By Adam Spinella
We’re at the All-Star Break! It’s the official pause just beyond the half-way point of the NBA season, and it provides a much needed rest for players, coaches and team personnel. Those who do the least amount of resting are those in the front offices, scrambling to prepare for a trade deadline less than a week away. We don’t rest here though — we continue to provide some perspective on what ails the floundering teams and what is propelling others to success.
Charlotte’s Kaminsky Issue – Turn on any Charlotte Hornets game and you’ll see a very underwhelming Frank Kaminsky try to be crafty to combat his lack of athleticism. The Hornets envisioned Kaminsky as a stretch big man, spacing the floor in pick-and-pop situations or on corner threes due to his superb outside shooting. Mid-way through his second season, Kaminsky registers at 32 percent from deep for his career, and only 32.7 percent on corner threes.
Mistakingly, defenders still rush at Kaminsky on the perimeter to shoo him off the line as if his reputation is backed up by evidence of strong outside shooting. Lacking foot speed, Kaminsky must either get past these poor closeouts and make something happen quickly, or use an array of face-up post moves to free himself for a shot. The result is a dizzying multitude of pivot moves and pump fakes, spinning and whirling to hopefully create a window to score through. It’s almost like he’s paid by the pivot.
When Kaminsky tries to speed through his moves or use a fake-spin to throw off opponents that suspect his craftery, things rarely end well for him.
Kaminsky was plugged into the starting lineup while Cody Zeller missed a few games due to a quad injury, and the Hornets have slowly incorporated Miles Plumlee to the team’s rotation. Frank shot well from three at the center spot, with a little more timing to release his shot and spacing around him with Batum and Marvin Williams at the wings. But Kaminsky as center shot only 5-for-19 from two-point range in those games he started at center, a dismal rate that assuredly makes Clifford think twice about plugging him in at center.
Charlotte has leveled out their production, and their frontcourt jumble of mediocrity is the focus of that discussion. Without Cody Zeller this season, the Hornets are 2-13. In Zeller’s absence since the Jan. 25, Kaminsky has shot 36.3 percent from the field and 27 percent from three. This is the same Kaminsky that the Hornets reportedly turned down four potential first-round picks to select. Charlotte’s big issue: a small market club that has struck out on draft picks their past few seasons.
Trade Analysis – Two trades went down this week before play for the trade deadline paused. The Plumlee for Nurkic swap of the division rival Nuggets and Blazers, as well as the Magic shipping Serge Ibaka to Toronto for Terrence Ross and a pick.
The Blazers – Nuggets deal is curious in many ways: two teams competing for the same playoff spot trying to help or hinder each other’s chances. It’s also strange that a first-round pick changed hands within the division. For Denver, I actually like this deal. Their roster is chocked full of young players, and the Nuggets have struggled to reach the salary floor this season. Seeing so many young pieces they want to keep playing, GM Tim Connelly gave up a first-rounder he didn’t need and a backup big man that didn’t fit within the skeletal structure of their new team to get the perfect backup big for their offense. Plumlee can really facilitate the offense off the bench the same way Nikola Jokic can, and is great insurance if Jokic gets hurt. Denver has the space to re-sign Plumlee this summer as a backup and not feel strapped by overpaying a backup and getting close to the cap.
Portland has the opposite problem with their cap. After two straight summers of retaining all their youngsters, the hard cap left the small market Blazers unable to maneuver their roster with much flexibility. Mason Plumlee, a restricted free agent come July, had a price tag likely too large for the Blazers to match without moving a ton of pieces or paying a hefty tax bill. Trading Plumlee now for a first-rounder and a cheap Jusuf Nurkic that’s still on his rookie deal is the right cap move for Portland. Sure, it does very little to improve their team defense (if anything — Nurkic is really bad on that end of the court and the Blazers somehow managed to downgrade at the deadline). But Portland now has three first-round picks in a loaded 2017 draft, the ideal way for them to replenish the roster without cap space.
