By Adam Spinella
Rookie of the Year Dario Saric – Move over Joel Embiid, because your teammate has played so darn well lately that the question about your dominance during your brief 30-game stretch won’t factor into Rookie of the Year consideration.
Consider this: since the All-Star Break, Saric has averaged 20.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The kid is good, and definitely has potential to be a playmaker for the next decade in the NBA. Philadelphia is almost solely dependent on him and Jahlil Okafor for offense right now, and Saric is producing.
The scoring has been outstanding. Saric can score from three, in isolation, off the dribble against bigger defenders and with his back to the basket. Far and away the most impressive part of his game is the feel for what develops around him as a passer and the ability to manipulate defenses to do what he wants them to. Take this quick strike from the high post: precision, speed, understanding before the catch, perfect arch… it’s a dime.
Doesn’t matter that Steph Curry is inside fronting the posting Richaun Holmes. Saric has an understanding that his catch at the top of the key then creates the best angle for an entry pass, and he throws it where Curry and no help defender can get to it.
Saric will turn 23 in late April, and his experience and polish from the European game are showing. Still, 20 points, eight boards and four-and-a-half dimes are impressive. Only four players in NBA history ever put up those averages across an entire season before their 23rd birthday: Chris Webber, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. None of those players ever shot above 30 percent from three.
Okay, we’re stretching a bit here based off a smaller sample size of a few weeks. The point is, Saric has been absurdly dominant in this short stretch, and was unheralded earlier in the year while playing very strong basketball. The Rookie of the Year is on the Philadelphia Sixers, but it’s not Joel Embiid.
What’s Wrong in Memphis? – The short and sweet of it is this: Chandler Parsons, their new toy signed in the offseason, has been hurt much of the year and not himself when he’s been in the lineup. The organization neglected homegrown talent for the better part of five years and has been poor at drafting plus-level contributors. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are carrying the franchise. Zach Randolph has an incredibly high usage rate in his bench scorer role. JaMychal Green has been hot lately, as has Randolph. Still, it is not enough.
It seems the Grizzlies are running out of gas a few miles before the finish line. They aren’t really in danger of losing their playoff spot, but seem more destined to face the Spurs or Warriors in round one than anyone else. The Grizzlies really struggle in the half-court to score against a set defense. David Fizdale is drawing up crazy good sets out of timeouts trying to keep his team in games. A team with Randolph and Gasol in the frontcourt are naturally not up-tempo teams that can beat teams up and down or can capitalize with numbers when an opponent misses a shot. But Randolph is doing everything he can, running the floor hard, posting up and trying to get easy baskets at every opportunity.
That may work against the Bucks and Greg Monroe, but it won’t work against every team. Golden State, Houston, the Clippers, so many teams out West can beat the Grizzlies in a track meet, where those few easy baskets they get are neutralized. Memphis has been a good defensive team all season long (seventh in the league) and don’t let opponents get on the offensive glass to limit those extra possessions. It’s the games where transition and fast break chances can be scored against them where they struggle most.
Long term, Randolph and Tony Allen are free agents this summer. While no team truly dreads either losing or decreasing pay to two veterans, the Grizzlies are going to have to work to replace them from a cultural standpoint. On the court, Randolph has been the Grizzlies third best player all year despite moving to the bench. Losing their best bench scorer and best overall defender would be crippling to the Grizzlies, but keeping them would stymie their need for youth.
Metta Defense – I. Can’t. Stop. Watching.
I cannot get enough… pic.twitter.com/l3qULXEDL5
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) March 14, 2017
This is mesmerizing, right? I mean, here’s a former perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate that comes off the bench for the first time in a year and just spins around like a helicopter looking for someone to chop with his rotor blade. The guy can’t move, yet the Lakers, in the midst of their complete purge on anyone legally allowed to consume alcohol, have continually insisted on keeping World Peace around as a mentor to the group. How this guy continues to do what he does is simply amazing, and seeing him spin around on the court a few times was a great (and fun) reminder of how far the mighty have fallen.
