Fred VanVleet: Off-ball defensive genius

By Zach Wilson

Big Shoutouts to Brad of Too Much Hoops and John Chick of theScore for helping put this together as well!

 

Quick! List your top five current NBA players. The majority of you are probably picking from players such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo,  and a few other guys, depending on your taste.

What is the first thing that you think of when you see these players, and why in your opinion are they all top-end talents?

For Stephen Curry, it’s probably his three-point shooting, and his one-of-a-kind ability to be an NBA offense in himself. For LeBron, it’s likely his court vision and strength to get to the hole and finish through nearly anybody.

All of these players possess fantastic and specialized offensive traits, which is what makes them such dominant players. Yes, Leonard and Antetokounmpo are two of the top defenders in the NBA as well, but it’s their impact on the offensive end that makes them legit MVP candidates.

For a player like Fred VanVleet, the immediate focus is likely on his shooting ability. A 39.3% career three-point shooter, VanVleet is not only capable of playing a complementary offensive role off guys like Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, but also controlling the offense and shooting out of pick-and-rolls as well.

What’s beginning to grab a lot of recognition is his defense. The Raptors as a whole are one of the best defensive teams in the league, and have been for the past two seasons. Part of this has to do with the defensive-minded players on their roster, and part of the credit has to go towards Nick Nurse’s defensive philosophies and game plans.

This season, Toronto went unconventional (as Nurse’s teams often do) in starting Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, two guards who reach six feet tall on a good day. This often forced one of the two to match up against an offensive player five or six inches taller than them. Luckily for Toronto, both of these players are more than capable of playing bigger than their physical size.

However, as much as both of them are strong on-ball defenders, it’s their off-ball defense which makes them, and this team special—particularly Fred VanVleet!

I’ve been known to say, and I stick by it: Fred VanVleet is one of the best off-ball defenders I have ever seen. He’s constantly locked in on both his man and the ball, and is always in the right place at the right time.

I had the pleasure of exchanging messages with John Chick of TheScore, and asked him of his opinion on Fred VanVleet’s off-ball defense.

“I think his off-ball D is just a combined byproduct of his high hoops IQ, and the Raps defensive system” (John Chick)

Fred is an elite off-ball defender, and in this article, I break down some of the areas where he is so strong, and how he thrives on the defensive end.

Positioning & Weak-Side Help

The majority of man-on-man defenses play with a concept called gap principles. The ‘gap’ is essentially the positioning an off-ball defender places himself in relative to where the ball is. If the ball is at the top of the key, and you are guarding the man on the wing, you are considered to be one pass away, and if you are defending a player in the corner, you are considered two passes away.

The rule of thumb in a base-man defense is that you stand an equal distance between the ball and the man you are defending, keeping both in your line of sight at all times. Your positioning while guarding off-ball is the most important aspect of playing defense. Every player has to be in the correct position in order to help, and rotate properly. This is what makes the Raptors—and specifically Fred VanVleet—so strong defensively.

In this clip, you can see VanVleet in perfect gap position, with the ball in his direct line of sight, and his man in his peripheral vision.

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp-Y7phER80&t=2s

As Dillon Brooks drives the ball, Fred begins to widen his gap—partially to cover Anthony Tolliver as he dives to the net, but also to remain in the correct gap position. This allows him to pick up Tolliver and make a play on the ball when it gets entered into the post. John Chick says it perfectly: “He always rotates right and hustles into disrupting passing lanes”

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk4cNyLxuAY&t=2s

Sometimes, specific players call for a specific defensive game plan, and a lot of the time, that defensive game plan unfolds primarily while guarding them off the ball.

Here, we see VanVleet matching up against Duncan Robinson, one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Coach Nurse clearly made a point to suffocate Robinson and not allow him an inch of space to get his shot off. The majority of the responsibility when guarding an elite shooter is tracking them off-ball.

It is clear right off the bat that VanVleet isn’t playing in his gap because he needs to remain close to Robinson in case he makes a sudden move, runs off a screen, etc. Even when Bam Adebayo drives into the lane, VanVleet doesn’t jab, or jump the driver, because his responsibility is to stay close to Robinson.

VanVleet’s off-ball positioning gives him a short close-out, and he’s able to steal the ball before Robinson has the chance to make a move.

Closing Out

A good closeout can be the difference between a successful defensive possession and a failed one. Whether you’re running a shooter off the line, contesting a shot, or simply closing out while retaining proper guarding distance, a good closeout takes pristine technique, and a lot of effort.

A proper closeout involves sprinting out to the ball, and chopping your feet when you get within a couple steps of the ball handler. Depending on the coach/player, sometimes they will prefer two hands up, but some will prefer one hand up, and one down.

For a player of VanVleet’s stature, a proper closeout is imperative., It is important for him to always extend an arm into the air, and chop his feet to get into a proper defensive stance, and be ready to shuffle laterally.

In this clip, we see a closeout with perfect technique: hand in the shooter’s line of vision, and feet chopped, so as not to get caught flat-footed.

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp-Y7phER80&t=2s

Due to his decision to double-team LeBron James in the post, VanVleet arrives slightly late, causing him to overrun the closeout. Some may view this as an accident, but typically, when you arrive late to a closeout, the only option is to run the shooter off the line. Had VanVleet decided to stop in front of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, KCP would have had ample room and time to rise over Fred and shoot.

“The guy never ever gets lost on a play, never gives up and, therefore, is almost a step ahead of any switch or help that’s needed” (John Chick).

Even when it seems Fred might be a step behind, like on this play, he is still ahead of the opponent mentally, and knows exactly what he wants to do defensively.

