It’s a who’s who of non-serious players that are getting serious minutes. Plus, 10 things to like (and not like) in the NBA.
By Zach Lowe on
Welcome to the third annual edition of the Luke Walton All-Stars, a team of veteran cast-offs, anonymous young players, and guys with a precarious grip on NBA life who have managed a preposterous relevance this season. Walton became the team’s namesake last season, when he morphed from a piece of crippled cap fodder into a pleasing high-post passer co-piloting an entertaining Cavs bench.
The perfect Walton player is a mid- or late-career guy thriving in an unexpectedly large role. We try to steer away from young players producing in minutes we all knew they’d get on young teams or teams with obvious rotation holes — your Miles Plumlee/Terrence Jones model. Ditto for guys who have stepped in only because of teamwide injuries, a caveat that disqualifies a bunch of worthy Laker candidates.1 Finding a roster of perfect Waltons isn’t always possible, but here’s our best shot at the midseason Walton All-Stars for 2013-14.
PG: Shelvin Mack, Atlanta Hawks
Mack has never logged more than 779 minutes in an NBA season, but he’s going to blow that total away after emerging under Mike Budenholzer as a reliable pick-and-roll caretaker earning some crunch-time minutes for an Atlanta team thin on the perimeter. Mack is never going to be an explosive starter-level point guard who slices all the way to the rim; he doesn’t shoot much near the basket, he barely gets to the line, and he averages just 3.3 drives per game — low even for a backup point guard.
He knows what he is, and he has somehow cut his turnover rate from catastrophic to downright Calderon-ish.2 It helps that every Atlanta rotation big man can hit at least midrange jumpers, allowing Mack to work with clean spacing and hit his bigs on low-risk pick-and-pop passes. But he’s been a tad more dynamic this season in at least puncturing the first layer of an opposing defense, and he has played all but 159 of his minutes with either Jeff Teague or Lou Williams on the floor — a setup that allows Mack to work as a secondary ball handler, rocketing around picks on dribble handoffs, instead of running a static offense alone up top. He’s on time hitting Kyle Korver curling off screens, and if his defender crashes down to help on Korver, Mack has been willing to catch a return pass from the league’s best shooter and slash hard into the paint:
The guy just keeps the offense moving, without making mistakes. He’s probably a minus defender overall, but not in a super-damaging way. He’s alert, he understands the team’s general scheme, and he’s usually in the right spot at the right time — with occasional bouts of aimless wandering on help defense. He’s just not quick enough to execute the scheme consistently, and he has a habit of running smack into screens while defending the pick-and-roll. But on a minimum, non-guaranteed contract, he’s been a steal.
SF: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (TEAM CO-CAPTAIN)
Middleton wasn’t exactly a random throw-in to the Brandon Knight–Brandon Jennings swap, but Milwaukee didn’t expect Middleton to rank third on the team in shot attempts as we near the halfway point of the season. Endless injuries have inflated Middleton’s role, but the Bucks have found a real rotation player — a capable spot-up shooter and a rugged, well-balanced defender. “Joe [Dumars] told me when we made the deal: ‘We like him very much, and you’re getting a good player,”’ recalls Bucks GM John Hammond. “And that has come to fruition.”
Middleton can play both wing positions, and he has logged a tiny slice of time at power forward as the Bucks have scrambled with small lineups to make up for the injuries and bar fights that have decimated their front line. Middleton isn’t quite a plus/minus god anymore, but the Bucks have been a competent NBA team with him on the floor. Teams have outscored the Bucks by an embarrassing 15 points per 48 minutes when Middleton sits, but that number drops to just 2.5 points per 48 minutes when he plays, per NBA.com.
He’s shooting 44 percent from deep, including a saucy 48.6 percent on corner 3s — mostly the result of kick-out passes Middleton gets as Knight or some other player runs Milwaukee’s main action. But Middleton isn’t a one-trick catch-and-shoot guy. If he catches the ball and spies his defender scurrying to close out on him, Middleton will pump-fake, take one or two hard dribbles, and launch a nifty floater or pull-up jumper. He’s not athletic enough to get closer to the rim, and he hasn’t looked comfortable near the hoop. “The next step for him is finishing at the rim more efficiently,” Hammond says.
His ho-hum athleticism limits Middleton’s ceiling on defense. He has good footwork, he’s strong, he slides into the right places as a helper, and he can force good scorers into toughie jumpers one-on-one. But quicker guys can blow by him if his momentum is off by the teensiest bit, and he’s not a big leaper. Still: This is a good story in a miserable season.
