The Outlet Pass: Is Victor Oladipo Sustainable?

Also: Power Ranking an incredibly close MVP race, how the NBA's sharpest marksman is helping San Antonio find its groove, Derrick Jones Jr. is Airplane Mode, and more!

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Dec 28 2018, 5:54pm

Photo by CJ Gunther - EPA

Victor Oladipo is Still Figuring Out Life as a Star

The duties of an NBA star are relentlessly meaningful. Each possession, as much as every decision, revolves around them; literal jobs are earned and lost for underpinning teammates who either accentuate the star’s strengths or emphasize their weaknesses. This is Victor Oladipo’s every day life now, and how he adjusts and readjusts to it over the next few months is an increasingly important subplot for an Indiana Pacers team that’s already good enough to enter the trade deadline as a buyer.

Oladipo was by no means a slouch heading into last season, but he also wasn’t anywhere close to stardom. It was his first year on his third team, and signs of a mid-career plateau were everywhere. Instead, all he did was lead the league in steals and increase his points per game from 16 to 23 while having never been more efficient. His usage rate went from “respectable role player” to “middle of his organization’s solar system.” He finished sixth in Real Plus-Minus and the Indiana Pacers would’ve defeated LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round if not for Oladipo shooting 7-for-35 in Games 4 and 5, two contests in which the Pacers lost by a combined seven points.

A few months after his quantum leap into Face of the Franchise territory—where he qualified for his first All-Star game, made third-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense, won Most Improved Player, and was awarded Player of the Week three times—Oladipo is still searching to recapture that same feel. He isn't bad by any means—20 points per game is not nothing—but the sore right knee that sidelined him for nearly a month in mid-November has thrown the natural line of progress off course. Further complicating matters, the Pacers have thrived without Oladipo leading the way and they no longer drown when he sits.

This wasn’t the individual start Oladipo envisioned for himself, nor what many expected to see. Struggle is not allowed for those minted in the class he entered a year ago. Stars don’t take a step back when they’re about to enter their prime, or regress in statistical areas that helped elevate them in the first place. But that’s what Oladipo currently faces, navigating a complex and stressful existence as someone who recently (and unexpectedly) climbed into it.

Even accounting for the knee injury, the 26-year-old still has not looked like the show-stopping solar flare he was. What were once easy shots at the rim are now pull-up jumpers, and his field goal percentages at the basket and on off-the-dribble threes are notably down. (He’s shooting 28.2 percent on pull-up threes, which is second-worst among all players who attempt at least 3.5 per game.) Physical pain shouldn’t be overlooked, especially when you combine it with the intensifying defensive attention that reflects his status. Oladipo's job is harder than before.

“Things are different now.” Oladipo told VICE Sports. “Teams are playing me different. Teams are playing in drops now, trying to do a great job at switching, making sure I don’t get to the rim as easy as I did last year. So there are some things I have to adjust to.”

And as he works his way back to the player he was, the hunt for a comfortable rhythm can get ugly. Oladipo’s assist rate is up nearly six percent from last season—far and away his career-high—but the temptation to rediscover what made him so effective as a scorer must battle his sense not to force the issue. Sometimes tunnel vision takes over, like on the play below, where Oladipo misses a wide-open Domas Sabonis right under the basket.

According to Synergy Sports, Oladipo’s greatest struggle relative to last year has been in isolation. Last year he was in the 84th percentile. This year he’s down to the 36th. As Oladipo said, teams are dropping bigs and switching on the perimeter, trying to throw him off balance while preventing penetration. Some defenses are also more aggressive in help, darting off respectable threats in the strong-side corner once Oladipo revs down a runway. Easy baskets are so much harder to come by, but he remains nothing if not patient.

“I’m not frustrated at all. When you get frustrated things get bad. I just go out there and just play, man. Everything else will take care of itself,” Oladipo said. “I worked too hard to get frustrated. I worked too hard, worked on my game, work hard in the summertime. I do too much to get frustrated.”

