By Adam Spinella
I Love Willy Hernangomez – Knicks fans are in a somber mood as of late, realizing the time spent in the playoff picture early in the Winter was a fallacy. The roster has imploded, Porzingis has stabilized in his performance, the drama surrounding the organization has detracted from improving the on-court product, and Phil’s return to an insistence on the Triangle offense is warping the way they evaluate current and future players.
One bright spot, amidst all the turmoil, has come in the form of rookie Spaniard Willy Hernangomez. Making the most of extended time without Joakim Noah, Willy looks to be a long-time backup big man or even a serviceable starter in the NBA.
Since January 25th, Hernangomez has been the anchor down low for the Knicks. Averaging less 24 minutes per game, Willy is averaging 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds, shooting 54 percent from the field. More impressively, Hernangomez averages 1.9 assists per game, with only 1.1 turnovers — great numbers for a rookie with such a low usage rate.
The Knicks won’t call many plays for Hernangomez, and he doesn’t need them to be successful on offense. He’s a frequent screen-setter, and a willing one, that works to get his teammates open. Within the Triangle offense, the main tenet of the Knicks’ attack that Phil Jackson has reasserted his emphasis on, Hernangomez often spaces on the opposite block and can find tip-in opportunities. Having an offensive piece that does those little things and doesn’t need the ball to be effective is vastly underrated from an organizational standpoint, and a former coach like Jackson should covet that from an executive standpoint.
Hernangomez has the athleticism and deftness that catches you by surprise. On the perimeter when trying to persuade guards not to attack him, he looks aloof and like he’s about to trip over his own feet. But as Willy gets driven on, he deftly keeps the ball in front of him and throws up his arms to contest without fouling, closing even the tightest of windows that skilled guards can score through. He’s not a vertical shot blocker, but can stay with guards and force them towards the short corner, or at least challenge their attempts at the rim.
Phil Jackson and his posse (see folks, we’re topical!) have a lot of sorting through the details to do. They need a point guard, and the Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose experiments have been chided as failures of the organization. Finding those bright spots to keep optimism afloat is important for the fan base — Hernangomez has emerged as the best bet behind Porzingis for future building blocks. Now it’s up to the Knicks to utilize both in ways that allow them to grow together.
February Stat Nuggets – Some intriguing statistical measures to examine from the month of February, now that it’s wrapped up.
- The league’s fifth leading scorer was Andrew Wiggins, and he did so efficiently. In February he averaged 28.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting, going 32 percent from three.
- Speaking of leading scorers, Atlanta’s top scorer in February was (brace yourself, Knicks fans) Tim Hardaway Jr. He averaged 17.5 points while shooting 38.6 percent from three. So why is Atlanta still floundering? Dennis Schroder (21.1 percent from three) and Paul Millsap (26.3 percent from three) combine to take more attempts from three than Hardaway. The aggregate three point total from those three in the month? 45-for-146 (30.8 percent). That’s too low for a team’s top three scoring options.
- Welcome back to the rotation, Brandan Wright! The oft-injured big man for the Grizzlies has made his triumphant return to being an incredibly efficient backup. Wright led the team shooting 57.8 percent from the field, pulled in four offensive boards per 36 minutes, and was third on the team in real plus-minus. His presence also adds a shot blocking threat, neutralizing the speed Zach Randolph cedes when facing other 4-men on the perimeter.
- In thirteen games, Glenn Robinson III shot 61.9 percent from three with 1.6 attempts per game. That’s pretty absurd, but not as absurd as Kyle Korver shooting 58.9 percent on more than SIX attempts per game. Seriously, he’s Cleveland’s third best weapon right now.
- Bradley Beal had an insane month for the Wizards, helping them to a 7-3 record. Beal led the Wiz with 25.5 points on wondrous shooting splits (53.1 percent from the field, 45.2 percent from three). The five starters for the Wizards combined to average 93.4 points per game in the month, by far the highest output in the league for a starting group. Of all reserves to play at least five games, only Jason Smith averages more than five points per. The Wiz have made two big upgrades to their bench, especially in the backcourt, and we’ll see if it pays dividends in lightening the insanely heavily load their starters carry.
