An NBA veteran who shall remain nameless made it known last season that he wasn’t thrilled about his inclusion on the third annual Luke Walton All-Stars. Team Walton is for journeymen thriving in unexpectedly large roles, and NBA players are confident sorts; they rarely find their individual success surprising.
So let me be clear: This is a celebration! Not everyone can be a superstar. It takes dedication for players to expand their games midcareer, survive under a heavier burden of minutes, and blend into different rosters as the NBA’s transaction wheel flings them around the league. A Walton is a hardened chameleon, and the league is filled with them this season; competition for a Walton spot has never been tougher.
A reminder: We steer away from young players who have stuck with one team and gradually climbed higher on the roster totem pole. You won’t see Cory Joseph, Donatas Motiejunas, Solomon Hill, Kyle O’Quinn, or Evan Fournier1 on this roster. They’ve all been solid, but they haven’t yet acquired the soul of a Walton.
Yes, he changed teams, but he’s a first-round pick who’s only in Year 3.
With that, we present the Fourth Annual Luke Walton All-Stars.
G: Louis Williams (team captain), Toronto Raptors
Lou Williams was a classic bench playmaker when he tore his ACL in January 2013, but he floundered in his first recovery season in Atlanta, and the pass-happy Hawks gave away their only ball-stopper in a laughably lopsided deal with the Drakes.
Toronto has unleashed Williams as a score-first chucker, pairing him with at least one point guard and happily watching as Williams nails audacious pull-up 3s and tricks defenders into heaps of shooting fouls. The prince of the Lou-for-12 is having the best season of his career, captaining bench mobs that are slaughtering opponents and fitting seamlessly into starter-heavy units — especially as the Raps cope without DeMar DeRozan.
Chris Paul is the king.
Williams might be the league’s wiliest drawer of fouls. If he coaxes an opponent just a hair off-balance, Williams will lean into the poor sap, confident the officials will see a desperate defender reaching to regain control of the situation. Sometimes the defender really is guilty; Williams fools people with a mean-spirited pump fake, and when he gains just an inch of inside position on the pick-and-roll, he’ll either go right to the rim or rise up whenever he feels the defender creeping in from behind. He’s an expert at faking toward a screen on the pick-and-roll, getting his defender to lean that way, and then darting away from the pick; Williams has veered away from the screen on 29 percent of his pick-and-rolls this season, per Synergy Sports, the third-highest mark among rotation ball handlers.
Some of the alleged fouls are impossible to spot even after multiple replays, and that’s a tribute to Williams using his long arms, weird change-of-pace game, and predatory driving to create the impression of contact when none exists. It can get ugly when officials sniff out the hoax, but Williams is living at the line right now.
He’ll regress some. He’s shooting a career-best 38 percent from deep, and some of those are 28-foot off-the-bounce bombs that just can’t keep finding bottom. Playoff teams will be on high alert for his pet moves and more diligent about exploiting Williams defensively. The Raps have been fine on that end when Williams plays, but that’s mostly because they’re blitzing teams on offense and have the roster flexibility to shift Williams around to the weakest opposing player — regardless of position.
He remains a liability — too skinny to defend bulky wings and prone to the occasional communication breakdown away from the ball.
Williams isn’t just a ball-stopper, by the way. He has been a willing passer at times in his career, and the Raps generate a lot of snazzy ball movement running him across the elbow to start a dueling set of pick-and-rolls:
G: Aaron Brooks, Chicago Bulls
All hail the annual Bulls mighty-mite reclamation project. Brooks is blowing away his career numbers from all over the floor — regression alert! — as the pick-and-roll maestro for funtastic bench units that use Nikola Mirotic’s shooting to slice apart opposing defenses. The Bulls are scoring 110.8 points per 100 possessions, just below the Raptors and Mavs for the best rates in the league, when Brooks and Mirotic share the floor, per NBA.com.