SG/SF: Hollis Thompson, Philadelphia 76ers
Thompson is the most anonymous starter in the NBA since replacing James Anderson for reasons that remain unclear. (The reasons are probably obvious: Philly doesn’t care about winning this season, and it’s curious to see what it has in Thompson, an undrafted rookie.) Poor Thompson barely gets the ball. He has used only 12 percent of Philadelphia’s possessions via a shot, drawn foul, or turnover while on the floor, per Basketball-Reference.com. In the last decade, only about eight players per season have managed to do so little on offense while starting at least half their team’s games. Almost all of those players fall into one of two categories: low-usage big men who can’t shoot beyond dunk range, and 3-and-D wings expected to loiter around the perimeter on offense.
Thompson is on the fringes of filling the latter role. Of his 158 tries, 61 have been 3-pointers, but he’s shooting just 33 percent from deep, and only 20 of his 3s have come from the juicy short corners. Thompson tries hard, but it’s unclear if there’s enough game here for him to stick in the league.
PF: Josh McRoberts, Charlotte Bobcats (CO-CAPTAIN)
McBob is our first returning member of last season’s Walton team, and his case has only gotten stronger. McRoberts is a heady grinder, but if he’s third on your team in minutes played and second in touches per game (22rd among all players!), it’s probably a bad sign for your short-term potential.
McRoberts is a clever passer from the elbow, which is a valuable big-man skill, and a lot of Charlotte’s pet sets feature McBob running things from there via passes, screens, and especially dribble handoffs. And when he’s feeling frisky, McRoberts will fake a handoff, spin around, and set off on an adventure toward the hoop. Charlotte needs his passing. Kemba Walker remains a score-first point guard, and McRoberts actually leads the team in assists per minute.
He just doesn’t do much else, and sometimes his passing can veer into risky highlight-hunting. His usage rate barely tops Thompson’s sad mark, and though Charlotte has worked to turn McBob into a 3-point threat, the results have been uneven. McBob has already jacked 114 triples this season after attempting just 185 combined over his first six seasons, but he’s treading water at just 34 percent from deep — a couple of ticks below the league average. He’s only at 33 percent on non-corner 3s, and defenses don’t exactly bend toward McRoberts in fear of his long-range accuracy.
Still, the Bobcats need whatever 3-point shooting they can get, just so they can at least fake some spacing. Only the Grizz shoot fewer 3s per game, and only four teams have hit a lower percentage from deep.
McRoberts isn’t really helpful defensively, but he’s competent and avoids major blunders. He won’t stop quick point guards from turning the corner or deter shots at the basket, but McBob can quarterback things by talking a lot, and he generally gets where he needs to be. The Kitties still somehow rank sixth overall in points allowed per possession, and they’ve held steady with the McRoberts/Al Jefferson frontcourt — a duo that looks bad on paper.
C: Brandan Wright, Dallas Mavericks
Has any player ever put up three consecutive 20-plus Player Efficiency Rating seasons and been less known? Dallas officials couldn’t wait for Wright to come back this season, especially since Samuel Dalembert’s alarm clock apparently doesn’t work, and Wright has exploded out of the gate. He’s shooting 74 percent (!!) through 10 games, leading the team in PER (something he did last season, and missed by a smidgen in 2011-12), and working as a lanky pick-and-roll beast within hybrid Dallas lineups. He’s a natural fit next to Dirk Nowitzki on offense, since Wright can dive to the hoop after setting a pick while Nowitzki spots up behind the 3-point line. Good luck defending that, especially if Dallas loads the rest of the floor with shooting.
Wright is especially good at slipping screens — NBA lingo for when a player approaches as if he’s going to set a screen, only to dart toward the hoop before really setting it:
Wright catches defenses by surprise with cuts like this, sucking in defenders and opening up jumpers for teammates. He has a nifty midrange/floater game if defenses cut off the rim, and though Wright is mostly a finisher, he’ll flash a sweet high-low pass once in a while.
