Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns Has a Right to be Frustrated
A disclaimer for everything you’re about to read: I like the Minnesota Timberwolves and do not think Tom Thibodeau is a bad coach.
Karl-Anthony Towns is 22 years old and one of the 15 best players in the world. He's insanely efficient, impossible to defend with one player, steadily grasping how to pass out of double teams, and providing admirable defensive effort as a big man who has literally never taken a night off. But last Friday he did take a half-night off, when he lost his cool and got ejected in the final minute of the second quarter against the Utah Jazz.
Jimmy Butler’s absence has shone a light on Minnesota's inflexible roster, and their antiquated lineup combinations are impeding Towns in more ways than they're allowing him to shine. It’s all very frustrating. This team doesn’t shoot threes and has one wing (Andrew Wiggins) in the rotation. One wing!
We’ve known they were thin at the league’s most important position since opening night, but we didn’t know Thibodeau would religiously stick two of Nemanja Bjelica, Taj Gibson, and Gorgui Dieng beside Towns in almost all of his minutes since Butler went down. A mere seven of Towns’s 137 minutes in the first four games since then have been at the five with Bjelica at the four, which is…ridiculous.
Towns remains dominant but is clearly frustrated. He has the fourth-highest usage rate on the team and the third-highest over these last four games. Again…ridiculous. But the Timberwolves simply don’t have ways to create space for him in the post, and they can’t clear lanes for him diving through the paint. Watch how Zach Collins treats Dieng in the play below.
Here’s another example from the same game, with Jusuf Nurkic helping way off Gibson in the strong side corner to thwart Towns’s drive.
Towns said all the right things after the first ejection of his career against the Jazz on Friday night, when he complained about contact on what he believed to be (and probably was) an and-1 finish. But it’s not a stretch to think this outburst might be the result of living in such a claustrophobic environment for the past couple weeks.
It’s highly unlikely this stretch will have any impact on Towns's next contract; I’m not insinuating that his relationship with the Timberwolves is on shaky ground or anything like that. He and the team have a lot to be proud of this year. But, to be honest, this feels like a fragile situation, and one that might not be all that great for him. Butler neutralized real problems that have existed all year long, and it’s realistic to wonder how often Towns thinks about his All-Star teammate’s contract situation, whether he’ll leave in 2019.
They aren’t the same player, but does Towns look at Joel Embiid—who’s surrounded by shooting on a team that isn’t afraid to switch, move the ball, or play with pace—and feel any bit of envy? There’s no confusion about where the ball needs to be fed in Philadelphia. There’s no Jamal Crawford heat checks or contested turnaround jumpers from Wiggins.
This is what happened on the third straight play Towns failed to touch the ball a few minutes before he was ejected.
And then on the other end, watch how frustrated Towns gets later on. Instead of positioning himself to trap Joe Ingles or just dictate which direction he has to drive, Bjelica is flat-footed and lets Rudy Gobert pick him off. Towns doesn’t look happy, and eventually fouls Donovan Mitchell.
I mean, what if the Timberwolves don’t make the playoffs? They're only two up on the ninth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, and their next six games are against the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers. Yiiiiikes.
Towns can sign a five-year max contract extension this fall, but what happens if he isn’t enamored with the possibility of heading into his prime on a good but not great team that has Wiggins as its second fiddle? Minnesota has Justin Patton (another seven-footer) waiting in the wings, along with Oklahoma City's first-round pick in this year's draft, but all in all this is what happens when your front office pays Dieng $64 million and Gibson $24 million (both will earn about twice as much as Towns next season), with Cole Aldrich already on the books.
The inconsistent defense Towns has displayed over his short career helped convince Thibodeau that those contracts were necessary (Gibson has been awesome), but that doesn’t excuse such unbalanced salary allocation.
The likelihood of Towns going so far as to demand a trade at some point over the next 12 months is highly unlikely but not impossible. Minnesota doesn’t have all the time in the world on its side, and figuring out how to make life easier for its franchise center is suddenly more paramount than ever.
2. Carmelo vs. The Mismatch
Being a third option and the fourth-best player on his own team is all new for Carmelo Anthony. His usage rate is the lowest it’s ever been and Oklahoma City’s possessions don’t live and die by what he thinks should happen.
