Games of throne
May 8, 2020
Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer
Let’s lead off our five NBA things with some vintage Michael Jordan greatness:
1. A new generation learning all things Jordan
Mark Bartelstein, now one of the most powerful agents in the NBA, was just beginning his career when he walked into the Hyatt in Lincolnwood, just outside Chicago, for his engagement party on April 20, 1986 — a Sunday afternoon.
Bartelstein had a problem. His beloved Chicago Bulls were about to tip off Game 2 of their first-round series against the juggernaut Boston Celtics. Jordan, Chicago’s second-year star, had scored 49 points in Game 1 — a Boston win — after barely playing that season due to a broken foot. Bartelstein approached the bartender and asked if he might turn on the game. The bartender replied that he couldn’t, because a large party had booked the room.
“It’s my party,” Bartelstein said. On the game went. Jordan started on fire, torching Dennis Johnson, and then Danny Ainge, and then two and three Boston defenders at once.
“I couldn’t leave the bar,” Bartelstein said. “It was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen. It still is.”
Jordan finished with a playoff-record 63 points on 22-of-41 shooting in a double-overtime loss. He nearly beat what some still consider the greatest team ever almost by himself — in Boston, where the Celtics had gone 40-1 in the regular season.
At some point, Bartelstein’s future mother-in-law approached and stressed to Bartelstein the importance of attending his own engagement party. “I said, ‘OK, hold on, this is crazy, Jordan is going off,'” Bartelstein recalled, laughing.
He never made it to the party. His mother-in-law did not talk to him again until the wedding months later, Bartelstein said. Other members of his new extended family held out even longer.
When he saw the 63-point game appear early in the ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance,” Bartelstein wondered if his clients — present-day players — had ever seen it, or if they understood the magnitude of what Jordan had done that day. He then wondered if they had ever seen any Jordan game from start to finish. He went on YouTube, found the game, and emailed all of his clients a homework assignment: Watch the game — all of it — and get back to me with thoughts and analysis.
Bartelstein hyped it up to them as the greatest performance he has ever seen, and Bradley Beal said after watching it in full that it lived up to that billing. Some have yet to watch it. Bartelstein is pestering them. “He’s asking every time I talk to him,” Doug McDermott said in a text message. “He’s obsessed. I really need to [watch it].”
One player, who shall remain nameless to save him and his family embarrassment, watched the first quarter, turned it off, and has not picked up where he left off.
Several Bartelstein clients — including McDermott and Larry Nance Jr. — said they had never previously watched a Jordan game from tip to buzzer.
That sounds crazy, but it’s not. Some of these guys were preschoolers during the second Chicago three-peat. Watching an old game online is a 90-minute commitment. You have to squint through grainy footage, click past free throws and stoppages, and then click backward when you’ve skipped ahead too far. It’s much easier to watch highlights and get the gist.
But you miss all the nuances that way. You miss the grind of a superstar carrying an offense for 40-plus high-intensity playoff minutes — what it really looks like when someone powers through mental and physical fatigue. You miss the little bobs and half-slides away from the ball on defense that can make the difference between a good shot and a contested one. You miss how superstars read the flow of the game, and lean on different skills at different times.
You also miss big freaking plays that vanish from highlight reels over time. In rewatching Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and Indiana Pacers, I rediscovered what might have been the greatest rebound of Jordan’s career: Jordan leaping between Rik Smits and Dale Davis to grab Scottie Pippen‘s missed throw with about 1:30 left and the Bulls up only four. It damn near sealed the game. Watching that rebound 22 years later felt like stumbling upon lost treasure. Everyone knows Jordan was as much as anything else a tough, willful player. Even his traditionally tough plays could be spectacular.
No one has time to watch a ton of old NBA games in their entirety. But you gain a new appreciation for any great player if you pick one iconic game and watch it all the way through. Bartelstein’s assignment is useful.
Now the slackers among his clientele just have to complete it!
2. Donovan Mitchell‘s snatch catches
Hypothesis: Mitchell is the league’s most stylish and prolific one-handed defensive rebounder — at least among non-centers.
With apologies to purists, this is objectively cool. Even they know, deep down. (Defending this to pearl-clutchers reminds of Chandler Bing declaring, “Smoking is cool, and you know it!” — except smoking is not cool anymore, kids!) Is this the NBA version of Rickey Henderson’s also objectively cool “snatch catch”? Purists hated that too, and it could have gone very wrong in the hands of a lesser (and less cool) player.