The other thing I want to point out regarding this specific clip is the direction which VanVleet forced KCP to drive. Even though he arrives late, Fred is still able to funnel Pope towards the baseline, where the help defender, Marc Gasol, is outside the paint waiting. He executes this by turning his body towards the baseline, which prevents his man from driving towards the middle, and forces him to drive along the baseline—and directly into the help defender. This type of defense is extremely difficult, and requires top-level awareness.

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp-Y7phER80&t=2s

Before the pass to Gorgui Dieng, Marc Gasol is forced to help in the middle of the paint. This causes VanVleet to jab and recover. VanVleet charges toward Dieng, but with full intention of returning to his man—in this case, Grayson Allen. The goal is to force Dieng to hesitate with his decision, buying time for the defense. In the second part of this play, we see Fred turn his body back towards his man, and retreat. Hence, jab and recover.

One important thing to watch in this clip is how Fred always keeps his body facing Allen in the corner. Even as he runs at Dieng, his body stays positioned towards his man.

It seems as if the initial action was a dribble-handoff exchange between the Dieng and Allen, but when Allen sees Fred taking that away, he attempts to cut backdoor. This forces Dieng to reroute his decision making process and pick up the ball to make a pass right in front of VanVleet, allowing him to swipe at the ball and get his team the steal. Not only does VanVleet force the offense out of its primary action, but he’s able to disrupt the counter to that as well.

Jumping the Driver

This is a skill that requires exquisite timing, or it will cause the majority of coaches to pull their hair out. Pretty well every coach that you talk to will say the same thing: “Help should come from the weak side, not the strong side.” This is for a couple reasons. First, the weak-side defender has more time to step up, which results in fewer fouls. The more important reason, however, is that shooters on the same side of the court as the ball aren’t left wide open as often.

Most of the time, strong-side help is performed through a jab-and-recover. This skill isn’t common among basketball players because it requires patience and timing. The only time you should fully commit to jumping a driver when playing help on the strong side is when the ball-handler is focused in on the basket or the opposite side of the floor.

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk4cNyLxuAY&t=2s

As we can see in the clip above, Fred doesn’t fully commit to the steal ’till Bojan Bogdanovic has fully attempted to turn the corner towards the net. Fred can commit here, because he knows a pass out to Mike Conley Jr. is near-impossible.

This skill is more of an “extra.” Fred has perfected so many other skills on the defensive end that Coach Nurse is fine with Fred taking a slight gamble on a play like this because he knows that FVV’s timing is strong, and his recovery speed on a potential mishap is lightning-quick. (Or maybe he isn’t, and maybe Fred gets yelled at a lot in the huddle).

Covering Cutters

Covering cutters is arguably the most important aspect of playing off-ball defense. This isn’t so much about the technique used in covering the cutter, but rather staying aware and not getting backdoored.

Every defender, especially when they’re off-ball, must stay fully engaged and aware at all times. In a league like the NBA, where offensive players are so smart, and athletic, the second a defender loses sight of his man, the offensive player could bolt to the opposite side of the court.

As far as the technique and skill it takes to cover a cutter goes, VanVleet lays it out perfectly in the first part of this clip.

Animated GIF
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp-Y7phER80&t=2s

The last thing you want to do is simply step in front of the cutter for them to run into you. Not only will you usually get called for a foul, but you’ll get knocked off balance and allow the offensive player to get open off a v- or backdoor-cut because you can’t turn and follow fast enough.

Covering a cutter 101: Trail the cutter slightly, face him while maintaining slight contact, and extend your off-arm out directly in the passing lane. It sounds fairly simple, but it can be easy to miss a step in the heat of a game.

Overall, VanVleet is a fantastic defender, especially considering his size. Toronto has a ton of strong defenders, but Fred is often charged with covering quick, skilled point guards, which is a tall and important task in today’s league.

I think John says it perfectly:

“I would summarize by saying the Raptors are f***ed somewhat if he leaves via free agency” (John Chick).

Additionally

Listen to Matt and I interview Blake Murphy on The Playgrounder Podcast, as we discuss the Raptors’ current series against the Celtics.

Game Two Focus: Toronto May Have A Marc Gasol Problem

By Matt Esposito

Trust me, I don’t love writing those words, but I must: Marc Gasol ranks only behind Uncle Phil, Trevor Noah and Santa Claus in any arbitrary list of male role models. Unfortunately, he now possesses the lateral quickness of each of the people on that list, which is why Toronto may need to re-examine their big man strategy during their series versus the Celtics.

Just about everyone on the Raptors had an abysmal plus/minus after Game 1 during the Celtics. But Gasol’s time on the court stood out more than the others’. For someone lauded for his defensive awareness, Gasol looked hesitant in some defensive schemes. Sure, it is difficult to keep up with the many different defensive looks Nick Nurse tosses into a game. It is even harder to do so when your feet have been replaced with cinderblocks.

Questioning if Gasol can stay on the court during a semi-finals match up is almost akin to questioning the future of his NBA career. That makes me sad. So, let’s keep this short and sweet. In seven short, tidy video clips I’ll delineate how the Celtics took advantage of Gasol in the serie’s opener.

Targeting Gasol On The Perimeter

Coach Brad Stevens is surely aware that his counterpart, Nick Nurse, loves to toss in zone schemes at various points of the game. These schemes typically park Gasol near the hoop and restrict any chance a team has to drag him onto the perimeter. Therefore, when the Raptors were in man coverage, Boston pounced on opportunities to catch Gasol away from the paint. They did this largely through the pick-and-roll and dribble-handoffs, although some players went rogue and simply burned Gasol when the chance arose. Regardless, Gasol’s complete inability to hang with Celtics ball-handlers was obvious.

New phrase alert! NEW PHRASE ALERT! Gasol got medusa’d here by Jayson Tatum. Go back and watch him morph into a statue as Tatum blows by. Boston did this on handoffs, too; here, Gasol stunts towards the perimeter to stall Kemba Walker, but cannot recover in time to catch the rolling Robert Williams.

