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: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.