Open Shots: Weekly Attempts at NBA Clarity

Programming note: Does “Open Shots” seem familiar? It should. This feature’s format was directly inspired by similar weekly work from Zach Lowe, Rob Mahoney, Mike Prada, and more. Thanks, guys.

via flickr | kla4067

via flickr | kla4067

The Corner Three

  • Jazz Finding Their Groove With Burke

Utah’s rebuilding experience was always going to be different than all those beginning a similar journey. Whereas teams like the Sixers, Kings, Magic, and Suns had plans to build from close to the bottom up this season, the Jazz were working from somewhere near middle ground. Whether this fact would show in the win-loss column or not, Utah knew it had a core of promising players already in place. Few organizations boast a combination of developing talents like Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, and Trey Burke, after all. The key to Utah’s future, then, would be finding a singular piece of the puzzle that would make those already on-hand fit most seamlessly.

After the Jazz’s horrid start to the season, though, that unique blueprint seemed doomed to fail. A team optimists thought had the chance for a mid-thirties win total opened 2013-2014 losing its first eight games, all but the season-opener coming by at least 10 points. A listless Thunder squad toyed with Utah in a 95-73 win on November 24th, moving the Jazz to a dismal 1-14 in the standings, and hushed whispers of the all-time loss record to outright discussion. And why not? The Jazz looked correct in opting against extending Hayward, wrong for doing otherwise with Favors, Kanter had just been benched for Marvin Williams, and Burks – shooting under thresholds of 40% from the field, 30% from three-point range, and 70% from the free throw line – was doing more to hurt matters than help.

Utah’s young players were disappointing, Ty Corbin’s was losing job security by the day, and management’s vision for future contention was blurry at best. One star player – no matter how gifted – certainly wasn’t going to right matters for the Jazz over the long haul. But what about two?

Lost in hysteria gleaned from Utah’s early season nadir is that the Jazz reached it with Burke – their prized rookie point guard – sidelined due to injury. Just as bad? The veterans they were forced to use in his stead (current bench-warmer John Lucas III and current free agent Jamaal Tinsley) were performing at worse than replacement level. And while Hayward showed flashes of immense potential as primary ballhandler – a 27-point, 10-assist outing against the Pelicans in Utah’s first win of the season comes to mind – it became apparent early on that he was being stretched too thin. The plan was never for him to develop into a pseudo point guard, just the way Favors and Burks were never to be offensive fulcrums as this point in their careers.

The Jazz “enjoyed” – well, they didn’t, but you get the point – the worst collective point guard play in basketball over the first several weeks of the season. It wasn’t close. Considering those humble beginnings, it should come as no surprise they’ve turned things around since Burke – recently awarded the top spot in David Thorpe’s rookie rankings, by the way – reached full-health and became a starter in late November. All available evidence supports the notion that Burke’s influence goes well beyond his own individual numbers; he’s a point guard, after all, and the ripple effect of his presence has been felt across the roster and in the win-loss column.

First thing’s first: the Jazz are 10-13 since Burke’s debut on November 20th, good for a win percentage of .434 that extrapolates to 35 victories over a full 82 games.  While that’s hardly playoff worthy in the dog-eat-dog West, Utah would be doing backflips if it won thirty-some games in a clear rebuilding year. The team’s overall success with Burke is most important here, but a myriad of individual minutiae speaks to his all-encompassing effect, too.

Check out the numbers below for two of Utah’s youngsters, pre- and post-Burke. Sometimes you don’t need new-fangled advanced statistics to tell a story. All statistics are per 36 minutes of play.

  • Favors
    • Without: 14.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 turnovers, 47.8% FGs
    • With: 16.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.1 turnovers, 55.2% FGs
  • Burks
    • Without: 14.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.7 turnovers, 36.1% FGs, 21.7% 3PTs
    • With: 17.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 47.2% FGs, 43.2% 3PTs

These guys can play! The inability of Favors and Burks to develop on offense over the summer was perhaps the Jazz’s biggest cause for concern in the early going this season. They’d just paid Favors $48 million to eventually produce at something close to All-Star level, and were counting on Burks to shore up a wing rotation bereft of any longterm talent save for Hayward. Amazing what competent point guard play can do for supporting offensive players! More points, better shooting percentages, fewer turnovers, oh my!