Gasol expressed more pick-and-roll defense concerns during a halftime buzzer beater play. Perhaps he wanted to sellout on Kemba, estimating that a shot was coming due to the dwindling game clock. Nonetheless, it is not pretty to look at.

Shoot, even Daniel Theis decided to get in on the action. Theis is an underrated athlete, but he shouldn’t be easily darting past big men on the perimeter. Toronto will find it hard to get consistent stops if Gasol cannot find a way to stay grounded near the paint. As we will see, however, he’s struggling in that area as well.

Beating Drop Coverage

Boston’s first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers revealed two truths. First, Gordon Hayward inarguably has the worst luck in professional basketball. Second, drop coverage is not a scheme you can successfully deploy against the likes of Tatum, Walker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.

Toronto threw multiple defensive schemes at Boston to find one that would stick. This led to Gasol spending several minutes in drop coverage. The Celtics were prepared, however. In this play, Gasol gets stuck in no-man’s land during a Walker/Williams pick-and-roll. Inexplicably, he fails to trust that Pascal Siakam will pick up Timelord, and Walker calmly nails the resulting midrange look, giving us flashbacks to the Sixers series.

Gasol’s lack of trust in that play is troublesome. Toronto’s defense is predicated upon buying into your role and having faith that teammates will execute properly. Perhaps that can be fixed by their next game. This next problem is harder to fix, though: drop coverage inherently surrenders a 2-on-1 opportunity during pick-and-rolls. Considering Tatum is hitting 50 percent of his 4.8 pull up triples per game this postseason, this coverage may need to change in a hurry.

Driving On Drop Coverage

The Celtics’ other big-time scorers (Smart, Brown and Walker) are not hitting postseason pull-up bombs at the same rate as Tatum. Still, they all remain credible threats, and the Raptors would rather drive them into help defense. Boston has simple, effective plays prepared for this scheme. This postseason, Theis currently ranks fifth in screen-assists per game. This is partially due to his re-screens during drop coverage. This technique is often used to render the dropper (in this case, Gasol) ineffective and open up a clear lane to the rim. If the Raptors rely on this specific coverage more, then expect Theis to work in tandem with ball-handlers in plays like the one below. Gasol is neither agile nor strong enough to maneuver around this type of screen.

What To Expect

Nick Nurse is not shy about mixing up his game plan when things are trending south. Was Gasol unplayable? Certainly not. Was he a fruitful area of attack for Boston? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gasol had a much shorter leash in Game 2.

It is probably too early in the series to make a starting lineup change. But going small could be the best option for Toronto, as Serge Ibaka is more capable of handling switches or drops. A lineup of Ibaka, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet is certainly small, but Boston is not exactly throwing out monster rotations either. Monitor this trend in Game 2.

Bonus PODCAST ALERT: This week we had Blake Murphy of The Athletic on to discuss the Raptors/Celtics series. He went in-depth on some key match ups and coaching strategies. Listen and subscribe, thanks!

Isolation Scoring in the Playoffs

By Andrew Lawlor

Some of the most iconic NBA playoff moments in history have come via isolation. Michael Jordan’s last shot against the Utah Jazz. Kyrie Irving’s clutch three-pointer against the Warriors. Damian Lillard’s game-winner last year over Paul George. Luka Doncic’s step back against the Clippers this year. When all the cards are down, teams often rely on isolation. That’s where the magic happens.

Isolation scoring often goes up in the playoffs as defenses tighten and make it harder to get easy baskets out of other actions. Often, it is the best bet for an offense to put the ball in the hands of its most talented scorer and let them attack. In the age of social distancing, it is fitting that isolation scoring has taken a front seat during the NBA playoffs. In the 2020 playoffs, teams are averaging around 10.7 isolation possessions per game, up from 7.2 per game in the regular season, according to NBA.com.

To no one’s surprise, the Houston Rockets are driving this increase in isolations. They led the league in isolations during the regular season with an astronomical 22.6 per game, more than double the second-place Blazers. James Harden, with his patented step-back three-pointer, and Russell Westbrook ranked first and second in the league in isolations per game—Harden alone had 14.1, more than every other team.

In the playoffs, the Rockets have actually decreased their isolations a bit, to 17.8 per game (still second-most in the league), likely due to Westbrook’s absence in the first four games of the series. Harden is isolating on 12.0 possessions per game, still the most in the league, but they do not have a third frequent isolator.

Houston’s switch-everything defense also leads to increased isolation opportunities for opposing offenses, since it prevents openings on off-ball screens. In fact, their current opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, lead the playoffs in isolations, after they more than doubled their isolation usage from 9.6 per game to 20.4 per game.

But it is not just the Rockets-Thunder series that has featured heavy usage of isolations. The Indiana Pacers (16.3), Los Angeles Clippers (13.4), Portland Trail Blazers (12.7), Toronto Raptors (12.0), and Utah Jazz (10.8) are all also isolating over 10 times per game.

Many of the most prolific isolators have been the usual suspects. James Harden is by far the most frequent, and Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Chris Paul all show up on the list as well. But there are some lesser-known names that have been great as well.

Malcolm Brogdon was incredible on isolations in the playoffs. He ran 8.0 isolation plays per game, more than every other player but Harden, and scored 1.38 points per possession with an effective field goal percentage of 61.9%. Those are some insane numbers. The Pacers were still swept, but Brogdon is a bright spot going forward.

