The Outlet Pass: Break Up the Utah Jazz
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The Outlet Pass: Break Up the Utah Jazz

Plus, the Miami Heat's underrated rookie sensation, San Antonio's new lineup that desperately needs a pet name, how the Los Angeles Clippers look since the Blake Griffin trade, and more.

Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.

1. I Don't Like Buyout Season

The buyout market is, in my opinion, two degrees short of an abomination. In year's past but significantly so this season, it short-circuits activity leading up to the trade deadline, allowing teams that can otherwise afford to part ways with a long-term asset the opportunity to add players without any risk.


Why shouldn’t the Philadelphia 76ers have to give the Atlanta Hawks some sort of compensation? Atlanta shrewdly acquired Marco Belinelli's expiring contract in a Dwight Howard trade; the system should be set up to force interested buyers to offer some piece(s) that can add momentum to their rebuild.

Why should the Boston Celtics not have to surrender a single draft pick for Greg Monroe? Doesn’t it make more sense to let the Sacramento Kings take calls for Joe Johnson? It's obviously more complicated than that, and a disproportionate trade market crossed with the Golden State Warriors' shadow surely factored into the lack of transactions.

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Large salaries would hold up most contenders from being able to afford players like Monroe, but maybe we can sidestep this dilemma by implementing a rule that draws from the amnesty clause: Each season all 30 teams can shop one contract on their books to anybody else—whether they’re capped out, above the tax, whatever—without having to match salaries.

For example, the Suns know they can’t get anything for Monroe, so they use this hypothetical provision on his deal and then move him to whichever team offers the most attractive assets. Monroe would come off Phoenix’s cap but the Suns would still pay him whatever’s left on the contract, while his new team would take him on for the veteran’s minimum.

This isn’t a perfect solution and there’s probably several dozen problems with it I don’t see—shifting power from players to teams and ownership isn’t something I’m a huge fan of, and this definitely does that—but the NBA’s current buyout system enables the rich to add wealth while the poor stand still. It dampens the trade deadline and bums me out. If the league really wants parity, or at least long-term balance, shedding buyout acquisitions would put it one step closer to that ideal.


2. Nobody Should Want to Play the Jazz When the Playoffs Start

Instead of using the trade deadline to sell high on a few helpful players and carve headway towards an eventual (inevitable?) rebuild around Donovan Mitchell—a carnivorous jackrabbit who’s one of eight players to score over 1000 points in under 1700 minutes this season—and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz decided to hold on and push forward.

Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Alec Burks, and Derrick Favors’s expiring contract were kept. Rodney Hood (someone they weren’t convinced they could re-sign) and Joe Johnson were dealt in a three-team trade that brought back Jae Crowder, who scored 29 points in his first couple games—his two highest tallies since Christmas Day and Isaiah Thomas’s Cavaliers debut—with the team.

Big picture: This might've been a miscalculation. But it’s hard to know how badly Utah’s recent success intensified the thought of keeping this roster intact and ready for a stretch run to the playoffs, where they're almost certainly headed after a 10-game win streak that began after a 14-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks dropped them to 19-28.

Since then, they’ve dismantled the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs (twice), Toronto Raptors, and Portland Trail Blazers. The latter three were handed L’s in their own building. Since January 1, they rank fifth in Net Rating, with a top-ten offense and defense. Only the Warriors, Blazers, and Sacramento Kings have been more accurate from beyond the arc, too.


Before he went down with a hip injury, Rubio was a significant reason why, shooting 40 percent from three in his last 20 games and even finishing somewhat respectably at the rim (particularly with his left hand). He did all that while still providing the rabid on-ball defense and intuitive unselfishness that have long buoyed his career.

Rubio won’t stay this hot forever, but he spent the past few weeks smiling at stubborn defenders who’d dart beneath screens to gift-wrap him with open jumpers. To reliably knock down a pull-up at the elbow is nice and opens up so many different options once defenses alter their strategy to slow it down, but for Rubio, the unparalleled vision still stands out as something beautiful enough to spark a “passing is cool again!” renaissance.

