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. 

Clippers extend contract of coach Doc Rivers

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While not many people were noticing, Doc Rivers did arguably his best coaching job since coming to Los Angeles this season. Chris Paul forced his way to Houston before the season, then during it Blake Griffin was shipped off to Detroit. Then there were the injuries to Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, two players expected to be key contributors who played a combined 32 games. The offense too often felt like Lou Williams vs. The World, yet the Clippers finished above .500 (42-40) and pushed for a playoff spot until the final days of the regular season.

The Clippers noticed what a good job he did, and how well he handled things after losing his GM powers to Lawrence Frank. That’s why they have rewarded him with a contract extension (the details of which are not yet public).

“I am proud of the success we have had here over the last five seasons, but there is more work to be done,” said Rivers in a statement released by the team. “We are coming off a year where our team battled through many challenges and much adversity, proving deep talent and even greater potential. I am looking forward to getting back to work on the court to develop our players and compete with the NBA’s elite.”

“Doc is one of the top coaches in the NBA, coming off one of his finest seasons since joining the Clippers,” Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “We trust Doc to lead a competitive, tough, hard-working team while upholding a culture of accountability expected to resonate throughout the organization.”

Rivers was entering the final year of his contract, and neither side wanted him to be in a lame duck status.

For a Clippers franchise in transition, this is a stabilizing move. CP3 and Griffin are gone, DeAndre Jordan can be a free agent this summer, and Los Angeles has some big-picture questions about the direction to take the team it needs to answer. Unlike in Boston, Rivers is going to stick around for this restructuring.

Plus, this is good for Rivers, who makes no secret of the fact he likes living in Los Angeles. He has a comfort level with the city and the organization. Rivers likely took a healthy pay cut from the more than $10 million a year he was getting to be coach and GM, but it’s still good money and an organization he likes. So he is sticking around.

Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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It can be one of the most challenging selections to make on the ballot — NBA All-Defensive Teams.

The reason is all the variables: What kind of system was the player in? What were they asked to do within that system? Were they asked to cover a lot for lesser defenders on the court with them?

The votes are in, and it is Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis at the top with the most points. Just as interestingly, six players made All-Defense for the first time.

Here is the voting breakdown. Voters had to choose one center, two forwards, and two guards for each team.

FIRST TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Rudy Gobert, Utah, 192 (94)
Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 163 (73)
Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 90 (27)
Victor Oladipo, Indiana, 136 (58)
Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 105 (39)

SECOND TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia, 90 (4)
Draymond Green, Golden State, 86 (26)
Al Horford, Boston, 85 (24)
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 80 (32)
Jimmy Butler, Minnesota, 79 (20)

Just missing the cut were:
Chris Paul, Houston, 74 (20); Paul George, Oklahoma City, 69 (22); Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 43 (15); Kevin Durant, Golden State, 31 (7); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 24 (8); Josh Richardson, Miami, 22 (3); Marcus Smart, Boston, 18 (5); Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 17 (3).

The six first-timers on the All-Defensive Teams are Covington, Oladipo, Holiday, Embiid, Murray, and Butler.

The fact that two Pelicans — Holiday and Davis — made All-Defense but the team was just average defensively speaks to what they were trying to cover up on that roster much of the season.

Forward was particularly deep and difficult to choose this season. On my final (official) ballot I had Antetokounmpo on the squad, but that meant leaving off Green (who is unquestionably an elite defender when he wants to be, but was up and down during the regular season with his focus on that end). The injuries to Andre Roberson and Kawhi Leonard took some of the pressure off at forward and let a deserving Horford in the club, but it was still a deep field.

Guard was a challenge as well, with CP3 being deserving (he was on my ballot) and Klay Thompson being the perennial “I wanted to put him on the team but…” guy.

Clint Capela with the Rockets had a fantastic defensive season, but with Gobert and Embiid filling the center spot that’s a tough field to crack.

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.