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The ‘How Is This Guy Relevant?’ All-Stars

Luke Walton — yes, Luke Walton — is playing important NBA minutes. Who else is logging surprising time? Plus: The mess in Detroit and the lies of a Lakers broadcast.

A couple of weeks ago, in highlighting the surprising potency of the Luke Walton–Shaun Livingston give-and-go, I noted Walton would be the captain of the “I Can’t Believe He’s This Relevant” Team. That led to a natural question: Could you build a 15-man roster of such players? Here’s a crack at the 2013 Luke Walton All-Stars.

STARTERS

Luke Walton, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers (Captain)

Walton was a broken-down piece of cap fodder the Lakers had to toss into last season’s Ramon Sessions trade — or, alternatively, the relatively expensive price Cleveland had to pay in order to acquire a first-round pick from the Lakers and the right to swap picks this summer, a potentially tasty treat the Cavs only get to execute if the Lakers sneak into the no. 8 spot.1 Walton hadn’t played even 500 minutes in any season since 2008-09, and he had logged just 65 minutes for the 2011-12 Lakers before the Sessions deal. He was nearly 32 and slow, with a very bad back; the league just assumed he’d take on the role of brainy hoops mentor/nice locker-room guy for the young Cavs.

And then Byron Scott started playing him, to a reaction of astonishment and laughter. Walton can’t guard anyone, he barely looks to shoot, and he misses 60 percent of the shots he does take. But, holy cow, his passing transformed the Cavaliers’ bench2 into a shockingly entertaining squad. Walton is dishing nearly seven (!) assists per 36 minutes, and the Cavs have played better on both ends when Walton is on the floor, per NBA.com. His chemistry with Livingston has been legitimately entertaining, and the Livingston–Walton–C.J. Miles–Marreese Speights–Wayne Ellington bench mob has poured in better than 107 points per 100 possessions — the equivalent of a top-five overall mark. Opponents have outscored that lineup, but it has been a fantastic watch as the Cavs pop an unusually high number of 3s from the corners behind Walton’s smart passing in space. A nice little story.

Reggie Evans, forward, Brooklyn Nets

Evans has shoved his way to the no. 1 spot in offensive rebounding rate, defensive rebounding rate, and total rebounding rate. He’s starting over Kris Humphries, playing half of every Nets game, and single-handedly keeping the Nets alive on the defensive glass. When Brook Lopez is on the floor without Evans as a rebound-gobbling, nut-punching gargoyle sidekick, the Nets rebound only 69.3 percent of opponent misses — a mark that would be dead last by a mile, per NBA.com. Evans is also probably the Nets’ best overall interior defender, capable of blitzing pick-and-rolls out toward midcourt and recovering in speedy fashion, even if he can veer off course now and then.

Here’s a general rule: If you’re this dependent on Reggie Evans, you’re not a contender. He has bad hands, zero range, and almost no scoring ability — his recent 22-point explosion in Portland and 15-point game against Denver notwithstanding — and his elite offensive rebounding stems in part from the fact that defenses don’t guard him.3 But he has done his job this season — a bigger job than the Nets ever intended for him. (Hi, Kris Humphries.)

Damien Wilkins, guard, Philadelphia 76ers

Wilkins has started 12 consecutive games for the Sixers and averaged nearly 29 minutes per game in March. He’s jacking about 10 shots per 36 minutes, more than he’s taken in any season since 2008-09, when he started 14 games for the Thunder back when Oklahoma City was terrible. The Sixers are running honest-to-god post-up plays for Damien Wilkins in 2013, and those post-ups are one reason why Wilkins is dishing a surprising number of assists.

Wilkins would be riding the bench if not for injuries to Jason Richardson and Nick Young, and Doug Collins’s predictable eye-rolling frustration with Young’s shot selection, but he’s done better than anyone could have expected in the minutes that became available. Manning Sumner, who trains Wilkins in the offseason, has told me Wilkins is probably the most diligent worker of his NBA clients. The guy is an NBA survivor, somehow.

