Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
1. Boston’s Loss Continues to Be Jayson Tatum’s Gain
The Celtics have been decimated by injuries to several key contributors over the past couple weeks, and it’s unknown if they’ll be back at full strength in time for the first round. Kyrie Irving has missed four of their last six games with a sore knee. Jaylen Brown has been sidelined for four straight games with a concussion. Marcus Smart didn’t play in their last three games and is out for an extended time after he tore a tendon in his right thumb. Daniel Theis tore his meniscus and is out for the rest of the season.
Significant health issues are a theme for this team. They’ve responded by upping responsibilities for whoever’s healthy, and the most important player who's been able to take advantage is 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum, who’s logged four of his 10 highest usage rates since a blowout win over the Bulls on March 5.
Thanks to most of their primary scorers and playmakers being out of the lineup, Brad Stevens has put the ball in his youngest player’s hands in meaningful situations, out of time-outs and in crunch time. Celtics fans don’t want to hear about any silver linings if this team loses in the first round (a definite possibility), but forcing Tatum to soak up some of the many details he'll eventually have to master—how to read a defense in a big spot, being conscious of double teams, knowing where his teammates are supposed to be, etc.—is a clear plus for this franchise's long-term trajectory.
All year long Brad Stevens has drawn up numerous actions to get Tatum involved. They’re primarily spot-up jumpers, calculated post-ups, or situations where he can attack a close out and dine at the rim. But Stevens also does a good job of using Tatum off screens that give him the ball in an advantageous spot.
Here he is at the end of last week's crappy insta-classic, catching a pass at the top of the key with plenty of time and just enough space to twirl into the paint for a key layup.
And here’s a designed dribble hand-off that gifts Tatum a step on his man going towards the basket, where he has myriad options. The first, if the Wizards dramatically drops their big, is to pull up for a jumper, but Tatum doesn't even consider it. Instead, he can dump off to the rolling Greg Monroe, try and score over Ian Mahinmi, or kick out to one of three shooters spotted up on the weak-side.
Tatum glances at Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin before he knifes a perfect pass to Marcus Morris in the corner. It speaks volumes that Stevens wanted Tatum to be in this position during such a close game.
His first step hits like a featherweight’s jab, and his condor arms allow him to reach the basket a split second before a defender’s fingertips can slap the backboard. Those physical benefits are obviously crucial, but Tatum’s mental adjustments and ability to capitalize with the game on the line are just as impressive.
For the season, Tatum’s usage in clutch situations (the last five minutes of a game in which the scoring margin is five points or fewer) is actually slightly higher than it is overall, and, more importantly, there are 68 players who’ve made at least 20 “clutch” appearances with a usage rate higher than 20 percent. Only two—Kevin Durant and Jamal Crawford—have a higher True Shooting percentage than Tatum’s 70.4.
There are defensive lapses committed by any rookie who plays as often as Tatum does, but just about nothing else about him has been normal. The progression has been faster than anyone could’ve anticipated, and if this is what Tatum looks like now, imagine what he'll be as a 25-year-old first option [wipes cold sweat from brow].
2. Remember When People Were Worried About Bradley Beal’s Durability?
A few years ago, before he signed his max extension, Bradley Beal’s health was a legitimate concern. Recurrent stress reactions may still be an issue at some point down the line, but in the first of what should be a string of All-Star seasons, only LeBron James has played more minutes than Beal, a subtle iron man who’s missed precisely zero games all year.
There was once speculation about whether he'd have a minutes restriction for the rest of his career. Instead he's played over 35 minutes 48 times! Beal still subsists on too many mid-range shots, but can’t be crucified for those decisions given how he, above any other individual, is the savior of a season that should’ve dissolved through Washington’s fingertips a month ago.
Instead, they have a top-ten offense that sinks to the bottom five (as efficient as the Chicago Bulls) when Beal isn’t on the floor. His usage and assist rates have both made noticeable jumps and there’s basically been no drop off on the offensive end whether he’s on the floor with John Wall or not.
3. A Fun Reminder That James Harden is Clearly the MVP
There are dozens of reasons why James Harden deserves to win his first MVP this season, but two basic counting stats eliminate the need for any counterargument, almost by themselves. Despite missing eight games this season, Harden still leads all players in total three-point attempts and makes, and total free-throw attempts and makes. These are drop-the-mic numbers.
