The Outlet Pass: Jim Boylen is a Legend

Also: How the Mavericks should build around Luka Doncic, Kevin Knox crushing life, Draymond Green's boxouts are more important than ever, and more!
January 3, 2019, 5:07pm
Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen is really excited
Photo by Tannen Maury - EPA

The Case for Jim Boylen

The Jim Boylen Show is one of those classic NBA subplots that began as a cracked carnival ride, but—not so much including Wednesday night’s need for introspection—may be maturing into a situation that’s slightly more intriguing than pitiful. Boylen is a retrograde disciplinarian who’s extremely stubborn and passionate to the point of exhaustion. As someone literally coaching for his job, who knows how long the odds of him ever getting another opportunity this high up the food chain are, each game is its own battle. (Long-term gains are nice, but mainly accessible as the byproduct of decisions made with that night’s result in mind.)

The aftermath of Boylen’s initial roar for knuckle push-ups and inane suicide sprints was a pseudo-mutiny and the birth of a leadership committee. It was embarrassing for everyone involved. (Boylen’s response? “I’m juiced, man. I’m jacked up about it.”) But there are still nights when the Bulls appear to be take hazy steps in the right direction.

What’s bad is extraordinarily bad—Chicago is dead last in offense by a wide margin, and the only team since Fred Hoiberg was fired to average fewer than one point per possession; they’re pigs rolling in mud—but what’s not bad deserves recognition. Since Boylen took over on December 3, the Bulls have the ninth-best defense in the NBA. Before, they were 22nd. Eliminate transition from the equation, and before Wednesday night’s loss, only the Indiana Pacers had been more stout in the half court, per Cleaning the Glass. B.B.B. (Before Boylen Ball) they ranked 21st in the half court.

These stats include Chicago’s historic 56-point loss against the Boston Celtics, and two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in which they allowed 233 total points. That is kind of impressive! Even with a schedule that’s gifted them the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic (three times!), Chicago’s effort, hair-on-fire aggression, and tight rotations are sustainable to a degree against teams that aren’t expecting it. One month in, it’s too early to call this fully sustainable. But given all their injuries and ill-equipped personnel, it’s also impressive. (They stifled the red-hot San Antonio Spurs and held the Toronto Raptors to a 40-point half, too.)

Boylen’s priorities are clear. Chicago’s pace has gone from average to a trickle. Jabari Parker is M.I.A. Defense is the universe. And even when he chooses to impersonate Byron Scott by punishing first and second-year players who, you know, make mistakes, in an otherwise lost season there’s serious value in thrusting important defensive principles onto impressionable prospects. They consistently execute a game-plan that will sometimes change from quarter to quarter, and is based on opposing personnel more than anything.

Depending on which of their bigs is involved, when up against a ball-handler who can shoot, Boylen wants the screener’s man to either stay level or show and recover, forcing a pass towards back-line defenders who’re ready to secure the paint. An example can be seen below: As Wendell Carter Jr. extends himself 35 feet from the rim, Chandler Hutchison has already introduced himself to a rolling Ian Mahinmi, who immediately whips the ball out of bounds.

It’s a beatable strategy against those that see it coming (like the Magic on Wednesday night), but by engaging all five guys on most possessions—forcing communication, quick rotations, and an understanding of where to be—it suits a young team nicely. Here’s Robin Lopez up to prevent Bradley Beal from getting a clean look. Before the pass even comes, Lauri Markkanen is already in the paint, positioned to swat Thomas Bryant’s shot.

One of the big picture takeaways in Boylen’s first month has been the effectiveness of Markkanen and Carter Jr. as a frontcourt duo. Offensively, it’s definitely fair to say he’s holding them back (these two are compatible and too talented not to eventually thrive on that end). But on defense, in a 275-minute sample size, Chicago has a top-five defense when they share the floor. Markkanen isn’t able to switch out onto guards, but he’s quick enough to contain the ball 25 feet from the rim, prevent a guard from turning the corner, and then scamper back to his man. Meanwhile, Carter Jr. (who Boylen benched on Wednesday night for no discernible reason) is good enough to suck the oxygen out of your lungs by momentarily transforming into prime Kevin Garnett.