He’s getting better at changing speeds in the paint, throwing turbo thrusters on at the exact same moment his man rises two inches out of his stance. But without that bit of hesitation, last year’s natural gush to the hoop hasn’t been an every-play event. For every time he rocks the rim with a left-handed clap of thunder (as he did in a tie game with two minutes to go against the Brooklyn Nets), there’s a struggle to blow by plodding bigs. When he does get into the restricted area, 22.3 percent of Oladipo’s shots have been blocked, up from 13.9 percent last year. And of the 52 players who average at least nine drives per game, Oladipo ranks 51st in field goal percentage. (He was 12.1 percent more accurate on these shots last year, which is kind of noticeable.)

“I thought he had some possessions where he looked a little tired in our last game,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said last week. “But [if] you’re out there, gotta play. He’s not using that as an excuse. You’re out there, you’ve gotta play. You’ve gotta execute.”

Even though he leads the Pacers in scoring and usage and has scored an absurd 59 points in just 41 clutch minutes, it’s still jarring how good Indiana is without Oladipo being able to approach the MVP conversation. That’s not necessarily bad or good, and it’s far too early to panic about any of his relative backslide, but the Pacers obviously need more from their best player if they want their long-term trajectory to incline as high as it can. Every year is different, though, and sometimes growth isn’t linear.

Oladipo’s evolution as a playmaker is partially dependent on teammates. Specifically his pick-and-roll partners who have to be smart and fast with the ball whenever the defense squeezes it out of his hands. Sabonis is plenty competent on the move, but Myles Turner is still a work in progress. The tandem’s timing has been off, especially with one-handed pocket passes that don’t clear Turner’s waist. In the face of a double team, a steady diet of pick-and-pop 19 footers isn’t good enough; as more and more teams trap Oladipo, it’ll be interesting to see who earns the bulk of that responsibility as his partner, and who becomes superfluous.

Oladipo isn’t the type who can sit back and let the game come to him. He thrives with his foot on the gas, be it in transition or slingshotting into the paint off a dribble. Attack mode is his best mode, which forces you to wonder how much of last year was a byproduct of him catching opponents off guard, slicing through schemes that took his skill for granted. Can he be the fulcrum of a good offense while disrupting Indy’s opponent on the other end, as the head of a legitimate playoff threat? Translation: is Oladipo sustainable? It’s not too early to ask these questions, but as of today there are no answers. In the big picture, the Pacers all but need him to surpass what he was last year, and that’s a tall ask. But it’s also perfectly reasonable. And once he’s 100 percent healthy and better adjusted to this year’s roster, it should surprise no one if Oladipo makes another leap.

“I can improve everything. From finishing at the rim to pull-up threes, to catch-and-shoot threes, to making decisions, when to be aggressive, when not to be aggressive,” he said. “There’s no time and there’s no space, even if I play well, that I can’t get better.”

This MVP Race is Fascinating

We’re approaching a new year, 2.5 months into the 2018-19 NBA season, and the MVP race is a complete and total toss up. Separating the top 10 candidates for this exercise was a struggle to split hairs, so I did my best to contextualize where we’re at by combining stats with hours upon hours of eye test. In the end, this thing is so damn fluid, and if you asked ten writers to organize these ten players you’d get ten different lists. With all that in mind, here’s how things currently look to me.

1. James Harden

Pros: *prepares to drop microphone* Harden was the MVP last year and just about every relevant statistic points toward him being even better right now. He’s wildly efficient while leading the league in usage and scoring. No starters have a higher assist rate, and he’s attempted and made more threes than everybody else while averaging the league’s third most minutes with a subpar, oft-injured supporting cast. (Only Blake Griffin touches the ball more in every game.)

To boot, a lower percentage of his shots are assisted than they were last year, and Houston’s spacing is less generous (Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are gone). With Chris Paul injured and no playoff spot guaranteed, Harden steps on the court knowing his team will collapse if he doesn't score at least 30 points. No pressure! On cue, he exceeds that mark, night after night. (Fun fact: Harden jacks up 4.5 more pull-up threes per game than every other player in the league. That number does not include daggers in which a frustrated defender crowds his landing zone. It’s the sport’s most infuriatingly unstoppable move and, in a copycat league, expect to see several knockoffs for years to come.)

