'That's Pretty Interesting': 3-and-D not enough anymore, Raptors' glaring flaw and monitoring Emmanuel Mudiay
Also: Sacramento is so lucky to have Nemanja Bjelica, and why in the world can't the Rockets rebound?
A year ago this Friday, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown gestured toward Robert Covington like a proud parent. "That's the blueprint of development," Brown told CBS Sports, as the man who had recently signed a four-year, $62 million contract extension got in some extra work after a shootaround. That same man was out of the NBA before Philadelphia called him up in 2014 from what was then known as the D-League.
On Brown's mind, though, was not where Covington had come from, but where he wanted to go. At the Sixers' practice facility in Camden, N.J., one of the league's premier 3-and-D players routinely worked on his ball-handling, his finishing and his passing.
"We get he can shoot," Brown said. "We knew that. But now he's grown his defense. Now the next stage is can he pass more reliably, can he put it to the floor more efficiently, can he finish at the rim? Because people are going to chase you off the 3-point line more effectively. What's the ripple effect because you can shoot? You've got the foundation of that, now what?"
Covington was named First Team All-Defense for the 52-win Sixers, but when he headed into his exit meeting, he knew exactly what he would be told: He had to get more comfortable with the ball in his hands. In the playoffs, the Boston Celtics had exposed Philadelphia's lack of playmaking, and their scouting report on Covington was essentially just don't let him take open 3s. Boston was completely comfortable putting point guard Terry Rozier on him, daring him to attack.
On Oct. 23 in Detroit, Covington caught the ball on the wing with Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson guarding him. It was overtime, and the Sixers desperately needed a basket. Instead of launching a jumper or swinging the ball, Covington took two dribbles with his left hand and glided past a help defender for a right-handed layup. It was obvious what he had been working on.
"It's just what I had to do, based on the way teams are guarding me," Covington told CBS Sports. "They're just making me put the ball on the floor. At first it wasn't as comfortable. Now it is."
Now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves after , he is still far from a point forward. Covington is confident, though, that his after-practice reps will pay off. In today's NBA, it is suddenly silly to settle for being a 3-and-D guy -- against the best defensive teams, offenses need shooting and playmaking all over the court, especially in April, May and June.
There are exceptions to this rule, most notably in recent iterations of the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers -- if you are fortunate enough to have one of the best ball-dominant creators of all-time on your roster, you can surround them with stationary shooters and expect success. It is telling, though, that the Rockets needed to add Chris Paul to reduce James Harden's workload and the Lakers have decided to build around LeBron James a completely different way.
"The game is becoming more versatile," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, adding that dynamic and dangerous offenses need "those triple-threat skills that people always talked about: Can you shoot, pass, dribble?"
Spoelstra's staff has worked with Josh Richardson for four years, helping him . This transformation is not easy, but, all over the league, specialists on the wing are trying to round out their games.
Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter lunged at Joe Harris on Sunday, and it wasn't unusual. When you make 49.5 percent of your 3s, the sixth-best mark in the NBA, defenders tend to run you off the line. The Brooklyn Nets wing put the ball on the floor, drove right and attracted a crowd as he took off for what looked like a difficult layup. Instead, Harris wrapped the ball around Hawks big man John Collins, setting up Jarrett Allen for the easiest dunk imaginable.
"He's a downhill player in a weird way," Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said: Not exactly a pick-and-roll guy, but a skilled driver who understands how to use the threat of his shot to his advantage. The Nets' 144-127 win against Atlanta was Harris' second straight game with six assists.
After Harris' dish to Allen, the Hawks' Vince Carter ran a dribble-handoff with DeAndre' Bembry, who turned the corner and made a layup off the glass over the long arms of Brooklyn's Rodions Kurucs. A few minutes later, Atlanta ran the exact same action, except it was Bazemore handing it off to Carter, who drove at Harris and scored off the glass.
"That's when we're at our best, when the ball is moving both sides," Bembry told CBS Sports. "The next person goes, attacks. It might not be open, swing it to the next side. The same guy can do the same exact move and make the same exact play. I think that's just who we are."
Once a superstar, Carter still sees the game from the perspective of a playmaker. Bembry was drafted largely because of his feel for the game and passing ability. Harris, however, came into the league as strictly a sharpshooter. As a teammate of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with Cleveland Cavaliers for the first one-and-a-half seasons of his career, he was not encouraged to do the most basic thing you can do with a basketball: dribble.
