Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
1. Kevin Durant’s Three Ball Has Never Been This Scary
The most important reminder from last year’s NBA Finals was that even when everything appears to be going wrong (relatively speaking) for the Golden State Warriors, the type of shots Kevin Durant can string together at anytime, regardless of who else is on the floor, can completely demoralize an opponent and tilt the entire complexion of a game in his team's favor.
Whenever I watch the Warriors—specifically when Steph Curry isn’t on the floor—more and more Durant does things that get described as “inevitable KD” as shorthand in my notebook. Aside from the heart-stopping PU3IT that punctuates Golden State’s unstoppable open-floor offense and the sudden treys that pick-and-roll defensive schemes are not advanced enough to slow down, nothing is scarier than Durant simply deciding to give his team three points after a possession breaks down.
Or getting a drag screen and firing away with no hesitation.
The percentage of Durant’s shots that are pull-up threes has jumped from 9.3 to 15.7 percent this season (his highest output in at least five years, according to NBA.com, and on par with what he did during last year’s Finals).
That self-determining brilliance has been both understandably and absurdly overlooked within the confines of a truly great basketball team. As someone who wrote that the Houston Rockets will win this year’s championship, nothing syphons more confidence from that prediction than Durant’s surging aggression from beyond the arc. It’s ultimately unnecessary in the regular season, but witnessing it as often as we have over the past couple weeks is a reminder of how deadly it can be in a seven-game series.
(Instead of squeezing Durant with a top-ten usage rate, the Warriors take odd left turns that work out because they’re the Warriors, like, for example, in Minnesota on Sunday when Zaza Pachulia came off a pin-down set by Shaun Livingston to hit a free-throw jumper. That's the ultimate flex.)
As one of the smoothest shooters who’s ever lived—to claim his second 50-40-90 campaign, Durant has to be nearly perfect from the charity stripe in Golden State’s remaining 15 games, which isn’t impossible—Durant’s three-point percentage has never been more accurate than it is right now (43.6 percent) and he’s already launched 40 more attempts than all of last season, with the second most tries per 36 minutes (6.3) of his career.
If he’s this assertive now, imagining what he’ll do in the playoffs when Golden State actually needs him to go bonkers from deep, is terrifying.
2. Lonzo Ball: Never Too Cool For School
While the main focus on Lonzo’s impact and overall worth revolves around his three-point shot (he’s at 40 percent in his last 15 games and 35.7 percent on pull-ups, which account for over one out of every five shots he takes—AKA he's fine), Ball's most impressive and overlooked qualities don’t fluctuate from game to game.
This dude plays hard, with manic energy that somehow comes across as graceful. He leads the Lakers in deflections and loose balls recovered per game, and clocks in with some of the better steal, rebound, and block percentages at his position, per CTG. He doesn’t foul very often, either.
Regardless of who he’s guarding or how hopeless any given situation might be, it's admirable how Ball always gives 110 percent until the whistle blows. Don’t sell stock on this dude. Even the worst shooting slump doesn’t deter him from trying to dominate other areas of the game.
Here he is defending Nikola Vucevic on the left block without any help. Ball gives the big man a baseline spin (intentionally…?) and then swats his shot into Isaiah Thomas's hands.
The best part of this clip is how calm he looks right after Thomas passes him the ball, behaving as if it’s the start of any normal possession. What just happened never seems to affect Ball’s approach, and that’s a very good thing.
Later in the same game, right after a lazy pass gets stolen by Jonathan Isaac, Ball sprints at the exact right angle to knock the ball away before Orlando’s rookie can dunk. Most players would either A) not run back, or B) run back intending to foul. Not Ball.
The Lakers get stops with Ball on the floor, surrendering just 104.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s in and 110.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s out (the same difference between the league’s third and 25th ranked defenses). That's not entirely due to how hard he hustles, but those small plays add up over time. They're culture-establishing traits that Luke Walton should be thrilled to see.
3. The Knicks Are Still Antiquated in The Worst Ways
Their season-long obsession with mid-range jumpers and pull-up long twos is bad, but watching the Knicks over the past couple weeks, it’s almost like they go out of their way to take the worst shots possible on every single half-court possession.
