Luke Walton was just a number -- injured salary cap fodder the Los Angeles Lakers sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012 to snag Ramon Sessions. Walton had logged just 65 minutes that season in L.A., and back injuries had sidelined him for most of the two prior seasons.
He was done.
Then out of nowhere, he found magic on the Cavaliers' second unit with Shaun Livingston, another broken body Cleveland scooped up after Washington waived him. In practices, they discovered such potent give-and-go synergy that Byron Scott, the coach of those sad-sack post-LeBron Cavs, started calling plays for them.
"I have such fond memories of that time," said Walton, who now coaches Livingston and Marreese Speights -- another member of that Cavs bench mob -- in Golden State. "It was a great way to end my career after all the back injuries. We all still laugh about it. The game was fun again."
And thus was born the Luke Walton All-Stars, our annual roster of journeymen and role players thriving in unexpected ways. One or two players have bristled at earning Walton status, but it is meant to be an honor. Not everyone can be a star. A Walton is a shape-shifter who tailors his game to fit the context of a particular team, and revels in the grunt work. He makes everyone's life easier.
"When someone first sent me the column, I assumed it was an insult: Why would there be a Luke Walton All-Stars?" Walton remembered. "But when it was explained to me, I liked it. I took pride in being a glue guy. I love this game. I feel like when it's played a certain way, it can be fun for everyone, and teams have more success."
With those wise words from our captain emeritus, here are the fifth annual Luke Walton All-Stars.
Marvin Williams, F, Charlotte Hornets (captain): When Pat Delaney, a Hornets assistant, walked into the team's practice gym on Sunday after a grueling back-to-back, he was surprised to see Williams dripping with sweat. Williams explained he had run on the treadmill, and drained 100 free throws.
"If there's one negative about Marvin," said Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, "it's that you have to tell him, 'Don't do anything tomorrow. Just rest.' That is literally the worst thing I can say about him."
Williams improvised when Charlotte transformed him into a stretch power forward last season, but when it was over, he vowed to become more dynamic in that role -- to do more than drop wide-open 3-pointers. He and Delaney spent the summer speeding up Williams' shot, and once that was done, honing a floater Williams could use after pump-faking defenders who would rush to close out on him.
They had a motto: "Everything at game speed." No jogs or walk-throughs. They would go all out on every rep, until Williams was exhausted. It was the only way to master a tricky in-between shot. Williams was game for all of it. He always is. Every team that has Williams ends up loving him.
He learned a new position, and happily slides back to his old one when Charlotte plays him at small forward alongside Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes. When Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was out, Williams often guarded the top enemy wing scorer -- Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and others. "It's never, 'Woe is me,'" Delaney said. "It's always, 'Yessir.' There aren't many guys like that in the league."
Williams has hit 38 percent from deep, and he's shooting nearly that well on longer 3s outside the corners. He can spot up around Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum pick-and-rolls, or set the screens himself. If defenses drop away from Williams, they concede open pop 3s:
Defenses that show him more respect by hedging hard make it easier for Walker to turn the corner:
With that floater in the bag, Williams can keep Charlotte's drive-and-kick attack humming when a defender snuffs his 3-pointer:
Hesitation from a role player is death in the NBA. It costs the offense whatever advantage it has built up, and gives a scrambled defense the chance to settle itself. It's not enough to be a stretch power forward anymore. You have to be a playmaking 4. Williams has made that transition, and developed a nice screening chemistry with Batum.
Smart teams will switch those kinds of actions, just as Williams, Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist toggle between assignments on defense. Williams' offseason training has brought unexpected dividends on that end, too: He's in better shape, with more bounce, and he has morphed into a shockingly good rim protector. Williams is swatting almost 1.5 shots per game, by far a career high, and he's an alert help defender who relishes airborne contact.
"He didn't make those kinds of plays for us last year," Delaney said. Opponents are shooting just 43.8 percent at the rim when Williams is nearby, a stingier number than most shot-blocking centers yield. To a man, the Hornets say Williams is their loudest talker -- their organizing force on both ends of the floor, yelling out coverages and opponent plays.
Charlotte's decision to ink Williams to a two-year, $14 million deal turned out to be a great move, and if Williams finishes this season strong, he should get a raise.
Evan Turner, G, Boston Celtics: For most teams, there are segments of every game that are just about surviving -- scrounging for points until the star is ready to come back in, and manufacturing stops when mismatches shove you onto your heels. It's the NBA equivalent of plugging holes in a leaky dam.
Turner has done that as Boston's de facto backup point guard, keeping the offense afloat while Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics' only other reliable source of dribble penetration, takes his breathers. That is a demotion after Turner started most of last season, but if he's disappointed to be a backup, he hasn't shown it.
