We are through a full week of the 2020-21 NBA season. The 2020 segment is now complete, and now we are onto the 2021 side of this unique season. I start this week’s observations with a Blazers lineup with devastating potential. Then, I fawn over the Suns’ snipers’ wingspans and how they help create spacing. After that, I examine how the Nets weaponize Joe Harris with simple actions. I cross the New Year’s threshold with a look at a maddening play by Ben Simmons. Then, I head into the long weekend with a spotlight on Stephen Curry’s incredible motor. Finally, I bid you adieu with a genius put-back dunk from Richaun Holmes.
Shall we get started?
Blazers Give CJ An Open Dance Floor
I won’t sit here and bore you with some hilariously inflated micro-sample-sized statistic that cannot possibly be maintained over an extended period of time. Eh, fine, I will. The Blazers’ offense is fun as hell–I think we all knew that, given that the team has Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But on Monday, Terry Stotts introduced a lineup that was incredibly fascinating. With Lillard on the bench and the Lakers going semi-small (Harrell is a small whose game matches that of a big), the Blazers rolled with McCollum, Gary Trent Jr, Rodney Hood, Derrick Jones Jr, and Enes Kanter. At a basic level, that is two guards, two small forwards, and a center. Kanter controls the boards, and the other four frantically swarm the perimeter looking to disrupt passing lanes, create steals, and generate transition opportunities.
They do that because they are the quintessential death lineup. Trent Jr, Hood, and Jones Jr stretch defenses to their limits. That spacing on both sides of the lane gives McCollum the ability to dance on the perimeter. If he can turn the corner, the help is in no man’s land. The shooters lock and load, and McCollum makes a play. If he can’t–if Kanter’s screen can’t free him enough to get downhill–that’s fine as well. CJ has remarkable touch:
Jones Jr is not a great shooter by any stretch. His role can be filled by Robert Covington in different lineups. But, Jones is an intriguing fit with this group because of his athleticism. If defenses overplay in help or step up to take away McCollum’s lane to the rim, Jones can slip behind and cut hard. From there, he can jump over anyone to make a play on a high pass towards the rim. If McCollum pressures the rim with an aggressive take, or another Blazer goes for a finish, Jones can crash the glass and generate tip-outs or put-backs.
This lineup has played just five minutes together, but it has generated a net rating of +75.5, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 (which is impressive given a five-minute sample), a true shooting percentage of 62.3, and a pace that is second fastest of all Blazer lineups to play at least five minutes thus far. This is a lineup that fits together, it plays fast without committing a litany of turnovers, and it generates fouls from the opposition. Again, a micro-sized sample. But, this is a lineup that checks a number of boxes in a modern NBA offense, and it is one that Stotts should experiment with as this season plays on.
The Suns’ Shooters’ Catch Radiuses (what a phrase)
The Phoenix Suns are third in the NBA in three-point shots made off the catch per game. They are second in the league in triples attempted off the catch per game. The Suns roster two elite offense generators in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, so they aren’t lighting the world on fire in passing (tied for tenth in the NBA in assists per game). Sure, Paul is a sensational–hell, legendary–passer. He’s not really hurting the assists numbers. I’m not even saying that the Suns not setting the world ablaze in sharing the basketball is necessarily bad thing. But for a team that actually moves the ball very well and makes a ton of shots off the catch, the assists numbers should be higher. Nonetheless, the Suns are making a killing by slinging the rock across the court to shooters in spot-up position. They’re crippling defenses with back-breaking skips to the weak-side to completely unattended shooters, and they’re making the helpers pay for their commitments:
The Suns have three players averaging more than three assists per game. But the neat part is the team’s combination of selflessness and size. The primary catch-and-shoot candidates–Booker, Crowder, Johnson, and Saric–all have neutral-or-positive wingspans. They have incredible catch radiuses that essentially make them enormous moving targets on the perimeter. Their quick, high releases necessitate that defenders be within breathing room to contain the damage. The heart of the intrigue is that the lengths and skills of their snipers actually create flexibility for Phoenix’s playmakers. They can sling passes from the strong side to the weak side and it’s game over. Help defenses have to be meticulous on the strong side because one step too far could prove fatal. That enables Paul and Booker to operate with space without the tease of pressure collapsing on them as they attack.