Some of this is thanks to every one of their point guards not being a good enough shooter to convince defenders they should do anything but duck deep under ball screens and either meet them on the other side or stop, look at their watch, and wait for a shot to hit the rim.
The Knicks don’t re-screen to get their guards going downhill and most of their bigs are perfectly fine popping just above the elbow, catching a pass, and doing the defense a favor by taking the first open look they have. New York ranks dead last in three-point rate and this is the fifth year in the row where they’ve placed in the top six in, um, “long-two rate,” per CTG. Carmelo Anthony is long gone, yet this offense has yet to make any honest attempt to modernize itself. Personnel matters, but, like, why not play just a teensy bit more like the Brooklyn Nets?
(P.S. Since the All-Star break, New York has allowed 118.2 points per 100 possessions, which not only ranks dead last, but the difference between them and the 29th ranked Denver Nuggets is the same as Denver and the 13th ranked Washington Wizards. They’ve lost eight games in a row. The tank is strong.)
4. How Much Better is Cleveland’s Defense, Really?
With Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson out, and several new pieces still integrating themselves into a new situation, it’s hard to make any definitive statements about the Cavaliers and whether they’ve made meaningful progress in their most concerning area. They’re 7-6 since the players they acquired at the trade deadline made their team debut, and rank 20th in defensive rating.
That’s, um, better than dead last, but over the past few weeks Cleveland has been roasted by just about every team they’ve played (including the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets) except the Celtics, Grizzlies, and Pistons. In the 146 minutes LeBron James, George Hill, and Rodney Hood have shared the floor, Cleveland has allowed 120.4 points per 100 possessions. Small sample size be damned, it’s impossible to say anything nice about a combination of players who’re getting diced up that bad.
Most of their struggle was expected, thanks to poor effort from veterans who don't want to get up for regular season games in March, personnel that was never reputed on the defensive end to begin with, and plenty of miscommunication between a string of moving parts.
Here’s Hood letting Gary Harris drive middle instead of jumping up, downing the pick-and-roll, and keeping the ball on the sideline. It forces Larry Nance to momentarily guard both his man and Harris, with no help defenders in position to rotate over.
Executing this scheme isn’t second nature to Nance and Hood, who’ve only been teammates for a few weeks. But it’s a correctable mistake that can be smoothed over with repetition. Some of their problems are more concerning than others, though, like Cedi Osman helping off the strong-side corner on a Will Barton drive that’s already handled.
Even though Dwyane Wade is gone, the Cavs still complain and don’t get back in transition…
…or give enough respect to three-point shooters that are happy to fire away…
…and they routinely botch pick-and-roll coverages with players who execute separate strategies at the same time.
On the play above, Jeff Green hedges out on Devin Harris while Jordan Clarkson thinks he’s supposed to switch onto Trey Lyles, AKA execute the same scheme that was implemented on Clarkson's former team in Los Angeles. Old habits can be hard to shake, and time isn’t on their side.
That said, they’ve been awesome with Nance on the floor, and LeBron knows how to dispense maximum energy when the situation calls for it. Lineups that feature Thompson and Nance (which we’ve yet to see) should be able to dominate the glass, switch onto guards, or fly around and force turnovers.
Stinky defense has been one of Cleveland's defining characteristics since 2014, but LeBron's greatness is perpetually able to mask flaws that would otherwise send any team that guarded that poorly home early. It’s still so hard to believe this year will be any different, but, once again, the Cavs face an uphill climb that probably doesn’t need to be so steep.
5. Nikola Jokic’s Wafting Aggression is a Worthy Debate
Should Nikola Jokic be more aggressive? It’s something Mike Malone clearly believes, having benched his best player for a passive mentality last week against the Dallas Mavericks, when Jokic scored four points in an 11-point loss. In the following three games, he tallied 77 points (while making 73.7 percent of his shots), 22 assists, and 30 rebounds.
The Nuggets have a better offense than the Golden State Warriors when Jokic is at the five.
Jokic is an exceptional put-back artist who scores just as easily on the block, facing up from the mid post, or popping out for a spot-up three. He can be as dominant scoring the ball as anyone at his position. But conflict rises because he’s also the first, second, and third-best passer at his position.
The 23-year-old rewards cutters, identifies teammates who have a mismatch, and always has his head on a swivel to find an open shooter 40 feet away before that shooter even knows he’s free. It’s beautiful surgery nobody else can pull off, and unique enough to define Denver’s entire personality. The Nuggets have a better offense than the Golden State Warriors when Jokic is at the five. He's a foundational presence who's still learning on the job.
That aesthetically-breathtaking unselfishness doesn’t need to duel with his shot attempts, though; too often he'll snatch an offensive rebound and immediately look to pass before trying to figure out how he can draw a foul or muscle his way up for a crafty bucket.
He prefers to survey the floor while most of his contemporaries (Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, etc.) would rather conquer it. And that can be frustrating! On Tuesday night in a critical loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, Jokic only attempted one shot in the fourth quarter. Performances like that aren't acceptable from someone who can take over games whenever he wants. Jokic is an extraordinary gem, but right now he's also his own worst enemy.
6. Stop Underestimating Anthony Davis's Supporting Cast
As great as DeMarcus Cousins was before his season-ending torn Achilles, New Orleans’ ability to play more lineups that complement Anthony Davis is one reason they’ve thrived since the All-Star big went down.
The most obvious change is noticeable in Davis himself, whose usage percentage was 27.8 before the injury and has been 33.9 since. He has more physical responsibilities but also a mentality that doesn’t let him take breaks, knowing Cousins is no longer around to bail the Pelicans out. Davis's MVP-caliber play is its own thing, but despite two bad losses in their last three games, no team can play as well as New Orleans has for over a month with only one player carrying the load.
There’s more shooting on the floor now (partly due to the timely addition of Nikola Mirotic), and bigs who do nothing but run and jump with maximum effort at all times.
Jrue Holiday has been great on both ends (and deserves a more favorable whistle), but unexpectedly solid play from the likes of Emeka Okafor, Rajon Rondo, and Darius Miller (who’s somehow still one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the league) within the NBA’s fastest offense has the Pelicans crushing opponents with players who streamline Davis’s role and allow him to takeover without hesitation.
Who could’ve ever guessed that in 2018, the best Okafor in the NBA would be Emeka and not Jahlil? The 35-year-old is averaging a career-best 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes. But beyond the numbers, just, like, watching Gary and Tobias Harris or Rudy Gobert think they can yam all over him only to get their dunk attempts sent back in the opposite direction is priceless.
He’s active on the boards, someone who’ll draw fouls tracking down an offensive rebound, and opponents are only shooting 52 percent at the rim when he and Davis share the floor—an incredibly impressive number.
Offensively, Okafor’s usage rate is microscopic but he’s hitting shots, doesn’t turn it over, and has never been more efficient in his entire career. Off the ball, he’s a brick wall setting screens to free up Davis and all New Orleans’ ball-handlers. Look at what he does to Derrick Favors on this baseline screen, allowing AD to curl free for a wide-open jumper:
Along with Okafor actualizing the least likely comeback the NBA has seen in recent years, Rondo is kinda trying on defense (sort of) again! Of late, New Orleans has been very good when he shares the floor with Davis, in part because the four-time All-Star is out of his own head when defenders let him have open shots. He’s attacking the basket, yo-yoing defenders with his trademark faux-wraparound, and hitting threes at a quality rate.
Relative to a sludgy half-court strategy, Rondo is at his best when the brakes are off. Thanks to his fruitful reads, the Pelicans have become the most proactive team in the league. He carved up Charlotte’s pick-and-roll defense on Tuesday night (particularly in the fourth quarter when the Hornets had Frank Kaminsky at the five).
One of my favorite quick-hit actions this season has carried on without a hitch in the Pelicans’ post-Boogie universe. I first mentioned it months ago, but defenses still get burned at least once a game: A guard dribbles up the sideline and receives a drag screen from another guard, who slips to the rim, open for a layup.
