By Adam Spinella
New Team, New Nurkic – Depending on what side of the ball you watch, you may think differently of the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent trade for Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic slides in as a brutish post that scores and surprisingly is a skilled passer, playing with a hell of a high level of confidence at all times. He’s also a poor defender on a team devoid of interior defense. Both have been on full display in his seven games with Portland. He’s averaged 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists, while the Blazers have won three in a row and four of their last seven.
Case in point for the mix results with Nurkic: Portland’s game this past Tuesday against the Thunder. The Bosnian Bruiser put up a line of 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists while the Blazers were outscored by 21 points when he’s on the court in a game they won by five. That includes two big buckets in the final minute that helped the Blazers break away and close out the road win. Ask any coach and they’ll tell you the same thing: all 48 minutes matter, so while the late-game heroics are nice, he did a lot early that hindered the group as well.
To be fair, it was the first game of his in a Blazers uniform where his plus-minus was subzero. Nurkic on the whole has been excellent for the Blazers, scoring in the interior and passing the ball efficiently from the high and low posts. He plays well next to Lillard and McCollum, and has shown a knack for getting to the free throw line. As opposed to Mason Plumlee as the team’s center, Nurkic can’t get pushed around by physical posts in one-on-one play. Playing four athletes around Nurkic has helped their defense apply pressure on the perimeter, knowing they don’t have to dig down on the post in isolation situations. He’s anchored a defense that, statistically speaking, rates among the tops in the league with Nurkic on the floor.
It’s the pick-and-roll defense that has and continues to hurt both the team and the player, and it creeped into the fold on Tuesday night against the Thunder. Nurkic has never been known for his foot speed, but the effort he gives to try and corral a ball handler off the pick-and-roll has been his biggest drawback. Even in a scheme where soft or no hedges take place against ball screens, the least a big man can do in that situation is to get a hand up and contest the jump shot once the guard rises up. Nurkic doesn’t even go that far. It’s part of the reason why Russell Westbrook, a pick-and-roll oriented guard, was able to put up 56 on the Blazers.
Nurkic is no worse than any of the big men that Portland has trotted out on defense against ball screens. What he gives the Blazers at the other end though has been a gleeful surprise. Nurkic has massive oven-mitts for hands, palming the ball with ease. Now he’s utilized those frying pans hands to whip passes into tight windows. His court vision and ability to drop passes into tight windows as a roller are particularly impressive. Nurkic doesn’t need to take a bounce or a second or two to gather himself to make the correct read — he’s got soft hands and quickly faces up to find the right passing windows. I’m not sure anybody saw this coming when they acquired Nurkic in Portland.
There’s no question Nurkic was unhappy with his role in Denver and the way the organization phased him out. In Portland he’s quickly shown that he’s a legitimate starter in this league and deserves to be an important part of their team moving forward — and his attitude and energy level have been greatly improved. Is he enough to get the Blazers over the hump and into the playoff this season? Portland has 12 of their final 20 games at home, and 13 remaining against teams with a sub-.500 record. The schedule is in their favor… will the defense be?
Phoenix Suns Youth Revelation – Hey, what’s gotten into the Phoenix Suns? They won three games in a row earlier this week, including clutch game-winners against the Celtics and overcoming a Russell Westbrook game of 47-16-9. So what exactly has been their recipe for success?
Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alan Williams.
Yep… a 5’9″ rookie and two undrafted youngsters have keyed the success for the Suns over the last few weeks. Of the 15 most positive three-man lineups the Suns have used in March, all except for three include one of the three rookies. The lineup with all three on the court at the same time, logging about twelve minutes per game together, has been a plus-sixteen. Only one other lineup (Ulis, Williams and Jared Dudley) has played more minutes.
Expand that to a four-man lineup, and the Ulis-Dudley-Jones-Williams grouping has played more minutes than any combo for the Suns in that time span. It’s a plus-twenty-six together, playing at a slower pace but maximizing their utility in the half-court. Leandro Barbosa, the most frequent fifth wheel in their unit, has only helped alleviate the burden on the rookie Ulis in terms of creating shots for others.
It’s a small sample size, but Ulis has been red hot over the first four games of the month. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 55.6 percent from the field. Alan Williams (14.0 points, 12.5 rebounds) has been stellar on the interior and has proven why the Suns took a risk early this summer to lock him down.
Sure, the Suns have a lot of high-lottery youngsters that are key to the team’s superstar development in the future. But the bench guys are stepping up, and Earl Watson is learning to play them in situations where they can and will succeed. Their energy, aggressiveness and ability to thrive within their roles has given Phoenix a quick surge over the last week or so.
Big Regular Season Wins – It’s rare that a regular season game has a ton of meaning for teams in ways other than jockeying for seeding. For Utah, they got a huge win for their confidence and prominence moving forward on Wednesday, beating Houston on the road.