"We never heard one word," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "He just wants to help the team. That's the most underrated thing about him: He loves basketball. He talks about it all the time. He watches high school games. Everyone likes basketball, but he lives and breathes it, and you never lose sleep over a guy like that."
Turner bricks a lot of pull-up jumpers, but he's slithering to the rim more often, and he can create a decent shot from scratch when the shot clock winds down. He's a good passer, though a bit turnover prone when he gets too cute threading no-chance fancy passes through tight quarters.
He loves to mosey around a pick, "snake" back in the other direction, and rise for a jumper -- or pull the ball out and exploit a bigger defender if the opponent switches. Turner has canned a tidy 44 percent of his long 2-point jumpers, a career best.
Turner has allowed Boston to ease Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart into more ballhandling duties without overextending them. Thomas can spot up for 3s, a less taxing job, when the Celtics pair him with Turner.
Turner has nearly abandoned the 3-pointer, and defenses ignore him when he doesn't have the ball. Boston schemes around that by pairing Turner with its spaciest big man combination -- Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko -- and inverting the floor for Turner bully-ball post-ups.
Turner settles for too many tough baseline turnarounds, but he can score over smaller defenders, and if opponents send help, he picks out open cutters.
Turner has worked his butt off to become a solid defender, and his ability to guard all three perimeter positions -- including big wings like Anthony -- gives Boston a handy versatility. The Celtics can hide Thomas in the most convenient spot, and everyone else can find their most comfortable matchup; Turner eats the leftovers. In transition, players can pick up the closest opponent without fretting about matchups.
Being pretty good at lots of skills is a skill in itself. It makes you a chameleon. When key players get hurt, teams don't have ready-made replacements who can mimic what those players do. You need guys who can fake it just enough, and Turner can fake it in lots of roles.
Lance Thomas, F, New York Knicks: Speaking of malleability as a skill: Part of Thomas' value is that he can defend wings and power forwards, so that Anthony can rest on the least threatening opposing player. Against Golden State, Thomas spent time on both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Against Toronto, he flipped between DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Patterson.
When Melo wanted to catch his breath against P.J. Tucker, Thomas chased Mirza Teletovic around the perimeter. He's alert tracking both his man and the ball, he slides his feet well, and he studies opposing personnel; Thomas pays extra attention to snipers, and drifts away from bricky outside shooters.
He'll gamble for steals now and then, and he provides zippo rim protection; Thomas has blocked just seven shots all season. But he has been solid, and shockingly competent on offense. When Phil Jackson labeled Thomas "a good shooter" upon acquiring him in the Iman Shumpert/J.R. Smith dump, I almost short-circuited my laptop with a spit take. Was Phil delusional?
Welp, Thomas is 37-of-88 from deep after making just seven 3-pointers combined over his first four seasons, and he's even launching contested 3s from the corner -- a key spot in the triangle. Defenders are actually starting to run out at Thomas, and when they do, he bolts by them for wackadoo floaters and midrangers:
Those blow-bys come easier when the Knicks pair Thomas and Anthony at the forward spots; opponents usually hide their power forward on Thomas so that they can keep their best wing defender on Anthony, and that gives Thomas a big speed advantage. He can fill any station in the triangle, and he's a willing passer.
Ed Davis, C, Portland Trail Blazers: Before he signed a nice long-term deal in Portland, it seemed like Davis was doomed to wander the NBA landscape, shoot 60 percent, pluck offensive rebounds, provide some rim protection, be "too skinny," and wait for someone to figure out he was pretty damn good.
Oh, hey: Davis is shooting 61 percent, and he's third in the whole stinking league in offensive rebounding rate, behind only Andre Drummond and Enes Kanter's mustache. He screens for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, waits for his man to help on their drives, and jets into the void to tip in their missed bunnies.
About 31 percent of his scoring chances come via putbacks, the highest such share among all players, per Synergy Sports. He skirts around slower big men who box him out, or just reaches a long arm over their heads to flick at the ball. He's a dangerous, gliding finisher on the pick-and-roll.
He's a mooch, basically, in part because he can't shoot. The Blazers have minimized that weakness by pairing Davis with Meyers Leonard, who chills around the 3-point arc, and Davis in turn has streamlined Leonard's addled thought process on defense. Blazers coach Terry Stotts started the season with Davis defending centers and Leonard on power forwards -- an intuitive division of labor. But Leonard struggles to keep up in open space, and about a month ago, Stotts flip-flopped assignments, thinking it might be simpler for Leonard to bang with low-post brutes.