Minnesota Kicking Into Gear – The Wolves have been the dark horse for the eighth playoff seed since the All-Star Break and have looked a lot more like a playoff team than most teams in the East. Wiggins has finally started to figure things out, Ricky Rubio is playing with more confidence now that Zach LaVine isn’t there to share the court with, and the team is finally starting to defend. But as with any team, they raise their play when their best player does. Karl-Anthony Towns has been a beast.
Since March began, Towns is averaging 28.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.o blocks on 62 percent shooting while going 43.5 percent from deep. He’s not just been efficient, but he’s adding a new move to his arsenal: the Dirk one-legged step back. Done with much less grace and verticality, Towns utilizies his old man jumper and long arms to stretch over post defenders that have to get low in order to push him off a spot. For an athletic beast to have this touch and savvy near the rim? That’s a nightmare for opposing defenses.
The play of Rubio during this stretch has also helped. He’s leading the league in assists over the last three weeks and has shot 37.5 percent from three over that span. Rubio, Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng are all in the top five in plus/minus during the month of March. Those guys have all been key outside of Towns to the team going 8-4 in their last 12. It’s not like the Wolves are feasting on an easy schedule, either. Three of the four losses have been to the Cavaliers, Rockets and Spurs (in overtime). They’ve beaten the Warriors, Clippers and Wizards, while taking down the Nuggets and Jazz on the road.
NBA scheduling doesn’t give Thibodeau’s team a great chance at making up the 3.5 games they trail the eighth seed by. Other than three contests against the Lakers, the Wolves have no easy opponents and are predominantly on the road, closing away from Minneapolis in five of their final six. Any way you slice it, Minnesota is playing its best ball at this time of year, which is only a positive. If the Wolves don’t make the postseason, at least they can hope most of this momentum carries over into next season.
Larry Sanders, Back from the Dead – We should call him Lazarus Sanders since he’s resurrected his career so quickly. For a guy who was, at his peak, one of the best shot blockers and athletes in the frontcourt the league had to offer, finding an end-of-bench deal somewhere was likely the best case scenario for a Sanders return. Getting the opportunity in Cleveland is like hitting the jackpot.
The Cavaliers are taking a cautious approach on the Sanders experiment, knowing that if they need him to be anything resembling a role player, he’ll have to get to that level by April 15. The Cavs are planning on sending him to the D-League as a rehabilitation/rust-shaking stint to acquaint him with the playbook, playing speed and get his body back in NBA playing shape.
Well, we’ve never seen anything like this: a former NBA player coming out of retirement to join the defending champions with only a month left in the regular season, agreeing to play mainly with the D-League team to train for the postseason. But the upside is the reason Cleveland is taking this gamble: they could use an athletic rim protector or, at the very least, someone who can guard centers and give Tristan Thompson a breather. The Bogut break was a tough one, and now Griffin is thinking outside the box. I like it.
The Dangers of Kiss Cam – League Pass is expensive, and so are tickets to games. But every once in a while, the entertainment value supersedes the costs and the amount of basketball you watch. Behold the fan favorite Kiss Cam rejection between a couple.
Required Reading – Mo Dakhil writes on the importance and evolution of passing centers, Paul George seems like he’s settling for outside shots instead of attacking to get fouled, the Nets are finding a little success going small, five prospects in the NCAA Tournament that could rise on draft boards come June, coaching seat junkies: remember the name Scott Morrison, pal Kelly Scaletta goes into the return of Khris Middleton, and could Andre Roberson have a shot at Defensive Player of the Year?
Sets of the Week
With the positive feedback to exploring certain NBA plays and actions in depth we’ve received, we’re diving back into it this week with an exploration of the Floppy Set. Floppy has a lot of different names — “single-double”, “exit” or “loop” — which can all mean the same thing or go to describe different wrinkles between them. At it’s simplest, a Floppy is set up like this: the ball at the top of the key, two screeners in the mid-range on opposite sides of the lane, and a shooter ready to come out on either side that he chooses. The different names, wrinkles and variations all revolve around where the fifth player is and what he does.
