Coach Spins' Clipboard: Victor's Back, Scottie's New Role, and Steven Adams is passing
Plus key decisions ahead for the Wizards and Houston, we have a problem
As a coach, I learn a lot about my team as the season goes on. One of the bigger gains I get: where do we go when our team needs a bucket?
That’s not just in terms of who should take the shot or be the primary creator, but within what action or play. NBA teams are no different. As the season goes on, we can see teams start to try a few different concepts at the ends of games or quarters to know how they score when the game is on the line.
This week’s version of The Clipboard looks at a few teams’ fourth-quarter performances on both ends of the floor. Whether it’s the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors starting to sift through their playbook to find late-game go-to plays or other teams struggling to close out games, we glance at a few thoughts that have caught our eye at the start of the new year.
To the Victor go the spoils
Don’t look now, but Victor Oladipo has slowly been working himself back into prime shape and impacting the Miami Heat for the better. Oladipo has only played in 14 games on the season, is still avoiding back-to-backs, and has remained as a piece coming off Miami’s bench.
Yet this week has been really encouraging from Oladipo, shooting 39% from 3, getting to the free throw line a lot, and sporting about 5 assists per game. The Heat have desperately needed his self-creation, and the showcasing of isolation scoring he’s put forth just this week serves as a great reminder of why he was a two-time All-Star before his injuries.
Miami has a good crop of specialty shooters with Duncan Robinson and Max Strus, and as they play smaller, finding ways to utilize their movement shooters as a threat has been vital. Spoelstra loves running Ghost actions, where shooters sprint through a fake screen and try to get a switch.
With a healthy Oladipo, the Heat have another handler to initiate those actions and make good decisions in the lane. They get a ton of mileage out of this action, which leads Victor to his right hand nearly every time, and even though defenses know it’s coming, they still cannot stop it.
Play too tight on Oladipo or scheme to his drives and he’s competent enough of a playmaker to involve his teammates. Because of the spots the Heat put their guys at (they’re consistently one of the most well-spaced tams in the league), the action flows almost like a Spain pick-and-roll. A big man, typically Bam Adebayo, will flare the shooter out to the wing, then dive to the hoop looking to clean up the scraps. Oladipo can find either the shooter on a throwback or a diving big when he commands extra attention.
The Heat are trending in the right direction as of now, going 9-4 since December 12th. We see this every year from an Erik Spoelstra team, as they tend to get better throughout the year and really hit their stride in the January or February window. Getting healthy with Oladipo, as well as getting cohesion from the rest of their new pieces, is helpful. As the old coaching adage goes, “you cannot play small and slow”. Injecting an aggressive scorer like Oladipo into their rotation allows them to keep their foot on the pedal and speed up the pace.
Don’t count out the Heat.
Growing Pains in Houston
Man, these Houston Rockets are young. And it shows.
The Rox are 10-29 with the worst record in the NBA and only play one guy (Eric Gordon) with more than three years of experience. Stephen Silas and his staff have a large undertaking in getting this group ready, and without veterans on the court or in the locker room to steady the ship, things can get out of hand quickly. They’ve lost 11 of their last 12 games, five of which have been by 15 or more.
Tensions are rising on this losing streak between the youngsters and came to a head on Wednesday. Alperen Sengun had a string of a few poor defensive possessions in a row, giving little resistance inside and letting Jonas Valanciunas muscle him around on the glass. While Sengun is limited on defense and got caught in a tough stretch, it was Jabari Smith snapping at acting head coach John Lucas to get Sengun out after the third consecutive possession that caught headlines.
A night later, the Rockets hosted the Utah Jazz and scrapped their way back after a first quarter deficit. A Sengun free throw brought them to within five with five minutes to play. Utah would go on a 19-2 run over the next four minutes and put the game out of reach, slamming the door on a Rockets team that couldn’t conjure up a stop late in the game. Even when they were close, the belief and cohesion to close out the comeback simply wasn’t there. On the offensive end, the Rockets could not generate easy looks because everyone caught, put the ball on the floor, and surveyed for their one-on-one benefit:
For years, I’ve talked about the importance of rebuilding teams having veterans and leaders in the locker room to help steer the ship and make sure the professionalism of the NBA remains intact. There are clear on-court issues the Rockets have to work through. Sengun is limited on defense and lacks the IQ to make up for it. Jalen Green and Kevin Porter give inconsistent effort, and the positive pieces on that end are all too young to compensate. On offense, Green and Porter are learning how to balance scoring and creating for others who need it, the frontcourt lineup construction has been difficult to balance, and the young roster has struggled to adapt to Silas’ read-and-react offensive scheme based on concepts.
One way I’d try to get the Rockets a little more cohesive would be to tinker with the rotations a bit. To me, they need to commit to playing Garrison Mathews a bit more consistently so that there’s enough floor spacing on offense, and overlap his minutes with Usman Garuba as the team’s de facto backup 5. Here’s how I’d construct the rotation if I were coaching the Rockets, with the understanding that Sengun and Garuba’s closing fourth-quarter minutes will be dependent on matchups and their play up to that point:
Hope isn’t lost in Houston, these are growing pains that young teams go through. Losing in bunches doesn’t help morale, and what we saw was likely competitive frustration showing through. Sengun has to be better, the scheme put forward can probably help him a bit more, and Smith has to learn to hold it together a bit more on the court and address things in the huddle or the locker room.
But this stuff happens. Address it, learn from it, move on. Just another lesson the young Rockets have to go through.
What do the Wizards do?
One team trending upward of late is the Washington Wizards, winners of 7 of their last 9 and sitting at the cusp of the play-in out East. Earlier this week, I wrote a long column at SB Nation breaking down the reason behind the recent rejuvenation: starting Daniel Gafford, playing big all the time, and mismatch posting people to death.
Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma are both borderline All-Stars. Bradley Beal is a lethal scorer when he’s healthy. Gafford toughens their defense, and Monte Morris has been very steady in the backcourt. But winning games now might be a bit of fool’s gold for the Wizards, a franchise perpetually stuck in NBA purgatory. They’re always good enough to make the playoffs or be right on the precipice, but never good enough to be considered a legitimate contender.