It’s a strange world for the career-long iso scorer who’s established a Hall of Fame career on skills that can be found on an endangered species list. Relative to all he’s accomplished from a statistical perspective, Anthony is no longer an all-hands-on-deck concern when he has the ball, particularly in the paint. His True Shooting and assist percentage have never been lower, and per Cleaning the Glass, his Assist:Usage ratio ranks in the lowest percentile possible among players at his position.
What we’re witnessing is the understandable struggle of an aging player who’s adjusting to a dramatically different environment, and, to Anthony’s credit, it’s also fair to assume he’d look a lot better with Chris Paul as his point guard instead of Russell Westbrook. Systems always matters, but so do surrounding personnel.
But Anthony will ultimately be judged in a Thunder uniform by what he does in the playoffs, and throughout this season—particularly of late—he and the team have been eager to unleash him against mismatches as often as they can.
Sometimes, when Anthony realizes who’s guarding him and starts to foam at the mouth, this bogs down Oklahoma City’s offense. But more often than not it’s a sensible strategy that provides positive results. When he isn’t spotting up as one of OKC’s few respectable spacers, Anthony will set ball screens—or have them set for him—in an attempt to force a switch.
What’s seen above is child’s play, and Anthony is able to get whatever shot he wants against just about any defender who’s that much smaller than he is. Below, he can be seen backing Wesley Matthews down before he drills a fadeaway from the mid post. Anthony is listed as 10 pounds heavier now than two years ago, and that added weight tends to come in handy in such situations.
This shot doesn’t scream efficient!, but the Thunder will need to grind their way through similar possessions in the postseason. Anthony will have to take advantage of every opportunity that resembles the two outlined above, and also cut the fat from his repertoire. The days of him isolating against or posting up his own man and thinking he’ll win more often than lose are over.
But so long as Anthony is able to dismember opponents who’re smaller and weaker or larger and slower than he is, that’s okay. He’s nothing like the All-Star he once was, but he can still be useful in a Thunder jersey, with skills that should come in handy during key spots in a seven-game series.
3. Fear Ben Simmons Once He Owns The Post
Ben Simmons is a perennial All-NBA talent who will probably end up in the Hall of Fame. He’s too big, smart, fast, and unique not to overcome the same weaknesses that would derail almost any other prospect who can’t do what he can.
But apart from a concealed, unsightly jump shot—which has actually popped up a little more lately, in the form of running fadeaways and step-backs around the elbow, like the boogeyman deciding to show its face in daylight—the next step in this 21-year-old’s evolution should be the development of a Grade A post game.
According to Synergy Sports, Simmons ranks in the 18th percentile as a post-up scorer. That’s mostly because whenever he backs someone down, a majority of his mental directive is to pass. He desperately wants the defense to overhelp so he can whip a bullet across the court or float a lob to a cutter (a particularly devastating sequence when Joel Embiid is said cutter), but reading rotating defenses with his back to the basket is not yet a strength.
Simmons turns it over 22.7 percent of the time when finishing a possession with a post-up. That’s one of the five highest turnover rates among all players (78, to be exact) who’ve logged at least 50 post-up possessions.
Since Simmons is probably the closest thing to “The Next LeBron” we've seen, it makes sense to talk about how devastating he can potentially be (jump shot or not) with a well-rounded, imposing, back-to-the-basket attack, especially when Brett Brown staggers him and Embiid. The blueprint of an unstoppable, graceful monster is there, found in plays like this drop step against Chicago’s Kris Dunn.
It sounds crazy, but sharpening this section of his toolbox should be a priority for Simmons over the summer. Improving the jumper is crucial, but less significant if he becomes unguardable on the block.
4. Jabari Parker Will (Theoretically) Raise Milwaukee’s Ceiling
Since his season debut back on February 2nd, the Milwaukee Bucks have been a very bad team on both sides of the ball whenever Jabari Parker is on the floor. According to NBA.com, their offense is less efficient by 9.7 points per 100 possessions, and their defense is less stingy by 5.3 points per 100 possessions.
Parker’s defense has been brutal—he gambles in weird spots and isn't quick enough to keep ball-handlers at bay—and his search for the right balance between shots and passes is a half-hearted one, at best. (Parker does not pass.) Of course, all this is fine and plenty understandable. Parker is a dozen games into his return from the second torn ACL of his career. Compared to Wiggins, the only player selected ahead of him in the 2014 NBA draft, he’s played fewer than half as many minutes.
