Welcome to the inaugural installment of The Big 3, where we’ll convene each Friday for a snapshot of three intriguing NBA items from the week gone by. These items can be anything – numbers, trends, play sets (we’ll try to highlight one “Play of the Week” each week), hilarity, you name it. We won’t necessarily cover the biggest story every week, but instead we’ll keep you on your toes.
This is a reader-driven column, folks! We’ll ask for your favorite play sets during the week (you can tweet these to me, @Ben_Dowsett), and we’ll take reader input on which topics to cover every Friday.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
Chris Paul, The Clippers’ Bench and RPM
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus caused a stir when it hit the scene a couple years back, and it continues to occupy its own little niche within basketball nerd-dom. It’s a statistic designed to capture all the traditional elements of plus-minus, but infuse them with better data to help us throw some additional context into the mix.
To do that, RPM attempts to measure not just plus-minus, but a player’s “on-court impact” – including teammate, opponent and box score context. Over a large enough sample, the ultimate goal is to be able to weed out all the noise that comes with single-player plus-minus in a game where 10 players are on the court at once, and isolate an individual’s impact on the game.
In smaller samples, though, some pretty entertaining outputs can arise. Remember that things like teammate and opponent quality are factored in – over small minute samples, these might have outsized effects. For a convenient example, we turn to Chris Paul and the L.A. Clippers.
So far this year, defensive RPM estimates that CP3 has improved the Clippers’ defense by over three points per-100-possessions simply by stepping on the floor. This figure has only been topped for a point guard once over a full season in the three-plus-year history of RPM (Eric Bledsoe in 2013-14), but that’s not really the remarkable part. Here’s the remarkable part: Second place among point guards is Jeff Teague, who improves the Pacers’ defense by 0.67 points per-100.
For those quick with the arithmetic, that’s barely one-fifth of Paul’s 3.24 figure as of Friday afternoon. Just 11 of the 83 point guards on this list are even in the positive figures (DRPM is tough on point guards); the other 10 don’t combine to a positive figure as large as Paul’s. Clearly something is happening here.
“Something” in this case is mostly the Clippers’ bench. It stands to reason that most teams get worse when their starters leave the floor, but the Clippers under Doc Rivers have mostly stuck with a platoon-style substitution pattern that consistently rates their bench units among the worst in the league. Lesser guys coming off the bench don’t have starters alongside them to cover their holes.
To understand Paul’s crazy-high DRPM rating then, we can start by looking at the guys who play when he doesn’t. The three highest minute-loggers with CP3 on the bench are the team’s three bench ball-handlers – Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton. Unsurprisingly, all three are firmly in the negatives for DRPM, and Crawford is among the worst guards in the league so far.
It’s not even just the guys who play without Paul, either. Guys who spend a ton of time on the floor with each other tell RPM more about themselves during the minutes they don’t play together, and a look at the defensive figures during the very brief minutes where other starters play without Paul tells most of the rest of the story. J.J. Redick has only logged 14 minutes without CP3, but the team’s defense has been 20 points per-100 worse than when he plays with Paul. DeAndre Jordan has only played 42 such minutes, but the defense is 10 points worse per-100.
These are small samples, but they can have a huge effect. This isn’t to say that Paul doesn’t deserve his high rating – he’s been magnificent, and clearly one of the best players in the league on both sides of the ball. His gaudy steal numbers also trigger the box score element of RPM, and there’s surely other noise involved we haven’t accounted for.
For now, though, Paul is a gleaming example of how player value is so dependent on the other guys on the floor. The best are the best no matter what, but how we perceive them can be affected hugely by the guys they play with.
J.R. Smith or J.R. Spliff?
J.R. Smith is having a bit of a weird year… but maybe it’s just his alter-ego, J.R. Spliff.
Jokes aside, Smith is in one of the worst funks of a long career that’s seen its share of ups and downs. He took at least five shots and made fewer than half of them for each of the first eight games this season, and only avoided that sub-50-percent distinction for every game this year with a 3-for-3 performance against Portland in late November. Going back to Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Warriors last year, that one Portland game saved Smith from a streak of 18 straight games without making half his shots – the second-longest of his entire career, and one that would still be running today.
For the year, Smith is dangerously close to crossing under the 30 percent plateau – from the field, not from deep. He has the lowest shooting percentage of any player in the NBA who has attempted at least 100 shots so far.
