Everyone knows comparing individual players is fun. But it’s roster fit that’s crucial in determining how effective one player is within a particular team context — and whether that player helps drive success for that team. With those kinds of fit issues in mind, here’s a look at six front-line combinations whose success or failure will have a huge impact on the futures of their respective franchise:
Tiago Splitter–Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
The importance of this duo, once seldom-used, is simple: The Spurs may need them for a crucial stretch here and there if they want to win the title, particularly if their playoff path includes one of the Western Conference’s bigger front lines — Memphis, Utah, and both Los Angeles teams. It has taken three years of very gradual development, but the Spurs are finally scoring when their two center types share the floor together; San Antonio this season has scored a mammoth 111.9 points per 100 possessions in 127 Splitter-Duncan minutes, a mark that would lead the league by a long shot. A year ago, San Antonio’s league-best offense scored at a bottom-five rate in just 129 Splitter-Duncan minutes, per NBA.com
The Spurs with Splitter-Duncan were actually playing stingier defense and holding steady on the boards before the Thunder slaughtered these groups in 13 minutes Monday night. Those 13 minutes brought both the Splitter-Duncan points allowed and defensive rebounding numbers below San Antonio’s overall averages, which shows how small these early sample sizes really are. Still: That these lineups have scored so well is encouraging.
The Splitter-Duncan Spurs don’t shoot nearly as many 3s as San Antonio normally does, and that can cramp the team’s spacing a bit. But the team as a whole is adjusting with more varied play calling, whip-smart passing from both bigs, and the developing chemistry between them. They move on opposite north-south planes, so that if Duncan sets a high screen on the left side and rolls to the hoop, Splitter will move up from the right block toward the foul line — flashing for a possible catch and high-low chance with Duncan. The two will sometimes screen for each other, including some Splitter pin-down picks designed to free Duncan for a mid-range jumper, and the coaching staff is smart about having one of them doing something to occupy the defense on the weak side when the other sets a pick for Tony Parker on the ball.
The assist rate for these groups is way up, as it is for San Antonio as a whole:
The Spurs assisted on about a league-average percentage of their baskets last season, but they’re neck and neck with Chicago for the top spot this season. All this tic-tac-toe passing hasn’t led to a jump in turnovers for Splitter-Duncan lineups, and these big groups are actually fouling less than the always foul-averse Spurs overall.
The Splitter-Duncan sample size is still small, and the results are all over the place once you zoom out to five-man units involving the pair. Spacing will be an issue on some nights, and quick power forwards can be a problem behind the arc and on rapid-fire duck-ins down low. But the early trends are encouraging.
The Splitter-Duncan front line, and all five highlighted below, are really about seeing whether NBA teams can survive — and even thrive — offensively without the beloved stretch power forward with a shooting range to 20 feet and beyond.
Greg Monroe–Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
This might be the only reason Detroit fans are watching the team, even if it leaves them angry the front line of the future isn’t playing more. Monroe and Drummond have logged only 91 minutes together so far, and you can kind of understand Lawrence Frank’s reluctance. Detroit’s offense, already in the league’s bottom 10, drops off by about five points per 100 possessions — a huge number — when the two bigs share the floor. But the defense improves by about the same amount — the equivalent of jumping from about 20th to fifth overall. Detroit is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, but when Monroe-Drummond (Mummond?) take the floor, they grab everything in sight, rebounding at a league-best rate on both ends.
Drummond is raw, and Detroit struggles to space the floor on offense as it is. Monroe is a minus defender, and the pair are in the very early stages of developing a defensive chemistry — of learning when to switch on the fly, how to time those rotations, and when to help elsewhere.
And Drummond plays with a restraint that makes it look as if he’s afraid to unleash his full athleticism, lest he accidentally injure teammates or fans in the first 10 rows. He’s a freak, and once he finds the right balance between freakishness and control, he could develop into a devastating player — and a perfect back-line complement to the ground-bound Monroe on defense. As it is, he’s still figuring out what to do with himself when Monroe works with the ball at the elbow or rolls to the rim on pick-and-rolls. He needs to learn how and when to cut off of Monroe so as not to clog things up; there’s a reason Frank uses Charlie Villanueva as a floor-spacing power forward to break things up.
Here’s hoping Detroit falls hopelessly out of it, so we can see more of these two.