Davis embraced the adjustment, even though he has to chase shooters who operate way outside his comfort zone. That required rewiring his brain to override his big man instincts, and Davis will sometimes catch himself straying from gunners to patrol the rim. "He's getting better at it," Stotts says. "And it has made things easier for Meyers. The more you are around Ed, the more you appreciate him."
When he guards centers, Davis looks comfortable in Portland's conservative drop-back scheme; the happy feet that plagued him elsewhere have calmed. He's bothering post behemoths with fronts and other long-armed tactics, and generally playing the best defense of his career.
Garrett Temple, G, Washington Wizards: When Temple is averaging 26 minutes per game, it's a bad sign for your team, and if he plays that much in the postseason, the Wiz -- should they even get there -- will be toast. But Temple has held steady in a bigger role than anyone anticipated, and he provides John Wall at least one running mate who can keep up; nearly one-third of Temple's scoring chances have come in transition, the largest such share among all rotation players, per Synergy Sports research.
And those aren't all Wall-generated triples, either. Temple jets to the rim against backpedaling defenders, and has some nifty finishes in his arsenal:
Temple is shooting just 32 percent from deep, and isn't much of an off-the-bounce threat. Opponents stash their weakest defender on him, and ignore him away from the ball:
But 32 percent on a lot of attempts is better than nothing, and Temple manufactured a bunch of 20-point games when the Wizards badly needed someone other than Wall to put the ball into the basket.
Temple is a physical, smart defender who checks all three perimeter positions, and the Wiz have used him against everyone from James Harden to Steph Curry -- sparing the overburdened Wall some heavy lifting on defense.
Zaza Pachulia, C, Dallas Mavericks: We've already written a ton about Dallas' screen-setting, rebound-munching, bounce-passing baritone cinder block -- a consolation prize many within the Mavs credit for saving their season. During the heights of Zaza mania, Pachulia would smile, roll his eyes, and wonder whether anyone had ever watched him with the Bucks and Hawks.
He wasn't wrong. "I hadn't seen him play much," Dirk Nowitzki said, laughing. "I don't watch a lot of East Coast ball, and he was out there in Milwaukee and Atlanta." Pachulia even sent Nowitzki a YouTube montage of his drives after Nowitzki was stunned to see him swoop to the rim in practice.
Playing in Milwaukee for Jason Kidd, an ex-Mav, eased Pachulia's transition, since Kidd incorporated a lot of Dallas principles into his offense -- including using Pachulia as a facilitator at the elbows. "Kidd just stole our offense," Nowitzki said. Pachulia is a serious sort who will snap at someone for missing a box out, but he can also hold his own in Dallas' ballbusting culture. The Mavs want him back, but the price will be high.
Jason Smith, C, Orlando Magic: Smith has drilled 54 percent of his midrange jumpers, the third-best mark in the league among players who have tried at least 50 such shots -- behind only Kyrie Irving and Mo Williams. When you scorch the pick-and-pop at a Nowitzkian level, you can jack as many long 2-pointers as you'd like.
After lazing through a lost season in New York, Smith is trying again on defense. Guess what? Effort helps. Smith has learned "verticality," and he's meeting drivers at the rim with some oomph.
Opponents are shooting just 47 percent at the cup when Smith is nearby, per SportVU data. The mismatched Magic have cycled Smith through a bunch of frontcourt partners, including the mothballed Andrew Nicholson, and they've tried him lately in crunch time with Nikola Vucevic. He's also a laughably bad rebounder. But Orlando has found a rotation player, and Smith has outplayed the departed Kyle O'Quinn.
Jared Dudley, F, Washington Wizards: We know Dudley checks off the "3" and "D" parts of being a modern small-ball power forward, but he doesn't get enough credit for his playmaking. He is proof that high-IQ, decisiveness and killer vision can get you almost as far as hops and speed.
Dudley never holds the ball in place. When he catches it, he goes right into his next move with such immediacy that the catch and move blur into one smooth motion. He does not give a compromised defense even a moment to reset itself. He knows where his teammates are, and where they will be, and he can make the next pass in the chain almost without thinking.
He enjoys keeping the offense moving so much that he sometimes passes up open 3s. Fire away, buddy. Dudley is shooting 46 percent from deep, and holy hell, would it be nice to see the Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter-Dudley-Marcin Gortat lineup get some more extended run.
Omri Casspi, F, Sacramento Kings: Boogie's li'l buddy being available for less than $3 million per season represents a collective failure for the league -- and a rare savvy move for the perpetually dysfunctional Kings. Casspi has hit 42 percent from deep after cracking the 40 percent barrier last season, and he delights in the challenge of insane, ultra-long chucks; only Stephen Curry and Lillard have nailed more triples longer than 28 feet this season.