Toronto made an aggressive, buy-now move on the same day Kevin Love’s surgery was announced. Despite a drop in the standings over the last six weeks, Toronto is only a handful of games behind Cleveland for the top spot in the East and sees this year as their best opportunity to topple LeBron. Ibaka gives them an ideal fit on offense and defense next to Jonas Valanciunas: a stretch-4 on offense and a rim protector on defense. Now Toronto’s frontcourt (Valanciunas, Ibaka, Bebe Nogueira and Patrick Patterson) is the strength of the team, and Norman Powell eats up most of the minutes created by Terrence Ross’s departure. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri knows there’s some inherent risk in taking on an impending free agent, but the Raptors have to see themselves as frontrunners to re-sign Ibaka. The salary bill will be quite large next season with Ibaka, but this is the aggressive roll of the dice that a team in Toronto’s situation has to take.
There are a few ways to look at Orlando’s inevitable parting from Serge Ibaka this month. The value they recovered straight up for Ibaka (Ross and a first) is pretty good for an expiring. A longer view, when encapsulating just how much they gave up to get Ibaka (Oladipo and a first) paints GM Rob Hennigan in a more negative light. In nine months, Hennigan essentially swapped Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the 2016 11th pick for Terrence Ross and a 2017 late first-rounder. Ross is a good loot for the Magic, and his arrival not only gives them another scorer, but hopefully pushes Aaron Gordon back to his natural position. Orlando is a mess right now, lacking a lot of assets to build around. Judging this trade depends on how they use the first round pick. Nothing makes up for the heinous trade that brought Ibaka to the franchise, but this is a solid reconciliation.
Attack-mode Exum – The Jazz have one of the most well-rounded, veteran-laden teams in the league and are skyrocketing up the standings as a result. Utah has a fairly firm grasp on the four-seed, but still has a few points to figure out with their rotation. Mainly ruffling the feathers of the organization is exactly what Dante Exum gives them as a playmaker or a scorer.
The return of Alec Burks has put Exum off the ball a bit more within their equal-opportunity attack, as Coach Quin Snyder preaches a Spurs-like style of player and ball movement. Burks has been more effective as the focal point of the second unit’s dribble handoffs and ball screens — leaving Exum on the wings as a 30 percent three-point shooter flanking their big men. What value did he really bring?
Snyder seems to have told Exum to be more aggressive with the ball when he gets it, as Exum and Burks essentially share these ball-handling duties. There are plenty of plays where Exum takes the ball the length of the court — even after a made basket — before the defense can set up and tries to get the ball laid in. Even when he catches on the wing and tries to go toward the rim, he’s putting his head down and slashing towards the rim with his blinders on.
This season (essentially Exum’s second pro season after missing all of last year) Exum takes nearly half his shots within 10 feet of the basket, up from 23 percent his rookie campaign. Looking at assists as a measure of his improvement as a point guard is misleading: that’s not the style the Jazz play, allowing one guard to always be creating for others. Exum has a lot of “hockey assists” as the lead guard due to defenses starting to key into his aggressiveness — he swings the ball to the weak side and the Jazz prey on a two-on-one to get the right look.
Utah is a great re-penetration team, with plenty of good passers, shooters and decision-makers. They still rely on someone like Exum with the explosiveness to be able to get the defense discombobulated by a simple drive to the rim.
The Jazz are trying to maximize Exum’s minutes by giving him the green light to drive aggressively and finish. He may be a one-trick pony that scores by driving to the rim, but that type of effectiveness (especially with tons of shooters on the second unit, like Utah has) should allow Exum to hold off Shelvin Mack for playing time. Not the ideal statement to make about a former top-five pick, but that’s where we’re at with Exum.