Taj Gibson–Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
A.k.a. the “Can we amnesty Carlos Boozer?” duet. Gibson is shooting just 43 percent, including a miserable sub-20 percent figure on mid-range jumpers, and the main question about this pairing was always going to be whether Chicago could score enough to justify cutting Boozer’s minutes — or cutting him altogether, via the amnesty provision.
Chicago scored at a league-best rate with the Noah-Gibson duo last season, but most of those 311 minutes came with Derrick Rose running the point. In 282 minutes already this season, Chicago’s 24th-ranked offense is scoring at just about the same subpar rate with Gibson-Noah as it is overall. That’s not great news, but it’s not bad news, either; the Bulls are staying afloat, and with Boozer shooting 47 percent and barely getting to the line, the points are coming at the same rate regardless of who plays. What happens when Rose gets back?
And the defense. Holy hell, the defense. Chicago is holding teams to 84.2 points per 100 possessions with the Gibson-Noah front line, a number 12 points stingier than Memphis’s league-leading figure. Gibson and Noah are all extended arms and fast feet, able to cover more ground in Tom Thibodeau’s aggressive schemes than two people should be able to manage. They rebound everything and force turnovers at a scary rate.
The chemistry still needs to grow on offense, where Gibson typically hangs around the right side as Noah facilitates from the left elbow or sets a ball screen. The Bulls will sometimes have Gibson space toward the right corner, but he hasn’t been able to hit from there. He’s not on Boozer’s level in terms of flashing to the paint and passing the ball, and the timing is sometimes off on Gibson’s darts to the middle. Here’s Gibson drawing a three-second violation as Noah, fresh off a pick-and-roll, struggles to find a passing lane:
And here’s Gibson trying to be a scorer but driving right into a Noah cut:
They can make up for this by destroying the offensive glass and outrunning opponents in transition, where Noah’s ballhandling is a huge asset. The Bulls will face a huge tax bill next season if they keep Boozer, and they could have cap room in the summer of 2014 if they amnesty him. Has the Gibson-Noah combo shown enough?
Ed Davis–Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
Your new starting Toronto frontcourt, though Dwane Casey has seldom trusted either to finish close games. These guys are skinny, active, long, fast, and inexperienced; and they produce the kind of interior defense you’d expect when you mix all those ingredients. Valanciunas is prone to overhelping, and his hyperactivity can get him out of balance now and then against skilled post brutes. The Raptors are giving up points at a league-average rate when these two play, an improvement from their bottom-five overall mark, per NBA.com.
The questions come on the other side, where Toronto’s offense has fallen off a cliff; the Raps have scored just 93.3 points per 100 possessions in Valanciunas-Davis time, right around Washington’s league-worst mark. (My god, has Washington’s offense been horrid.)
Davis and Valanciunas are not jump-shooters, and the lane can get very cramped when they play together — a problem that wouldn’t be quite as serious if Toronto’s perimeter players were healthy. Casey has tried to manufacture that spacing by having them set up as opposite elbows, with one working as the hub of the offense — as screener or passer — while the other works with a shooter on the weak side. This marks a huge expansion in duties for each guy, and Davis has shown more aggression sliding into post position on the left block as Valanciunas rolls down the right side on a pick-and-roll;1 Davis has a nice turnaround lefty hook, and though the results have been uneven, he’s on a roll right now and has already taken half as many post-up shots as he attempted all of last season, per Synergy Sports. He’s in the top-30 overall in PER and taking a more active part in Toronto’s offense.
All good signs, even if both Davis and Valanciunas need to work on avoiding near-collisions in the paint.
Al Jefferson–Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Jefferson and Paul Millsap will both be free agents this summer, and with Favors and Enes Kanter onboard, it makes sense for Utah to pick just one — especially since the Jazz can re-sign one and still have max-level cap room leftover.2 But which one? The same choice could apply at the trade deadline, should Utah decide to move one outgoing free agent for assets it could use this season or in the future.
Favors has played many more minutes with Jefferson than with Millsap, with the idea that his shot-blocking and quickness could cover up Jefferson’s plodding pick-and-roll defense. It worked last season, when the Jazz were much stingier with this pairing, but on the surface, it hasn’t done the trick this season; the Jazz are surrendering an untenable 112.2 points per 100 possessions — far worse than the league’s worst defense. Opponents are lighting up these groups with a 40 percent-plus mark from deep, and they are earning even more foul shots than the always foul-prone Jazz give up overall.
