Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
1. An Ode to Two Non-All-Star All-Stars
This is an excuse to highlight a special pair that was not invited to Los Angeles, but are invaluable to teams that couldn’t legitimately contend for a championship without them.
The first is Chris Paul, who, well, the Houston Rockets have won 85.7 percent of the games he’s appeared in. Paul is far and away their second-best player, and he'd be number one if number one wasn't the probable league MVP. (At first glance, Paul is superior to every reserve on Team LeBron and Team Steph; an easy argument can be made for his place above at least three starters, but that’s neither here nor there.)
At 32, the nine-time All-Star reads defenses like a stage actor on his 1000th straight day performing from the same script. He ranks first in Real Plus-Minus. His True Shooting is a career-best 61.6, and he’s making a borderline make-believe 56.7 percent of his long twos. The way he slaloms a high pick-and-roll—or downhill skis through the open floor—before knocking down a fadeaway from the right elbow is literal sorcery. (Among those who’ve appeared in at least 40 games, Paul owns the lowest percentage of made shots that came by way of an assist, at 14.4 percent. Harden is at 19.1 percent and LeBron James is at 30 percent.)
He’s a maestro creating his own shot, has a special affinity for jacking threes when a big switches out to guard him (and is poorly positioned to grab the rebound), and generally operates with a much higher success rate than anyone his size and age probably should.
Paul’s greatness is knowing what ten brains are thinking at the same time. He and the Rockets have been virtually unbeatable when Harden teams up in the backcourt, but Paul is even better by himself. He’s shooting 44.2 percent on spot-up threes and 41.5 percent from beyond the arc when he dribbles at least seven times!
All this is remarkable and important.
But despite the two dozen magic tricks he pulls off every game, the way he turns the nail into a foxhole whenever an opponent tries to drive middle, and that irresistible trillion-watt smile, the psychotic hyper-competitive inferno that consumes Paul whenever he's at work has callused over how truly great he still is.
Fans (especially young ones) have never aspired to be like him relative to other stars at that position. Nobody really "admires" his behavior. Paul's signature shoes come and go without any trace of a cultural footprint, and even though he says and does all the right things off the court, who he is under the only spotlight that matters tends to turn people off.
But all that can still be for naught. Paul is well-positioned to modify how he’s forever perceived if the Rockets win their last game in June. If that happens, don’t be surprised if Netflix eventually produces a true crime documentary that investigates how he wasn’t an All-Star in 2018.
Next up is Steven Adams, Oklahoma City’s true third wheel and a strategy-altering force on the offensive glass. Watching Adams over the last few weeks, it's clear that he's so much more than a harmonious role player. The 24-year-old may be solidifying himself as an authentic star before our very eyes. How many center are more indispensable? Joel Embiid and…is that it?
It’s one of the more significant narrative arcs to emerge this season. Powerful enough to alter Oklahoma City’s trajectory in a very favorable way over the next few years. For now, Adams’s lumberjackian strength takes over games whenever he sets a screen 28 feet from the rim, or wedges in-between two opponents who need a cattle prod to box him out. His touch from just outside the restricted area makes him a hypnotically reliable roll man, and he’s become an agile razor wire on the defensive end. Look at this anticipation from Saturday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors, a play that illustrates how Adams regularly puts himself in the right place at the right time.
The Warriors had plenty of success after they went small in that game, but should these two teams match up in a seven-game series, his ability to single-handedly create second-chance opportunities will not only keep the Warriors from leaking out in transition, but force Steve Kerr to weigh how often he wants Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to exert energy wrestling this dude when one of their true bigs (JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, or David West) should probably do it instead.
Adams's growing all-around impact doesn’t make the Thunder favorites, but when you, as an individual, are good enough to discomfit one of the greatest teams ever assembled, then it’s safe to say you’re probably a star. His career average offensive rebound rate heading into this season was 12.9. Right now, he leads the league at 17.0. His True Shooting was 58.2 and his PER was 14.8. Those two metrics are now 63.4 and 21.3, respectively.
Other really good players who didn’t make the All-Star team exist—Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, C.J. McCollum, Lou Williams, Daniel Theis, etc.—but Paul and Adams stand out as relevant, game-changing figures in two contrastingly dominant ways. One is low usage and doesn’t need the ball. The other conducts symphonies with it in his hands. Both are so freaking awesome.