He can space the floor around pick-and-rolls and DeMarcus Cousins post-ups, and when opponents chase him off the line, he busts out a glorious herky-jerky floater game -- complete with a Eurostep to fool help defenders.
That ain't easy. Skill development is a block-by-block process, and the Eurostep is the last block for lots of spot-up players -- including Williams in Charlotte, according to the Hornets' coaches.
Casspi makes the right pass, and he has a knack for cutting into open seams. He defends hard, and sprints back in transition. That makes him a unicorn in Sacramento. Casspi probably fits best as a small-ball power forward, but the Kings have been much better with him on the court this season in all sorts of lineups.
Brandon Bass, F, Los Angeles Lakers: An oasis of lunch-pail professionalism at the carnival. Bass just plays hard, mostly as an undersized center, and he's dishing assists at a career-best rate in some of Scott's Princeton-style sets. The Lakers have been better with Bass on the floor, and they've been competitive -- for real, like a regular NBA team -- when Bass and Julius Randle play together, per NBA.com tracking.
Bass' midrange jumper, once his bread and butter, has fallen off, and he's almost an NBA relic: A big man who can't shoot 3s or protect the rim. But he moves the ball, busts it, and stands as a stabilizing presence in any locker room.
Jordan Hill, C, Pacers: The Pacers have outscored opponents by a gargantuan 14 points per 100 possessions when Hill and ex-Walton All-Star Lavoy Allen man the front line, and they're bench partners again now that the Pacers are starting Myles Turner with Ian Mahinmi. (By the way: That starting lineup has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the league.)
Hill is an unwanted tweener: a center-ish player who doesn't protect the rim, one of the most important center-ish skills. He's too slow to guard stretchy power forwards, and he doesn't have the range to play that role on offense alongside a rim-runner like Mahimi; Indy has played them just 74 minutes together, and the offense has cratered. Allen is a similar player with a bit more punch at the basket, and together, he and Hill have enough midrange craft to make it work -- especially against opposing backups.
Hill is shooting a robust 51 percent on post-ups with flip shots and jump hooks; he can get buckets when a dead possession is winding down. He and Allen have a natural instinct for offensive rebounding, and when they play together, the Pacers retrieve 32 percent of their own misses -- a mark that would lead the league at the team level. Hill is a minus defender, but at least he's trying after mailing it in with the Lakers last season.
Mario Chalmers, G, Memphis Grizzlies: When Mike Conley got hurt, Chalmers filled in with some off-the-bounce zip, oodles of free throws and a few ridiculous clutch shots. He's back to manning hodgepodge small-ball bench units now, and those lineups have mostly struggled during Memphis' recent uptick. He hasn't earned much crunch-time run next to Conley, though Dave Joerger tried that look in Monday's overtime loss to the spirited Blazers.
Chalmers is a stubborn personality, and he drives coaches batty with two or three boneheaded decisions every game. That turned off several potential suitors, including the Jazz, who could have snared him for nothing in the season's most predictable tax dump.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The transparency of Markieff Morris
It was jarring to watch Morris jostle for post position and dunk hard over Jonas Valanciunas in Earl Watson's first game as the Suns' head coach. Where in the hell was that all season? Morris has cooled since dropping a season-high 30 on the Drakes, but his motor magically shifted into high gear once Phoenix canned Jeff Hornacek.
Morris should be embarrassed at the transparency of his switch-flipping. It's an insult to Hornacek, his teammates and Phoenix fans. Hornacek isn't blameless here. He couldn't mend the team's relationship with Morris, and he clashed with both twins at times. Guess what? We all get paid money to work for bosses we might not like during phases of our careers. Real pros put in their best effort regardless, because they take pride in their job and care about their co-workers.
I'd still take a chance on Morris; I'm a believer in his game, provided he can find a better balance between ball-stopping and playmaking. But the past year has been discouraging.
2. Near-consecutive timeouts before crunch time
I will never give up my quest to eradicate the under-9:00 TV timeout that disrupts the rhythm of every second and fourth quarter.
The specter of a stoppage even nags at your brain during blissful stretches of uninterrupted ball. If we get beyond the 7:00 mark without a break, you know a dreaded rapid-fire double-timeout is coming: a stoppage at the next opportunity, perhaps around the 6:30 mark, and then another commercial break at the first whistle below the 6:00 barrier.
This honestly bothers me more than Hack-a-Shaq. I might have a problem.
