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Shelvin Mack: Utah Jazz’s Catalyst

Ben Dowsett tries to explain why Utah is better in many areas when Shelvin Mack is on the court.

Ben Dowsett

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In chemistry, the word “catalyst” is defined as “a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent change.” Without altering its own characteristics, a catalyst makes life easier, so to speak, for other elements of a chemical reaction.

Utah’s Shelvin Mack doesn’t quite qualify by the strictest scientific definition. Certain elements of his game since arriving in Salt Lake City at the deadline have unquestionably changed or improved, and his role has expanded rapidly. His basic numbers reflect as much, showcasing the degree to which he’s seized the ample opportunity afforded him.

But despite his personal progress, viewing Mack as a true scientific catalyst for this Jazz team might be the best, and maybe only, relevant way of parsing out his impact.

This isn’t the same Shelvin Mack from Atlanta, at least not in a couple pretty vital areas. Shooting from the point guard position was an area of need in Utah at deadline time, and at first glance Mack appeared to offer nothing of the sort. At just 15 percent from three in Atlanta along with a sub-33 percent career mark, things started off badly in his new home as well – Mack was at just 30 percent from deep through his first nine games in a Jazz uniform.

The sample remains pretty tiny, but Mack has flipped that script on its head since. He’s shooting a nearly unfathomable 56.3 percent from beyond the arc over the last eight games, bringing his overall percentage with Utah all the way to a hair under 46 percent, best on the team. His career sample obviously makes it virtually impossible he’ll continue as a mid-40s guy from deep, but it seems fair to expect a capable jump shooter moving forward.

His personal comfort level flipped a switch somewhere in there, perhaps in a strong performance against John Wall and the Wizards; Mack himself said afterward that his adjustment to both his surroundings and Utah’s altitude was finally reaching a comfortable place. Very different teammates stylistically contributed in large part to a learning curve.

“For the past four years, I’ve been playing with mostly pick-and-pop bigs,” Mack said. The adjustment away from Paul Millsap and Al Horford types took time. “Favs [Derrick Favors] and Gobert, that’s not [really] their strength.”

Mack is assisting on easily the highest percentage of teammate baskets in his career, and drawing more free throw attempts than ever before. His percentage of possessions used while on the floor has skyrocketed. On the flip side, his turnovers have risen (as expected) with a 20 per-100-possession rate that remains a tad out of control even as Mack has started to rein things in a bit recently.

Mack’s true value only begins to take shape, though, when one zooms out and looks at the way his presence has galvanized his new surroundings.

The Jazz are outscoring opponents by 6.0 points per-100-possessions with Mack on the floor since his arrival, easily a team-best figure in that time and one that would rank among the league’s top five teams on the season. He’s part of a starting lineup that’s thrashing opponents to the tune of a plus-11.1 per-100 in that time, sixth-best of any five man unit in the NBA that’s logged over 100 minutes since the break. The sample is only growing.

Some areas of improvement are easy to understand, particularly on the defensive end. Mack immediately became Utah’s quickest guard and best option for defending at the point of attack, with a bit more bulk than Raul Neto or Trey Burke – allowing him to switch more often, a Quin Snyder staple on the perimeter. Quick hands combined with quick feet allow him to generate turnovers other Jazz guards aren’t capable of engineering, particularly when opponents unaware of his closing speed and reflexes think they’re clear of him.

Opponents are turning the ball over nearly 20 percent of the time when Mack is the primary defender in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports, among the top quarter for qualified guards in the league. Again, though, the true value is more easily demonstrated in team numbers here than Mack’s own individual stats – the Jazz have generated more opponent turnovers with Mack on the floor than any other player since his arrival, forcing over two extra cough-ups per-100-possessions when he plays compared with when he sits.

Items around the margins are tougher to attribute directly to Mack, but he seems to keep popping up in positive areas. Opponents attempt fewer per-minute shots and free throws with Mack on the floor than any other Jazz player, likely due to some combination of the turnovers, his above average rebounding for a guard and some amount of randomness. Utah’s opposition draws nearly five more fouls per-100 when Mack sits down, and shoots a much lower percentage from deep while he’s on the court. While there’s plenty of noise attached to these numbers, there’s a point at which a guy showing up so positively in enough areas is a clear indication that something is going right while he’s on the floor.