2. Montrezl Harrell is DeAndre Jordan Insurance
It probably was never fair to label Harrell as salary filler in the trade that brought Chris Paul to Houston, but it’s certainly understandable to those who did, given how invincible the Rockets have looked since that day. Grading what they "lost" in that deal has never been a priority. Harrell, however, is a shaping up to be a pretty good NBA big man whose terrific all-around play of late may allow the Clippers to divorce themselves from DeAndre Jordan contract negotiations without any regrets this summer.
Even though he’s only 6’8” and exerts most of his energy off the bench against opposing second units, Harrell is a B-12 shot into L.A.’s bloodstream, with a monstrous wingspan that’s as long as Kevin Durant’s. Since the Blake Griffin trade, he’s averaging 16.1 minutes, 12.2 points (on 66.2 percent shooting), 3.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. The 24-year-old puts an audacious amount of pressure on opponents whenever he sprints the floor, fakes a dribble hand-off, or unravels one paw to corral a bounce pass in traffic.
Harrell ranks in the 98th percentile as a roll man, per Synergy Sports. He’s excellent at slipping screens, sucking in help defenders, and then finishing above the rim with Rated-R violence. But what separates him from Jordan on the offensive end is his feel, particularly on the left block, where a majority of Harrell’s postups come from. Overall, his skill-set is far more modern than traditional, but throw him the ball down low and he'll know what to do.
Harrell is patient and decisive, as able to face up, go middle, and finish with a running hook (his signature move) as he is executing a conquerable back-down that ends at the rim. It usually depends on who the defender is; Harrell creates favorable opportunities by sprinting in transition and forcing whoever’s back (often a guard or wing) to handle him.
He’s also adjusted to scouting reports that know he wants to get across the lane for a soft floater. Watch how high Ed Davis guards him on the floor with his feet damn near parallel to the sideline!
The next time they square up, Harrell goes back to doing what he wants to do. He’s a legitimate worry down there.
Defense is a bigger question, though not necessarily a problem that goes without saying. Harrell doesn’t give up on possessions or dawdle through sequences that call for him to soar from the weak side to block somebody’s shot. With ownership of his full Bird Rights as a restricted free agent this summer, the Clippers would be remiss to concentrate on Jordan’s next contract instead of retaining Harrell (who’s nearly six years younger) on a much less expensive long-term deal.
3. Brooklyn’s New Starting Five Actually Looks Kinda Good?
In Brooklyn’s first game after the All-Star break, Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson decided to bump D’Angelo Russell off the bench and back into the starting lineup beside Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and Jarrett Allen.
That’s four shooters surrounding a pick-and-roll big with enormously long arms and a sudden fondness for Finland. Carroll gets to defend fours (good news considering the slip he’s made trying to stop opposing wings this year), Russell and Dinwiddie run pick-and-rolls, create space for themselves, and draw help off their penetration. Both can, along with Crabbe, elude closeout defenders and snipe off flare screens and pin-downs. On paper, at least, the Nets finally look like they're onto something.
Or maybe not. It’s only been a handful of games, but so far the numbers aren’t all that great. It’ll be interesting to see how long Atkinson sticks with them, particularly after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert are both 100 percent and able to play without a minutes restriction.
4. J.R. Smith Has Never Mattered More
As someone who personified Cleveland’s season-long inconsistency heading into the trade deadline, it was good to see J.R. Smith look like his unaffected, delirious self right after the Cavs completely changed their roster.
Smith remains one of Cleveland’s most unpredictably important players. Forget about how it’s impossible to hyperbolize the degree of difficulty on his shot selection, when he plays with joy, creativity, and effort, good things generally happen.
Over their last few games, Smith can be seen sprinting to set ball screens for LeBron James, providing the type of effort that loosens up Cleveland’s offense and makes attacking mismatches so much easier. His defense has been touch-and-go—a little sloppier than it’ll have to be in the playoffs—but it’s something the Cavs can survive until May.
Smith doesn’t lead the league in “I remember where I was when he took that shot” moments but, personally speaking, he’s sketched into my top five with a permanent marker. The two triples he canned during Game 7 of the 2016 Finals were powerful enough to refine how he’s perceived and judged. It’s inane but true, a reflection of how lofty stakes can sway degrees of reverence even when they're directed towards a flaky source of production.
(Here’s a random, forgotten, myth-making reminder that Cleveland won that game with three players coming off its bench: Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert, and Mo Williams. They combined for 10 points and were -22. Ridiculous.)
