The Outlet Pass: The NBA is Back and Zach LaVine is Unstoppable

Also: Oklahoma City's problematic offense, hilarious shenanigans from the New Orleans Pelicans, Kemba Walker can become Isaiah Thomas 2.0, and more.
October 25, 2018, 5:28pm
Zach LaVine celebrates after a dunk against the Charlotte Hornets
Photo by Tannen Maury -European Pressphoto Agency

Last year I ventured to analyze every side of the NBA through this column, but instead of exploring all 30 teams as randomly as one possibly can, I’m going to break things down within a rotating group of categories to make it all more digestible. (They’re all pretty self-explanatory, but just to give a quick example, “Film Session” is a category where I’ll break down a possession or two—or three or four—and then explain why they’re relevant. I promise none of this will be complicated!)

It’s a work in progress, and figuring out how to organize it the best way I possibly can will be fluid. If you have any questions, ideas, or comments, feel free to shoot me an e-mail or ask away on Twitter. Now, without further ado, welcome to The Outlet Pass’s second season. And, as ever, thank you for reading!

Film session

The 0-3 Oklahoma City Thunder might be in trouble. Heading into tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics, they have the least efficient half-court offense in the league and rank 29th in transition. They don’t pass and they can’t shoot. Not great!

The Thunder rank dead last in three-point accuracy from above the break and the corners, and are 29th from the mid-range. Everyone is shooting below 30 percent from deep except Paul George (who barely clears it at 31.3 percent); Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, and Russell Westbrook are a combined “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing” 3-for-27. Nerlens Noel, Hamidou Diallo, and Steven Adams scare no one from the outside.

A three-game shooting slump is nothing to panic over. Alex Abrines will eventually heat up, George and Dennis Schröder will eventually settle down, and (somewhat superficial) stretch fours like Grant and Patrick Patterson should find some type of rhythm as the season goes on. What Oklahoma City can’t control is how defenses choose to play them—but they can control how they respond. When the floor is cramped, as it usually is, they often choose to swim upstream instead of taking what’s given.

It’s that lack of an extra pass that does those low shooting numbers no favors. They rank 28th in passes per game, 29th in assist points created, and 26th in secondary assists. (The Thunder are somehow fifth in potential assists, but, yeah, that’s neither here nor there.)

Here are a few examples:

Being that it’s Adams taking this shot from one of his sweet spots, what happens isn’t the most terrible result. But with Draymond Green sinking that far in off Patterson, a little action on the weakside might be beneficial. Either immediately kick the ball out to an open shooter or maybe have Patterson back pick Steph Curry to free up Ferguson.

Here, Schröder forces weak-side help on a drive into the paint, but instead of flipping a pass to Grant in the corner, he tries to float in a difficult layup over a collapsing Warriors defense. And on the play seen below, Grant is obsessed with attacking Klay Thompson in the post even though Abrines is wide open in his line of sight:

Two of Oklahoma City’s losses have been without their best player, a guy who averaged a triple-double two years in a row. That’s true. It also doesn’t change the moral of the story: in 2018, nothing humbles an offensive star quite like a cramped floor. Westbrook will find the rim because he’s a bull and that’s his matador, but, on the whole, high pick-and-rolls run by him and (especially) George will turn into mud more often than not. Until they add another outside threat (Andre Roberson isn’t it), get used to seeing this:

Nemanja Bjelica couldn't care less about guarding Grant in the corner. The Thunder’s spacing is terrible, but besides crashing the glass as often as they can and making open shots when they appear (surprise: no team has been worse on wide-open threes), perhaps feeding whoever the defense chooses to ignore until the floor loosens up a little bit isn’t the dumbest idea.

The Trade Machine

The Phoenix Suns do not have a point guard and, assuming they don’t want to pay Trevor Ariza $15 million on their way to another postseason-less campaign, they should probably think about acquiring one—as futile a move as it might be. But before we look at two semi-realistic options, I want to take a deeper look at why getting a real point guard is so important.

New Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov is implementing the same hand-off-saturated system we’ve seen in Utah since Quin Snyder took that job. The Suns are averaging the second-most passes per game (about 13 more than the Philadelphia 76ers led the NBA with last season), and despite their youth and athleticism, a whopping 84.9 percent of their offensive possessions have come in a half-court setting, which is second to zero teams. (In four of the last five years, Phoenix has placed top-five in the percentage of their possessions that began in transition.)

