The Outlet Pass: Teodosic, The Bulls, IT Impressions, and Toronto's Defense
A weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook.
Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
1. Reconsidering Aaron Gordon’s Offensive Strategy
We still don’t know Aaron Gordon’s ceiling. With the addition of a steady three-point shot to his repertoire, his potential is as limitless as his athleticism. He turned 22 in September and is averaging 19 points and eight boards with a True Shooting percentage that’s nearly at 60.0. He also has a pair of 40-point performances and zero games where he’s scored in single figures—maybe he’ll be an All-Star someday.
Maybe he’ll win Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe he’ll be a vanguard for true positionless basketball, a walking Extinction Level Event for traditional centers who can’t match up with him on either end.
Watch Gordon play and you quickly get a sense that he feels all this will eventually come true. He wants to accomplish everything at the same time. Shoot, dribble (a lot), drive, launch unnecessarily difficult shots and prove to himself, and everybody else watching, that no defender can stop him from doing what he wants to do. (I experience a similar feeling walking around my neighborhood’s Dekalb Market Hall during lunch. Let me have it all.)
When he’s in the half-court with the ball in his hands, Gordon experiences choice overload. It’s in this way he’s become his own worst enemy. His handle is nearly good enough to bring him wherever he wants, and, now that he’s at the four full-time, whoever’s guarding him probably can’t keep up. But sometimes less is more. Instead of potentially molding himself into a high-volume scorer, the Paul George 2.0 that Frank Vogel evoked when he first took the job in Orlando, Gordon should instead focus on being more of a reactive, energetic presence—someone who shoots, passes, cuts, and stays engaged off the ball.
This sounds blasphemous, but maybe pull-up threes and baseline turnarounds just aren’t for him. Perhaps a vast majority of his baskets should be assisted, and he can use his physical gifts to snatch lobs, intimidate five positions, rebound, elevate off screens to get his shot off over any defender’s contest, and attack closeouts with a supercharged first step few his size can keep up with. Whenever only one option sits on the table, Gordon usually makes good things happen.
Now that he’s making outside shots—a quarter of all his attempts are "wide open" threes and nearly half go in—and forcing bigs to close hard, Gordon can afford to subsist off action that’s generated by a teammate’s pass or penetration. He’s also a deadly screener who can test the defense by either popping or diving whenever he wants.
Unfortunately, some of Gordon’s shot chart looks the way it does because he plays for the most depressing team in the league, and if he doesn’t end a possession himself (even if it’s with an off-balance contested fadeaway) Mario Hezonja will probably just wind up head butting the ball out of bounds. The fat in his game is necessary for this reason, among others. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Gordon ultimately became a more polished Shawn Marion (one might argue that, with the fifth-highest usage on his own team, he's already on that track).
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be allowed to/can’t create for himself, or that he doesn’t project to be the second option on a good team. Just that it’s okay if how he’s ultimately utilized doesn’t line up with how we believe second options on good teams should serve.
I believe Gordon’s ceiling is that of a perennial All-Defensive team member who annually ranks as one of the five most efficient players in the league. That’s a damn good piece, and whichever team he’s on next year should do their best to plot the most intelligent course to get him there.
2. Harden Has Great Timing
James Harden's strained hamstring is a bummer that will test a Rockets organization that hasn't really experienced his absence for any extended time since he became James Harden. This also robs us of watching a brilliant tactician at the peak of his powers. That stinks. But I still want to highlight a play that illustrates why Harden is so freaking amazing, from Houston's collapse in Boston last Thursday night.
There are a handful of qualities that separate Harden from a majority of first and second options throughout the NBA, but it's his ability to hone in on the defense's second layer and anticipate what they'll do that places him above everyone not named LeBron James.
Watch above. Even before Boston switches Jayson Tatum onto Harden, Al Horford positions himself directly in the middle of the paint. Brad Stevens calls for his All-Star big to get out and avoid a three-second violation, and the exact second he starts to move towards Nene, Harden takes off. Without warning, Horford has to jump back to where he was and thwart the drive, leaving his man all alone for the dunk.
This is what happens when a Hall of Fame talent is complemented with unprecedented spacing. A serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate is rendered about as resistant as a scarecrow.
3. The Pistons Should Go Small
Detroit isn't the only team in the league that always has a big man on the floor who can't/won't shoot outside the paint, but they're one of very few. Andre Drummond, Eric Moreland, and Boban Marjanovic (who started against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night and was burned alive once Hassan Whiteside's foul trouble forced Erik Spoelstra to play Kelly Olynyk at the five) are Stan Van Gundy's centers and he's sticking to them.