Mirotic changes the game just by spotting up around Brooks/Taj Gibson pick-and-rolls, sucking away one big-man defender and opening clean lanes to the rim:
When the lane gets crowded, Brooks can fall back on a nifty floater:
It’s not all rosy. Brooks has coughed up the ball on nearly 24 percent of the pick-and-rolls he has finished, per Synergy, one of the highest marks in the league. The pursuit of buckets above all else can lead him into some tight spots, and he’s an inaccurate passer when he shifts into distributor mode. Thibodeau can shift Brooks into more of an off-ball mode by pairing him with Derrick Rose, a tactic he’s used a bit more of late with Kirk Hinrich hurt.
He tries hard on defense and gets Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, but he can get sloppy navigating picks, and he’s going to be a liability unless he can somehow grow a few inches. Opponents are shredding Brooks-centric bench units with Pau Gasol in Gibson’s place, per NBA.com.
F: Jared Dudley, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks bench is basically an entire Waltons lineup. Khris Middleton cocaptained last season’s squad, and Jerryd Bayless, Zaza Pachulia, and Kendall Marshall all have solid arguments this season. But we’ll go with Jared Dudley, who morphed in one year from a contract steal into unwanted cap fodder the Clippers paid a first-round pick to dump.
The Greek Freak’s human cheat sheet has found his stroke as a multipositional hole-filler for Jason Kidd. Dudley has hit a sizzling 43 percent from deep, and his shift to power forward over the last few weeks has been crucial in Milwaukee surviving a wave of injuries to its big men.
Dudley has the strength to bang with bigs, and shifting down a position mitigates his slow feet — which can be fatal defending quicker wing players. Dudley can spot up as a floor-spacing power forward on offense, and he’s great at touching quick extra passes around the perimeter. Milwaukee is outscoring opponents by more than 17 points per 100 possessions when Dudley and Bayless, its two most consistent bench cogs, share the floor, per NBA.com.
The Bucks suffer at times with Dudley defending power forwards. Post-up brutes can bully him, and though Dudley responds by fronting, that can leave him out of rebounding position when a shot goes up:
Dudley boxes out diligently, but he just doesn’t have the size or strength to outmuscle bigs on the glass — a problem for the Bucks, who rank 27th in defensive rebounding rate.
F: Kris Humphries, Washington Wizards
There isn’t much demand anymore for bigs who can’t shoot 3s or provide top-level rim protection, but a lot of those guys are still good, and teams can snag bargains if they target the right ones.
The Wiz slid Humphries back to the bench over the weekend, but he’s providing great value as an agreeable big-man partner who can float between all lineup types — and guarantee the Wiz won’t overtax Marcin Gortat and Nene.
Humphries can do just enough on offense to keep the Wiz machine flowing. Spacing can get tight in Washington’s midrange-heavy offense, but Humphries has nailed nearly half his long jumpers as a nice bailout option when Washington can’t produce anything better.
He’s savvy moving around away from the ball, and that’s key, because Hump is never going to supplant Gortat and Nene in Washington’s screen-setting hierarchy. He’s a natural at a little cut Trevor Booker mastered last season — a simple side-to-side slide under the basket as Gortat and John Wall run a pick-and-roll up high:
That’s an easy way of occupying the back-line help defender,3 but it works only if Humphries can make something happen from that tricky spot.
And of shifting that defender’s on-ball assignment — Humphries — from the weak side to the strong side, which can rejigger the help defense equation in a split second.
When Humphries’s man shifts into a help assignment along the sideline, Humphries is smart about sensing the lack of attention and flashing into the paint:
He can keep the ball moving with dribble handoffs, and he munches glass on both ends of the floor. Humphries isn’t great at any one part of defense, but he can provide a dash of rim protection if he’s on point, and he’s adequate at just about everything. Washington’s conservative scheme, in which big men guarding the pick-and-roll drop back toward the paint, fits him well.
C: Chris Kaman, Portland Trail Blazers
The league’s preeminent horror-movie villain has found a similarly snug fit within Portland’s dropback scheme on defense. Kaman is huge, and he has a small deterrent effect just by standing near the basket. He’s nimble enough to keep skittish ball handlers in front of him, too — but he’s also ground-bound; water-bug attackers know they can go right at Kaman’s body and launch shots over his fingertips. Opponents have hit 52.5 percent of their close shots when he is nearby, a below-average mark among rotation big men.