It’s a new era in the Valley of the Sun, and the light shines brightest on the Suns’ offense.
Joe Harris Wrecks Teams With Simple Off-Ball Movements
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have shown up and left very little to wonder. Heck, there really wasn’t much left to wonder anyway. Even if the achilles injury were to visibly affect Durant the remainder of his career, he’s so skilled that he’d still be a star even at a fraction of what he used to be. The reality has been that he’s been as loose, explosive, and dangerous as he was prior to that fateful night in Toronto. Everyone assumed the duo would inflict damage. What has been particularly deflating for the opposition has been the activity away from the ball that makes defenses have to work before even facing Durant and Irving in isolation. Joe Harris, in particular, has surgically tortured opponents with his activity.
Harris is having the most efficient season of his career from beyond the three-point arc. Over half of his field goal attempts are coming off the catch. Just under half of his three-point attempts come in the same context. Harris is connecting on 57.1 percent of his three-point looks off the catch. Overall, the University of Virginia product is knocking down 51.1 percent of his attempted triples–by far the highest mark of his career (of course, the sample size is 5.6 attempts per game through 8 games this season). The glorious factor in all of this is that Harris places third on the Nets in distance traveled this season, at 2.27 miles. Given that Durant and Irving are largely isolation-dominant player, it is no surprise that they lead Bed-Stuy in distance traveled. But, it is quite remarkable that a player in Joe Harris’ role could rank so highly in that metric. Really, it’s a testament to how Harris and Brooklyn’s other tertiary scorers fit into the offensive system around the two stars. Steve Nash has the other three players (four, if Durant and Irving are staggered) creating tension within the defense with distracting movements away from the basketball. Defenses are scrambling to fight through flare screens, recover from back-cuts, and rotate to protect the paint from close-out attacks. Amidst all the chaos, the Nets are getting open triples from Harris, LeVert, Luwawu-Cabarrot, Shamet, and Prince. If the offense doesn’t naturally flow into a bucket for one of them, that’s fine. Durant and Irving are happy to get creative. The Nets’ utility of Harris, and using the focus on Durant and Irving to manipulate what the defense gives, has been nothing short of beautiful:
The Hawks are going small here with John Collins and Danilo Gallinari presenting as the bigs in this lineup. De’Andre Hunter is guarding Irving, with Trae Young starting the play on Harris. To confuse the Hawks in their pick-and-roll coverage, the Nets deploy Harris as a ball-screener. They then follow that with a Jarrett Allen flare to create a ball-screen-flare-screen action. The Hawks fail to communicate on the ball-screen, resulting in Trae Young thinking he’s supposed to switch onto Irving while Hunter thinks he’s supposed to go over the screen to stay with the crafty ball-handler. The lapse in communication causes Young to close on Harris far too late, and it’s a money ball from the top of the key. There are a number of layers that this play can evolve to, as well. Harris could draw Collins over to help, leaving Luwawu-Cabarrot open on the wing. Or, if Gallinari leaves the elbow to contest, that opens a lane for Allen to dive. If Harris hits him, it’s an easy dunk off of the roll. If the weak-side block helper rotates over to stop Allen, it’s a rifle over to the corner for a wide-open Durant. All of that can evolve from a couple screens. This is a really simple action that can create a world of problems for a defense, and the Nets are using these types of plays often to torture defenses.
Ben Simmons Isn’t Processing Mismatches
As someone who directly covers the Sixers on a day-to-day basis, this one is particularly maddening. Ben Simmons, as good as he is–and don’t let fools tell you he’s not good–has moments of devolution in evaluating mismatches. He’s likely never going to be much of anything as a shooter, but that doesn’t mean he cannot identify and manipulate smaller or slower defenders. In fact, if shooting isn’t going to become part of his game, consistently and fearlessly devouring the favorable obstacles in his way to get to the rim and put pressure on interior defenses is a must. I will give him a bit of a curve as he learns his new teammates and figures out where his opportunities will come within a new offense–whether you want to give Simmons some breathing room or not, there has undeniably been a significant degree of turnover for the 76ers over the last six months. In fact, no team in the NBA has experienced turnover to the degree that the Sixers experienced it this past offseason. Admit it or deny it, but expecting every player to be perfectly comfortable within a new offense in a matter of seven games is silly.