As isolations have increased, there has been more room for isolation defenders to shine. First and foremost among isolation defenders in the 2020 playoffs is Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort, who has drawn the unenviable assignment of defending Harden. A lot has been written about him in other spaces, and it is justified; he has defended the second-most isolations in the league (3.8 per game), and held opponents to 0.67 points per possession, an elite number. Alex Caruso has also been amazing against the Blazers, limiting them to 0.72 points per possession on 3.6 isolations defended per game. If Houston makes it through, the Lakers also have a stout option to put on Harden.

While teams are running a lot more isolations, there is no one play type they are running a lot less often. Teams are running slightly fewer pick-and-rolls, and they are seeing fewer opportunities from transition, cuts, handoffs, and screens. Defenses have cut down on easy baskets on all play types, and offenses have turned to isolations instead.

As the playoffs continue, isolation scoring is likely to swing several playoff series. I am confident in many of the remaining teams’ ability to score in isolation scenarios, save for the Raptors. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were both good in the first round, but nobody on the roster has a long track record of isolation success. The Raptors have been very good in transition throughout the season, but if that gets taken away, they may struggle to score. Often, to win a tight playoff game, you need somebody who can go and get a bucket one-on-one, so teams without proven isolation scorers could struggle to advance deep into the postseason.

This Is A Different Kemba Walker…

By Matt Esposito

I cannot properly articulate how much I’m jonesing to write a 2,000 word love letter professing my admiration of UConn’s finest. But there remains a single soul – Editor Nick – who has the power to stop me and he certainly will. In its place however, is a film-driven, fist-pump inspired article that details how this version of Kemba Walker is energizing the Celtics.

Although I’ve taken a couple night classes at the Bill Simmons School of Athlete Psychoanalysis, I tend to shy away from using it in my basketball diagnoses. Court film and trips to Cleaning The Glass is more my speed. But just this once allow me to indulge myself.

Prior to his stint in Boston, Walker had played in only 11 total postseason contests. Before this season, the last time he had been in a playoff game was when Barack Obama was in office and the Harambe movement was in its infancy of memedom. That’s a long time, folks. Long enough to age me to the point where I want to use the word folks in a blog. Long enough to make an undersized point guard bang bodies with big men and disregard physical safety.

How do I know of this? Walker’s game tape from his first round match up shows a playoff-starved ultra-competitor whose only desire was to play meaningful games once more. So, prepare to feast your eyes on a brand of Kemba Walker toughness that has been dormant since 2016.

When Fouling Is Good

Typically, coaches groan when their star guard catches ticky-tac fouls during high stakes games. Rest assured, Brad Stevens felt happy with some of the calls Walker picked up versus the Sixers.

I was happy too. How could I not be? Walker routinely switched onto players between six and eight inches taller than him and revamped his lateral quickness to bother them. His swatting hands did more of the same. Despite catching some foul calls, Kemba’s aggressiveness and never-back-down attitude galvanized a team missing Gordon Hayward. Walker brings it every night, but something felt different better this time.

This effort will please Celtics fans as the team attempts to progress further into the postseason. Plus, expect refs to swallow their whistles a little more as the playoff rounds continue on. What else did Walker show during this series?

Sacrificing The Body

The common consensus among Boston supporters is that no player sacrifices their body more than Marcus Smart. While that typically holds true, Walker outdid Smart in embracing bodily harm this series.

Philadelphia often tried to get Walker switched onto one of their bigger players. Considering their personnel, this was a scary proposition for the 6-foot guard. Nevertheless, he consistently found himself fighting through screens and drawing charges. The contagiousness of these plays was almost palpable. Plus, Walker drew plenty of offensive fouls.

Even when he got burnt on pick-and-roll coverage, Walker showed his heart. Not only did fighting back to cover Al Horford result in a steal, but it allowed for an awesome inyourface moment when Walker chucked the ball back off of Horford to retain possession.

Yet nothing sums up Walker’s tone-setting more than this next play. After getting knocked down by Joel Embiid, Kemba sprints back on defense to poke away a steal, which leads to a Jaylen Brown dunk. Stevens loved this play so much that he commented on it after the game saying, “that was everything we want to be about, that play.”

Sacrificing The Body Pt. II

For many, the story of Walker’s postseason thus far has centered on his midrange pull ups. Kemba torched the Sixers drop coverage with those vintage shots, proving why he is worth a max salary. I noticed another development, too.

During the regular season, Walker got the free throw line 4.3 times per game. While impressive for a guard of his stature, that rate is not particularly high. Yet, that number jumped to 6.3 during the Sixers series. In fact, is overall free throw attempt rate rose from 27.2 percent in the regular season to 37.3 percent in the postseason.

Walker is flying into defenders more than ever before. The fearlessness it takes to do this cannot be overstated. Perhaps no single play more encapsulates this than one where he fended off the 6-foot-5 Shake Milton for a tough board than purposely hunted out Embiid for an and-1 call.

Check out the bumps he took while driving to the hole to beat the first half buzzer.

Down five during the fourth quarter in Game One of the series, Walker collected another and-1 against Embiid. To do so he took a hard spill onto the floor. Plays like these directly energize teammates and capture momentum. Walker should be lauded for this effort and its positive impact on his fellow Celtics.

What To Expect Versus Toronto

With Hayward still out, expect Marcus Smart to start in his place. Moreover, expect Smart to be matched up on either the somewhat injured Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet. It’ll be interesting to see if Stevens puts the lesser defender (Walker) on Lowry due to the latter not being 100 percent healthy.

Although if Kemba continues his spirited defensive play then the match up may not matter much. Simply put, he was an irritant during the Sixers series. The proverbial wedgie during a long bus ride. The shoddy motel WiFi. The friend who checks your battery to justify why he should be charging his iPhone instead. Yes, there is a new life-force in Boston, and it is a pleasure to watch.

A Step Toward Change

(Associated Press pool photo by Kevin C. Cox)

By Rob Shaw

From what’s been reported, the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to sit out their first-round playoff game in protest came a little before tip-off.