Floppy sets are great for shooters to come off the screen and be playmakers. Their defender must trail the action and is usually thrown off by the lack of anticipation for which side of the court the cutter will select. Golden State has run this for years with two elite shooters, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Routinely those two will screen for each other, fake screen, or continuously wrap around each other to play with the defense. One shooter is the primary target, coming off a screen on one side, while the other delays and comes off the opposite side.
You notice that Festus Ezeli gets a big ole dunk on this action, precisely because so much attention must be paid to a dangerous shooter coming off the action. There are tons of angles for passes to slipping screeners, either from the top or the man who catchers coming off the screen. Help is lifted on the other side, giving an easy finish at the rim.
Additionally, teams will often flow right into a ball screen, as the Warriors do when Curry catches in the first clip of the video. Shooters can read the action off the catch and have freedom to create.
Hornets High Floppy
One of the complaints about Floppy is its ability to provide adequate spacing. With so many screens down on the baseline, often times screeners can get sucked into going low to find a target to hit, and therefore a pass is made from a greater distance. When that much traffic and action occurs in the paint, the man with the ball is an obvious target for pressure since he cannot drive to the basket without dribbling right into help defense. Shorter passes are a necessity for that.
Charlotte has thrown in two wrinkles in this High Floppy set to alleviate the spacing. The first is the nature of where they start, instead of the shooter sticking his head underneath the rim, he starts at the free-throw line and comes off a simple flare screen to the wing. That accomplishes two things: spacing higher on the court and gets his defender trailing him around. Now the shooter (Jeremy Lamb in this instance) can sprint to the other side of the court to come off the down screen in Floppy rather quickly.
The second adjustment is not to have the other wing be a screener under the basket. Instead, he stands at the free-throw line, back to the ball, completely reading Lamb. Whichever side Lamb goes to in the Floppy, he will go opposite off a flare. Again, it’s a way to occupy the help while Lamb is the primary target without clogging the space for Lamb to cut. Different coaches will prefer each type of approach.
Pacers Twirl 4 Floppy
So what types of counters are available other than read-and-react slips to the rim?
The rise of small-ball or of stretch-fours has opened the door to some creativity in these regards. The Pacers here show a simple and effective counter to get Paul George, playing as the four in this lineup, to shift from a screener in the mid-range to a shooter coming off the action. George has the slow-footed Anthony Tolliver on him, making this an ideal action to run him off a screen.
The action starts as it normally would, this time with George setting a back screen to try and get C.J. Miles some extra space before he enters the lane to read the Floppy action. Miles then sneaks up on Tolliver and re-screens him, allowing Paul George to dart towards the opposite wing. The defenders caught in the action (Tolliver and Marcus Morris) now have a choice: they can stick to their assignment and let Tolliver chase George around the perimeter, or they can switch and let Tolliver take his chances guarding the much quicker C.J. Miles.
They choose the former here, and these lightning-fast decisions often create enough doubt and time for George to get off a quality shot. Notice Monta Ellis here, too — he again clears to the nail hole at the middle of the floor as to not clog the area for George to come off for a shot. Simple yet effective.
Pelicans Exit Cross
Now the Pelicans are getting snazzy, combining Floppy movements with a post cross screen. They bury Eric Gordon, a guard, on the block as one of the screeners in the Floppy set. Luke Babbitt comes off and catches the pass, while the four-man Dante Cunningham clears to the opposite wing.
On Babbitt’s catch, Gordon is triggered to set a cross screen for Anthony Davis to get into a post-up. By having a guard down low, the Hawks cannot switch this post cross and jam Davis on the catch — a switch gets them in even more trouble! One thing I don’t love about this action is how obvious it is to scout because it’s based off where Eric Gordon is. But for an ATO play (like it’s run here) it’s a great wrinkle to catch defenses sleeping, especially since Luke Babbitt is a lethal shooter.