By Adam Spinella
David Fizdale’s Genius – I recently heard from an NBA writer that closely follows the Memphis Grizzlies that the fanbase and supporters aren’t huge fans of David Fizdale. C’mon Memphis!! This guy is an absolute gem of a coach in his first year. These same fans do realize that Parsons has been useless almost the entire year and the team is devoid of offensive talent outside Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and the suddenly spry Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies are near the middle of the pack in the league in offense! Give Fiz some credit.
He’s single-handedly kept Memphis in some games, too. His ATO (after timeout) plays are sheer brilliance, striking a positive on far more occasions than not. Case in point: the Grizzlies-Spurs battle from Tuesday night. Fizdale drew up a genius ATO at the end of the Spurs game to get Zach Randolph a WIDE OPEN LOOK to potentially win the game.
NOBODY GETS WIDE OPEN LOOKS AGAINST THE SPURS! Seriously, Memphis, this roster isn’t what it was two years ago. Their offense has been passable (while their defense remains in the upper echelon of the league) thanks to their coach. Give him some LOVE!
March Stat Nuggets – Some interesting, shocking or even downright befuddling statistics from the month of March:
-Kawhi Leonard only shot 28.9 percent from three in the month. That’s…. not great.
-Don’t forget about Dame! Damian Lillard was the third-leading scorer in the league in March, averaging 29.1 points on 48 percent shooting.
-Who was the best team in the NBA in the month of March? The Milwaukee Bucks, going 14-4 with only four players averaging double-figure scoring. They share the ball so well and have started to shoot the three at a reliable clip. They led the league with 94 percent of their threes coming off assists, yet zero players took five or more threes per game. Balance is a good thing for the Bucks.
-On the other end of the spectrum, six Los Angeles Clippers averaged double-figures in the month. The team as a whole shot FREAKING 49.4 PERCENT from the field. As a team! Don’t call the Clips dead just yet. Their first-round series will be a treat, no matter if it’s the Jazz, Thunder or Rockets.
-Can somebody find Myles Turner for me? After starting his sophomore campaign with a bang, the big man fell off a cliff in March. 10.8 points per game on 21.4 percent shooting from three and only 5.3 defensive boards a night. His disappearance has helped contribute to the Pacers’ slide.
-Say what you will about the Davis and Cousins experiment in New Orleans. The Pelicans posted the third-best defensive rating in the month of March, behind only the Warriors and Spurs. Rebounding was their key, giving up the fewest second-chance points and snatching a whopping 37 defensive rebounds per game.
-Well hello there, Tyler Ulis. 11.9 points, 7.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Yeah, he’s small, but don’t you dare draw a single Isaiah Thomas comparison. Ulis from three during the month of March: 4-31 (13 percent).
-How about Toronto with the best deadline pickup in the league, huh? Serge Ibaka is shot 47 percent from three and 90 percent from the line in the month. P.J. Tucker shot 37 percent from downtown, and the Raptors were nearly five points per game better with him on the court than DeMarre Carroll. Masai for President.
Drop Back PNR Defense – Assistant coach at West Point Zak Boisvert has become a staple for online breakdowns of NBA concepts, play designs and anything advanced that helps coaches or fans that crave an understanding of the minutia. His latest video is one breaking down a type of pick-and-roll defense that seemingly most the league employs these days.
It’s a noble concept for big men who are elite rim protectors or struggle to move their feet on the perimeter. Keep the big guy low, dare the ball handler to take a mid-range pull-up (the shot any analytics-driven team wants their opponent to take) and rely on the guard to get through the screen and contest from behind. Shooters around the play stay home, essentially making it a game of two-on-two in the middle of the floor, with a big man taking away the rim and a guard charging from behind to force a quick shot or a pass away from the basket.
I’ve never been a big fan of this style of play for a couple of reasons. First, Coach Boisvert is exactly right, the big man isn’t supposed to challenge the shot from the guard. But what about plays where the guard feels contact from behind and gets the defender on his hip? There’s no clear path for the big man to recover to his guy. Any patient guard that can toy with the big man takes back any advantage.