Their opponent, the Orlando Magic, followed suit. This set off a chain reaction throughout the NBA, and all games were postponed on  Wednesday.

This show of solidarity from the NBA players is powerful. All teams agreed to not play, and if an individual player disagreed, it wasn’t leaked to the media; Stephen A. Smith reported that a plethora of players felt blindsided by the Buck’s decision, including the Magic, who weren’t included in the discussions, but were ultimately supportive.

This approach doesn’t work if the players are not unified. The push back Kyrie Irving received when he suggested not playing before the bubble’s inception was because the biggest players in the league weren’t on board. The beautiful, intelligent accomplishment of Milwaukee’s blindsiding forced the NBA as a whole to make a decision under pressure. The consequence was clear: “if you don’t ride with us, you’re going to be a talking point on ESPN, and Black twitter is going to fry you.”

Before I continue, I’d like to address some confusion. 

First: this is not anti-police rhetoric, it’s anti-police brutality rhetoric. Personally, I know good people who put on the badge and actually protect and serve. One of my best friends was a sheriff. My uncle (my mom’s brother) was a state trooper for 20 years, and a damn good one at that. We are not anti-police, but we are wholeheartedly, one million percent, anti-police brutality. Clippers coach Doc Rivers gave a post-game interview and something he said struck a chord with me: 

“How dare the Republicans talk about fear? We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child. What white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over?”

My kids are years away from driving and I think about that conversation all the time. I think about how my parents had that conversation with me.

Second, the protests and boycott are not about one case, one murder or one particular instance of racism. Jacob Blake and George Floyd may be the respective straws that broke the camel’s back, but they are not all we are fighting for. In 1955, it was the murder of Emmett Till that became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till would be 79 today. That’s my dad’s age. My father grew up in the South attending segregated schools. 

Emmett Till’s death didn’t happen millennia or even centuries ago. This is a single generation removed. We are fighting for Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and many, many more. It is difficult to do so when racism is baked into our country’s DNA. 

This hits home in the NBA because it’s a predominantly Black league. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports Tide, the NBA is 74 percent African American and 83 percent people of color. 

Before your favorite player was a multi-millionaire and the face of your favorite team, he was a Black man. You don’t stop being a Black man after you get money and notoriety. The issues that are plaguing the Black community still matter to these gentlemen. If hitting ESPN, Turner, and Disney in their ever-so-deep pockets is the best way the players can attempt to force change, I’m here for it. And if striking against the rest of the NBA playoffs will create significant change or at least start moving society in the right direction? Y’all can keep the NBA if it means my people can live.

Site Owner’s Note: Hear Rob speak more about these issues at The Playgrounder podcast. His insight and perspective was truly enlightening.

Zion Williamson’s Gravity Can Launch Lonzo Ball’s Career

By Matt Esposito

It’s a shame that those two player’s aren’t on the Rockets because then my astrophysics theme would have been complete. We can still get a little nerdy, however, and discuss Zion’s impact on Lonzo Ball’s game.

Lonzo’s 2019-2020 season can be broken down into two segments: Before-Zion (10/22-1/22) and With-Zion (1/22-present.) More specifically, the game log feature on basketball-reference.com was used to pinpoint Lonzo’s stats during these two timelines.

Before-Zion, ball was averaging a statline of 12.1/6.3/5.8 and 1.3 steals per game. He did this hitting a meager 39 percent of his field goals and only 35.5. percent of his triples. During-Zion he put up 11.5/7.9/6.5 and 1.6 steals while raising hit shooting numbers to 42.3 percent from the floor and 40.2 percent from deep, respectively.

Despite Lonzo’s lackluster bubble play, both the Pelicans as a team and Ball as an individual obviously benefited from Zion’s arrival, but how? Conventional wisdom may suggest that Ball’s passing would compliment Zion’s otherworldly athletic profile. Yet, Williamson may be augmenting Ball’s game just as much.

Gravity

At the rate I reference him in my articles, data scientist and hoops lover Andrew Patton may think I have a slight obsession with him. I don’t. But, I am surely head over heels for the way he analyzes the game. In particular, his work on determining player gravity is commendable.

Patton chucked some numbers into coding system and poof, this appeared. Although Giannis has a season long lead in rim gravity rankings, Zion is atop the board when it for a per game basis. In simpler terms, he applies more pressure on the rim than anyone else, consistently drawing the focus of the defense to that specific court location.

To get even more numbersy, Bball-Index.com reported that Zion grades out in the “elite” category for roll gravity by landing in the 90.2 percentile. He also is in the 96th percentile for offensive rebounding and 99th percentile for post play, which demonstrates how he forces defenders to pay attention the the paint. So, how does this boost Lonzo’s game?

Kickout 3s

Like most players, Ball’s shooting percentages from beyond the arc increase the more open he becomes, culminating with him converting 39.5 percent of his shots when a defender is six or more feet away. To boot, he takes three of those shot attempts per game.

Zion is the major factor that explains these wide open shot attempts. He constantly demands help defenders, as can be seen below. Additionally, he possesses the vision to spot open teammates.

During the time of his draft, there were reasonable questions about Lonzo’s jumpshot. His form has been modified, however and Ball is now a reliable catch and shoot player. Still, he can do more than provide wing spacing.

Fastbreak Buckets

Ball’s field goal percentage jumped about four points after Zion became a regular fixture in the lineup. Getting easy scoring chances in transition certainly helps. Both Ball and Zion are turnover creators and New Orleans loves to run whenever they get the chance. Plus, a new head coach hire could make the fastbreak even deadlier.