Why was it such a big win for the Jazz? Heading into the game, their record against the other top five teams in the Western Conference was 2-5, not a very good rate for a team that’s vying to host a first-round series this Spring. Five games remain against those top teams (two against the Clippers, two against the Spurs and one against the Warriors) with only seven total home games remaining. If Utah wants to hold off the Clippers for the four-seed, or prove that they can contend with the big boys out West, a few more wins against this group of teams is vital for their confidence.
Terrence Ross Time – Orlando is toying with young players as potential go-to scorers, or at the very least, threats to stretch the defense. After all, the Magic have been devoid of a legitimate go-to threat as their primary perimeter scorer for years (no disrespect, Evan Fournier or Arron Afflalo). In his first two weeks with the Magic, Ross has looked overwhelmed in all the situations that Vogel has placed him in — ball screens, isolations, three point shots. He’ll make plays out of them all, but the turnovers or lack of confidence has led to T-Ross being wildly inconsistent of a scorer.
One prime example of the potential that exists comes from this silky step-back, high-arching shot over a contesting defender.
Ross has the ability to be a big-name scorer, and the Magic are banking on an incline in his consistency once he gets his feet underneath him and acclimates to Frank Vogel. Plays like this are one of the bright moments in an otherwise dull Orlando Magic season.
Legit Wizards – Per Dan Steinberg on Twitter, the Wizards are the first team in NBA history to be fifteen games above .500 after starting the season 2-8. What does that mean? Well, the Wizards have gone 36-16 since the — which would equate to a 56-win season. That’s what the Cavaliers are currently on pace for as the Eastern Conference’s one-seed.
It’s not always pretty in Washington, and some financial maneuverability doesn’t exist to both keep the red-hot Otto Porter and improve their bench. But the Wizards cannot be overlooked right now. Bogdanovic gives them a legitimate scorer off the bench, and Brandon Jennings will work his way into the rotation. Don’t sleep on Washington this Spring.
Pels Struggling – I hate to say “I told you so”, but the Boogie Cousins trade isn’t showing the immediate dividends that so many expected. Yes, New Orleans now holds the two best big men in the West on their own roster. But chemistry is difficult to come by, and the Pelicans are 2-6 since acquiring Cousins due to the lack of understanding both have to play with each other.
As our own Dan Clayton has illustrated, Cousins and Davis can’t get out of each other’s way on the court. Cousins isn’t suited to come off screens and dribble handoffs, barreling down the lane at a slow speed that allows defenders to recover and help defense to stay home. They rarely hit the hi-lows, aren’t fast enough to attack a switching defense when they screen for each other, and haven’t learned how to anticipate where the other will be.
The other reason I wasn’t a huge fan of the trade, and why the Pelicans are losing: guard play. Their roster is completely bare of rotation-caliber guards and wings that provide the appropriate playmaking and spacing around their twin towers. Cousins and Davis are capable outside shooters, but the hi-lo’s and dual threats on the blocks only work when guards and wings are respectable from three. Multiple actions out of the pick-and-roll can maximize their utility as well, and right now the Pels only have one strong PNR guard that can play anything resembling defense — and Jrue Holiday can’t do it all himself.
Similar to Portland, the Pelicans have a favorable schedule down the stretch. Only Golden State, Houston and Utah are 40-win teams on the schedule, and they have all four competitors for the eight-seed on their home court before all is said and done. But Alvin Gentry, a renounded space-and-pace coach, has struggled to adjust to playing two dominant big men at the same time. With little in the way of guard play and a bloated, big roster, things have to change quickly in the Big Easy in order to see a first round playoff matchup.
Indy Block Party – Who are the top three players in the league in blocked shots per game? Rudy Gobert leads the league, and is an obvious choice. Anthony Davis, as the athletic freak and superstar he is, makes for another name that doesn’t surprise to be on the list.
The third? Sophomore Myles Turner for the Pacers, averaging 2.1 blocks per game. That’s more than Hassan Whiteside, Kristaps Porzingis or DeAndre Jordan. Even better, compare Turner’s per 36 minute stats with Porzingis, one of the most infatuated young players due to his “unicorn” status, and I think you’ll come away impressed with Turner.
Turner – 17.7 PTS, 8.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 2.4 BLK, 1.1 STL, 51.8% FG, 35% 3FG
Porzingis – 20 PTS, 7.9 REB, 1.4 AST, 2.1 BLK, 0.8 STL, 44.8% FG, 37.2% 3FG
Coach Nate McMillan is struggling to keep the Pacers buying in on defense, and the overall flow of the roster is a mess — everyone seems to be playing uncertain. None of that should dissuade fans from taking solace in the fact that Myles Turner has quietly been one of the best young big men in the league — and his future might be the most important development for the Pacers’ future.
Remember Khris Middleton? – The Jabari Parker injury sucks. There’s no two ways about it. What his absence, and the melancholy mood around Milwaukee are currently masking, is the fantastic play of shooting guard Khris Middleton so far this year. Through his first eleven games of the season, Middleton is hitting an absurd 48 percent of his threes, getting to the free throw line at the highest rate of his career and sliding perfectly into the Bucks’ ultra-aggressive defensive scheme. Consider his per 36 minute numbers of 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists — some of the highest numbers for a wing that shoots as high a percentage from three as Middleton.