Wright has been key for unlocking Vince Carter’s pick-and-roll game, and the Carter-Wright-Nowitzki trio has blown the doors off the league for two consecutive seasons. Carter is shooting 46 percent when Wright plays and just 37 percent when he sits, and he dishes twice as many dimes per 36 minutes with Wright on the floor, per NBA.com. That is astonishing.3
The questions have always come on defense. Wright is long and springy enough to protect the rim, but he’s just so damn skinny. Post behemoths can shove him out of the way on scoring chances and under the glass, and Wright can be a bit jumpy helping on the pick-and-roll. Teams aren’t afraid to go small against Dallas, guarding Wright with a wing player, since he has basically no back-to-the-basket game.
The Mavs have three imperfect centers in Wright, Dalembert, and DeJuan Blair, and while they need Wright’s offense, Dallas needs to shore up the other end in order to be a playoff team.
Norris Cole, Miami Heat
Dwyane Wade has missed eight games, and finally went through his first back-to-back over the weekend. Shane Battier is banged up, and his 3-point accuracy is down. Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley have seen their minutes ebb and flow, due to health and reliability issues, as hybrid forwards next to LeBron James. Miami’s rotation isn’t quite as neat and clean as it has been.
Cole, once an unstable firecracker, has provided some much-needed stability. He’s playing more minutes, hitting the 3 at (by far) a career-best rate, and logging more time than ever alongside Mario Chalmers in lineups that could play a larger role in the postseason. Cole and Chalmers have logged 147 minutes together this season after playing just 45 minutes as a pair last season — less time in 2012-13 than Cole logged with Juwan Howard, now an assistant coach.
Miami has been better on both ends this season with the ultra-speedy Cole-Chalmers duo on the floor, in part because Cole just keeps improving. He’s still insanely turnover-prone on the pick-and-roll,4 which is why it’s good news Miami’s system doesn’t ask Cole — or anyone — to run a lot of static high pick-and-rolls from the middle of the floor.
Cole can gamble himself out of position defensively, but he’s tenacious, and his combination of speed and ferocity fits well within Miami’s helter-skelter system. If Cole really is a 40 percent 3-point shooter, that is huge for Miami — especially with Chalmers set to enter free agency again.
Alan Anderson, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets’ front office never expected Anderson to log 25 minutes a game when it added him as a minimum-level insurance policy on the wing behind Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, and Andrei Kirilenko. Terry and Kirilenko have barely played, Pierce is gritting through a broken hand, and Johnson is a blah above-average wing until transforming into some combination of Michael Jordan and the Undertaker at WrestleMania during crunch time.
So here we are, with Anderson logging 25 minutes per game and providing the Nets with a dash of speed and chaos they badly need. We know what Anderson is at this point: a gunner with occasionally bad shot selection, solid range, top-notch bench celebrations, and little else to offer.
Richard Jefferson, Utah Jazz
Thompson bumped Jefferson from the Walton starting lineup, but it’s shocking Jefferson is stealing starts and logging 27 minutes per game on a rebuilding Utah team. He’s not useless, of course. Jefferson is shooting 42 percent from deep, he allows Gordon Hayward to start games defending shooting guards instead of bulkier small forwards, and all three of Jefferson, Hayward, and Marvin Williams can switch assignments on defense in a pinch.
Jefferson is just one of those vets who sticks around — a guy who moves the ball, stays in his lane, knows all the paces on defense, and polices the locker room. Hurrah. But the minutes are a little much.
Gerald Green, Phoenix Suns
Phoenix has gotten a triple-happy version of the player Indiana thought it had signed two summers ago. Nearly 64 percent of Green’s shots have come from 3-point range, a career high by miles, and he has knocked down a very solid 39 percent of his triple tries. He’s not doing much else, and that’s fine. He’ll never be a great ball handler, in part because he throws a lot of inaccurate passes toward fans in the stands and teammates’ feet. He doesn’t get to the line much. He has worked hard on his defense, but he still spaces out occasionally.
A guy who can hit 39 percent of 3s on 8.9 attempts per 36 minutes is hugely valuable. Only seven players (not including Green) have ever launched 8.5 3s per 36 minutes while logging at least 20 minutes per game. Luis Scola has helped the Pacers, and Indiana is in a much different franchise stage than Phoenix. But the Suns are going to come out winners in that trade.
John Salmons, Toronto Raptors
Salmons will never die. He’s like Jefferson, but with more on-ball skills, and coaches adore veterans who can do a little bit of everything — even if they’re shooting 35 percent overall and declining in every phase of the game.
