Welcome to The Big Three, where each Friday we reconvene to take a snapshot of three happenings from the previous week in NBA basketball.
This week we’ll cover the importance of footwork and positioning on defense, a new 3-on-3 league for retired NBA players that could take off, and an aptly-named Play of the Week from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let’s get started!
- Happy Feet
There are few things more important than footwork for an elite perimeter defender in the NBA. How you position yourself and how you move in harmony with the guy you’re trying to stop is just as important as how high you can jump or how long your arms are, and the very best defenders are the guys who combine strengths in both areas.
Wesley Matthews hasn’t been the same player in all aspects of the game since an Achilles tear back in 2015, but no injury could take away his smarts or ability to leverage the physical skills he does still have. He showed it on Tuesday night with a big play to seal a one-point Dallas win, one that will look familiar if you’ve watched many NBA highlights this week:
Beyond the obvious here – he shut down All-Star Damian Lillard, one of the game’s premier scorers, with a win on the line – let’s look at what made Matthews’ play so special here.
First off, notice that throughout the entire play, Matthews is making a concerted effort to keep Lillard away from the middle of the floor. This is a common defensive tactic in the NBA, whether it’s defending the pick-and-roll or in other situations – the middle of the floor is where the most dangerous offensive plays are often conceived. There’s more room to see the floor and pass from better angles, and you’re obviously in a more direct line to the rim.
In our first still, note that Matthews is stunted toward the middle of the floor, even all the way out at halfcourt. No matter what, even if Lillard has a bit of room to open up some space on the sideline, Matthews isn’t letting him get to the middle:
Lillard tries again, and Matthews rebuffs him again.
Finally, Lillard does take the bait and go to his right, or the sideline. Ed Davis also comes up to set a pick as he’s doing so, and his man, Dwight Powell, comes up to help contain.
This is where we see another benefit of Matthews’ push to keep Lillard out of the middle of the floor. Davis isn’t a shooter at all, and this allows Powell to hang off him and help contain Lillard within an “Ice” scheme – a pick-and-roll defense meant to keep the ball-handler to the sideline while his defender (Matthews in this case) stays between him and the roll man. In this situation, Dallas is happily allowing Lillard to throw the bail-out pass to Davis if he chooses. The Mavs Ice Davis’ pick to perfection:
Lillard is out of options now, and the clock is running low. He tries one more time to get to the middle, but with both Matthews and Powell now containing him, that’s not going to happen.
Finally, Lillard is forced to launch a long triple – and even here, Matthews uses perfect positioning to get his hand right in Dame’s grill without ever putting himself at risk of fouling.
As you watch the clip again, note the speed with which Matthews moves his feet and re-positions himself to keep that “no middle” philosophy strong. It’s this kind of savvy and exact knowledge of a team’s defensive scheme that can separate good defenders from great ones.
- 3-on-3 Madness?
Ever wish you could see some of your favorite retired NBA players hoop just a little bit more? Ever wish it would be in a fun format like 3-on-3 instead of the usual NBA game? Best yet, ever wish you’d have both these things plus more helpings of Ice Cube than you could have ever possibly imagined in this conversation?
It’s your lucky day, it seems. The rap mogul is heavily involved in a new start-up 3-on-3 tour, which will feature retired NBA players and run during the summer.
Guys like Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis and Chauncey Billups have already committed, and a major NBPA official (Roger Mason Jr.) is already jumping ship to join the new venture.
The league will be called the BIG3. We’re still waiting on more details, but this could be a new summer sensation for basketball-starved NBA fans.
- Play of the Week
This week’s highlighted play is another we’ll use to show off a fun NBA set that many teams use – some better than others, of course. It’s got a fun name, too: Elevator Doors.
We’re talking the kind of elevators that have two doors closing from the outside in to the middle, not those silly ones that just use one door. Who needs those elevators, anyway? Not NBA teams.
Elevator door is a very simple set, for the most part. Let’s see if you can spot it for rising Thunder youngster Alex Abrines the other night:
Did you catch it? That’s okay if not. Let’s look at the first still, where we see OKC’s two big men on the floor, Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne, positioned a few feet apart up near the top of the key. Abrines is in the paint, working to break free of his man.
(Happy Holidays, everyone!)
In the next instant, both Thunder big men step down to the foul line, and get a little closer together. Abrines breaks free and runs up toward them.
As Abrines is sliding between Kanter and Lauvergne, notice how they close together almost like – wait for it – elevator doors. The goal is for their teammate, Abrines, to slither through right as the metaphorical doors are closing, so that his defender will consequently slam into the doors and have nowhere to go.
The Thunder time this one to perfection, and the doors are shut the moment Abrines gets through. His man, E’Twaun Moore, slams right into Kanter and Lauvergne.
Terrence Jones (#9 in red) is late reacting here, and his contest only starts from too far away as Abrines is going up. This sort of contest isn’t bothering too many NBA shooters, even if his hand does get in Abrines’ face briefly right as the shot is leaving his hands.
Elevator doors isn’t that complex a set, and a prepared defense can usually stop it – especially if one or both big men closing the doors aren’t necessarily immediate threats with the ball. But it’s a fantastic set that many coaches pull out every once in a while as a surprise; if you aren’t expecting it, it looks very different from a lot of normal NBA sets and can really turn a defense around. It can never be a staple of an offense necessarily, but it’s a smart set to bust out every now and then.
NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals
Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.
Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.
Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.
James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.
“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”
James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.
While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.
The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.
James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.
“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”
James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.
“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.
“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”
Other Opening Night Observations
Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)
- Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
- Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
- Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
- Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest
Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)
- The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
- Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
- Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
- Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
- Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener
The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.
In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.