The Outlet Pass: All Hail LeBron's Step-Back Three
Also: A Look at the NBA's five worst contracts, Jaylen Brown as a superhero sixth man, the other awesome rookie in Dallas, Julius Randle's consistently putrid defense, and more!
Photo by Rhona Wise - EPA
Terrifying: LeBron is Adapting
In the first year of his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James went 3-of-9 on step-back threes. Four years later, we’re just 27 games into the season and James is already 17-of-32 on the same shot. I'm not sure if that volume makes this worthy of opposing scouting reports, but it belongs in there. It's at once demoralizing and a relief, a form of self-preservation that seemingly lets whoever’s guarding him exhale and wipe sweat from their forehead.
I’ve never defended LeBron one-on-one, but can imagine how glad it’d be after realizing he didn’t want to bulldoze his shoulder through my chest and dunk my whole being into oblivion. But three points are also more than two, and the threat of him careening into the paint makes the step back unguardable. It’s also the perfect counter for defenders who beat James to his spot and cut off his drive.
LeBron’s embrace of the three-point line isn’t new—nor is the step-back, which he’s pulled out of his bag from various distances in big spots throughout his career—but the pure, undisguised awareness of it is. If a path exists for him to get behind the line, even when presented with a runway to the rim, that’s what he’ll usually go down.
If you include his step-back jumpers inside the arc, LeBron’s effective field goal percentage on these shots is 71.9. (Last year it was 53.3.) Sometimes they have a comical effect, especially to those who remember how LeBron’s outside shot was treated by defenses earlier in his career, up until the San Antonio Spurs begged him to pull up—the hesitancy that came of it was the closest LeBron's ever come to feeling mortal. Now, he’s so damn comfortable out there. In the clip above, watch him completely dismiss Aaron Gordon, then barely leave his feet to drill the straightaway three. Old LeBron is Adapting LeBron, toying with the competition, taking his sweet ass time, and still evolving in his 16th season. Lord have mercy.
The Wedgie Rule
This is all-time Outlet Pass pedantry and has probably already been a topic of conversation elsewhere, but when a player's shot gets stuck between the rim and the backboard (a.k.a. a wedgie), why is there a jump ball? Why should the team that shot the ball be rewarded with a second opportunity? This doesn't make any sense. The offense did not do what they were supposed to do. The defense, however, prevented the ball from going into the basket. Give the defense possession!
Last weekend, for only a few minutes, I found myself watching Duke basketball. While the game was being played, the announcers couldn't stop talking about Zion Williamson, who wasn't playing. So the camera cut to him live, sitting on the bench, watching the same action I was.
It was a little strange, but sparked an idea: What if you could opt into that same feature during an NBA broadcast, except instead of players on the bench, you'd get a zoomed-in look at each head coach? I would pay extra money for those facial expressions, to observe how they'd react to each pass, shot, and whistle. Think about how much you could learn by scanning their body language and, from there, deducing what their team should've done vs. what they did? It’d be 10,000 times more instructive than a sideline interview, and I very much hope that someday it becomes a real thing.
Jalen Brunson is...Lefty Lowry?
Jalen Brunson is a 22-year-old rookie, which, contrary to popular belief, actually doesn’t make him a puddle of toxic waste. He's solid, has room to grow, and, based on very little besides the fact that they attended the same school, are both strong as hell and were overlooked on their respective draft nights, why can’t he also be the next Kyle Lowry? Brunson sets great screens, makes smart passes, and plays with a scrappy fearlessness on both ends that partially mitigates his lack of gravity.
When Lowry entered the league he didn’t have a three-point shot. Brunson was only 9-for-33 from deep heading into Wednesday night's win over the Atlanta Hawks, despite shooting just under 40 percent in three years at Villanova. But that hardly defines his contribution. Minutes have been sparse off one of the league's most effective benches, but as Dennis Smith, Jr.'s temporary replacement in the starting lineup, Brunson has come equipped with a nifty floater and Metal Gear Solid off-ball movement along the baseline; he already makes the little Marcus Smart-esque plays that impact winning. The Mavericks have absolutely owned the defensive glass when Brunson is on the floor and box-outs like the one below on Sheck Wes Iwundu help clarify why that is:
There was also one play against the Houston Rockets that really stood out, where Brunson challenged P.J. Tucker off the dribble, then separated with a short baseline turnaround along the baseline. Not too many (zero?) rookie point guards are making this play right here.
As the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, a two-time national champion, and someone who clearly isn't fazed by the NBA, Brunson deserves more minutes in the Mavericks's rotation, and to be taken more seriously as an important part of their exciting young core. Hopefully, after DSJ comes back, Rick Carlisle can figure out a way to keep him on the floor.
Julius Randle’s Defense is Still Not Good
As an anachronistic big who’s useless outside the paint, Julius Randle has turned himself into an efficient and useful offensive player. Since he replaced Nikola Mirotic in the starting lineup on an apparent full-time basis, Randle has put up numbers worthy of All-NBA consideration in a six-game sample size.
