The Outlet Pass: The Spurs as We Knew Them No Longer Exist
Also: Collin Sexton is Lord of the Long Two, Nick Nurse is a mad scientist, Lonzo Ball's eye test vs. analytics debate, Karl-Anthony Towns is turning into a guard, a backup point guard who equals mid-90's nostalgia, and more!
Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE
Should San Antonio Rev Up the Tank?
The world made so much sense last year whenever you read the words that Synergy used to grade how well the San Antonio Spurs performed on defense. Against post-ups they were “excellent.” In transition, isolation, and stopping putbacks they were “very good.” The sky was blue. They made the playoffs. But watch them now and all that feels like it took place six million years ago. Today, markers like “poor,” “below average,” and “average” dominate the page.
Not to bury the lede—this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who read every word up until now—but San Antonio has the worst defense in the NBA. That’s right, the same franchise that’s enjoyed over two straight decades of playoff basketball by surrounding their own hoop with a silver and black bunker fortress—the Spurs had a top five defense in each of the past six seasons—is now a disheveled mess. (Since Gregg Popovich’s first full season as San Antonio’s head coach—so long ago that Frank Sinatra was still alive—they never finished with a defense that was worse than league average. Right now they’re 5.0 points per 100 possessions higher than the league average.)
While plenty of deserved criticism has focused on their stubbornly antiquated shot chart—the Spurs take the league’s fewest amount of threes and shots at the rim while launching more long twos than anybody else—it’s defense where they struggle to breathe. On that end, Popovich’s troops are undisciplined, be it in the open floor (they’re allowing 1.49 points per possession after a turnover, which is lower than the Washington Wizards, and if you’ve seen the Washington Wizards play this year you know this is the red alarm to end all red alarms), timing a double team in the post, or simply containing the ball. They’re consistently a step slow helping the helper or unnecessarily over-helping in the first place:
The Spurs are regularly surrendering astronomical point totals, be it 140 against New Orleans, 139 in Utah, 135 in Milwaukee, 128 in Minnesota, or 136 against the Rockets, or 121 against the Lakers. All those games are within the past 17 days. They’re getting worse as the season rolls along, not better. And if almost any other organization was currently playing like they are, regardless of preseason expectations, they would be written off as a lottery team, which brings me to the point of this entire section: maybe the Spurs should tank.
Yes, they are technically only two games back of a playoff spot, but in front of them in the standings are the Rockets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Kings, and then every other team in the Western Conference except Phoenix. According to Tankathon, only the Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and Oklahoma City Thunder face a more difficult schedule from here on out, too. (It’s a bit silly to place too much validity in this fact before Christmas, but still, it exists!)
FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs a 2.0 percent chance to make the playoffs. They don’t have a point guard, any two-way wings (fatal in today’s league), and are missing the foundational on-court leadership that was forever provided by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. As Kawhi Leonard resembles an MVP candidate in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan mirrors most of his All-NBA production from a year ago but is also 6-for-32 behind the three-point line. Pau Gasol is 38 with a stress fracture in his foot.
So what are their options? Should they conduct a firesale, trade DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, then head into next season aggressively rebuilding around Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, their own two first-round draft picks plus whatever they get back in trades for their two best players? It’s too early for that. The impact Murray’s torn ACL has had on this team can’t be overstated and the Spurs should be curious about how they’ll look with DeRozan, Aldridge, and Murray all healthy next season. Add Walker IV, their own picks (if the season ended today they’d be eighth and 30th overall), and a couple more outside shooters, and the Spurs should bounce back, hopefully with a more modern offensive identity.
But it’s not like the rest of their books clear up this summer. Patty Mills, Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl are all under contract in 2020. Instead of selling off Aldridge and DeRozan, dangling Rudy Gay or Belinelli in an attempt to get younger while increasing their shot at a higher pick makes sense. What doesn’t is heading the other way, trading an asset for more immediate help just to make the playoffs.
With the amended lottery system set up to help bad-but-not-terrible teams leap into the top four, San Antonio can get lucky without pillaging its roster. They can use this crucial turn of misfortune to their advantage by turning it into a bridge towards the future, when Murray, Walker, and the draft assets they already have hopefully turn into something special. Until then, the Spurs as we knew them no longer exist. Such is life in the NBA.