Salmons indeed can run a functional pick-and-roll, though as he’s gotten older, he has basically become a ball mover. Salmons doesn’t work to score, or even to make the pass that leads to the basket; he just works to get the offense flowing so that the defense is on the move by the time Toronto gets into the meaty stuff in its offense.
When Salmons does look to score, he’s not quick enough to get any separation or attack the rim, leaving him to whip up a shot I’ve come to call The Salmons — a leaning/fading midrange jumper on the pick-and-roll with very little chance of success:
He’s competent on both ends, and coaches love veteran competency. Dwane Casey has already given Salmons a huge level of trust in a three-man wing rotation with DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Watch the Ross/Salmons minutes as the season progresses. Ross should almost always play more than Salmons; he’s a killer shooter, especially from the corners, and he’s progressing on defense. Casey has used Ross of late on elite wing scorers (Paul George) and even John Wall.
Travis Outlaw, Sacramento Kings
Salmons was Sacramento’s target in a three-team trade that remains inexplicable to this day, so it’s only natural to transition from Salmons to Outlaw — the most bizarre amnesty waiver claim in NBA history.
Outlaw continues to get minutes at shooting guard (in weird, super-big lineups), small forward, and power forward, even though he’s shooting 38 percent and cannot defend any of those positions. The Travis Outlaw pull-up 20-footer, taken after Outlaw catches the ball open behind the arc and proactively dribbles into 2-point range, is my least favorite shot in the NBA. And when he’s not puking up those bricks, Outlaw likes to clog up Sacramento’s spacing by chilling in no-man’s-land along the baseline instead of spotting up in the corner.5 Check him out bobbing around uselessly along the right baseline in each of these two possessions:
Yes, the Waltons are supposed to highlight good stories. But Outlaw’s continued rotational existence cannot go unnoticed.
Trevor Booker, Washington Wizards
Crap. We need some backup bigs. Let’s go with the ever-active Booker, a surprise starter on a team that fancies itself a contender for a second-round playoff run. Booker should be a bench player, but Washington’s bench has been so awful that Randy Wittman has decided to use Nene in Booker’s place, as a second-unit stabilizer who can also log crunch-time minutes with the starters.
Booker does one thing really well: He’s a freaking animal on the offensive glass. He has rebounded 14.8 percent of Washington misses this season, an offensive rebounding rate that would have ranked no. 2 overall in each of the last two seasons — quite a feat for an undersize power forward who doesn’t have a huge wingspan. Booker is bouncy and physical, with a great sense of where a rebound is going to go.
The rest? Meh. He’s quick and mobile on defense, but he will sometimes lunge himself out of position within a Washington defense that has regressed badly this season.6 He doesn’t offer rim protection, he can fall too much in love with his midrange shot, he doesn’t get to the line, and he seems to go for at least one impossible highlight putback slam/throw every game. He shouldn’t really be starting, and it will be interesting to see how long this experiment lasts.
Omri Casspi, Houston Rockets
Houston agreed to minimum-level contracts with a bunch of recent NBA disappointments who had either been productive at one (distant) time or come into the league with the whiff of potential — Casspi, Ronnie Brewer, Aaron Brooks, Reggie Williams. The Rockets were betting at least one of these guys would work out, but I’m not sure they expected Casspi to emerge as such a central part of their rotation.
Casspi has worked almost exclusively as a small-ball power forward, spotting up around Dwight Howard post-ups and Houston’s endless whirring pick-and-rolls. Casspi has hit an acceptable 35.4 percent of his 3s, and when opponents run him off the line, Casspi has shown he can dribble by them, launch a floater, or get all the way to the rim. Bigger power forwards will attack him on defense, but it hasn’t been a crisis yet — provided Howard is on the floor to patrol the back line. Houston’s starting lineup with Casspi in place of Jones has been one of the league’s very best heavy-usage lineups, and Casspi battles hard on the block.
Houston’s defense has suffered badly whenever Casspi plays without either Howard or Omer Asik (remember him?) on the floor, but that doesn’t figure to happen much in the postseason.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Kicking the Ball
Everyone needs their little mini-crusades. This will be mine, I guess. The league always talks about eliminating things that are not “basketball plays” — flagrant fouls, clear path fouls, etc. You know what isn’t a basketball play? Judo-kicking your leg into a passing lane, booting the ball as if you’re a soccer player, and interrupting play. Sure, the offensive team gets the ball back, but the defense gets to reset itself, and the audience has to sit through yet another pause in a game that already has too much start-and-stop.
