is your mentality different this season than it’s been in the past?
Ish Smith: I don’t know. Coach is asking us to do some things that for me have been different. When it comes to change, change isn’t always a bad thing. My assist rate probably needs to be higher, but I don’t really pay attention to that. For me, there’s one goal and one goal only, and that’s the postseason. That’s being top four, top five in the Eastern Conference. And so you just kind of do whatever needs to be done out there. But I don’t really pay attention to numbers. I don’t even look at the stat sheet after the game. It’s just never been me.
You aren’t known for your three-point shot. Coming into this season you’d average one, maybe two per game, at the most. And right now you’re almost at four attempts…
That’s the way coach wants us to play. He believes in good threes, not bad threes, so hopefully throughout the season I continue to take good three where guys have created wide open shots. That’s how the game is going. And so us as a team, as you can see, we’ve improved at that and we’ll continue to get better.
How did the three-point shot affect how you prepared during the offseason?
It was a positive. Me and my brother, we went back home and it was just something that we worked on, worked on, worked on. We didn’t shoot a lot of mid-range twos, which is a little frustrating for me [smiles].
Long twos are way down for you, too!
Yeah, but that’s...you know. I commend my brother. We watched film and he told me to work on the things I needed to improve upon. It might be uncomfortable but uncomfortable isn’t always bad.
The league is obviously becoming faster and faster.
The pace, yeah.
As one of the faster guys in basketball, how does that change suit you?
Now the whole team is playing fast. There used to be a time where our second unit would come in and play fast. Now the first team and second team is playing fast. Everybody’s playing fast. It puts a lot more pressure on your transition defense. That’s probably what’s the biggest change. Defensively, everybody’s playing at such a faster pace that now defensively you’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s conditioning wise because now you’re running back. So you’ve got to be well conditioned. But it’s a good thing. It’s a fun style and brand that I think everybody is enjoying. The fans are enjoying it.
Have you noticed defenses guarding you differently?
Yeah, I anticipate it. I don’t know. I pay attention to how they play and you’ve just got to be confident in whatever decision you make. And, I don’t know. Everybody’s doing different stuff.
What does that mean?
Some people go under [the screen]. Some people go over. It just depends. You kind of watch it when the game plays out. If you give someone the same pitch the whole game, they’re gonna knock the ball out the park, you know. They might go under one time, over the next time. But it has nothing to do with you. You just use your teammates and read off each other.
Generally speaking, do you feel like this is the best basketball you’ve played in your career?
Naw, you ain’t watch me play in high school! I was cold in high school [laughs]. I don’t know, man. It’s a long season. There’s a lot more for us as a team to improve on. And we will improve on it. As a team, we’ve got some goals we want to meet, and we will meet this year.
The Constant Punishment of Pascal Siakam
It’s a step too far to say that Pascal Siakam’s performance is a nightly barometer for the Toronto Raptors. But, as a former reserve who’s now a full-time participant in *the NBA’s most devastating starting lineup (*East of Oakland), Siakam’s upside has officially turned him into one of the NBA’s most pivotal projects.
He still can’t shoot threes and doesn’t draw fouls, but don’t ignore him off the ball. Siakam punches his way into gaps and knows how to make himself available. He relentlessly attacks the glass (good luck boxing him out!) and can usually hang in the air longer than whoever’s trying to block his shot.
Siakam is capable of raising Toronto’s overall offensive effectiveness by constantly taking advantage of attention that’s paid elsewhere. It’s constant punishment. Watch what happens when the Charlotte Hornets fail to switch this pindown for Danny Green. Siakam is good at identifying when the other team is vulnerable and then making them pay.
He also only functions at one speed, which has its downsides. But none of them can be seen when he’s sprinting past his own man up the floor, sucking help defenders in from the three-point line, and trying to end someone’s life with pure violence above the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass, 38.7 percent of Toronto’s defensive rebounds turn into a transition opportunity when Siakam is on the court. When not, that number drops to 26.8 percent. I don’t know if he’s the most conditioned player in the league, but few go all out all the time like he does.
Sometimes Siakam forces the issue, lowering his shoulder into a 1-on-3 blockade and then jacking up a shot that doesn’t even draw iron. But more often than not, Siakam’s leak outs are like a quick jab to the jaw. They provide early-offense opportunities for a growing powerhouse that doesn’t really need them.
On the other end, few defenders possess his combination of spring and range. If you’re playing the Raptors and don’t have a stretch four or five on the court (preferably both), don’t bother attacking the basket.
