The Outlet Pass: Jazz Should Tank, Cavs Should Try; Let's Measure Legs
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The Outlet Pass: Jazz Should Tank, Cavs Should Try; Let's Measure Legs

A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.

1. Eric Gordon Has Been Great, Chris Paul Can Make Him Better

Eric Gordon entered the league as a scorer who could shoot. As the years went on, injuries hit, his function on different teams began to change, and he transformed into a shooter who could score. But this year, with a spike in usage and his points per 36 minutes average at a career high, Gordon is balancing the two labels splendidly.

Chris Paul is expected to return on Thursday night, which will bump Gordon back to the bench and diminish his role just a bit. But even if Gordon can't average more than 22 points per game the rest of the way, Paul’s brilliant ability to lull defenses to sleep will help Gordon find even better options from behind the three-point line and at the rim (where he’s shooting a ridiculous 66 percent—up 10 points from last season).

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Gordon has slayed defenses with pull-up threes, nailing an unsustainably awesome 41.5 percent of them on more attempts than everyone except James Harden and Damian Lillard. Those opportunities will dwindle, assuming he’s always on the court with Harden and/or Paul from this point forward.

But if we imagine Gordon assuming a similar role to what J.J. Redick had as Paul’s backcourt mate on the Los Angeles Clippers, all of a sudden Houston’s offense becomes even more dynamic in a half-court setting than it already is.

The Rockets already have actions designed to provide Gordon with solid catch-and-shoot looks, and he’s a pro’s pro at shaking his defender and creating separation before the pass hits his hands. But Paul sets the table in a way few others can. Here’s one example: a baseline inbounds play wherein Paul casually takes a dribble handoff and feigns like he’s going to flip the ball to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute over on the weakside.

Instead, in one motion he spins back to Redick (who pops off DeAndre Jordan’s screen) and feeds him for an open three. Defenses have to be alert during every second Paul has the ball. He’s a magician who thrives off misdirection. As the Rockets try to fit him into their offense (which already ranks fourth in points per half-court play), guys like Gordon will recalibrate their current responsibilities. It’s not an easy process, but Paul eventually will make life easier for everyone involved.

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2. Dear Utah Jazz: Please Tank

The Utah Jazz are flailing in the face of a few unlucky events that have struck over the past few months. They were spurned by Gordon Hayward in free agency, watched Dante Exum suffer another soul-crushing preseason injury, and most recently lost Rudy Gobert for 4-6 weeks to a bruised right tibia. Even though Utah has been better on both sides of the floor when their franchise player is off the court, no team in the West (except to nobody's surprise the San Antonio Spurs) can compete without an All-NBA contributor in the lineup for an extended period.

The bad news gets worse after a quick glance at Utah's schedule, which turns into The Perfect Storm during Gobert’s expected absence. The easiest, broadest, and most annoying response here is to call for the Jazz to tank, but assuming they're ready to face the harsh realities of an impending rebuild, it's also the correct response.

Already submarined by an offense that can’t generate anything substantial sans Hayward, Utah’s focus now that making the playoffs is incredibly unlikely should be morphing into sellers at the trade deadline (moving on from Derrick Favors’ expiring contract is what most point to as a no-brainer, but what could they get for Rodney Hood or Joe Ingles?).

They own all their draft picks and have one of the 10 oldest rosters in the league. This is a perfect chance to tear down a group that's going nowhere and build around a Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, 2018 lotto pick core. It's not fun, but opportunity is knocking on Utah’s door; to ignore it now could cost them down the line.

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3. Why Is Effort Still An Issue In Cleveland?

Kevin Love has spent the last three seasons as a scapegoat. Whenever things look bad in Cleveland, Option A is to fire up the trade machine and scrounge around for semi-realistic transactions that would theoretically improve the Cavaliers' championship chances and rid them of Love.

Even though they play, at times, like a grotesque abomination, the Annual Round of Kevin Love Trade Speculation has yet to pick up steam for a few reasons: A) integral Cavs aren’t healthy, B) Love’s value isn’t nearly what it used to be, and C) it’s not even Thanksgiving. Cleveland’s defense is atrocious whether Love is on the floor or not, as a standalone center or beside another beefy body in the frontcourt.

This isn't Love's fault, and there are some things he can’t help. Athletic limitations put a hard cap on how effective he can be trying to prevent the other team from scoring. That, combined with a supporting cast of mostly below-average individual defenders, makes his margin for error paper thin.