Still: Kaman has been a stable bench presence for a team in desperate need of one. He was Portland’s last-minute consolation prize after Spencer Hawes shocked the Blazers by spurning their midlevel offer for the same deal from the Clippers, but Kaman has outplayed Hawes easily.4
Not to mention that the second year of Kaman’s contract is only $1 million guaranteed.
Kaman has slowed on offense after a red-hot start, but he’s shooting 50 percent, and he does the precise things Portland requires from its third big. Kaman can act as the post-up hub on bench-heavy units and then shift into a stealth off-ball role when Portland pairs him with LaMarcus Aldridge.
Kaman will lurk along the baseline, waiting to see if his guy will shift into help position on an Aldridge post-up or pick-and-roll. In that moment, Kaman will pounce, flashing into open space near the rim for an easy layup, or slithering into offensive rebounding position. Portland is lethal at turning offensive boards into open 3s, and Kaman gives Terry Stotts another banger.
Kaman can get a little trigger-happy with his midrange jumper, and he’s prone to turnovers in the post.5 He doesn’t see help defenders coming to strip him, and he can dribble himself into knots:
He’s turned it over on about 17 percent of his post-ups that have ended Portland possessions, per Synergy. Of high-volume post players, only Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, and Boris Diaw have higher turnover rates.
But he’s a Walton.
G: Rasual Butler, Washington Wizards (cocaptain)
He’s had the most ridiculous season of any NBA player. This dude was a 33-year-old D-Leaguer in 2013 — before trekking his way to Vegas to be a 34-year-old summer leaguer. That is an NBA funeral.
Butler is shooting 50 percent from deep around Wall and Bradley Beal pick-and-rolls. The Wiz are even running the occasional play for him! He has vaulted over Otto Porter Jr. in Randy Wittman’s rotation, and if he keeps shooting like this, he will give Martell Webster real competition for minutes.
He’s not going to keep shooting like this. He can’t. Life is not nearly this happy. Butler is canning open 3s off smart kickout passes from Wall, Beal, and the Wizards’ dishing bigs, but he’s also nailing contested off-the-dribble shots at an unsustainable rate. He’s 18-of-30 on shots when a defender is within two feet of him — basically, in his jersey, per SportVU data. He’s 7-of-17 on pull-up 3s and 10-of-16 after dribbling at least three times.
He takes at least two shots every game that have me whispering, “OK, now you’re getting greedy,” and, bam, they go in.
This won’t last, but Butler can shoot when he’s open, and he’s putting in max effort on defense despite being at a quickness deficit against most wings. What a story.
G: Beno Udrih, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies picked up Udrih last season off waivers, damn near for free. Less than a year later, he has beaten out Nick Calathes for Memphis’s backup point guard job by raining fire from midrange, dishing assists at a much higher clip than his career rate, and hanging by a thread on defense.
Udrih is the rare bird who shoots much better off the bounce than he does as a catch-and-shoot guy; he is shooting a ridiculous 52 percent on pull-up jumpers, but an icy 11-of-40 on catch-and-shoot chances — including just 7-of-31 from deep, per SportVU tracking data.
The midrange is his sweet spot, and Udrih gets there off the bounce on the pick-and-roll. It’s a great antidote against defenses that drop back, daring ball handlers to pull from 20 feet:6
It’s also a shot he can take going right, which makes him a bit more unpredictable to guard than most guys dependent on their strong hands. Udrih can only get to the rim going left, but the midrange is a different story.
We are fascinated by athletes and cars that accelerate fast — the zero-to-60 test. Udrih is a wonderful 60-to-zero player. He stops on a dime, and defenders can’t decelerate with him. They backpedal out of the picture, leaving him an open window. And if they manage to keep up, Udrih has an array of weirdo pivot moves, step-throughs, and leaners he uses to create space — kind of like a shorter and less explosive version of his fellow Slovenian lefty Goran Dragic.
Teams know he’s reluctant to shoot from deep, so they play off Udrih when he doesn’t have the ball. Udrih knows that, too, and he’s good at catching, upfaking a charging defender, and then driving into the lane for juicier stuff.
He’s an underrated passer; he knows the ins and outs of every set, and he delivers the ball precisely when a teammate comes open — and not a beat later, by which time defenses might have had time to recover.