Zion’s gravity during run-outs is one of the funnest parts of today’s game. You may never see another player command such attention from both twitter heads competing to be the first to upload the highlight video and his opposing defenders. Players wittingly abandon other open Pelicans to double Zion due to is dangerous athleticism. Watch this play out in the two plays identified below.

Not sold on the potency of Zion’s springiness? Oh, you are and don’t require a reminder? Well I wanted to include this Ball-to-Zion lob because I love it and it happens to perfectly represent the ideas I am trying to articulate.

Driving Opportunities

Want to prove how basketball woke you are? Toss out an, “Actually, Maxi Kleber is Dallas’ best rim protector” quip to your buddies. Just don’t direct them to the upcoming video.

After a rejected Zion-Lonzo pick and roll, Kleber is forced into a lose-lose decision. He can stick to Zion and prevent a thunderous lob or contest Ball’s shot but leave Zion open for a jam. The way he leaves the lane open for Ball is a testament to Williamson’s gravity.

Although he misses the layup in the following clip, Lonzo’s path to a bucket is made possible by Zion. Kyle Kuzma doesn’t even look away from Zion because he is still a threat despite standing in the inopportune dunker spot!

To-Do List

As New Orleans mixes in more Zion-Ball pick and rolls, smart teams are going to opt into dropback coverage. In layman’s terms, the man guarding Zion will literally move back towards the hoop as Zion rolls. This should likely give Ball plenty of open midrange looks.

He can do one of two things. Firstly, Ball can continue his attack towards the hoop and force the dropper into a tough decision (ala that previous Kleber example.) Or, Ball can pull up for a midrange jumper. He hits only 26 percent of his midrange attempts, making that shot an important one to develop.

Regardless, Ball has seen a major uptick in play while running alongside Zion. Hopefully, his poor performance in the bubble can be chalked up to immatury; something that can be outgrown with time. Still, the game has truly opened up for him. In fact, the entire Pelicans team has benefited from how Zion alters defensive schemes. Monitor this offseason and trade rumors to determine how New Orleans feels about a long term pairing of Zion and Ball.

2019-20 Rookie Review: Kendrick Nunn Is Still Slept On

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Nick Faggio

Kendrick Nunn entered the league undrafted and unheard of.  It did not take very long for Nunn’s name to be to the talk of the town, however. Nunn scored 112 points across the first five games of the season, setting an NBA record for most points by an undrafted rookie during their first five NBA games.

Now, the former G-League star sits second in rookie scoring (15.6 ppg), and serves as a fundamental piece for Miami’s success. Early in the season, Nunn was atop Rookie of the Year predictions and took the league by storm. More recently, he has dropped to fourth on odds to win ROY (+7500) and is not getting the same initial hype he got early in the year.

So what happened? Was Nunn’s hot start an unattainable average to keep up with? Has Nunn slowed down significantly, and bluffed the league? Or is the outstanding play of Ja Morant and Zion Williamson stealing headlines from Nunn’s dominance in Miami? Let’s talk about it.

Pick & Roll Scoring

In the modern NBA, no play is more coveted than the pick and roll. Nunn is one of the deadliest rookise to operate the pick and roll. The reason for his pick and roll perfection is Nunn’s three-level scoring ability. Especially from the mid-range, Nunn will make defenders pay for giving him breathing room. The rookie is in the 87th percentile for mid range accuracy, due to his ability to run his defender into screens.

Just watch this video to see how Nunn hugs Adebayo’s screens tightly and forces the 2nd defender to make a split second decision. 

Nunn uses his great midrange shooting to strengthen the rest of his game. Defenders know about his top-tier ability to knockdown middies, so he leverages his midrange shooting as a threat to open up driving lanes. Nunn freezes defenders, and opens up driving lanes because the tight coverage they must play. The rookie shows great patience in the pick and roll, and constantly uses a killer crossover to get into the lane for a tough finish.

Like so many NBA guards, Nunn excels in the pick and roll. But, he will need to continue to structure his game around the P&R if he wants to continue to grow and maximize his role as a scoring guard.

Struggling At The Rim

With every great rookie comes faults and weaknesses, and Nunn showcases his fair share. Nunn really struggles with his right hand around the rim, along with decision making in the paint. Nunn is not overly tall for his position (6’2) and not overly strong either. Because of his lack of physical dominance, Nunn struggles finishing against elite rim protectors.

Watch this video below to see how Nunn struggles with right hand finishes.

Nunn is one of the top rookies this year but similar to his freshmen peers, the good comes with the bad. Nunn will improve with his right as he progresses and I can envision him being the starting guard on a champion contender. As the Heat continue to grow around Jimmy Butler, Nunn will be a fundamental piece to bringing an NBA championship back to South Beach. The Heat are not quite yet ready to win an NBA title. As Miami continue to develop their young guys, Nunn will be put up to the test against playoff competition; which will only further strengthen Nunn’s NBA abilities.

Film Analysis: How Portland Unraveled In Game Four

By Matt Esposito

If my 7th grade school year was a Sci-Fi movie, it would have pitted Northern Acne versus the dreaded Shifting Teeth of the South. I was ugly. Or, as my Mima would say, I just had “an unfortunate face.” Still, this wasn’t as ugly as Game Four of the Portland-Los Angeles series.

Hopefully you chuckled at that. This blog won’t bring many happy thoughts. Regardless, despite abdicating my duties for Game Three, I wanted to breakdown this latest contest to bring back some consistency (Click the shiny blue for Game One and Two breakdowns.) Without further ado…

Deep Trouble From The Jump

What’s more unbelievable than me having a girlfriend? The fact that the first quarter wasn’t over before she glanced up from playing Bricks n Balls to mumble, “Why is LA so much better than the white and red team?” Still, there were actually some bright spots from the stanza that will be addressed. But first, the bad.