Cons: The Rockets are not dominant when Harden is on the floor and are still technically in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. even though they’ve won eight of their last nine. Although most (if not all) of the factors that led to their decline are beyond his control, Harden’s downswing on defense is at least partially to blame. He turns it over a ton, too.

2. Paul George

Pros: He leads the league in Real Plus-Minus and RPM Wins, and the Thunder are on pace to win 44 more games when he’s on the court vs. when he’s not. He’s also generating stats that eclipse his days as the tip of Indiana’s spear, deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration, and has adopted a brand of stylish effortlessness while seemingly getting Russell Westbrook to consider the idea that he’s George’s sidekick instead of it being the other way around. (One of the best lineups in the entire league is Oklahoma City’s starting five with Dennis Schroder instead of Westbrook.) Last season, the Thunder’s net rating was -11.5 when George was on the floor without Westbrook. Right now they’re +9.4.

George is awesome but so much of this leap in his ninth season was unexpected. He’s averaging career-highs in points, shots, assists, rebounds, and steals, stabilizing a team that still needs one more shooter but as is has a (slight) puncher’s chance against the Golden State Warriors.

Cons: It’s far from certain George will close games as OKC’s number one option when they really start to matter, and it’d be pretty weird for the MVP to not be his team’s closer. (But it means something that the Thunder can’t sniff their ceiling unless he does.)

3. LeBron James

Pros: It’s LeBron! For the 11th straight year his fangs are sharper than everybody elses, and for the fourth time in that span he’s blended his winning ways into a new environment without much more than a temporary hiccup. The Lakers are one of the NBA’s seven or eight best teams, and there are nights when he shares the floor with people like Sviatsolov Mykhailiuk, Ivika Zubac, and Moe Wagner, but still manages to bend the game to his will. The Lakers have talent, but everyone else on the the roster is either past their prime or still finding themselves. (Kyle Kuzma is L.A.’s second-leading scorer.) But none of it matters. LeBron remains a rising sun.

And if we’re being honest, Cleveland’s plunge into the lottery with just about the same cast James led to last year’s Finals—Kevin Love’s injury notwithstanding—combined with L.A.’s leap from a five-year postseason drought to possible home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs is all the evidence we need. (On December 29, 2017, the Lakers had a 2.0 percent chance at making the playoffs. Right now, they’re at 64 percent.)

LeBron James in Brooklyn
Photo by Justin Lane - EPA

As James soldiers on, nobody is watched with more scrutiny, as observers constantly sniff for a whiff of decline. Instead he’s migrating towards the perimeter without a hitch, while still efficiently averaging more baskets in the restricted area than all but five other players in the entire league (behind four centers and one Giannis). James has made good on his desire to play with pace and 21.7 percent of all the Lakers possessions are conducted in the open floor, a number that drops by a meaningful 3.2 percent without him, per Cleaning the Glass.

His free-throw attempts are the highest they’ve been since 2012 and just about all his per-game averages run parallel with where they’ve been throughout his career. He’s a model of unprecedented consistency, and, a couple days from his 34th birthday, is proving once again that the most reliable ingredient for NBA success is number 23.

Cons: For the first time in a decade, LeBron’s team’s offense isn’t elite when he’s on the court, and for the first time ever they’re more efficient when he sits. (The Lakers are really freaking good, actually, when Brandon Ingram plays without James.) His assist rate is down but still ridiculous for a power forward and even though L.A.’s defense falls apart without him, there are games when LeBron decides to make business decision after business decision on that end, either refusing to contest a shot at the rim or getting back-cut repeatedly. He’s “only” averaging 34.6 minutes per game (three fewer than he logged two years ago), too. It’s hard to reward someone for regular-season dominance when they treat the regular season like the nuisance that it is.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Pros: It’s a case that also applies for a few others around the league (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry), but Giannis may be the best player on the best team. The Milwaukee Bucks are 24-10 with the NBA’s best net rating. Everything they do when he’s on the court revolves around the unique physical advantages that allow Antetokounmpo to ravage the opponent’s interior defense whenever he wants. He’s shooting 65.1 percent on 13.4 drives per game—last year, he was at 50.1 percent on two fewer tries—and his long-two frequency is down ten percent. These are terrifying strides for an unkillable movie monster, and the film isn’t even halfway over.

