By Nicholas Sciria
In my column called “What I’m Seein,’” I’m going to use film and numbers to dissect exactly what I’m seeing around the league. Today’s article will feature my analysis on the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum, manufacturing efficient offense
The Boston Celtics have been a perfect match for Jayson Tatum—and Jayson Tatum has been a perfect match for the Boston Celtics. Tatum has thrived in Boston’s precise offensive scheme, putting most pre-draft concerns over potential inefficiency and overall player prototype to rest.
Tatum hasn’t needed to jumpstart the offense in Boston, instead being put in positions to beat an already unraveling defense. Brad Stevens has embedded clever actions and wrinkles within his offense that organically create seemingly small but assuredly palpable advantages for his players to exploit. If one of these opportunities doesn’t arise—Kyrie Irving is well-qualified for that role.
Despite the isolation heavy tendencies that Tatum showed as a No. 1 option at Duke, he’s thrived in a completely different role with the Celtics. So far this season, isolation situations have accounted for only 9.6 percent of Tatum’s offense.
Additionally, Tatum’s pull-up jumper has been less of a go-to option during the start of his professional career and more of an instinctive countermove when attacking an undisciplined closeout.
In a previous life, Tatum almost certainly takes this pull-up shot. But on this play, he instead uses a hesitation move and goes right at the vertically challenged Nikola Vucevic. Notice how Tatum moves away from Terrence Ross when he stunts from one pass away, maximizing the spacing on the court and allowing to him to catch the ball on the move to drive.
And he shows flashes of Giannis-lite on his drives to the hole, only needing one dribble from the 3-point line to the basket.
Just look how long his strides are as he makes his way to the rim.
Over 34 percent of his shots are coming at the rim, contributing to his ridiculous 64.6 true shooting percentage. Dig into the film, and Stevens’ brilliance is on full display in creating him quality opportunities.
There are tons of down screens found within Stevens’ offense, and when the defense goes through the motions in defending them, it turns into an open shot for the Celtics. Here’s one play where the Philadelphia 76ers switch the down screen. On the switch, Tatum never makes contact on Markelle Fultz. He quickly slips to the basket and calls for the ball, catching Simmons a second late. Because of the switch, Tatum has the inside advantage and he scores.
Here, when the help side defense becomes too worried about the ball, Daniel Theis sets a hard screen on the relaxing Paul George:
Tatum has also found success when smaller players have been thrown on to him. He’s averaging 1.06 points per possession in the post, a mark that ranks in the league’s 85th percentile. A key note here is these post ups haven’t been enough of a focal point that they derail the offense, instead just a random quick hitter to expose a particular matchup.
On this play, the Celtics show how effective a simple shuffle cut for the inbounder can be when a solid screen is set on the defender. Because the Miami Heat do not prefer to switch here, Tyler Johnson has to go out of his way to defend this action. Consequently, Tatum runs almost directly under the hoop and then pivots in order to seal Johnson on his back for deep post position. The Celtics swing the ball to the left wing for a better passing angle and Tatum catches and finishes.
The timing on his cut here is perfect, as he waits just long enough for Terry Rozier to fill to the weakside. When the weakside defenders begin to stare at the ball and lose track of their responsibilities, Tatum cuts to the front of the hoop and gives Horford an angle to make the pass. It’s opportunities like these, where he catches the ball with his back to the basket on a quick cut rather than camping out for extended stay on the block that have been a unique weapon for Stevens to utilize.
Situation absolutely matters—especially for a young player—and Tatum is playing in an ideal situation. Credit Stevens for putting his rookie in a position to succeed, but also credit Tatum for embracing his role and being an All-Star in it from the moment he arrived in Boston.
Toronto Raptors: Welcome to the modern NBA
Last year, the Toronto Raptors were one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, scoring 109.8 points per 100 possessions. This season, Toronto boasts a similar offensive rating of 110.3. Although the results have been similar, the Raptors have instituted a new-look offensive system this year, a change that will help make their production more sustainable in the long-run.
Toronto has placed a much bigger emphasis on spot ups, cuts and the roll man in the pick and roll this season…
…and this change has come at the expense of the usually less favorable play types like isolation and pick and roll ball handling.
Looking at their changing play type composition, it’s not surprising that the Raptors have leaned on a more aerial-friendly attack to execute their offense.