My second issue is the guard, chasing over the top of the screen like a maniac, is hauling ass to get back into position to contest the shot. That makes him a bit more foul prone. Those smart guards, who realize they’re under no duress from the big man or any wings chipping in to swipe at the ball, literally will wait to get that guard on their hip or rise up for a shot as soon as they get close to draw a foul.
Finally, this is a rough defense against elite three point shooting guards. When they know the coverage is coming, they’ll call for a ball screen higher on the floor, and then the defense is screwed. Go underneath it, and it’s likely still in range for a good shooter. Go over the top, and the guard has a few more feet to play with or the ability to rise and fire from three still. When you’re not forcing mid-range jumpers and instead are giving up rhythm threes, the defense is an issue.
I’m sure there’s a rhyme or reason for how high the pick needs to be in order for the guard to not go over the top anymore, but the point that there’s an easy gray area is concerning.
There are loads of reasons for my disdain for this coverage on ball screens… it’s passive and non aggressive, thwarted by a pick-and-pop big and makes offensive rebounding a bit more difficult around the rim. I suppose each team needs to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in deciding what to do here, but the more uncontested rhythm jumpers I see elite-caliber point guards take in the mid-range, the more I hate the carelessness of their coaches that encourage that sort of shot selection.
Brook Lopez The Cutter – Part of offensive design is about putting defenders in a position where they’re uncomfortable or not capable. At the pro level, capability is less frequent than comfort issues, and comfort is a direct result of frequency. Designing plays or actions where a defender hasn’t gone through countless repetitions of how they’re supposed to guard an action can leave some pros completely embarrassed.
That’s why I like this subtle wrinkle that Kenny Atkinson was able to do with Brook Lopez, using him as a cutter that traces the three point arc. Now gaining the reputation as a very capable catch-and-shoot three point threat, Lopez cannot be ignored on this cut, and it opens up the lane completely for Brooklyn.
So many great things here for Brooklyn. Andre Drummond looks like he’s never defended a shooter before, jumping too close to him when the ball is on the opposite side of the floor. He then has no idea how to help down in his gap, getting dribbled under as he half-heartedly jogs around to find Lopez. What’s more, the action sucks away Detroit’s rim protector and clears the ability for all of Brooklyn’s guards to finish easier when they get to the cylinder.
Spurs Passing – A journalist reached out to me last week to ask about the Spurs offensive system and what it does to boost Kawhi Leonard’s performance or perhaps hinder his MVP chances. In thinking about it from a Kawhi context, the Spurs simply rely on ball movement and extra passes to find the right shot for their team, not one player creating everything out of the pick-and-roll. It may lower his numbers, but playing in a system predicated on ball movement shouldn’t lower his value.
Of course, that system only works when the star player and best player is a willing passer. Watch Westbrook or Harden, and they likely won’t make this pass in a fast break. Then again, they also don’t have teammates and a culture where passing the ball like this is contagious and celebrated.
It’s pretty basketball, and only possible with unselfish players completely unworried about statistical achievement. Nobody catches the ball thinking “this is my shot”, they catch and square to the rim with their eyes and shoulders. I’ll take this type of ball movement to get a layup any day of the week.
Pick Your Poison, Point Guard Style – Here’s a list of a few free agents on the market this summer that play the point. Which one do you pick to be your team’s point guard? Oh yeah… and you have to guess who they are based on their per-36 stats.
Player A: 10.5 PTS, 6.8 REB, 8.9 AST, 40.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 3.3 TO, 31 years old
Player B: 16.0 PTS, 2.9 REB, 5.8 AST, 44.7% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 2.0 TO, 28 years old
Player C: 20.0 PTS, 4.3 REB, 4.9 AST, 47.1% FG, 21.7% 3FG, 2.5 TO, 28 years old
It’s a tough decision — the playmaking, the shooting and turnover-cautious role, or the sheer scoring. Without much surprise, Player A is Rajon Rondo and Player C is Derrick Rose. Player B… it’s Spurs stalwart Patty Mills.
About a third of the league will be looking for options at the point this summer; most of the big names like Holiday, Teague and George Hill will be sought after and have their picks of destinations if they choose to leave their current situation. Bargaining for that next tier of retreads or second-class starters is cutthroat. Drafting one of the many elite point guards in the lottery of this year’s draft guarantees nothing in terms of starting roles.
