Welcome to The Outlet Pass, a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina’s NBA notebook.
1. We’re 100 Games Into the Steph Curry-Kevin Durant Experience
This duo—with a combined 14 All-Star invitations, five scoring titles, 11 All-NBA teams, three Most Valuable Player awards, and the same number of championship rings—discombobulates defenders like one of the most effortlessly nuclear tandems the NBA has ever seen should; the gap between them and whoever’s next (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, LeBron James and Jose Calderon, etc.) is not small.
Saturday night’s pseudo-meaningful loss in Houston was the 100th game Curry and Durant played together, and a vast majority of their on-court relationship has been spent frolicking in Steve Kerr’s sublime pass-screen-cut-score offense. As the source of so many unanswerable questions for opposing players and coaches whenever they collaborate, it’s hard to envision a better system to exploit how they naturally complement and support each other, and everybody else.
Golden State averages 121 points per 100 possessions when Curry and Durant share the floor, which is up from 120 points per 100 possessions last season. Translation: They’re a sunspot. But for the uncommon instances where flow stagnates, defenses successfully switch off the ball and somehow manage to clog things up, Kerr knows the best two players he’ll ever coach can elevate Golden State towards a higher level of excellence virtually on command.
Whether it’s Durant screening for Curry or Curry screening for Durant, these two in a pick-and-roll is theoretically the most unstoppable play in the world. And after hardly using it at all in year one, the Warriors recently seem more open to familiarizing themselves with its raw power than saving it for special occasions. They’ve run it sloppy over the past couple weeks, but once the rust shakes off there’s simply no way any team in the league will be able to consistently stop them.
Both can pass. Both can get to the rim. (A semi-related inquiry: Raise your hand if after they became teammates you thought Curry would ever attempt more free throws than KD. Curry averages 1.1 more in two fewer minutes every game. What an incredible season.) And, um, both can shoot, like, as good or better than anyone at their respective height, position, or blood type in the history of mankind.
If the defense traps the ball—as the Cleveland Cavaliers almost exclusively decided to do—Durant can slip into open space as Curry whips a pass to the strong-side corner. Seen below, they’re shorting the pick-and-roll, harnessing Cleveland’s aggressiveness against them.
When the Cavs don’t want to rotate a third man over, opt not to trap and avoid a switch, things break down almost immediately because Curry is a ferret.
The juiciest outcome of this connection occurs when Durant actually makes contact with Curry’s defender and forces the defense to switch. Nobody can guard this dude, so getting whoever’s on the point guard to handle him just isn’t fair. The play below could’ve resulted in an open pull-up, trip to the foul line, or even a dunk, but Durant tries to do too much with a double-digit lead and the game teetering out of hand.
He’s struggled in these situations because he isn’t as used to them as he could be.
One rational explanation for why Kerr doesn’t unleash Curry and Durant as frequently as another coach might is it creates one-on-one situations—albeit with a mismatch—and self-sabotages their breathtaking ball movement.
Good things typically happen when Curry screens for Durant, but getting the two-time MVP on an island against a big who can really move his feet sometimes isn’t the greatest use of his talent.
But do it in a way that gives Durant an advantage with a live dribble, against defenders that momentarily aren’t sure about what they’re supposed to do, and all bets are off.
Anyone who’s watched the Warriors play basketball knows they’re impossible to defend when Curry gives the ball up, runs along the baseline, and either gets it back on the other side of the floor or forces a devastating switch elsewhere. Their roster is filled with brilliant passers at every position and they have some of the most lethal spot-up shooters who’ve ever stepped on a court.
But even though they aren’t quite where they want to be with it yet, the ceiling on having Curry and Durant run pick-and-roll together doesn’t really exist. It’s Reason No. 97,341 why the Warriors are not fair.
2. Zach LaVine Has No Conscience
Besides every time my phone buzzes with a Seamless notification informing me that pizza is on the way, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the unbridled joy Zach LaVine feels whenever he shoots a basketball.
Since his season debut last week, the 22-year-old leads the league in shots per 100 plays, and basically everyone with a higher usage percentage is headed to the All-Star game. Over half of LaVine’s shots are pull-up jumpers and—somewhat absurdly—over a third are from behind the three-point line.
It’s hard to tell when watching if LaVine is making up for lost time, trying to capture a rhythm, or simply doing what Chicago’s coaching staff wants. Either way, he appears to have a trillion-watt green light in his field of vision at all times. Unless it’s a pick-and-roll with Robin Lopez, or the defense gets uber-committed to putting two on the ball, LaVine is letting it fly.