This makes sense. Rim-running roll men who protect the paint, rebound, and set solid screens are a lynchpin of Van Gundy's basketball philosophy. And recent injuries to Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson have forced him to go even bigger than normal, with Tobias Harris spending more time than he should at the three.
The Pistons have an average offense and the 10th-best defense in the league, and it's unlikely Van Gundy will try and downsize while Reggie Jackson is out. An Ish Smith-Avery Bradley backcourt is small enough as it is. They're okay now and will make the playoffs. But once everybody is healthy, there are intriguing lineups that can give the Pistons some punch, featuring Anthony Tolliver at the five. (Van Gundy closed with Tolliver at center against Miami, but that was mostly a failed attempt to match up against Olynyk.)
Van Gundy played Jon Leuer at the five a tiny bit last year, and once he's healthy a Leuer, Harris, Kennard, Bradley, Jackson lineup could be pretty damn fun. Leuer served as a decent stretch-five for the Phoenix Suns two years ago, and imagining him open driving lanes for Jackson, Harris, and Bradley should make a frustrated fanbase smile.
Drummond is obviously fine getting the 33 minutes he deserves, but it's that other 15 where the Pistons can do some really interesting things. Johnson is strong enough to guard most fours and that may ultimately be his best NBA position, while Harris is by far his best self when slower players try and guard him. Kennard and Bradley can shoot. Small ball would be a refreshing experiment in the Motor City.
4. Don’t Switch Out on Tyler Johnson
Seven years ago I started a blog called Shaky Ankles that allowed me to scribble random NBA-related thoughts in between clips of crossover-dribble-induced carnage. Good times. This hesitation move by Tyler Johnson that nearly disintegrated Maxi Kleber from the waist down is an ode to that once glorious site.
5. Who Would You Rather Have: Otto Porter or Andrew Wiggins?
This is a fun debate, for no other reason than we get to compare the value of a reliable tertiary option who’s grown comfortable developing in the backseat on a good team his first five years in the league, with a prodigious phenom whose responsibilities were abruptly ceded to an incoming three-time All-Star and pseudo-MVP candidate.
Comparing these two also calls into question what should be valued as desirable traits in a modern day wing, particularly one on a max contract. The contrast is clear.
Wiggins is way more athletic, superior at setting up his own shot with enough confidence to get it off over literally anyone on Earth; he possesses rare physical abilities that lift his ceiling, on both sides of the ball, much higher than Porter’s will ever be.
Against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night, Wiggins zoomed coast to coast in crunch-time to create something out of nothing in a way very few players can. These sequences are gold stars on his resume and it’s hard to shake them from memory whenever anyone labels Wiggins as a disappointment.
But an iffy outside shot and the inability to consistently impact a game without the ball in his hands complicates Wiggins’ place on a great team. His usage is down dramatically this year, but so is his effective field goal percentage. That's...not supposed to happen. If he doesn’t make those around him better and isn’t efficient enough scoring the ball to rationalize placement as a go-to option, then, particularly within the context of Minnesota’s long-term hierarchy (assuming Jimmy Butler re-signs), what is he?
That question is probably too harsh. In NBA history, only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady have scored more points before their 23rd birthday. He is clearly a unique talent. He's played more minutes than anyone in the league this season; adjusting to life as the third wheel can’t be easy for someone who’s only been a headliner.
A year ago, comparing him with Porter wouldn’t be taken very seriously, but the Wolves might agree to swap the two if Washington called with an offer tomorrow. That said, even though Porter is a more comfortable fit, moving on from Wiggins would probably be a mistake three or four years down the road, when Minnesota is actually ready to win a championship.
But Porter isn’t a finished product, either. He’s only 18 months older than Wiggins and, assuming his role doesn’t take on too much water, may have a 50-40-90 season in his back pocket. Three years ago he shot 33.7 percent from beyond the arc. Right now he’s at 46 percent on 2.7 more attempts per game. Unlike Wiggins, who plays unsure of when he should be aggressive and when he should placate his more skillful teammates, Porter already understands that Washington can’t be its best self unless he punishes the defense whenever it leans too hard towards John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The Wizards are a juggernaut when he plays power forward (a position Wiggins has never spent much time at) and his offensive repertoire has bled into different areas beyond just being a stationary catch-and-shoot threat. Last year 70.1 percent of his shots were launched without taking a dribble. This year that’s down to 54.5 percent. (Wiggins has never gone higher than the 36.6 percent he submitted as a rookie.)