After running into a Lakers defense that is firing on all cylinders, Portland grew visibly frustrated. Plus, seeing some decent looks rim out doesn’t help. They rapidly descended into hero-ball; a formula that plays right into the hands of Los Angeles defenders.

Portland is at their best versus LA when they make every defender work. This is one of the reasons why I promoted an offensive strategy that saw the ball work through Jusuf Nurkic. Getting him touches in the short roll, post or perimeter transforms the offense into something more free flowing. It also forces the Lakers out of position and into more switches. Hero-ball curtails ball movement and makes LA’s job much eaiser.

CJ McCollum was the only person to touch the ball during that play, just like Dame is the only one to do so in this next play. The stagnation allows for AD to either defend well during the switch or help on a rotation. He did both and Portland suffered.

A rewatch of the first two quarters displays a bevy of isolation plays. These sets can work but become less effective when three to four other Blazers are not moving. Los Angeles had loads of time to prepare for drives and communicate directions to teammates. There were some positive takeaways, however.

Signs Of Life

Terry Stotts is a fine basketball coach, but I have grown increasingly more frustrated with him throughout this series. Frank Vogel’s scheme to smother Dame and CJ is apparent. So far, Stotts has gone all-in on trying to free his two lethal scorers. A pivot towards working through more often Nurkic is not an enticing option, but one which should have been explored further.

Nurk’s touch near the hoop is lovely. Therefore, when LA stunts towards Dame on pick-and-rolls, slipping him short roll passes is a viable option. Nurkic is favored to score when players like JaVale McGee, Markieff Morris or even LeBron James are forced to rotate onto him. A few successful short roll dump offs will pressure Los Angeles to change their pick-and-roll defense and in turn free up Dame and CJ.

Movement during short rolls also creates easy chances. Nurkic is not a great executor (more on this to come) but he must be trusted to deliver the pass. Portland may have no other choice. Watch this dime to a slashing Carmelo Anthony.

This next short roll is so close to completion. Nurkic simply tossed the ball too high for McCollum to snatch it and score. Regardless, I’d rather gamble on Nurkic hitting an open teammate for an easy two than rely upon motionless, lifeless isolation ball.

To boot, Hassan Whiteside can even be deployed as the short roller. Surely, he has no problem throwing his big body at defenders who are late to help.

What To Gamble On To Avoid Elimination

There is a decision to be made. Stotts can keep trying to find way to unleash his two best players. So far this series, LA has made that remarkably hard to do. He could also lean on Nurkic more. Yet, we’ve seen Nurk’s inconsistency to create offense for others.

Conventional wisdom – something I lack – suggests that Stotts should rely upon his superstar to stave off elimination. For quarter one, I’d zig instead of zag. LA has done a good enough job at limiting Dame this series. But, Dame can still shoot Portland into a win. Emphasizing ball movement and pick-and-roll dumps to the Blazers bigs can result in Los Angeles switching the way they defend Dame. The goal is to get him and CJ more space to create and to do so you must give LA a reason to stay closer to Nurkic and Whiteside.

This is easier said than done, however. For every impressive assist Nurkic tosses, he throws out a turnover. Stotts has Nurkic-centered plays ready to call yet, his trust level may not be terribly high. I understand that. But with the way LA is defending his backcourt, what other choice does he have right now?

The backdoor pass was there if Portland was moving with any gusto, but Nurk couldn’t execute and Melo didn’t cut hard with timing. Below, he chucks a pass to Dame that would result in push-ups if this were a summer hoops camp.

Despite these turnovers, it is not difficult to imagine these sets as high scoring chances. Again, I’m not advocating for Nurkic to command the entire offense. Rather, he needs to be involved more often during the game’s opening stages so Dame and CJ can reap the benefits when the Laker’s adjust their defense.

One Last Thing

Stotts must engage in the chess match. Los Angeles can adjust on defense in real-time. Here, a double team against Melo is capitalized on by hitting the open teammate. Portland runs the same set a couple of possessions later and LA adjusts by not sending the double team.

They decided that it made more sense to surrender a contested, midrange two to Carmelo instead of leaving a 7-footer open under the rim. If Stotts has a wrinkle to this play, that was the time to add it. If not, he should consider putting more space in between running the same set. LeBron is too smart and will have his team adjust properly.

What To Expect In Game Five

Keep an eye on the hero-ball theme. Will Dame try to put his team on his back one more time? Will Vogel be expecting this and therefore send even more help at Dame? If so, can Stotts call plays that take advantage of that help? Am I asking too many questions?

Probably. But feel free to drop your expectations in the comments or hit me on Twitter @Mattesposito_. Additionally, listen to The Playgrounder podcast to hear my cohost and I argue for Portland to explore trades this offseason. Thanks!

The Light Blinds All: An Elegy for the Philadelphia 76ers

I’m not what you’d call a fan of the 76ers. Cavaliers man, I am. But there’s a certain kinship that grows between people trapped in the same wasteland, and so many years ago, I connected with the team who shares the record for the longest single-season losing streak with my own. And even after LeBron James scooped the Cavaliers from that poisoned garden, I never forgot the infinite promise of the Sixers’ post-Process future, or the effervescent smile of its first child.

But the light blinds all who see it, which brings us here: The Philadelphia 76ers are gone, swept away by a tempest of green and white, taken their place among the NBA’s departed. (and in the case of Brett Brown’s accent, Martin Scorsese’s Departed). For as long as we’ve known these Sixers, they were defined by their boundless potential. But now, as we’re forced to say a far-too-early goodbye, it’s hard to feel anything but lament.

Even as barren Sixers rosters filled with basketball nomads were getting carpet bombed by the rest of the Association, we found hope in treasure troves of draft picks and cap space, knowing they could turn into anything—and boy, did they ever. The Sixers’ pair of prodigies, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, rewarded dedicated Processors for their faith and helped steward the team to great heights: winning streaks, playoff berths, and more quality memes than most teams generate in a lifetime.