Minus the fact that Ingles misses the wide open three, this is perfection. Rubio notices that Nicolas Batum has shot the gap and forced Ingles to fade from (instead of curl around) Gobert’s screen. His pass is a Trust Fall. Rubio can’t even see Ingles when he lets go of the ball, like a quarterback who targets his spot before the receiver breaks off their route.

Magic like that can’t happen on every play, though. Utah grinds its way through half-court possessions, waiting for the defense to crack; watching them play, it's pretty clear that Quin Snyder is not the type of person who taps “Skip Intro” when binging a new show. They subsist off a constant churn of passes, cuts, screens, and movement that breeds an unselfish energy—a complete culture shock for Crowder after his first game. He wasn't doing stuff like this in Cleveland.


Two nights into what already appears to be a mutually beneficial relationship, the 27-year-old looks invigorated on both ends. He's already exuding bits of effort that were swallowed during his time in Cleveland. The willingness to sacrifice his body is particularly notable—not so much on bang-bang block/charge plays, but, for example: hitting the deck to draw a foul when Davis Bertans nudged his shoulder—something he tried against C.J. McCollum the previous night, too—or rushing across the paint to hack Pau Gasol and prevent an open layup. (Gasol wound up going 1-for-2 at the line, late in a one-possession game.)

Those plays, and that hustle, matter. Crowder spent the entirety of his first game at small forward, but played the four alongside Gobert, and lator Favors against San Antonio on Monday night; that may foreshadow Utah's eventual starting five, but until a change is made this team's bedrock, barometer, and most frequent dilemma can be found in the frontcourt.

Spacing issues are unavoidable against smart defenses when Gobert and Favors share the floor, but the duo has dominated on both ends over their last 15 games, producing an offensive rating that’d rank first in the league by 2.4 points per 100 possessions. Lineups that feature both bigs are absolutely conquering the offensive and defensive glass, too.

Pick and rolls featuring either big spotted up in the corner, or in the dunker’s spot, usually end in a turnover or hideous floater, but on occasion Utah will find a way to crack the window open and let a little breeze through their offense. It helps that Favors can really pass.


In the fourth quarter of Monday's comeback win against the Spurs, Snyder rode with Favors at the five and surrounded him with Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder, and Royce O'Neale (whose increased minutes since Thabo Sefolosha's season-ending injury have become a blessing in disguise). Utah had enough space and intelligence to pick-and-roll San Antonio into submission. There's no script with this team. They simply surf the most attractive wave and have enough quality lineup combinations to make it work.

The Jazz would not make the playoffs if the season ended today, but FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is bullish on their chances, mostly because they only have ten road games left. (Ten!) This win streak came during the hardest section of their schedule, which speaks volumes to how hard they play, and how well they function when healthy.

The recent offensive surge is likely unsustainable, but they have enough spunk, competence, and versatility to scare somebody in the first round. Mitchell is fearlessly willing to splash color on offensive possessions that crap out by hijacking them with his Slam Dunk Contest-caliber bounce; the Jazz have a stable of capable wings who can make rotating defenders look silly by attacking closeouts and running secondary pick-and-rolls.

Even though most/all playoff runs in the Western Conference will lead straight into a Bay Area slaughterhouse, Utah’s recent play is well earned and awesome to see. They’re deep, skilled, and filled with hungry players who go hard within their own limitations. This isn't a mirage.


3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is Still Out Here

One of the harshest moments heard in any random League Pass broadcast occurs whenever opposing announcers react to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot, as if he hasn't been in the league for six years.

If it clangs off the rim at an awkward angle, they’ll conclude that he’s “open for a reason,” chuckle, and maybe make some cruel comment about the unsightly aesthetics. Even worse, if it happens to go in. The response then ranges from confusion to righteous anger. "Are you freaking kidding me?"

Kidd-Gilchrist’s narrative feels ancient because it’s unchanging, but he’s still only 24 years old, just sort of floating through another season where he treats every possession like it’s a battle for the last warm burrito in the universe. Most of his minutes are with Kemba Walker and Charlotte’s bench has been gruesome for most of the year, but MKG’s on/off numbers are once again excellent.