(Oh, also, just because I can't contain myself, Harden's turnover rate is the lowest it's been since he was 21 years old, in his second season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The dude leads the league in usage rate! This is unnatural!)
4. The Spurs Never Shy Away from Teaching Moments
With so many new players filtering in and through the Spurs’ rotation this season, San Antonio has been a place where hard lessons are learned and mistakes are corrected almost as soon as they’re made. Here are a few examples made over the past week or so, when everyone realized the sky over south Texas wasn't falling after all.
Bryn Forbes found himself in the classroom's front row a couple times in a recent victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. The 24-year-old’s first misstep came after he switched onto Nikola Mirotic.
The defense is solid, but not air tight. Instead of letting Mirotic rise up and shoot, even if it’s a long two, Forbes should’ve forced a drive into help. As soon as the ball fell through the net, Rudy Gay—who was eager to clog up the paint and help off Rajon Rondo—yelled “get up on him!” at Forbes. You can see the veteran motioning with his hand.
Less than one minute later, Forbes initiated a two-on-one fastbreak only to fade out of his lane at the last second to presumably position himself for a corner three. Gregg Popovich’s reaction throughout the entire sequence was priceless; he responded with an immediate time-out.
(Popovich left Forbes in the game.)
The third and final example from San Antonio’s week comes from a win over Minnesota, where Manu Ginobili hit Gay in the corner, and then admonished him in public for moving the ball to Tony Parker instead of taking the open shot (costing the Spurs an efficient look and Ginobili a potential assist).
Mistakes happen, but while some (not all) teams either accept them in the moment, let them go, or scream to embarrass, the Spurs are quick to acknowledge a wrong and do their best to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's why they're the Spurs.
5. Taurean Prince Should Be on the Hawks When They’re Good Again
He’s a sophomore who’s about to turn 24 which, when combined with the obvious trappings of a small-game-sample size, sorta smears what I’m about to write, but Taurean Prince has been an absolute stud over Atlanta’s last 10 games. He’s averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, with 44.9/46.1/90.9 shooting splits that make everything all the more stunning.
(During his first 10 games this year, Prince averaged 3.8 threes per game. During his last 10 games, he averaged 8.9 threes per game. That feels like a big deal.)
On his path to becoming a valuable long-term cog while having the misfortune of developing within the confines of a tanktastic rebuild, Prince has flashed improvement in a few important areas. The sexiest and least sustainable trait is three-point shooting, where Prince’s accuracy has leapt from one of the worst outside threats at his position to a substantially more reliable option, per CTG. (The dramatic fluctuation from the corner, where he jumped from 34 to 48 percent, is cause for concern.)
But his improvement as a playmaker alone is enough to make Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk smile. According to Synergy Sports, Prince ranks in the 83rd percentile as a pick-and-roll passer. He’s logged 127 such possessions this season, which is over four times as many as he made during his rookie year. That’s a good sign.
Here’s Prince whipping a pass to rookie Damion Lee in the weak-side corner.
A more confident ball-handler would probably throw a hesitation move at Dwight Howard to dip past towards the rim, but Prince deserves credit for noticing how far Nicolas Batum is leaning into the paint, then finding a more efficient option as quickly as he does.
And here’s Prince attacking Patrick Patterson on a switch after he realizes Mike Muscala’s roll has sucked Corey Brewer in from the weakside. Prince then makes the obvious play and kicks out to Andrew White (yup, there’s a guy named Andrew White in the NBA right now) in the corner.
It's cool to see anyone grow in real time. Hopefully it's more than a mirage, and something that convinces Atlanta they have legitimate building blocks already onboard.
6. Russell Westbrook Needs to Calm Down
This was Russell Westbrook’s 50th dunk of the season:
Last year he dunked the ball 49 times in about 340 more minutes than he's already logged. Please calm down, Russell Westbrook. The NBA needs you as its own Venom for as long as possible.
7. Jazz Crowder is the New (Old) Crowder
It’s amazing how valued a player can feel when they get to touch the basketball more than they probably should. The act of contribution is greater than existing as a bystander, particularly for some of the most prideful athletes in the world. For some, it makes them unquantifiably more vigorous than they'd otherwise be, especially when asked to exist as an ostensibly supportive bystander. Not that either organization is wrong for the way they deploy their roster, but the Utah Jazz understand this better than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With what’s so far been a career-high usage percentage—one that dwarfs what occurred during his brief tenure with the Cavaliers—Jae Crowder feels wanted by the Jazz. He hasn’t been particularly efficient (despite corner threes falling), but as a response to his newfound freedom to take them, Crowder has morphed back into the analytically-beloved swingman who helped accelerate Boston’s rebuild.