3. Avery Bradley, moving it early
This looks like a standard Boston set, but there is something funny about the timing.
It's Bradley, and the speed with which he pings the rock to Jae Crowder. Most players who take a handoff like to bounce the ball a couple of times in search of a jumper or a line of attack toward the rim. Bradley doesn't even dribble before passing, and the speed of that decision helps create Crowder's driving score; Crowder's man, Anthony, is still rotating away from Crowder when Bradley passes. Anthony's momentum is going the wrong way, and he has no shot at pivoting back to wall off Crowder.
If Bradley hesitates, Anthony could come to a stop, regain his balance, and lunge back toward Crowder with full power.
4. Hassan Whiteside, not passing
All the overblown hubbub over Whiteside's alleged defensive limitations has masked one of the real and irritating weaknesses in his game: The dude never passes. He has 21 career assists, and just 15 this season. Do you know how hard it is to record so few dimes? Friendly hometown scorers dole out that many fake assists to some guys over a normal month or two.
Whiteside could be just the seventh player ever to log at least 2,000 minutes and dish fewer than 0.5 assists per 36 minutes. His role doesn't require elite passing; he's a post scorer with an underrated soft touch, and a dunk machine picking-and-rolling with shooters around him. But on a few possessions every night, the opposing defense will smother those shots, and leave capable shooters open all over the floor. Whiteside ignores those players. He needs to feed them.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, meshing
See how fun hoops can be when you let the fogies rest, Sam Mitchell? Minny is pouring in 108 points per 100 possessions with their new starting duo on the floor, and they've been even better better on both ends when they play with Ricky Rubio instead of Zach LaVine.
Dieng and Towns can both guard either frontcourt position, they pass well, and they're skilled enough to experiment with big-big pick-and-rolls -- always a favorite here.
Now: Can we please see the Rubio/LaVine/Andrew Wiggins/Nemanja Bjelica/Towns lineup? Do I have to kidnap Crunch the wolf mascot to make this happen?
6. Chandler Parsons, back to providing lineup flexibility
The Twitterati who mocked Parsons as a handsome sunk cost have been pretty, prettaaaaayyyy quiet lately. Parsons has scored at least 19 points in seven of the Mavs' past 11 games, and he has nailed 30-of-59 from deep during that stretch while logging heavy minutes. He is starting to look like his pre-injury self, with a tad less air time.
That has freed Rick Carlisle to use Parsons more at power forward -- probably the Mavs' best option when Nowitzki rests.
7. Derrick Williams alley-oop synergy
The Knicks are at their best when they veer away from the usual pathways of the triangle, and wrong-foot defenses expecting the same old cuts and screens. Derrick Williams has crammed a preposterous number of alley-oops by jogging toward the elbow for the normal triangle weakside two-man action, and suddenly whirling back toward the hoop.
The triangle hovers in the netherworld between scripted and unscripted, and the Knicks create anxiety for defenses when they use counters the triangle naturally burps up. These might be like trick plays in football: overuse them, and they lose the power of surprise. But the Knicks should sprinkle this spice liberally, and they've finished a few games over the past two weeks by scrapping the triangle altogether in favor of a more NBA-standard spread pick-and-roll attack -- a look that may have offended Phil Jackson.
8. The Pellies' Mardi Gras uniforms
The Pelicans might consider making these bad boys their standard uniforms. Their regular unis are nondescript, minus some subtle touches that are hard to see from a distance. These are instantly recognizable as local to New Orleans. They nail the Mardi Gras color scheme, and any team from New Orleans, perhaps the country's most vibrant and gleefully wild city, should amp up the flair factor.
9. Jahlil Okafor taking guys "to the weight room"
There are a lot of "mouse in the house" stock phrases to highlight a size mismatch in the post, but I don't think I had heard this one until Marc Zumoff, the Sixers' quippy play-by-play guy, declared that Okafor was taking some mismatched wing player "down to the weight room." I love it. Zumoff is a highlight of Philly broadcasts, with a deep reserve of catchy lines.
10. Jonas Jerebko, small forward
Jerebko has the multipositional, fill-the-gaps look of a Walton All-Star, but Brad Stevens should probably stop running him out there as a small forward alongside two big men -- even when one of them is Olynyk, a good 3-point shooter. Only two such lineups have logged 20 minutes, and both have been awful on offense, per NBA.com stats tracking.
The speed edge Jerebko has at power forward vanishes when Boston shifts him down a position, and his 3-point shooting -- a scorching 43 percent this season -- doesn't have as much of an impact when he's not dragging an opposing big man away from the rim. The lane gets crowded when Jerebko, a canny cutter, slices into the paint.