I’m not at the solution stage quite yet. Maybe the league should treat blatantly intentional kicks as it does delay-of-game calls: You get a warning, and every time after that, it’s a technical. Heck, maybe the very first one should be a technical. If the offender is on the visiting team, maybe the home mascot should be able to kick the player in the butt at center court. I’m just spitballing here. But the kicks have to go.
2. The Dirk Nowitzki Trailing 3-Pointer
The most exciting shots are the ones you can see coming before the shooting motion even starts — the ones that get the smart fans in the crowd buzzing early. Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway qualifies, and the anticipation for a Steph Curry 3-pointer starts the moment he dribbles the ball over half court.
This is an underrated one: Dirk, trailing the break, receiving a pass, bending those old-man knees as deep as they’ll go, and uncoiling a bomb against a defense scrambling in semi-transition. Delightful.
3. Philly, “Trying to Lock All Windows and Doors”
Marc Zumoff, the Sixers’ longtime play-by-play announcer, breaks out this catchphrase at least once or twice a game when Philly has an opponent up against the shot clock. It’s his fun way of saying the Sixers are trying to seal up a stop. I’m a fan, and the Sixers’ broadcast experience in general is one of the half-dozen best in the league.
4. The Clippers’ Funky Scrum
Doc Rivers has long loved what I call the “rugby scrum” play — an action in which two players set a monster double screen for the point guard. Boston used to run this with two big men screening for Rajon Rondo, and lots of other teams have adopted it.
Before Chris Paul’s shoulder injury (DAMN IT, INJURY GODS), Rivers had been using the same setup in L.A., only with one wrinkle: Jamal Crawford served as one of the two screeners:
It’s a nice splash of color. Guards aren’t as accustomed as big men to defending screeners, so using Crawford as a screener puts an opposing defender in an uncomfortable position. And since Crawford is a threat from anywhere inside 30 feet, his defender has to be very careful about jumping away from Crawford to contain Paul’s dribble drive.
5. Gerald Green Breakaway Buzz
Speaking of shots that create buzz before they happen. Green had about a half-dozen of these against Milwaukee on Saturday, as the Bucks just kept kindly throwing the ball to Phoenix players. Green might be the very best dunker in the league, and with time and a runway, there’s no telling what trick he’ll pull out — a windmill, a reverse double-pump, or just a simple dunk where he jumps as high as he possibly can and plops the ball straight down into the basket.
6. Gary Neal, Backup Point Guard
Neal has only played 76 minutes without at least one of Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour, or Nate Wolters on the floor, but it might be time for Larry Drew to cut that total down to zero. Milwaukee’s offense has cratered in those minutes, and Neal’s turnover rate has jumped to scary levels when Drew has given him primary ballhandling duties. It’s just a lost season for Milwaukee.
7. Kenneth Faried’s Post Defense
Faried has always been a minus defender in just about every sense, but he’s been alarmingly easy to score on in the post this season. Opposing players have shot 55 percent on post-ups against Faried, the 10th-highest (i.e., worst) mark among 121 players to have faced at least 30 post-ups, per Synergy Sports. (The same mark would have ranked 161st out of 166 players who faced at least 50 post-ups last season.)
The fighting spirit that makes him such a great offensive rebounder just doesn’t carry over to post battles on the other end. Faried usually faces a size disadvantage, but opponents can back him down, stand him straight up, and slither right around him without much of a challenge.
8. Boston’s Super-Big Lineups
Boston spends chunks of each game with supersize lineups in which Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace play together with a point guard and two big men. In other words: Green and Wallace are the wings, with one of them serving as the nominal shooting guard. That person should have an exploitable post-up advantage, and there are just lots of long arms and legs in lineups like this.
But there is not a lot of space, in part because Wallace can’t shoot and mostly refuses to do so. Every such lineup that has logged at least 15 minutes has managed 96.7 points per 100 possessions or worse — about equivalent to Milwaukee’s league-worst offense, per NBA.com.
9. Mike Conley’s Fake Spin Move
A lot of point guards have hesitation dribbles, but not everyone has the hesitation fake spin. Check out what Conley does here at the foul line:
10. Oklahoma City’s Alternate Uniforms
I may have made these a “dislike” last season. I don’t care. They might be my least favorite jerseys in the league. The Thunder may need a wholesale makeover at some point. A young team, with so much talent and swagger, should look cooler than this.