By Adam Spinella
Here are a few tidbits from around the league and observations about some playoff teams in particular as they head down the stretch towards the most important time of their season.
Khris Middleton’s Post Game – Watching talented wing scorers take a size advantage in the post is nothing new to your eyes. Seeing Khris Middleton join the club of wings doing an isolation with their back to the basket might be more of a surprise. Since returning from injury, the sweet shooting Middleton has been so good for the Bucks, and his new and savory post game has been a delightful portion of why.
Middleton is shooting 59 percent in post-up opportunities, which account for about one out of every nine shots he takes. At the beginning of the week he ranked in the 85th percentile in the league with 1.04 points per possession on such plays.
Part of the reason is that Middleton only takes very small players down low, and is smart about not forcing any shots. The other part of the reason? He’s got some sweet moves in his arsenal. My favorite: a re-post opportunity where he quickly spins into a jumper.
Unguardable. Most guys that see a re-post opportunity see a player kick the ball out to his teammate so he can get it back a few seconds later, hoping to get deeper position in the post or the ability to utilize the pivot foot he wants for a planned post move. Rarely do you see such a quick strike like here.
Utah’s Forgotten Man – Guys, Raul Neto isn’t actually a bad basketball player. Just one year ago he started 53 games for the Jazz, shooting 39 percent from three. This year, Neto has been buried on the bench for a Jazz team deep with talented guards. But Neto popped back into relevance by playing 15 minutes per game in three contests early in the week before suffering a groin injury, averaging 7.0 points and 2.3 assists on 61 percent shooting with a plus-minus average of six. Neto isn’t a defensive liability either. On the season, he has more steals (20) than turnovers (14) — those extra possessions really matter from a backup.
Off-Hand Conley – Not exactly breaking news, but Mike Conley is really good and he’s been really good for a long time. A few years ago, Andrew Ford wrote an in depth feature on the use of the floater that Conley has now made a staple of his offensive attack. It needs to be re-visited.
Conley is left-handed. He shoots lefty, is more comfortable finishing around the rim with his left, and can snap one-handed passes into tight windows much easier when driving left. He also has very long arms for a point guard, measuring at nearly 6’6″ for a guy that’s only 6’1″. The combination of those two, as well as his ambidextrous touch in the mid-range, makes him impossible to guard.
But Conley, while he is left-handed, prefers to pepper the rim with righty floaters, coming from all angles and arcs. For all you righties out there, imagine being better at one type of shot with your left hand. Not so easy, is it? How good Conley is with his off hand at this particular shot needs to be celebrated.
He scores them in all different varieties — driving to his left and shooting one up when the defender tries to cut him off, squared to the basket when he gets in the lane, or going a million miles per hour with his right hand, which is just where some defenders will push him. He had them all on display Monday night against the Kings, getting into the lane at will and smoothly dropping teardrops through the rim.
Sneaky Grizzlies Defensive Versatility – Speaking of Memphis, I saw a tool from Memphis that I really liked when watching film on the Hawks. Atlanta played a stiffer wing that won’t do much off the bounce (Sefolosha, Dunleavy or Prince) alongside Paul Millsap, their go-to scorer. Coach David Fizdale switched things up, putting Tony Allen on Millsap to hound him and JaMychal Green on the wing. Green, now free to chip down and rebound once the shot goes up, got a nice reprieve from the difficult matchup on Millsap. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, sped up the pace of the game with Allen on him.
Memphis might not have the appropriate first-round matchup to utilize this particular type of switch in the playoffs, but that’s hardly the point. The Grizzlies hang around in the thick of things out West because of their defensive versatility, and Fizdale’s willingness to throw the kitchen sink at any opponent they play. Let’s watch for how he tackles things on the defensive front once late April comes around.
Impending Free Agents In The Bargain Basement – For the second week in a row, we’re looking at three impending free agents that might by flying under the radar and would be quality pickups for some teams looking for a cheap boost off the bench. If your team needs help in the backcourt, give these guys a look over the final weeks of the season and see if they’d fit in well with your team’s roster or style.
Ian Clark: It happens every year, bench guys on championship teams get brought in somewhere else on the cheap with the expectation they can perform in a larger role. Clark is the prime candidate for that this year, as the scoring combo guard has shown flashes of great offensive ability for the Dubs. A career 37 percent three-point shooter, Clark is north of 40 percent this year, has nearly a two-to-one assist to turnover ratio and is averaging a career high 17.5 points per 36 minutes. He may not be a true backup point guard, but Clark can anchor some team’s scoring off the bench. He’s worth upwards of $7 million a year.
