The Dallas Mavericks Pick & Roll Academy

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The Dallas Mavericks are in the development phase of their life cycle, waving goodbye to a franchise icon while ushering in the next generation of (hopeful) stars. The future of the organization now rests on the development of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. As much as we dissect the pre-NBA film on every prospect to scout their natural abilities, the trajectory of a player’s career is equally dependent on the ‘Nurture’ part of the equation. Landing in the right situation is vital to any prospect’s chances of realizing their potential.

Though Doncic and Smith Jr. differ by 4 inches, 23 lbs and 4,680 miles1, their on-court roles will be very similar: create offense out of the pick-and-roll. When it comes to that primary skill, Dallas should serve as a Pick-and-Roll Academy of sorts—a perfect testing ground equipped with a few key training aids to fast-track their development. Continue reading

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KAT & Mouse: The Strategy Behind Karl-Anthony Towns’ Extension Talks

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We haven’t even hit media day yet, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are on the brink of collapse. Jimmy Butler, once the star that would legitimize them, has requested a trade. Tom Thibodeau, once an unassailable hire, is now an embattled coach whose seat just got hotter. Andrew Wiggins, once a can’t-miss prospect, is overpaid with questionable shot selection (on and off the court). Perhaps most concerning of all: Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t signed his extension and reportedly will not do so until the Butler situation is resolved.

The deadline to sign an extension is October 15th. Maybe he’ll sign it the second Butler is no longer a Timberwolf. Maybe he’s waiting to assess the post-Butler roster and make his choice then. It’s unclear what exactly Towns wants, but this is an interesting case study in negotiating power for young stars still on rookie deals. Normally, a maximum rookie extension for a player of Towns’ caliber is a formality. By withholding his signature, Towns is flexing his nascent franchise player muscles. Continue reading

Nikola Jokic Pushes the Boundaries of Big-Man Offense

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Inimitable things are usually polarizing, and Nikola Jokic is no exception. Even within his own team—a franchise for which he is now unquestionably the figurehead after inking a 5-year, $148M contract—there are signs of hesitation. This uncertainty doesn’t concern his talent (which is undeniable), but how one goes about maximizing it. It’s one thing to revel in his offensive genius from afar; building a scheme around his brilliance, however, requires creativity and a level of trust not commonly afforded to big men.

Most of the offensively gifted giants are play-finishers (e.g. Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid). They score at a high volume but are often dependent on teammates to create offense1. The other end of the spectrum is home to big men who add value with passing (e.g. Al Horford, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol). These players make their teammates better but can’t shoulder the burden of being a team’s primary scorer. Nikola Jokic is a tantalizing hybrid with the potential to carry an offense in a way we have rarely (if ever) seen from a true big man. Continue reading

Years (Not Dollars) Matter Most For 2nd-Round Contracts

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The best NBA franchises thrive on the margins. Any team can make a no-brainer draft pick, but the exemplary organizations maximize their talent by consistently nailing the minor decisions. One such example is the second round of the draft1. Though it is rare for second-round picks to blossom into full-blown All-Stars, overlooked gems are unearthed in every draft.

Even with the caveat of a minuscule sample size, the 2018 Summer League revealed a few potential second-round steals that could yield major dividends for their teams (e.g. Mitchell Robinson, De’Anthony Melton, Svi Mykhailiuk). The mere possibility of nabbing a rotation-worthy player in the second round is enough of a reward, but the value of those picks can be amplified by contract structure.

The overwhelming majority of second-round picks sign for the minimum (or close to it), but it’s the years—not the money—that can matter most in these situations from the team’s perspective. Continue reading

Slipped Screens & Broken Dreams: How the Utah Jazz Attacked the Houston Rockets’ Switching Defense in Game 2

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Facing adversity after a lopsided loss, the Utah Jazz did what they’ve done all season: regroup, make the necessary adjustments and outexecute the opponent. The Jazz stumbled out of the gate in Game 1 as the Houston Rockets’ switching defense stymied their offense. The hand-offs and motion that make up Quin Snyder’s playbook were often negated by Houston switches, and Utah’s pick-and-roll offense struggled to find any oxygen. The results were very different in Game 2, and Utah emphasized their counter from the very first possession: slipping the screen. Continue reading

The Pivotal Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford Matchup in Sixers – Celtics

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This Boston Celtics – Philadelphia 76ers series has something for everyone: superstar-level talent; an injury-depleted roster that won’t quit; a tactical battle on the sidelines; and so many narratives that writers have to choose between revisiting the history between the franchises or gazing into their crystal balls at the two squads that could potentially define the Eastern Conference for the next five years. But most of that stuff is window dressing. The most important aspect of the series will be the matchup of Joel Embiid and Al Horford.

That’s not to detract from the talent and importance of the other players on the floor. Ben Simmons will rebound from a subpar Game 1 and show us why he’s the closest thing to a LeBron James successor we’ve ever seen. Jayson Tatum will continue to marinate in the slow-cooker as the “third wheel” in the Rookie of the Year debate who could very well end up being the best player of the bunch. I guess Terry Rozier could actually continue to play like this and make us all (myself included) cringe at those jokes we made at Danny Ainge’s expense.