Cons: It’s an irritating thing to say, but everytime I watch Giannis play basketball he leaves me wanting more. A stop-and-pop elbow jumper whenever defenses turn the paint into a moat would be nice. Or how about a reliable corner three? And why does he only have two triple-doubles? Giannis turned 24 a few weeks ago and there’s plenty of time for him to make all this a habit, but the biggest change in Milwaukee has less to do with its best player’s growth and more to do with his new coach and a sensical supporting cast. Mike Budenholzer is the runaway leader for Coach of the Year; His system is also Milwaukee’s real MVP. Brook Lopez’s evolution helps, as does the disappearance of any need to placate Jabari Parker. But Bud is the difference-maker. He 180’d Milwaukee’s frenetic defensive strategy and hyper-modernized its shot profile. It’s his team as much as it’s Antetokounmpo’s. If it sounds like I’m grasping for straws, that’s because I obviously am. Giannis is awesome and doing everything to take advantage of his fit in an environment that’s built to accentuate his skill-set. That’s...what he’s supposed to do! But to surge ahead of the three guys in front of him he needs to do a tiny bit more.

5. Kevin Durant

Pros: Durant is the NBA’s second-best player and the most unstoppable scorer alive, and his usage and assist rates are higher than they’ve ever been. Two years ago, 61 percent of Durant’s baskets were assisted. This year it’s only 42 percent. (From behind the three-point line, the drop goes from 81 to 47 percent. Yikes.) For the first time since he joined the Warriors, the team’s offense with Durant and no Curry is better than Curry with no Durant. We’ll see if that holds up, but so far it doesn’t hurt KD’s case.

Cons: His three-point shooting is down and he still takes more long twos than shots beyond the arc, which is annoying but logical given how defenses play him. Also: Curry is his teammate.

6. Kawhi Leonard

Pros: There are nights when Kawhi is the best player alive. He’s still the scariest perimeter defender ever and is developing areas of his game that make everything easier for everyone. He’s averaging 27 points (a career high) with a True Shooting above 60 percent.

Cons: Even though he’ll reportedly play in back-to-backs going forward, Leonard has missed nine of Toronto’s 36 games. He'd otherwise be higher on the list.

7. Joel Embiid

Pros: In his first season of star-level playing time, Embiid has cemented himself as the NBA’s most dominant center. He turns hard double teams into cobwebs, has decreased his turnovers without slicing into his usage, and the 76ers are very, very bad when he’s on the bench. The guy is averaging 26.5 points and 13.3 rebounds per game, while attempting the most free throws in the league.

Cons: This is is everyone in Philadelphia whenever someone tells them Embiid and Ben Simmons are incompatible:

A Quiet Place
Truly terrifying stuff

This situation feels like a bubble that will burst when/if Embiid airs his frustration—which has become a theme of his season. The Sixers are better on offense when Embiid's on the court without Simmons (they’re bad when Simmons is in without Embiid), and playing alongside a point guard who can’t stretch the floor prevents Embiid from being as efficient as he should be. (Why doesn’t he lead the league in two-point field goal percentage?)

He’s a tad overrated (though still breathtaking) on defense—glued to the paint more than he should be while too often he makes business decisions to avoid foul trouble—but otherwise it’s hard to find much to criticize. The Sixers new starting five is obliterating opponents on both ends and he’s the primary reason why. It’s just a little weird that they haven’t figured out how to consistently use him in ways that get everyone else involved. Post-ups are nice, but defenses will embrace them so long as they’re disciplined enough not to foul.

8. Kyrie Irving

Pros: Apart from being the world’s most dazzling bucket getter, Kyrie Irving is also, at present time, its most clutch. (What he did down the stretch on Christmas is not normal, especially against A+ Jimmy Butler effort.) Irving’s defense is better. His passing is better. He sacrifices his body, and is the offensive focal point on a title contender. When he sits, the Celtics can’t score. When he plays, they’re dominant.

Cons: The Celtics are the NBA’s least consistent title contender, and as their best player and only All-Star lock, Irving deserves some (i.e. very little) criticism for that volatility.

