The In-Season Tournament has made its colorful debut
Plus: Volume 2 of Nekias's new series: Screen Time
Welcome back to A Farewell to Takes, our quick trip around the NBA and WNBA. A quick note before we get into the newsletter: this week’s episode of The Old Man and the Three Things features Nekias and Steve of The Dunker Spot. We discuss “The Scottie Leap,” the Milwaukee Bucks’ poor defense this season, and the kind of player I'd like to see Sixers to trade for to pair with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. And spoiler: it's not a superstar. Watch it on YouTube or listen wherever you get your pods. On to the newsletter.
In this week’s A Farewell to Takes we’re giving you:
Thanks for reading! —JJ
The In-Season Tournament is fun
After months of debate (and an endless loop of Richard Jefferson minus buttons explaining the rules), the NBA In-Season Tournament made its debut last week. The back and forth on importance, stakes, and necessity delivered an extremely colorful debut that … could not have gone any better? Seven games decided by a total of 34 points with five of those being decided by 5 points or less and one going to overtime.
It’s here, it’s not going away, and … it’s fun.
Much like with the announcement of the Play-In Tournament, skepticism spread. As an enjoyer of basketball, I was on board and saw the vision. My mind went to injecting a little more excitement into the regular season, especially pre-Christmas. From a business perspective, being able to add designated TV days early in the season would benefit the league both now and later. As a WNBA fan, the Commissioner’s Cup has been a fun addition to the regular season, and based on that I didn’t think NBA fans would notice a difference.
That was until the NBA debuted their In-Season Tournament courts for all 30 teams. Fully painted courts with the NBA Cup at half court and a runway to Vegas down the middle. I admit I am a sucker for an alternate court, but this move immediately made these games feel different. I know some may not have enjoyed them (and apologies to anyone with color sensitivities), but it added to making these games feel like an event. From watching the Indiana Pacers ball movement and pace on a blue court … and Jimmy Butler shooting fadeaways and shooting the gap defensively on a red court … and Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić trading baskets felt like a video game. It just felt fun.
Adding to the fun was the competition on the court and that’s where I feel like the league found a hack. One of the biggest things that has jumped to me early on… this league is very competitive right now. This is a season where we have seen a team like Minnesota go up 20 on the Hawks, lose the lead and that game and then beat the defending champion Nuggets two nights later. We’ve seen that very same Hawks team start the season 0-2 before beating Milwaukee and winning 4 straight. This is an opportunity to tap into that and for all of the talk about stakes, never forget the competitive nature of an athlete and/or a basketball player.
Think about how the groups are pooled together based on the previous season’s standings and the matchups you can create early in the season. Instead of being held to the hopes that your National TV schedule holds up, you’re able to bake in some fun double headers to add to it. If the “better” teams win, you now get to see them play against each other earlier in the season. If a younger team catches fire early, they now get to advance and test themselves against stronger competition rather than purely playing the calendar.
Fans may not see the stakes but if there is one thing I know, fans love bragging rights and validation. Their buy-in should increase. Players may not sprint to the hype and teams may not raise banners, but their competitive nature mixed with some compensation and a trip to Vegas in December may add some buy in if you’re still in the mix towards the end of the Group Stage.
If you’re still skeptical, I understand. I’d recommend enjoying the Fridays and Tuesdays in November. Ultimately, the real key for the league is the Elimination Games delivering. I will add this kicker though: these games would have happened anyway. And if your team doesn’t advance … you just continue the regular season. Why not enjoy a fresh coat of paint and some elimination games on the way. —Steve
Thoughts on the In-Season Tournament?
Thunder fans rejoined when we announced last week that Jalen Williams is the guest for Episode 181 of the show. JJ flew to OKC and sat down the sophomore to talk about defending Wemby, meeting Mark Daigneault for the first time, what it’s like to be teammates with Shai, and more.
Screen Time, Vol. 2: Zach Collins
Offenses have never been more lethal than they are in this era. With primary ball-handlers becoming larger, the collective shooting range expanding and teams leaning further into the importance of spacing, it’s becoming even more difficult to keep the ball out of the basket.
With the game expanding, screening has become even more important. A well-placed off-ball pick can free a movement shooter for a triple or a catch-and-drive. On-ball screens can make shifty ball-handlers even harder to deal with in pick-and-roll and open the door for dump-offs, lobs and fruitful catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Screeners come in all sizes these days, ranging from the burly centers to mismatch-causing smalls. I can’t overstate how important guard-screening has become, especially late in games.
