The Outlet Pass: Tatum's Rise, All-Star Picks, and Happy Holiday in New Orleans
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
1. New Orleans’ Backcourt Experiment is Quietly Working
Heading into Wednesday night, LeBron James was the NBA’s sole individual to play more minutes than Jrue Holiday this season; nobody has run more miles. These should read as astounding statements to anyone familiar with the 27-year-old’s fundamental drawback since he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Holiday’s usage percentage, True Shooting, and offensive rating have all gradually increased through the first few months of the 2017-18 season. As his assist rate slowly declines, Holiday’s response to a wretched shooting slump back in October and early November was to launch more threes. It’s worked.
He averaged 12.9 points per 36 minutes in his first ten games. For games 21-30, that jumped up to 22.3 points per 36 minutes; his field goal percentage rose ten points, his three-point percentage increased by 21 points, and a majority of his two-point baskets went from unassisted to assisted.
On Holiday’s adjustment going back to last year when the New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis recently told ESPN: “He was balancing out trying to get the ball to DeMarcus or get it to me, and he stopped being aggressive."
Holiday appears to have finally found a level of comfort conducive to a winning atmosphere, and Rajon Rondo—a player whom most felt had one foot in China before the season began—is a somewhat-significant reason why.
The four-time All-Star is having a career year shooting the ball, never more accurate within three feet of the rim and behind the arc. But of course, what Rondo does is pass. And Holiday is enjoying that unselfishness more than anybody else. According to NBA.com, almost a third of Rondo’s passes are to his backcourt mate (well over double how often he feeds Davis); Holiday’s shooting 55.4 percent inside the three-point line and 40.0 behind it whenever the ball goes directly from Rondo’s fingertips to his.
This team wants to zoom up the floor no matter who’s on it, but they reach another gear when Holiday and Rondo are together. Easy baskets is their motto.
And then there’s this instructive sequence, perfectly encapsulating Holiday’s newfound aggression when placed in a situation that encourages him to let loose.
Rondo once again hits Holiday in transition, wide open for a corner three. But instead of settling, he blitzes the paint, short arms a contested layup over Wilson Chandler, grabs his own miss, dribbles out to the opposite corner, and rattles home a three.
New Orleans’ attack has quietly climbed into the top ten, and when Holiday plays off the ball only the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers are more efficient, per Cleaning the Glass. As seen in the clips above, the Pelicans can be devastating off a live rebound, and when “small” they’re relentless. Holiday has developed a chemistry with Rondo (and Jameer Nelson) in secondary transition, where he’ll quickly slip a ball screen and dive into the clear for an easy bucket.
They tried it in Washington on Tuesday night, but Holiday fumbled it out of bounds.
Holiday’s defense has been sound, regardless of where he is or who he’s guarding, but relating to his relationship with Rondo that side of the ball takes a dark turn for New Orleans when both share the floor. The Pels get trampled but defend at an elite level when Holiday is by himself. One of the easiest explanations for the entire team’s high pace is habitual laziness in transition. Teams love to shove the ball down New Orleans’ throat. DeMarcus Cousins and Rondo both take plays off in the half-court, unnecessarily gambling for steals, fouling because they’re out of position, or miscommunicating basic pick-and-roll principles.
If both can lock in for an entire playoff series, New Orleans will be legitimately formidable. Until then, Holiday’s newfound aggression in an unfamiliar role has helped lift this team to heights just about nobody saw in September.
Since his All-Star season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Holiday has spent a frustrating amount of time as a filibuster. Whether due to injury-related hesitation or just the discomfort that comes with adjusting to different systems and new teammates—not all accentuating his strengths—it was a little disappointing. Holiday once had the intelligence, athleticism, and fluid skill to be one of the world’s top two-way point guards.
Now, in part thanks to Rondo, he’s playing with the unyielding punch of a cannonball; it’s very awesome to see.
2. Jae Crowder Is Still Figuring Things Out
After an understandably slow start with a new organization, in a different city, surrounded by established teammates, in the wake of an immense personal tragedy, Jae Crowder has yet to find solid ground with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His three-point stroke has been all over the place, never stabilizing for more than a few games at a time, while Cleveland’s defense has been really bad with him on the court all year long.
