The Outlet Pass: Charlotte's Tailspin, Cavs Trade Targets, and NBA What-Ifs
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Photo by Jeffrey Becker - USA TODAY Sports
1. Can Charlotte Turn Things Around?
The Charlotte Hornets are stuck in an injury-induced tailspin. They’ve dropped eight of their last 10 games, including two straight at home against the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls. Their head coach is out with a health issue (get well soon, Steve Clifford) and they’re four games back of a playoff spot, with four teams—the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and Brooklyn Nets—standing in their way.
At one point last week they went to their bench and I literally didn’t know the first names of two players on the court. Michael Carter-Williams is making Marcus Smart look like Glen Rice and Malik Monk is barely in the rotation while Donovan Mitchell (the next guard selected) is averaging 27.2 points per game in December.
Charlotte's starting five is fine when everybody’s healthy but they've only played Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard, and Jeremy Lamb together for seven minutes all season. Normally, they are stuck with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor, dragging the offense down. Just look at how disrespectful the Thunder are to MKG in the play below.
Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t fooling anyone from deep, but he’s now a modestly-reliable safety valve from 15 feet and in. The Hornets are rushing to execute a 2-for-1 on this particular sequence, but it’s still jarring to see an NBA starter find himself SO open and not come close to touching the ball.
Their primary Batum + Bench unit was doing pretty well before Cody Zeller had knee surgery, though, partially because Lamb was in it. When Dwayne Bacon replaces Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup they destroy people.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the Hornets just not being very good when Walker isn’t in the game. According to Cleaning the Glass, Charlotte is 22.1 points per 100 possessions better with Walker on the floor. Even if Batum is the de-facto primary ball-handler, their offense is stagnant and averages less than one point per possession. That’s so bad, but everything goes to hell when they’re both out. (The starting five is okay, but not crushing opponents enough to justify heavy minutes together while the bench can’t fend for itself.)
In what almost felt like season-saving victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night, interim head coach Stephen Silas stretched Walker and Lamb’s playing time into a 15.5-minute stint to open the second half. In his eyes, Charlotte’s bench was a Rob Zombie-directed blood bath. Slaughter would commence the second he switched up his backcourt.
Silas knew Charlotte needed that game. For extending his starters, he was rewarded with ridiculous, completely unsustainable shot making against a defense that sorely missed Andre Roberson (I think Alex Abrines just fouled another three-point shooter). But a win is a win is a win.
With their upcoming schedule providing zero seconds to exhale, the Hornets will either get healthy, tinker with the rotation and stop their ship from sinking, or face some difficult questions before the trade deadline. (‘Does anyone want the $76 million left on Batum’s contract? How about the $29 million owed to Marvin Williams?’ or, ‘Can we please for the love of God find a backup point guard?’)
Barring a significant transaction, next year’s roster will look about the same as this one, plus whoever they get in the draft. But whether or not this team views itself as a buyer or a seller is another relevant discussion. The Hornets have enough talent to make the playoffs and even win a few games once they get in (or even an entire series if they can somehow grab the sixth seed).
Rebuilding won’t be easy with this cap sheet, and Walker is smack dab in the middle of his prime. If Monk doesn’t make rapid progress from here on out, do they think about dealing him and/or their first-round pick in the 2018 draft for immediate help? Injuries stink and so does bad luck, but the Hornets aren’t as rudderless as they currently feel. We’ll know even more about the direction they should head as the next couple months unfold.
2. This Year’s NBA What-Ifs Are Pretty Great
This season has been filled with a handful of shocking developments. After a possible career-altering injury to their best all-around player, the Boston Celtics are very good. With their entire roster 100 percent healthy (relatively speaking), the Oklahoma City Thunder are not very good. The Indiana Pacers are good. The Miami Heat are bad. The Portland Trail Blazers are Stranger Things Season 3.
Based on reports and rumors from various points throughout the offseason, here’s a semi-educated look at how things might look today had a few key moves gone down a bit differently.
A. Carmelo Anthony is traded to the Portland Trail Blazers
For the sake of argument, let’s just say Portland gave up Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, and a future first-round pick. So, in all likelihood, the Blazers would start Melo at the three, Al-Farouq Aminu at the four, and Jusif Nurkic at center. That starting five looks offensively unstoppable on paper, but, like, so does Oklahoma City's. Make this trade and what happens to Portland's top-five defense? Are they still rebounding this well? Do they score at will or does Anthony further impede what’s been an unusually static offense?