Siakam was not included in the trade for Kawhi Leonard—either because San Antonio valued Jakob Poeltl as a more tangible win-now product or Toronto couldn’t bare to part with a cheap, athletically unlimited 24-year-old who doesn’t hit restricted free agency until 2021—which creates flexibility to include him as a juicy asset should Masai Ujiri want to double down by adding a third star before the trade deadline (this year or next, if Kawhi Leonard re-signs).
But Siakam may be more valuable in Toronto than anywhere else. Right now, he functions as a turbo booster, the impressionable prospect whose versatility, defensive awareness, and ravenous energy are enough to elevate the Raptors into a higher atmosphere. On the other hand, as someone who’s only averaging 25 minutes per game, regular-season Siakam and postseason Siakam may be two very different players. Against defenses that are more attune to his weaknesses, the floor will be cramped and opponents will be more than aware of his propensity to sprint inward on a basket cut or corner crash—action that can do damage to Toronto’s transition defense, too.
Until then, the Raptors are +67 with Siakam on the floor and 0 when he sits, and his growth over the course of this season, embedded in that wrecking ball of a starting five, will be something to keep an eye on.
Free Agent Focus: DeAndre Jordan is Still Here (Sort Of)
DeAndre Jordan turned 30 in July, and, despite averaging damn near 15 points and 15 rebounds per game this season, a magnifying glass is not required to see how he isn’t the same player he used to be.
Jordan no longer rolls hard through the paint after every screen. He lacks the second-hop ability that once let him play taps on the offensive glass. So far, he’s only made 67 percent of his shots at the rim (two years ago he made 74 percent; three years ago he was at 75). And even though he can’t be blamed for all of Dallas’s defensive woes, Jordan isn’t the trustworthy safety net he once was: he’s noticeably slower helping from the weakside or laterally sliding with ball-handlers who get downhill off a high screen, and the days of him having any chance switched out on smaller players near the three-point line are all but in the rearview mirror.
Opponents are only shooting 44.7 percent at the rim when Jordan defends it, which is awesome and the second lowest figure among all players who contest at least five of those shots per game. But too often he simply doesn’t get there in time. Like, what is even happening right here?
Jordan had a really difficult time handling Rudy Gobert in that same game—be it on the glass or defending Utah’s Spanish pick-and-roll—and watching his physical decline intersect with a need for patience as he familiarizes himself with a new offensive system and different teammates can be hard.
But this doesn’t mean Jordan fails all the time at everything mentioned above. And with his free agency coming up this summer, it’s only right to recognize the difference between “not being your former self” and “not being good.” Jordan is not bad, even if the player he’s morphing into doesn’t share the same strengths as the one who mashed through everything with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. He’s developing areas of his game that may allow him to age with a bit more grace than anyone could’ve expected five years ago. Exhibit 1A: his free-throw shooting. A career 44.6 percent shooter from the line heading into this season, right now Jordan is 26-for-32—one of the most startling stats of this entire season.
Beyond his sudden transformation into Ray Allen, Jordan’s newfound ability to pass has allowed Dallas to initiate offense with him holding the ball at the top of the key, which creates a little more space than would otherwise exist with Jordan—who still can’t shoot jumpers—doing just about anything else. His passes are well timed, on the money, and shot out of a cannon.
Even if it becomes less effective once teams scout it down, Jordan still adds new wrinkles to Dallas’s offense, particularly with direct handoffs that slingshot his teammates towards the rim after he flicks them the ball. (Jordan leads the league in screen assists, and actions like this will be more dangerous when he develops chemistry with Dennis Smith, Jr. and Luka Doncic.)
There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, but with so much of what makes him valuable in noticeable decline, whichever team offers Jordan his next contract would be wise to keep the years at one or two. The free-throw shooting is lovely, as is his evolution as a utilitarian playmaker (Jordan’s assist rate is more than double what it was two years ago, and every season of his career before that), but despite that and some otherwise promising early-season numbers, a four-year contract feels like a disaster waiting to happen—in Dallas or anywhere else.
Trade Machine: Kyle Korver
The Cleveland Cavaliers have reset their expectations and now live in the same reality as everyone else. They are bad: Kevin Love is injured, Ty Lue is unemployed, and Kyle Korver is on the trade block.