This season, the Raptors lead the league in pass percentage on drives. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have led this development, both increasing their individual pass percentage on drives by more than five percent this season. And although Lowry and DeRozan still take up a lot of the ball, the Raptors as a team have jumped from dead last in the league in average seconds per touch to No. 22. Furthermore, Toronto now sits at 12th in potential assists per possession compared to last year’s rank of 29th.
With an increased emphasis on quicker decisions and more passing, the Raptors’ offense has looked much more fluid this year. It’s this exact side-to-side movement that had been missing in previous seasons:
DeRozan’s increased awareness and willingness to be more of a playmaker has unlocked a previously unseen part of the Raptors’ offense. DeRozan is averaging a career high in assists per 100 possessions and his usage percentage is down 4.5 percent from last season.
You can see how he holds the defense in place on this pick and roll. Combine that on-ball action with a simultaneous weakside flare screen from Pascal Siakam and it’s easy to see why the Raptors are more challenging to guard these days.
In previous seasons, DeRozan wouldn’t have thought twice about taking this shot. But here, he’s almost toying with the defense, waiting until the absolute last second before kicking the ball out to Lowry.
Watch the fluidity of this offensive possession, as a double ball screens flows into a pin down followed by pinch post. Eventually, the Raptors hypnotize the help defense just enough to execute a pin and skip to the weakside corner.
And Blind Pig is another great way to use DeRozan’s gravity. When he’s overplayed on this possession, Serge Ibaka flashes to the high post and quickly flips it to DeRozan who can now drive downhill. He draws two defenders and Ibaka is open from behind the arc.
With an increased attention on off-ball screening, drive-and-kick and overall fluidity, it’s no surprise that Toronto’s shot selection has shifted more towards their NBA counterparts. The Raptors are shooting more 3-pointers than last year (the team has jumped from No. 22 in 3-point attempt rate to No. 6) and less long 2-pointers (the team has fallen from No. 13 in rate of long 2-point attempts to No. 29).
And what’s just as impressive is that despite a significant uptick in the quantity of attempts, Toronto is shooting a considerably higher percentage of open 3-pointers this season.
With the defense stretched out, Raptors players are discovering more open cutting lanes and DeRozan is finding them for easy shots near the rim.
So here’s the question: Will the Toronto Raptors stick to this style of play or revert back to their old habits when the team experiences some pressure or adversity (either during a losing streak or in the playoffs)? It’s something I am certainly watching closely.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons’ vision/passing + Joel Embiid’s PnR gravity = CHEAT CODE.
The Philadelphia 76ers have gone through some tough times in recent years, but sit down and watch a few minutes of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid play together and those Process Era years seem worth it.
Embiid’s gravity is apparent on nearly every possession. Pair his touch, footwork, and bulk with Simmons’ passing and the 76ers have one of the NBA’s most deadly skillset combinations. Two plays late in the Sixers’ win over the Detroit Pistons in late October particularly stick out to me:
Watch how Embiid’s roll brings Anthony Tolliver all the way over defensively, as the Pistons make sure Embiid doesn’t have an ounce of daylight to catch a lob pass. Avery Bradley is then forced to sink down into a position in between TJ McConnell and JJ Redick.
In order to maximize court spacing, coordinated off-ball movements are necessary. Take a look at how Robert Covington fills to the top of the key while Redick moves to a higher spot on the wing. This optimal floor spacing puts Bradley in a 2-on-1 predicament, and Simmons’ ability to fling a ridiculous jump pass to McConnell in the corner makes this play extremely difficult to guard.
A play later, Philadelphia again calls upon the Simmons/Embiid pick and roll.
This time, Embiid slips the screen without even coming close to making contact with Simmons’ man. Yet still, Simmons is able to get a half-step on Tolliver and the Pistons are forced into the same pick and roll dilemma. Reggie Jackson comes all the way to the rim line to ensure that his tag is effective and Detroit is officially at a severe disadvantage.
Again, Simmons’ rapid passing velocity and pinpoint accuracy (especially from the angle he throws this pass) is needed in accomplishing a successful outcome here.