It’s a fascinating adjustment for Crowder, who’s playing more tentative with the ball than before as he tries to discover how he can best help the team he just spent three straight years desperately trying to beat. An underdog his whole career, the 27-year-old now plays with LeBron James. He suits up as the odds-on favorite every single night. That’s a different kind of pressure, and must feel at least a little weird.
Crowder ranks 371st in Real Plus-Minus after back-to-back seasons in the top 30. Over the past few years, as the rest of his game grew into something beloved by advanced metrics, his teammates, coaches, and the city of Boston, Crowder was never comfortable attacking the basket. His handle didn’t develop into anything close to reliable and he always lacked vision and creativity beyond what’s necessary to run in a straight line towards the basket.
And that’s okay. But Crowder needs to be more impulsive and less apprehensive when a defense’s mistake stares him square in the eye. This play from a recent win against the Los Angeles Lakers irritated me more than it should.
J.R. Smith drills the contested corner three but that’s far from the point. At the onset, Los Angeles miscommunicates on a switch up top. Jordan Clarkson and Brook Lopez both follow Kyle Korver along the arc, and by the time Clarkson realizes he needs to switch back it’s too late.
Cyborg LeBron identifies the miscue and rifles the ball to Crowder, who has an open runway. There are no Lakers protecting the basket (Lopez is out defending Korver on the opposite wing) when he takes off. The only player pseudo-standing in his way is Lonzo Ball, who has both feet outside the paint, knows he can’t desert Smith in the strongside corner, and is a twig-thin rookie.
Instead of finishing at the rim and maybe even drawing a foul on Clarkson, Crowder curiously passes out to Smith. To call this "the wrong play" would be subjective and ignore the fact that Cleveland ultimately scored. But it was the wrong play. Making threes is important, but so long as he’s inconsistent from the outside, the least Crowder can do is put pressure on the defense by sinking his teeth into opportunities that are gift-wrapped in plain sight.
Opponents won’t ever worry about him as they do Korver or Smith, but Crowder can still make himself useful by splashing a little bit of selfishness into his game. If not, his minutes will continue to dwindle come playoff time.
3. Minnesota’s “GREEN!” Call Makes My Ears Bleed
The Timberwolves own one of the most intentionally sedated offenses in the NBA. They attack the offensive glass, hardly ever run off an opponent’s missed shot, and grind half-court possessions into dust-covered hero ball. If you’ve watched them play this season, you’ve probably heard assistant coach Andy Greer scream “GREEN!” whenever the shot clock hits seven.
It makes everyone on the floor (including the defense) aware of the need to quickly set up a moderately efficient shot. Minnesota's shot frequency for “GREEN” attempts is 22 percent, and their effective field goal percentage is comfortably above the league’s average in these situations, but that doesn’t excuse it as a logical strategy.
Given the amount of talent this team has, the “GREEN” call is so discouraging everytime you hear it. The Timberwolves are loaded with tough-shot makers like Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jamal Crawford, but even though their offense has performed exceptionally well all year, leaning on that star power’s ability to consistently hit contested pull-up jumpers isn’t wise.
(2Pac’s “Hail Mary”—a hauntingly unhurried anthem—bellowed from the Target Center’s PA system as Butler dribbled over midcourt during a recent loss against the Phoenix Suns and it was too on the nose for me to handle.)
When executed properly, Tom Thibodeau’s action is not bad, and purposefully slow offense helps rationalize a desire to occasionally play his starters 40-plus minutes in a world where we know that isn't a smart thing to do. (Wiggins, Towns, and Butler each rank in the top eight for total minutes this year, which is kind of wild.)
Here’s a particularly tight sequence where Wiggins sets a screen for Jeff Teague that allows him to go middle and force a late switch on the left block. While all five Suns have their eyes glued to the hazardous mismatch, Towns rumbles in from the weakside corner and almost ends their entire franchise’s existence.