- Steven Adams has a really odd rebounding trajectory. He led the league during the month with six offensive rebounds per game. That number, one rebound per game higher than last year’s season leader in offensive rebounds Andre Drummond, shows Adams’ value on the offensive end. Yet Steven, frequently guarding the pick-and-roll or challenging shots at the rim, only pulled in 3.3 defensive rebounds per game. For a team with so many strong perimeter defenders that can pressure the ball and take away driving lanes, Adams’ pure lack of defensive rebounds is mystifying. Might have to do some digging as to why that is.
- Carmelo Anthony had a negative assist to turnover ratio, averaging 2.8 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game. This coming in a month that Kristaps Porzingis only had one double-double. Yeah…. the Knicks are floundering in the playoff race.
Why 2017 picks are so useful – You saw very little movement at the trade deadline revolving around first-round picks, and there are multiple reasons why. The talent pool stands out to almost any scout, executive or fan as the deepest in many years. Point guards and wing/forwards are the two most well-stocked positions, but the amount of mid-tier big men is overwhelming. Coach Nick did a fantastic breakdown of the two top point guards Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball this week and why they could very well be transformational stars.
After evaluating and getting a better feel for the ball park that their team will be picking in June, each executive has begun to formulate a game plan to get exactly the type of player they need. It’s why the Knicks have begun a tank project to get a higher draft pick where they’ll have a greater chance at snagging a franchise point guard, or why the Kings have doubled-down on lottery picks in a year where they’ll need two studs to reload their team. It’s easy to point at those two teams for mishandling their transactions recently, but in their action (or inaction) a direction has been set.
Beyond the players in the draft themselves, this is the last draft year where rookie contracts can provide some much-needed cap flexibility. As reported by Basketball-Insiders, the rookie scale contracts will begin to raise (or lower) themselves in accordance to the annual fluctuation of the salary cap starting in the 2018-2019 season. Next year and 2018 will see the gradual increase to that level of up to 45 percent — meaning draft picks in 2017 are a smaller portion the cap than they will be in future years. For greater talent and a final chance at a discount, it’s no wonder no teams were able to get deals done at the deadline that included first-rounders.
Jahlil Okafor, Sixers Starting Center – By the fortuitous stroke of luck, Jahlil Okafor has gone from being muscled out of the Philadelphia rotation to becoming their starter for the rest of the year. Last week, the Sixers dealt Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks, seeing the writing on the wall that keeping Noel would cost them a shot at a free agent this summer. On Tuesday, it was announced that Joel Embiid would miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. Now Okafor is in prime position to be the man in Philadelphia and the number one scoring option.
Throw the ball into Okafor and you know he’ll get you a bucket. One on one, or even one on two, in the post is where the young Duke product truly thrives. Huge hands encapsulate the ball and swallow it whole, giving him the ability to zip passes quickly or get the ball into a shooting position when defenders think it isn’t. His crafty sense of feeling contact, absorbing it and manipulating around it are savvy beyond his years. His spin move is one of the best in the game in the low post, combining quickness with floor awareness.
For every good play Okafor creates on offense, there’s something embarrassing on the other end of the court. These embarrassing mistakes show his disinterest in playing defense, moving his feet, thinking, breathing or doing anything other than taking a mental nap. The latest case of an issue came this Wednesday at Miami.
Not a care in the world. Okafor is a highly touted offensive threat that certainly has potential to contribute at a high level in the NBA. But seeing this type of effort and engagement more than negates that offensive prowess. It might have been best for Okafor’s game to sit on the bench and remain a backup big man, sending the message that plays like this simply won’t fly. Instead, those bad habits will continue to be reinforced as he takes the floor for the Sixers with no resistance to getting minutes.
Denver’s New Number Threat – It’s time to play America’s favorite basketball game show, the Blind Resume Game! Take a look at the three players stat lines underneath, and see if you can identify who is who, and which one you’d want most. All stats are per 36 minutes and from this season. And I’ll even give you all a hint — one of the players is a Denver Nugget!
