The Outlet Pass: Don't Worry About the Rockets, They Have...Eric Gordon
Also: Noah Vonleh is good, how the Clippers are scoring without the three ball, a glimpse of Orlando's scary (in a good way) future, checking up on a juicy Sixth Man race, and more!
Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE
An Ode to Eric Gordon
I want to talk about Eric Gordon because more people should and not enough do. How many players in the entire league—who have his talent and pedigree—would be happy occupying the intricate space Gordon does, in the collective shadow of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and even P.J. Tucker? The more I watch him this year, the more I appreciate how he feels like the personification of an overlooked albeit crucial cog; a barometer for the Houston Rockets, which also makes him a pivotal character in the narrative of this season.
Fighting through an early-season slump that he’s determined to burn through with the help of his own comically short-term memory, the Houston Rockets need Gordon to be so much more than an accessory from here on out. Pre-Chris Paul, he was James Harden’s right-hand man in a situation that inevitably provided little oxygen for anyone but James Harden. Gordon won the Three-Point Contest, claimed Sixth Man of the Year, and ended his first year in Houston with more threes than everyone except Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and his own bearded teammate.
Since then, he's comfortably shined outside Harden’s orbit, punishing defenders who want nothing more than a moment to catch their breath after the ball gets swung his way. What they get instead is a mental breakdown. His self-reliance—Gordon has no conscience and knows he’s good enough to get where he wants without a screen—is their worst nightmare. He’s a pugnacious, perma-green light who’s happy to launch a picturesque jumper whenever a defender starts tap dancing at the sight of his jab step (or ducks under a pick 30 feet from the basket).
Gordon's pressure is relentless. He’s a one-man salvo of between-the-leg dribbles that seemingly have no purpose until they magically catapult him into the paint. According to Synergy Sports, the only players who’ve been more efficient on at least 30 isolation plays are Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal, and Kemba Walker. He can hit Capela with a pocket pass and lull defenders into a panic as part of Houston’s devastating Spanish pick-and-roll; every once in a while he tries to end someone’s life by exhibiting a genuinely sneaky athletic burst above the rim.
The Rockets can’t function properly for 48 minutes on either end without Gordon, but they’d especially struggle to master the switch-everything defense he’s built to thrive in. Like, how many guards who do all the stuff Gordon does on offense can also switch onto a bear and not get mauled? His low center of gravity is appreciated, but he also understands how to shrink the floor after that initial switch, so whoever then defends his assignment doesn’t feel like they’re on an island.
Gordon is currently shooting 35.4 percent and the first few weeks of this season featured a four-game stretch in which he launched 67 shots and made only 18 of them, but all in all he might be the single biggest reason I'm not worried about the Rockets. We know his splits will course correct—his True Shooting percentage is 57.5 in the last five games—because his struggle doesn't affect his shot selection. Gordon lives without brakes. He’ll miss a layup on one play and then jack up a quick three the next time down. If it's an airball, he'll take an even deeper shot 15 seconds later. When the defense gives something, he takes it.
Contrast that audaciousness with his expressionless demeanor and what you get is Gordon’s own brand of fortitude, a resiliency that makes you wonder how high his numbers would soar as the first option in Orlando or Brooklyn. When he’s on the floor, Houston’s offense scores 13.6 more points per 100 possessions than when he’s not (from second best to the third-worst offense in the league). Nobody could even attempt to play quite like Gordon does without losing minutes. He's two steps to the left of the spotlight, with a mentality so daring it borders on reckless. Gaudy, stone-faced, and even more threatening outside the parameters of Houston’s system while quintessentially representing what Mike D’Antoni wants it to look like, Gordon is not a perfect player. But watching him steer his skill-set beneath the general NBA fan's radar, on a team that's all in to win it all, is a pleasure to behold.
The Clippers Don’t Shoot Threes (and Couldn’t Care Less)
With the highest winning percentage in a Western Conference that was expected to rip them up, the Los Angeles Clippers are the story of this season. Nobody on their team has ever played in an All-Star game, but their depth, complementary design, youthful exuberance, and two-way tenacity have, so far, eclipsed any questions related to talent. Winning eight of their last nine games—a run that includes victories over the Warriors, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Bucks—the Clippers have the sixth-best offense in the league, and are nearly averaging as many points per 100 possessions as they did during Lob City’s heyday. And they’re doing it without the three-point shot.
