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.
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