(Note to every team that plays the Pelicans from here on out: Switch this!)
From there we have the likes of E’Twaun Moore, who best embodies the “nobody believes in us!” label proudly worn by everyone not named Davis on this team. Ian Clark is having an atrocious year, but there’s a good chance his minutes will be eclipsed by Solomon Hill, who’s reportedly set to make his season debut before March is over.
Hill is an acceptable three-point shooter who can play the four in small lineups that pit Davis as the clear center. Even more interesting than that scenario, though, is if Alvin Gentry ever experiments with Mirotic at the five and Hill at power forward with Davis on the bench. This is the beefy wing defender the Pelicans haven’t had all year.
Of course, none of this really matters without Davis playing like the most unstoppable force the league has. But there are scenarios where he'd put up 40 and 18 in a losing effort. The guys around him deserve some credit for turning one of the league's most depressing situations into its most magical.
7. DeMar DeRozan’s Left Hand
Left (pun absolutely intended) on the cutting room floor from a feature I wrote earlier this season about DeMar DeRozan’s evolution was a quick throwaway line from C.J. Miles. The question was “what about DeMar didn’t you know before you became his teammate.” He went on about DeRozan’s passing and court vision, how he was able to identify where everybody on the court was and really anticipate what the defense wants to do.
I thought Miles was finished and started to ask my next question when he interrupted me. “His left hand. His off hand,” he said. “He uses it extremely well.” This is very true, and goes back to almost four years ago when DeRozan, a right-handed person, spent an entire offseason recircuiting his brain by eating, writing, and living as a lefty.
This isn’t a new development, but speaks to how complete DeRozan’s game is, and how many options he has to combat whatever scheme the defense wants to throw at him. Watch how he weaves his way through the Knicks on the play below, taking what is given, unworried about ending up on the left side of the basket after Kyle Lowry sets him up beautifully with a ball screen that New York doesn’t know how to defend.
There are countless finishes like this one. Here he is from the same game, spinning away from congestion and calmly floating the ball right in.
Even though his three-point percentage has plummeted over the last couple months, DeRozan remains as complete as they come.
8. Zach Collins Might be the Franchise-Altering Presence Portland Desperately Needs
The Portland Trail Blazers have not lost a game since February 11th, and how far they can go in this year’s playoffs with a Damian Lillard + top-ten defense recipe is an increasingly fascinating conversation. But assuming they don’t win the championship, Portland will float back down to Earth this summer with bloated payroll that's backloaded for the next two years. Their front office has few ways to upgrade the team beyond its thrilling backcourt.
Enter Zach Collins. After watching him do this on Monday night, it's clear the rookie's future is one of the more exciting things Portland has going for it right now.
The 20-year-old hasn’t been particularly efficient and isn’t as strong as he’ll be in 3-5 years—a dilemma today whenever opponents throw a wing on him 20 feet from the rim—but Portland’s offense is awesome when he’s on the court, and he already possesses enough confidence to launch a three off the catch after he misses two in a row.
He’s a skilled seven footer who’s already shown he can protect the rim a little bit, isn’t bashful about mixing it up on the glass, and will switch out and compete on the perimeter whenever he has to. By himself he’s more intriguing than exciting, but toss in the fact that he’ll likely mature alongside Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Blazers might’ve hit on the very draft pick they need.
The timeline isn’t ideal, but Collins should develop into starting-caliber help while McCollum and Lillard are still in their prime, and that begs a few important questions: How much is Portland willing to spend on Jusuf Nurkic this summer? Do they think Collins is a center? Can those two play together in crunch time?
If the organization believes Collins’s length and anticipation on the defensive end are good enough to slot him in as a stretch five, then it doesn’t make much sense to re-sign Nurkic to money that pegs him as the full-time starter for the next four years. The two have not really spent any significant time on the court together, and it’s too early to tell if starting them both as early as next season, then playing Collins as the backup five, can work. (Ed Davis—the Murtaugh to Collins's Riggs—is an unrestricted free agent this summer.)