Again: All good. Milwaukee isn’t a competitive team without Giannis Antetokounmpo, and over half of Parker’s minutes have been without Giannis. What matters more than statistical output this early on is how Parker looks. Is he moving well? Does he appear confident in his shot? Is he afraid of contact?
The answers to these questions aren’t complete, but so far the evidence is hopeful. Parker’s release is quicker than I remember. There’s no hesitancy when a defender ducks under a screen or botches a switch, and his first step is swift enough to force opposing power forwards to give him extra space for a dangerous pull up.
Even with only six weeks left in the regular season for him to rediscover a rhythm, it’s reasonable to think Parker can open up Milwaukee’s cramped offense once the playoffs begin. As a spot-up weapon, he’s enough of a threat on the weak side to eventually deter defenses from doubling Giannis in the post.
What he can do to Milwaukee’s ceiling is obvious, and we haven’t even seen how potent this team can be once a healthy Malcolm Brogdon replaces Jason Terry in the rotation. Parker is the perfume this team desperately needed.
5. The Wizards Should/Will Soon Have to Switch More With Otto Porter
The Wizards have had an average defense since February 1st, and through the entire season they’ve never been better on that end than when Otto Porter is on the floor, allowing a team-high 5.5 more points per 100 possessions when he sits. To go one step further, their defense has performed like the second-best unit in the league when Porter shares the court with Tomas Satoransky.
This isn’t a situation that deserves much/any criticism, but it’s interesting how rare Scott Brooks switches Porter onto point guards. It’s also a fair indictment of the 24-year-old's relatively sludgy lateral movement, which has prevented him from becoming one of the game’s more reliable perimeter defenders.
But sometimes, against certain matchups when it makes sense to do so, it probably wouldn’t kill the Wizards to simplify their strategy and just have Porter switch. Take this play against the Charlotte Hornets as an example.
Porter hedges a Kemba Walker-Marvin Williams pick-and-roll, which demands perfection out of Satoransky. The second-year point guard has to duck under the screen to A) cut off Walker’s drive and then B) contest his pull-up three.
Here they are again, refusing to switch Porter onto Kyle Lowry (or the 6’7” Satoransky onto the 6’7” DeMar DeRozan). It allows DeRozan the half-step advantage he doesn’t even need, forces Marcin Gortat to help off Jakob Poeltl, and results in a Raptors dunk.
Earlier this season, the Celtics went out of their way to force Porter onto Kyrie Irving multiple times. That was by design and didn’t work out in Washington’s favor.
But in the playoffs, when just about every team has a proxy for Irving in their lineup (including Irving himself), someone who can’t be ignored for a split second, the thought of not switching is more terrifying than watching Porter dance, and at worst surrendering a long two that hopefully gets contested. It's a random adjustment the Wizards may need to make sooner than later.
6. Devin Harris’s Commitment to Moreyball Has Reached a Dangerous Level
Before he was moved to Denver in a three-way trade that kinda feels less necessary by the day, Devin Harris ranked seventh in Shot Profile Score, which measures how well a player impacts where their team’s shots come from. Attempts near the rim and behind the three-point line are what matter here, and Harris, who took over 80 percent of his shots from the two most valuable areas of the floor when on the Mavericks, places among some of the league’s top-tier talent.
Now 35, Harris hasn’t shot the ball particularly well on the Nuggets, but his allergy to the mid-range doesn't hurt. Nearly 93 percent of all his shots have either been behind the three-point line or within three feet of the rim, per Basketball-Reference. That is serious dedication.
7. As You Read This, Thad Young Just Deflected Another Pass
At first glance, I can’t think of another player in the NBA who’s more stale than Thad Young. This sounds like an insult but it more just speaks to his consistent contribution in prosaic ways. Young has been around forever, always solid in every area but never a standout at any one thing, milling around for teams that have no easily defined identity or direction. They’re often bad.
Right now Young (who’s still not 30 years old!) is still more or less the same guy, but this year, on a randomly intriguing upstart in Indiana, he’s positively impacting games in a very specific way. As someone who’s always had quality defensive instincts, a nose for the ball, and, annually, one of the best steal rates at his position, without fouling, only two players rank above him in deflections per game. It’s a direct reflection of his experience and intelligence, but also how quick he is defending pick-and-rolls at the four.