But Joel Embiid and Al Horford are not merely the best players on their rosters; they are the stylistic anchors that dictate the identity of their teams. In Game 1, we didn’t see them go head-to-head that frequently, but those minutes will be the bellwether for this series. Continue reading

The Importance of Paul George’s Defensive Assignment and Other Things to Watch in Thunder – Jazz

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Paul George is currently the best perimeter defender on the Oklahoma City Thunder roster (get well, Andre Roberson), but he hasn’t spent much time guarding Utah’s best offensive player (Donovan Mitchell). Instead, most of Playoff P’s defensive possessions have involved harassing Joe Ingles. Why is George guarding the lesser threat?

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Perhaps the decision to have George matched up on Ingles is about conserving his energy for offense, but PG is hardly taking plays off on the defensive end. On the contrary, he’s made it his mission to limit Ingles’ impact. Though George has been unabashedly disrespectful to Ingles on the court and at the podium, the matchup assignment itself is an implicit nod of acknowledgment from OKC with regards to Ingles’ playmaking abilities and his importance to the Jazz offense. Continue reading

Making it Wayne: How the Miami Heat Have Unleashed Wayne Ellington’s Shooting

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As the NBA embraces the 3-point revolution, the league is extracting more value from elite shooters than ever before. Teams fortunate enough to pay the game’s most versatile shooters (e.g. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard) usually build their offenses around that singular skill. Even the more one-dimensional shooters can create headaches for defenses by sprinting around screens/hand-offs and letting it fly (e.g. Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick).

With the growing acceptance—nay, reliance—on shots from downtown, role players have adapted to their changing surroundings by refining their jumpers and shot selection. One of the best examples of this phenomenon has been Wayne Ellington. Ellington entered the league as a knockdown shooter (career: 38.1% 3P), but his skill set was never fully optimized until he signed with the Miami Heat in 2016-17. Continue reading

The Plays & Numbers Behind the Houston Rockets’ Record-Breaking Offense

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General Manager Daryl Morey has been upfront about his “obsession” with beating the Golden State Warriors. After the Houston Rockets bowed out of last year’s playoffs early—without even facing their admitted obsession—Morey set to work retooling his roster with the Warriors firmly in mind.

He signed versatile wing defenders (P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to form the backbone of a switch-heavy defense and brought in Chris Paul to share the offensive load with James Harden. While adding any player of Paul’s caliber would have been helpful, one aspect of Paul’s game was particularly intriguing for a matchup against Golden State: his isolation brilliance.

The Warriors’ team defense is so exceptional that relying on isolation basketball to score against them is one way to minimize the talent differential. Golden State’s switching scheme neutralizes many pick-and-roll actions, and the team’s collective IQ allows them to diagnose and disrupt designed plays. To beat this kind of five-headed defensive monster, there is some logic in focusing on one head at a time (i.e. iso ball) if you have world-class talent.

Golden State’s two biggest challengers during this run happen to be teams that featured a pair of unstoppable isolation scorers. The 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder stormed to a 3-1 series lead due to the individual brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the 2016-17 champion Cleveland Cavaliers clawed back from a 1-3 hole by force-feeding their own isolation dynamos—LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

With Harden and Paul, the Rockets have two of the game’s best decision-makers steering the most efficient offense the NBA has ever seen. Houston is setting all kinds of records for isolation efficiency because the offense unlocks the genius of Harden and Paul by giving them more space than either of them have ever experienced in their careers.

On both team and individual levels, these Rockets are posting the best isolation season on record:

Harden and Paul can wreak isolation havoc in many ways, but they’re courteous enough to let the defense choose how it will meet its demise. If defenders are left on an island, both players can dismantle their prey and get to the basket with frightening ease:

Both players are also adept at lulling defenders to sleep with a hypnotic array of dribble moves before splashing a pullup jimbo in someone’s face (or while they’re on their ass):

If the defense instinctively rotates too far away from one of the other Rockets, Paul and Harden have a finetuned radar system capable of picking out the open man, and Daryl Morey has stacked the roster with elite shooters:

Some are skeptical about Houston’s chances in the postseason, mostly due to the track records of Harden, Paul and D’Antoni. While defense typically improves in the playoffs, this is usually because teams have more time to game-plan for their opponents and scheme coverages to defang the most potent actions. I’m not sure if that’s really possible for an offense so reliant on isolation basketball.