Porter is a natural complement. He’s ketchup on a cheeseburger. Wiggins is...another cheeseburger. There’s nothing wrong with having two cheeseburgers, and ketchup by itself is disgusting, but which one of these players, outside the context of their current role, would you rather having knowing a roster had to be filled out around them? I’ve gone back and forth on it and, as lost as he looks sometimes, would still take Wiggins, with the hope that someday (he’s only 22!) he’ll figure out how to make the opponent worry about him on every single possession.
Wiggins doesn’t have to play with Russell Westbrook rage, just pick his spots, be quick to the ball, and unleash the All-NBA talent that simmers within. He’s ultimately a jewel too valuable to pass on. That said, it wouldn't shock me if a majority of his current contract was spent playing for a different team.
6. Milos Teodosic is Fearless
Blake Griffin is healthy, Lou Williams is really taking advantage of the brightest green light he’s ever seen, and the Los Angeles Clippers have spoiled themselves with a two-week stretch in which they played (and beat) the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, and Los Angeles Lakers.
Bruce Bowen is singing “It ain’t no fun if Ralph can’t ha-a-a-a-a-a-ve none” to his 79-year-old broadcast partner during ad reads. Danilo Gallinari is on the mend from a partially-torn glute. Austin Rivers narrowly avoided a torn Achilles. Life is wonderful.
In the middle of it all is a 30-year-old rookie who lives in a parallel universe that exists 0.5 seconds ahead of the one everybody else knows. Milos Teodosic is responsible for half a dozen thrilling moments every night, and his borderline-belligerent shot selection deserves some credit as a catalyst for L.A.’s reversal. If you’re guarding him and go under on the screen, he’s firing away. There’s no hesitation. No time for questions. The second his man spins/dips/slides under a screen, that ball is getting flung towards the basket.
Sometimes he’ll shoot because everyone on the court expects him to pass. Leave him open at your own peril.
This is simultaneously a concern for Los Angeles—among all players who average at least 2.5 pull-up threes per game, only Tim Hardaway Jr. and D’Angelo Russell are less accurate than Teodosic—and the other team.
Even though he’s barely shooting over 30 percent from beyond the arc, there hasn’t been much downside to Teodosic believing he's Kyle Korver. Stats only matter so much when a guy rises up behind the three-point line without hesitation to nail one in your face.
The Clippers are basically the best team ever when he’s on the floor (though an unreasonably low opposing three-point percentage probably has much to say about that).
All that’s wonderful, but it’d be a crime to write anything about this man and not take a brief 300 words to gush about his passing. Teodosic has been a shaggy Santa Clause for years, and Clippers roll men are reaping the benefits, shooting over 70 percent when he slips them the ball (fourth highest among 93 players who’ve fed/tried to feed a roll man at least 30 times this season. That’s impressive, but doesn’t compare to the fact that he’s yet to turn the ball over in these situations, per Synergy Sports.)
No matter where on the floor they begin, his bounce passes are received like thoughtfully gift-wrapped cashmere sweaters.
Teodosic’s no-looks tend to be dressed down, so normal and effective that there isn't any room for elegance. Instead, they're just logical decisions, like, Deyonta Davis thinks I’m throwing one up to DJ so I’ll just stare at DJ! until the ball is suddenly on its way to Griffin as he plunges into the paint.
Teodosic’s anticipatory vision is a miracle. Relative to what he faced in the Euroleague, the NBA’s intensified athleticism is, so far, no match for it. And so long as he doesn't lose confidence in his jumper, Los Angeles' offense will be pandemonium whenever he's on the floor.
7. Chicago Has Reached a (Minor and Welcome) Fork in the Road
After their first 38 games, the Bulls are 13-25 with the fourth-lowest point differential in the league. They entered the season as the favorite to finish with more ping-pong balls than anyone else, which is what many people in the organization wanted.
There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, but if the season ended today Chicago would only have a 15 percent chance at a top-three pick; six teams have a lower winning percentage and they’re within a game of passing three more. The Bulls aren’t good (too much of their surge has been reliant on piping hot mid-range accuracy) but they also aren’t Luka Doncic/Marvin Bagley III bad. This creates an obvious dilemma.
Last week, I tweeted that several parallels exist between these Bulls and the 2014-15 Boston Celtics, a team that was also 13-25 after their first 38 games. In reality, Chicago is somewhere between them and the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns, a 48-win Little Engine That Could (Not Make The Playoffs) that unexpectedly accelerated a rebuild that clearly needed more time.
Boston, after a few franchise-altering mid-season transactions were completed, finished with 40 wins and made the playoffs. Rajon Rondo was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for a first-round pick, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, and Brandan Wright (who was then dealt to the Phoenix Suns for two second-round picks—one which recently turned into Semi Ojeleye); Jeff Green was ludicrously swapped for a first-round pick from the Memphis Grizzlies; and Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko were scooped up in a three-team trade where the Celtics actually surrendered a first-round pick.