For good/great teams that can use another shooter, Korver is no magic elixir and, at 37 years old, may not even be a band-aid. His defensive weaknesses make him unplayable against most teams in a seven-game series and, as active and intelligent as he is moving without the ball, it’s not very hard to cut off his air supply. That said, he’s a career 43 percent three-point shooter, gravity matters, and no competitive team in the league would say “no thank you” if a reasonable opportunity to add Korver presented itself tomorrow. He’s due $7.56 million this year and is non-guaranteed in 2020. Here’s a quick power ranking of his five best landing spots:
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
To say Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau left an impression on Korver when they worked together would be a slight understatement: "I still hear 'Ice! Ice! Ice!' like in my dreams," he said a few years ago. Is a reunion in the cards? Everything depends on Jimmy Butler’s short-term future (and how it relates to the fourth team on this list), but so long as Minnesota wants to win basketball games with Butler on its roster, trading for win-now contribution that won’t kill their long-term cap sheet makes sense.
Korver isn’t the athletic 3-and-D wing Minnesota needs, and last year’s defensive problems still linger like a stale fart. But why not go all in on the other end, give some of Josh Okogie’s minutes to Korver, and see what happens? The other significant hitch is financial: the Timberwolves are barely below the tax right now, and don’t have a lot of movable salary. Would Cleveland take Gorgui Dieng and Minnesota’s top-10 protected first-round pick in 2020 for Korver and Sam Dekker? The Cavs take on a bad contract (but a player who sorta kinda maybe fits beside Love) and stay under the tax this year while picking up a pretty interesting asset for their trouble. The answer is probably no, but at least that phone call isn’t a waste of everybody’s time.
4. Houston Rockets
Even though a playoff rematch against the Golden State Warriors feels unlikely at the moment, the Rockets should still avoid any personnel decisions that don’t make them better in that particular matchup. Unfortunately, Korver’s defense blots out almost all of his positive impact in that particular matchup. But right now, simply making the playoffs should be a priority. This team is in serious need of any help it can get. Nene, Marquese Chriss, and Houston’s second-round pick in 2021 for Korver? That’s an ugly offer, but it’s unlikely Daryl Morey would improve it.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Korver and LeBron know each other and the Lakers need shooting. But they also have nothing to trade, and, regardless, Dan Gilbert would be an intractable road block.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
I wrote about the Thunder last week, and their need for Korver isn’t complicated: OKC is shooting a league-worst 27.7 percent from deep. Patrick Patterson is 4-for-7 in their two-game winning streak, which is nice, but nobody else has yet to really find a rhythm from the outside. Not a coincidence: Only four teams are less efficient on offense. Korver would be a godsend.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
This pretty much says it all.
Last year, Philly made great use of the buyout market, but lightning isn’t likely to strike twice in the same spot. Would they tie their own protected first-round pick in 2021 (the same year they get Miami’s selection) to Jerryd Bayless’s expiring contract? A straight swap was reportedly in the works last summer, but with Bayless nursing a sprained knee, more teams in the hunt for Korver’s service, and Cleveland turning its focus on the future, the Sixers may need to throw in that extra asset. This feels like a best-case scenario for everyone involved.
The Portland Trail Blazers Burn Unit
Entering this season, it was stylish to be outwardly unimpressed by the Portland Trail Blazers. In a league that slaughters stagnancy, they made no significant changes after getting swept in the first round by a lower-seeded team. But so far, a combination of internal development, changing roles, and new faces on the fringe have created one of the NBA’s more entertaining all-bench units.
For the purpose of exploring how good this team can be, “how does Portland look when Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are both out of the game?” is a question worth asking. Last season, the Blazers outscored opponents by 1.3 points per 100 possessions when those two sat, but their offense was atrocious. The offense was even worse two years ago, when they were outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions. So far—especially before Moe Harkless’s ailing knee persuaded Terry Stotts to insert Caleb Swanigan into the rotation—they’ve been a nightly fireworks display, in no small part because Zach Collins may already be the best backup center in the league.
After a rookie year that was only aesthetically pleasing when observed with the long-term in mind, Collins has been a revelation on both ends. He’s knocking down threes, beasting switches in the post, and, with old partner Ed Davis no longer around, anchoring a defense as best he can with some stout paint protection. (As of Tuesday, Collins’s rim protection numbers were the exact same as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s—at some of the better marks in the league.)