Udrih is slow on defense, but he’s got good size, and he executes Dave Joerger’s scheme. He can play alongside Mike Conley in the right matchups. A great pickup.
PF: Patrick Patterson, Toronto Drakes
Patterson attempted five 3s combined in his first two seasons, but he’s worked his ass off to become a crucial gravity guy on the Dinos’ killer second unit. It’s the easiest way to generate offense in the NBA: Run a pick-and-roll, and surround it with three shooters. Finding that third shooter at power forward is the hard part, but when you’ve got one, you can spread the floor like this:
The action is even deadlier when Patterson is on the weak side, yanking the biggest potential help defender far from the play. Patterson is shooting 47 percent from deep, and he has become just as deadly on the longer non-corner triple. That mark is going to come down, but Patterson can compensate with a catch-and-go driving game that gets him into the lane — where he’s a better passer than you might expect.
Patterson is a speedy defender who can hound pick-and-rolls beyond the 3-point arc and zip along in rotation — crucial for a Toronto team that chooses to get itself into rotations by letting ball handlers use picks.7 That speed will help Patterson recover against all the pick-and-pop power forwards dotting the potential Eastern Conference playoff bracket — Mirotic, Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, Mirza Teletovic, Kevin Love, and others.
The sexy thing around the league is to force ball handlers away from them, but the Raps don’t do that as much.
He battles hard in the post, and his long-ish arms help him challenge shots down there. He can’t protect the rim, though he’s working on his Roy Hibbert–style verticality, and the Raps have struggled badly on the glass with Patterson on the floor. The Patterson/Jonas Valanciunas combo has never worked defensively, but there’s still time, and the Patterson/Amir Johnson combo has been brilliant on both ends.
Defensive slippage with Patterson on the floor is a concern for a team whose shaky defense has gone under the radar, but he’s been a good find who can fit in most lineups.
SF: Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
A drinking game guaranteed to leave you sober: Drink every time Joe Ingles takes a shot! Ingles, a longtime Aussie pro who somehow always looks as if he hasn’t showered in days, is producing one of the most bizarro seasons ever for a wing player.
Ingles takes just six shots per 36 minutes. He has attempted eight free throws all season. His usage rate is about to dip below 10 percent. Only a handful of players have bundled those kinds of numbers over a full season, and almost all of them are either dunks-only big men or 3-and-D specialists like Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen.
Ingles is neither of those things. He’s shooting only 25 percent from deep, and he needs to be Grand Canyon levels of wide open to even think about shooting. Seriously, he passed up this shot over the weekend against Philly:
He Rondo’d a fast break in that same game, passing up an uncontested layup to dump the ball back to Dante Exum — even though Exum had three defenders, including chase-down expert K.J. McDaniels, bearing down on him.
Ingles is a feisty dude, and he’ll get where Quin Snyder wants him on defense, but he doesn’t have the quicks to keep up with wing players once they get the ball.
The Jazz flirted early in the season with using Ingles as a small-ball power forward, but when all the team’s bigs are healthy, Utah can’t afford to give him minutes there. Ingles is a wing player who spots up in the corner and passes the ball, and he can dish it just fine. He’ll swing the ball to open shooters, work a dribble handoff to keep things going, and throw some pinpoint hit-ahead passes leading the break after snagging a rebound.
Being unselfish is nice, but Utah second units can’t score without Gordon Hayward to prop them up.
G: Jason Terry, Houston Rockets
Terry has already logged more time in Houston than he did all of last season — heady stuff, considering the Rockets likely never expected him to be a big part of their rotation when they pocketed two second-rounders for taking him off Sacramento’s hands.
But Terry knows exactly what he is, and his competent floor-spacing helped keep Houston afloat while Dwight Howard sat with knee issues. Terry has hit 38 percent from deep and a fiery 48 percent from the corners, proving he can still work in that role, provided Howard and James Harden are bending defenses away from him.
He understands, before even catching the ball, when a rotating defender is close enough to contest his shot, and he’s a smart enough passer to know where the ball should go next. Houston’s offense has died with Terry on the floor, but that’s just as much a reflection on its limited overall bench — and the team’s occasional need to use Terry as a de facto point guard without Harden, Patrick Beverley, or even Nick Johnson on the floor. Terry has barely gotten to play with both Harden and Howard, and the Rox have squeezed out a semi-respectable number of points with the Harden/Terry pair.