Hayward and Kanter were left out here for a reason, by the way; neither has experienced an uptick in production or efficiency since Burke took the lead for Utah. The latter’s inability to make an impact isn’t surprising. Corbin, citing the need for space on offense and speed on defense, almost never utilizes the one-time Favors-Kanter frontcourt of the future these days, and Kanter’s playing time has been drastically reduced as a result. Hayward is the more vexing and promising case. He’s struggled to adjust with Burke on the floor after playing such a ball-dominant role in the season’s first few weeks, but remains one of the league’s most prized young wings. Shooting slumps happen; the Jazz seem hopeful that Hayward – who put up some big numbers in early November – will snap out of it soon.

But again, that stuff is mostly ancillary noise as long as Utah maintains its recent level of play. The only player the Jazz have locked up longterm is Favors, and should Hayward’s struggles continue he’ll be more affordable as a restricted free agent this summer. Burks suddenly seems more commodity than prospect, too; the only major question mark right now is Kanter, and Utah has all season to work out the kinks in his play.

The Jazz’s putrid beginning to 2013-2014 is indicative of just how influential the absence of a single player can be. In this specific case, it wasn’t only one of basketball’s best rookies, but an improving league-average point guard that missed time, too. While the loss of such a player seems routine on the surface, it was far more to Utah – the Jazz, more than any other team, were ill-equipped to manage without their presumed primary playmaker.

That’s all for naught now, though. Burke is healthy, playing Rookie of the Year caliber basketball, and Utah is 7-5 in its last 12 games. Nine months from now, 1-14 will be but a blip in the radar of an organization with a bright, bright future, just as the Jazz’s plan presumed all along.

In The Paint 

  • Jrue Holiday, Playing Like Jrue Holiday

With everything going on in New Orleans – Anthony Davis’s ascent to All-Star, the reintegration of Ryan Anderson, and wild inconsistency of Tyreke Evans – it’s been easy to overlook early takeaways from the Pelicans’s biggest and most important offseason move: the trade for Jrue Holiday.

The price Dell Demps paid for Holiday on draft-day was steep, but the 23 year-old’s standing among the league’s lead guard hierarchy merited such a cost. How often are two-way All Stars smack in the middle of reasonable contracts made available on the trade market? Sacrificing two first round picks – Nerlens Noel and a top five protected choice in June – that carry such value was indeed a big expense, but one that solidified a fledgling position for both short and long terms. Not to mention that an upper-level point guard would be key in heeding the development of Davis, the organization’s foremost goal.

So that Holiday’s early struggles went mostly unnoticed from a league-wide perspective is surprising. The Pelicans mortgaged major future flexibility by acquiring him, and after a month of play that relative gamble – some considered it thusly, at least – looked like a mistake. Questionable 2013 All-Star selection or not, November’s Holiday wasn’t the one New Orleans thought it acquired this summer. More recently, though, he’s begun to perform at a level befitting his reputation.

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The numbers are certainly encouraging, but even more so was Holiday’s play down the stretch against Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers on Monday night. Holiday was the best player on the floor in the Pelicans’s 110-108 win over Portland – one of the best games of the young season, by the way – and thoroughly outplayed basketball’s en vogue clutch player in the fourth quarter. Step-back jumpers, acrobatic finishes, perfect pick-and-roll offense, tough individual defense – this was Holiday at his absolute apex, effecting the game on both ends of the floor the way only a handful of guards can.

He won’t go for ridiculous lines like 31 points, 7 rebounds, and 13 assists (with only 2 turnovers!) often, of course, but that Holiday is capable of such dominance is a timely reminder of just how influential he can be when at his best or close to it. And if New Orleans is to make a surprising run for a playoff birth in the West’s loaded middle class, his improved play – Jrue being Jrue again, basically – will be the driving force behind it.

  • Pay Attention to the Defense Behind the Purple Curtain

The success of Toronto in a post-Rudy Gay world can’t be denied. The Raptors are 8-3 since trading the high-usage, low-impact wing to Sacramento on December 9th, and have officially reached this period’s zenith after Wednesday’s 95-82 win over the East-leading Pacers. While Toronto’s quality of opponent throughout this stretch hasn’t always been so high, the new-look Raptors haven’t exactly preyed on a terribly weak schedule, either: they notched consecutive road wins against Dallas and Oklahoma City before Christmas, and are 5-1 away from home after unloading Gay. Just as impressive? Two of those three losses came at the hands of the San Antonio machine, and the other was an overtime defeat by the competent Bobcats. Even more so? Toronto’s +6.2 net rating per 100 possessions over the same time frame.