As we head down the stretch and into the postseason, it should also be remembered that Smith’s True Shooting percentage was 48.4 last year before it Elon Musk’d to 69.8 in the playoffs. Nobody knows when he’ll sidestep within the corner to drill a three from behind the backboard, or spin his way through the paint to kiss a prayer high off the glass. His game is forever a New England weather forecast, but remains critical, on both ends, for a team that needs every role player to hit their ceiling this spring.
5. The Dwyane Wade Conundrum
Dwyane Wade’s return to Miami is a heartwarming story. He never should’ve left, and the 18-month sabbatical in Chicago and Cleveland did nothing but draw him closer to the harsh decline every great athlete inevitably succumbs to. Now 36 and one of the NBA’s 15 oldest players, Wade finds himself in the thick of a playoff race, on a team that’s currently clinging to the eight seed, with the resurgent Charlotte Hornets and desperate Detroit Pistons not far behind.
But even for a group that’s suffered numerous injuries at his position, integrating Wade, at this stage of his career, into the fold in a way that’s mutually beneficial, isn’t easy. In his first five games back, Wade’s usage percentage has been what it was five years ago, when he was LeBron’s right-hand man on a champion. That's a tad unreasonable.
We’re dealing with a small sample size, and expecting Wade to immediately fit in on the court is unrealistic, but his field goal percentage is 34.5 and he’s attempted more shots in the fourth quarter than everyone on the team except Wayne Ellington (who’s played nearly 10 more minutes). Wade hijacked the end of two winnable games against the Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Pelicans, and, so far, has upset one of the league’s better crunch-time offenses.
He’s also not in the greatest shape, and these words about the adjustment period are plenty fair for him to say, but hardly inspiring: "It's been a very different training regimen. For me, it's been like training camp all over again. I’m probably as sore as I’ve been all year…First of all, the style of play is different. I'm coming from a different system to a system that is way different. So it's more body movement for each player on the team, which is a little different than where I come from with my role."
It’s a complex dynamic between Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Wade, and whoever’s minutes were suddenly snatched up by a player who will someday have a statue erected in his honor outside American Airlines Arena. Ego and emotion are adverse factors. Sprinkling whatever Wade has left atop what Miami already does well isn’t impossible, but time is not a luxury. A playoff berth is everything for a franchise that’s payroll, timeline, and preseason expectations demand nothing less. Does playing Wade 20 minutes a night help or hurt that cause? How bad would things have to get for Spoelstra to bench him?
He needs the ball in his hands, is a poor defender, and takes shots away from others who are more capable. Kelly Olynyk’s return will help, though it’s unclear when his shoulder will even be strong enough to go full-contact in practice let alone an actual game. Until then, Wade’s role in Miami is something to monitor as we head down the stretch. The Heat need his addition to be much more than ceremonious.
6. Josh Hart is Exactly What Everyone Thought He'd Be
Lost in the Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram youth movement is another Lakers rookie who doubles as one of the most efficient players in the league. A guy who's always down to make the extra pass, and can switch onto four different positions. And none of it's particularly surprising.
There’s a reason why people thought the Spurs would take Josh Hart in the draft. He’s smart, solid, and stoic. He understands how to space the floor, slither around screens, and is constantly aware of where his man and the ball are. He looks like Danny Green, and has already made the critical, necessary, and not particularly enjoyable adjustment from the leading scorer on a national championship college program to the dramatically reduced three-and-D responsibilities he has in Los Angeles.
This is the type of pick a rebuilding team—whether they’re trying to attract a superstar in free agency, want flexibility on the trade market, or are organically building a strong core—need to make. In 20 games as a starter, Hart is averaging 11.5 points, 6.1 rebounds (sort of ridiculous for a guy who's 6'5"), and 2.0 assists, while shooting over 40 percent from deep. He’s sly and burly when finishing around the rim.
His aforementioned work on the glass really stands out, but it's an eagerness that sometimes gets him in trouble.
Shortly after the play above, Luke Walton sent Corey Brewer to the scorer’s table after Hart lost track of Matthews off a screen. Hart’s response was to score six points in three minutes, throw a blanket on Matthews, and watch as Walton called Brewer back to the bench before he could even sub him in.
As someone who can do a little bit of everything, Hart has been a solid part of the team's point-guard-free starting five, a unit that's bludgeoned the Lakers cupcake February schedule with a 119.2 offensive rating. He may not have much more room to grow, but Hart has already shown he can impact winning with desirable characteristics. The Lakers deserve a round of applause for landing him and Kuzma in the same draft.