Life is different in a system that demands structure and orderliness. In Phoenix’s home opener, Kokoskov just about lost his mind when Isaiah Canaan veered off script by faking a handoff, keeping the ball, and mucking up the action’s intent. Nothing against Canaan, but confident, stable point guards don’t do that. They organize and let teammates sink into their natural roles while assuming more play-to-play pressure than anyone else. Devin Booker at the point in crunch time is fun and not the worst thing for his individual development, but it’s also not a consistent winning formula. Jamal Crawford is not the answer, either.

The list of semi-realistic options is long: there are expensive stars who may be declining (like Mike Conley and John Wall), intriguing restricted free agents to be who’ve yet to prove they can handle their own team but, depending on who you ask, have the talent to do so (Terry Rozier, Malcolm Brogdon, D’Angelo Russell), and established-but-still-improving vets who aren’t that expensive (Ricky Rubio, Marcus Smart).

There are more names to fill in, but my favorite fit is Rubio. He already knows the system, doesn’t need shots, and is the best passer named. Just about anything is possible in today’s NBA, but there is an extremely slim chance Utah disrupts its momentum by jettisoning an important starter. They’re too good. But what if the Jazz receive an offer that’s too good to pass up, then talk themselves into Dante Exum’s progression as a logical long-term partner beside Donovan Mitchell?

If the Suns really want Rubio, they can go after him as a free agent this summer. But that’s what a smart franchise would do. So long as Robert Sarver is the owner, Phoenix is not that, which brings me to the player I most want to see in a Suns jersey...

If there’s any candidate for the Blake Griffin treatment before this year’s trade deadline, it should be Wall, a supremely gifted maestro who’s currently stuck in Ernie Grunfeld’s purgatory and owed a cap-crippling extension that runs until 2023. He turned 28 in September. The Wizards are 1-3, and Wall is 2-for-17 beyond the arc. If they can get off that contract and pick up a valuable asset or two, they should do it in a heartbeat.

Phoenix’s position is harder to justify, given they’re clearly rebuilding around Booker and Deandre Ayton, neither of whom is older than 21 years old. But if headlines and relevance are a priority over patience, growth, and sensical decisions, then what the hell, right? (Wall, Booker, Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Ayton is not a bad starting five!)

Phoenix has assets to dangle. Would T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, and Milwaukee’s awkwardly-protected first in 2019 (that’s top-seven protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021, which doubles as the final year of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract) be enough for the Wizards to bite? In reality, probably not. But they should. And the Western Conference would be that much more interesting going forward.

Character Spotlight

If I was the GM of a team that’s dangerously thin at center, Damian Jones, Golden State’s most recent (and intriguing) fifth wheel, would be an unhealthy obsession. Jones is 23 years old, seven feet tall, athletic, mobile, long, and instinctive. So far, he looks like a more responsible version of what the Warriors had with JaVale McGee.

He’s started every game and has made a league-leading 85.7 percent of his field goals, but the best part is he may ostensibly be available before the trade deadline! Golden State already has Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, and a recuperating DeMarcus Cousins at the five spot. Meanwhile, Draymond Green will play center when it matters most, Kevin Durant is also seven feet tall, and Jonas Jerebko can moonlight at the position if need be. But more on that later.

Jones is good. As an anchor, he can defend pick-and-rolls in myriad ways, protect the rim, and stand up opposing centers who want to battle in the post. As of Wednesday, he had the sixth-most box outs in the entire league despite logging at least 20 fewer minutes than everyone who ranked higher, while opposing shooters are really struggling at the rim when he’s protecting it.

Jones battles, runs the floor, and is already a menacing vertical spacer. He’s also established enough capital with Steve Kerr to stay in games despite early foul trouble, as has already been the case twice this season. The next two possessions came right after he picked up his second foul, yet there’s no drop in his activity.

One minute later, he deflected a Derrick Favors lob that led to a Durant dunk on the other end. Sure, there was that whole ordeal where his would-be-game-tying layup was blocked by Juan Hernangomez, but for the time being, Jones has quietly morphed into a significant steal.

With a $2.3 million team option next season, before he’s eligible to become a restricted free agent in 2021, Jones is someone the Warriors may not be able to afford long-term. At the same time, Looney and Cousins are both unrestricted free agents this summer, while Bell can be restricted. It’s not that crazy to plot a scenario where Jones is not only the last big standing, but a consequential building block for whatever this roster evolves into over the next few years. Small ball is nice, but Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns are coming.