For all the damage that shot does to Charlotte’s offense, Kidd-Gilchrist works like a dog on the defensive end, gang rebounding, taking responsibility for the hardest cover so Walker or Nicolas Batum don’t have to worry about it, etc. No, he doesn’t have a jumper and has never been much of a playmaker, either. But Kidd-Gilchrist is at least conscious of his flaws and does his best to cover them up without sweeping them under the rug entirely (he’s actually above-average at his position on long twos right now).


Is his presence a net positive? I’d lean slightly towards cautious pessimism, but it’s not as black and white as it appears, especially if he stays healthy for the foreseeable future. This isn't as good (or bad) as he'll forever be.

4. The Spurs Need a Nickname

Five-man unit nicknames are the greatest. They peaked with the Death Lineup (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green), which mutated into the unfortunately labeled “Hampton Five” when Kevin Durant replaced Barnes. Before that we had “A Tribe Called Bench," a Los Angeles Clippers special that featured Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, huggable Ronny Turiaf, and Lamar Odom. Even further back was “The Bench Mob” in Sacramento at the turn of the millennium.

For whatever reason (probably because it’s fun and cool) we’re now seeing a slight resurgence in the form of Miami’s “Platinum Group"—they really should be called the “Platinum Club”—comprised of Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo, and Wayne Ellington. Toronto has the “Shadow Team” or as I dubbed them in early December: “C.J. + The Babies": C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam. (They’re still C.J. + The Babies in my heart even when Norm Powell moonlights as a backup singer.)

And now, since Gregg Popovich replaced Pau Gasol in the starting lineup with Davis Bertans, a new (old?) group is beginning to form in San Antonio. It’s a bench unit that features Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and LaMarcus Aldridge.


The eldest trio within this lineup is comprised of first-ballot Hall of Famers who’re a combined 112 years old with 10 championship rings between them. They deserve a pet name, and have been feasting on opposing bench units for the past couple weeks.

I’m not good at coming up with nicknames (what about "The Senior Spurizens"?), so I leave the responsibility up to you, dear reader. What should we call them?

5. Tomas Satoransky is Holding His Own

The headline for this section qualifies as an understatement, but still doesn’t nullify Washington’s need to sign a veteran point guard—Tim Frazier’s nasal fracture puts the team in a desperate situation—like (makes infinity gulps) Ty Lawson or Derrick Rose.

Still, since Satoransky replaced John Wall in Washington’s starting lineup on January 27, the Wizards have been wildly successful with him on the floor and an icky swamp when he sits—he owns the best net differential on the team over that span. This development is simultaneously welcome news and feels like it'll turn into a pumpkin at midnight, because unforeseeably fortunate breaks like this basically never happen to the Wizards.

Despite Washington's never-ending hunt for reliable bench production, the 26-year-old wasn’t able to squirm his way into Scott Brooks’s rotation at any point during his rookie season. He barely shot over 40 percent, made only nine threes, and played just 36 minutes in the playoffs. (Brandon Jennings was on the floor instead, which seriously speaks to how deflating Washington’s second unit was.)


Satoransky never got to slide in Wall’s place with the other four starters, either, but this year that lineup is obliterating everybody. According to Cleaning the Glass, in 315 possessions, Satoransky, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat have outscored opponents by 19.7 points per 100 possessions. He’s shooting 48.3 percent from beyond the arc (28-of-58) and has tripled his Win Shares per 48 minutes.

Where he’s most impressive, though, is on defense. At 6’7” with quick feet and fantastic anticipation, Satoransky is able to stay in front of most opposing point guards and switch onto at least two other positions.

Here he is against Kyrie Irving, as slippery an offensive threat as has ever lived.

And here’s Jaylen Brown thinking he has a clear step on Satoransky after Al Horford screens Marcin Gortat out of the way. It’s subtle action the Celtics routinely run to their advantage, but Satoransky does what few wing defenders can and wins the battle.

Whoever they sign, be it Lawson, Rose, or some other veteran floor general, Satoransky has proven himself worthy of a larger role in Washington. As a reliable ball-handler off the bench who, along with Kelly Oubre and…yeah actually just Kelly Oubre, he can relieve Wall and Beal of some shot-making pressure in the postseason, and maybe, finally give this team some of the youthful depth they're dying for.