Offenses around trade deadline – Scouting heads, listen up. General managers and coaches make a tradeoff for a few weeks just after the NBA trade deadline: they will sacrifice a large portion of their playbook in exchange for the uptick in talent that fits their team’s needs. Incorporating the team’s new acquisition into the lineup means simplifying the playbook — simple ball screens or standard actions, a few half-court sets and inbound plays, one uniform ball screen coverage on defense.
Studying those few sets and coverages used during the period immediately after a trade could gives teams a leg up on what type of offense or defense they’ll employ during the postseason. Think about it… right now, the Nuggets are trying to teach Mason Plumlee a brand new offense with tons of play calls. Watching for the types of plays that coach Michael Malone calls when Plumlee is in the game early into his Denver tenure could illuminate the types of sets that Malone envisions his team running in the postseason — what is most important for Plumlee to know?
The trade deadline period is a great period for watching for this, as teams have a much sturdier idea of their identity than they do at the beginning of the season. Watching training camp sets and preseason games can show their initial style, but teams change drastically during the course of a regular season. Denver is a great example of that. Golden State, the current one-seed in the West and team most likely to face the Nuggets if they sneak into the playoffs, should take notes on what sets the Nugs are running over the next few weeks.
Brett Brown’s Arduous Task – The Sixers head coach has been through some situations as a first-time head coach that few others even dream of going through. Philadelphia’s unique vantage point thanks to the whole tanking thing has put Brown’s leadership to the test, integrating mismatched pieces with young talent nowhere near ready for major NBA minutes. This week, Brown faced a unique test: reintegrating a player in the midst of trade rumors.
In less than a week, Jahlil Okafor has been pulled from the lineup due to trade talks, withheld from traveling with the team, and then rejoined the team for Wednesday’s game in Boston. The toll on Okafor with all that uncertainty is obvious, and no matter the opinion on Okafor, your heart has to feel for a guy being yanked around like this for months with his name on the trade market. The other man with the difficult task: Brett Brown, reintegrating Okafor into a locker room that not only wrote him off, but won’t see the value in playing Jahlil over other teammates if he’s on the way out.
Okafor logged 17 underwhelming minutes in a loss to the Celtics Wednesday, upholding everything within his reputation. Okafor’s defense was putrid on the interior, and his offense was only effective when used as the focal point. Someone certainly will trade for Jahlil — he’s too talented to sit on the bench somewhere and has untapped potential worth taking a risk on paying up for. But he requires a lot of coddling and building around to truly be maximized.
The real story here is that Brett Brown deserves a Medal of Honor for all he’s dealt with as a head coach for the Sixers. Someone erect a statue already… he’s a saint.
Rudy Gay Effect – Once again, we’re seeing the bizarre effect known as the Rudy Gay Effect: teams that experience a spike in winning when Gay stops playing for them. The Grizzlies had it after trading Gay to the Raptors. Memphis was one of the top teams in the West immediately after. Toronto had the same after unloading Gay on the Kings, a top-four team out East ever since.
Sacramento is having a spike of their own, even without getting a player back in return for Gay. The Kings are 8-8 without Gay, a step above their season winning percentage. That includes season-defining wins over teams such as the Warriors, Celtics and Hawks. Ball movement and defense are desired and this league, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that despite Gay’s talent, most teams are better off without a player of his mentality.
Enjoy All-Star Weekend – Even if you’re a crusty curmudgeon like me who would rather robotically watch for what sets the coaches run than a highlight clip of dunks and dribble moves, this is a much needed break from the chaos. Enjoy it, in whatever way a basketball fan can. At the very least, it’s a return to the childhood memories and desires we all once had, practicing the three pointers in the driveway as if we were in the shootout, or lowering the rim and pretending to dunk like MJ. This is the pinnacle of fandom — without fans, the type of coverage us sport nerds enjoy wouldn’t be provided. So soak it in, grab a beer, be a kid again. Let the magic of sports work on you.