But the Sixers never got to revel in the ass-smacking, Jordan-evoking days of their youth. A power-hungry regime sacrificed many of the white- and blue-collar team members who helped build its wealth and installed new decision-makers—first, the extremely normal-collared Bryan Colangelo, then Elton “Chief Beef” Brand—hoping to conquer the NBA with great haste and vigor. Instead, top draft picks became negative assets, oodles of cap space turned into dead money, and now, the very gifts that should’ve allowed the Sixers to fly have instead chained them to the ground.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ flame burned fast and bright—too much so for its own good, it appears. Of course, in the NBA, death is not permanent. This autumn, the winds of change will gust through Philadelphia, just as they always do—it’s just that this time, all the Sixers can do is hope it’s enough to douse the grease fires burning throughout the Wells Fargo Center.

I’d like to end with a short haiku; I’ve been playing lots of Ghost of Tsushima (if you spoil it for me I’ll be writing your eulogy next) and have caught quite the literary fever. If you would indulge, this is titled “The Sins of Brand”:

Dark clouds rolling in

guided by two albatross

heralding twilight.

With the 1st pick The Timberwolves select

By Robert Shaw

Last Thursday night was the NBA draft lottery. The Minnesota Timberwolves scored the first overall pick for the first time since 2015 when they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.

In 2020, Towns has developed into an offensive powerhouse who might be the greatest shooting big man of all time. HIS CAREER SHOOTING SPLITS ARE 53/39/83. Alongside Towns is D’angelo Russell, the NBA’s youngest All-Star journeyman: 24 years old, five years in the league, four teams, and one All-Star appearance. With the number one pick in an admittedly weak draft, who do you pair with Towns and Russell? The first overall pick should come down to LaMelo Ball, the tall, show-stopping point guard, or Anthony Edwards, the explosive, shot-creating power guard. 

From a pure talent perspective, there’s nobody I’m higher on in this draft than Lonzo’s brother and Lavar’s youngest son, LaMelo Ball. LaMelo is 6-foot-7, can pass (6.8 assists per game in Australia’s NBL), handle, and has The IT factorTM that draws fans and teammates alike to him. He shot just 25% on 6.7 three-point attempts per game (I know, gross), but I believe for a few reasons he’ll be an average NBA shooter at worst. For one, some of his three-point percentage problem comes from his shot selection. LaMelo often takes deep threes, but he lacks the shooting touch to justify them—think Damian Lillard’s shot selection with Charles Barkley’s conversion rate (26.6%). This is a product of having the greenest of green lights everywhere he’s ever played, from Chino Hills to Australia and all stops in between. Secondly, while his form isn’t quite UCLA Lonzo broken, it could certainly use some love from a shot doctor. The concerns with his shot mechanics are his elbows flare out and less concerning are his low set point and tendency to fadeaway. Most importantly I believe in him as a worker. (Say what you want about Lavar—and I’ve said plenty—but he raised WORKERS!!!) LaMelo is a player that will put in the time to get better and perfect his craft.

Even after all that LaMelo talk, I think the best player for the Wolves to draft number one is Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. Edwards isn’t far behind LaMelo in the talent department, and is a more natural fit next to Towns and D’Angelo Russell. In most circumstances I’m a take the best player available and figure everything else out later type of guy, but the Timberwolves are in a unique situation. Towns is the franchise player, and LaMelo seems like a very awkward fit with Towns’ best friend and new running-mate, D’Angelo Russell. In a regular situation, trade Russell; A Russell-LaMelo-Towns defensive core is asking for a team to score 200 points. But considering the assets Minnesota gave up to get him (a top-three protected 2021 pick and 2021 second-round pick) along with the fear of upsetting Towns, it’s just not worth the risk for a franchise who’s played a grand total of four playoff games since KG left for Boston.

The Ball/Edwards talent gap isn’t far off. Besides fit, Edwards has a lot going for him. He’s built like a Greek god (6-foot-5, 225 pounds). He’s an explosive scorer who can really pour it on when he’s rolling (ask Michigan State; he dropped 37 on them, including 33 in the second half!) He’s more scorer than shooter, and for someone with his physical build, he can fall in love with the three-ball—a problem considering he converted just 29% on almost eight attempts a game this year at Georgia. Edwards’ jump shot form is structurally sound, and he has the shot-creating ability you look for in a potential franchise building block. So why was his three-point shooting percentage so low? Like LaMelo, the issue is shot selection. Edwards took a lot of pull up threes as well as off the dribble threes. Given a different diet of shots—particularly more catch-and-shoot opportunities that come with not being the focal point of opposing defenses—his three-point percentage should rise.

A major concern with Edwards is his tendency to float through games without making his presence felt. In Minnesota, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing short-term. A Russell and Towns pick-and-roll should create clean catch-and shoot-opportunities for Edwards, as well as the chance for him to attack closeouts and do things like the below video. The dunk in the video below wasn’t against a closeout, but it came off a dribble handoff and got him moving downhill in the half-court. Downhill Edwards is scary.

The Timberwolves were a team that severely lacked wing shot-creation until D’angelo Russell (12 games played with the Timberwolves) and Malik Beasley (14 games) arrived at the trade deadline. With Beasely set to be a restricted free-agent this offseason, if he and the Wolves can’t agree on a dollar amount, Edwards can step in and replace the scoring punch Beasley provided at a much more team friendly price for the next four years.

 Overall, Edwards’ offensive pop along with his shot-making potential should be too much for the Wolves to pass up. If you were the Timberwolves how would you handle the number one pick? Ball, Edwards, someone else, or even a trade?