Player A: 19.0 PTS, 2.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.6 TO, 0.9 STL, 43.8% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 42.9% corner 3
Player B: 17.6 PTS, 3.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.5 TO, 1.5 STL, 48.5% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 50% corner 3
Player C: 13.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.5 TO, 0.8 STL, 47.4% FG, 45.5% 3FG, 54.4% corner 3
All pretty good shooters, for sure. Player A is a volume scorer with high percentages from three, but has a very low assist to turnover ratio. It appears that Player B not only has the best assist to turnover rate, but plays the best defense and is the best scorer in two-point range. Player C is the best shooter, but has a lower usage rate — and a high turnover number for that low rate.
Player A is J.J. Redick. Player B is Gary Harris of the Nuggets. Player C is elite three-point threat Kyle Korver.
That’s right, Denver has found a real stud in Gary Harris — a player that might be their legitimate number-three option at all times. He’s a great shooter — at the level of the elite names in this game Redick and Korver, while having a great balance between interior shooting, creating off the bounce and defense.
Harris won’t blow anybody away with his athleticism (likely because he’s an undersized 2-guard), but he is quietly very efficient and gets to the rim when he needs to. Better yet, according to NBA.com, Harris shoots 48 percent from three on passes from star Nikola Jokic. Their chemistry is a huge key to Denver’s run this postseason and beyond.
Balance, But With A Leader – I never really get caught up in conversations of “who scores the ball” for any given team. There are so many ways to get quality looks and shots based on your roster. Obviously a team with more scorers will get each of them easier shots, but likely will result in less opportunities for each individual. Vise versa, a team with one great scorer can still will himself to score, but must work harder to compensate for the lack of scoring around him.
Currently, of the 16 teams slotted in the playoffs if the season ended today, two of them have six scorers averaging double figures. That’s a great amount of balance. On it’s face, with more than a third of the playoff teams having this designation, it seems like balance on offense is a recipe for success. But take those two (Denver and Detroit) into account. Neither of them have a leading scorer over 18 points per game. In fact, both teams only have one averaging more than 15 a night.
By contrast, every other playoff team save Atlanta has at least one 20 point per game scorer. The Hawks have two player above 17 points per game, and bolster the league’s fourth-rated defense to make up for their scoring woes. It appears that too much balance is a bad thing, or that at least it isn’t a recipe for an ascent towards the top. A true number-one scorer that can get a bucket when needed and reliably get 20 to 25 points a night is key for success.
Waiver Wire Exposes Successes, Failures of Deadline – Moves and transactions don’t come to a halt at the trade deadline, with ripple effects pulsating outward for weeks following the post-All-Star Break circus. Every year, players get waived or bought out as part of the deadline, and they end up somewhere. Chinese season comes towards a close, and some veterans across the pond jump back into the fray for signings. D-League players become preferred targets over some cheap, expendable veterans that struggling franchises employ. There’s always some movement within the first few weeks after the deadline.
That period, more than a rush to grade every trade deal the night of the deadline, is most telling for which teams really struggled or flourished in their transactions. Look at Oklahoma City, who traded three fringe pieces for two contributors who help their team immensely right away. The roster space created was filled by the signing of Norris Cole, arguably an immediate impact upgrade over Cameron Payne. Cole has NBA Finals experience, is a pesky defender and knocks down open threes. That makes a swap of Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott a slam dunk. The trade looked good for Sam Presti, but it looks even better when the Thunder use free agency and their roster spots the right way.
A team like Cleveland, who signed Deron Williams and could snatch up Andrew Bogut after clearing waivers, didn’t need to make a deal at the deadline. GM David Griffin added a backup ball handler without giving away an asset, proving that patience is more valuable that rushing to get a deal done. Cleveland (and, to be fair, other contenders) have the allure of grabbing the recently-released veterans, even on the cheap. It’s the best way for many top seeds to improve their roster without selling the farm (especially if they lack invaluable draft picks or hefty trade exceptions). The Cavs, once Kevin Love returns from injury, will feature a second line of Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye and Andrew Bogut — a lineup that, two years ago, would have been a great starting group.