Brandon Rush: Everybody needs a “3-and-D” wing, right? Rush has been in and out of the Timberwolves rotation all season, but his results are predictable: a 40 percent three-point shooter that can guard stockier wings. He’s an underrated shot blocker for his size, is a good wing rebounder and can play an up-tempo transition game. Hide him in the corners on offense for 10-15 minutes a night and he can be a huge boost to a team with a young backcourt.
Sergio Rodriguez: A backup point guard with more than a 2.5: 1 assist to turnover ratio and that shoots 36 percent from three? Sign me up! Yeah, Rodriguez will be 31 before next season begins, but he’s been solid for the Sixers this year. They likely won’t look to keep him with the emergence of T.J. McConnell and other needs in their backcourt, so look for Sergio to end up as a backup for a contender. The number of concern for Sergio: he shoots under 50 percent from within 10 feet of the hoop and only 41 percent from two-point range.
Oubre vs. point guards – Scott Brooks is known for his player development, the close relationships he has with players and for being able to get guys to buy into playing defense. For a guy like Kelly Oubre, that type of coach is invaluable. Now let’s be clear, Oubre is lost in half-court defensive schemes and struggles to track the ball. When he can be let off his leash and play with incredible aggressiveness, good things have happened for the Wiz.
The offense has fallen off a cliff for Oubre, who is making less than a quarter of his three-point attempts since Feb. 1. But Oubre maintains a spot in Brooks’ rotation, and has turned a -2.9 net rating in the month of February into a +6.2 metric in March. Without notable improvement in his offense (less than five points per game in the month), he’s done so by being unleashed on the defensive end. Kudos to Brooks for finding a way to not only utilize him on defense, but to do so while keeping him in the rotation.
Oubre uses his length and athleticism to really bother opposing guards, getting into the ball and poking it away with his oven-mitt hands. He stays disciplined and moves his feet, routinely dives on loose balls and challenges every shot. He’s aggressive on switches from an off-ball position, and opposing ball handlers always seem taken back to see the pitbull-like Oubre come at them. There are times when he’ll have to hold his own in the post, too. Oubre isn’t skinny to the point he gets bullied down low, and his supreme athleticism allows him to challenge shots anyway.
Both Oubre and Brandon Jennings thrive in an open court atmosphere, picking guys up for a full 94 feet and trying to create turnovers. I’d expect to see a decent amount of this from that pairing in the playoffs against teams that can be turned over in their second unit. A team like Atlanta or Indiana could really wear down under this constant pressure.
Welcome Back, Sir Lance-A-Lot – The Pacers agreed to re-sign Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal this week. Don’t be fooled by the verbage; Stephenson is signed through next season, with a team option for the 2018-2019 campaign. The roster spot created by waiving Rodney Stuckey before his guarantee date at the end of the year was put to immediate use, and Lance is an upgrade at that spot. He put up mundane numbers in limited minutes with Minnesota, and hasn’t made more than 30 three-pointers in a season since he left the Pacers.
Still, Lance is only 26 years old (isn’t that crazy?) and his familiarity with the team is a huge reason for his return. I can’t wait to see the Cavaliers and Pacers in a first-round matchup where Stephenson is blowing in LeBron’s ear again.
The “Workout After Loss” Cliche – We all saw it on Monday night, the Spurs absolutely shoved their foot down the throats of the Cavaliers. When the game was over, they removed their foot, taking some stomach lining with it. It was an ugly 30-point defeat for the Cavaliers on the road, who couldn’t make a shot. Following the L, Kyrie Irving went onto the Spurs court to get some shots up and a little bit of an extra workout.
These types of exhibitions have become cliche over the last several years, like a scene straight out of a movie. “Player X disappoints on the big stage, and to show how dedicated he is and hard he’s taking the loss, Player X humbles himself by working that much harder immediately after the game.”
In today’s NBA, where the Cavaliers are fighting with the league for rest and the use of science to inform teams when to give players rest, there’s an odd disposition about an act like this. With all the cameras rolling, it felt more like a way for Kyrie to say “look at me, everybody! I work hard and I care.” Much love for Kyrie and his drive to win, but I’m entirely sick of seeing players try to create their own Herb Brooks Miracle moment.