“If you look at his numbers as a starter and what he’s done, it’s definitely something we have to sit down and talk about,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said, when asked if Randle’s role would permanently change.
But the Pelicans lost three of those games. And for the fourth consecutive season, Randle remains thoroughly detrimental to his team’s defense. While his All-Universe teammate Anthony Davis ranks first among power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Randle is 91st out of 93 players. When Davis cleans up Randle’s mess (a.k.a. they play together), the Pelicans rank just outside the top-10 in defensive rating. When Randle is out there without Davis, they fall to 24th (which, coincidentally, is where New Orleans ranks overall).
None of this is a coincidence. As a bullish but undersized center, Randle doesn’t have the wingspan or intuitive awareness to affect plays as a help defender. Opponents almost shoot 60 percent at the rim when he’s near it, and so much of that number is thanks to late rotations from the weak side. According to Cleaning the Glass, New Orleans’s defensive free-throw rate ranks 23rd when he’s on the court and second (second!) when he sits. Plays like this illustrate why.
Instead of stopping Andre Drummond’s roll and forcing Reggie Jackson to either skip the ball to the opposite corner or get swallowed whole by Davis’s pressure, Randle gambles for the steal and is, per usual, a split-second slow. Sometimes he doesn’t bother to rotate at all. It’s impossible to ignore someone with Randle’s numbers, but over the long-haul Gentry may want to reconsider how his new big man’s flaws tangibly negate those impressive counting stats.
For all the rambunctious good he does when New Orleans has the ball, Randle’s game was designed to give it right back on the very next play. It’s unfair to call his stats empty, but it's also unclear how the totality of his contribution amounts to a winning player, and if the Pelicans make the playoffs, teams will go out of their way to attack him ad nauseam.
Jaylen Brown Should Dominate His New Role
As a starter, Jaylen Brown has been one of the most disappointing players in the entire league. Off the bench, he’s been a Rottweiler. Against the Pelicans on Monday night, the Boston Celtics were without Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving, among others, but Brad Stevens still chose to bring Brown off the bench, a notable decision that forecasts long-term placement in that role. So far, for him and the team, that’s been a good thing.
Both sample sizes are extremely small (like, three or four games) and against weak competition (the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Bulls, for example), but Boston’s new starting five—which has Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart replacing Brown and Hayward—is +6 in 48 minutes, with an offense that annihilates everything in its path. The unit has a more natural hierarchy and is absent the uncertain selflessness seen from the original starting five (a group that still needs to figure each other out if the Celtics want to reach the Finals, by the way).
For now, though, Brown looks terrific. Just look at his starter vs. reserve splits, courtesy of Basketball-Reference. (On top are his 19 games as a starter.)
While minutes are basically the same, Jaylen is thinking less than before, and, as one of the most athletic players in the world, he's finally getting to the free-throw line! As a starter, 13.3 percent of his points came at the line. As a reserve, that number has climbed up to 22.2 percent. Brown is attacking the paint without hesitation, off pin-downs and flairs and catch-and-accelerate line drives. He’s turning the corner with ease, jacking up more threes off-the-bounce, and generally resembling the free and confident blue chipper he was six months ago.
Big picture, moving Brown to the bench lets the Celtics (when healthy) start the second and fourth quarter with units that feature him, Hayward, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes/Daniel Theis/Time Lord, and Semi Ojeleye (or literally any one of the starters). That is uncut ridiculousness and, from a talent standpoint, unmatched by every other team in basketball.
Sometimes Jaylen’s aggressiveness gets the best of him and there are two or three possessions in every game since he’s returned where his tunnel vision eclipses the correct play. But the Celtics will accept sequences like the one below—where Brown drives into a scrambling Knicks defense to draw the foul instead of kicking out to a wide-open Jayson Tatum in the strong-side corner—over those where he’s timid, limp, and forgettable.
Brown is a key part of the Celtics future, both as a trade asset and member of their ceiling-free young core. He was always too talented to stay in the slump that plagued his start, but even though 58 percent from deep isn't sustainable over the next few months, it’s crucial that he rediscovers the active, loose, and carefree elements of a skill-set that are always fun to watch.
Checking Up on the NBA’s Five Worst Contracts
Remember the amnesty provision? That hilariously cruel mulligan each NBA franchise was awarded by collective bargaining negotiations just after the turn of the decade? Back then, long before the salary cap spiked, the length of a contract had enough power to prevent an entire fanbase from knowing how “hope” or “joy” truly felt. But now “bad contract” is almost an oxymoron. They still have the power to restrict flexibility but none are definitively untradable. Not every team needs to shed someone from their books, though there are a few deals that already/will inevitably keep general managers up at night. Here are the five worst.
1. Andrew Wiggins - $146.6 million through 2023
Wiggins may still become a quality NBA player, but nobody should argue against him being first on this list. He turns 24 in February, is already in his fifth season, has never come close to making an All-Star team and doesn’t project to ever do so. If someone asked “what’s your favorite Andrew Wiggins moment?” could you even name one? He’s barely making 40 percent of his two-point shots and is ten percent less accurate at the rim than he was a year ago.
