The Extra Pass: The New Roll Man

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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 how the pick-and-roll big man has evolved. 

When Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in Los Angeles, almost everyone believed they would form the most devastating pick-and-roll combination the league has seen since John Stockton and Karl Malone roamed the plains of Salt Lake City.

It made sense. Paul is the league’s best point guard, a player with otherworldly vision and a complex understanding of angles, and Griffin is an athletic marvel, faster and stronger than every big man he goes up against. Put the two together, and it’s a match made in pick-and-roll heaven, right?

You would think so, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, Paul and Griffin rarely even run true pick-and-roll these days. According to Synergy Sports, Griffin is the roll man on only about 10 percent of his possessions — a shockingly low number given the narrative that he doesn’t have a post game, and that all Vinny Del Negro runs is high screens.

So why don’t the Clippers run the Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll more?

It’s mainly because they can’t. The simple threat of it is enough to deter the actual action.

One of the most prevalent strategies used to thwart the pick-and-roll in today’s game is the “icing” or “blueing” or “downing” of screens. Jacob Frankel of the De-Thurmond Analysis has a wonderful look at what that means, and this photo illustrates how teams are eliminating the screen from actually happening:

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You’ll see this a lot over the course of an NBA game. In this example, Tony Parker has forced the ballhandler away from the pick by severely overplaying him screen-side. It’s now Boris Diaw’s job to prevent penetration and allow Parker to recover once the screen is no longer in play.

What “icing” a screen usually amounts to is a pocket pass by the guard to the would-be pick setter, who now gets to play 4-on-3 against a zoned up backline defense.

In theory, defenses would much rather have a big power forward making a decision from 17 feet than an explosive dunk right at the rim. It’s simple —  make a non-traditional ballhandler make a ballhandler’s decision, and a lot of times the big man’s delay or hesitation to make the decision will give the defense enough time to recover.

What does this all mean in the grand scheme of things for pick-and-roll big men?

Now more than ever before, court vision is critical for any roll man worth his salt. It’s why great passers like Griffin, David Lee and Marc Gasol are all averaging career best assist numbers this season, and it’s a big reason why all three deserve All-Star bids.

The heavier use of “icing” pick-and-rolls has effectively distributed more of the scoring wealth as well. As Henry Abbott of TrueHoop recently wrote about, five years ago there were 27 players in the league who averaged at least 20 points per game. This year? Nine. As defenses force the ball out of the hands of first options, it’s the new role of the roll man to find the open shooter, or knock it down himself.

If there is one thing that’s changed about the NBA since the Stockton-Malone days to now, it’s that NBA defenses have gotten smarter and faster. Gone are the days of bludgeoning a defense with the same basic action over and over. Defenses develop a quicker immunity, and as an offense, you have to keep introducing new poisons.

It’s why simply being a great finisher in the pick-and-roll isn’t good enough anymore. While athleticism (Griffin) and size (Gasol) will always be heavily sought after attributes for a roll man, they aren’t the only requirements.

You would have never said this a few years ago, but maybe David Lee is the prototype. He’s a great passer, a deadly mid-range shooter (47% from 16-to-23 feet), and he’s ambidextrous and athletic enough to score at the rim regularly. Golden State has built an entire offense around his abilities in that setting, surrounding him with perimeter shooters and a low post monster in Carl Landry. As we witnessed in their recent victories over the Clippers and Thunder, that’s working out pretty well for them.

Defenses will continue to adapt, but for now, players with ‘high post skill-sets are more valuable than players with traditional low post skill-sets because those skills can be applied to more areas of the game. A lot of people will tell you that the big man is extinct, but it’s not true. They just evolved.

Lakers coach Luke Walton: Rajon Rondo will start over Lonzo Ball to start year

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LaVar Ball said the Lakers are Lonzo Ball‘s team, not LeBron James‘.

Turns out, Lonzo isn’t even the Lakers’ starting point guard.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN on Lakers Talk:

Luke Walton told me today that Rajon Rondo will be the Lakers’ starting point guard to start the year.

It’s unclear whether “to start the year” means to begin training camp or the regular season. Lonzo is not yet ready to fully participate in practice after offseason surgery, so this could be as benign as Rondo working with the starters for now.

Or it could be Walton already making a call for the regular season.

The Lakers signed Rondo to push and teach Lonzo. Those messages would come across more strongly if Rondo starts.

But I’d also be surprised if there’s not a more open competition in training camp. Lonzo deserves a chance to earn the job.

Whatever Walton exactly means, the coach has latitude to run the team as he sees fit.

Report: Kyle Lowry dodging calls and texts from Raptors president Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse

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DeMar DeRozan hasn’t hidden his disdain for Raptors president Masai Ujiri trading him.

How does Kyle Lowry, a close friend of DeRozan still left in Toronto, feel?

Lowry dodged DeRozan questions while at USA Basketball’s minicamp in July. At media day yesterday, Lowry repeatedly gave an iteration of the same answer about his relationship with the Raptors: He’s there to do his job and try to win, just as always.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

per league sources, Lowry had also been dodging calls and texts from team officials, including president Masai Ujiri and new head coach Nick Nurse, who Lowry said he only spoke with briefly right after Nurse was promoted in June.

This obviously isn’t the healthiest arrangement. Teams function best with open communication.

But the team president and point guard needn’t talk regularly, especially now. Lowry is locked up for two more seasons. The status quo is fairly locked in for the season.

Lowry and Nurse not speaking would be a pressing issue, but training camp just opened. It’s too soon to assess how Lowry will respond to Nurse.

Ultimately, what Kawhi Leonard said about how the Raptors can appeal to him also applies to Lowry – win. If Toronto wins this season, Lowry will likely get over his issues with the DeRozan trade.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.