For the most part, he makes up for it with intelligence and admirable effort—rotating over to take a charge against Dwight Howard, as Love did on Wednesday night, deserves a medal. Knowing opponents plan to attack him relentlessly in the pick-and-roll, he shuffles his feet and executes whatever coverage Ty Lue has deemed appropriate. But for whatever reason, one seemingly inconsequential and unrelated sequence during last week’s loss to the Houston Rockets stands out in my mind.

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Midway through the first quarter, the Rockets deflected a pass and sent the ball rolling towards Cleveland’s baseline. As its intended recipient, Love watched it go out of bounds instead of sprinting to pick it up. It was a simple lack of hustle that forced Cleveland to inbound the ball from beneath its own basket, and allowed Houston to set up its defense with a full-court press. Here’s what happened next:

Harden went on to draw a foul at the rim. This criticism might come off as a bit harsh; on its face it has nothing to do with Cleveland’s wretched defense. But effort matters! And moments like this one are a symptom of bad habits that will come back to bite the Cavaliers when it matters most.

4. Lauri Markkanen’s Wrists Make All The Difference

Everyone who made fun of the Chicago Bulls (my hand is raised) for not just trading Jimmy Butler, but also selecting Lauri Markkanen—every draft prognosticator who I read leading into the 2017 draft's punching bag—has to do 25 pushups.

Even more impressive than the rookie’s startling per game averages (14 points and seven rebounds isn’t bad!) is a shot release that’s faster than a snapping rubber band. Only four players in the league are launching more threes per game with a touch time between 0-2 seconds.

A seven-footer who can shoot threes is still one of the finest luxuries any team can have. The space he figures to provide for a very long time will make life easier for guards like Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine as they come off high screens, and, down the line, could even make Chicago a more attractive free agency destination for ball-handlers who enjoy wide driving lanes. (According to Synergy Sports, Markkanen is currently the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-pop scorer. Anyone who’s ever watched J.J. Barea play basketball with Dirk Nowitzki knows how enjoyable this can be.)

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Beyond the ancillary benefits, Markkanen’s quick release sharpens how convenient he can truly be. Unlike uniquely useful yet limited stretch bigs like Kelly Olynyk—someone who will pump fake his way into a phone booth whenever a defender’s closeout gets too close for comfort—Chicago’s rookie combines his height with crackling wrists and enough confidence to fire away even when he isn’t wide open. That’s all very nice to see, and could speed up Chicago's rebuild.

5. Jaylen Brown’s Closeouts Are Hysterically Passive Aggressive

The Celtics allow 99.1 points per 100 possessions when Jaylen Brown is off the court. In almost any other context that number would be a bad thing. But in Boston, where the best defense in the NBA is currently being played, that’s the highest on/off defensive rating for any individual on the team. (The Celtics only allow 94.2 points per 100 possessions with Brown in the game.)

Even if his strength, length, quickness, and ability to walk on water theoretically makes people think he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball, the 21-year-old is still a work in progress who hasn't quite reached the All-Defensive team level he is striving for. He’s fouling less than a year ago, but is still antsy on the ball, prone to falling for ball fakes; all too eager to show off his leaping ability when staying grounded is the better call.

Here’s what Brown had to say after he got a key stop against DeMar DeRozan at the end of Boston’s win last Sunday: “He’ll pump fake and pump fake and pump fake until he gets you off your feet. I’m thinking like, ‘He’s gotta be shooting one of these (bleeps).’ But he’ll keep pump faking and pump faking and pump faking, and you have to do a good job of staying down.”

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This leads us to his closeout technique, which, in all honestly, makes me laugh out loud just about every time I see it. Instead of leaning in at a diagonal angle to try and contest the shooter or even block the shot, Brown halts his momentum, bends his knees, and jumps straight in the air, sometimes with both arms stretched high above his head.

On one hand, he eliminates any chance of committing a foul and can’t be condemned for laziness. On the other, I’m not sure this has any impact whatsoever on the shooter—other than him thinking to himself “what the hell is happening right now?”—as he launches the ball. It’s so much effort doing something that probably has no tangible positive impact. It will never not be hilarious. Jaylen for President.

6. I'm (Still) Not A Fan Of Julius Randle

It’s fair to label what Julius Randle is experiencing “a breakout year.” The 22-year-old is averaging 21.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, with significant bumps in usage, block percentage, free-throw rate, and True Shooting. All this is promising and nice and may convince one of the league's 29 other teams to draw up a hefty offer sheet this summer.