But more important than everything written above are his shoes, which deserve a $65,000 price tag:
7. Spurs Catch-And-Go is More Go-And-Catch
The practice is simple: While a pass is still in the air and your man is just beginning to rotate over for a closeout, run towards the ball and ensure you’re (at least) one step ahead of the defense’s intentions.
A few teams do this, but none are more committed than the San Antonio Spurs. (The Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets—especially with Joe Harris—are steadily devoting themselves to the strategy as well.) Manu Ginobili is the Michael Jordan of it and to compensate for not being as blindingly quick as he once was, Tony Parker has done a terrific job folding it into his game.
Here’s a mild example of how it looks, with rookie Derrick White attacking this LaMarcus Aldridge kickout:
It speaks to one tiny reason why defending this team, even without a superstar like Kawhi Leonard on the floor, is still so tricky. No rock goes unturned in the search for any possible offensive advantage or way to make up for physical deficiencies. Kyle Anderson has become a savant at it.
The Spurs play without second thoughts. That's why they're the Spurs.
8. Incredulous Body Language Season is Here
We're in that time of year when bad teams shelve their most dependable veterans in favor of “development”—aka deploying youngsters that do a much better job ensuring the team’s immediate demise. Truly atrocious basketball is abound, and with it we can now bear witness to exasperated body language that I, for one, thoroughly enjoy.
Here’s Zach LaVine restraining a temper tantrum after Cristiano Felicio turns a routine chest pass into an overhead heave that flies out of bounds.
Then there’s this clip from the league’s left armpit down in southwest Arizona.
After Troy Daniels’s gravity causes Wesley Johnson and Tyrone Wallace to momentarily botch a switch, Dragan Bender is gifted with one of the easiest looks he’ll ever have in an NBA game. But instead of raising one arm high above his head, bending his knees, and flushing the ball through the rim—by the way, LOL at DeAndre Jordan's effort with the Clippers up 24 early on—he doesn’t even look at the basket.
Bender whips a pass out to Marquese Chriss in the opposite corner, as if that's not a worst-case scenario. Upon witnessing this, Phoenix’s coaches react like unarmed hostage victims who want to overtake their oppressor but just realized there aren’t any realistic ways to do so.
Alex Len channels a longtime Cleveland Browns season-ticket holder. Devin Booker is 1000 times more exasperated than me whenever I pour ketchup on a hotdog but forgot to shake the bottle and nasty ketchup-water trickles out instead. (That’s really saying something.)
Buckle up. This is only the beginning.
9. The Dumbest Play in Basketball
Theoretically, the Golden State Warriors are most “vulnerable” when playing in a syrupy game against a patient, disciplined offense. The fewer possessions, the better. Limit their chances by holding onto the ball, taking quality shots, balancing the floor, etc.
None of this guarantees victory or even a competitive environment, but it should still go without saying that when presented with an opportunity to take the last shot in any quarter against this team, running the clock all the way down to zero is mandatory. The Clippers and Thunder both botched this uncomplicated concept last week, hurling the ball out of bounds and giving Steph Curry a shot he otherwise wouldn’t have. This is why that’s a dumb thing to do:
10. The Celtics Are Very Good When Terry Rozier and Kyrie Irving Share the Floor
Here are net ratings for the top three five-man units that feature Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier: +15.0, +28.0, and +15.1 points per 100 possessions. All those lineups feature Al Horford at the five, and all have logged at least 50 possessions together.
As the Celtics struggle to boost their offense without desecrating their defensive identity, this is one way for Brad Stevens to tinker with his lineup. There’s no urgent need to switch up the starting five right now, but it wouldn’t be crazy to see Stevens bump Jayson Tatum to the four and unleash this slippery tandem from the jump if Boston grows stagnant in a playoff series.
11. Let’s Play Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague Together
Unlike Stevens’s willingness to play his two point guards at the same time, Tom Thibodeau is allergic to the idea. Tyus Jones (who’s really good) and Jeff Teague (who’s enjoying a quintessential Jeff Teague season) have shared the floor for a grand total of 11 possessions (exactly 1000 fewer than Rozier and Irving). The Timberwolves had the third best offense in basketball before Jimmy Butler hurt his meniscus, so beyond a semi-valid concern over minute allocation, there isn’t much reason to complain about Minnesota’s rotation.
But this is less about fixing a problem than it is a simple call for gradation. With Butler out, why not up Jones’s minutes in lineups that allow both him and Teague to find themselves off the ball? The year is 2018: The more decision-makers, the better.