His ability to stay high, corral a ball-handler, then recover back and get his hands on a pocket pass is as good as it gets. (Throughout his 11-year career, Young’s team almost always does a good job creating turnovers when he’s on the floor.)
So if you have no motivation to watch Young whenever the Indiana Pacers are on, here you go.
8. What Can the Memphis Grizzlies be Next Season?
"Unfortunately, we are underperforming, [by] even the lowest of preseason expectations. We are an organization of high expectations for our team, so a change had to be made."
This is what Memphis Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace told the media in late November after the team fired David Fizdale 19 games into his second season as head coach. At the time, let alone four months later, it was a silly thing to say. Now Mike Conley is long gone for the year, Chandler Parsons has played about 40 minutes in 2018, Tyreke Evans remains on the team (currently in a blazer thanks to a rib injury), and Marc Gasol has transformed into a giant version of Michael Douglas’s character from Falling Down.
Surrounded by the likes of Andrew Harrison, Ben McLemore, Myke (not a typo but I wish it was) Henry, and Mario Chalmers, the three-time All-Star is now shooting 41 percent from the floor with an apathetic demeanor that's hard to watch. Forget about diving on the floor to grab a loose ball, Gasol isn’t even bending over when someone throws him a bounce pass that fails to rise above his kneecaps.
He was super pissed during a recent loss against the Phoenix Suns when McLemore failed to curl off a pin-down, leading Gasol to throw the ball at Devin Booker instead.
A couple minutes later, Chalmers went over (instead of under) Alex Len’s screen while defending Elfrid Payton below the free-throw line on a side pick-and-roll. Gasol, again, showed his frustration by yelling and pointing and generally looking like someone who’s five minutes away from a total meltdown.
And, well, as Pau Gasol told reporters before Monday night's game against the Spurs, that’s completely understandable. The Grizzlies were bad when Fizdale was fired, and today they’re an abomination, losers of 14 straight games and owners of the lowest winning percentage in the league. With a rebuild right around the corner, they owe their first-round pick (top-eight protected) to the Boston Celtics in 2019.
But Memphis may not be a lost cause. Let’s imagine they land the first pick and take Luka Doncic. Next year, with an invigorated Gasol, healthy Conley, and a prodigious European talent entering the frame to offer long-term hope and short-term assistance, Memphis can make the playoffs, let Boston take a middling first-round pick, and avoid the apocalypse. They can rebuild while staying competitive.
They’ll have to hire the right coach, hope Dillon Brooks isn’t a “what you see is what you get” prospect, catch some lucky breaks in free agency (including as that relates to Evans’s market value), and stay healthy for 82 games, but this team can be pretty good as early as next year.
That’s just one path, of course. They could also get the second pick, select DeAndre Ayton, trade Gasol, and have their rebuild take a longer road. Either way, Parsons’s contract comes off their books in 2020 (along with Gasol's), and their cap flexibility clears up with it.
As ugly as they look on the floor right now, Memphis’s tank job could not be any smoother than it is; the franchise’s long-term stability (shaky ownership situation notwithstanding) is a lot better off for it.
9. Damian Lillard is a Walking "Plata o Plomo" Ultimatum
This is probably the best stretch of Damian Lillard’s career. Over his last 20 games, he’s averaging 30 points, 6.6 assists, and four rebounds with shooting splits that near the 50/40/90 mark every great scorer wants to surpass: 47.6/40.0/89.5.
Since January 18th (20 games ago) he’s made nearly half (half!!!) his spot-up threes and 37.7 percent of his pull-up attempts, on nearly six tries per game. Madness. He didn’t even need 30 minutes to drop 50 on the Sacramento Kings, scored 44 in a six-point win against the Golden State Warriors, and his clutch shooting splits (from the last five minutes of games with a scoring margin of five points or fewer) are unreal: 49.3/38.5/91.4.
But even more impressive than the stats has just been the way he’s manipulating defensive coverages at full speed. His range (and fearlessness to show people said range) is as deep as it’s ever been, and when he zooms off a dribble handoff the play might as well already be over. Watch how he stretches Minnesota’s defense to its absolute breaking point below.