 Presently at least, the Raptors are indeed the type of team this recent run of success suggests. That +6.2 net mark would rank fifth in the league from a year-long perspective, aligning nicely with Toronto’s .727 winning percentage since trading  its nominal star. But within that context of advanced statistics comes another pertinent takeaway, and it’s one the narrative has avoided so far.

For all talk of strides the Raptors have made offensively  without Gay – the players espouse it too, as expertly documented by James Herbert – they’ve enjoyed an even bigger seachange on the other end. Toronto boasts an awesome 97.9 defensive rating in its last 11 games, despite facing offensive juggernauts like the Spurs (twice!), Thunder, and Mavericks. While the rest of Toronto’s opponents since December 9th are almost as offensively dormant as that trio is dominant, the numbers still bear out major defensive improvement from the Raptors. Their schedule’s collective offensive rating over the last 11 games is 101.6, and that’s factoring in games against suddenly stingy Toronto. These guys can play defense!

Don’t completely avoid the “We’re finally moving the ball! All for one!” talk, though. The Raptors’s 104.1 offensive rating without Gay is 2.7 points better than their mark prior to the deal, and Kyle Lowry’s drastically improved play can’t go unnoticed (by the trade market too, mind you). But even more progress has been made on the less flashy side of the ball, and it’s what seems most sustainable for this organization moving forward. Dwayne Casey is a defensive coach first and foremost, after all, and the shelf-life of an Amir Johnson-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt is more tenable than any combination on the perimeter.

Regardless, Toronto’s been reborn post-Gay. And considering Masai Ujiri’s reputation and the increasing trade value (combined with the offensive influence) of Lowry, it’s the renaissance on defense that’s most likely to be a hallmark for the Raptors no matter where they go from here.

Long Twos

  • We’re Sorry, Minnesota?

The league’s clarification, backstep, or “apology” for officials missing a clear foul in the waning moments of Minny’s loss to Dallas on Monday will do little to satiate the Wolves come April should they narrowly miss the playoffs. Accountability and credibility is of utmost importance to NBA highers-up, obviously, and addressing such an error furthers that objective and perhaps quiets those fans so ready and willing to cry conspiracy. But me? I’d rather instances of glaring call/no-call remain in an Inception state of limbo. The NBA is a drama; why not let its natural theatrics rule the day? And besides, end-of-game decisions shouldn’t be the only ones that merit such scrutiny. Kevin Love didn’t get away with shoving a defender to secure a rebound in the first quarter? Monta Ellis was called for traveling every time he took steps before dribbling? Come on. If the officials have ongoing latitude, afford it to them at all times; not until an arbitrary possession – chaos theory is real, people! – that will make Inside the NBA.

Related: You can’t miss this, Ed Malloy (background) and David Guthrie (foreground). You just can’t.

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  • Never Change, Lance

There’s no move more fun in basketball right now than Lance Stephenson’s whirling dervish of a spin dribble. The power, the speed, the grace, the confidence – if there’s a move more singularly indicative of a player’s identity, I’m not sure what it is. And it’s effective! More please, Lance. Perhaps some dancing and coast-to-coast bull-rushes while you’re at it, too.

  • Low Middle Ball-Screens

We saw this little wrinkle from Miami in the last couple games of the 2013 Finals, and it’s something teams should implement more and more as defenses become ever-comfortable packing the paint by refusing to let their big men hedge aggressively. The Thunder routinely take advantage of Russell Westbrook’s speed and leverage his streaky jumper by having Kendrick Perkins set a quick screen at the free throw line when defenders least expect it. They run it to great success here with Reggie Jackson against Portland’s conservative defensive scheme.

Look at where Perkins sets the screen in the still below.