"You catch it, you shoot it," Harris told CBS Sports. "That was my role."
Harris signed a two-year, $18 million deal with Brooklyn last summer, 30 months after the Cavs dumped his salary and the Magic waived him. He earned that contract because he is one of the best shooters in the world, but, not just because he is one of the best shooters in the world. "Shooting is what opens up everything for me," he said, and he is opportunistic about his playmaking. He loved playing for the Nets so much that he gave them a hometown discount, and in his third season playing for Atkinson, he now finds it natural to read and react within their system.
"You see it with our team: When that ball is moving, the offense is really tough to guard," Harris said. "Guys are feeling confident. It goes another direction if you start playing heavy iso ball and the ball is not moving. People have a tendency to get frustrated when they don't touch the ball on the way down."
Recently, Atkinson joked with Harris that he's not even a shooter anymore, and opponents would soon have to back up in anticipation of his forays to the rim. In that respect, Harris' game is a microcosm of Brooklyn's offensive philosophy. The Nets are fifth in the league in 3s attempted, but they are dangerous because they are second in drives, per NBA.com. On a seven-game winning streak, they've climbed to 11th in offensive rating after a couple of years of taking the "right" kind of shots without the results to show for it. Harris described his passes as "easy" because few teams space the floor like they do.
One of those teams, however, is the Hawks, who rank fourth in 3s attempted and third in drives. Like Atkinson's Nets before this season, they can create the kind of shots they want, but are having a hard time knocking them down. Despite avoiding the midrange like the plague, they rank 28th in offensive rating.
Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce said his goal is to make the defense move. Since he does not have a singular star, he needs the system to generate shots and wants all his wings to feel empowered to create. "Coach doesn't restrict us on anything," Bembry said, speaking from experience: Every time backup point guard Jeremy Lin has been hurt, Bembry has slid into the de facto point guard role. Bazemore, who first scrapped for minutes as an undrafted defensive specialist, has done the same thing in years past.
"I like DeAndre' a lot because he's kind of in the same situation I was," Bazemore told CBS Sports. "A 3-and-D guy, played point guard a little bit in college, and now he's in the position to show that."
When the Phoenix Suns acquired Mikal Bridges on draft night, the conventional wisdom was that they had made a safe move with limited upside. Bridges turned 22 before training camp and was labeled a 3-and-D type. Phoenix traded two first-round picks for him, though, betting on him becoming more than that.
For now, Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said, Bridges' main priority is defense, as his offense "is going to come." Bridges follows Kokoskov's game plan "almost better than anybody we have," he said, crediting the rookie for guarding four positions and stabilizing the team. Bridges does not create all that much yet, but he is functioning in an offense that does not allow anybody to stand around. Part of the reason the recently traded Trevor Ariza grew disenchanted with Phoenix is that he had to move and handle the ball more than he expected, according to the Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin.
Phoenix guard Jamal Crawford called Bridges "the prototypical NBA player that everybody wants." Bridges told CBS Sports that improvement is just a mindset, and there is no reason he can't expand his game now that it's literally his job. In an interview with Vice Sports' Michael Pina at summer league, he pointed out that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard began as role players and took on more responsibility over time.
"He can really make plays," Crawford said about Bridges. "People don't know that about him. He can make reads. He can slash really well. He makes some good, solid passes. I'm impressed. I'm surprised he's as good as he is."
The crucial question, of course, is how good Bridges will be in a few years. With some development, what does he want to be able to do?
"Everything," Bridges said.
Here are Emmanuel Mudiay's averages for the first nine games of December: 20 points, 5.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 47.8 percent shooting, 36.8 percent from 3-point range (on 4.2 attempts). On Monday he scored an efficient 32 points against Phoenix, which would have been a career high if he hadn't scored 34 points a few days earlier in Charlotte. He has never been known as a shooter, but lately he has aggressively called his own number. I have frankly been stunned by the degree of difficulty on some of his shots, but New York Knicks coach David Fizdale seems pleased with his boldness.
"I think his confidence is up, knowing that I'm going to give him full throttle to shoot open 3s and take those shots," Fizdale said. "I'm really happy with the way he's been attacking."