Rookies are not supposed to do everything Carter Jr. does on that play. Like a 10-year vet, his brain is on auto-pilot, correctly analyzing then reacting to the offense. There’s no margin for hesitation and so Carter Jr. doesn’t hesitate. Since Boylen took over, opponents are shooting just 51.9 percent at the rim when he defends it. This type of effort illustrates why:

On the whole, Boylen’s coaching style is Full Metal Jacket as a one-man show. It’s maddening, comical, and, at times, deranged. In response to a random Lopez hook shot, he’ll violently pump his fist and howl towards the rafters. Boylen lives and dies on every possession with a level of enthusiasm that no cardiologist would recommend. It’s Tom Thibodeau clutching a megaphone, blowtorch, and empty bottle of adderall. (When Sam Dekker got away with a travel during a recent Bulls win over the Washington Wizards, Boylen turned to rookie ref Ashley Moyer-Gleich and shouted “Ashley! He took six steps!” The man is a legend.)

But, in some areas, the man is getting results. The Bulls rotate on a string and fly all over the court, deflecting over three more balls per 48 minutes under Boylen than they did with Hoiberg—a leap from average to fourth-best in the league. This team is rabid, physical, and following orders. They bump cutters, help the helper, know when to switch, and hold their own in spite of an offense (constructed by Boylen) that provides zero favors.

It’s unclear how much of Chicago’s defensive success will continue under a coach who micromanages every speck of each possession, with no sign of him abandoning roots that have already started to rot. Boylen’s attitude isn’t one to shepherd a very good team to the Finals, but he may be a logical exorcist for some of Chicago’s bad habits. Until the inevitable day comes when this young core is passed onto more delicate hands (think Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr), Boylen deserves some credit for what he’s done to a defense most expected to be epically horrendous all year.

Draymond Green’s Sort-of-Impossible Box Out Stats

One of the more subtle reasons Draymond Green is an irreplaceable defender comes after the opponent’s shot goes up, when he wheels his body in front of whoever’s nearby, dislodges them out of position, and dramatically increases the odds of a Golden State Warrior grabbing the rebound.

Last year he finished fifth with 6.6 defensive box outs per game. Right now, he’s fourth, with 8.0. This is impressive when you compare his role to that of others who box out as frequently as he does. Green is not a traditional drop big who can just spin around and throw his ass into whoever’s nearby. His defensive responsibilities run the gamut. He switches out on the perimeter and perpetually exists as a help-side safety net—flying around, putting out fires that are nowhere near his original assignment. For him to also place near the top of the league in a category like this is sort of amazing, especially when you consider the impact it’s had on Golden State’s defense when he’s at the five.

Not nothing: opponents are grabbing a measly 22 percent of their own missed shots when Green plays center, a truly impressive number that’s far lower than it’s ever been since the Warriors became the Warriors. (When Green played center last year that number was 30.5 percent. The year before that? 31.9 percent.) For all the worry about his disintegrating outside shot (he’ll probably make nine threes in Game 1 of the Finals, and eight of them will be assisted by DeMarcus Cousins), Green’s effort in this area is as commendable as ever.

Point Guard Don(cic)

It’s been a little over two weeks since Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger had this to say about everyone’s favorite wunderkind, Luka Doncic: “Perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him. I don't see it, unfortunately for us.” The statement was received as a searing subtweet aimed towards Kings assistant general manager Brandon Williams. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But more important, to me, was what it summoned: an interesting and ever-relevant debate about fit and context pertaining to prospects and the teams that draft them. Generally speaking, it’s silly to pass over a generational talent because he’d be limited in your system or on your roster. If that’s how you feel, change your system and/or your roster.

Doncic is good enough to transcend any environment he occupies, but like every other player on Earth, he’s also influenced by what his teammates can/can’t do, and his hypothetical role in Sacramento, next to a blurry pick-and-roll roadrunner like De’Aaron Fox, is different than his actual reality in Dallas. That’s OK. But it’s also fair and natural to consider how Doncic’s game might be limited there. Based on everything we’ve seen, Doncic, Fox, and the Kings would be perfectly fine, but it’d also rob us (and Doncic?) of maximizing the most exciting and beneficial area of his skill-set.

Doncic doesn’t need the ball in his hands to positively impact a game, but like so many great playmakers before him, it makes sense to let him influence a majority of his team’s on-court decisions. Before Dennis Smith Jr.’s return, we witnessed a few lineups that let Doncic literally stand alone as his team’s point guard. No J.J. Barea, DSJ, Devin Harris, or Jalen Brunson. When Dallas is healthy those lineups won’t see the floor, and there’s been mixed results in the limited time we saw them play, but those minutes offered a glimpse towards how the Mavs may want to build around their franchise player.