As Jusuf Nurkic slips the screen, Towns lets him go and stays high to put out the first fire (a pull-up from Lillard). Gibson is then left to momentarily guard two people (Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu) who’re pretty far apart, one rolling to the rim and the other standing wide open behind the three-point line. Gibson tries to read Lillard’s intentions and retreats back to the perimeter, praying Bjelica will cover Nurkic and force a skip pass all the way to Moe Harkless in the weak-side corner.
The timing to guard all this has to be perfect, though, and Bjelica isn’t the type to move on a string. Nurkic opens the game with an easy layup. It’s pick your poison. Plata o plomo.
The Portland Trail Blazers are now 9-1 in their last 10 games and only the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics have a higher winning percentage. The only two players averaging more points in the fourth quarter are Lou Williams and LeBron James, and Lillard is actually more efficient (with a much higher usage rate) when C.J. McCollum isn’t on the floor, by his side.
Lillard also runs more pick-and-rolls than anyone in the league, and among players who've logged at least 100 such plays, only Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant are more efficient, per Synergy Sports.
Say what you want about his defense, but the Blazers have been good on that end all year when he’s on the floor; his actual play has by far exceeded his reputation. Lillard communicates extremely well, draws fouls, isn’t afraid to test scorers at the rim, and even (occasionally) glues himself to his man when trailing a high pick-and-roll.
Is it too late for Lillard to solidify a spot, somewhere, on MVP ballots across the voting pool? If Portland keeps winning, it shouldn’t be.
10. A Very Quick Look at Most Improved Player
Victor Oladipo locked up the league's most nebulous award months ago, but here are other players who deserve some kind of appreciation for the strides they made this season: Spencer Dinwiddie, Devin Booker, Aaron Gordon, Andre Drummond, Terry Rozier, DeMar DeRozan, Tomas Satoransky, Domas Sabonis, and the people’s champ, E’Twaun Moore. I'm probably missing at least four obvious candidates, too.
11. Stanley Johnson, Slowly Coming Around…?
Stanley Johnson’s career is dangerously close to hitchhiking on the side of a dusty road. A lottery pick who the Detroit Pistons desperately need to become an efficient, versatile, athletic, do-everything-on-the-perimeter stanchion supporting Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, Johnson was recently replaced in the starting lineup by James Ennis. Not great.
His three-point accuracy is still below 30 percent and his PER remains in the single digits. Johnson is still only 21 and looks lost without a score-first point guard on the floor (is it safe to say that Reggie Jackson’s injury slaughtered Detroit’s season?), but one positive takeaway from this year is Johnson's refusal to lose confidence in himself.
His individual defense is fantastic against just about anyone (not too many guys can stonewall Giannis Antetokounmpo in the paint and force a turnover), and when he's shared the floor with Drummond and Griffin the Pistons have only allowed 102.3 points per 100 possessions (in 490 total possessions).
His ball-handling has improved, particularly in the open floor, where he isn't afraid to go behind the back or propel himself to the rim going full speed with a quick in-and-out dribble. He tries shots that he probably shouldn't (including a spinning fadeaway from just outside the paint that miraculously went in against the Cavaliers on Monday night) but given all the hardship he's already faced, it's nice to see that Johnson still believes he can be a good NBA player.
12. Josh Richardson is the Miami Heat
Watch any Miami Heat game and there’s a good chance you’ll hear their broadcast tandem of Tony Fiorentino and Eric Reid point out how Josh Richardson is the greatest defensive player who ever lived. Sometimes, when he’s taking a charge against Joel Embiid (seriously ask yourself if this is something you’d ever be brave enough to do), preventing an entry pass for 10 straight seconds, or racing down the floor for a chase-down block that other players would give up on, they're almost right. Richardson is a marvelous competitor.
His restlessness sometimes gets the best of him, but that’s a byproduct of someone who can’t stand to see his man score, no matter what. Somehow, Richardson, who was selected 40th overall in the 2015 draft, has become one of Miami’s most reliable characters. Now a full-time starter, he’s appeared in over 200 more minutes than anyone else on the team, deflected nine more balls than Giannis Antetokounmpo, and has lifted his True Shooting above league average marks.
This is a good, improving player who might embody Miami’s culture more than anybody else right now. That's really saying something.