Collin Sexton is Lord of the Long Two
Collin Sexton owns one of the most maddening and admirable shot charts in basketball. Guards who fetishize long twos and struggle-face their way into the paint with little to show for it unnecessarily wander uphill while leaving countless points on the table. But, as Cleveland’s physical representation of a silver lining, Sexton (who’s still 19) isn’t afraid to prioritize his own comfort zone over what NBA tastemakers deem obligatory. It’s clear from watching him that threes aren’t necessarily outside his range, but, for now, Sexton and the Cavs are fine with him cozying up to an area on the floor that just about everyone else in the league has abandoned.
“He’s taken what the defense has given him,” Cavs head coach Larry Drew said. “I think as he continues to mature, continues to grow and develop, he’ll start to understand, you know, that you just take a little step back and you get another point. But right now he’s playing off feel.”
Not only does Sexton gorge on the game’s least efficient shot more often than anybody else, but the gap between him and the pack is jarring. According to Cleaning the Glass, 43 percent of Sexton’s shots are long twos. For reference, that’s one point below DeMar DeRozan’s career high and last year’s league leader finished at 38 percent. “That’s just what they’re giving me,” Sexton told VICE Sports. “I have to take advantage and make it.”
Not even 30 games into his career, this doesn’t need to induce a freakout. But just so we’re clear, threes matter, and Sexton will eventually need to take more than 1.6 per game if he wants to widen his own margin for error. The upshot of a mid-range diet typically is not an efficient scorer. The Cavs would like Sexton to eventually be an efficient scorer. The good news is there doesn’t appear to be any sort of unnerving impediment holding him back. His range will someday extend by a few feet without any need to rework shot mechanics or speed up his release, and he’s already shown a willingness to pull up in the face of defenders who duck under his screen.
Sexton’s warm-up routine before games mostly focuses on the tight pull ups that account for a huge chunk of his shot selection, but Cleveland’s coaches also want to simulate the cushion defenders regularly give him above the break.
Earlier this week, before Cleveland’s shootaround began, Sexton and a handful of coaches had half the court to themselves. On the other side, a few Cavs (Alec Burks, Channing Frye, Sam Dekker, and a couple more) walked through sets with Coach Drew. For Sexton, the goal was to sharpen his entire off-the-dribble attack. He snaked pick and rolls as a coach instructed him to step forward towards the paint instead of back to the arc as he weaved middle off a screen, so as to prevent his man from recovering to bother his shot.
“Attack the nail!” they shout, referencing the exact middle of the free-throw line. Speed is important, but this particular sequence is pointless unless Sexton can get his defender on his hip and lock him in jail. Learning such nuance does not happen overnight, but is crucial to his development. Until he figures it out, Sexton will take some difficult shots that don’t need to be so hard.
He then spent ten minutes implementing patience into his side pick-and-roll, setting his big man up to re-screen and let him get downhill for an easier jump shot when his man goes under the pick. For Sexton, these smooth pull-ups are great to keep in his back pocket, especially after the three becomes a regular part of his arsenal and opponents work to take that away. In the meantime, not every long two is created equal. Like, this should never, ever, ever happen in an NBA game:
Sexton doesn’t completely abandon layups or threes—he’s 18-for-39 beyond the arc and isn’t bashful when given enough space and time to let one go—and that’s notable. But his next step will be to initiate pull-up threes instead of settling into them because that’s what the defense wants.
“It’s there,” he told VICE Sports. “I’ve just got to take more reps and not be afraid to shoot...I’m not at all [shy about shooting threes], but if they’re gonna sag back off me I’ve gotta be able to knock that 15 footer down.”
Coach Drew has not instructed Sexton to take more threes, and so long as the Cavaliers are playing to lose, the rookie’s shot selection is sufficient. Frankly, when he makes them at an effective clip (currently 44 percent, which isn’t bad), the threat of a mid-range jumper accentuates Sexton’s blinding speed and forces defenders to guard him tighter than they want to. Ignore his first ten games (all off the bench) and Sexton’s averaging 17.8 points on very impressive shooting splits. He went 3-for-3 beyond the arc on Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors. So long as he and the organization are happy letting his scope expand organically, Sexton can become one of the more dynamic scorers at his position. Attach a potent mid-range pull-up and reliable three ball to Sexton’s uncanny speed and someday defenses won’t know what the hell to do with him.