And, so far, that’s fine. LaVine is a dynamite offensive talent with hallucinogenic athleticism; he’s talented enough to make the same shots a rational human being would not have enough confidence to try. The guy is hitting crossover step backs just because!
You have to respect his first step and his ability to pull up from 25 feet, which is the foundation of an offensive superstar in today’s NBA. He’s obsessed with taking advantage of the slightest crack in any defense, and will even rise up when his man fights above the screen to force a drive. Aside from his minutes restriction, it’s hard to notice any physical limitations from the ACL injury, but LaVine’s decision-making is clearly rusty.
And so long as he’s aloof on the other end, LaVine will have a clear ceiling so far as his overall impact goes. He still loves to ball watch, is addicted to getting back cut, and doesn’t know what to do when his man doesn’t have the ball.
Overall LaVine is a nice long-term fit beside Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, assuming Chicago re-signs him this summer, but (very) early returns indicate he has a long way to go before understanding how to play in Fred Hoiberg’s pass-happy system.
3. Joel Embiid vs. Double Teams
What is scarier than watching your favorite team try to defend Joel Embiid on the left block? Not much! He’s a walking thunderstorm, with slick footwork, brute strength, and an impossibly deft touch anywhere within 15 feet of the rim.
But a slight feeling of dread still swells inside even The Process’s most devoted followers whenever their deified All-Star center gets double teamed. According to Synergy Sports, LaMarcus Aldridge is the only player who’s drawn more hard double teams than Embiid this season. (Worth noting: Aldridge has appeared in 13 more games!)
But for the second year in a row, Embiid’s turnover rate in those situations is above 33 percent. (57 players have been double teamed on a post-up at least 10 times this season, and only two own a lower turnover rate than Embiid.) For all the amazing ways he dominates the game, punishing aggressive defenses by trusting teammates is monumentally important if this team is ever to capitalize on their promising core with a lengthy playoff run.
For a variety of reasons, this wart will only grow in the postseason when teams won’t hesitate to help off Ben Simmons. Watch below as Marcus Smart flees the Rookie of the Year favorite to double Embiid because he knows A) Simmons isn’t a threat to knock down an open shot, and B) Semi Ojeleye will help from the back side when Simmons cuts through the paint.
The Sixers can adjust by entering the ball with a more threatening three-point option, but so long as Simmons is on the floor against an intelligent defense that’s locked in on helping the helper, Embiid can’t take his time and let help complicate his attack.
None of this is to suggest he’s a lost cause, in this particular area or any other. There are plenty of examples where Embiid has anticipated where the defense will rotate from before he zips a pass to the weak-side corner. But for the time being, he still gets flustered more often than not. Once he corrects that flaw and reads the floor with a bit more patience, there won’t be a more commanding paint presence in the league.
4. Consistent Inconsistencies in Andre Drummond’s Game
Watch any stretch of a Pistons game when Andre Drummond is on the floor and there’s a decent chance that at some point you’ll hear Stan Van Gundy howling in frustration at a poor decision made by his franchise center. (“Move!” and “Screen someone, Andre!” are two house favorites.)
Judging Drummond is not easy. It feels like he’s experienced three different career arcs before his 25th birthday, and is currently enjoying an All-Star-caliber bounce-back season in which he’s ameliorated his reputation by embracing a new role in Detroit’s offense.
Hideous post-ups have almost been entirely replaced by Drummond serving as a dribble hand-off initiator. He touches the ball about 18 more times per game this season, and his elbow touches are three times as high as they were four seasons ago. Few centers in the league are better passers. But the Pistons continue to struggle on defense when Drummond is on the floor, with opponents faring noticeably worse at the rim when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
His awareness and effort are both less predictable than Van Gundy probably wishes they are. Here’s Drummond sprinting out of the paint and away from his man to cover a D’Angelo Russell-Quincy Acy pick-and-roll that his teammates already have under control.
Drummond was once primarily instructed to drop when guarding similar action, corral the ball-handler before his teammate recovered while also staying within arm’s length of his own man. It requires a level of intuition Drummond lacks and he often found himself in no man’s land. So this year he’s been directed to be aggressive up higher up on the floor. The result is a team that forces a ton of turnovers (they ranked 23rd the previous two seasons in defensive turnover rate, but currently sit in fourth) but also surrenders more threes and fewer long twos.
Drummond has quick feet and hands that prevent ball-handlers from hitting the roll man before a help rotation can be made, but it’s still unclear if the new strategy is fundamentally a good thing.