But even beyond his strange spells of in-game apathy, Randle still doesn’t make any of his teammates better, turns the ball over a ton, and remains prone to clueless mistakes on the defensive end. Despite his new and improved body, bad habits and physical limitations feel like they will forever outweigh all the good he does.

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Julius Randle is not a smart defender

Randle's outside shot is still cracked, and it’s unclear what his role/position would be on a good basketball team. A couple years ago I asked former Lakers head coach Byron Scott if he thought about experimenting with Randle at the five. He, somewhat understandably, began his response by laughing out loud. When you’re a big whose range doesn’t extend beyond the paint with a wingspan equal to Nick Young’s, it’s hard to be much help without a very specific cast of supporting skills at your side. Randle is more Kenneth Faried than Draymond Green.

In a fit of curiousity, I looked back at the 2014 draft class just to see how many players I could talk myself into taking ahead of Randle, who was selected seventh overall by the Lakers. I came up with 10 guys. In order of personal preference, they are:

10. Doug McDermott
9. Elfrid Payton
8. Jusuf Nurkic
7. Rodney Hood
6. T.J. Warren
5. Dario Saric
4. Clint Capela
3. Gary Harris
2. Zach LaVine
1. Nikola Jokic

Randle is still extremely young and there’s obviously plenty of time for him to round out the worrisome parts of his game and become a winning player, but so far all he's done is max out on strengths he already possessed.

The fact that Kyle Kuzma has played 159 more minutes in the same number of appearances is quite alarming. According to Cleaning the Glass, L.A.’s Expected Wins total drops by 11 games when Randle is on the court—by far the best number of his career.

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(The following take is fresh out of an oven, but I think I’d also prefer Pascal Siakam.)

7. Tobias Harris vs. Robert Covington

Photo by John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

These two aren’t identical, but close enough to make a worthy comparison. They exist as similar 6’9” pivot points who play for a pair of hungry teams in an Eastern Conference. Both are now (wildly) exceeding individual expectations and, in the process, somewhat dramatically elevating their team’s ceiling.

Now here’s a fun question: As two versatile wings with varying yet proportional strengths and weaknesses, who would you rather have?

It literally feels like every time I flip to a Sixers or Pistons game, one of them is about to catch a kick-out pass and nail a three. Only three players have made more threes than Covington this year, and only six—including Covington—have made more than Harris. Also, only three players have been more accurate from beyond the arc than Harris, while just seven are more accurate than Covington. Long story short: Right now they’re two of the best three-point shooters alive.

Covington gets the edge as a defender, but isn’t nearly as effective creating his own shot. Nearly 25 percent fewer of his field goal attempts are unassisted relative to Harris. Covington turns 27 next month and Harris turns 26 this summer. According to Synergy Sports, Harris ranks in the 93rd percentile as an overall offensive weapon, while Covington is 96th. Neither passes the ball.

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When you take the average annual salary of Covington’s reported extension, both earn about the same ($15-16 million). It’s hard to choose one over the other, but by roughly 0.5 degrees my personal taste shades towards Covington. Even though he may not have the same offensive impact when his outside shot doesn’t fall at a 50 percent clip, he’s more plug-and-play than Harris, and—debatably—more accepting of his role within his roster’s hierarchy.

Ideally, RoCo would get far more minutes at the four than he’s afforded in Philadelphia, while Harris is able to slide up and take advantage of slower bigs. Here are the numbers if you want to toggle around and see how close they are for yourself.

8. How Does T.J. Warren Do It?

T.J. Warren is a well-rounded offensive basketball player whose primary skill is the willingness to attack in myriad ways. Warren will back cut you to death. He’ll pull up off a high screen. He’ll Eurostep in the open floor. He’ll worm through a maze of screens. He’ll put back a missed jumper (even his own). He’ll post up smaller defenders. He’ll face up against stronger fours.

Very few of these qualities stand out or are aesthetically pleasing, but when jumbled together they work just fine. Phoenix’s offensive rating is 8.7 points per 100 possessions higher when Warren is on the floor, and the team is never more feeble than when he sits, in part because him turning the ball over is a weekly occurrence. (Warren doesn’t pass.)

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The lack of three-point shooting is a scarlett letter, but this year he's still exploded for 40 points and 35 points in a pair of wins against the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively. Warren isn’t a minus defender, either. He moves around, hustles, and generally seems to understand how to execute Phoenix’s scheme.

It’s unclear how this diverse skill-set would fare in an environment where winning games is a priority, but until then Warren continues to stand out as a unique being in an increasingly homogenous league. Applaud him.

