The Extra Pass: Identifying Offensive Calling Cards

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at which teams are outperforming all others in specific areas of the game.

Play logging has been used by NBA teams for quite some time, but the derived numbers were rarely made public. If we wanted to know, for example, which team performed the best in transition opportunities, we could get in the ballpark with general inferences. We could gather that a team like the Los Angeles Clippers, with dunking machines controlled by the league’s greatest point guard, were probably really great in transition, but without the raw data, it was tough to know for sure.

Synergy Sports removes a lot of that guesswork. They log every single possession from every single game, and place each play into one of many categories. The categorization may not be 100 percent accurate all the time, but you imagine logging every offensive play for the Washington Wizards with no “???” category available to bail you out. It’s not easy. That said, Synergy does give us solid numbers to work with, and today, we’ll use those numbers to see which teams are leading certain offensive categories as we approach the halfway mark of the season.

Isolation

Top Team: Los Angeles Lakers – .92 PPP (points per possession), isolation plays used 11.6% of the time.

Go figure —  the struggling Los Angeles Lakers are actually tops in the league in points per possession in isolation, mainly because Kobe Bryant has been a one man wrecking crew all year. Bryant has accounted for 200 of the Lakers’ 342 isolation attempts (58.4%), and he’s converted at the league’s 13th best rate, netting .97 PPP when he goes iso.

You can possibly point the finger at Bryant for not getting teammates involved enough, or creating a selfish culture within the organization, but you can’t say he hasn’t been productive when he calls his own number. To even further prove that point, Bryant is the league’s best post scorer (1.15 PPP) this season, hitting over 63% of his shots. That only accounts for 8% of Kobe’s total attempts, which makes you wonder if the Lakers would be better off if Bryant were allowed to spend more time on the block.

Post Up

Top Team: New York Knicks — .95 PPP, accounts for 6.5% of all possessions

Ah, sweet, sweet moderation. The Knicks rarely post up anyone who doesn’t have an actual post-up game; a basic concept which a lot of teams struggle to grasp. To wit, of the Knicks’ 165 post attempts this season, 93 of those have gone to Carmelo Anthony. Thankfully for the Knicks, Anthony is a monster with his back to the basket, and he has relied pretty heavily on his post game this season (17.2% of his attempts). His impressive 1.04 points per possession in the post ranks 6th among all NBA players. There’s nothing small (at least offensively) about Melo at the 4.

Pick-and-Roll, Roll Man

Top Team: Miami Heat — 1.29 PPP, accounts for 5% of all possessions

The Heat don’t feed their roll men on screens very often at all, but when they do, it’s two things: successful, and most likely to be Chris Bosh. Miami’s only “true” big man accounts for over half of the team’s roll attempts. It must be nice to have LeBron James scanning the top of the defense and firing passes to you — Bosh is the 10th best roll man in the NBA, scoring 1.23 PPP, using those dives to the rim to make up 18.4% of his total attempts. Basically, if you can catch the ball (sorry, Joel Anthony) you’re going to score efficiently as LeBron and Dwyane Wade’s roll man.

Pick-and-Roll Ballhandler

Top Team: Houston Rockets — .92 PPP, accounts for 13.5% of all possessions

With Jeremy Lin and James Harden sharing the same backcourt, the Rockets really go heavy with pick-and-rolls when they’re not flying up the court in transition. While Lin looks to score more often than Harden does coming off a ballscreen, it’s Harden who ranks as the league’s most effective scorer as a ballhandler in that setting. Harden averages a whopping 1.11 PPP on ballscreens, best in the league, and he’s accounted for 45% of the Rockets made field goals by pick-and-roll ballhandlers.

While the road paving screens set by Omer Asik have helped free him up, you can only imagine the damage Harden could do with a big time finisher becoming his dance partner. It’s scary, but Houston can become even more dangerous offensively in the future by pairing the league’s premier pick-and-roll talent with a guy who can really catch and finish on the other end. Keep an eye on this.

Off Screen

Top Team: San Antonio Spurs — 1.1 PPP, accounts for 5.6% of all possessions

The Spurs have lots of capable 3-point shooters they can run basic pindowns or single-double screens for, but it’s their “Motion” set that nets them a ton of easy buckets on a nightly basis. Surprisingly enough, it’s Tony Parker who does the most efficient work coming off screens away from the ball for San Antonio. Parker is the league’s best points per possession player coming off screens, registering a ridiculous 1.3 PPP on 63% shooting. Although the Spurs go to it very rarely (5.5% of Parker’s possessions), it’s a deadly weapon Gregg Popovich won’t hesitate to use when the games start to matter a little more.  Can you imagine chasing the lightning quick Parker through screens set by big trees like Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter? No fun at all.

Transition

Top Team: New Orleans Hornets — 1.27 PPP, accounts for 9.2% of all possessions

The Hornets only take fast break opportunities when they’re absolutely, positively there, as they play at the league’s slowest pace. Because of this, you can’t exactly call them the league’s best fastbreak team, but they are effective when they do push the ball. Should they run more? With Anthony Davis keying the break with blocks and rebounds, Ryan Anderson being a perfect trailer, and Eric Gordon flying up the wing with Greivis Vasquez running the point, it sounds pretty darn good in theory. So long as Monty Williams is the coach in New Orleans, though? Forget about it. His teams play painfully slow every year.

Spot Up

Top Team: Golden State Warriors — 1.12 PPP, accounts for 18.2% of all possessions

No surprises here. The Warriors secret to success in this area is that they shoot a boatload of 3-pointers. Of Golden State’s 595 spot-up attempts, 316 of those have come from behind the arc. What’s even crazier? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have combined for 75 percent of Golden State’s total spot-up attempts.

Well, needless to say, those opportunities are going to the right guys. Curry notches 1.37 PPP on spot-up shots, and Thompson connects for 1.3 PPP. ranking them 4th and 9th in the league in that category. With this backcourt, the Warriors can shoot their way into almost any game.

Overall

Top Team: Miami Heat — 1 Point Per Possession

It’s the Miami Heat who rank first in points per possessions, a fitting spot for the team with the best player in the world, and really, it’s the versatility of LeBron James as a scorer that has the Heat here. James is 11th in isolation (.99 PPP, 24.7% of possessions), 9th as a pick-and-roll ballhandler (.97 PPP, 18%), and 1st (!) as a spot-up shooter (1.55 PPP, 8%). There literally isn’t anything he can’t do offensively.

Overall though, the Heat do face some competition from the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are right on their tails at .99 PPP. Oklahoma City ranks in the top-5 as a team in the post up, spot up, off screen and transition settings, and Kevin Durant is becoming frighteningly well-rounded as a complete scorer as well. The only race tighter than this one might be this year’s battle for MVP.

Numbers from MySynergySports.com were used in this article. 

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.