Terry can’t guard anyone and remains playable only because Houston hides him on the least-threatening opponent. That is exactly the kind of player who tends to vanish from a team’s rotation during the playoffs, and Terry’s postseason duties will probably be more situational — as a desperation bench bomber or late-game offense-only sub, a role in which Kevin McHale already uses him.
PF/C: Lavoy Allen, Indiana Pacers
Allen was an afterthought in the Evan Turner deal, but he’s reemerged this season as a perfectly nice reserve capable of toggling between both big-man positions and gobbling up every damn offensive rebound in sight. While on the floor, Allen has rebounded 14 percent of Indy’s misses — one of the highest individual numbers in the league — and he’s shooting nearly 75 percent on putbacks, per Synergy Sports. That’s good, because he can’t score efficiently in any other way — at least not yet.
He also has just enough of a midrange touch to convince himself it’s OK to launch long 2s any time he gets a sliver of space, but he needs to bag a lot of those shots; Allen is shooting an embarrassing 11-of-40 out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, and lots of those misses are loud clanks from 20 feet.
When Allen decides to catch-and-go, he tends to dribble himself into crazy hook shots that might smash off the backboard in any direction. He has zero post-up game. But he’s a canny passer who can cut along the baseline or set screens up high, though he’d do well to actually connect on more of those.
Allen isn’t a great rim protector or pick-and-roll eraser, but he’s a big body who moves around the floor enough to get in the way. The Pacers have been loads better with Allen on the floor,8 and he has meshed well with both David West and Luis Scola as Indy’s backup center during Ian Mahinmi’s absence.
There’s a ton of noise there, mostly because all of Indy’s makeshift starting lineups have been terrible.
PF/C: Ed Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
How the league misfired on Davis, allowing the Lakers to steal him9 on a two-year (!!) minimum contract, is beyond understanding. Davis falls into that category of non-shooting, non-center bigs no one seems to want, but all this guy does is finish around the basket on lob dunks, smart cuts, putbacks, and soft hook shots. He will use one-dribble moves if he catches the ball outside instant-dunk range on the pick-and-roll, though that skill isn’t airtight.
Rob Pelinka, the agent for both Davis and Kobe Bryant, likely helped.
The limitations are obvious: He has no jumper or right hand, and he probably tops out as an average defender. But he’s shooting 63 percent, he hunts open space on offense, and he at least brings speed and effort on defense.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Stench in Cleveland
We’ll have more on this next week, but let’s just say it’s no fun watching this team play, covering it, or following the coverage. I thought David Blatt might make it to 2015 before anonymous team sources began questioning his suitability for the job, but Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst blew the lid off that story on Monday at ESPN.com. Kevin Love is next on the “anonymous rumblings” scapegoat flowchart, and somewhere in sunny Miami, Erik Spoelstra and Chris Bosh are shaking their heads — and fighting to reach .500 in the LeBron void.
Cleveland has 50 games to round out the roster and discover something that resembles average NBA defense, but for now, it’s looking less and less like a legit championship threat.
2. Andre Drummond’s Roll Paranoia
Break up the Pistons! They’re 4-4 with Jodie Meeks, undefeated without Josh Smith, and they just walloped the Kyrie-less Cavs in Cleveland.
Drummond is a devastating pick-and-roll finisher, and it’s fun to watch his defender on those plays decide whether to prioritize the Brandon Jennings (or D.J. Augustin) drive or the looming threat of a Jennings lob to Drummond. Some defenders literally trip over themselves amid indecision, and others ultimately commit to the Drummond threat — ceding open layups to Detroit’s point guards.
Augustin and Jennings sometimes suffer a sort of paralysis as they wait for the help, realize it’s not coming, freeze in confusion, and pass up easy shots. Roy Hibbert gave Augustin a baseline lane to the basket during Detroit’s weekend win over Indiana, but Augustin picked up his dribble and dished the ball to the weak side instead of shooting.
It will be fascinating to watch how Drummond helps Detroit absorb all the possessions Smith left behind.