In addition to transforming into a gigantic whoopee cushion whenever he's around the basket—Melo’s days of getting to the free-throw line are, at 33 years old, understandably dunzo—his assist to usage ratio ranks in the ninth percentile at his position. Even though the percentage of his shots that are unassisted hasn’t been this low since he was with the Denver Nuggets (which feels 7,000 years ago), he still loves long twos and there are defiant insecurities related to how he’s approached the seasons' first couple months. His stubbornness has contributed to the league’s most glaring disappointment, and he’s shooting 37.6 percent from the floor over the Thunder's last 10 games.
Would things be different in Portland? Would Anthony play better off C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, next to role players who won’t clog the floor and know how to pass? The stakes would be pretty low; Portland would remain unable to circumvent its own flaws and triumphantly battle through a ruthless playoff bracket. But they might be incrementally better than they are now, guaranteed a spot in the postseason, with pleasant vibes carrying them forward.
The other key side effect, assuming every other move happens as it has, is that Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott would still be on the Thunder instead of enjoying Westbrook-free serenity in midtown Manhattan. How would Anthony being in Portland affect Paul George in Oklahoma? Besides more shot opportunities, it’s hard to say. Assuming Billy Donovan chose to stagger his two best players, George would have more time on units that’d call for him to be one of the dozen best players in the world. The team's defense might be even better than it already is.
Westbrook could also spend more time going Full Westbrook, even though Full Westbrook as we knew it last year might be a permanent thing of the past.
B. Gordon Hayward signs with the Miami Heat
Would Kyrie Irving express interest in re-signing with the Boston Celtics if Hayward chose a different team, or were Al Horford’s harmonious style, stable ownership, and Brad Stevens' genius already enough? If not, the Celtics would likely be in the middle of the Eastern Conference with Marcus Smart starting at point guard and Terry Rozier playing 30 minutes a night. They'd disintegrate when Horford hit the bench, and any long-term injury that'd keep him out would be fatal. Also, Jae Crowder would still be around, likely clogging a pipeline that's seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown flourish.
If Hayward is healthy, what does Miami’s roster look like? (WHERE IS KELLY OLYNYK?!?) Is Miami better than it is right now or would Hayward struggle within the cramped confines of a Hassan Whiteside-Justise Winslow frontcourt? Even if they didn’t want to re-sign James Johnson or Dion Waiters with Hayward in tow, the Heat might still turn to decreasingly unconventional means, perhaps permanently plopping the one-time All-Star at the four, and having guards like Goran Dragic and Wayne Ellington set ball screens for him 35 feet from the basket.
C. Paul George is traded to the Boston Celtics
Things have so far worked out fine in Boston, but let me crawl out on a limb and declare that this team would be really freaking good if they somehow had Paul George, healthy Hayward, Irving, and Horford on the same team. Sub George for Tatum right now and they’re (maybe but not definitely) a better regular-season team. Their ceiling elevates on both ends in the postseason.
The more important ripple effect here is with Westbrook and the Thunder. Does he sign his extension or demand a trade? What does professional basketball in Oklahoma City even look like? And where are the Indiana Pacers? They don’t have Victor Oladipo (a hipster’s MVP candidate if there ever was one) or Domantas Sabonis. Their optimism would instead spout from Tatum’s magical touch and any other assets Kevin Pritchard could pry from Danny Ainge.
Even though this exercise is purely hypothetical, I’m far too lazy to trace imaginary steps and figure out what Boston’s roster would actually look like, but if the Celtics’ starting five somehow had four All-Stars and Jaylen Brown, um, that team would probably go to the Finals.
3. So, Who Isn’t Shooting Threes?
The highly scientific requirements to answer this question are such: A) a player has to launch no more than one three per game, B) he must average at least 12 minutes, and C) he needs to have appeared in at least 20 games. Here are the 49 players who qualify.
If you hold those benchmarks up against last season (and raise the minimum number of games to 55) that number rises by 12 players. Five years ago that same list had 99 players on it. For those counting at home, with my admittedly arbitrary qualifiers, that means the number of players (who actually play) who don’t use the three-point line is about half what it was during LeBron James’ third season in Miami—hard evidence of a revolution that’s been identified in real time.
Let’s go back to this year’s group, which reads like an endangered species list. How many players on there are useful despite their inability/unwillingness to shoot threes? If we first look at total minutes played, Ben Simmons unsurprisingly ranks first and is a revelatory prospect who's simultaneously defying convention while meeting his expectations. From there we’re infested by a crap ton of traditional big men who impact the game in other areas. They rebound, protect the rim, and set screens. Some space the floor by diving through the paint. Some are still dangerous at the elbow, and can engineer decent offense with their vision and a mid-range jump shot. A very small handful do damage with their back to the basket.