A Bold Take

Zach LaVine will be this season's scoring champion. In the first four games of a four-year, $78 million contract that the Chicago Bulls were heavily criticized for feeding into their cap sheet, he dropped 129 points with a 69.5 True Shooting percentage and 33.3 usage rate. He's scored at least 30 points in every game, and Monday night LaVine mutilated the Dallas Mavericks, doing as he pleased against every pick-and-roll coverage Rick Carlisle threw at him.

So, how do we go from witnessing a four-game inferno to making a prediction that feels even hotter? To begin, let’s first identify a few parameters that don’t make the idea look that insane. For starters: the three-point line. It’s become a fluke-inducing game changer—the sort of variable that makes inconceivable events feel possible. And LaVine doesn’t need anybody's help taking advantage.

He has the conscience (or lack thereof), legs, and willingness to pull up from 25 feet seven, eight, nine times per game. He can create his own shot from anywhere on the floor, whenever he wants, and looks faster and stronger than he did before he tore his ACL, with more sway over his own NASA-regulated athleticism. Dribbles aren’t wasted; he’s becoming a carnivore who’s learned not to play with his prey.

Here he takes a stagger screen from Jabari Parker and Robin Lopez, sees a crack in Dwight Powell’s coverage, and jackhammers his way into the paint with a right-to-left crossover. One play later, Chicago ran the exact same action, but this time LaVine rejects the screen (at the very beginning, watch how he tries to confuse Dorian Finney-Smith by pointing at where he wants the pick) and finishes with a dunk. There’s no hesitation.

LaVine has more than enough tools to attack from all three levels, with an ability to separate behind the three-point line, dance in the mid-range, and finish strong at the rim (as he did with his left hand against Joel Embiid in Chicago’s opener). It’s impressive, and, on this roster, will unleash itself beneath a dark cloud of necessary selfishness. If LaVine moves the ball, there’s a slim chance he’ll get it back (especially when Parker is on the floor—the Bulls do not pass!). He’ll also operate in lineups that feature big men who can space the floor. Look how far out Bobby Portis stands in the clip below, trying to drag Ben Simmons away from his help responsibilities. Now picture Lauri Markkanen in the same spot:

There are more outside factors that support LaVine’s chase for a scoring crown: 1) Chicago will rarely, if ever, taste a fourth-quarter blowout in their favor, trotting out defensive units that quickly surrender gobs of points without any resistance, 2) We exist in an era that’s defined by selfless All-Stars who’re happy to sacrifice their own numbers for the chance to team up with other All-Stars, 3) And, again, the three-point line’s incessant takeover of NBA aesthetics. Combine all this with LaVine’s own improvement and it’s easy to see how he’s set up to contend for, if not win, the 2019 scoring title. So many of his buckets will be empty calories, but if he manages to sustain even 80 percent of what’s already on display, LaVine’s contract will become a steal. (His defense hasn’t been awful, either!) Even if it’s due to a flurry of circumstance, he’ll also be the NBA’s top scorer.

Small Sample Size Theatre

Kemba Walker was a breakout topic of conversation during the season’s first week. In five games, he’s averaging an efficient 31 points. And even though an eventual return to Earth is more probable than not, there’s also some reason to believe that we’re witnessing a “late” career leap. Walker probably won’t do what Steph Curry did in 2015, but why can’t his upcoming season mirror the explosion detonated by Isaiah Thomas two years ago?

Right now he’s the league’s fifth-leading scorer, and not to subtweet Dwight Howard, but look at how good Walker was last season when Howard wasn’t on the floor. Those numbers are a dagger, and speak to how much better he can be in small (shout out to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the five), spread lineups that also feature big men who can pass on the move. Consider the mind of a defense as it tries to stop him in the pick-and-roll. If the screener’s man drops, well, Walker made 38.1 percent of his pull-up threes last season and through five games is 15-for-38 (that’s both accurate and a ridiculously high volume). If you trap or bring the screener’s man level with the pick, execution is key. Whenever he splits a screen, it’ll make you think about paintings in the MOMA.

And even if you squeeze the ball out of his hands, there’s a good chance your weak-side defense will somehow get punished by an open three. This skip pass was awesome:

In the same vein as Thomas, Walker’s three-point shot forces the defense to remain in code red whenever he has or doesn’t have the ball, but in order for him to sustain his efficiency there must be an aggressive willingness to drive, finish, and draw fouls in the paint. So far he’s averaging about half as many free-throws per game as Thomas did in 2017, with the lowest free-throw rate of his career. If Walker wants to reach that next tier and legitimately find himself in the MVP conversation, obviously Charlotte needs to exceed expectations and bump itself as high as a five or six seed, but also he needs to score efficiently at a high volume against teams that will view slowing him down as steps 1, 2, and 3 to victory.