Rose and Rondo both come with baggage and/or chemistry issues that make them difficult fits to trust when mentoring a young point guard. The risk in evaluating Mills is finding out just how much of his success is based on the Spurs Effect, being a role player in a system that doesn’t demand a ton of playmaking from him in particular. Would he be able to thrive in other types of systems playing 30 or more minutes a night?
Those evaluations will officially begin now, as teams are gathering intell on who they will target this summer. Backup plans, contingencies and constant surveillance of the landscape are necessary, but at the end of the day some team or two is going to lose out on getting a high-quality starter.
Required Reading – An amazingly cool infographic from Nylon Calculus on some key team offensive ratings and style, another dive into the Blazers from NBA.com, the Cavaliers are trying a new sensory-inclusive fan experience that’s really neat, rookie Cheick Diallo could further the logjam in the Pelicans frontcourt long-term, the Kings may have found some decent young pieces, a great feature from Bleacher-Report on the impact Dirk Nowitzki has had on the next generation of big men, don’t forget about Nikola Vucevic when mentioning big men that are skilled passers, while his Magic are appearing rudderless, Bryan Toporek says Richaun Holmes is an unearthed gem, and one of the best articles I’ve read on the Bucks and the scheme behind their resurgence.
Sets of the Week
A zipper set or action is pretty common in the NBA – it’s when one guard dribbles from the top to the wing, and another guard will zip up the lane line to take their place. The other guard starts on the ball-side block, and usually gets a down screen from a big man to help free him up on his cut. It’s almost a reverse UCLA cut. Here’s what it looks like.
For some teams, the Zipper cut is just a way to toggle the offense and get another person a catch up top. For others, like the Spurs, it signals an entry into a long and deep playbook that revolves around what they run for their lead guard. First you should familiarize yourself with the zipper playbook that San Antonio runs and see how successful it has been in creating shots for their guards.
The zipper cut is an unbelievable way to create movement with a multitude of options, many of which can be capitalized on out of timeouts or special situations. Beneath are some of my favorite and most sophisticated plays that begin with a zipper cut.
Suns Zip Loop 5 Lob
An oldie but a goodie from back when Marcin Gortat was the starting center for the Suns and Alvin Gentry roamed the sidelines. As the zipper action occurs and they flow into a ball screen for #0 Michael Beasley, the action seems to flow to the left side of the court. Dragic cuts all the way through (like it were the Spurs Loop action, commonly occurring after a Zipper cut), and the ball screen up top keeps Gortat’s man engaged on the ball handler.
But Shannon Brown, who starts the play on the block underneath Gortat, ends up mirroring Marcin’s movements — cutting block-to-block and clearing to the right side of the floor. After Gortat sets the ball screen, he comes off a back screen from Brown and gets sprung to the rim. A lefty like Beasley has no problem hitting him in stride with this pass, and the entire back side has been emptied as Dragic has cut all the way through. Nice ATO wizardry from Gentry.
Heat Zip Double Ballscreen Rip
A player like Dwyane Wade is unique: he can handle the ball like a point guard or post-up other guards with high success rate. As such, using him in a Zipper action as the man making the zipper cut would indicate to most defenses that he’s coming off to be a ball handler and creator on the play.
Quite the contrary here.
Wade does a lovely job setting up his man off the zipper cut, then swirls into a ball screen on the side for Norris Cole. Cole comes off, and Bosh sets the first of a double rip action (two staggered back screens) for Wade to follow the ball and get into the post. Double rip is a fairly common NBA type of action for a post-up, but is less frequent for a guard. I’d venture a guess that there’s only a handful of times it’s been run after a zipper cut into a ball screen, too.
Warriors Zip Ballscreen Hammer
Steph Curry requires a lot of attention, so I’m surprised this action works, but it’s a delightful counter to get Curry a shot. He dribbles over to the wing and then hits the zipper man. As soon as the ball screen occurs in the middle of the floor, Draymond Green seeks out Curry’s defender for a back screen like a heat-seeking missile. The ball screen allows to turn the corner (with Thompson denied in the corner) and Curry gets open for a skip pass and a three.
As Mike Breen would say, “Bang!”