The non-bigs here are exactly who you’d expect: T.J. McConnell, Kyle Anderson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shaun Livingston, Tony Allen, Ish Smith, Kidd-Gilchrist, Dejounte Murray, etc. Omri Casspi is on there for some reason, too, somehow posting the highest True Shooting percentage of his career and the lowest three-point rate (The. Warriors. Are. Not. Fair.)
Over a third of everyone listed is at least 29 years old; five years from now this register will probably be half as long as it is today. This is foreseeable and a little depressing. The three-point shot is a game-changing roller-coaster, and when a collection of great shooters help frame the court in a way that broadens driving and passing lanes, the aesthetics can be breathtaking. (The. Warriors. Are. Not. Fair.)
I also just enjoy watching guys like Kidd-Gilchrist and Hollis-Jefferson—those who stand out with idiosyncratic limitations—but if you’re trying to win a championship right now it’s hard to justify their presence in your rotation. None of this is new, but stopping to think about what it means for basketball’s future every so often is necessary. I don’t want every team to play like the Rockets even though no team in the world is more entertaining.
4. Houston’s Angles are Ridiculous
Speaking of the Rockets, I’ve thought about this pass almost every day since it happened:
Like, what the hell? I have so many questions, starting with: In the moment: when did Chris Paul first believe that flinging a one-handed cross-court pass—directly parallel with the baseline—would actually work? Was it born from frustration or design?
As the shot clock ticks on, Tarik Black appears unsure of what he’s supposed to do. Paul directs him to set a down screen for Trevor Ariza, but Ariza instead jogs away in an attempt to drag his man to the weakside corner. Black then runs up to set a ball screen for Paul. There’s six freaking seconds on the clock and not even two dribbles into his assault Paul rifles the ball at an impossibly difficult and rare angle to create a wide-open three on the other side of the floor.
As the pick-and-roll unfolds, Thabo Sefolosha points for Royce O’Neale to stay in the paint and help defend what, in all likelihood, will either be a shot from Paul or Black. Does Paul see this and know it means Sefolosha is about to drop half a step toward the baseline to worry about Ariza in the corner? How is he so smart?!?
Paul and James Harden combine to average 19 assists per game. They’re second and third in the league in that category, respectively. But the Rockets only rank 12th in assist percentage and 29th in passes per game. They’re 28th in secondary assists and 13th in potential assists. That’s partly due to the fact that no team isolates more frequently than Houston. They maximize the space provided by their collection of human catapults and take advantage of the virtuous one-on-one skills possessed by their dual MVP candidates. (Not only do they isolate more than anybody else, no team is more efficient when attacking that way. This team is absurd.)
But Houston’s offense doesn’t peak when the ball is dribbled. Jaw-dropping, spontaneous passes made at angles very few players can even dream about allow the Rockets to generate efficient shots that catch defenses off balance. The surgical precision seen above is not attainable for most guards around the league, but it's basically second nature for Paul and Harden. Quick sidebar: Harden is probably going to win his first MVP this season, but not enough words can be written about Paul, who’s re-asserted himself as the second-best floor general in basketball and an automatic All-NBA member. Passes like that one help explain why.
5. J.J. Redick’s Game Isn’t Supposed to Expand, but it Has
At 33 years old, Redick is playing 33.5 minutes a night for a team that’s averaging 103.2 possessions per 48 minutes when he’s on the floor. Redick has never played this fast and his minutes have never been this high. As everyone fawns over Paul distancing himself from the formulaic style he enjoyed in L.A.,, Redick is experiencing the exact same thing in a role that doesn’t allow him to step on the gas whenever he wants.
Instead of seeing his responsibilities narrow, Redick’s doing more stuff in different ways. According to Synergy Sports, the percentage of all his jumpers that were off the dribble last season was 39 percent. Right now, that number is 47 percent, somewhat-expected uptick that's lowered his accuracy and can partially be attributed to greener teammates.
But heading into the season, without Paul for the first time in half a decade, I wasn’t sure Redick could do much beyond space the floor while Simmons ran high pick-and-rolls or Joel Embiid corralled entry passes on the block. Glue him to the corner and run him off a bunch of pindowns and Philly couldn’t be criticized for misunderstanding their marquee free agent acquisition. Instead, they’ve expanded his responsibilities in some very smart ways.