This play took some time to develop, but everything about it was forceful and had purpose. Wiggins really runs into his ball screen. Towns makes the effort to cut into an open paint. Taj Gibson sidesteps from one side of the paint to the other at the exact right moment. It’s gorgeous!
But too often Minnesota lazily inches towards the “GREEN” call because it’s an easy way out. There’s a belief that their individual talent will win enough of those possessions to ultimately prevail. (Slow basketball allows Thibodeau to play two-big lineups, as well.) All of this is misguided for several reasons. Even though Minny’s starting five is solid on the defensive end, opponents are still running on the Timberwolves regardless. Their defense doesn’t keep opponents in the half-court, even when their offense does its best to squeeze the life out of a fluid tempo.
And despite having the fifth-ranked offense, this team isn’t close to its ceiling on that side of the ball. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Timberwolves average the third most points per transition play, trailing only the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers. They should run more often, or, at the very least, attack earlier in the shot clock and get Gibson/Gorgui Dieng open looks off simple pick-and-pop action. They should also go small by subbing Crawford (or Tyus Jones!) in for one of their bigs more often. Play Marcus Georges-Hunt with Butler and Wiggins. Shoot. More. Threes.
(If you pass up a look this good, in 2018, you’re doing it wrong.)
This is Minnesota’s offensive philosophy, more or less. And it’s frustrating. The bench lacks talent and Shabazz Muhammad is out of the rotation, but ball and man movement shouldn’t be as inconsistent as they are. Until Towns evolves into a stabilizing presence on the defensive end (a proposition I still believe is more “when” than “if”), the Wolves should splash some modernity onto how they play. Just because it’s working, doesn’t mean it can’t get better.
4. Dragan Bender Might be the Stretch Five Phoenix Needs
Dragan Bender entered the draft touted as a Swiss-Army knife, essential glue who could eventually fill all the subtle cracks his team showed on both sides of the ball. He wouldn’t be a star or offensive focal point, but he’d make life easier for everyone else by displaying skills that are incredibly rare in a man his size. He'd stretch the floor, close lanes, protect the rim, and commandeer offensive sets from the elbow.
So far, we haven’t seen that player, which is fine. He turned 20 last month and missed a chunk of his rookie season after undergoing ankle surgery. Bender is taking baby steps. He’s attacking closeouts and making solid use of his length in the paint. He’s utilizing verticality, sliding into help position to stonewall drivers, and rejecting put-back attempts.
Trips to the free-throw line are virtually non-existent and his usage is painfully low. But an important development—we’ll see how sustainable it really is—has been his sudden transformation into an actual outside threat. Exactly half of Bender’s shots all year have been wide open threes. After a slow start, he’s beginning to knock them down. He’s 22-for-52 (42.3 percent) from deep over Phoenix's past 15 games.
The Suns barely play Bender at the five, and have yet to do so with Devin Booker on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. But with rising confidence, an unblockable release, and more deliberate movement in his game (particularly as a pick-and-pop threat), that tandem could, someday, be a force on the offensive end. Don't give up on this dude.
5. Smart Switching in Houston
The simplest way to defend a screen, on or off the ball, is to switch it—assume a new individual responsibility without allowing the offense to advance. This is, of course, impossible without focused defenders who’re physically able to stay in front of their man and the screener.
The Houston Rockets have lineups that allow them to pull it off, but that doesn’t mean they always should. Instead, Houston switches with intelligence. Owners of the NBA's sixth-best defense, they're starting to bake purpose into a popular strategy. Watch: As this play develops, notice how many screens Houston switches and how many they fight through.
Not until the very end when Eric Gordon late switches from Danny Green to LaMarcus Aldridge do the Rockets cede an advantage. As the play transpires along the baseline, neither Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, nor Gordon are worried about swapping assignments. It all works to perfection.
6. The Speights-Biyombo Dynamic Duo Was Fun While it Lasted
RIP to this tandem, which (might've) died a merciful death after Jonathan Isaac returned to action last Sunday, prompting Frank Vogel to inject common sense into his rotation. It had an abysmally entertaining run, though.