Thus far, Embiid and Harris have found their strides as two of Philly’s ‘Big Three’. Simmons still has a ways to go, and his numbers reflect it. He’s averaging just over 13 points per contest, and he’s connecting on just over 50 percent of his field goal attempts. For someone who rarely looks at the rim unless he’s within five feet of it, that is alarming. His assist numbers haven’t supplanted his scoring either, as he’s only averaging 7 per game. Simmons could up his scoring simply by identifying these opportunities and exploiting them:
Dwayne Bacon is 6-foot-7 and 221 pounds. Ben Simmons is 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds. As you can see on this possession, Bacon is not getting overly physical with Simmons. In fact, he gives the impression that he’s not especially interested in sparring with Simmons in the post. Instead of exploiting that opportunity with a quick burst to the left for a finish at the rim, Simmons opts to settle for a slight hesitation before penetrating the lane right above the restricted area and flinging up a righty hook shot. As I’ve hopefully conveyed to this point, this is not a good use of a possession by the fourth-year point forward. More alarming than that, Simmons seems to have devolved in his identification of and exploitation of those mismatches:
Now, there is some context necessary here. The above clip is from a playoff game in Simmons’ rookie season. He improved from the first ten games of his career to the first round of the playoffs as a rookie. He also historically has slow starts to seasons, and his scoring typically picks up after the first calendar month of play. But, he’s in his fourth year. Ben should recognize the face of the player in front of him, immediately register how that player is at a disadvantage, and go to work. A righty hook fading away is unacceptable when there was an easy path to a finish at the rim. While the 6-1 Sixers are off to the best start in the league, they have holes. Simmons maximizing his positive impact in a half-court offense is and always has been one of them. By gravitating away from finesse aggressiveness and towards efficiency and line-drive aggressiveness, he can make the Sixers’ offense significantly more difficult for the opposition to contain.
Steph Curry’s Motor Needs No Oil
Simply put, my goodness. Steph Curry is averaging 32 points per game with the third-best true shooting percentage of his career (64.5) through seven games this season. He’s also posting more than 6 assists per game despite his team connecting on 44.4 percent (bottom ten in the NBA) of their field goals when he’s on the floor. More important than that, his team is above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2019 regular season. This past Sunday, he scored a career-best 62 points (there will be an observation from that game in the next edition of this column). Those feats may not even be the most impressive takeaway of this season thus far for Curry. Rather, his ability to sustain his energy and operate at a high level deep into the fourth quarter of play is quite confounding. I mean, just look at this:
Curry begins the possession lurking behind a Trail Blazer as he prepares to set up off-ball. Then he curls around the Wiseman screen to square up for the pass, and then starts to dance upon catching the ball. Realizing that his options are slim with Covington and Kanter converging after he clears Jones Jr, he opts for a reverse pivot to square up for what figures to be a floater. Except, he stops on a dime to bait contact. Once he feels Jones Jr collide with his body, he flips up the trick shot and gets it to go.
The amount of effort Curry has to give to create open looks for himself is comically excessive. Defenses know his legend, and they’re prepared to let anyone but Curry beat them. His production to this point, despite being the first, second, and third priority for defenses is bordering on science fiction. It is a testament of how incredible his motor is, especially for a 32-year-old point guard with a history of injuries and years of deep playoff runs to put wear and tear on his body.
Richaun Holmes–Go Off, King
I will leave you with a short one. This play is equal parts brilliant and exciting.
There are a pair of Rockets around Richaun Holmes waiting for Glenn Robinson III’s layup to dictate their next actions. The shot is off, and a battle for the board ensues. Holmes, sensing that he is sandwiched by red jerseys, decides to use his vertical athleticism to his advantage. He spikes the basketball off the backboard hard enough so that he can catch and assume total control of the ball. Once he secures the rock, Holmes waits patiently for the Rockets surrounding him to come down from their impulsive jumps to protect the rim. Once gravity sucks them back to the floor, the Kodak cameras come out for Holmes.
Simple, fun, and brilliant.
Featured Image: Steven Ryan/Getty Images