There has been no progress as a rebounder, defender, or playmaker, and aside from the uptick in threes and changing hairstyle, he’s the exact same person today that he was when Cleveland drafted him first overall. That player possesses unteachable athletic gifts and is not astonishingly terrible, but how many first-round picks would the Timberwolves need to attach if they wanted to get off it? Two? Good luck to whichever team is paying Wiggins the $33.3 million he's due in 2023.
Until then, the Timberwolves are an independent record label that bet the farm on an incoherent Soundcloud rapper who isn’t gregarious, seductive, or talented enough to infiltrate the mainstream. It’s a sunk cost, and an embarrassing one at that.
2. John Wall - $188.5 million through 2023—including a player option
While there’s a small chance Wiggins actually improves through the life of his current contract, the same can’t be said about Wall, who, while not close to bad, isn’t young or consistently healthy enough to transform his game for the better. Wall is 28 years old but turns 32 right before the $46.8 million player option on this contract transforms whichever city he’s living in to Pompeii circa 79 A.D.
While his numbers remain All-Star caliber and his speed off a high screen is too blurry to comprehend, Wall's outside shooting has regressed, and for the first time since his rookie year the Wizards are better on offense when he's not on the floor. To justify this contract, Wall either needs to be the best player on his team, or the side-kick to someone good enough to make the Wizards a title contender. Right now neither is true. That’s a pretty big problem that doesn’t even speak to Wall's penchant for taking plays off on the other end, impersonating a statue whenever a shot goes up as his man rushes by to tip in the miss or grab the rebound. (He averages a comical 0.3 box outs per game, while averaging just over 34 minutes a night. Yikes.)
There’s a reason trading this version of Wall is so difficult, and, to be frank, wouldn't be easy even if his contract weren't a grand piano dangling overhead by a strand of dental floss. He's a point guard in decline, with weaknesses that don't mesh with the league's most irreversible trends. I personally enjoy watching him play, but that's because I'm not a 12-year-old Wizards fan.
3. Dion Waiters - $36.3 million through 2021
So, like, is Dion Waiters ever going to play again? His most recent game was December 22, 2017, and there’s no timetable for his return from [checks notes] instability in the left ankle. The dollar amount on this one isn’t a cap crippler, but $36.3 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to play, and couldn't strike the fear of God into anyone when he was 100 percent healthy. I wonder if/when the Miami Heat stretch Waiters and move on.
4. Nicolas Batum - $76.6 million through 2022—including a player option
While Kemba Walker demolishes defenses with a late-career leap that’s comparable to those made recently by Steph Curry and Isaiah Thomas, the Charlotte Hornets are quietly good enough to ignore those all-too-frequent nights when Nicolas Batum doesn't show up. Last night he scored two points in 30 minutes and it didn't even feel like an outlier. His usage has plummeted and he's averaging nearly five fewer minutes than he has throughout the previous six seasons. Batum isn’t finishing at the rim or hitting above-the-break threes, either. This is a problem.
"That's my job, to help him take his offense to another level, become more of a playmaker, more usage. That will take our offense to another level," Hornets head coach James Borrego said when I asked him about Batum's dwindling production. "We've been pretty good offensively so far. Kemba's usage has been pretty high all season. We're trying to balance out the roster right now and how we're playing offensively."
It's not like Batum has been bad, but he just clearly isn't what the Hornets prayed he'd be when they signed him to this contract. His PER is a career low 11.9 and, despite being more efficient than previous years, is not even averaging nine points a night. He turns 30 tomorrow. There are so many red flags; nothing about Batum's season is particularly uplifting for a Charlotte organization that's smashing piggy banks to prepare for Walker's looming payday.
Instead of peaking, Batum turning into dust.
5. Chris Paul - $159.7 million through 2022
This take might accelerate global warming, but Paul's contract is already an anvil. He's a six-foot point guard who turns 34 in May. There's no historical precedent for this type of player being an All-Star, and there are still three more guaranteed years left the on deal. He's currently averaging the fewest points per shot in his entire career, and Houston's offense is just so-so when he's on the court. Bleh.
Paul can still skate to his signature spots and create enough space for himself from the mid-post. Every so often he'll drill a step-back three or dribble a defender out of their Nikes, but that's few and far between relative to how impressive Paul looked last year. He's banged up, and that's a reasonable excuse. But at this price point there are no asterisks; Paul needs to play at a superstar level, and his struggle equals doom for a Rockets organization that desperately needs him to shine.
It's unclear how Houston's new ownership would feel if Daryl Morey traded Paul, but that's one of two short-term options for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. How much longer can Paul’s post-prime last? What could they get for him if it became clear they wanted to move on? This is a little silly. Paul deserves the benefit of the doubt because he's an all-time legend. But if they regain health, don't turn things around, and either miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, major changes feel like they'll be right around the corner.
Honorable mention: Chandler Parsons, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love