Milwaukee is making a good push for a playoff spot in the East, and Middleton’s value might be understated in their ascent. He could push them over the hump this season to the playoffs, while we still have a year from now to look forward to Giannis, Jabari and Khris manning the wings for the Bucks.
Required Reading – Recaps from last week’s Sloan Analytics Conference (both Day One and Day Two), 16 Wins A Ring‘s Keith Smith with a deep dive into Arvydas Sabonis and his impact on the game, John Wall and the Wizards are finally firing on all cylinders, a look at the best overall prospects from the D-League and the best catch-and-shoot wings, the utilization of the rim on reverse layups helps Isaiah Thomas get free looks, how teams combat Floppy action and the best counters (from Coach Zak Boisvert), the Warriors unsung hero on offense is the great passing by David West, and our own Reinis Lacis on the outdated two-center lineup.
Sets of the Week
This week we’re looking at some of the best post-up sets, designed to utilize player and ball movement before the entry pass to create space for a post scorer to catch the pass cleanly. Post-ups are still the most consistent way to get a layup close to the basket or play inside-out and punish a defense for collapsing by kicking for wide open threes. As such, every coach has a few calls up their sleeve to get a designed post-up away from traffic and with time to survey the defense for the right method of attack. Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets has some of the best plays to attack once the ball goes inside-out.
Charlotte Post Curl 5 Clear
First, an old set from Clifford when Al Jefferson was with the Bobcats and they heavily relied on him to get post-ups for offensive creation. The more a coach relies on playing through the post, the more creative he must get with designing post-ups. Simple cross screens do the trick, but getting both the cross screener and the entry passer a little bit more space from their defender is paramount to ensuring success.
Here Clifford starts Jefferson on the block opposite where he always loves to post up — the left offensive block, so he can dribble middle with his strong hand. A wing sets up on the opposite block, with another wing setting up behind Jefferson. The second wing wheels through, looping tightly around the block opposite Jefferson. He’s the cross screener.
The wing who starts on the block pops out to the perimeter as soon as he is curled around. That creates a circular movement between the two of them, sucking in each defender towards the pain. As they separate, Jefferson readies his cut, going under the screen and the defense to get to the block.
You’ll notice that once Jefferson gets the ball, that entire side of the court empties out. The entry passer wheels through, and that entire third of the court is Jefferson’s to work. If a double team comes, it’s easy to see because it takes time for the doubling defender to get there. Big Al, who is not known for his stellar passing ability, now has a simpler read to dish the ball to his teammates.
Hornets Baseline Double Cross Clear
Teams that scout Clifford’s actions will see that wing-on-wing curl action happening on the block, and either switch it or jam them as they come through. To counter, the Hornets simply remove the curl from the action, making it a simple double cross screen. Gerald Henderson, starting on the block, sets a cross screen for #44 Jeff Taylor, which isn’t curled. Taylor becomes the entry passer, and hoping that Taylor’s defender stays on the low side anticipating a switch on the curl, Henderson wheels to set a cross screen on Jefferson.
Same principles apply here: Taylor wheels through after passing into the post, and Jefferson has the entire side of the floor to read. An important cut here is the one made by Cody Zeller for the basket. Zeller does a nice job reading the double team and seeing his man turn his chest towards the ball. It’s common practice for the opposite big to dive to the rim when a post-up occurs, since it puts pressure on the help defense to sink if they double off the other post. Great hard cut from Zeller, and lazy defense from Kyle Singler, give Zeller an open layup.
Hornets Go-Ricky Slip
File this under the section of post-ups where the man in the post is being used as a passer. Honestly, Spencer Hawes with Draymond Green on him? Probably not the play design for a score the Hornets were looking for. But Golden State is slow to recognize, and the Hornets get exactly what they drew up out of a timeout in this set, which I’ve fanboyed over before in these posts.
A speed cut by Nic Batum gets him open to get a simple entry pass into Hawes in the post — it works because no defender in their right mind would front the post on Hawes and take away such a low option. The set attacks Golden State’s switching scheme off the ball by re-screening on the perimeter above the level of the ball. Marvin Williams flares for Nic Batum, then re-flares for him to the strong side. Williams slips the second when he notices the communication from Durant and Iguodala gets botched, and has an uncontested shot at the rim as a result.
Defending screening actions on the perimeter is difficult when the ball is inside. Usually players are taught to keep themselves between the ball and their man while keeping inside position on both to protect the basket. That’s hard to do when the ball is on the wing — especially in a switching scheme. As the screens occur, both Durant and Iguodala are sucked farther away from the basket to contest their man and get through the screen. Unfortunately for Golden State, the weak side falls asleep and Williams drops it in for two. The post is not just for scoring — dangerous passers out of the low post are a nightmare to defend.