Here he is allowing Bradley Beal to turn the corner in a sequence that eventually leads to a wide open three for the Wizards.
Sometimes he’ll sprint back on defense. Other times he’ll put his head down and jog. He still lacks the feel of a top notch rim protector and the Pistons give up too many easy baskets because he’s either not in the right spot, executes poorly, or gets confused for no reason.
But, again, Drummond is still only 24 years old, and the growth he’s shown this year—don’t forget about the free-throw line!—signals he hasn’t already plateaued. Brighter days are ahead, and his contract isn’t a total disgrace.
5. Minnesota is No Longer Stuck in the Mud
After some early turmoil that saw Jimmy Butler make an uncharacteristically tempered entrance into the offense, a general look of confusion glued on Andrew Wiggins’ face, defensive intensity/effort/recognition by Karl-Anthony Towns that made Dark look like a Pixar production for a fanbase that knows what bleak looks like, and the exact opposite of a minutes restriction legislated by Tom Thibodeau, the Minnesota Timberwolves have finally established themselves as one of the NBA’s top five teams.
They’re 11-5 since Christmas—which doubles as the day Nemanja Bjelica made his return from a foot injury. Only the Golden State Warriors have a better offense and they’ve entered the top 10 on the other end. Butler is an authentic MVP candidate who’s been magnificent at everything (including turning long twos into short twos and threes, while his shooting splits on the second night of back-to-backs are 50.5/41.7/94.6!).
Towns is starting to meet/exceed the world’s absurdly high expectations for him. Even if his fear of foul trouble still prevents him from being elite on the defensive end, he’s reading double teams, being rambunctious on the glass, and displaying a tighter grasp on where he is/isn’t supposed to be when the other team has the ball.
It appears that an internal pecking order has (thankfully) been discovered while Thibodeau tinkers as best he can with an extremely talented but thin roster. Wiggins is finally doing stuff off the ball (like crashing the glass) that impacts winning.
There’s still a strange penchant to play three of Gorgui Dieng, Towns, Belly, and Gibson at the same time in jumbo, retrograde lineups that have somehow actually had success when unleashed in small doses.
But Thibs is increasingly realizing the need to downsize when it’s appropriate to do so, as he did in a loss against the Rockets last Thursday and with Jamal Crawford and Butler both out versus Toronto on Saturday night—a game in which Marcus Georges-Hunt played the entire 4th quarter and Shabazz Muhammad (when can I call him Bazz?) took the court in non-garbage time minutes for the first time in nearly two months.
More important than who plays, though, is how they compete, and in recent weeks a critical development has materialized from their rising comfort. About a month ago, I wrote about their “GREEN!” death siren; why Minnesota’s syrupy disposition in the open floor was so unnerving and detrimental. Just speaking as a viewer, it was one of the more frustrating qualities in any good team I’ve seen all year. They ran off turnovers (of which they force a whole bunch), but were otherwise sluggish.
According to Cleaning the Glass, they still rank 27th in the percentage of live-ball rebounds that lead to a transition play, and there’s been no uptick in their average time of possession after a defensive rebound, per Inpredictable. But there’s a noticeable pep in their step now that I didn’t see earlier in the year. Some of that’s probably due to an improved defense that’s stringing stops together and encouraging more dynamism in the open floor.
Here Gibson’s rim run draws two Portland defenders into the paint, carving a path for Butler to finish with a floater. And here’s another example where even though the Timberwolves don’t shoot until there’s 12 on the shot clock, a push off Houston’s miss forces mismatches on the other end, with Harden guarding Gibson (not that bad for the Rockets) and Clint Capela on Butler (very bad for the Rockets).
They still aren’t shooting threes and remain in desperate need of help on the wing (Cole Aldrich and a lottery-protected first in 2020 for Joe Johnson would be fun), but right now the Timberwolves look exactly like a team nobody will want to face in the playoffs. Going on the road to beat the scrappy Los Angeles Clippers—as they did Monday night—without Butler, in a game where Towns goes 1-for-7, is definitely a good sign.
6. Anybody Want Moe Harkless?
The Trail Blazers are nearly $3 million over the tax, with a redundant roster that’s dangerously close to missing the playoffs. Damian Lillard just had a secret meeting with the team’s owner, Paul Allen, and it’s not unrealistic to think either Terry Stotts or Neil Olshey won’t have their job in April. Standing pat at the trade deadline isn’t an option.
But that doesn’t mean this team is a buyer, and getting under the tax might be what they want above everything else.