A third of Mudiay's made field goals against the Suns made me shake my head. He brought the ball down the court and isolated against De'Anthony Melton, making a contested midrange fadeaway as his teammates just stood around:
He sized up Deandre Ayton and swished a stepback 3 over the rookie:
He made a leaning, off-the-dribble 3 with 17 seconds on the shot clock:
And he turned down an in-rhythm 3 to take Ayton off the dribble and hit a high-arcing fadeaway over Ayton on the baseline:
When these shots go in, they look awesome. The problem is that they don't always go in, and it's not clear that he can keep making them at this rate. It's still not shocking to see him airball or badly brick a 3, and he's still shooting just 54 percent at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. Mudiay is having a career year, but most of it is because he has been one of the best midrange shooters in the league, so skepticism about sustainability is warranted.
Fizdale said that Mudiay has proven to himself and the NBA world that he is a legitimate rotation player. The Knicks are a rebuilding team, though, and I don't see a single playoff-caliber team that would have been willing to give him the reins the way they have. Like the rest of New York's "second draft" guys, Mudiay will be a free agent at the end of the season, and any front office thinking about signing him -- the Knicks' included -- needs to figure out what exactly this production means.
Nemanja Bjelica is leading the whole darn league in 3-point shooting, at 48.5 percent, and the Sacramento Kings are darn lucky. In order for Bjelica to make his way to Sacramento, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to rescind their qualifying offer to him and Bjelica had to go back on his verbal agreement to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer.
Professor Big Shots has solidified the Kings' starting lineup -- you can just feel how much space De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic have when he and Buddy Hield are spread out behind the 3-point line. I can't help but wonder, though, how much more balanced Philadelphia would be with Bjelica on the roster. The Sixers desperately need more role players who can stretch the floor and play sound positional defense -- a 6-foot-10 forward who makes 51.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s would fit right in.
The Rockets' rebounding regression
Certain subjects stay out of the spotlight simply because they're boring. Defensive rebounding, for example, is not why any of us watch basketball. The Rockets, however, have gone from fourth to 29th in this category, and it is definitely part of why they're X and Y games out of the playoffs.
Can somebody smarter than me explain why this has happened? Is it the extra emphasis on switching from the start of the season? Is it a symptom of a larger problem to do with effort and buy-in? Nene missed the first 21 games and Trevor Ariza is a much better rebounder than James Ennis, but this drop-off feels too drastic to be fully explained by those factors. Even over the course of their five-game winning streak, they have been only marginally better on the glass. What is going on?
Toronto's glaring flaw
Shoutout to Nick Nurse for defending his star player after the Toronto Raptors' 95-86 loss in Denver on Sunday, but my main takeaway from that game was not about officiating. It was that the Raptors looked a lot like the Thunder.
Undermanned in that game, Toronto's defense was excellent. On the other end, though, it continually created wide-open shots and bricked them. The Raptors went 7-for-35 from deep and, per NBA.com, missed 37 of their 56 uncontested shots. Just like with OKC, it is frustrating to see a team play so well and shoot so poorly.
If this was only an issue in one game in which Toronto was without Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas, I wouldn't be writing about it. The Raptors went 11-for-41 from 3-point range in a loss to the same team 13 days before that, and five rotation players -- Lowry, VanVleet, C.J. Miles, O.G. Anunoby and Serge Ibaka -- are all shooting the 3 significantly worse than they did last season.
Toronto, back in action Saturday against the 76ers (7:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), spaces the floor well and runs a pretty offense, but it has been a below-average 3-point shooting team. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw, but it is a glaring one. In the playoffs, opponents will likely be willing to live with Anunoby, Ibaka, Siakam and Delon Wright shooting from the perimeter until they prove it is a bad strategy. All of this will be particularly relevant if the Raptors wind up facing the Milwaukee Bucks, who surrender the most 3s of any team in the league because they are obsessed with protecting the paint.
10 more stray thoughts: My hot take about James Harden's step-step-stepback 3 is that I'm surprised that kind of thing doesn't happen more often … "Like, duh" is my favorite LeBron quote in a while … When you look up Jordan Clarkson's usage rate, it should just take you to this tweet … I almost fell out of my seat when Joe Harris somehow made this shot … Same with this one from T.J. Warren … Kelly Oubre still has plenty of upside … I miss Goran Dragic, ugh … Aron Baynes and DeMar DeRozan have taken the same amount of 3s this season, and Baynes has made twice as many … After much consideration, I have no idea where Austin Rivers should go … Free Ryan Anderson.
All statistics accurate as of games played on Dec. 18.
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