And again, the subtle movement from Covington here is especially important. If Covington remains stagnant on this possession, Tobias Harris would have been in a much closer position to close out to him. But because Covington moves up to the top of the key, he’s wide open on the extra pass.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis, unicorning off of screens
When you have a unicorn at your disposal, you let him do unicorn things. With a limited roster, the Knicks have been forced to utilize Kristaps Porzingis in all sorts of ways. I’ve been especially intrigued with the instances when he is used in off-ball screening situations.
One of the toughest actions to defend is when a guard simply sets a down screen for Porzingis. If the defense switches the screen, it’s an easy isolation for Porzingis to shoot over the smaller defender. If the defense tries to fight through the screen, Porzingis’ man is almost guaranteed to be late on the contest.
The Knicks know that using Porzingis as a screener in off-ball situations can put stress on the defense as well. Here, Porzingis begins to set a down screen for Ron Baker. But when Patrick Patterson sags off of Porzingis, Baker makes it a flare screen for Porzingis instead.
New York has also experimented with staggered and bunch formations, where three Knicks players come together for a screening action. The defense’s job isn’t done when Tim Hardaway Jr. exits to the top of the key, as Porzingis then comes off of an Enes Kanter down screen.
And watch how the bunch formation progresses into this play, where Hardaway Jr. does not exit to the wing. Instead, he acts like he’s coming off the down screen only to turn around and become another down screener. Porzingis then gets another down screen from Kanter and Cleveland’s defense is left wondering who is supposed to step out to the perimeter.
New York has also given Porzingis an option of coming off of two different screens (one in either direction). See below as Porzingis can either execute a shuffle cut off of Hardaway Jr. or use Kanter’s down screen. First, Porzingis runs Kosta Koufos into the Hardaway Jr.’s screen. When Porzingis then uses Kanter’s screen at the top of the key, Zach Randolph is forced to switch (and shoot the gap over top the screen), so Porzingis stays behind the screen for the open shot.
I would love for the Knicks to make this an even bigger staple in their offense. Porzingis frequency off of screens sits at 10.5 percent, just 2.0 percent higher than last season’s mark.
Please New York, let the unicorn truly unicorn!
Brooklyn Nets: Sprinting out for easy buckets
It may sound cliché, but one of the most important tasks of an NBA coach is to get their team to play hard. Despite a 31-77 record in his first two seasons, Kenny Atkinson’s teams have bought into his system and style of play no matter who has been on the court.
Given Brooklyn’s lack of talent, the Nets have needed to find ways to get easy buckets. Atkinson and his team have made it quite obvious that they are going to try and do this by beating the defense up the court in transition. Brooklyn currently ranks No. 6 in transition frequency, and it has helped players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe create offense.
I’m enamored with watching how hard Brooklyn players zoom up the court, fill their lanes and get to their spots. The moment the outlet pass is made, Hollis-Jefferson is in a full sprint to get ahead of the ball on this play. This seems like a simple concept, but few coaches get their players to execute it like Atkinson has done.
Pushing the ball in transition has helped unleash a more confident Hollis-Jefferson with the ball in his hands. With Brooklyn’s spacing, Hollis-Jefferson has the ability to bring the ball up with a head of steam against an unprepared defense.
And sometimes, all it takes is a simple same-side advance to get Hollis-Jefferson an easy bucket if the defense isn’t fully committed to getting back.
Add in D’Angelo Russell’s vision and ability to fit a bounce pass in the tightest of areas, and the Nets have something special both now and in the future. Watch Caris LeVert put his head down this time and sprint down the court, knowing he will have a chance to score on the other end.
Brooklyn’s guards have also incorporated some nifty ways to open up shooters in transition, and Crabbe has excelled in these trail situations. Crabbe can either catch the ball on the move like he does here…
…or he can spot up behind the defense when they forget about him behind the 3-point line. With Russell out, Spencer Dinwiddie has looked more and more comfortable bringing the ball up the floor and making the right play to initiate Brooklyn’s offense.
One of the keys to an effective modern offense is to force closeouts. By simply pushing the ball in transition and moving the ball quickly, the Nets can gain an advantage.
And even when their initial surge is halted, Brooklyn can easily flow into a simultaneous drag screen and weakside flare screen to initiate their offense. On this play, Crabbe’s flare screen forces Belinelli into another closeout situation:
The Nets may not be a great team at this point, but they are a fun team—and for right now, that’s fine with me.
Sources: NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference (as of 12/14)