Required Reading: Bryan Toporek weighs in on what the Pacers should do about Paul George, how some assistants get to be on an NBA bench, ESPN dives in five potential future NBA head coaches, a look at some of the best shooting zones on the offensive end in the NBA, a strange and funky ball screen set from the Warriors that’s nearly impossible to stop, the Brooklyn Nets might be respectable next season, incentive bonuses are a mixed bag for teams and players, on Marcus Paige and how D-League offensive systems contribute to player call-ups, and is Elfrid Payton the point guard of the future for the Magic?
Sets of the Week
I hope the title wasn’t too misleading; these aren’t a bunch of plays that the Sixers run. A Philly action is a type of screening set — but yes, it was named that way because of the frequency with which the Sixers used to run it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s when Larry Brown coached a guy named Allen Iverson, Philly cuts (also known as Iverson cuts or a Rhody action) were a staple of his offense.
Two players (usually big men) are positioned in the middle of the court, with one on each elbow. The ball is with a guard at the top of the key, while one player cuts over the top of the two men on the elbows from one wing to another. It’s a great way to get open and get a defender trailing and on someone’s hip, allowing them to be a playmaker from the wing.
Any NBA defense and most collegiate teams sees dozens of these actions a year, and are used to chasing the cutter over the top of the Philly action. The set has no evolved to be more creative, including dozens of actions and types of sets off a Philly package.
OKC Philly Ballscreen
Most simple is the step-up ball screen that the second screener in a Philly action sets on the ball. The eyes of the defense follow the cutter; there’s little to no risk of dribble penetration while someone cuts over the top of the elbow screens, as simply too much clutter exists for an effective drive to the rim. So as the defense keys into the cutter, the defenders guarding the elbows will often drop off, giving their teammate space to get through the screening action with fewer bodies to navigate. That allows for a quick ball screen to occur in the middle of the floor without worry of a defender hedging.
You’ll notice at the end of the video there are various counters and other ball screens that the Thunder run out of the same formation. As defenses key in on the step-up ball screen, OKC would routinely move the ball elsewhere for a ball screen, or add one subtle wrinkle to attack the defense in the area they give up.
Magic Philly Leak
One such counter is a crossing of the big men at the elbows, hopefully rubbing hedge defenders even farther off course. This is a common action that occurs when teams want to run a ball screen for the guy that cut off the Philly cut — they will hit the man off the top of the elbows, then the first screener follows him into a ball screen. For pick-and-pop options, this is incredibly frequent since there’s no help from the low corner. This might be the most frequent type of action that NBA teams run to get a side ball screen out of a Philly set.
Toronto has a nice counter on that, feigning the ball screen on that side, passing back to the point guard at the top, and having the other big man swirl around to set a step-up screen with the entire left side of the floor empty. Counters like this are what kill defenses that are well prepared and anxious to take away the initial action.
Miami Zip Philly Pindown
So what about the fifth player on the court? We know there’s a ball handler, a Philly cutter, and two screeners at the elbows, but what about the fifth player? Usually, he goes corner-to-corner, mirroring the Philly cutter to provide floor balance.
Any familiar eyes to have watched LeBron James and his teams since he joined the Miami Heat recognize the Philly action and the frequency they have success for LeBron’s versatility — he can fill any role within the set. One of the best wrinkles the Heat had when LeBron was there came with Ray Allen, using him as the fifth player and the one most forgotten by defenses. As he cuts corner-to-corner, he’ll receive a simple down screen from the first of the two elbow screeners. It’s a simple misdirection, but one that works. Spoelstra compounds it by the adding a zipper cut to start the action, further confusing defenses to what type of set is coming next.
Cavs Philly 4 Post-Up
Fast forward a few seasons and the true creativity and versatility of a Philly formation has revealed itself with the supercharged offense of the Cavaliers. Everybody can do a little bit of everything, LeBron can play any role, and all big men can shoot, making them incredibly versatile. Here Tyronn Lue puts Kevin Love in the corner as the fifth cog, while LeBron is the first screener at the elbow. As the Philly action begins, defenses must guard it honestly: try to take away the cutter, see Love cutting along the baseline to clear out, all the basic tenets against a Philly action.
Then, bam, suddenly the Cavs strike. LeBron catches on the elbow, Love creates a ton of contact in the middle of the lane for a post opportunity, and he goes to work. Quick, simple, effective, innovative. Versatility allows coaches to be creative.
So many teams around the league run this type of action, in series and not just with one or two play-calls. The Thunder have run it for years, as have the Nuggets, Mavericks, Nets, Hawks, Celtics, Wizards, Raptors, Blazers and Cavaliers. For fans looking to improve their IQ and get to know the game a bit more, this would be a great first action to learn how to spot.