Brandon Jennings not getting traded by the Knicks is one of the few failures at the trade deadline, as the Knicks greatly struggled to find an apt replacement or any conditional trade value for Jennings on the market. It’s hard to believe that no offer was out there for a scoring backup guard like Jennings, especially when so many playoff contenders are missing a point guard. The Knicks were one move silent at the deadline, but cemented their status in removing themselves from the playoff picture and preparing for the draft and next season by releasing Jennings. Phil must have known this was the course of action just three days prior at the trade deadline; more than likely this is a failure on his part to construct a proper deal.
Other teams like Orlando cleared the way to give heavier minutes to their highly-touted youngsters. The internet hoops community had been clamoring all season for Frank Vogel to free Mario Hezonja, allowing the 2015 first-rounder to play heavier minutes and prove his worth as a building block. While Hezonja can shoot the three ball (a welcome upgrade over their spacing-poor unites with Aaron Gordon at the 3), he’s simply not a very well-rounded or reliable basketball player. Hezonja has multiple turnovers in five of his last nine games, and has been the pinpoint of success or failure on defense to the Magic. Since Feb. 4, when he returned to the lineup, the Magic have lost four of their nine games by 24 points or more. Hezonja just looks lost out there, lacking the mental aspect of the game that is necessary.
Required Reading – A great feature on the unsung hero in Memphis known as JaMychal Green, Nikola Mirotic is shooting at a rapidly improving rate and might not be as bad as he’s played, the great Scott Rafferty returns with a look at how Klay Thompson gets open when using screens, the Spurs might be better off keeping Dewayne Dedmon as their starting center for the rest of the year, our Nick Sciria sneaks a peek into Nerlens Noel’s role with the Mavericks, ripple effects of the Kevin Durant injury could send shockwaves across the West, and a look by Chris Reichert on the upside possessed by Suns rookie Derrick Jones Jr.
Sets of the Week
Let’s go back to an oldie but a goodie here, a set the Warriors have run and dominated on out of timeouts because of their insane shooting prowess. The Warriors start with two big men around the free-throw line, the other wings in the corners. They speed into a guard to guard exchange under the basket, hitting one of them that comes ball-side. The other, who exchanged with him, sets a back screen for the player at the opposite elbow. Because the Warriors have so many shooters, more often than not this ended up being an open layup.
It’s hard to understand just why one play works, even when scouted, over and over and over. Steve Kerr rarely runs Cyclone multiple times a game, saving it for when he really needs it for a reliable bucket. We’ve never seen any counters or really what happens if the layup isn’t available because the Warriors always score on the damn back screen. This week, as broken down by Ryan Nguyen on Twitter, we finally may have seen what happens.
Mavs Elbow Curl Lob
From the beauty of Rick Carlisle’s playbook, here’s a set he runs once or twice a game to try and get a quick alley-oop attempt. Looking like the pitch series (and ready to flow into their Mover Blocker action), the pitch man Barnes will simply curl around the ball-side elbow and go directly for the rim. A good passer will recognize the opening on the weak side, throw the lob if Barnes gets a step on his man and get Dallas two easy points.
Lob plays from such a high angle like this should have no reasonable expectation of working. But defenders cannot help themselves and chase a shooter around these elbow screens without fighting back to the inside to protect the lane. Big guys can’t help but stand with their chest on their man at the elbow, giving no help and making them virtually useless as a help defender. Barnes makes a killing in these actions.
Pelicans 45 Pindown
Everybody is wondering about how DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis will perform together, and what sets Alvin Gentry will run to get the most out of them. Here’s one example that Gentry had been running for Davis when he’d been the power forward, playing with another big (either Asik or Motiejunas).
Davis starts in the short corner, and the Pelicans clear out that entire side of the floor, putting two shooters in the opposite corner and low-wing. A guard will have the ball on the opposite side, either the wing or the elbow, and as the other guards cut towards the strong side, the ball handler’s attention is all focused on Davis. The center comes over, sets a down screen for The Brow, and Davis curls towards the rim.
It’s an easy read for Davis as he comes off the curl and sees three shooters flowing in front of him. Feel an extra defender behind him and he can kick it behind to a wide open big man. With Cousins in that spot, Boogie can pop to the perimeter after setting the down screen, giving Davis more room to come off that curl or throw it back for an open shot.