Not sure if anyone has ever told you this but at the time Boston owned 19 first-round picks via the Brooklyn Nets. For the purpose of comparing them to any other team going through a rebuild, those picks are essentially an asterisk that allowed Danny Ainge to add someone like Thomas with the hope of then flipping him for even more assets down the line, sacrificing Boston’s own draft position in the process. They didn’t have to tank. Two years later they made the Eastern Conference Finals and were good enough to lure a max free agent in back-to-back summers.
The Bulls do not have any draft picks from the Nets, but they still find themselves in a similar situation, with a head coach who was highly reputed from college basketball at the helm of a young, impressionable roster. Chicago also, unexpectedly, already has blue-chip prospects in Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, with Zach LaVine’s return on the horizon.
But Nikola Mirotic, who’s shooting 46.6 percent from deep on over six attempts per game, is the distinct difference between their pitiful early-season play and what's happened since his fractured face healed. Despite losing their last three games, since Mirotic’s return on December 8th, the Bulls have the seventh-best win percentage in the NBA. They rank fifth in defensive rating, second in pace, and second in assist-turnover ratio. They’re annihilating opponents when Mirotic is on the floor.
Again, though, Chicago doesn’t have any Nets picks. They can’t afford to draft Terry Rozier when someone like Myles Turner or Devin Booker is plucked a few spots ahead. Their hopeful underdog story is ultimately a mirage, and continuing to play as well as they are could have devastating long-term effects.
Trading Mirotic—he can’t actually be dealt until January 15th—makes sense. He isn’t good enough to push anybody over the edge into title contention, but could be useful for the right team, maybe one that isn't guaranteed a playoff spot right now. The Clippers could view Mirotic as Gallinari insurance, but dealing a first-round pick (the first they could surrender won’t yield until 2021 at the earliest) would be shortsighted for a franchise that can’t win it all and may be mired in their own rebuild by then.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and possibly even the San Antonio Spurs would all enjoy having Mirotic in their rotation, especially knowing they’d hold a $12.5 million team option for his service in 2018-19. But of those teams that are even able to, would any surrender a lottery-protected first-round pick? Would Portland give up someone like Zach Collins? It feels unlikely, though not totally insane.
Now let’s go the other way for a second. What if the Bulls keep Mirotic, get LaVine back, and make a push for the eight seed, of which they’re currently six games back with four teams standing in their way (the Nets, Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Charlotte Hornets). This isn’t ideal but, assuming they make it, wouldn't single-handedly plunge their franchise into the dark ages, either.
Chicago is an attractive free agent market with a clean cap sheet two summers from now—even if they re-sign LaVine—when several interesting free agents, like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Love, will enter the marketplace.
If the Bulls focus on developing their mainstays (this probably doesn’t include Mirotic) in a winning environment, actualize a promising culture, and turn organic momentum into a spear for free agent fishing, it’s not impossible to envision a scenario where they land a couple significant pieces and are able to maintain status as a competitive organization for the foreseeable future, at a rate much faster than anyone thought possible back on the day they traded Jimmy Butler.
I’m all for a good tank job, but self-sabotage for the sake of the seventh overall pick and a future asset that may not ever produce at the level Mirotic currently is probably isn’t worth it when a serious opportunity to make the playoffs presents itself. There’s no right answer here, though. Luck goes hand in hand with the consistently shrewd decisions Chicago’s front office will need to make, no matter what they choose to do.
But dealing Mirotic and/or any other helpful pieces on this team would be super depressing.
8. Mike Beasley’s Passing is the NBA’s Own Black Mirror Episode
Ever since he heroically wrapped Lucky the Leprechaun's neck in a noose on national television, faint cries of “M-V-P” have echoed across the upper bowel of Madison Square Garden whenever Michael Beasley does just about anything that looks kind of nice.
This is cool. Even though Beasley remains a master of the mid-range (the word “master” is probably a little strong but let’s just roll with it) and as inefficient as ever, his enthusiastic attitude towards ball movement—even when it won’t directly lead to an assist!—is fun. When, for whatever reason, the defense decides to trap Ron Baker or Frank Ntilikina 25 feet from the basket, Beasley will slip into the middle of the floor and show off the unselfishness he isn’t known for.
He occasionally senses which defenders are helping from where, and who he should pass the ball to.
In these moments he is still 3500 miles from being the MVP, or even one of the league’s top 100 players. At the end of the day, Beasley still feasts on faceups, one-on-one sequences that bog New York’s offense down and come dangerously close to memeifying Jeff Hornacek’s gameplan. But he also isn’t a punching bag, and sustained play above that label is a win for the oldest 28-year-old in the world.