Last week, I asked Doc Rivers if he wanted to shoot more of them. Here’s what he said: “I’d rather stay in the top ten in offense. You know it’s funny though, really, I think we’re six or five or seven, I don’t know where we’re at, but if we were that and shot a lot of threes I’d say ‘yeah let’s shoot a lot of threes.’ The goal is scoring. It’s not how you score. It’s to score as many points as you can. And we’re doing that. So there are games where we think we should’ve taken more threes, but there are also games where we thought we should take more layups, you know? So we don’t care how it adds up, and that’s what we talk about. If we can get to the 120 number or something like that, I don’t care if they’re ones. Let’s get there as quickly as possible.”
That’s all very fair, and, to a glass-half-full optimist, suggests that L.A. has yet to reach its offensive potential. Quality shots attempted behind the arc are good, and despite ranking 28th in three-point rate, the Clippers are basketball’s most accurate team from the corners; fifth-best from deep, overall.
“That’s something we’re still figuring out, how to get easier threes,” forward Tobias Harris said. “I think we can do a better job of locating them off turnovers on fast breaks, but we’re an ever-improving team. Every night we’re figuring out different things and I think once guys get more into their comfort zone [and let threes] fly, it’ll open up a lot more of the game for us. But it’s something that we do put an emphasis on.”
“We just hoop, bro.”
They’re built to attack in a modern way, with stretch fours (Danilo Gallinari, Mike Scott) and one ascending wing (Harris) representing three of the most lethal spot-up shooters in the league. Others—Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley—are way below their career average but still respected enough to open lanes for their teammates, be it Montrezl Harrell rumbling through for a lob or space for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to penetrate. (The Miami Heat are the only team currently averaging more field goal attempts from drives to the rim.)
There’s also an undeniable “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” vibe surrounding this team. They rank in the bottom five in assist rate, and as the league’s better teams shift away from the pick-and-roll by adopting a more diversified and unpredictable half-court attack, no group runs the pick-and-roll more than the Clippers, per Synergy Sports. They’re anti-style and post-analysis, but so far it all feels sustainable. We’ll see how long it lasts, or if they’ll inevitably need to embrace the arc a bit more than they have. Until then: “I’m gonna be honest with you,” Lou Williams told VICE Sports. “We just hoop, bro.”
Noah Vonleh is 23 years old, and last week New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale called him “probably, overall our most complete player.” Everything in that sentence is real.
Heading into this season on a contract that still only guarantees him $100,000 before January 10, Vonleh was viewed as a bust—an instant journeyman on his fourth team in five seasons. Before they salary-dumped him onto the Chicago Bulls, the Portland Trail Blazers spent a couple years bouncing Vonleh between spot-starts and a seat at the end of their bench. Nothing stuck. It was a frustrating NBA existence for a promising talent who, as a teenager, was frequently compared to Chris Bosh.
When the Knicks signed Vonleh in July, he was a buy-low, no-risk commodity for a team that's prioritizing the future over the present. So far he's made the most of the opportunity, averaging per-36 minute career highs in points, assists, steals, and blocks. The Knicks are 15 points per 100 possessions better with Vonleh in the game, an absolutely insane number. At worst, he's currently a positive trade asset, someone New York may use to get off a larger contract (like Courtney Lee) before the trade deadline. At best, he's an untapped, young, cheap contributor who's showing the league what New York's player development staff may be capable of. If kept around beyond this season, Vonleh can play two positions, post-up, move his feet, and, theoretically, fit beside Kristaps Porzingis. Athletic big men who rebound, shoot, switch, and protect the rim do not grow on trees.
Of note: His three-point rate tripled from October to November, and for the first time in his career he's making over 40 percent of them (42.1 on just under two tries per game). Vonleh is averaging 10 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists at Madison Square Garden, and has the 32nd-highest Real Plus-Minus in the league, with Mitchell Robinson as the only other Knick in the top 100.
It's still early, and we'll see how Vonleh's impact will be affected if/when he goes through a shooting slump, but so far it's cool to see him find minutes role in a league that was so close to spitting him out. This is an NBA player.