The ball feels like it’s in his hands far more than it was in Los Angeles. Instead of running through an endless maze of bodies, Redick's slicing defenses open with direct hand-offs and a bit more pick-and-roll action, all ultimately designed to turn the defense’s brain into toast.
Knowing the Lakers want to switch everything, Philly has Redick’s DHO turn into a staggered screen-and-roll. But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope doesn’t stop his pursuit—because Redick is that scary—momentarily putting two on the ball and allowing Redick to find Robert Covington wide open on the opposite wing. Kyle Kuzma switches off Amir Johnson in time to run Covington off the three-point line, but his off-balanced helps introduce the ball to the basket.
Whenever he sets a ball screen, two defenders are forced to communicate in an instant. Should they switch or fight through? Sometimes that question goes unanswered and both follow Redick. And sometimes the split-second hesitation is all a monster like Simmons needs to spark a match and pour gasoline all over the court.
Philadelphia is not good when Simmons and Embiid aren’t on the floor, but Redick stabilizes things as best he can, preventing bad from becoming apocalyptic. His assist rate in those minutes soars up to 25.8 (with a dependable 5.67 assist-to-turnover ratio) and his True Shooting is an uncanny 68.2. Covington is the only Sixer with a higher usage percentage.
All this is a pleasant surprise. I, personally, thought Redick was entering a different phase of his career after Joe Ingles crushed him in the playoffs. But in a new environment, as an elder statesman, Redick has shown that he's far more than a shooter, in a league that should be able to make good use of his talent for years to come.
6. C.J. Miles and The Babies
Since O.G. Anunonby cracked Toronto's starting lineup and Delon Wright dislocated his right shoulder (two events that basically happened at the same time, about a week before Thanksgiving), Raptors head coach Dwane Casey decided to hitch 30-year-old C.J. Miles to a bunch of children. Norm Powell (24 years old), Jakob Poeltl (22 and in need of a better nickname than "Austrian Hammer"), Fred VanVleet (23), and Pascal Siakam (23).
This is Toronto's second-most common five-man group over the past month, and they've been absolutely dreadful on both ends. But guess what? I don't care! Stubborn Casey is good sometimes. Yes, the Raptors should go back to a Lowry + Bench unit that makes opposing second units weep—swap Lowry in for Miles and that exact same supporting cast crushes everybody—but this makes me feel like Miles is a lovable babysitter that you can't, in good conscience, stay mad at.
Playing Miles at the three as opposed to the four doesn't make a ton of sense, but using him to space the floor for an inexperienced collection of players Toronto will need in the playoffs is fine enough for now.
7. Austin Rivers is an Isolation Genius...or Something
Thanks to a slew of notable injuries that have quickly transformed the perennial playoff-contending Los Angeles Clippers into the Los Angeles Clippers, Austin Rivers has been thrust into a role far greater than his ability can handle. But despite being an inefficient, borderline first-option with shaky shot selection, Rivers is also one of the league’s top one-on-one players.
According to Synergy Sports, Rivers averaged 0.94 points per possession in isolation situations last year, a figure that placed him in the 73rd percentile. That’s not bad, even though it was likely boosted an unquantifiable degree thanks to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights and even Ray Felton occupying the opposition's attention in various ways.
This year, surrounded by G-League talent more nights than not, Rivers’ isolation numbers are even better. He’s averaging 1.05 points per possession (74th percentile) and is actually more efficient than established All-Stars like Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMar DeRozan.
Some of this is because the career 35.5 percent three-point shooter has canned 40.7 percent of his outside attempts—including 42.7 percent of his 3.0 pull ups per game. And some of it’s because he never ever ever turns it over. But few players symbolize the “million dollar move, 10 cent finish” expression better than Rivers, who’s a master at breaking his man down off the dribble, entering a crowd of rim protectors, and lofting a prayer towards the basket.
Given that this is such an uncertain time for the Clippers, swapping Rivers out for a second-round pick and expiring money (he has a $12.6 million player option for next year) should be an objective for their front office. Maybe there's a general manager out there who sees these numbers (particularly that impressive shooting) and wonders if Rivers can help his playoff team in a seven-game series.
8. Cleveland’s Juiciest Asset Is Not Really That Juicy
The Brooklyn Nets are, officially, no longer atrocious. Heading into Wednesday night’s action, they had a higher winning percentage than 10 teams despite not having their opening night backcourt starters for most of the season. They’re below average on both sides of the ball, but only three teams launch threes more frequently and only one owns a faster pace.