Marco Belinelli, guard, Chicago Bulls

Belinelli has logged more than 35 minutes in 14 games this season, and more than 40 minutes in eight games. He had hit the 40-minute mark just 13 times total before signing via Chicago’s biannual exception, presumably to chuck some 3s off the Bulls’ newly depleted bench. The Bulls, a wretched 3-point shooting team, have instead counted upon Belinelli to supply both offense and spacing by running around screens in the jackrabbit style of the always-injured Richard Hamilton. Belinelli has filled in at point guard, both as a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler in normal Chicago sets, and as the full-time point man when Kirk Hinrich was injured.4

In related news: Belinelli is shooting 39.6 percent on a very tough range of shots when he really should be a glorified spot-up guy with a dash of ballhandling. He’s a nice personification of this Derrick Rose–less Chicago offense: All the cuts and passes are executed with pleasing precision, but the result is normally a missed jumper. Watching Belinelli makes me tired, and concerned for him. He’ll serve as this squad’s starting point guard, a fitting overburdening for poor Marco.

Kenyon Martin and Rasheed Wallace

Kensheed Walltin, forward/center, New York Knicks

Given their injuries, age, and ridiculous roster of 1990s proto-blog fodder, the Knicks could really monopolize this list — thus the combining of two aging big men here. Kenyon Martin has instantly shifted from unsigned veteran lunatic to essential piece on a team with ambitions of pushing Miami in the conference finals. Martin is New York’s only healthy big man capable of playing real NBA minutes (sorry, Marcus Camby), and he has taken Tyson Chandler’s place as the screen-setter in New York’s small-ball pick-and-roll attack. Martin remains an active, feisty defender, capable of switching onto wings in a pinch (though not of guarding top wings over extended stretches) and always willing to deliver a brutal foul.

Martin is essential in part because of New York’s bizarre refusal to waive Rasheed Wallace. In 20 games to which the MSG Network will someday devote a hagiographic one-hour special, Sheed provided solid defense, shockingly good work on the boards, the expected chucking from long range, and some glimpses of his once-potent post game. But he’s hurt now, he’s not coming back, and the Knicks hung on to him for reasons only Mike Woodson really understands — even though half the team’s roster is either ancient, injured, or D-League-caliber.

BENCH

Jerryd Bayless, guard, Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis took a shot on Bayless as an offense-booster capable of backing up Mike Conley and sliding to the 2-guard, but even the happiest Grizz optimists couldn’t have expected this. During his last 15 games, Bayless is averaging nearly 15 points on about 12 shot attempts — mostly those pull-up jumpers on the pick-and-roll that make you pull your hair out when they miss, but look so, so smooth when they go in. Bayless for the season hasn’t really boosted the Grizz offense, but since the Rudy Gay trade, Memphis has scored 107.8 points per 100 possession with Bayless on the floor and just 100.5 when he sits, per NBA.com. That’s roughly the difference between New York’s third-ranked offense and Boston’s 22nd-ranked scoring outfit. The Grizz in that span have mostly paired Bayless with Conley rather than trusting Bayless as a stand-alone point guard, and smaller lineups with those two and just one Memphis big have been prolific.5

That’s a good thing, because outside of some isolated stretches of good production — like the fourth quarter of Memphis’s win Saturday in Minnesota — the Grizz have fallen apart when Bayless plays without Conley as a security blanket.6

Still: Bayless is shooting 37 percent from deep, and while that’s a drop-off from last season’s obvious outlier (42 percent), Bayless appears to have stabilized midcareer as an above-average 3-point shooter. That’s huge.

Bayless has temporarily replaced Quincy Pondexter as the anonymous player most secretly crucial to a would-be contender’s postseason hopes. But what happens when the jumper stops falling? Bayless has never gotten to the rim much, and though he goes through stretches of solid passing, his pass-or-shoot choices aren’t always optimal, and he can be turnover-prone. He’s a ball watcher on defense, vulnerable to back-cuts, and he’s undersized against most shooting guards; the Grizz defense has been considerably worse when Bayless is on the floor. Striking the right balance here will be tough for Lionel Hollins.