We saw the San Antonio Spurs counter last year’s Rockets by making their bigs defend the pick-and-roll with a deep drop. This allowed them to defend the pick-and-roll with only two players, stay home on shooters and left Harden to settle for mid-range jumpers (something he didn’t do) or try to finish at the rim over the length of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Some teams have defended Houston’s pick-and-rolls like that this year, but there are three things worth noting about the deep drop and how it relates to this year’s Rockets:

1) If you deep drop against Chris Paul, he will feast in the mid-range. As part of his baptism by MoreyBall, Paul is shooting fewer mid-range jumpers but they haven’t disappeared from his diet. More importantly, he is still incredibly efficient from the mid-range. Per Cleaning The Glass, Paul is shooting 50% from the mid-range (94th percentile for PGs) and a blistering 56% on 2-pointers outside 14 feet (98th percentile for PGs). Forcing those mid-range looks is a favorable outcome for the defense compared to the alternatives, but it’s still not a good outcome when Chris Paul is involved.

2) James Harden and Chris Paul are EN FUEGO on pull-up 3s. Per NBA.com/Stats, Harden and Paul are 6th and 8th respectively in 3P% on pull-ups (min. two pull-up 3PA per game). The only players ahead of them are Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans (??), Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, C.J. McCollum and Paul George (who sits at 7th sandwiched between the two Rockets). Paul has historically been very good at the shot, but he’s amped up the volume in Houston. Harden shot a measly 33% on these looks last year (the product of having to barf up too many of them in late-clock situations and/or when he was tired), but is up to 39% on pull-up 3s this season. Furthermore, the Rockets are setting ballscreens very high on the floor giving Harden and Paul more space to pull-up from deep if the defense drops too far back.

3) The deep drop doesn’t help teams defend Harden and Paul in isolation. This wasn’t as troubling last year when Harden was the only real creator on the team. Forcing Harden to carry the entire offense on his back in isolation was too much to ask from any player not named LeBron James. But he has a partner-in-crime this year, and they’re running roughshod over the entire league. The Rockets will use any player as the ball-screener in an attempt to single out the weakest defender in the herd. If the defense switches, Houston gets the isolation matchup it wanted. If the defense doesn’t switch, Paul/Harden carves them up with their pick-and-roll mastery. If the defense traps/shows, the other Rockets have made good decisions on the short roll.

But what does it all mean, Basil? Everything comes back to isolation basketball. Golden State’s entire offense is built around Stephen Curry’s pull-up shooting. It’s an unsolvable riddle that paralyzes defenses and unlocks the Warriors’ glorious ball movement. Houston has its own unsolvable riddle: Harden and Paul in isolation.

Unless opponents can field a 5-man lineup where everyone can credibly defend those two in isolation, nobody is stopping these Rockets over a series. There is, of course, one team that come close. Houston’s approach to the Warriors’ Death Lineup (Curry, Klay, Iguodala, Durant, Draymond) will mirror Cleveland’s in recent years: pick on Stephen Curry. The Warriors excel at protecting Curry on defense, but that won’t be easy against these Rockets thanks to their immaculate spacing. Houston’s title hopes rest on whether Harden and Paul can sustain this ridiculous level of isolationist basketball in a playoff setting. I don’t know if the Rockets will win the title, but I’m betting that Harden and Paul will continue to cook.

If Houston’s isolation game drops off in the postseason, the Rockets will need to lean more heavily on their designed plays. Mike D’Antoni has unleashed a system that dominates through minimalism, but his team has also sprinkled in a variety of set plays and actions that keep the defense on edge. I’ve broken down 11 of their sets below. Continue reading

Exploring the World of Assists, Passing and Ball-Movers

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If you asked a bunch of knowledgeable NBA fans about the best passers in the league, it wouldn’t be long before John Wall’s name came up. His assist numbers are eye-popping (with a career 9.2 assist per game average that’s good for 6th all-time) and he constantly creates easy shots for his teammates. Whether he’s whipping cross-court passes to open shooters or dishing to his pick-and-roll partner for an easy layup, Wall’s passing ability remains his greatest skill and the primary fuel for the Washington Wizards offense.

Consequently, things looked grim for Washington when it was announced in late January that Wall would miss six-to-eight weeks after a knee procedure. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Wizards have put together one of their best stretches of basketball this season, winning 12 of 19 games without Wall. Moreover, the WAY they’ve played without their star PG has been more fascinating than the impressive record. Wall may be one of the league’s best passers, but his team’s passing and assist numbers have spiked without him.

Wall has missed two chunks of time this year (once in December and his current prolonged absence), and the table below shows how the Wizards’ passing stats have fluctuated with and without him.Table 1 v2 - WAS StatsFirst, take note of the December stretch without Wall. The Wizards went 4-5 during that period and their offense sputtered to the tune of 101 points per game on a 49% effective field-goal percentage (numbers you’d expect from one of the league’s worst offenses). They passed the ball much less, and the team is not built to run smoothly that way without Wall running the show.

During Wall’s most recent absence, however, they’ve played a different brand of basketball and have been an excellent offensive team. Over that period, Washington has stylistically looked more like the Golden State Warriors than the Wizards we’re used to seeing. John Wall’s strengths and weaknesses have a lot to do with those differing styles, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of misinterpreting the aesthetic differences for improved results.

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