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The Big 3: Rudy Gobert, Pistons Ascending, Play of the Week

This week’s Big 3 features Rudy Gobert’s two-way production, the Pistons and the Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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