Free Rodney Hood
Rodney Hood is too good for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He doesn’t fit into their short-term goals (i.e. only six teams have a better offense when Hood is on the floor; when he sits only the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks are worse) and, as a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent this offseason, won’t be onboard the next time they make the playoffs.
His pick-and-roll game is crafty yet stable—Hood hardly ever turns the ball over—and whenever he curls off a screen and draws two defenders the result is usually a simple pass to the open man. Coming off an awkward postseason run that didn’t go as well as he hoped, in the interest of boosting his monetary worth, Hood belongs on a good team, surrounded by good players. (Thanks to his current one-year deal, he can veto any trade the Cavs involve him in, though it behooves him to accept whatever happens.)
The Rockets—a pseudo-contender forever hungry for three-point shooters, iso-creativity, and adjustable defenders—are an obvious suitor. After Hood is eligible to be dealt on December 15th, would Houston attach a protected first-round pick to Marquese Chriss? A Harden, Paul, Hood, Gordon, Tucker lineup would give the Rockets five able three-point threats without sacrificing their switch-everything defensive system—Capela can exist in this group, too—and if the Golden State Warriors are still the only team on their mind, we already know that Hood can be a difference-maker in isolation on the biggest stage.
The fit isn’t perfect: Hood adores the mid-range and has already shot more long twos than the entire Rockets roster this season. He’s isn’t shy about lowering his shoulder into a defender, but still rarely gets to the rim. But in theory, Hood is skilled enough to give them a boost on both ends at an outrageously low cost.
If not Houston, Hood can upgrade just about any situation outside the one he’s currently in. (Would the Philadelphia 76ers part ways with Markelle Fultz for Hood?)
A Three-Headed Sixth Man Race!
This year's Sixth Man award is a subtle microcosm of the league’s bottomless talent pool. At the season's quarter mark, the number of credible candidates is immense. But with apologies to *takes deep breath* Lou Williams, Julius Randle, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dennis Schröder, Terrence Ross, Marcus Morris, Josh Hart, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwyane Wade, Evan Turner, Shelvin Mack, Jonas Valanciunas, and Patty Mills, three players have separated themselves from the field: Montrezl Harrell, Domas Sabonis, and Derrick Rose.
A walloping punch of adrenaline who turns “the little things” into momentum-shifting uppercuts, Harrell is probably the frontrunner (though I’d vote for Sabonis if the season ended today). He’s wildly efficient on rolls to the rim, protects the paint, and has proven that last year’s production in 16 minutes per game could be extrapolated into a larger role without any drop off. The guy is second in Win Shares per 48 minutes and eighth in PER. He is the NBA's Incredible Hulk. In a word: incredible.
Next is Indiana's backup center. If there ever was a player who showed how detrimental the wrong fit can be for an incoming rookie, look no further than Sabonis's brief, progress-stunting tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Back then, which feels like six million years ago, his daily duties were: 1) Get out of Russell Westbrook’s way, 2) Don’t screw up when Russell Westbrook needs you to get him his tenth assist, 3) Get out of Russell Westbrook’s way.
About a third of all Sabonis’s shots were three pointers, and according to Synergy Sports, he only posted up 94 times in 1,632 minutes, a crime considering how useful he was/is leveraging his size, footwork, and vision on the block. Instead, Sabonis hardly ever drew fouls and lived on the perimeter. Today, he’s attempted five threes in 469 minutes. (A couple weeks ago, Sabonis tapped his chest to apologize for taking—and making—a three. That's incredible.)
He’s one of the five most serviceable passers at his position, an automatic double team with his back to the basket, and someone who functions as a hyper-efficient fulcrum on a Pacers team that plays at a 60-win pace when he’s on the floor. Last month he dunked on Joel Embiid harder than anybody ever has and tried to decapitate Hassan Whiteside later in the same week. There’s unteachable confidence here. A soft touch and dainty footwork spliced with the strength of a musk ox.
Remember when I said Harrell was second in Win Shares per 48 minutes? Sabonis is first. He also leads the league in True Shooting and few are greedier rebounding in traffic. Even though Indy has been fine with Sabonis and Myles Turner both on the floor, the question of whether they can co-exist long-term should and will linger until they succeed/fail in the postseason. Sabonis turns 23 in May and is eligible for an extension next fall. If the Pacers let him become a restricted free agent, some team may (should!) offer even more than the $80 million over four years they just gave Turner. Semi-related: The Pacers are outscoring opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when Sabonis is on the floor without Victor Oladipo, the franchise player. He’s been that good.