He's moving well and operating with an intensity that wasn't there three months ago. Just look at how aggressive he is getting up on Jared Dudley.
This is a regular scene now. In Cleveland, it simply didn't happen.
The Jazz look unbeatable when he’s a stretch four next to Rudy Gobert (who—no shots!—is a slightly better defender than Kevin Love). In 406 possessions, Utah has outscored opponents by 31 points per 100 possessions when Crowder and Gobert are its frontcourt. There are zero typos in the sentence you just read.
If any team is primed to upset one of the top four squads in the Western Conference, it's probably the Jazz.
8. T.J. McConnell vs. Fred VanVleet
The plucky backup point guards who’re both indispensable and a nuisance are probably my favorite NBA subcategory. They have skill, sure. But sheer relentlessness is the driving factor that forces their coach to constantly mull over different ways to increase their playing time. They excel in their role, are comfortable maneuvering around every square inch of the court, and play with an urgency that makes it 100 percent impossible to guess what the scoreboard reads when they're in the game.
Fred VanVleet and T.J. McConnell have spearheaded this type all season long. Neither was drafted, but both have found situations that allow them to thrive like first-round picks. In the spirit of a random debate, having to choose one over the other is pretty freaking hard, especially when you look at their stats. Both have made humongous shots while benefiting from the attention their All-Star teammates draw, but they aren’t nearly the same.
McConnell is far more traditional, a pass-first maître d’ who goes out of his way to feed shooters when they’re hot or badly in need of a bucket. The 25-year-old rewards big men who run the floor and picks up opposing floor generals 85 feet from his own basket—the logic being that if he has to dispense an incalculable amount of energy just to keep his head above water, so too should his man.
He’s barely attempted 50 threes (aka the number James Harden launches in about 10 days), but has knocked down damn near half of them. Opponents dare him to fire away, but McConnell rarely takes the bait, instead opting to weave his way around until two defenders are needed to prevent a layup. That's when he gives it up, typically for an open shot.
But unlike VanVleet, whose Toronto Raptors outscore opponents by an absurd 14.7 points per 100 possessions whenever he's on the floor, McConnell's net rating is -1.5. This is mostly due to the Raptors being better (and way deeper) than the Philadelphia 76ers, which isn't McConnell's fault. But it can't be ignored.
And to his credit, VanVleet operates almost like a mini-Harden: a whopping 85 percent of his field-goal attempts are threes and layups. I'm simplifying what could be a never-ending conversation, but his willingness to fire away from beyond the arc gives VanVleet the slight edge over McConnell. Both are awesome, though. And watching them matchup in a potential seven-game series would fill me with more joy than you can imagine.
9. Noah Vonleh Is a Human Tank
Noah Vonleh is not (yet) Mark Madsen 2.0, but the Chicago Bulls aren’t exactly preventing him from jacking up threes at an illogical rate, either. Vonleh was drafted with comparisons to Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge, an agile big man with respectable range who could eventually moonlight as a stretch five. That hasn’t happened.
Vonleh’s career three-point rate heading into this season was 12.7. In 13 games wearing a Bulls uniform, it’s 44.3. Here’s what Fred Hoiberg said when I asked him about it before Chicago’s loss against the New York Knicks on Monday night:
“That’s one of the things he’s really worked on. The thing we’re really watching film with Noah on, and trying to get better is making quick decisions. If he doesn’t have that shot right away he’s gotta either move it or go quickly into a dribble hand-off or attack the defender, which he’s shown the ability to do as well. But we like Noah. He’s a guy that’s got great size, he’s got good physical tools, he’s got huge hands, and you know a guy that is very talented and still young. He’s 22 years old.”
Yes, Vonleh is super young and in a lost season where losing is the new winning, it makes sense to give him the green light. But we’re not even two months into his tenure and already opposing TV broadcast crews are going out of their way to mock Vonleh’s shot selection. He’s shooting 28.6 percent from deep, and just about all of those attempts have been uncontested.
10. This Awareness From Karl Towns is Everything
The Timberwolves somehow managed to beat the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards before dropping two tough contests against the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets last week. But with two games versus the Memphis Grizzlies, and pending beatdowns of the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, and Dallas Mavericks right around the corner, the gut-kick section of their late-season schedule is just about over.