Orlando, predictably, couldn't score at all when these two shared the floor, and opponents shot about 25 percent from deep against them, which helped explain the impressive defense. Once a lovable chucker, Speights is now a walrus who disturbingly leads Orlando in usage despite being their least-efficient player. Before he was benched, the 30-year-old was shooting 33.3 percent from inside the three-point line and only 11 percent of his shots were at the rim. It was high-wire performance art and I'm sad to see them go.
7. Jayson Tatum’s Evolution Occurs on Week-By-Week Basis
If Jayson Tatum was a character in The Last Jedi there would be no movie because there would be no conflict. Whichever side he fought for would annihilate the other in the opening 10 minutes and audiences all over the world would wander out of the theatre wondering what they hell they just witnessed.
The 19-year-old is incredible, with Klay Thompson accuracy from beyond the arc and more starts than any other player in the entire NBA. He hardly ever turns the ball over and required precisely zero seconds to adjust his skills to become a key contributor for one of the league’s best teams. The NBA's speed, ferocity, and complicated nuance do not affect him as much as they should.
Tatum fell into a perfect situation, with real stakes, complementary teammates, and a head coach who knows how to get the most out of him. His natural talent not only lets him pull off what’s asked, but also allows Brad Stevens to stretch his responsibilities in ways that visibly raise what's possible from an offense that already boasts Kyrie freaking Irving.
For the season, exactly one third of Tatum’s baskets have been unassisted. Over his last five games that number is just over 54 percent. He's a noticeably more diverse player in December than he was before Thanksgiving, feasting in different ways, particularly as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Look at these two reads! When I was 19 I was too scared to raise my hand in a 75-seat lecture hall. Tatum's leisurely confidence is borderline disturbing.
As a pull-up shooter, this is where Tatum can be a terror. He makes physically straining shots look effortless and doesn't rush his motion when a former Defensive Player of the Year lunges out to block his attempt.
His game is the personification of cool.
Tatum won't win Rookie of the Year because Ben Simmons didn't suit up towards the end of his actual rookie season when he was healthy enough to do so, but he'll be in the conversation all year long, getting more comfortable by the day. Nobody is untradable, but Boston shouldn't part ways with the third overall pick unless they're getting a top-10 player who's yet to celebrate his 26th birthday in return.
8. This Might Be My Favorite Hypothetical Paul George Trade
Let’s assume the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t figure things out and approach the trade deadline with the same number of warts that plague them today. Holding onto George—who, for all intents and purposes has been/is their best player—would be quite the risk; a stubborn display of absent foresight. George is not spending his prime in Oklahoma beside a vitriolic black hole on a team that can't compete for a championship. That's not happening.
Finding a trade partner is obviously tricky, though. Which teams are confident enough to forfeit enough salary and valuable assets for a player who can walk this summer? There are a couple candidates, but my favorite is the Miami Heat. Why would they trade for George? Because A) Pat Riley wants an All-Star, and B) Rebuilding will be incredibly difficult with multiple first-round picks headed to Phoenix over the next four years. If they can acquire someone as talented as George, they should and will.
Here's the trade: Miami gets: Paul George /// Oklahoma City gets: Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, and Wayne Ellington.
The Thunder would likely have to waive Jerami Grant's non-guaranteed contract to get it done. The deal would also add $14.58 million in guaranteed salary to OKC’s cap sheet for next season, and if Carmelo Anthony opts out they’d already be slightly over the salary cap with a 10-man team. If Melo opts in, the payroll balloons to about $131 million for a team that isn’t good enough to guarantee a playoff spot.
Winslow isn't an ideal fit beside Russell Westbrook (today), but is still only 21 years old and a stable jumper away from moving the needle. The Thunder would have over a full season to figure out if they want to keep him as a restricted free agent. If they don't like him, he should still have a little bit of trade value a year from now.
Olynyk is perfect anywhere. The gravity he'd provide on pick-and-pops and DHO's with Westbrook would be fierce. He spaces centers out to the perimeter and would make life easier for everyone else. Him and Ellington (for the rest of this season) might provide enough shooting to improve OKC's offense.