J.R. Smith, guard, New York Knicks

Um … so … I’m sort of frightened by what’s going on here. Like, I think maybe the Knicks have successfully invented some genetic reengineering program and/or completed some sort of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style alteration of Smith’s brain. Before March 14, about 16.5 percent of Smith’s shots came in the restricted area, and he was attempting about 3.3 free throws per 36 minutes, according to NBA.com’s stats database. In 10 games since, nearly 36 percent of his shots have come within the restricted area, and he’s slicing his way to nearly nine foul shots per 36 minutes. He is just destroying guys off the dribble, spinning his way into the paint, rebounding his own misses, and generally behaving like a completely different player.

The early-season improvements on the glass and on defense, where Smith was once a poisonous gambler and ball watcher, have sustained over the full campaign. There are teams around the league who have a blanket “No J.R. Smith” policy, but even those franchises will have to think twice this summer, when Smith will be a free agent, if he is committed to playing this way over the long haul.

The Knicks expected a bench scorer whom Woodson could keep on a short leash because of all the surrounding talent. Smith has instead become an indispensable force and played his way back into the Sixth Man of the Year discussion. Hold me, someone.

Josh McRoberts, forward/center, Charlotte Bobcats

Would you look at that: The Bobcats have a big man who can actually do something with the ball! McRoberts is logging more minutes than ever after the Bobcats snagged him from Orlando for the useless Hakim Warrick (since waived), and he has instantly become Charlotte’s most competent offensive big man. He’s a good enough screener and passer to facilitate from the elbows, something Mike Dunlap tried with Warrick and other bigs incapable of playing that role, and he’s a smart enough cutter to snag an easy hoop here and there.

He’s also picked up Charlotte’s zone hybrids and pack-the-paint concepts quickly on defense, Dunlap told me Friday in New York. McRoberts admitted he has had to adjust to Charlotte’s pick-and-roll scheme, which has him dropping down instead of blitzing ball handlers as he did in Indiana and last season with the Lakers. “I’m still getting my bearings a little bit,” he says. Charlotte wants him back, but at what price?

Carlos Delfino, forward, Houston Rockets

Houston signing Delfino to a two-year, $6 million deal7 barely registered, even though Delfino is a heady player with a proven 3-point stroke. Age had sapped Delfino of quickness toward the end of his time in Milwaukee, making it difficult for him to defend both wing positions seamlessly — once a key chunk of his value. Houston appeared to be adding a nice spot-up shooter, good locker-room guy, and bit player to a team overcrowded with tweener power forward types.

Nope. Delfino is logging a solid 25 minutes per game as both a backup wing player and a key part of Houston’s prolific small-ball lineups. Delfino is bulkier than Chandler Parsons, so he usually takes on the burden of defending power forwards when Houston goes small, and the Rockets have allowed him to do more on offense than just spot up; he has permission to work as a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler, and to drive-and-kick when defenders close out on him.

But he’s still shooting a ton — a whopping 8.9 3s per 36 minutes. That would be the largest figure ever for any player who logged at least 1,500 minutes in a season. Only George McCloud and Michael Adams, both famous chuckers, have ever cracked the 8.5 mark; Antoine Walker only got above seven triples per 36 minutes in one season!

P.J. Tucker, forward/guard, Phoenix Suns

I’ve tried to avoid the “out of nowhere breakout player” here, because the Luke Walton All-Star is more of a journeyman type. But Tucker has to be on this roster. The Suns, tanktastically finishing up a predictably depressing season, have actually been calling post-up/isolation plays for Tucker of late. Tucker doesn’t bring much on offense, but he’s a rugged defender of both wing positions — and even some power forwards — and a plus rebounder, especially on the offensive glass.8 Lindsey Hunter has shifted around most of the rotation since taking over for Alvin Gentry, but Tucker has remained a fixture.

Chris Andersen, center, Miami Heat

From out of the league to key bench player on a team that is 31-2 when he has played. Andersen hasn’t cracked 20 minutes once, but he has vaulted past a lot of Heat mainstays to earn an important rotation spot as the lone true big man on the bench. It has been astonishing how quickly Birdman has picked up Miami’s helter-skelter schemes on both ends, though he clearly had the speed and smarts to do it. Small lineups featuring Andersen, three bench players, and either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James — lineups that may be key parts of Miami’s postseason rotation for short stints of every game — have mostly been very successful.