Beside Collins—who, by the way, is 20 years old and has the third-highest True Shooting percentage in the league—is Nik Stauskas, Evan Turner, Harkless (when healthy), and Seth Curry. Just about everyone can handle the ball, attack, pass, and shoot. Curry and Stauskas are harmless replacements for Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton, but playing Collins as the lone big instead of partnering him up with Davis or Noah Vonleh gives this unit an obligatory modern feel. We’ll see how long they can keep it up.
Over/Under With Caris LeVert
Career All-Star games for Caris LeVert: 0.5
I asked a few people this question throughout the week, and without much hesitation almost everyone took the over. I’m not sure the question is that easy, but I’d have to agree. Healthy LeVert is very good and has flaunted the characteristics of a building block for an organization that hasn’t seen one of those since...I honestly don’t know.
Before his four-point dud against the New York Knicks on Monday night, a dozen players were averaging at least 21 points, four assists, and five rebounds per game. Eleven of them were stars: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid. No. 12 was LeVert, who’s 24 years old with 44 career starts. Yes, those numbers come from a five or six-game sample size, but none of it feels fluky. Last night, LeVert finished with 19 points, six rebounds, and six assists in Brooklyn’s one-point win over the Detroit Pistons. He was a team-high +13 and generally did whatever he wanted to do.
Operating in lineups that have tons of shooting mixed with players who space the floor in different ways (AKA the undeterrable lob threat who is Jarrett Allen), LeVert has spent the season just sort of getting where he wants. As the league gets faster and faster, Brooklyn has embraced the tepid tempo LeVert seems to favor. He can bolt up the floor when need be, but prefers to box inside a phonebooth, with daring step backs, hypnotic in-and-out dribbles, and a reservoir of merciless shoulder/ball/head fakes in tight quarters.
He can really pass, really score, and has the body to defend multiple positions. But the first thing that jumps out when you watch him for an entire game is how easy he makes driving to the basket look. (Driving through multiple layers of NBA-level defense is not easy.) Only Kemba Walker and DeMar DeRozan have scored more baskets on drives this season; LeVert’s all-around scoring numbers in this category are more impressive than Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, LeBron James, and just about everyone else. It’s very early, but this is still wild.
LeVert’s mid-air body control doesn’t even make sense sometimes, and contact made by a defender has virtually no impact on his soft touch. It’s almost like a larger, much-less-flashy version of Kyrie Irving. But what really separates LeVert from others is his restraint:
LeVert still has both feet on the ground when Kevon Looney leaps for the block, then releases his shot after Looney’s fingertips fall below the ball. It’s magic, and also might not even be the most impressive thing about him. When a role player seemingly morphs into a star overnight, what you have is someone who already knows how to do the little things. Instead of pouting when the ball isn’t in their hands, they cut and screen. They understand how to impact winning without directly affecting the box score. The prototype example is Jimmy Butler, who’s spent his prime as a diamond-encrusted Swiss army knife.
LeVert is not Butler, but he thinks through the game in a similar way. On the offensive end, they both make the most of every situation, and that includes gliding with purpose off the ball.
My favorite LeVert play can be seen below. It happened in secondary transition, after the Nets ran off a Pelicans miss. Once things settled into the half court, LeVert surveyed the floor from the left wing and saw that Allen had E’Twaun Moore on the right block. What happens next is a thing of beauty:
You can learn a ton about who LeVert is by watching that one sequence. His anticipation, speed, aggressiveness, and intelligence are all on display. He directs D’Angelo Russell to feed the mismatch and then, knowing his man will be momentarily distracted by his own help responsibilities, sprints into the lane and draws a foul.
LeVert is shooting below 30 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s over 80 percent from the free-throw line and has a release that’s fast (and funky) enough to be optimistic about his long-term range; when/if he starts making enough threes to prevent defenders from ducking under the screen, watch out.
LeVert’s hot start feels like it came out of nowhere, but fellow Nets who worked out with him during the summer aren’t surprised. This section began by calling him a building block. He’ll make $1.7 million this season and $2.6 million in 2020. After that, if an extension isn’t agreed upon, LeVert will enter restricted free agency and be set to sign a massive offer sheet. Until then, he’s Brooklyn’s best player and juiciest trade asset. (The Nets would be foolish to include him in a trade for Butler.)
How much he’ll cost the Nets is hard to say, but nothing about his current success suggests there’ll be any drop in production before that next contract is due. If LeVert and the Nets can agree to an extension this time next year, all the better. If not, it’ll be interesting to see how high his stock climbs throughout this season, and how it impacts Brooklyn’s ability to sign marquee free agents (smart wings who can score and pass are fun to play with).