The offense is worse, too, with Favors struggling at times to figure out how to be of use during Jefferson’s post-ups on the left block. His mid-range jumper is unreliable, though he has shown an ability to flash into the lane, catch, and make little 10-footers. The timing on those cuts can sometimes be off, especially since Utah’s wings, especially Gordon Hayward, also like to cut to the hoop around Jefferson post-ups. Favors still hasn’t polished his timing when he catches near the foul line and has a step or two to take before arriving at the rim; he reminds me of a less experienced Serge Ibaka in that way.
Still: Favors is an explosive athlete and decent pick-and-roll screener, and this setup worked last season. More encouraging: Opponents have done most of the scoring damage when Jefferson and Favors play with Millsap in ultra-big lineups; the two most-used such groups have both allowed more than 125 points per 100 possessions. Remove Millsap, and Utah is defending at an acceptable level with just the other two bigs. Downside: The offense has dipped far below the league’s average without Millsap’s jack-of-all-trades game.
The jury’s out on whether Favors-Jefferson will be the foundation of a functional, well-spaced offense this season. But how much does this season matter for Utah, assuming they at least make the playoffs?
Brook Lopez–Reggie Evans, Brooklyn Nets
This appears to be Brooklyn’s new starting big-man combo, with Kris Humphries losing favor with Avery Johnson and the Nets concerned about their defense — ranked 18th in points allowed per possession. They’ve been even worse than that when Lopez pairs with Humphries and/or Deron Williams; only Brooklyn’s bench has kept it from being one of the two or three worst defensive teams in the league.
Solution: Bring the wackiest ingredient on that bench into the starting lineup. Even two years ago, it would have been strange to think of Evans as some sort of defensive specialist. He’s always been an elite rebounder, but his hyperactivity hurt as much it helped on defense. He would often lunge himself far out of position while flying around the floor.
He’s more controlled today, but still mobile, and the Nets are betting that mobility can stabilize Brooklyn’s defense. The more ground Evans can cover, the less Lopez must negotiate. Lopez has been a much stronger presence at the rim this season, but he’s still slow in rotating and inconsistent in guarding the pick-and-roll.3
Things are working so far, though Lopez and Evans have logged only 90 minutes together, per NBA.com. The Nets have allowed just 92.4 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, a massive drop-off from their overall number and a stingier mark than the league’s best defenses give up. Evans’s communication skills have also helped. The cost has come on offense, but it has not been huge: The Nets have scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions with Lopez-Evans, a league-average mark, even if it represents a step back from Brooklyn’s top-10 overall number (103.8).
Evans has essentially zero offensive skills beyond rebounding and setting picks, and his man will rove all over to disrupt more dangerous stuff.4 When Evans’s guy drifts into help mode, that often leaves the other big-man defender to “zone up” between Evans and Lopez in an attempt to cover both guys. Lopez must take advantage of those moments by flashing into open space for short-range catch-and-shoot chances, as he did several times during Brooklyn’s loss Saturday at Chicago:
Even if Evans is no longer the starter, Johnson will likely lean on the Lopez–Evans pairing for meaningful minutes — including in crunch time. It’s hard to start such a one-dimensional player, but the other four starting Nets are all serious scoring threats. Maybe this can work.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Kings’ Transition Defense
Oof. Only five teams have given up more fast-break points per game, and the Kings rank in the bottom half of the league in points allowed per possession on those chances. All their wings, especially Marcus Thornton, have a tendency to watch shots when opponents are a step into their run-outs, and Thornton compounds things with some ill-timed crashing of the offensive glass. DeMarcus Cousins running back on defense is a totally different player than Cousins sprinting from defense to offense, to the point that it’s almost embarrassing. This has been a recurring problem for the Kings, a team that just can’t seem to get any better.
2. The Kings’ Purple Road Uniforms
One of the sweetest road unis in the league and one that emphasizes a color few teams feature. Their black roadies are nice, too, but these babies stand out.
3. Ian Eagle and the Nets’ Broadcasting Team
Eagle’s Seinfield riff on Joe Johnson’s Friday-night buzzer-beater (“That was real, and that was spectactular!”) got a lot of attention, but Eagle is good for a few laugh-out-loud lines every game — including some deadpan stuff at his own expense. In Brooklyn’s home loss to Minnesota in November, Eagle introduced the audience to Greg Stiemsma by noting Stiemsma is not much of a jump-shooter. Before Eagle even finished his sentence, Stiemsma launched a jumper that went in. Eagle cut himself off without missing a beat: “And I take it back.” After another Stiemsma jumper, Eagle began waxing about Stiemsma’s “sweet stroke,” as if it were the stuff of legend.