(I absolutely love DSJ and am not one to give up on the compatibility of any two players as young and talented as him and Doncic, but—an uptick in three-point shooting aside—nobody should be surprised if/when Dallas makes a trade; the Mavericks score 110.9 points per 100 possessions when Doncic is on the floor without Smith Jr. and 100 points per 100 possessions when they both play.)

Even though Doncic’s usage rate and True Shooting percentage are actually higher with Smith Jr. on the court than without, just look at the cool stuff he can do when operating in space beside teammates who naturally complement his profound ability to make the defense feel like it’s hallucinating.

Everything falls into place when Doncic is surrounded by wings and bigs who provide enough space and defensive versatility. They unlock his best attributes and will eventually let Dallas discover its best self. There are parallels here to how Brett Brown decided to use Ben Simmons last year (a move that wasn’t obvious at the time). Doncic’s skill-set gives a much longer rope and no pressure to go all-in down one road, but there’s a future where his assist rate is consistently over 35 percent on a top-five offense. (Right now he’s one of six 19-year-old rookies in league history to assist at least 25 percent of his team’s baskets while logging over 1,000 total minutes.)

Related: The Mavericks shouldn’t be shy about throwing a lot of money at Malcolm Brogdon this summer. He’s a low-usage cog who can defend point guards while quietly posting 50/40/90 splits. The perfect partner for someone like Doncic once the Mavs start putting the ball in his hands way more than they already are.

Kevin Knox is Starting to Show What He Can Be

It’s still too early to make any firm declarations about Kevin Knox’s future. But for someone who won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until August, it’s impossible not to look at his production since David Fizdale made him a full-time starter on December 12th and not feel bullish.

Since, he’s averaging 37.6 minutes, 17.9 points, and 5.2 rebounds while making 38.1 percent of his threes (of which he launches many). The Knicks are bad and some of Knox’s overall inefficiency comes from being 19 with a flashing green light, but there are aspects of his game—particularly off the ball—that make it feel like whenever New York acquires a star (whoever it may be), Knox won’t have any problem finding ways to impact the game.

The quick-trigger three-ball is fun, as is enough size and length to eventually guard three positions with ease. But the most impressive part of Knox’s game so far might be how aggressively (and intelligently) he attacks closeouts. Watch below, where he doesn’t wait for the ball to hit his hands before he curves into the paint.

It’s an instruction smart teams (the Spurs and Jazz, most notably) give their wings in an effort to get a step past their defender. And here’s Knox showing enough confidence to take Paul Millsap off the bounce (something the four-time All-Star clearly didn’t expect) before an and-1 finish at the rim.

Knox still doesn’t know how to pass on the move and is only shooting 40 percent on drives since he entered the starting lineup. He ranks 471st out of 472 players in Real Plus-Minus. But the silhouette of a useful player is drawn. The Knicks needed to hit this pick and they didn’t screw it up! Good for them!

Jamal Crawford’s Late-Career Transformation

Jamal Crawford will always be known for his ability to get buckets off the bench. That’s his DNA and the first line of his basketball obituary. But this year has been different. It’s not an evolutionary change, per se, but Crawford, at 38, has spent almost all his minutes as Phoenix’s de facto backup point guard, setting teammates up, throwing lobs, and rewarding cutters. His assist rate is the highest it’s ever been—second only to Devin Booker on the team—and his shots per 100 possessions were only lower during his rookie season.

During the month of December, he averaged about five assists per game, including a career-high 14 at Madison Square Garden. Crawford goes out of his way to feed youngsters like Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, incentivizing them to cut hard, sprint the floor, and dive into the paint.

Crawford was paid to be “selfish” earlier in his career. He took (and made) tough shots even when a more satisfying option presented itself. Now, he’ll swing it to an open man without hesitation. (More than once I’ve had to rewind and double-check to make sure it was him who threw the pass.) When a defender races out to run him off the three-point line, Crawford will forgo a one-dribble pull-up and circulate the ball around the perimeter.

In three fewer minutes per game compared to last season, when he was on the Minnesota Timberwolves, he’s averaging five more passes. On high pick-and-rolls, Crawford’s head is up, canvassing the baseline for teammates, trying to do more than settle for the jumper he can turn to whenever he wants.

The play below would never happen five years ago. If the screener’s man dropped that far, Crawford would use the sliver of space provided by Ayton’s screen to pull up. Instead, he lets him attack an off-balance DeAndre Jordan, who clearly wasn’t expecting a pass.

The Suns are extremely bad, but Crawford’s readiness to tilt his role towards that of a playmaker has made life (slightly) easier for a young core that would otherwise have no stability whatsoever at such a crucial position.