Martell Webster, forward/guard, Washington Wizards

The question Washington has to ask itself now, with the full midlevel exception available this summer, is how this version of Webster would look earning something like $5 million per year instead of the cheap $1.75 million deal Washington nabbed him for last summer. Webster was supposed to be a role player after the Wiz assumed Trevor Ariza’s nasty contract (and Emeka Okafor’s), but he greatly outplayed Ariza for the first half of the season, and has mostly continued to do so even as Ariza has righted himself a bit over the last few weeks.

Webster isn’t on Ariza’s level as a defender, but he’s decent, and his surprise emergence as one of this season’s very best 3-point gunners has been crucial for a Wiz offense that had struggled to generate spacing. That’s not the case when John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Webster share the court, and just about every group featuring Webster and at least two other core Wiz pieces has outscored opponents by a significant margin. Webster has even added a bit of a drive-and-kick element to his game, though scoring and dishing in crowds is never really going to be a strong suit. A nice signing, and a very unexpected 30 minutes per game. Now what?

INACTIVE/DEEP BENCH

Alan Anderson, guard, Toronto Raptors

Gunnin’, gunnin’, gunnin’ for that next NBA contract.

Vince Carter, guard, Dallas Mavericks

Not a shocker, given his solid play last season, but nobody expected production like this — or for Dallas to lean so heavily upon him. A total late-career reinvention.

Marquis Daniels, guard, Milwaukee Bucks

From occasional surprise starter, to out of the rotation, and now back to starting after some injury nicks to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Jim Boylan, Milwaukee’s head coach, likes Daniels’s defense, and the Grand Marquis has always sported some smart and steady footwork on that end. But if Milwaukee is counting on him to guard bullies like James and Wade in the first round, they’re in for some trouble — especially since Daniels doesn’t bring much more on offense, save the occasional smart flash cut, than Mbah a Moute.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Late-Season Garbage Games

Last Thursday’s Kings-Suns game was everything bad about the NBA wrapped into one 48-minute package of awfulness for which all fans in attendance should have received a full refund. The Suns held out the perfectly healthy Goran Dragic for the second straight game, both increasing their chances of losing and pulling an obvious “let’s cover our ass” move after sitting Dragic the night before against Utah — a team for which Phoenix is rooting, because the Suns receive the Lakers’ first-round pick if L.A. misses the playoffs.

DeMarcus Cousins stopped paying attention to complain to an official just 1:11 into the game. And everybody — Cousins, Michael Beasley, Travis Freaking Outlaw — was jacking off-the-bounce 20-footers with 15 seconds left on the shot clock in order to get theirs. Just terrible.

2. Brandon Jennings’s Defense

Boy, is this going to be an interesting next few months for Milwaukee and Jennings, as the Bucks’ wannabe All-Star hits restricted free agency. Jennings has occasionally seen his minutes drop since the J.J. Redick trade, and he ranted about accountability (or something) last week, when Boylan benched him during the fourth quarter of a close loss to Philly.

Jennings is a nice player, hitting a tidy 37.5 percent from deep, but he’s also shooting just 39.5 percent overall and still struggles to score near the rim. This bit of defense against Steve Nash last week is basically representative of the looseness with which Jennings has played that side of the ball during the last couple of months:



Bring your game, on both ends, and the dollars and minutes will take care of themselves.

3. Lob Schadenfreude

I’ll admit it: I smile when a team goes out of its way to maneuver an alley-oop on a fast break, and then fails to execute. The Heat and the Clippers are the most frequent offenders, and the needless contortions take many forms — pauses so that a big man can catch up, a dribbler veering in a weird direction at a weird time, or a high-risk lob pass when a simpler play would do. The basketball gods sometimes frown upon this behavior and punish it with turnovers and missed shots. We should all rejoice when they do.