Somewhat on the opposite end of the NBA spectrum is Rose, a 30-year-old who nearly washed out of the league. Right now, he’s averaging 19.1 points (his most since the first torn ACL) and 4.5 assists while legitimately boosting a Timberwolves team that desperately wants to make the playoffs. The unprecedented explosion that hurtled him towards an MVP award is no longer accessible in the same way it once was, but in its place is a rhythm jump shot defenders suddenly have to respect.
Rose is shooting 45.2 percent on pull-up threes and 45.9 percent on spot-up threes. Those two numbers are unsustainable, but they'll live on in opposing scouting reports for the rest of the season. Defenders will be less willing to help off Rose, instead doomed to close out hard and run him off the line. Earlier this month, Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger called time to chastise Willie Cauley-Stein after he dropped back and gave Rose a wide-open shot. That would’ve been unthinkable six months ago.
Rose is finally healthy and comfortable, resulting in the successful marriage of a sinister first step with an outside shot. For that alone, if he doesn’t win Sixth Man he should be in the conversation for Most Improved Player. It’s opened up driving lanes for himself and teammates—Minnesota has a top-five offense with Rose and produce at a bottom-two rate without him—while forcing opponents to acknowledge the myriad ways he can attack in the open floor.
According to Synergy Sports, Rose is averaging 1.25 points per possession as the ball-handler in transition, which, given his volume, is an excellent mark rivaled by two or three players in the entire league. (He’s scored more transition points than Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, James Harden, and Damian Lillard.)
A lot can happen between now and April, but be surprised if neither Harrell, Sabonis, nor Rose is named Sixth Man of the Year. They've been dominant in their role.
Orlando's Science Experiment
Maybe it’s because I’m a weirdo (spoiler: yes), but few occasions from this NBA season hype me up more than whenever Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba share the court. To be clear, there is no rational reason to feel this way. The basketball is typically atrocious, chaotic, and disheveled. But every so often, like the Loch Ness monster emerging from a fog-topped lake, a rare glimpse of what can one day be Orlando’s norm rises into view.
Steve Clifford's defensive principles are simple. He wants his bigs to stay in the paint and let his guards and wings chase shooters up top, usually over screens in an attempt to take away the shot and funnel them towards waiting rim protection. The previous three seasons, the Magic finished 24th, 22nd, and 25th in the percentage of opposing shots that came at the rim. This year they're sixth. When Isaac and Bamba are the two primary defenders involved, whoever's up against them can feel their brain melt into ice cream.
Orlando's lineups that feature those two have been bad, but that's not 100 percent their fault. Most of the minutes come at the start of the second and fourth quarters, when they're joined by other reserves (like Jerian Grant or Jonathon Simmons) who make little sense supporting them on offense. When Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are in, though, Orlando can breathe a bit more with the ball. Sometimes that's because Bamba and Isaac are good enough shooters to invert the floor and create space for those guys to maneuver in the paint.
Here they are both hanging above the arc, bringing their own big defenders with them:
Separating the two, Isaac has already flashed the chops of someone who should appear on multiple All-Defensive teams. The speed (in his feet and hands), length, and intuitive feel are locked in place—to beat him off the dribble is to evade one’s own shadow—but the 21-year-old isn’t muscular enough to stand up the league’s more brutish scorers. That's fine right now. He'll grow. Until then, at 6'10" with a 7'1" wingspan, Isaac is good enough on the perimeter to reach in, get crossed over, then recover back to smother his man from behind. As a help defender, Isaac tends to chase the ball a bit too much, but that tendency should iron itself out as he matures.
Bamba is a supernatural beanstalk who plants himself in the paint, then tries to use his uncanny physical dimensions to race out and contest along the perimeter whenever his man is about to line up a three. (He's usually a step too slow.) Bamba's physical dimensions are unprecedented, but can’t mask the learning curve he'll eventually need to master if he wants to become a great all-around anchor. Together, he and Isaac are still feeling their way through the league, but it’s a thrill to daydream about what they may become. I mean, just imagine you're Kyle Kuzma on this play:
De’Aaron Has the Eyes of a Fox
I used to think nothing in life was perfect, and then I saw this pass.