Smith is being outplayed and outshot by Iman Shumpert as the two continue their yearly exercise of performing completely contrary to all expectations from the year before. Last year it was Smith surprisingly stealing Shumpert’s starting spot, and the early signs are there that a switcheroo might have to happen again. Smith is one of the streakiest shooters in the league, though, so here’s betting the world champions won’t be too fussed about his situation for at least a few more months.
Play of the Week
As we noted above, our third segment each week will be my favorite play set – sent to me by a combination of my Twitter followers and our Basketball Insiders staff. We’re looking for ingenuity and creativity here, and a bit of flair is never a bad thing.
Our inaugural set comes from @gusweinstein on Twitter, and involves the Portland Trail Blazers from their game Sunday against the Houston Rockets. The set (we’ll show it again later so you don’t have to scroll up and down, don’t worry):
Watch it once more to keep it in your mind, and then let’s break it down.
Damian Lillard brings the ball up the floor, and at the top of your screen, Ed Davis heads over to set a simple down screen for C.J. McCollum.
McCollum might sometimes just receive a pass from Lillard there and get into a pick-and-roll with Davis, but in this case, he sprints over to Lillard to set a 1-2 pick the Blazers like to use to throw teams off – sometimes McCollum will slip the pick, sometimes he’ll set it, but the action are randomized based on defense activity and they often find a wide open three for one guy or the other.
Here, though, it’s just a decoy. McCollum sprints through Lillard’s man and over to Mason Plumlee, who is preparing to set up for an action the Blazers run more than any other team in the league: An off-ball flare screen for a shooter. Normally, Lillard would be lofting a pass for McCollum as soon as Plumlee’s screen freed him up with space:
That’s just another decoy this time, though. Instead of continuing in that direction, catching a pass and rolling toward the hoop in a two-on-one with Plumlee, McCollum cuts back toward the foul line as Plumlee heads up to set what looks like a standard high pick-and-roll screen for Lillard.
By now you should be realizing that nothing in this set is what it appears, however. This isn’t just a standard high pick-and-roll – McCollum’s action makes it something more complex. He hangs out near the foul line, prepared to hit Clint Capela (Plumlee’s man) with a surprise back screen the moment Capela tries to get back to Plumlee’s hard roll to the hoop.
As it turns out, this back screen is never even necessary – because of the gravity of Lillard’s shooting off the bounce, Capela is way up at the three-point line making sure Dame doesn’t pull up. Look at that last picture again, and see if you can spot the options available to Portland here.
Normally, both Capela and Patrick Beverley (guarding Lillard) could freely focus on trapping Lillard, confident in the team’s help scheme to back them up, but McCollum’s presence gums all that up. Suddenly, poor Trevor Ariza is stuck between two crappy options:
- Stick with Plumlee’s roll: First off, Ariza might still get dunked on here. Plumlee is much bigger than him and has a head of steam to the basket. Secondly, even if he does a good job, switching to Plumlee leaves McCollum all alone. Look at the last picture once again – McCollum has half the court to quietly slide up, take a pass from Lillard and hit a wide open three. The best possible outcome for Houston here is Beverley sniffing this out and switching onto McCollum himself, but that’s a very tight time window – and even if he manages it, that still leaves Lillard with the ball, one-on-one with a seven-footer. Not great.
- Stick with McCollum: Plumlee gets a wide open dunk.
As it was, Ariza was so confused that he pretty much picked neither, and he was dead before the ball left Lillard’s hands:
Think you’ve got it? Alright, now watch the clip again.
The usual poetry from head coach Terry Stotts. If the Rockets lean too far anticipating the flare screen for McCollum – which the Blazers run for him or Lillard at least 10 times a game – Lillard is running a pick-and-roll against only one defender. If Ariza makes the wrong call either way, their best hope is Lillard going to work against a big. If they overplay Plumlee’s roll, Lillard – the second-best off-the-dribble shooter in the league – is firing away with space. There are no great choices, and it’s literally impossible for the human brain to calculate which is the least damaging in the amount of time necessary here. We just spent half a column breaking it down, and even I still barely get it.
Want to see your team’s play in next week’s Play of the Week? Tweet @Ben_Dowsett with your favorite sets from now until Thursday. The best set makes it into the column!
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.