9. WELCOME BACK, ISAIAH!!!
Isaiah Thomas is a national treasure, and if you don’t like watching him play basketball then we can’t be friends. In his debut with the Cavaliers, we witnessed a few call backs to last year’s MVP candidate who enjoyed one of the most effective individual offensive campaigns in NBA history. Thomas wasn’t shy pulling up off picks whenever his screener’s defender dropped back for fear of getting roasted off the bounce.
But Thomas also has yet to reveal the same burst that routinely torpedoed defenses a year ago—the hypnotic hesitation dribble and last second eruption as he nears the basket are an unstoppable combination. That’s A) expected, and B) fine so long as defenders let him shoot.
He was still slippery enough (against Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier, and C.J. McCollum) to go middle when defenders tried to keep the ball on the sideline, a nice trait that opens up the floor for teammates who need him to tilt the opposition one way so they can gain an advantage.
This is what he did on his first touch as a Cavalier. It made Jae Crowder very happy.
There were defensive miscues in which he let Lillard pull up to his right a couple times off a screen, but for the most part Thomas dug in and held his own. He trailed ball-handlers around picks and fought in the way those who routinely watch him play are familiar with.
Apart from a few minutes in the first half, most of Thomas’ action was spent with the second unit, ostensibly allowing Ty Lue to lessen LeBron James’ load (the league’s minutes leader heading into Wednesday night logged his lowest total since November 28th in Thomas’ debut). We’ll see how that dynamic plays out as the season drags on; how Thomas’ presence impacts James’ workload, Dwyane Wade’s touches (Wade logged his fewest minutes since Veteran’s Day), etc.
We’ll see if IT is still able to scamper around traps—particularly useful when Tristan Thompson is the screener—and whether his body will consent to all the aggressive drives to the basket that elevated his efficiency to an All-NBA level last season.
Thomas’ motor is irrepressible, though. He’s a special player who can single-handedly turn the tide of any game and wrestle momentum away from any opponent. If he’s the same player he was before the hip injury, Cleveland will waltz into the NBA Finals.
10. Trevor Booker’s Twitter Profile
Entrepreneur, NBA, A taller TJ McConnell. Beautiful.
11. Is Toronto’s Defense For Real?
For all that’s made of Toronto’s ballyhooed ball movement, DeMar DeRozan’s sudden transformation into Reggie Miller, and a group of non-lottery pick youngsters (Jakob Poeltl notwithstanding) who function as tradable assets and helpful contributors, it’s the most impressive defense of Dwane Casey’s tenure—which ranked first in December and is up to sixth for the season—that should make people believe this team is overlooked as a legitimate championship contender.
Or...not? The Raptors have enjoyed an impossibly easy schedule since Thanksgiving, squaring off against several teams that range from basement dwellers to borderline playoff participants: The Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers (each twice), plus the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, and Los Angeles Clippers (without Blake Griffin).
The Oklahoma City Thunder tore Toronto’s defense to shreds a couple days after Christmas and on Wednesday night they allowed Justin Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Lauri Markkanen to alone combine for 68 points. Are their defensive numbers a mirage or will they hold up against stiffer competition when games actually start to matter?
I’m cautiously leaning towards the latter. The bench units are a vice grip and most of the reason for their dominance on that end, but Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and DeRozan are locking in at the right times and O.G. Anunoby has been a godsend.
Numbers are great, but watch their effort.
After struggling to stay in front of Dennis Smith Jr. all night, Dallas forces a switch to try and get Kyle Lowry on Harrison Barnes in his sweet spot near the nail. Lowry does a great job pushing Barnes a few feet further out, though, then boxes him for a few dribbles before DeRozan comes off Wes Matthews to help.
Normally this would end in disaster, but the Raptors rotate on a string. Fred VanVleet (Van Fleet forever in my heart) races off J.J. Barea in the corner to take that away. DeRozan then books it to Barea and runs him off the line, forcing Jonas Valanciunas to step up and Ibaka to drop down on Salah Mejri.
Everything up to this point deserves an A, but Toronto receives an A+ for what happens next. Knowing the shot clock is at three and that the ball will have to go up soon, Ibaka hustles out to smother Smith Jr. and force a drive right towards Valanciunas. The Mavericks then commit a 24-second shot-clock violation. This is perfection. The Raptors have all the right ingredients to make opponents sweat, and if they can continue to eliminate good three-point looks while making life hard at the rim, their offensive attack won’t be what people gush about during the playoffs.