Ditto for the one-handed rebound. Mitchell even pulls it in heavy traffic!
Bonus points for the lefty catch and the righty stiff-arm! Still: The basketball gods take notice when anyone risks a contested rebound in pursuit of style points. Be careful, young Donovan.
Carmelo Anthony was once the king of the one-handed snatch-board, but Mitchell has usurped the throne.
3. DeAndre Jordan, robbing you in public
I’ve been a little hard on Jordan since he avoided kidnapping in his second attempt to join the Dallas Mavericks, which is weird, because I was probably on the high side with him during his LA Clippers run. I voted him first-team All-NBA in 2016, and always felt he did not get enough credit for his impact on Los Angeles’ offense. (He probably got too much credit for his defense, which was good but never great.)
Jordan was the league’s most dangerous rim-runner during his athletic prime. He more than any player is responsible for the phrase “vertical spacing” seeping into the NBA lexicon. His mere presence around the basket sucked in attention from every direction, unlocking all kinds of shots for teammates — 3s for JJ Redick and clean midrangers for both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
But his activity on defense waned in Dallas. On lots of possessions, he looked borderline mummified. He reached and pawed because he would not, or could not, move his feet. Some of it was age chipping away; Jordan is almost 32 now. But let’s just say he didn’t compensate with hyperactive energy.
That has more or less remained the case with the Brooklyn Nets. He still deters lots of folks from approaching the basket simply because he is giant; opponents attempt 6% fewer shots at the rim with Jordan on the floor, one of the largest such dips among all players, per Cleaning the Glass.
That is really important, but Jordan doesn’t appear to be bringing much else on defense aside from rebounding (also important). Some rim protectors produce an outward ripple effect that depresses opponent 3-point shooting: Their teammates know they have a fearsome shot-blocker behind them, and stick closer to threatening shooters. The Utah Jazz with Rudy Gobert are probably the best current example of this. Jordan’s influence has never really extended outward that way.
Opponents have finished more accurately at the basket against Brooklyn with Jordan on the floor, though that mark is still around the league average, per Cleaning the Glass. Bouncy ball handlers who venture into Jordan’s territory discover a reluctant leaper; Jordan challenges only 2.7 shots around the basket per game, tied with (among others) Jaylen Brown, Paul George, Otto Porter Jr. and Tyler Herro, per NBA.com.
Even if Brooklyn’s conservative dropback scheme deflates that figure — and even if staying down helps Jordan maintain rebounding position — it is still alarmingly low for a heavy-minutes center. Jarrett Allen swats at six shots per game within the restricted area in about the same number of minutes.
But Jordan might have sneakily outplayed Allen over the last month or so before the NBA suspended the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Jordan is bigger and stronger — a needed antidote to Joel Embiid and other legit post threats. He improved his passing and decision-making, posting his best career assist rate and (by far) his highest assist-to-turnover ratio.
One small Jordan thing that has always irritated a little: He remains the NBA’s hoggiest rebound thief.
Teammates old and new have needled Jordan about this. It’s a big man tradition: They need rebounds to get paid.
Turn up the volume on the clip, and you’ll hear Jordan shout, “I got it! Get the f— outta here!” Come on, DJ. Let poor Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — a pleasant surprise for Brooklyn, having hit 36% from deep — grab a rebound.
4. Patrick Beverley, reading the ball in flight
I love the snippets in “The Last Dance” of hard-core basketball stuff. Jordan and Pippen discussing X’s and O’s on the bench is hoops pornography. The most thrilling such snippet — and the most creatively edited — was Dennis Rodman describing how he studied shooters and shot trajectories to anticipate how balls would bounce off the rim. (Toni Kukoc told me he would often spy Rodman doing this, both on video and during warm-ups.)
Patrick Beverley must do the same kind of background research, because he has an uncanny sense for rebound locations:
That is sound transition defense mixed with opportunism. A lot of coaches impress this technique upon corner shooters with rebounding chops: Curl up to the center of the foul line, so you are there if a rebound arrives but also moving toward half-court in case you need to rush back on defense.
Beverley is a master at it. He starts his cut early, just after the shot goes up, and he hits full throttle a beat sooner than most rebound-chasers. He knows where that ball is going before almost everyone else, and that advantage is the difference.