And to say Karl-Anthony Towns has “stepped up” over Minnesota’s most critical stretch would be a criminal understatement, as Tom Thibodeau has graciously trusted him to be a small-ball five in lineups that aren’t anachronistic.
But this play, towards the end of that aforementioned victory in Washington, says everything about where he is and what he can be.
After Towns is swarmed on the roll, he spins around and kicks it back out to Jeff Teague. But instead of lingering around the paint (something Wizards center Ian Mahinmi clearly expects him to do), Towns backpedals to the weak-side corner—doesn’t even look down to make sure his size 20 Nikes are securely inbounds/behind the three-point line—pump fakes Mahinmi in the air, then calmly strokes home a three, on the road, to give him his 37th point in his 41st minute.
Seven footers aren’t supposed to have this mentality (the Wolves were up two!) but Towns is as aware as he is confident. During the nationally-televised broadcast of Minnesota’s previous game, a humongous win against Golden State, the 22-year-old said with a straight face that his goal is to be the best player who ever lived. And, like, sure. But watching him hit shots like that, in those situations, makes that statement seem reasonable enough.
11. What The Last Few Weeks Can Tell us About Justise Winslow
Winslow’s last few weeks have been his most uplifting stretch in nearly two years. His minutes are up—various nick-nack recent injuries to the likes of Dwyane Wade and Josh Richardson help explain why—and Miami has been dominant when he’s on the court, outscoring opponents by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions.
On the season, he’s hit well over 40 percent of his threes (almost all are wide open) and is flexible enough to let Erik Spoelstra roll with point guard-less lineups, trusting Winslow to create quality offense inside units that provide him enough space to put pressure on the defense. It’s the definition of versatility.
(Against the Sacramento Kings last Wednesday, Winslow defended Kosta Koufos and Zach Randolph in a small lineup that also forced him to be Miami’s primary ball-handler.)
That’s all good, but the entire picture has holes. So far as that impressive three-point percentage goes, numbers don’t lie, but Winslow’s are a fib. As of late last week, 71 forwards attempted at least 150 shots inside the restricted area this season. The only player with a lower field goal percentage than Winslow was Tyreke Evans. (Winslow is also 6-for-22 on two-point field goals when no defender is within six feet, which is almost hard to do.)
Far too often he finds himself in his own head—as someone who’s missed their fair share of open layups, I consider myself an expert on the matter—whenever the game’s easiest looks presents themselves.
He has a bad habit of increasing the degree of difficulty for no reason, too, contorting his body for acrobatic reverses as a way to avoid contact and trips to the free-throw line, where he’s a 64 percent shooter who succumbs to the occasional airball.
All this is to say that signs of progress in the most concerning areas of his game should probably be taken with a grain of salt. He does a ton of little things—against the Denver Nuggets on Monday night he fought Wilson Chandler for position and took away their primary action on an after-timeout play—and should be commended for the priceless value his rare skill-set brings to the table.
Nobody should totally give up on Winslow yet, but the ceiling remains significantly lower on what he can become than it was throughout his impressive rookie season. There’s a reason Spoelstra only played him 22 minutes during that double-overtime win over Denver.
12. Random Denver Nuggets-Related Prediction
The Nuggets probably aren’t going to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 12 percent chance and Gary Harris’s knee strain could not have come at a worse possible time.
Paul Millsap’s injury right before Thanksgiving was brutal and integrating him back into the rotation has been unexpectedly complicated, but Denver never really settled on a stable rotation or lineup they could fall back on when he was out, and their defensive principles are non-existent. (They have the NBA’s sixth-best offense despite ranking 25th in turnover rate, which is a ratio no team can live with unless Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are on the roster.)
The Nuggets still appear lost and lethargic for sections of games they have to win; their lack of mental preparation really stands out. (According to Synergy Sports, they rank 28th defending after timeouts and 26th defending out of bounds plays along the baseline.) Watch them botch a basic switch against Miami on Monday night. (This wasn’t the only time they did this.)
It really stinks to speculate about a coach’s job, but assuming Denver doesn’t make the postseason it feels more likely than not that Malone won’t return. And—now for my heavily anticipated random prediction that won't make sense if Marc Stein's report about him joining Detroit's front office comes true—I think Chauncey Billups will replace him.