This brings us to Mo Harkless, a 24-year-old wing who fell out of Portland’s starting lineup around Thanksgiving. He’s currently in and out of Stotts’s rotation, and hasn’t made a three in about two weeks. On one hand, he’s a jumpy 24-year-old wing who’s 6’9” with a few intriguing NBA moments on his resume. On the other, Harkless’s statistical profile indicates he’s below average in several important areas, with two years and over $22 million on his contract through 2020.
The fact that Portland would swap him for a future second-round pick in a heartbeat doesn’t inspire much confidence in any takers, but is there any team out there willing to take him on, maybe if the Blazers are willing to attach a future asset? Would the Cavaliers say screw it if they can’t get anybody else? Do the Brooklyn Nets think they can take him on as a tolerable-risk, mediocre-upside acquisition?
Long-term dollars make any trade unlikely, but this team badly needs to cut salary and Harkless is just compelling enough to be someone Olshey shops hard over the next couple weeks. (The more likely player to pack his bags is Noah Vonleh, who can enter restricted free agency this summer with an inexpensive contract that would drop Portland just below the luxury tax if shed.)
7. Ian Mahinmi is Not as Bad as You Think; Still Very Bad
Necessary Disclaimer: Never forget how it’s not Ian Mahinmi’s fault that Ernie Grunfeld, in a rushed and misguided effort to replace Nene, responded to Al Horford’s spurn by offering a dramatically inferior center $64 million over four years. Again, the money is not Mahinmi’s fault, but it’s still become the worst contract attached to anybody who actually sees the court on a consistent basis.
His point differential ranks fourth on the team behind Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, and John Wall (the Wizards are +4.2 points per 100 possessions with Mahinmi on the floor and +0.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits), and he moves pretty well and with purpose on the defensive end. (Look at the ground he covers on this play):
But this general competence—spliced with the comical mishaps that occur whenever he touches the ball—is not worth $64 million. It’s impossible to grade Mahinmi without staring at that contract, knowing how it clogs Washington’s cap sheet. He has the lowest usage percentage on a team that’s at its best when playing small. The bad still outweighs the good.
Mahinmi is on pace to become the 59th player in NBA history (repeat: in NBA history) to log at least 600 minutes with a turnover rate above 27 percent. This is not easy to do. Last week, a Wizards fan texted me a clip of Mahinmi throwing the ball into the third row, well over the head of a wide open teammate standing in the corner. This is his signature move. Mahinmi is a walking wyd meme.
He rarely shoots—Mahinmi has done a fine job on putbacks and is an above-average finisher inside the restricted area—but his limitations are ghastly when asked to do anything beyond the bare minimum of his cataclysmic limitations. He’s the worst roll man in the league, per Synergy Sports, scoring 11 points on 21 possessions.
Injuries and age have not been Mahinmi’s friend. He’s 31 years old and missed a majority of last season (including the first eight games of Washington’s playoff run) after a slew of physical ailments, starting with knee surgery in mid-October. But that contract was silly the moment Grunfeld made the offer. So far it’s even worse than expected.
8. Bold Prediction Alert: Ty Lue Won’t Survive This
How can he? Yes, this Cavaliers roster will look different after the trade deadline and once the buyout market starts to bubble, but even the most radical Brooklyn-pick-included move won’t correct their bad habits overnight.
Isaiah Thomas is literally running back on defense asking teammates who he’s supposed to guard, basic switches are getting screwed up by veterans who should know better, and the team is playing with a general nonchalance that’s supported by an organization-wide belief that LeBron James will go from (a ridiculously athletic) Clark Kent to Superman on the first day of the playoffs.
They talk like they’re concerned, but don’t carry that worry onto the court. It’s fair to say that’s on the coach. Even more so than him thinking an aggressive defensive scheme suits their aging personnel, or that Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Tristan Thompson should ever (ever!) play together.
There’s a tricky balance in wanting to stagger Thomas and LeBron while at the same time needing them to form some chemistry together. It’s a conundrum Lue has struggled with, but Cleveland’s overall problems go deeper than X’s and O’s. The team flat out doesn’t have a lot of talent and isn’t built to compliment its franchise player. That isn’t on Lue, but as the head coach it doesn’t matter.
If he loses his job, the most obvious candidate to replace him will be David Fizdale, who coached James and Wade in Miami and is widely regarded as one of the most capable names available. But for the sake of thought, the most fascinating candidate who may not actually be a candidate is Mark Jackson. From a soap operatic viewpoint, think about how incredible this would be, particularly if the Cavaliers made it back to the Finals for a rematch against Jackson’s former team. Good lord, that would be so spicy.