On the other end, Miami is Miami. If they can make the playoffs and convince George to be their franchise player, surrounded by guys who complement his game, they might be able to keep him long-term. If not, losing Winslow would sting but shedding Olynyk's salary from their bloated payroll wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
9. Dear Rolling Centers, Please Get Out of the Way
It's the absolute best whenever a big sets a screen, rolls into the paint, is not passed the ball, and then decides to stand exactly where he is for a beat too long. I understand why (they don't want to surrender rebounding/post position), but after sucking in a help defender and opening up an opportunity along the perimeter, centers should be aware of what's happening, see if they're clogging a driving lane, then quickly slide to the opposite dunker's spot.
Sure, Trey Lyles could either sidestep for an open three or even draw Dante Cunningham off Gary Harris and pass the ball. But what Jokic does is still annoying. Here's an even more egregious example.
10. Mike Scott is Fuego
After nearly falling out of the league and/or serving a lengthy prison sentence, Scott is currently riding an obscenely fortunate hot streak. The 29-year-old has a 75.8 True Shooting percentage on nearly 11 shots in his last five games, while the Washington Wizards (still starving for depth) have outscored their opponent by 17.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. If you know Scott personally, drive him to Las Vegas and staple him next to a Roulette wheel.
11. Fred Hoiberg: Not Bad!
Break up the Bulls! Chicago has won seven straight games and rank first in pace, third in net rating, and third in assist-to-turnover ratio since Nikola Mirotic made his season debut on December 8th.
This is a small-sample size that includes victories over the depleted Boston Celtics, Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers, and a Magic team that started Mario Hezonja and Wesley Iwundu (exactly), but, on the whole, the Bulls are exactly what we thought they’d be: A fast, unselfish team that’s enjoying the style of play their head coach was hired to install.
According to Synergy Sports, Chicago has the NBA’s seventh-best offense on after time-out plays, and towards the end of their win against Philly we saw a well-executed set shift the game’s tide in real time. “Elevators” is a common action designed to free a shooter from his man with a double screen. Normally, the two players setting the pick are—naturally—large humans who don’t have the most well-rounded offensive ability.
But Hoiberg made good with a minor twist by using Mirotic and Lauri Markkanen, two bigs who can score from all three levels (beyond the arc, in-between, and near the basket), then unleashing them as the play’s true threat after Justin Holiday sprints through the screen.
When David Nwaba passes Holiday the ball, Dario Saric steps out to take away the shot while J.J. Redick never loses pursuit. That leaves poor Ben Simmons to deal with Lauri Legend and Threekola, who fade into the corner and dive towards the rim at the exact same time. Simmons makes the right decision and follows Mirotic into the paint, but that leaves Markkanen wide open in the corner. Splash.
The Bulls are so much fun.
12. My All-Star Picks!
By the time you read this, the All-Star voting polls will be open. Here’s what my ballot looks like. Happy Holidays to everyone and thanks for reading!
Eastern Conference Starting Five:
Backcourt: Kyrie Irving
Backcourt: Victor Oladipo
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Frontcourt: LeBron James
Frontcourt: Al Horford
Eastern Conference Reserves :
Backcourt: Kyle Lowry
Backcourt: Bradley Beal
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Frontcourt: Andre Drummond
Frontcourt: Joel Embiid
Wildcard 1: Kristaps Porzingis
Wildcard 2: DeMar DeRozan
(Sincere apologies to Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, John Wall, and Marcus Smart)
Western Conference Starting Five:
Backcourt: James Harden
Backcourt: Damian Lillard
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant
Frontcourt: Anthony Davis
Frontcourt: LaMarcus Aldridge
Western Conference Reserves :
Backcourt: Steph Curry
Backcourt: Chris Paul
Frontcourt: Paul George
Frontcourt: Jimmy Butler
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins
Wildcard 1: Karl-Anthony Towns
Wildcard 2: C.J. McCollum
(Sincere apologies to Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, and Kyle Kuzma