6. Long Live Bam Adebayo


Good lord this rookie class is absurd. Miami landed Bam Adebayo with the 14th pick back in June, and already his myriad contributions, advanced feel, and supremely advantageous physical gifts would, in any other year, motivate the team that selected him in the top five to do back flips on end for the next nine months.

Adebayo projects as a rim-rolling, energetic center for Miami who’s a better defensive fit in the modern game than Hassan Whiteside—who, truth be told, may already be blocking the 20-year-old’s progress. (That said, the rookie has logged nearly twice as many fourth-quarter minutes as Whiteside, and just look at the on/off disparity between the two centers over the Heat’s last 15 games.) Miami will switch him onto just about anybody—which was, um, a learning experience against James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets—and he’s a perfect tag-team partner with Olynyk off the bench.

Watch below as he corrals Evan Fournier, then sprints back to neutralize Bismack Biyombo underneath the rim.

Adebayo steamrolled Clint Capela in that aforementioned recent game against the Rockets, smashing his way through the paint for and-one put-backs and second-chance opportunities. He’s a foul-drawing bull with terrific hands and two jackhammers where his tibias should be. A majority of Bam’s shots have come at the rim this year, where he often looks like DeAndre Jordan 2.0, but he has skills that broaden speculation on what he’ll be five years from now.


Just look at this pass to a cutting Ellington.

He has 77 assists in 966 minutes. Whiteside has 124 assists in his entire career. And looking at his stroke and free-throw percentage, it’s not unfathomable to imagine him one day stretching defenses out to the corner with a respectable three-point shot.

Again: ridiculous draft class.

7. What Should the Clippers New Frontcourt Look Like?

Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan, and Danilo Gallinari are a more complementary trio than Jordan, Gallo, and Blake Griffin, and how Doc Rivers mixes and matches their minutes (with Montrezl Harrell, who is really Moses Malone) will be fascinating down the stretch.

In 120 minutes together, the Clippers have outscored their opponents by three points when Harris, Gallo, and Jordan share the floor. The Gallinari-Jordan pick-and-roll has the potential to be one of the more intriguing 4-5 combinations in the league—a tricky matchup that's hard to cancel out without a seamless switch.

Harris and Gallinari are both fine spot-up threats who space the floor wider than Griffin ever could, but so far the Clippers have struggled to leverage that benefit by too frequently settling into iso-ball against natural mismatches that arise from having both on the floor at the same time.

Harris is increasingly fond of backing his way down against small forwards who’re three or four inches shorter than he is (the percentage of his possessions that are post-ups has doubled since he moved to Los Angeles, according to Synergy Sports), while Gallinari is the king of assassinating good offense with his jab step-pump fake-jab step fallaway that has no place in today’s NBA.


Jordan is averaging over one more elbow touch per game since Griffin was traded. The ball is in his hands in ways it’s never been before, as the Clippers find ways to filter their attack through a limited fixture whose no longer surrounded by the same number of adept lob throwers (Avery Bradley, Austin Rivers, Harris, and Gallinari are not Griffin, Chris Paul, and Jamal Crawford) who can accentuate his greatest offensive strength. Jordan caught a few violent ones in Brooklyn on Monday night, but he may no longer possess the vertical leap that was once high enough to make Elon Musk rub his chin.

Harris and Gallo play the same position, but both are interchangeable pick-and-roll playmakers who can work as screeners or ball-handlers. Doc Rivers needs to figure out how he wants to sort things out. Will he shorten his rotation to eight players (goodbye Sam Dekker and Wesley Johnson), juggle three-guard units (Bradley, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Lou Williams, and Tyrone Wallace can all be kind of dynamic together), or hope those jumbo lineups have enough shooting to survive?

Settling on one answer probably isn't the way to go. Options are a good thing.

8. The Most Inexplicable Brain Fart in Basketball

Over the last week, I’ve witnessed defenders willingly duck under ball screens while guarding:

A) Damian Lillard: The second-most prolific pull-up three-point shooter in the league (who scored 89 points over the weekend).