The rest of the team — Greg Anthony, Jim Spanarkel, Ryan Ruocco, Mike Fratello, and Sarah Kustok — are all informative and even-handed. The Nets might have the league’s best all-around broadcasting experience, refreshingly free of homerism.
4. Miami’s PA Announcer
His name is Michael Baiamonte, and he is apparently a very nice man. Judging from my Twitter feed, Miami’s fans — his target audience — seem to like him. But some of his calls after Miami baskets, especially those by Chris Bosssssssssshhhhhhhhhhh and Dwyyyyaaaaaaaaaaane Waaaaaaaaaaaaaade, take so long, they are still going on when an opponent scores on the other end. God forbid Wade hits “for threeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” There is a middle ground between extreme showmanship and boring in-arena entertainment, right?
5. Gordon Hayward’s Stalled Pick-and-Roll Game
Hayward last season had a tendency to go nowhere on his wing pick-and-rolls, and to turn the ball over when he tried to do something more aggressive. Nothing has changed this season. Hayward has shot just 8-of-29 on pick-and-rolls, and he has turned over the ball on a whopping 24 percent of all such plays he’s tried, according to Synergy. The rest feature a lot of dribbling and very little north-south progress. Hayward has the superficial look of a decent pick-and-roll option, and the Jazz are surely hoping for more.
6. Rudy Gay’s Vaguely Jordanian Isolation Plays
I should dislike them, since they are low-percentage shots, but damn if there isn’t something athletically hypnotic about Rudy Gay’s turnaround jumpers from the post. The motion is just so fluid, and those long arms reach so high in the air the shot is basically unblockable. That’s especially true because Gay seems to do the Michael Jordan thing where he’s still hanging at the apex of his jump when the defender begins falling back toward the floor. Not many shots look more impressive.
7. Stretching Greg Monroe
Monroe has always been a skilled high-post passer, but this season Detroit is asking him to do more by stepping up the pace of some sets that feature Monroe at the elbow. One favorite: Detroit will run a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor using the non-Monroe big man — usually Jason Maxiell — to set the screen and roll to the hoop. As Maxiell rolls, Monroe will flash from the baseline up to the elbow on the opposite side of the floor, catch a pass from Detroit’s point guard, and fire an immediate bounce pass to Maxiell near the hoop. It’s Lawrence Frank’s way of using Monroe as a pick-and-roll middle man, doing the work Brandon Knight isn’t ready to do consistently. Good stuff.
8. Kevin Seraphin’s Allergy to Free Throws
Seraphin is an intriguing prospect, but the Wiz have to teach this guy to draw some contact. Seraphin has used 25.4 percent of Washington possessions while on the floor via a shot, drawn foul, or turnover. He has attempted 16.6 field goals and just 1.2 free throws per 36 minutes. He is 10-of-17 from the line, total. If he keeps this up, he has a shot to make some NBA history. Only one player has ever played 1,000 minutes in a season, used 25 percent or more of his team’s possessions, and attempted fewer than 1.5 free throws per 36 minutes: Eddie House on the 2005-06 Suns.
9. Andre Iguodala’s Knee Brace
It’s yellow-gold, the same color as the trim on Denver’s powder-blue road uniforms. Iguodala’s not the first Nugget player to use accessories in that color, but the lack of originality doesn’t change the fact that it looks good. When all the games start to blend together over the winter, every little idiosyncratic touch helps.
10. Ryan Anderson Threat Level
I could do an entire post on the creative ways Monty Williams gets Ryan Anderson open looks in the half-court, but this is more fun. Anderson is now the league’s premier long-range bomber, tossing up a ridiculous eight 3s per game and making a just-as-ridiculous 43.5 percent of them. Teams are absolutely terrified of leaving him open; Ray Allen may be the only player who inspires the same level of fear even before the ball has reached his hands.
The best is in semi-transition, when defenses are scrambling to find the right matchups and Anderson is sprinting to an open spot somewhere behind the 3-point arc. There is a wonderful slice of time when the defense — coaches, players, trainers, fans behind the bench, people watching on TV — all realize where the ball is about to be passed, and that it is too late to do anything about it. It is the NBA’s new silent scream.