From a basketball perspective, Jackson’s reputation as a coach actually kind of fits what Cleveland needs. We already know he’s fine running an iso-heavy offense and is credited for having turned Golden State’s long-woeful defense into a top-three outfit in two years time. Jackson would have less than half a season to refine Cleveland’s system and instill his own principles with the creakiest bunch in the league, after nearly a four-year break as a TV analyst. The optics would be terrible, but there isn’t an NBA fan alive (who doesn’t root for the Cavs) who wouldn’t want to see this happen.
Lue’s presence allowed the Cavaliers to get rid of David Blatt when they went on to win their first championship in 2016. Things are different now, and Lue doesn’t have a “Lue” on his staff: the highly-paid assistant whose beloved by players and intrigued by ownership. Instead, change from the outside feels more and more likely every time this team takes the floor.
Throw in LeBron’s non-endorsement, the Kevin Love fiasco, and Jason Kidd’s firing (which could motivate the Cavs to make a move before Milwaukee hires somebody they might want), and all signs point to Lue being on his way out.
9. Marvin Williams’s Hunt to Join the 50-40-90 Club
It’s an uphill climb for him to make enough shots and officially qualify for the club, let alone sustain/improve his percentages across the board. But I just want to shout out one of the most pleasant human beings in the entire NBA. Williams spends a good portion of his time thanklessly battling larger, stronger bigs, never complains, and while trade rumors surround his team’s best player, is quietly having a career year at 31. Salute.
10. It’s Not Working Out For Mario Hezonja
Mario Hezonja has moments that can best be described as two steps below tantalizing. He’ll effortlessly flick in a three from two feet behind the line, hop on a trampoline for a tip dunk, then shock everyone in attendance by spinning through a double team for a pretty finish at the rim. But these are “moments” in the most literal sense.
More often, he looks like a 6’8” fan who won a contest that lets him suit up for his favorite team every night. Over 3,000 minutes into his career, Hezonja is still a jittery, hesitant imbroglio whose pre-draft athleticism has vanished from almost every nook in his game. Why is he not in a defensive stance here?
For every beautiful touch pass there are a dozen flubs atypical at the NBA level. He’s shooting under 20 percent on corner threes for the second year in a row, which feels half-anomaly, half-red flag, and ranks 400th in Real Plus-Minus.
Hezonja’s mistakes are catastrophes (my favorite play all season was when he screwed up a 4-on-1 fast break by passing the ball between his legs) and he’s somewhat randomly playing a vast majority of his minutes at the four. (Frank Vogel had him guard Towns for lengthy stretches in Orlando’s shocking win over Minnesota last week.)
Even though the Magic turned down his team option for next season, it’s still unlikely another team doesn’t snatch Hezonja up on a veteran’s minimum deal (assuming he wants to stay in the United States). He’s 22, can ostensibly shoot, and was a top-five pick just three years ago. But in every other way he just doesn’t look like he belongs.
11. All-Star Reserves!
Here’s my team, with one-sentence explainers for each selection. Starting in the East:
Backcourt: Victor Oladipo. He’s super efficient with the 11th highest usage rate in the league, going up against opponents that are doing everything they can to stop him every night.
Backcourt: Bradley Beal. John Wall called him Washington’s MVP.
Frontcourt: Al Horford. The Celtics have been the Eastern Conference’s best team all year despite losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into Game 1.
Frontcourt: Kevin Love. He’s officially underrated.
Frontcourt: Andre Drummond. Even though the shoulder hair is back in full force, his evolution outlined above deserves a trip to Los Angeles.
Wildcard: Kyle Lowry. He took a charge against Embiid in his first game back from a butt/back injury. That is the bravest thing I’ve seen since Tea Leone attempted to take on the ocean.
Wildcard: Kristaps Porzingis. He leads the league in blocks, hardly ever turns it over, can’t be guarded one-on-one, and looks every bit the part of a first option.
And in the West:
Backcourt: Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 24 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds per game.
Backcourt: Klay Thompson. He’s having one of the best shooting seasons ever.
Frontcourt: Jimmy Butler. He’s one of the six or seven most valuable players in the league.
Frontcourt: Karl-Anthony Towns. He has five more double-doubles than any other player.
Frontcourt: LaMarcus Aldridge. Swap him with DeMarcus Cousins. Do the New Orleans Pelicans scare you more or less?
Wildcard: Lou Williams. He saved his team’s season.
Wildcard: Chris Paul. Let’s not overthink this.