B): Kemba Walker: The third-most prolific pull-up three-point shooter in the league (who’s shooting 48.9 percent on nine attempts per game over Charlotte’s last 10 contests).

C) Kyle Lowry: Is there anybody east of Houston who’s more willing to launch a three off the bounce?

D) Kyrie Irving: Just stop.

Look, mistakes happen. Basketball is hard and tiring and locking up the guys listed above is as taxing on the brain as it is on the muscular system. Maybe the defense simply wanted to try another look after they were bludgeoned repeatedly by poor back-line rotations, and the prospect of surrendering a pull-up from 25 feet made more sense than allowing a dunk or wide-open catch-and-shoot corner three. Maybe. But every time this happens in real time, it looks like such an epic mistake, and speaks to the unforgiving day and age we live in.

9. Gerald Green’s Incredible Season Doesn’t Even Matter

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No team personifies the NBA's current obsession with the three-point line like the Houston Rockets. And no player, right now, better elucidates the sport’s relentless trend than Gerald Green. It’s only been 19 games, but Green is on pace to do something nobody ever has: average over seven three-point attempts in fewer than 25 minutes per game, per Basketball-Reference.

What the Rockets are doing is unprecedented, but in a way that’s far more anticipated than experimental. Maybe that’s why Green’s off-the-leash freedom hasn't stood out. Analytically, we already know three is more than two, and constantly leaning into an opponent’s pressure point from the perimeter typically yields a beneficial result. But the predictability of it all comes with a stale taste—watching Green shine in this role makes you wonder what Nick Young, Jamal Crawford, or J.R. Smith would look like in the same position, but little else about it is imaginative.

Mike D’Antoni has two Eclipse Award-winning thoroughbreds helming his transcendent system; Green is merely a juiced-up guinea pig back strapped to one of their backs. The Rockets don’t need him saucing up their offense for it to be all-time scary, but they’re also smart enough to bleed his game dry. If Green continues to shoot over 40 percent, at this volume, people should really start to pay more attention to what's happening down in Houston.

10. Things Haven’t Been Great For Jahlil Okafor

The Brooklyn Nets are bad. When Jahlil Okafor is their center, they’re slightly better than Villanova. Based on his on-court point differential (which is a ghastly -24.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass), they only have three expected wins per 82 games.

He ranks in the 21st percentile on post ups and the 20th percentile in isolation, per Synergy Sports, and is as one-dimensional on defense as advertised, rarely venturing outside the paint and then getting beat once the offense meets him at the rim. To be fair, Okafor's minutes are anything but consistent and he isn't playing with the same guys on a nightly basis. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has rationalized this by saying he constantly needs shooters and small lineups on the floor to come back from the large deficits Brooklyn regularly runs into, and that's fair.

But if Okafor can't find solid ground on a bad team that should be going out of its way to unearth the reason why he was drafted third overall, then the 22-year-old's place in the NBA might already be in jeopardy.

11. A Quick Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving Stat That’s Kind of Interesting

Since Thomas’s season debut back on January 2, both he and Kyrie Irving have played exactly 436 minutes. Thomas has registered 193 drives (second most in the league among all players who logged at least 450 minutes over that span, and equal to James Harden in 10 fewer minutes) to Irving’s 174.

Okay, now the interesting part: Thomas has scored 83 points from those drives. And Irving? 112! For those scoring at home, that’s 29 more points on 19 fewer opportunities.

We’re working from a small sample, but what these numbers tell us is that Thomas, one of the most aggressive rim rushers over the past two seasons, is still attacking the rim but not quite able to finish—be it with floaters, nifty layups, or trips to the free-throw line—like he did before suffering a season-ending hip injury last year.

Thomas’s usage was high in his Lakers debut, but most of his shots were pull-up threes, either in transition or thanks to a Mavericks defense that hasn’t yet realized this isn’t the same player who torched them for 59 points in a pair of convincing Celtics wins last season. Hitting pull-up threes is obviously a nice skill to have, but if Thomas ever wants to inch towards the player he used to be, more off-the-bounce success is mandatory.