This season, I want to keep tabs on who is — and isn’t — getting the job done as screeners. Every week, I’ll be highlighting a handful of the most powerful or shameful screen-setters in the league.
Let’s get into volume two. All stats are from October 30th onward.
Screener of the Week: Spurs Center Zach Collins
I was originally going to start this off with some variation of "what a fun story this has been", but I wonder: at what point does Collins graduate from the "fun story" zone? He's been flat-out good — and has been much better value for the Spurs than I originally thought. Career highs in points (14.3), rebounds (6.8), assists (4.7), steals (1.0), and blocks (1.0) are easy things to point to, but that isn't the purpose of this section. We're here to talk about screens, bubba, and I appreciated the work he did this week.
It'll be lost amidst the two-game series against the Phoenix Suns, in which Victor Wembanyama set the world on fire. Sunday's performance against the Toronto Raptors will likely be discarded in favor of whatever the heck Scottie Barnes tapped into during the second half of that one. But Collins, this past week and overall, has been an important connector for this Spurs group. His understanding of angles, the fluidity in which he flips screens, and the roll-or-pop dynamic that teams haven't really got a beat on yet have made him one of the most efficient screeners in the sport.
Most people are watching the Spurs for Wemby, which, duh.
More people are starting to watch for Devin Vassell, which, finally!
I'd quietly like to note that Zach Collins is doing a *lot* of stuff. Really fun screening week from him in particular. Keep an eye on him + Sochan.
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA)
Nov 6, 2023
Of 43 players to set at least 50 on-ball picks last week, Collins ranked 7th in picks set (105), 5th in points per possession (PPP) generated (1.17 PPP) and 8th in screen contact rate (60.95). Only three players — Charlotte's center tandem of Mark Williams (92) and Nick Richards (71), plus Kevon Looney (66) -- set more off-ball screens than Collins did this week. Add in the handoffs (21, 15th), and you'd be hard-pressed to find many frontcourt players more involved in their team's offense. Keep on keepin' on, Zach!
Your most productive on-ball screener this week, minimum of 50 picks set? Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell (50 picks, 1.3 PPP). Death, taxes, and Powell prying Luka open and dutifully rolling into space.
In the Inverted Division, quick hat tips to Ziaire Williams (12 picks, 1.56 PPP, really enjoying his slips and quick push-offs into dives), Jrue Holiday (15 picks, 1.29 PPP, just watch that Nets game), Gary Payton II (33 picks, most set by a guard this week), and the Pacers and Thunder as a concept.
I just want Zeke Nnaji (31 on-ball picks, 51.1 screen contact rate, 1.11 PPP) to know that I can see the progress. It isn't perfect, but he's getting better at the screening thing.
Player of the Week: Jalen Johnson
The Hawks seemed like an afterthought in most pre-season prognostications. Great back court, sure. But last year was a disappointment, and it wasn't clear what was going to be different. Well, Quinn Snyder for one, and DeJounte Murray has been awesome, but as the Hawks sit at 4-2, 3rd in the East, the emergence of Jalen Johnson seems like a real difference maker for them. As Andy Bailey pointed out on X, the Hawks are 3-0 when he starts, +69 with him, -23 when he's off the court. He's averaging 14.5 PPG and 8.3 RBG, 4 0% from 3, with 68% true shooting, a major jump from his last two seasons. His passing and playmaking has also been extremely impressive, a nice balance with the Hawks two lead guards and Capela. His defense has also been impressive. 2.7 stocks per game with a havoc activity on the wings that has helped cover up some up some of this team's shortcomings on that end. Johnson didn't get a ton of minutes his first two seasons, but he's at 28 minutes through the Hawks’ first four games. It's very early, but he sure looks like somebody that we may be talking about in the Most Improved conversation in May. —Tommy
Best Thing Tommy Ate Last Week: Pumpkin Pancakes at Cafe Kacao
via Cafe Kacao
I have to say, I have never had pumpkin pancakes before, and I'm not sure they would have been high on my list but these were amazing. We were in OKC shooting some stuff earlier this week, and I had a limited amount of time to eat. Cafe Kacao came highly recommended, a Latin American spot near Edgmere Park in the city. Served with pumpkin lechera, pepitas, and whipped cream, they were not too over filling but super flavorful. I would like to go back and try some different OKC options later in the year, if anybody has any other favorites to share. —Tommy
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