This pass is from James Johnson is incredible, the outcome for Miami is poor. James Johnson’s process for creating this passing angle isn’t really something you’d recommend for any player. He takes advantage of Saric’s cushion, driving right past him, before encountering Embiid. However, Johnson starts the passing motion as soon as Whiteside steps in behind Embiid, which demonstrates an impressive amount of court vision. This is really heady baseline dunker cutting from Whiteside and seems to be more an exhibition in teammate cohesion than an improvised connection. It’s obvious that neither Embiid’s attention nor body are in position to defend the cut. But he’s half expecting the pass, half getting in position for the rebound, so he doesn’t load up before he catches the ball to dunk in one motion.
Whiteside, like many big men (or normal people), takes quite a long time to load up before jumping, which gives Saric and Simmons enough time to recover and force Whiteside into a more complicated decision than a dunk attempt. Hassan gets flustered, stepping out of bounds. A more seasoned ball-handler would have easily found Josh Richardson in the corner for 3, but alas. Whiteside is a paint finisher through and through, and doesn’t easily look to pass when he has the ball under the basket. Would that have been Ben Simmons or Draymond Green, Richardson gets an open look. But Simmons and Green aren’t on the level of Whiteside’s finishing, either. Even a player perfectly balanced in the two skills will often seek one at the expense of the other. Only a select few can strike a harmonic chord between the two.
This play also underscores Philadelphia’s size. While Embiid is certainly imposing in the background, both Simmons and Saric stand 6’10” which thwarts Whiteside’s shot attempt. If that’s another point guard/power forward combination, there’s likely a shot attempt, though perhaps not a very wise one. Whiteside shoots 69 percent at the rim,1 a very efficient mark, but two nearly equal behemoths makes the task tougher. But he also grabs 12.2 percent of offensive rebounds.2 Are bigs more likely to get offensive rebounds off of their own missed layups? Good question. Would the presence of Simmons, Saric, and Embiid decrease the chances of that happening? Likely so. But an undoubtedly better outcome for Philly is a turnover, for which they can thank their unmatched size.
This is not a good defensive play from Whiteside. At best, he’s overextending the idea of ‘taking ownership of the paint’. At worst, he’s just chasing blocks, a longstanding criticism of his defense. Covington’s drive is well-defended by Dragic with James Johnson in position to help off of Ben Simmons. RoCo isn’t a particularly renowned rim finisher or driver,3 so the threat of his drive into Johnson and Dragic does not compare to the threat of an open Embiid three. This isn’t to harp on Whiteside. To his credit, he did make some effort to deny Embiid 3-point looks the rest of the game, looking at least aware of the scouting report information that was surely available. Embiid’s six 3-point attempts all came with Whiteside matched up on him, a savvy tactic from he and/or Brett Brown. Still, as the season whittles down to the playoffs, such mental mistakes cause concern for Whiteside.
For Kelly Olynyk the grass may not be greener on the other side, but the light is.. The linked article likens the adjustment Olynyk is making on the type of 3’s he’s shooting to that of Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt last year. The Heat can only hope this goes as well. The Heat are running screens to open up Olynyk for three’s left, right, and center. That’s a pretty large departure from his days in Boston. With the Celtics, Olynyk was usually setting the screens, not coming off of them. He used his shooting as the pick-and-roll screener, the break trailer, or the punchline after a string of zippy passes. He had a few more diverse opportunities in Boston last season, but this year is a noticeable step up.
Per CTG, 41 percent of his shots are coming from deep this year, the highest mark of his career by 6 percent. Here’s one of Miami’s favorite improvisational actions, a dribble hand off for Olynyk, particularly with James Johnson:
Miami runs this to get him looks in the corner, using a non-shooter to set a screen for the ball handler while setting a floppy screen for Olynyk:4
Here Olynyk is part of a double flair screen for Tyler Johnson, then Dragic pins both Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon down in order to set up Olynyk. This is one way that Miami incorporates this double-screen into pindown for Olynyk action. Any screen involving two shooters is lethal, and this is no exception. Johnson fakes setting a pick for Richardson, so Simmons is already behind the play when Johnson approaches the flair screens. This causes Gordon to take a half step back to help, and Dragic immediately pounces on Payton. He even moves to the ‘second level’, making contact with Gordon as well. Offensive linemen, take note.
Of course, these shots are harder; Olynyk has missed his fair share. On this SLOB, Dragic once again clears out space for Olynyk on this double Iverson cut.
In a very hard to defend BLOB, Adebayo screens for Johnson on the strong side, while Winslow sneaks along the weakside baseline for a lay up. But, at the last moment, he screens both weakside defenders, leaving Olynyk with a clean look at a corner three.