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This affords Jackson a litany of options the typical higher pick doesn’t, including the opportunity for a quick dish to Perkins for a rolling layup should the big man quickly reverse pivot, seal, and get on the move. But the ballhandler is the biggest beneficiary here, as he has time to properly set his feet for a jumper and is close enough to the rim for a one-dribble attack on the helper (here, Robin Lopez).

What a great way to get a ballhandler/finisher into the teeth of the defense and even draw a foul on an awaiting big man. With the latter in mind, it’s a wonder why teams don’t frequently utilize this tactic against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers. It’s safe to say the Heat will, at least, when it matters most this spring.

  • Mark Jackson’s Rotational Riddle

Golden State’s fifth-most used lineup this season? You guessed it: Toney Douglas-Kent Bazemore-Harrison Barnes-Draymond Green-Marreese Speights. Mark Jackson has never been shy to rest a majority of his starters, but that strategy is hardly as sound this season as in years past.

With Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry elsewhere and Barnes really laboring, the Warriors don’t have enough reserve firepower to consistently compensate for the simultaneous rest of their regulars. Sometimes it’s like Jackson forgets how poorly his team’s performed this season without Andre Iguodala or Steph Curry. On the other hand, Golden State’s starters have been so dominant – Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Lee-Bogut’s net rating of +20.0 outpaces all other lineups in the league that have played at least 150 minutes by 6.5 points – that perhaps getting them as much floor-time as possible is the best option. It’s a balancing act, clearly, and one I’m glad I don’t have to try.

It would certainly help matters if Barnes turned things around, of course. The consistently awesome Draymond Green is the only thing keeping the Warriors bench even remotely afloat.

  • Time to Tank, Celtics

Boston’s wholly unenjoyable 92-91 loss to Atlanta on New Year’s Eve was indicative of this roster’s severe limits going forward. The Celtics had a comfortable fourth quarter lead slowly whittled away by the Horford-less Hawks, as they simply fell victim to a vast talent disparity. Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague were this game’s best players by a wide margin and performed like it down the stretch. Jordan Crawford pull-ups, Kris Humphries post-ups, and Kelly Olynyk elbow sets, shockingly, were just no match for Teague pick-and-rolls or Millsap isolations.

The loss dropped the Celtics to 13-18 (still eighth in the East, though!), gave them a fourth loss in five games, and should elicit a new vigor for playing the long game. Boston embarks on a murderer’s row of away games after hosting the Pelicans tonight: a road trip of Oklahoma City, Denver, the Clippers, Golden State, and Portland is about as bad as it gets.

You were embarrassingly outclassed by the depleted Hawks and face a coming road slate that would make the Spurs blush. It’s time, Boston. Do it. Tank. You need Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, or Jabari Parker as much or more than any team in the league, and that fact will never be more obvious soon enough.

  • That LeBron Pass, Though


Speaking of LeBron and the Heat, Erik Spoelstra made a smart adjustment in his team’s crazy 122-112 loss to the Warriors on Thursday. Noting that Golden State was switching Wade-James ball-screens when Miami’s stars were defended by Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes, the Heat went back to a familiar set for an easy bucket.

Barnes starts the possession guarding Wade as James is defended by Green at the far elbow. After catching a pass from a clearing Norris Cole, James takes measured steps towards half-court and readies himself to set a pick for Wade. But instead of waiting for contact from Barnes on the screen, LeBron slips it and darts toward the rim.

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Wade knows this is coming, of course, and gives himself ample space to throw a pass to LeBron over the top. The Warriors don’t know it yet, but they’re dead in the water already; Chris Anderson stalls near the key to make way for James, and LeBron has Barnes on his high side as a result of the switch.

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Here’s the action a couple beats later, just before Wade lets go of the pass to James. There’s just no way for Barnes to get between LeBron and the basket without committing a foul. Unless Wade’s throws an errant pass, possession over; two crucial points for Miami in a close game.

  • A Tale of Two Two-Guards

Below are the per-36 minute numbers for two high-flying, sweet-shooting guards since December 9th. Reminder: Gay was traded from Toronto to Sacramento on that same day. Coincidence?

Terrence Ross, Raptors: 16.9 points, 45.7% FGs, 46.8% 3PTs, 58.6% True Shooting

Ben McLemore, Kings:  8.5 points, 35.6% FGs, 33.3% 3PTs, 45.5% True Shooting

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

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Jack Winter