9. Believe It Or Not, The Kings Did Something Nice

The Sacramento Kings have stumbled into their own tier of incompetence, slightly below the Atlanta Hawks (a team that beat them by 46 points on Wednesday night), Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, and Phoenix Suns. They shoot themselves in the foot on a regular basis—if Dave Joerger has to watch Willie Cauley-Stein leap out of position trying to steal an entry pass one more time he may pack back on all the weight he lost over the summer—and are less talented than their opponent every single night.

But this is the NBA, where even the worst of the worst is still the best of the best. Here’s one example, where Sacramento’s offensive execution trips up the Washington Wizards.

It's a standard split cut, but instead of coming together and then breaking off in seemingly random directions, George Hill spontaneously dives into the paint before the Wizards have time to deal with their assignment. John Wall and Brad Beal don’t realize they have to switch until it’s too late, and it forces Marcin Gortat to lean in the wrong direction. Garrett Temple breaks free for the open three. Good job, Kings. Good job.

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10. Let's Measure Legs

Last Saturday night, I sat down to watch a few games with a good friend of mine who only casually dabbles in NBA basketball. About 20 minutes into Bucks/Lakers, he made an astute and obvious point: Players with long legs have a clear advantage over players with short legs, even if they pencil in at the exact same height.“Brandon Ingram’s waist is where his belly button should be.”

This isn't a new discovery, but it made me think about how wingspan has superseded height in the eyes of talent evaluators around the league. Along the same lines, do teams measure leg length the same way? I don’t know the exact answer—I’d guess there’s a 99% chance NBA teams do in fact measure legs from the waist down—but what I do know is the information isn’t listed on NBA.com, where everything from wingspan to hand width to body fat percentage is calculated. Same goes for DraftExpress.

Maybe the length of a player’s legs doesn’t matter, and useful information regarding how much ground they’re able to cover is already quantified with shuttle runs and lane agility drills. But given the obvious advantage someone like Ingram or Giannis Antetokounmpo has on drives to the rim, maybe stride-spans (a working title; I’m also a fan of glide-span) should be added to the long list of characteristics used to evaluate prospects and players.

11. On/Off Numbers Still Hate Avery Bradley

Photo by Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

For the third straight year, Avery Bradley’s team is significantly better on defense when he isn’t on the floor. There are caveats and explanations—Bradley’s help defense is ineffective, he’s perpetually undersized, every starter on the Pistons has poor on/off numbers right now, etc.—but it’s still strange because Avery Bradley is the last person alive I’d want guarding me in a pickup game.

Last season, Bradley’s Real Plus-Minus ranked one spot below Lou Williams—someone opposing offenses intentionally abuse on a regular basis—and this year he’s 67th at his own position. This continues to be one of the more confusing stats vs. eye test battles in the NBA.

12. The New York Knicks Are the NBA’s Most Likable Team

I know everyone is talking about how fun the New York Knicks are, but speaking as someone who’s seen them play in person multiple times this season, I can confirm that yes, the rumors are true. They are an energetic, fresh, and endearing group, with spunky personality, youthful ignorance, and just enough talent to make it all feel respectable.

When you watch them play, you aren’t thinking about the yolk that’s permanently smeared across James Dolan’s forehead, or the disheartening cap sheet that serves as a reminder of their longstanding off-court dysfunction. Instead they play like a snake that’s shed its skin. Jeff Hornacek is liberated to run his own system. Kristaps Porzingis is able to shoot anytime he wants. (The shedding of Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson in one offseason has clearly had a profound impact on everyone involved.)

I wrote a couple weeks back that their newfound identity is essentially Porzingis + Putbacks. That’s still true, but their reason for success goes even deeper. Everything revolves around the franchise player. He is Beyonce surrounded by a dozen Kelly Rowlands. It’s a brittle dynamic that doesn’t work without everyone (including Tim Hardaway Jr.) embracing a back seat. From Lance Thomas to Enes Kanter to Jarrett Jack to Doug McDermott, everybody has.

They screen for each other. They drive and move the ball. They siege retreating defenses in transition. Their offense is an endless reel dish and swish, prompted by a group of castaways, retreads, and rookies. (Your personal definition of "loud noise" will forever change after you witness Frank Ntilikina make a jump shot inside Madison Square Garden.)

There will be time for big-picture analysis, and questions remain as to how they can/should build around Porzingis. But for the moment, let’s all enjoy this team for what it is: the NBA’s Cinderella.