Dragic clears backdoor, attracting help from Favors. Dragic just turns his cut into a pindown screen for Olynyk which leaves Favors with no chance to contest the shot.
Encouragingly, he’s matching his 36 percent shooting mark from last year, despite the increase in shot difficulty. That shooting could prove to be even more valuable to Miami than Ellington’s. It’s hard enough wings and guards to traverse the screens set for elite cutting shooters. Bigs will get left in the dust. Not that Olynyk is rocketing off of these picks, but the ability of both screener and roller to shoot just creates more havoc for defenses. Bigs aren’t as adept, mentally or technically, at handling the chaos as the primary defender on off-ball screens. This is the difference between passive and active gravity. It’s a lot easier to remember to stand two steps closer to a guy than to learn how to mirror his movements curling around screens, or communicating for help.
Like many skilled bigs in today’s league, Olynyk’s post game is only an efficient means of offense against a size mismatch. Ditto for the threat of his offensive rebounding. But that’s exactly what may happen if he plays a center off the court.
Now, it’s possible Olynyk never becomes that type of shooter. A lot of that will depend on if he (and the Heat) can train his body to stabilize itself off of movement, and his grasp of the footwork needed to turn horizontal motion into vertical thrust. Another main sticking point is Olynyk’s low release,5 which mitigates a lot of the benefits of standing 7-feet tall. In a playoff setting, most teams have a forward who can snuff these actions out, but what about their center? As teams get smaller in the playoffs, so too would the Heat, causing a far more glaring matchup nightmare with an opposing center.
Passive gravity is still a useful tool for any player, especially a 7-footer. But active gravity for a big man is a different weapon, especially combined with the ability to handle and make good decisions with the ball. That’s the type of player development win that turns a free agent contract of middling value into one with legitimate surplus value.
Dario Saric is (and has been) a sneakily good rim protector. He jumps straight up, hands up, chest out. He has the hand-eye coordination to mirror ball movement, which leads to the occasional surprising rejection. Per NBA.com, he’s allowing 58.2 percent shooting at the rim, on 3.6 attempts per game, which ranks in the top 50.6
Joel Embiid is a fast learner. That separated him from almost every other NBA prospect ever, save the greats. One skills he’s already learned: the ability to draw ticky tack fouls. Per CTG, he ranks in the 83rd percentile of shooting fouls drawn after finishing in the 92nd last year. On floor fouls, 100th and 99th percentiles, respectively. Where is he improving? On finishing and-1’s, going from the 11th to 36th percentile. His foul drawing is also reflective of the self-awareness he possesses about his star power.
JJ Redick might be in better cardiovascular shape than Chris Traeger, Rob Lowe’s upbeat character in Parks and Recreation. The Sixers have needed more ball-handling duties from him than he’s ever had, and he’s delivered. There are some head-scratching turnovers, but his combination of shooting ability and continuous movement make him a constant terror. It’s not news, but it’s always impressive.
Tyler Johnson could be a very nice offensive player if he puts it all together. He can finish at the rim in tight spaces, making 64 percent of his shots at the rim.7 The next step for him, as with many ball-handlers, is developing a pull up 3-point shot. Per NBA.com, 16.5 percent of his shots are pull up 2’s; only 3.5 percent of them are pull up 3-pointers. He’s so adept at quickly setting his feet on catch-and-shoot looks, and such a good baseline shooter (36.7 percent career), that he seems to be able to improve that skill since he’s still only 25. His ball skills when passing out of the pick-and-roll are another encouraging sign of a translatable skill. His passing vision isn’t top notch, but if that off-the-dribble 3-pointer comes along, he’ll be extremely dangerous in pick-in-rolls and dribble hand-offs. He’s not going to burn you like Isaiah Thomas, but he’s big enough to get his shot off against most combo guards.
- 66th percentile among bigs, per CleaingTheGlass. The percentiles are a maybe a little misleading at the top, for instance DeAndre Jordan ranks in the 72nd percentile but is only a few percentage points ahead of Whiteside. ↩
- From field goals, 92nd percentile per CTG. ↩
- Covington ranks 139th out of 286 players who make at least one drive per game, per NBA.com ↩
- I love how pumped up Wayne Ellington is, having set the screen that freed Olynyk to shoot. ↩
- Something that Lauri Markkanen does not have working against him. Markkanen’s footwork, balance, and shot diversity are also much more seasoned, though his decision making is certainly not. ↩
- Among players with at least 20 GP, 15 MPG. ↩
- 66th percentile among combo guards, per CTG. ↩