An Observation A Day: Opening Week

With a new NBA season upon us, I decided to push my limits and really commit myself as much as possible to covering the entire league. In order to do that, I decided to hold myself accountable by starting a weekly column for Last Out Media in which I give one interesting observation per day about something I saw that night. So, without further adieu, here is the debut column of this weekly in-season series.

Jarrett Allen Passing Out Of The Short Roll

The Nets center has survived with an archaic identity at the height of an evolving big man game by owning and mastering his skill set. Allen is a nimble monster with a knack for setting real screens (lots of bigs have mastered the ‘poke the butt out and fake a screen’ screen) and then diving to the rim. He uses his overwhelming wingspan to keep the ball high and stuff the rim with ferocious dunks out of the pick-and-roll. He also uses that wingspan and height to affect the glass off of missed shots.

On Tuesday night, Allen showcased a new addition to his game. A career-1.2 assister (assistee? Anyone know?), Allen has wracked passes up as a shuttler transporting the ball to shooters off of pin-down actions. But, there might be a new special sauce to taste:

What you’re seeing here is Jarrett Allen reading the defense perfectly after catching the ball on the short roll. With Kevon Looney electing to step up and contest Spencer Dinwiddie despite Eric Paschall having no screen slowing him down from catching up to Dinwiddie, Allen is given the space to roam towards the rim without resistance. Dinwiddie sees his big slipping to the rim, and lobs it between the two defenders, giving Allen the ball in the middle of a vacated lane. Stephen Curry, realizing Looney’s ill-advised decision has left the lane open with no help, is forced to slide over and put at least some degree of pressure on the big man on his way to depositing free money. Curry having to frantically sprint over in help turns Allen into a playmaker with a decision to make. He can either cock back and make a highlight, or he can drag Curry over past the point of recovery, and kick to his shooter. He chooses the latter.

What should be understood is that Allen, at nearly 30%, had by far the highest frequency of pick-and-roll plays run for him as the roller of all players to log minutes in at least 70 games last season. He averaged almost 1.4 points per that possession type, and had a scoring frequency just under 70% on that play. His free throw frequency was nearly 20% on such plays. In non-nerd plain English, Allen could almost lock in points on plays in which he was targeted rolling to the basket. Combine that with turnover frequency and and-one frequency, and Allen was basically always going for the score as the roller. However, that makes it quite easy for defenses to scheme against him. They can elect to change up their help assignments so that Allen faces more pressure off of the catch, or make sure their big knows not to show on the screen or over-commit to the ball-handler. With Allen adding some court vision to read the defense and make the above pass, he adds an element to his offensive game that can strain defenses’ decision-making. The personal perk to Allen is that he becomes a more versatile option that rookie head coach Steve Nash can plug into a variety of lineups.

The Russell-Edwards Dynamic

I have long been fascinated by what a lineup featuring Towns, Russell, and Edwards would look like and how that trio works together. Russell is a high-level scorer with gifted court vision. Even with his sometimes-painful shot selection, Russell possesses the skills to be a credible lead guard. Karl-Anthony Towns is the versatile offensive big who has developed into a perennial all-star candidate, even with sub-optimal defense. The pair were the first and second overall picks in the 2015 draft, and the Wolves just drafted Georgia wing Anthony Edwards first overall. That makes a trio of top-3 picks all under the age of 26. Clearly, there is reason for optimism with Minnesota’s young core. There is no denying, however, that the Russell-Edwards pairing in the backcourt is awkward, at least right now. Seeing as Edwards was the first overall pick, one would think that Ryan Saunders and the Minni brass would like to eventually promote him to starter status. Seeing as D’Angelo Russell is earning a bit below a max contract, Glen Taylor would presumably like that money in his starting lineup. Yet, on opening night, Minnesota started neither Russell nor Edwards. Both came off the bench, within possessions of one another.

What makes that decision even more bizarre is that both are more effective with the basketball in their hands. Russell’s efficiency on pull-up jumpers was almost identical to that of his off-the-catch jumpers in 2019-20, with a frequency on pull-ups nearly triple the height of his catch-and-shoot attempts. Meanwhile, Edwards scored fewer than .86 points per possession on catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half-court in his sole season of college ball. That was good for just above 30th percentile. Neither is particularly efficient off the ball, but the Timberwolves flashed what those sets might look like with Russell and Edwards sharing the floor.

Here, Russell and Towns run a snug pick-and-roll (for those who don’t know, ‘snug’ means that it’s below the break and closer to the basket, so there’s theoretically less room to operate) with Towns finishing off of the smooth pass by D-Lo. Edwards stands in the corner and watches the play unfold without really engaging in any productive activity. Sure, he’s a rookie; rookies are going to do that as they try to figure out their roles and how they can fit within the offense.

There are a couple things Edwards could’ve done to demonstrate a more involved dynamic within the Russell-Towns two-man game. One option would be to set a screen for Jake Layman to slide into the corner for an open triple. If Towns’ vision senses the shooter in the corner (based on the number of times he hit diving cutters in the post, he can make that play), it’s an open three-point look. Another option would be to wait for the helper to rotate to the rim to perturb Towns. Since it should be the weak-side defender closest to the block, that should leave Edwards a lane to burst to the rim from the baseline. If KAT makes that read, Edwards is weaponized just by cutting hard, and the defender caught in the middle has to choose the lesser of two evils.