When Karl-Anthony Towns Looks Like a Guard Hide Your Children
The Stretch Five Era has forced centers across the league to adapt in myriad ways. Beyond “shoot and make threes,” the most important modification has materialized on defense, where being comfortable on the perimeter—with an ability to sprint out and run a popping seven-footer off the line—is a prerequisite for extended playing time, especially in the fourth quarter.
But as defense catches up to offense, offense continues to progress. It’s terrific having a center who can stand still 27 feet from the rim, catch a pass, and drill an open three. But even more valuable is having a center who can do all that, then put the ball on the ground, blow past his defender, and either score, draw a foul, or make a play while rumbling towards the rim.
Right now, only a handful of bigs consistently pull it off in a helpful way. Al Horford, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis have all turned the three-point shot into a devastating pump-and-go, as DeMarcus Cousins did last year before he tore his Achilles. But there’s something particularly majestic whenever Karl-Anthony Towns does it. It’s like watching a thoroughbred win the triple crown, then decide to dominate Olympic swimming. For defenses, it’s an evolutionary horror show. Towns’ driving numbers aren’t up from last year, but he’s unleashing transformative ways to beat his man off the bounce, even after an initial advantage is well defended.
His stats have plateaued in a divisive way. He still fouls a ton (as in, once again Towns leads the league) and entire quarters go by when you’re not sure if he’ll ever “get” how talented he is as a first option on a dangerous playoff team. But a not-insignificant slice of that criticism can be attributed to internet impatience and NBA group think. Towns turned 23 a few weeks ago. He’s still learning. And whenever he pump-fakes his defender out of position, flings the ball out in front of him and decides to impersonate Giannis Antetokounmpo, well, defenses probably won’t know how to deal with that for the entirety of his career.
Nick Nurse is in the Lab
Nick Nurse was just named the Eastern Conference’s Coach of the Month and it will surprise nobody if he wins Coach of the Year. He’s successfully integrated Kawhi Leonard into an offensive system that was already razor sharp and overseen jaw-dropping improvement by Pascal Siakam. The Toronto Raptors are obscenely deep and have several players on their bench who’re good enough to start elsewhere. They’re averaging 30 fewer passes per game than they did last year, but Nurse has managed to keep everyone happy, even those he’s demoted.
But in addition to his apparent strengths as a man who puts out fires before they can touch anybody, he’s also a spectacular tactician.
During Toronto’s fourth loss of the season (and one of its most entertaining games) against the Nuggets on Tuesday night, one particular ATO stood out. I don’t know what the technical verbiage is that should be used to describe it, but essentially Nurse drew up a delayed Hammer set. It was executed higher up on the floor than I think I’ve ever seen, and sprinkled in for good measure was some deceitful misdirection. Here it is, in all its glory:
As Pascal Siakam pitches the ball to a streaking Delon Wright on the right wing, Danny Green rushes up from the baseline and appears ready to come off a stagger screen set by Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles. That’s a ruse. The play’s real goal occurs a second later when Valanciunas hits Miles’s defender with a backpick as Green reaches them. The difference between this and Hammer sets run by the Spurs is JV’s screen occurs up on the left wing, elbow extended, instead of closer to the weakside corner, which is where Miles wants to eventually end up.
For all intents and purposes, it works. Miles shakes free from Jamal Murray and is wide open in the corner when Wright picks up his dribble. But Wright’s vision is blurred thanks to Mason Plumlee, who’s sagging way off Valanciunas and wasn’t buying Green as the play’s focal point. Instead of kicking the ball out, Wright goes up strong and tries to draw a foul. Plumlee is now all the way over to contest the shot, so Valanciunas rolls into the paint, corrals Wright’s miss, and finishes the play by drawing a goaltend.
The play was designed to generate an open three but the Raptors still came away with two points because everyone involved did exactly what they were supposed to do against an intelligent defense that wasn’t entirely caught off guard. It’s the sign of a well-coached team.
Monte Morris Equals Mid-90’s Nostalgia
Watching Denver Nuggets point guard Monte Morris is like stepping into a time machine and going back into my grandmother’s living room, where I would crouch in front of a 20-inch standard definition TV and fall in love with smart point guards who never made mistakes or looked flustered.
Morris—a four-year college player—is a reincarnation of those old school players and has all the classic qualities of a brick-solid backup point guard. He’s unshakable and dependable, with a live dribble that rarely comes to a stop and his head always on a swivel. He can make threes (Morris is at 43.6 percent on catch-and-shoot tries), but instead of jacking them up himself he’d rather set the table for teammates and watch them eat.