Nothing against Thaddeus Young, who Brooklyn dealt to Indiana for LeVert back in 2016, but that will probably go down as the most favorably lopsided transaction in recent Nets history. They finally caught a break.
Film Session: There's Still Nobody Like LeBron
Two years ago, the Denver Nuggets had the worst defense in the league, in part because they forced the fewest number of turnovers. So far, with Mike Malone’s aggressive scheme on full tilt, they rank fourth in points allowed per possession and forced turnover rate, per Cleaning the Glass. When trying to stop a pick-and-roll, Denver will bring the screener’s man high to either trap the ball or cut off penetration. It’s a volatile strategy that requires them to swing for the fences on just about every possession while letting smart offenses feast on corner threes and shots at the rim.
Last week, this confrontational style collided with LeBron James, the league’s most perceptive passer. James finished with 11 assists and spent a majority of the game one step ahead of his opponent, shifting defenders with his eyes and firing bullet passes that required that extra zip to reach their destination before Denver could respond. The Nuggets lost by seven.
But after a few plays where Denver used three men to defend LeBron in the pick-and-roll, L.A. switched things up in a clever way. In the play seen below, what initially looks like a Svi Mykhailiuk-JaVale McGee pick-and-roll quickly transforms into LeBron on the right wing, with McGee’s roll sucking in help defenders from the weak side and Nikola Jokic essentially guarding Mykhailiuk for no reason.
The Lakers short the pick-and-roll, meaning they anticipate the defense’s aggression and intentionally move it to a third teammate who can then attack the rotating defense from a different angle. There’s nothing unusual about that, but when executed this far from the rim it shows just how powerful and anticipatory James can be. There’s really nobody like him.
When a similar action took place in the third quarter, Denver still couldn’t stop LeBron’s pass even though the action didn’t really fool them.
The Lakers spend more time in transition than any other team. They run off everything and have a ton of success in the open floor. But sequences like this are a nice reminder of all the different ways LeBron can attack whatever defense stands in his way. Despite their limitations and general inexperience, L.A.’s offense ranks just outside the top ten when operating in the half-court.
P.J. Tucker to the Rescue…?
Houston’s defense is bad—only five teams are worse right now—and slightly worse than average when P.J. Tucker is on the floor. But when Tucker sits, they fall from “not great” to “maybe the worst defense in NBA history." (When he’s on the court without Carmelo Anthony, Houston falls right outside the top ten.) As the Rockets tread water waiting for James Harden’s return, Tucker’s individual and team defense is one of the few bright spots they can look to when reminding themselves that they were good enough to win a championship last season.
The Rockets still switch a ton, and Tucker has done an exceptional job kicking smaller teammates out of mismatches before the offense is able to exploit it. The play below isn’t quite that, but still shows how well Tucker grasps what Houston wants to do. He (and Chris Paul, who switches onto Mike Scott in anticipation of Scott setting a ball screen on Lou Williams) knows the Clippers want to attack Isaiah Hartenstein, so when Hartenstein’s man runs up to set a pick on Michael Carter-Williams, Tucker takes the responsibility and switches onto him.
Here’s a scram switch by Tucker and Paul, but the Clippers wisely respond by going after Paul with Danilo Gallinari. Even with perfect communication and execution, a switch-everything defense can only do so much when someone like Hartenstein (or Melo) finds himself on an island in a small group with no rim protection.
Offenses know what’s coming, too. They’ve adjusted. Montrezl Harrell scored a career-high 30 points in that game because he kept slipping screens and attacking smaller defenders. Houston had no answer for him.
On this play, Anthony and Clint Capela switch at the start and then completely forget what to do.
Here’s Portland doing a good job of leveraging Houston’s defensive scheme against them. When Melo (somewhat unnecessarily) switches onto Damian Lillard to take away their signature flare screen, Jake Layman slips to the rim and dunks the ball. The whole point of switching everything is to keep the ball (and your man) in front of you, but that detail has so far been lost on this Rockets team.
Even without Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Jeff Bzdelik, Houston’s defense should stabilize itself as the year goes on. The system isn’t necessarily the problem, but the Rockets are deploying players who can’t/don’t know how to make it work. James Ennis will help, Harden’s return will improve the offense (which has clear effects on the other end), and perhaps a trade or two will be made to improve the personnel. Until then, Tucker is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate crossed with Chuck Noland. As the world burns around him, a little credit is due.