Brooklyn’s starting five—DeMarre Carroll, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Tyler Zeller, and Allen Crabbe—has obliterated opponents by 25.3 points per 100 possessions since Kenny Atkinson turned to it right before Thanksgiving, and adding Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and healthy D’Angelo Russell to the mix will only improve their depth and diversify their offensive options.
When teams start to really tank in March and April, the Nets will be busting their ass to win games and get better at everything they do. All this is bad news for the Cleveland Cavaliers. What was once their crown jewel for Kyrie Irving might now be Zach Collins (who's actually playing pretty well, but that's beside the point).
Does this mean Koby Altman should aggressively shop his best asset around the league? It’s probably still a little too early for that, considering their current rhythm and fact that they’ve yet to see what Isaiah Thomas looks like in their rotation. But the odds of that pick staying in Cleveland feel a lot lower today than they were a couple months ago.
The pick’s dropping value also changes what it’s worth. That means strapping a top-three protection to it and checking on Aaron Gordon’s availability is far more likely than getting someone like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. Realistic targets are now closer to the Harrison Barnes, Batum, or Rodney Hood mold (a lottery pick for any of those three is still a dramatic overpay, even though they’d help the Cavs match up better against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in the Finals).
A couple weeks ago, before the Memphis Grizzlies fired David Fizdale, I wrote that Cleveland should give up the Nets pick for Marc Gasol. I didn’t believe they ever would, but now it’s not so crazy! When you have LeBron James doing UNBELIEVABLE LeBron James things every night, holding back as a front office feels criminal.
What’s the worst that could happen? They lose in the Finals, he leaves, and they don’t have the 10th pick in the draft? How much better off would Cleveland be if they hold onto that pick, lose in the Finals and watch him leave? They were arguably the worst franchise in the league during the four seasons he spent in Miami. Dark days lie ahead no matter what. The best thing they can do is go all-in and capitalize on a historic season from an all-time icon. Trade the pick, Cleveland! Convince him to stay! You're screwed if he leaves even if you have it!
9. David Nwaba is a Good NBA Player
Every time I watch Nwaba he makes three to five effort-intensive plays that makes Chicago feel like a competitive team. He’s just so damn physical, a tenacious rebounder who defends, draws fouls, finishes around the rim, and never turns it over.The Bulls (yes, the Bulls) are outscoring opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with Nwaba on the floor, performing like a 53-win team. He’s awesome, and aside from the fact that he doesn’t shoot threes and there won't be a ton of money to go around this summer, one of the league’s 30 teams would be smart to offer present the restricted free agent with an offer sheet.
10. Finding Hope in Memphis
Almost exactly one year ago, Deyonta Davis tore the plantar fascia in his left foot, a devastating injury for any human being but particularly savage for someone who plays professional basketball and weighs 240 pounds. It essentially ended his rookie season.
In year two, as Marc Gasol’s primary backup thanks to Brandan Wright’s nagging groin injury, Davis is averaging 3.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. But in limited time he’s shown decent mobility on the defensive end and a feathery touch around the basket.
As someone who isn't fast enough to scamper around the perimeter, Memphis has him drop defending almost every pick-and-roll. Here he is stepping up to force Abrines to pass to Jerami Grant, then sliding back and forcing a turnover.
Now, against an actual playmaker who knew how to string his dribble out a bit longer, this sequence would probably not have the same result. Davis struggles against bigs who can shoot, too, forcing the Grizzlies to late switch or surrender open threes.
But according to Cleaning the Glass, whenever he's on the floor Memphis allows a ridiculous 11.3 fewer points per 100 possessions. (Opponents are also barely hitting threes when Davis is in the game, so, yeah, that's kind of meaningful and has nothing to do with his defense.)
On the other end, he's shooting 79 percent at the rim. That's really good! And aside from the natural hiccup as he learns to read the floor, taking shots as a roller when he should hit the open man, there are examples of him identifying what he needs to do and executing immediately.
Before he even catches Ben McLemore's pass out of Washington's trap, Davis' eyes are set on the opposite wing, initiating a sequence that leads to an open three and one of the most beautiful possessions Memphis has experienced all season.
He's still a project, but one who only played 600 minutes in college and hardly saw the floor last season. Davis is shooting 72.7 percent whenever he rolls to the basket; the day Gasol leaves Memphis will be dark, but Davis is beginning to flash the talent of someone who deserves a chance to *attempt* to fill those humongous shoes.