Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three!
For those who missed last week’s inaugural installment, The Big Three will be a weekly snapshot of a few NBA goings on – anything from big news to fun snippets and everything in between might make its way into this column from time to time. We’ll also do a Play of the Week each time out, to help highlight some of the creativity and tactical ingenuity taking place all over the league today.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Rudy Gobert, Two-Way Star
It was a pretty safe bet entering the year that Utah’s Rudy Gobert would be among the most impactful defensive players in the league, and there have been no surprises here. Gobert currently ranks fourth in the NBA for ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and all other cumulative defensive statistics – plus the good old eye test – rate him right up with the most devastating defenders in the game.
What fewer could have predicted, though, was Gobert’s effect on the other side of the ball for a Utah team that’s quietly posted a borderline top-five offense in the league to this point (they’re sixth as of this writing). This is despite an ostensible starting lineup that’s played just 12 minutes together on the year. George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors – Utah’s other four presumed starters – have each missed multiple games.
Gobert has been the rock for Utah, suiting up in every contest and providing the sort of team-wide offensive lift one would have expected from him on the other side of the ball: The Jazz score at roughly a 111 points per-100-possessions rate while Gobert plays, a rate that would tie them with Cleveland and Houston for third in the league. This figure drops nearly 10 full points when the big Frenchman sits down. They’d be in the league’s bottom 10 for offense if all their minutes had come without Gobert.
These numbers are at least a bit noisy, but there’s no question Gobert has reached a new level offensively this year. He’s 14th in the NBA for offensive win shares, narrowly behind Russell Westbrook, and leads the entire NBA in true shooting percentage. His turnovers are way down, and his finishing at the rim has returned to elite levels after an injury-plagued season last year.
That Gobert has done so much of this without several of the team’s best offensive talents around him just adds to how impressive it is. His efficiency, already near the top of the league for his position, could improve even more when there’s more space around him and he can pick his spots even more carefully. Combine this with his usual elite defensive impact, and the Stifle Tower has looked like an All-Star so far this year.
The Pistons Are Ready to Fire
The Detroit Pistons have mostly cruised under the radar so far this season; they haven’t been great, but they haven’t been anywhere near bad either. They’re cruising along with the 12th-best per-possession point differential in the league, sitting with a .500 record as of this writing and occupying the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Some had higher hopes for Detroit this year, though, and these could be realized in short order.
For starters, according to basketball-reference.com, the Pistons have played the fifth-toughest schedule in the NBA to this point. Maybe more importantly, they’ve done so almost exclusively without the services of Reggie Jackson, their starting point guard who has missed all but three games this year with knee and thumb issues.
The Pistons have already been very good defensively – fourth in the NBA currently – and this is unlikely to change much with Jackson back starting over Ish Smith since the two are relatively similar as perhaps slightly below league-average defenders.
They’ve been nearly a bottom-10 team on offense, though, and this is where Jackson’s return could really juice things up. He’s started their last three games, but played only 22 minutes a night, and it’s clear he’s still working back into full game shape.
Jackson was the driver of this team’s offense last year – their leading scorer and a borderline top-10 player for Offensive RPM. When he sat last season, the Pistons’ attack went into the tank. They’ve already been better on that end during his absence than they were during his bench periods last year, suggesting that their ceiling – including Andre Drummond with another year under his belt – might be even higher.
Each of the Pistons’ next five games are against a team with a .500 record or worse, including the next three against Minnesota, Philadelphia and Dallas – three teams a combined 36 games below .500 already this year. They have a few toughies after that slate, but another relatively soft stretch to open the new year could see the Pistons shoot up the standings and force folks to take a little more notice of what’s been one of the league’s more overlooked teams to this point.
Play of the Week
This week’s play comes courtesy of Basketball Insiders’ Oliver Maroney, who passed this play on as a way of illustrating just how vital the little things can be in playing good offensive basketball. This clip is less complex or creative than we might normally highlight, but it’s a great example of what smart teams and players do to get buckets others might miss out on.
Ian Clark isn’t one of the most talented players on Golden State’s roster, but he’s carved out a real niche for himself there as an intelligent player who knows just how to play off the elite talents of one of the best rosters in history around him.
There’s nothing complex about this play, so you should be able to spot the way Clark pounces when all eyes are on one of the Warriors’ brighter stars:
Let’s break it down with a few stills just to illustrate the craft at play here. This is a simple high pick-and-roll featuring Kevin Durant and David West, but also note that Steph Curry is lingering in the strong side corner at the top of your screen – meaning Austin Rivers, checking Curry, pretty much needs to be attached to his hip at all times. Clark is spacing out at the weak side wing, and Andre Iguodala is in the weak side corner (basically off screen in this first image).
As Durant rounds West’s pick and heads for the left elbow, West’s defender, Mo Speights (#5 in white) is dropping back to contain KD’s path to the rim. He’s not up high enough to contest a Durant jumper, meaning Durant’s man, Wesley Johnson, is racing to get around West’s pick before KD can rise up for an open J.
As Johnson catches up and Durant finds himself between Johnson and Speights, he threads a bounce pass to West, who is more than a capable midrange shooter himself. West is wide open above the free-throw line, and this is where Clark’s man, Alan Anderson (#9 in white) comes into play. Anderson starts to sneak into the paint, ready to rotate over to West and contest his jumper:
This is where Clark pounces. He’s seen these plays a hundred times, after all. As soon as Anderson’s head is turned completely and he’s taken a step in, Clark is gone on a perfectly-timed cut to the rim:
By the time Anderson gets his head back around, the play is basically over. West finds Clark cutting to the hoop, and he draws some (ultimately misplaced) contact from Jamal Crawford for the and-one.
The Clippers could have done a better job defending this play – particularly Crawford, who was late helping on Clark’s drive, and could have at least forced an Iguodala three from the corner if he was over in time (not a great shot to allow, but much better than a layup at the rim).
Still, though, this is the perfect illustration of how role players stick in the NBA. Clark isn’t ever asked to make flashy plays or big shots, but his value to his team grows every time he makes one of these plays and leverages the talents of other guys into a positive play. While everyone was first focused on Durant and then on West, Clark used smart timing and some basic common sense to create three easy points. Watch it once more:
Have a play you think belongs here next week? Send them to Ben Dowsett on Twitter (@Ben_Dowsett) from now until next Thursday. Be sure to note the team, the game date and the time left in the quarter when the play took place. One note: These don’t have to only be scored baskets! Plenty of great NBA plays take place where a guy misses an open J, and plenty of great defensive plays happen every night as well. They all count.
We’ll be back with another edition of The Big Three each and every Friday.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN