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 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.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6
With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.
With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.
1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)
Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.
On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.
Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.
In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.
Anthony Edwards tonight:
42 PTS (franchise record)
8 3PT (franchise record)
He is the first rookie in NBA history with 40+ points, 8+ threes on 75%+ shooting in a game. pic.twitter.com/NidZhAppNo
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 6, 2021
2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)
Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.
LaMelo Ball, friends. pic.twitter.com/OqNtaxwus6
— Nuh-KY-us Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 1, 2021
Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.
Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players.
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.
While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.
In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)
Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.
The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.
5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.
Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.
Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.
6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)
Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.
While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.
Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.
NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix
The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.
The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.
The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.
The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.
Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.
Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.
Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.
James Jones trading cash for Torrey Craig has to be one of the most underrated midseason acquisitions this season.
An instant impact player from day one in Suns uniform. His hustle and energy allow him to play alongside anyone on the court, fits the way this Suns team plays.
— Cody Cunningham (@Cody_Cunningham) May 3, 2021
Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.
Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.
Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.
Torrey Craig’s value: Only big wing on Suns who can size up Julius Randle. Then he switches and covers Jordan Clarkson for about 10 straight seconds.
— Kevin Zimmerman (@KZimmermanAZ) May 1, 2021
It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.
Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.
While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.
Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.
Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.
Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.
It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.