But Collins will probably be better than Nurkic at some point over the next two years, and locking the latter up to a long-term deal as he enters restricted free agency this summer might not be wise unless he agrees to sign for much less than he’s worth. In Basketball Utopia, Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey could get a closer look at how these two can complement one another in actual games, but a playoff race is not the time for experimentation.
9. Can Domas Sabonis and Myles Turner Co-Exist?
Similar to what’s written about Collins and Nurkic above, the Indiana Pacers have two young centers on their roster who’re good enough to start. Domas Sabonis and Myles Turner are awesome in their own way, but is it fair to already wonder how much sense it makes to keep them both?
Nate McMillan has played them together for 241 minutes this season, in which they’ve yielded a top-seven defense and bottom-ten offense. Those are noisy numbers that don’t reveal too much about how they would actually co-exist over the next season or two, but on paper it doesn’t seem ideal.
Both are good enough passers, and it's not hard to envision Sabonis as a roll man while Turner pops out behind the three-point line or simply spaces the floor as a spot-up threat. But does that maximize each of their skill-sets? It's certainly better than having Sabonis play basketball inside a clogged toilet when Trevor Booker shares the floor, but what's the ceiling there? They don't have the combined foot speed to make it worthwhile on the defensive end, and having both out there at the same time isn't exactly the model for how you want to complement Victor Oladipo.
The Pacers were good with Sabonis as their starting five when Turner was injured earlier this season—he can seriously beast on the glass—and both are talented enough to log at least 30 minutes every night at some point in their careers. It's not a particularly urgent issue at the moment—Sabonis is on his rookie-scale contract for another two years—or even a bad problem to have (don't forget about T.J. Leaf waiting in the wings!). The Pacers are smart to experiment with both at the same time.
But eventually this logjam will need to sort itself out, because after the Pacers offer Turner a max contract, it's highly unlikely Sabonis will want to spend his career coming off the bench.
10. Worry About the Spurs At Your Own Risk
Maybe I’m naive, but the five-time champions still own the ninth-highest point differential in the league, per CTG. They don’t have their best player, who doubles as one of the world’s two or three most complete, and would still make the playoffs if the season ended today. Even though the aforementioned net rating is the lowest we’ve seen from them in at least 14 seasons, everyone needs to take a deep breath and/or keep the concern trolling to a minimum.
When you’re great for as long as San Antonio has been, struggles are viewed through an unfair lens. They aren’t that old and have at least one dominant go-to offensive option. They still guard the rim and the three-point line, and never foul anybody. I'm not sure how anyone can think the Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, or Utah Jazz are definitively superior. The Spurs will make the playoffs, people.
11. Eric Bledsoe is Fouling a Bunch
This is probably nothing major, but Eric Bledsoe’s foul percentage (which measures how many defensive fouls someone commits per team play) is the highest it’s been since 2012, currently in the 38th percentile at his position after being in the 69th and 72nd percentiles in the previous two seasons when he primarily played point guard.
He still jumps passing lanes with precision, a skill that keeps his steal rate high, but is that foul stat an aberration worth ignoring or a data point that signals his declining athleticism? Bledsoe is 28 years old with several knee injuries in his rearview mirror. Watch this.
On one hand, pressuring a rookie that far from the rim isn’t the worst idea if you believe it’ll lead to a turnover. On the other, if you’re Bledsoe, and quick enough to stay between Xavier Rathan-Mayes (who's 1-for-14 in his entire career from deep) and the rim, why not just do that, knowing the Grizzlies are in the penalty? Why gift him a trip to the free-throw line?
Moments earlier, Rathan-Mayes was headed middle off a double drag screen before Bledsoe grabbed his arm for another foul.
The Bucks have an atrocious defensive foul rate with Bledsoe in the game, and most of his teams in Phoenix fouled more often when he sat on the sideline, which isn’t the case right now. According to Synergy Sports, he’s still one of the best isolation defenders in the league, and Milwaukee’s defense is somewhat substantially better when he’s in the game. But every inch matters in the playoffs, and Milwaukee will need Bledsoe to maintain his aggressiveness but be way more disciplined while doing so if it wants to advance past the first round.