As a deferential seeing eye dog who shepherds solid-to-spectacular offense without overreaching for attention, Morris represents a vintage NBA archetype that's since been phased out of the league. He’s a low-usage floor general who dances at whatever speed the game calls for. Scoring is not his job, but if his team needs him to stop the opponent’s random 10-0 run, he’ll draw a foul or knock down a pull up from the elbow.
He’s a balm, averaging seven assists per one turnover (a ratio that leads the league), and Denver’s bench is +65, which only trails the Dallas Mavericks. Their net rating is also steadily one of the top five marks in the league whether Morris is in the game with or without Jamal Murray, per Cleaning the Glass. This is all a pleasant surprise.
As well as Morris is playing, it’ll be interesting to see how Mike Malone integrates Isaiah Thomas and Will Barton into Denver’s rotation once those two are healthy enough to play. Murray’s minutes can stand to go down a tiny bit, but Morris has played well enough to cement himself as a fixture in this backcourt; he’s regularly closing games for one of the best teams in basketball! Kids don’t aspire to be like Monte Morris, but more probably should.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is a League Pass Darling
After a decade-long drought in which the Sacramento Kings inhabited the spirit of a clown car, we’re two months into a new season and this organization has finally provided at least half a dozen non-comical reasons why you should watch them play basketball. Bogdan Bogdanovic, the dazzling 26-year-old Serbian sophomore who plays basketball like a stuntman who despises safety nets, is one of them.
Bogdanovic is the quintessential League Pass Darling. If he’s on the floor when I flip over to a Kings game it feels like a $20 bill magically appeared in my back pocket. He plays with flair, ingenuity, and a special brand of fearlessness without devouring possessions or being overtly reckless. There’s a “no, no, no, yes!” portion of his game that’s less and less of a concern every day—i.e. what he does on this switch against Myles Turner:
Or here versus Mike Scott:
In year two, Bogdan’s usage rate and True Shooting percentage are up while his turnover rate is (way) down. There’s a 50/40/90 season lurking somewhere in his future, even though he has a tendency and willingness to shoot long before he can even see white in the defense’s eyes. I love that about him.
Most NBA players are a carbon copy of someone else—Bogdanovic is 100 percent not that. He’s unpredictable and plays with an imaginative verve, just as likely to pull up from 29 feet with 19 seconds on the shot clock as he is to bumrush the paint and, with one hand in a single motion, put back a teammate’s miss by gently kissing the ball off the glass.
After a close win against the Pacers last week, Bogdanovic—who’d just scored at least 20 points in his third straight game—modestly summed it up: “I’m not as athletic as all these American guys so I have to create different ways. That’s my game.” God bless Dave Joerger for letting Bogdan be Bogdan.
When Numbers Lie: Lonzo Ball is a Coast to Coast Sensation
Lonzo Ball currently exists as the most intriguing Eye Test vs. Analytics conversation in the NBA. You see this in microcosm whenever he attacks in transition. Watch him speed dribble up the floor, turn back-pedaling defenders into traffic cones, and finish with a layup.
Plays like this shouldn’t happen in an NBA game. They are the basketball equivalent of a bank robber attempting to crack a vault right after he sends the local FBI office a text that says “watch me rob this vault.” But with Ball, the defense almost doesn’t believe he’s able or committed enough to pull it off. They anticipate a kick-out/lob or convince themselves he won’t drive 1-on-3 and screw up L.A.’s floor balance going the other way. That miscalculation usually costs the defense two points.
According to the eye test, Ball is antsy enough to make it work more times than not. It feels like the plays seen above happen once or twice every game, which doesn’t sound like a lot but provide L.A. with an easy basket they don’t really need to work for; teammates on the bench stand and applaud even when he misses. But numbers (this year and last) tell a different story. Even though the Lakers as a whole are more efficient and aggressive in transition when Ball is on the court, Synergy Sports ranks him in the 4th percentile as a ball handler in transition (largely thanks to turnovers), with a pitiful 31.6 field goal percentage. That’s very terrible.
Watch the film, though, and these possessions include ill-advised stepbacks and quick ups at the rim that don’t fall but get tipped in or rebounded by a teammate. In other words: the opportunity cost is pretty low when Ball gets all the way to the rim, as he increasingly looks to do. Score one for the eye test, for now.