Required Reading – The New York Knicks did this to themselves, Jay Patt mentions the Bulls have an issue with Doug McDermott, Bryan Colangelo is making no friends due to his secretive injury report policy, Tom Ziller looks at NBA expansion, an unbiased and fair look at the draft profile of polarizing college player Grayson Allen, a sit-down with Sean Marks on what it’ll take to rebuild the Nets, the NBA has some pretty insane travel rigors, and a unique profile of Rajon Rondo and his unique stardom.
Sets of the Week
We’re going into the wayback machine this week, diving deep into the San Antonio Spurs playbook and their variety of uses of the Hammer action. A staple of Gregg Popovich timeout sets, the Hammer is designed to prey on teams that rotate in help defense. We rarely see it at lower levels of basketball for the precise timing, great screening and insanely difficult pass that needs to be made in order for the play to work.
The ball starts on the wing and drives baseline, forcing help to come from the lowest opposite man. The offensive player that man is guarding goes to set a back screen for a shooter to drift to the corner. The ball gets slung along the baseline to the open shooter. Generally, it looks like this:
Popovich does a lot of great things out of the Hammer action — here are four great actions he’s run to get a shooter open in the corner off of this Hammer action.
BS Deny Hammer
Scoring in a Hammer action almost always occurs on the weak side: the three from the corner or the screener slipping to the rim when too much attention is paid to the shooter in the corner. Because of that, the easy part of the play is putting a shooter on the opposite wing and a screener beneath him ready to screen. The difficult part is freeing the baseline for a drive that forces the help defense to converge.
This “BS Deny” action is usually a fairly standard action to do so — no matter the type of ball screen defense. If the driver (often Ginobili for the Spurs) is on the wing, the Spurs will fake a side ball screen for him hoping to get a high hedge and lift all defenders on the strong side away from the rim. From there, Ginobili’s only job is to jab his man towards the screener, and then it’s a speed move towards the rim.
Defending side ball screens with ice doesn’t necessarily take away the action, either. It tasks a big man with cutting off a guard with a full head of steam from driving to the rim. While “ice” encourages a baseline drive, it plays right into the hands of the Spurs when they run a Hammer set.
Popovich really misses Boris Diaw for this action. Great passing big men are assets in the Hammer action because the play design doesn’t have to work to clear the lane for a baseline drive. Instead, the timing is the most important part of the play. Diaw will catch in the pinch post or the low post, and turn his head towards the middle of the floor. His hope is simple: get his defender to shade towards the middle.
Diaw then will spin baseline, and by the time he spins and takes one dribble, the shooter must be open in the corner. If the shooter goes too soon, his man might be able to recover in time to challenge the shot off the Diaw pass. If the shooter goes too late, Diaw is stranded and the help defender will likely retreat to close the passing lane.
You see in the two video examples how the timing comes into play. In the first example against the Blazers, the timing is impeccable, as Diaw fires it to Patty Mills in stride. The example against the Wizards ends up getting the Spurs a three, but is much clunkier and susceptible to being blown up by an aware defense.
Zip Leak Hammer
The Spurs run a ton of zipper cuts, or cuts directly up the lane line to the perimeter, and building a Hammer action around the zipper series accomplishes the task of raising all guards from the rim and opening up a baseline drive.
Knowing Popovich, he needs to add a little more pizzaz and false action to lull the defense to sleep. His solution in this set against the Nets: a guard-to-guard cross screen at the elbows. The shooter sets the screen, freeing up the passer to make a catch and hopefully have the ability to turn immediately towards the baseline.
We then see the next principle of the Hammer, as Kawhi Leonard raises on the court to take away any help from the strong side on the baseline drive. As Duncan’s man goes to help on Ginobili, Duncan sets a massive screen to spring Danny Green free to the corner.
When all cylinders are clicking and the Spurs can sprint into this Hammer action, defenses have practically zero way to combat it. The swirling, sprinting, misdirection and back-side screening of their Hammer sets truly is a thing of beauty.