Zion Williamson and Eric Bledsoe In Off-Ball Pick-And-Rolls

By no means am I endorsing the claustrophobic presentation that is Stan Van Gundy starting Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Steven Adams. Bledsoe does shot, but is not good at it unless he takes a running start into his load-up. Adams? He’s not even looking at the rim unless he’s within an arm’s length of it. Ball? Sure, he showed an ability to connect consistently on high volume. Same goes for Ingram. Nonetheless, there is reasonable cause for confusion. The Pelicans gave Ingram a max extension this offseason, but they also have to build in a way that weaponizes Williamson’s superstar capabilities and minimizes his shortcomings. The overlap of needs in building around the two young stars is quite simple–shooting and spacing. So, naturally, Bledsoe and Steven Adams were the perfect fits.

There is an important distinction to be made between what spacing and shooting look like and what the Pelicans currently have. The Miami HEAT, their opponent on Christmas Day, has spacing and shooting–multiple volume snipers whose credible threats legitimately stretch lanes to enable playmakers to attack. The Pelicans have players who are high-efficiency three-point shooters, but defenses are happy to live with them flinging from deep if it means cutting off the lanes for Ingram and Williamson. The only reputation worth worrying about is JJ Redick, a high-volume, high-efficiency sniper. New Orleans rosters a number of capable three-point shooters–that’s why they were top-10 in the league in attempts, makes, and percentage last season. But, they don’t pose much threat of any specific player making, say, 5 threes on a game-to-game basis (besides Redick).

So, how does this work? How can the Pelicans manufacture a breathable offense with very little legitimate spacing around Ingram and Williamson? Well, there are some interesting wrinkles they can run similar to this one from Christmas Day:

Stan Van Gundy cooks up this action on the right wing to draw attention away from Williamson. Adams and Williamson run a staggered screen set to get Bledsoe curling off the ball. Adams immediately dives to the rim in case a dump-off opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, the off-ball pick-and-roll makes Adebayo feel that he has to cover for Herro taking too long to fight through the Williamson screen. To prevent Bledsoe from getting downhill off of the curl, Adebayo stays on Bledsoe as if it’s a switch, but Herro never tags and switches onto Williamson. So, the two are effectively double-teaming a bad shooter off the catch on a pick-and-roll in the midrange. The lapse in judgment enables Williamson to roll to the rim unattended and puts Bledsoe in a position to make a play for him. Bledsoe times the passing window beautifully, and it’s a relatively easy basket despite minimal spacing.

I will need some convincing to believe that this starting unit is a viable option for the Pelicans over the course of a long season. The spacing simply isn’t going to be there as teams get more comfortable with their defenses and develop chemistry after such a minimized offseason. This, however, is an interesting wrinkle that Van Gundy can keep in his back pocket to manufacture offense in a half-court environment.

The Hornets’ Sad Pick-And-Roll Defense

I shall start out by saying that I don’t expect impeccable defensive intelligence from a team whose average age is younger than I am by a sizable margin. But, this team’s pick-and-roll defense must improve dramatically if they’re going to vy for a play-in game. Through two games (yes, sample size matters), the Hornets are giving up a league-leading 1.86 points per possession ending with the pick-and-roll roll man getting the rock. That’s almost a guaranteed bucket. That value should come down with repetition and experience (it would be comical if it doesn’t), but the lack of intelligence on those plays thus far is, to put it bluntly, appalling. Take a look at this play from Saturday night:

PJ Washington is ready to greet Theo Maledon, a second-round rookie making his NBA debut, right off the screen as if he’s a veteran playmaker at the point guard spot. That questionable positioning in the pick-and-roll allows Mike Muscala to slip to the rim unattended. That defensive possession would normally be salvageable because help-side defenders should be sliding over to bother the roller. However, there’s a communicative failure and a lack of instinctual development, and the Hornets decide to enable a big man to roll through a vacated lane for a dunk instead of making a rebuilding Thunder team make shots from the perimeter. I would also like to commend Maledon for his intelligence on this play. While he should be able to make the pass over the top, he doesn’t feel comfortable enough to do so at this point in his development. That’s perfectly fine. He elects to rifle the ball over to a more experienced teammate, who reads the roll and hits the cutting Muscala.

Like I said, it’s still very, very early in the season. But if the Hornets make habits out of plays such as this one, that play-in game is going to become a lofty expectation.

Expect Randomness This Season

For the final act of this column on the opening week of the 2020-21 NBA season, I will offer some words of advice. Don’t live and die with every win and every loss that your favorite team encounters. Don’t overthink it. Take an appropriately-sized aggregate to cast judgments. What we need to understand, as observers of the NBA, is that this season is is quite unique and unchartered, even if it features no bubble (right now, at least). From championship to opening night, this is the shortest offseason in league history. The draft took place a month before preseason, and free agency was active just three weeks before tip-off. Give teams time to adjust, learn, and come together.

This week, we saw the Mavericks beat the Clippers by more than fifty points after losing to the Lakers by more than twenty. We saw the Nets lose to the Hornets after stomping the Warriors and Celtics. The Bucks lost to the Knicks. The Sixers lost to the Cavaliers. Embrace randomness, and enjoy the ride that will be the unprecedented 2020-21 NBA season.

Featured Image: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today

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