It’s much of the same on offense – good things are clearly happening while Mack plays, but the underlying reasons can be tougher to place. All relevant team shooting numbers plummet when he leaves the court, in part due to his own recent accuracy, but there’s more at play here.

Nearly every primary Jazz player shoots more efficiently when Mack plays next to them, especially the other perimeter players: Gordon Hayward (42 percent from three with Mack, 30.3 percent without him since the trade), Rodney Hood (38.5 percent with, 25 percent without), Joe Ingles (45 percent with, 29.2 percent without) and even rookie stretch big Trey Lyles (47.4 percent with, 21.4 percent without) all show remarkable upticks in accuracy while alongside Mack, per nbawowy.com prior to Wednesday night’s games.

Exactly why this is happening is open to interpretation, though simple variance certainly plays a role with a sample this relatively small.

Mack’s prowess as a passer is near the top of the list; he has elements of creativity to his game that Neto and Burke both lack. His timing is better, as is his feel for the defense he’s baiting. He’s generating more potential assists than any other Jazzman at over 10 a game, creating nearly 14 points nightly through his assists alone, per SportVU data. Utah’s other point guards lack either the burst, the passing skill or both to make some of these plays.

Snyder has talked frequently about Mack’s tempo since his arrival, and the numbers make it clear Quin is referring to a style of play rather than the “pace” element many tend to think of first. The Jazz are still among the slowest teams in the league by possession since Mack’s arrival, and his own presence on the court has actually slowed things down even further in this regard.

That’s not really what Snyder means, though. He’s talking more about the way Mack plays; the speed with which he arrives at his spots and makes his decisions. To some degree, this is the element of team success while Mack is on the floor that’s been tougher to dissect – how does one quantify things like feel outside actual assists? Maybe Mack’s passes find their exact targets more accurately, and allow for a smoother shooting motion. Maybe his teammates find some subconscious comfort in the pace of his game. Maybe his ability to use a higher portion of team possessions while on the floor has trickled down to everyone else on the court (this is likely, though to what degree we can’t really know).

Whatever it is, there’s something here that all our fancy stats don’t fully account for. No combination of figures, individual or team, quite covers the startling gap between when Mack plays and when he doesn’t.

The easiest reasoning is simple: He’s much better than the other guys Utah has at his position. It’s not untrue. Again, though, one delving deeply into the causes of his success can’t help but notice that his individual advantage in a vacuum doesn’t come all that close to accounting for how much better the team has been.

Whether the results can sustain – or are good for the long-term future of the core – is another question, with murkier answers. Certain parts of the success simply can’t continue at this rate – Mack’s own ridiculous rate from three in recent weeks among them. Perhaps more notably, Mack’s presence has cut down the touch time for guys like Hayward and Hood, generally considered the team’s offensive focal points. It’s fair to wonder if Snyder’s reliance on Mack sometimes comes at their expense, though it’s tough to argue with the results recently; if the chips fall differently and depriving the top guys of their command on the offense turns into a problem, it could end up a slightly different conversation.

We’re not there yet, though, and those concerns get tougher to stick with as the franchise’s first playoff berth in four years gets clearer at the end of the tunnel with Mack among the driving forces.

Maybe he’s just one of those tricks your high school chemistry teacher would never reveal to the class. Shelvin Mack has become Utah’s catalyst for success as they push for a playoff berth, and even if it’s tough to capture empirically, that won’t stop anyone from marveling.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis

The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.

Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.

Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.

The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.

Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.

That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.

Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?

That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.

In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.

Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:

-Kemba Walker
-Jayson Tatum
-Gordon Hayward
-Jaylen Brown
-Marcus Smart

With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.

The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.

Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.

There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.

Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.

Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.

For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?

If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.

If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.

Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.

If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.

Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.

It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.

Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.

Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).

Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.

There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.

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NBA

High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA

Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff. 

Jake Rauchbach

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As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.

Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.

There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.

Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:

Best Practices & Key Considerations

Player Buy-In

Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.

This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.

Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)

If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.

In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.

  • Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
  • Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
  • Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
    • Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.

Measurable Success

In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.

Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.

Time

There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.

There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.

The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.

One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.

James Blancarte

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James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.

Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.

There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.

And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.

Overview

Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.

Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.

The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.

The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.

Offseason

Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.

Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.

On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.

The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.

There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.

Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.

PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar

PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh

What’s Next

Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.

Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.

Offseason Grade: B+

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