This Stat Feels Important

The Milwaukee Bucks have scored a lower percentage of their points from the mid-range than every other team in the league, including the Houston Rockets. Right now, they’re at 1.7 percent. Last season, they finished at 13.7 percent, which was ninth-highest in the league.

Given what we know about their new head coach, their old head coach, and the ceiling this roster’s all-around talent has yet to discover about itself, that first stat feels like the moment in any classic horror movie where the babysitter tries to call 911 right when the power goes out. If you aren’t a Bucks fan, you are that babysitter.

Digging a bit deeper into Milwaukee’s offense, we already knew Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova would allow Giannis Antetokounmpo to demolish everything in his path, but it’s jarring how quickly this team has adopted and taken advantage of Budenholzer’s five-out system. Antetokounmpo is having a field day, sure, but it’s easy to overlook just how beneficial an equal-opportunity/mid-decade-Hawks outlook would be for the supplementary pieces, too. There’s more freedom to shoot threes, yes. More importantly, with an open paint, there’s more space to cut, move, dive, and slip for easy layups.

At times, Milwaukee’s half-court offense looks like the Warriors, with split cuts that force defenses to pay attention and communicate all over the floor. The system is a beast unto itself, and taming it while Antetokounmpo breathes fire in your face can’t be fun.

Related: the evolution of Khris Middleton’s shot chart deserves its own thousand-word essay, but for the time being here are the basics. According to Basketball-Reference, the 27-year-old’s career three-point rate heading into this season was .322. Right now it’s .508! In Milwaukee’s first five games last season, Middleton only made three three pointers. This year, he’s already drilled seven against the New York Knicks, five against the Indiana Pacers, and three a piece in the Bucks’ opener in Charlotte, and last night’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

With an easy stroke, long arms, and a high release, Middleton should’ve already cemented himself as one of the most feared high-volume deep threats in the NBA. Instead, Budenholzer’s offense was the key to accentuating a more valuable part of his game.

Even though Lopez gets called for a foul, it matters that Milwaukee is actively looking to free Middleton up from downtown by incorporating subtle wrinkles like the off-ball drag screen seen above.

Strictly talking personnel, the range and length that Milwaukee has accumulated over the past few years comes with a futuristic identity. It’s nice to see them finally embrace such a fashionably effective style of play to go along with it.

What The Hell Was That?

Last season, when they were the fastest team in basketball, the New Orleans Pelicans liked to race up the floor and begin a possession with a small-small side pick-and-roll, then have the screener (be it Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark, or whoever) slip towards the basket. It almost always resulted in a layup.

In New Orleans’s home opener against the Sacramento Kings, the Pelicans got extra tricky. As they appear to get ready for a time-out—watch Anthony Davis slowly walk towards the sideline—Holiday stands on the right wing ready to execute their signature action, then darts backdoor to catch Elfrid Payton’s bounce pass.

Bravo, Pelicans. That’s some next-level duplicity right there.

This Has Nothing To Do With Basketball But…

Erik Spoelstra definitely wore a maroon blazer during a game last week and for that he should be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame tomorrow. That is all.

Character Spotlight (Bonus)

There’s almost something vaudevillian about Vince Carter beginning his 21st season as the starting power forward in Atlanta, the garage-rock band version of an NBA franchise that’s currently in the first stage of an appropriately depressing rebuild. Carter is 41 years old and last Wednesday night he suited up as the second-oldest opening day starter in league history (shout out to The Chief).

To be clear, the Hawks didn’t sign Carter to help them win games. At the start of Atlanta’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, it took three minutes for Lloyd Pierce to replace Carter, who was valiantly trying to stay with Kevin Love. But the impact he should have on younger teammates is kind of cool!

“It definitely is [surreal], and he’s gotten a chance a couple times to tell us some stories,” rookie Kevin Huerter told VICE Sports. “I think a couple weeks ago was the anniversary of when he had the dunk in the Olympics over the seven-foot guy, and we watched that as a team during film and he walked us through what he was thinking, so I mean that was a cool moment.”

Huerter had just celebrated his second birthday when Carter committed that memorable murder, but even now it’s awesome to watch him hustle around the court, lopsided score be damned, to do legendary stuff like this:

Carter is more than a motivational speaker, though. He played fourth-quarter minutes in Atlanta’s comeback win against the Dallas Mavericks last night. God bless this man.