You notice it even when Beverley doesn’t grab the rebound:
Beverley has snared 10.3% of all misses while on the floor, on pace to challenge his own record (tied with Rajon Rondo) for the highest such mark in any season for players listed at 6-foot-2 or shorter, per Basketball-Reference. (Beverley is 6-1. Russell Westbrook is listed at 6-3, so broadening the criteria by one inch introduces a pile of wild Westbrook seasons.)
Beverley is a well-balanced rebounder too — good on both ends. He punctuated a few Clippers wins this season by sneaking in for massive crunch-time boards.
5. The good and bad of the Trae Young/John Collins duo
There was much chortling — yes, chortling! — when Lloyd Pierce in December declared Young and Collins the league’s best pick-and-roll duo. They are not that now, but if you limit the sample to traditional guard-big combinations — excluding the guard-wing and wing-wing pairings that become more prominent in the playoffs — Pierce’s declaration could look prescient in a year or two.
Young and Collins are that good — a complementary mix of power and finesse that can punish any defensive strategy from 35 feet out all the way to the bucket. They are developing balletic chemistry — start-and-stop guile that allows them to react in the moment to any scheme, and will eventually help them manipulate defenses from one step ahead:
It is really hard to execute that kind of zigzag while remaining in sync, and on balance. That is straight-up sexy pick-and-roll basketball.
Young has every pass in his bag. He might be guilty of assist-hunting, but he does get assists; he has dished dimes on 20.6% of all Young-Collins pick-and-rolls that produced shots or turnovers, the 20th-highest such rate for ball handlers among the league’s 150 most-used two-man combinations, per Second Spectrum.
Both can punish switches. Collins has made huge strides in his post game this season. It might look awkward, but it works. He can overpower guards. He is more decisive sealing defenders deep:
The Hawks have averaged almost 1.1 points per possession when Collins shoots out of a post-up, or passes to a teammate who fires right away — 15th among 84 guys who have recorded at least 50 post touches, per Second Spectrum. (Collins has compiled precisely zero assists out of post-ups, per Second Spectrum, indicating he needs to improve his playmaking.)
Young and Collins surrounded by shooters and pseudo-shooters is a path to a decent NBA offense right now. That actually says a lot about Collins and Young, considering the shooters in those lineups are rookies and second-year guys with (excepting Kevin Huerter, somehow already underrated) zero track record of good NBA 3-point shooting.
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The Atlanta Hawks scored at the rate of a top-5 offense with Young and Collins on the floor, and they have generally been more potent with Collins at center, per Cleaning the Glass. The all-kiddo lineup of Young, Collins, Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter poured in 117.9 points per 100 possessions — two points better than the Mavs’ league-best offense, and, yes, I’m aware that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison — and outscored opponents by 25 points in 205 minutes.
The problems, of course, are all on the other end. Enough has been said of Young’s defense. Collins has shaky instincts and can be slow reacting to emergencies. You don’t win much in the NBA giving up a handful of baskets like this every game:
On my podcast last July, Collins chalked up his issues on defense to a lack of focus. That’s encouraging; Collins can change that. He was more alert this season rotating to challenge shots around the basket, and better at going straight up:
Even so, the Hawks bet against the Collins-at-center construction by acquiring Dewayne Dedmon and Clint Capela at the trade deadline. Acquiring one would have left a good chunk of center minutes for Collins. Nabbing both squeezes him (for now).
Collins can still screen-and-dive with Dedmon on the floor — Dedmon can shoot 3s — but he will have to find other pathways to points alongside Capela. Collins hit 40% from deep this season, and was actually more accurate on longer wing 3s than from the corners. (Remarkably, only 13% of Collins’ 3-point attempts have come from the corners. As a rookie two seasons ago, almost all his 3s were short corner tries.)
He has a nifty face-up game. But that perimeter work is tougher sledding for him against opposing power forwards; he loses the speed advantage he holds over centers.
It’s also unclear if Collins’ limitations on defense are any less damaging guarding those same power forwards. Defending along the perimeter can require just as much head-on-a-swivel awareness, and often more, than patrolling the back line. You have to cover more ground. The consequences for losing a sweet-shooting stretch-4 can be more severe.
Collins will be up for extension in the offseason. His future is one of the league’s more intriguing subplots.
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