9. Anthony Davis

Pros: It does not take a genius to figure out why Anthony Davis belongs on this list. He is unreal at just about everything. But let’s get granular for a moment by honing in on one very specific area of growth we’ve seen from him this year: Passing!

“Velociraptors are opening kitchen doors” became “Someone introduced Donald Trump to Twitter” and is now “Anthony Davis learned how to pass.” After toggling between 10 and 11 percent with his assist rate since Year Three, Davis is now nearly at 20 percent, a leap he made without changing his turnover percentage. Watching him improve different areas of his game with a severely flawed supporting cast backing him up is so impressive. Imagine what he’ll be on a really good team.

Cons: The Pelicans are not a good team, and even though they’re much better on defense with Davis out there, they still aren’t as stout as they should be.

10. Steph Curry

Pros: He’s somehow elevated his three-point shooting; the Warriors are unreachable when he’s peaking; nobody else’s on-court reputation summons more dread than his; if he shoots a basketball, the defense has failed; the Warriors went 5-6 with a negative point differential when he injured his groin in November.

Cons: Curry’s assist rate is at a career low and his assist-to-usage ratio is extremely poor relative to others at his position. Also, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are on his team.

Honorable mentions!

Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Kemba Walker, Blake Griffin

Derrick Jones Jr. is Skinny Moses Malone

Derrick Jones Jr.’s nickname is Airplane Mode, which is easily the most perfect thing I’ve ever heard. As a dunker, he’s on the same level as Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and everyone else who regularly defies gravity. (Jones Jr. was a slight disappointment in the 2017 Slam Dunk contest but is clearly good enough to win it and deserves an invitation back this February.) But “dunks” are obviously not enough to earn a spot in Miami’s rotation,

With an outside shot that looks like a creaky catapult, Jones Jr. has instead earned playing time by unleashing CGI effects on the offensive glass against opponents who ignore him. If you don’t box this man out he’s all but guaranteed to swoop in and soar higher than everyone else to snatch the rebound.

Miami’s offensive rebound rate is 5.7 percent higher than the best team in the league (for serious) when Jones Jr. is on the court and 10th in the league when he sits. That disparity is wildness. It should be said that the Heat isn’t very efficient with Jones Jr. on the floor, but did I mention his nickname is Airplane Mode? What’s not to love?

The Atlanta Hawks are Pure Joy

The Hawks are bad, but that hasn’t stopped them from enjoying themselves as much as they possibly can. Before a recent game, here's Kent Bazemore lining up a putt during pregame introductions. It's the absolute best.

Kent Bazemore lines up a putt
Bazemore is the best

If the only indicator for success was their body language, the Hawks would look like a threatening playoff contender instead of the rebuilding basement dweller that they are. Everyone has fun! Everyone looks happy! The postscript on every Dewayne Dedmon three is him placing a long-distance phone call to teammates on the bench, Trae Young memorializes his 30 footers by pointing at the court, and Vince Carter still revs up his imaginary motorcycle whenever he throws one down.

Atlanta is *lowers voice* light years behind the Golden State Warriors in talent, but they can still thread the two-time defending champion's cultural fiber by acting joyful at every turn. It's not a bad idea.

Davis Bertans is Unconscious

A couple weeks ago I wrote that it might be time for the Spurs to consider a covert tank job. Since then, all they’ve done is go 8-2 with the NBA’s best offense, fifth-best defense, and an incomprehensibly high point differential. Lesson learned: never (ever, ever, ever) doubt San Antonio.

Some of their success in that span correlates with more Davis Bertans, who’s transforming into the league’s best shooter East of Oakland. He’s made a comical 50 percent of his threes and is starting to flash an ability to knock them down off the dribble. (Last year he went 1-for-23 on pull-up threes, and right now he’s 5-for-14.)

Bertans is the most efficient player in the league, per Synergy Sports, and San Antonio’s offense is 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than the first-place Warriors when he’s on the floor. The Spurs are also beginning to close games with him and four other starters, and it’s only a matter of time before Bertans forces Gregg Popovich to tap him as the starting power forward beside LaMarcus Aldridge. (I mean, nothing fazes this dude. He’s even 9-for-17 on contested threes.)