3. The Mason Plumlee Show
Plumlee has been on fire for three weeks, having rediscovered his NBA destiny as Tyson Chandler Lite — a knifing pick-and-roll threat who can dunk from all angles. He still struggles from the foul line, and he’s a bit jumpy on defense, but he’s an easier offensive fit than a high-volume post-up type like Brook Lopez.
Lopez when healthy is a better player, but he’s still recovering from a back injury, and the lane has been too cramped in the small number of minutes he and Plumlee have played together. Unfortunately for the Nets, they have only one true power forward with range to place around Plumlee, meaning that when Mirza Teletovic isn’t out there, they’re either forcing an awkward big-big combination or going smaller than Lionel Hollins wants.
Pretty much everything about this team is awkward. Hell, even Plumlee’s reemergence injects awkwardness into Lopez’s future and the on-again, off-again Deron Williams trade talks with Sacramento.
4. Ralph Lawler’s Reminder
One of the most endearing NBA broadcast tics: Lawler, the Clips legendary play-by-play guy, always reminds us after the opening jump that the team who wins the tip also gets the ball to start the fourth quarter. It’s like comfort food.
5. The Knicks, Going Slowly
Learning the intricacies of the triangle takes time, but we’re 33 games in, and the Knicks are still wasting precious seconds getting into Step 1 of each possession. Look at how long it takes New York to figure out the proper positioning on the freaking first possession of the game:
The Knicks must lead the league in frantic pointing and confused shrugs. Can we get SportVU on this?
6. Rudy Gobert’s Passing
Gobert has 23 assists this season. That doesn’t sound like much, but Gobert only bumbled his way into seven assists last season, in just 120 fewer minutes than he’s logged in 2014-15. Baby steps, people.
Gobert in recent games has flashed a surprising ability to map the floor in an instant on the pick-and-roll. He’s caught the ball on the move in the paint, read the help defense, and dropped off slick little interior dishes to his big-man partner waiting in the dunk zone along the baseline.
That kind of spacing isn’t optimal; ideally, you’d want a shooting power forward around Gobert’s basket cuts, and the Jazz have devoted a lot of minutes to seeing how Trevor Booker and Enes Kanter might fit that role. But if Gobert can develop just enough as a passer, it might convince Snyder to let the Gobert/Derrick Favors duo breathe a bit.
By the way: Let’s hold off rushing Kanter out the door just because Gobert has had a nice second season. Gobert is young, he fouls a ton, and as a big with zero range, he’s a delicate fit on any team. Kanter’s contract talks could get ugly this summer, but there’s nothing wrong with having three highly paid big men on the same roster. It helps to get one of them at a discount, as the Bulls did with Taj Gibson, but it’s too early for Utah to just cut bait on any young guy.
Gobert has surely done enough for Utah to test the sign-and-trade market on Kanter, but that can be tough with so many teams hoarding enough cap space to sign Kanter outright.
7. Paul Millsap Along the Baseline
He has a splendid all-around game on both ends, but Millsap’s ability to create shots and thread passes within the tight confines of the baseline is among the prettiest of his little stylistic flourishes:
Dude makes the most of every available inch.
Millsap is almost 30, and he’s not tall enough to be the centerpiece of an elite defense. But it will be fascinating to see what he gets, and from whom, in free agency this summer. Suitors should be lining up.
8. Christmas Bows
The holiday uniforms again failed to move the needle, but I enjoyed the nice touch of superimposing a red bow and ribbon around the black padding on the basket stanchions. Those kind of little things just tickle me. Then again, I’m the guy obsessed with court designs, announcing quirks, and mascots, so … yeah. Did anyone else notice this? Am I truly alone in the world?
9. A Calmer DeAndre Jordan
There are still hiccups in Jordan’s defense, but he seems to be operating with just a bit more patience on offense this season. He’s not trying to dunk quite as often, and that calm has allowed him to reset himself for smooth putbacks like this:
10. “Dr. G”
The Bucks TV crew has floated this nickname after a few Giannis Antetokounmpo long-limbed fast-break finishes, and they should probably float it off the airwaves. Antetokounmpo’s Gyrostep finishes are majestic, but let’s go easy invoking Dr. J’s name, OK?