4. The Detroit Debacle

The Pistons are 3-15 in their last 18 games, and their “defense” has allowed 112.0 points per 100 possessions in that span — 2.4 points worse than Charlotte’s league-worst mark for the season, per NBA.com. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Detroit traded a decent wing defender in Tayshaun Prince and received a minus point guard defender, Jose Calderon, in return. Prince’s departure has them playing overmatched small lineups more often. Andre Drummond’s back issues robbed Detroit of any rim protection, and Brandon Knight’s ankle injury removed another rotation cog for a stretch.

But the fall-off has been disturbing. Greg Monroe remains slow and out of place, and Lawrence Frank still has all his bigs hedging very hard on pick-and-rolls — often to results like this:



And it’s not just the defense. Detroit’s offense during those 18 games scored at a rate that ranks among the league’s worst offenses (currently a tie between Phoenix and Washington, per NBA.com). Hopefully Drummond can provide some much-needed good vibes in these final handful of games.

5. Taj Gibson’s Active Hands

Taj Gibson is just fantastic to watch on defense. One little thing he does as well as anyone in the league: keep his hands up and his arms spread when he’s helping and recovering on pick-and-rolls. Chicago usually prefers its big men drop back on pick-and-rolls, but Gibson has the foot speed and coordination to hedge in the style Charlie Villanueva uses in the above clip, and Gibson is always — always — diligent about keeping his hands and arms in passing lanes as he scurries back to his guy:

Taj Gibson

You’d be surprised how many deflections a big can get doing this, and how many passes don’t happen simply because flailing arms are in the way.

6. Meyers Leonard, Slipping Into Space

A late-season silver lining for Portland: Leonard is getting more minutes now with the playoffs out of reach and LaMarcus Aldridge dealing with an ankle issue. Leonard is still out of his depth on defense, but he has done well on the other end in extended minutes — including a 22-point outburst in a blowout loss to Golden State over the weekend. Leonard has shown he should be able to work as a refined jack-of-all-trades pick-and-roll big, slipping screens, cutting hard into space, and making solid and instant decisions about whether to pass, loft a floater, or roll for a dunk attempt. Sometimes those hard cuts suck in defenders, opening up things for teammates, without Leonard even touching the ball:



7. The Lakers TV Experience

Bill Macdonald is a good announcer, but this season, he has turned every basket in every Laker game into a HUGELY IMPORTANT AND MAGICAL MOMENT FOR KOBE BEAN BRYANT AND D12 AND PAU GASOL WITH THE MIDRANGE CASH!!!!! He calls comeback wins over terrible teams as if the Lakers are clinching Game 7s. This kind of VERY LOUD MELODRAMATIC CHEERING is fine for the dregs of the league, but even amid a season of mediocrity, the Lakers — destroyers of the luxury tax, and hoisters of 16 banners — should be above this rah-rah stuff.

8. Klay Thompson’s U-Turns

Thompson spends a lot of his time on offense running off baseline screens for catch-and-shoot chances, and when Jarrett Jack is in the game handling the ball, Thompson and Stephen Curry might simultaneously run off screens on opposite sides of the floor.

Thompson will sometimes mix things up by starting his curl pattern just a beat before Curry starts his, and then cutting it off early by hitting the brakes and U-turning into the lane. If things go well, Thompson flashes open in the paint right as Curry catches Jack’s pass on the wing:



Fun, fun, fun.

9. “My bad”

Call it the Anti-Boogie — when players pat their chest and raise one hand in acknowledgement of a defensive breakdown that leads to an easy opponent hoop. It’s a nice way to take the heat off a teammate who might be closer to the resulting dunk or 3-pointer, and when the breakdown occurs off the ball or in any sort of nonobvious place, the Anti-Boogie is a good window into a team’s defensive scheme — of what players are supposed to do in specific situations.

Miami Heat

10. Miami’s Red Alternate Road Jerseys

They are both shiny and somehow muted, a dark and glowing orange-red that suggests foreboding, rather than a happy orange that might indicate weakness. A solid road jersey, and better than Miami’s standard black road outfits. Those are fine, but typical. These blood-and-fire-colored bad boys are unique.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA