When Mike Dunleavy was asked prior to Saturday night’s game whether he had plans to use Steve Novak more, he smiled at the room of reporters. “If you can help me figure out how to get him more shots, I’m on board.” Dunleavy’s wry response speaks to the difficulty of his challenge. Steve Novak is one of the most preternaturally gifted outside shooters on the planet, but like many of the “180 Shooters” we highlighted last week, Novak doesn’t have the athleticism to get himself open looks at the basket without some help.
If you place a shooter like Novak on the floor with a superstar or two, the riddle is much easier to solve because the shooter can play off the double-teams. If Michael Jordan attacks the lane from the perimeter, the defense will collapse on him, which means a shooter [Steve Kerr] will likely be open along the arc. Same thing if the superstar operates in the post. One of the reasons the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs are #1 and #3 in the league respectively in three-point shooting has a lot to do with Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan — the two most efficient post players in the league. But Novak isn’t playing with any superstars. These days, when Novak checks in for the Clippers, he’s probably the second-best offensive option on the floor. The are no double-teams out there for Novak to play off, and for that very reason, he’s likely to attract more attention from the defense than at any time in his pro career.
Despite the Clippers’ limited offensive arsenal, Novak was able to get off 11 shots in yesterday’s loss to Minnesota — good for 18 points on 79.5% TS. How were the Clippers able to manufacture these shots for Novak? How did the team distract the Minnesota defense? Solid screens? Luck? Transition opportunities? Let’s take a look:
- [1st, 1:39] On his first shot attempt of the day, Novak is the beneficiary of a poor defensive decision by Craig Smith. The Clippers are four-out-one-in. Collins has the ball on the right side, with Novak at the top of the arc. For whatever reason – and I can’t think of any — Smith decides to slide over to help Bassy Telfair on Collins 18 feet from the rim. Collins sees Novak open and quickly passes him the ball. Silky smooth stroke. [1-1 FGA, 2 points]
- [1st, 1:04] Ironically, Novak misses his easiest attempt of the afternoon. Collins penetrates in transition, while Ricky Davis and Novak both spot up on the left side — Davis in the corner and Novak to his right. When the Wolves collapse, Collins kicks the ball out to Davis, who darts it over to the wide open Novak. [1-2 FGA, 0-1 3PA, 2 points]
- [1st, 0:40] This is a second-chance bucket for Novak. The moment Mardy Collins rebounds Davis’ missed jumper, Novak scampers to the arc. Collins finds him instantly, and Novak fires the long 2. We generally think of second chance opportunities in terms of big men crashing the glass. But a smart shooter like Novak can generate a high-percentage second look for the offense by running to his spot on the perimeter, where the rebounder can find him. [2-3 FGA, 0-1 3PA, 4 points]
- [2nd, 10:19] Even in transition, a spot-up shooter will need a little help. Here, Novak gets it from Ricky Davis. As Novak runs to his spot on the break, Davis pins Mike Miller, which gives Novak the space he needs to launch the 3PA. Randy Foye comes into the play late and swipes Novak, who sinks all 3 FTAs. [2-3 FGA, 0-1 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 7 points]
- [2nd, 5:57] Horns set, with Novak and Skinner at the elbows. Novak cuts parallel to the foul line with the help of a Skinner screen, and fades out to the perimeter on the right side. He gets the space he needs to drain the 3PA. Simple, yet effective. [3-4 FGA, 1-2 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 10 points]
- [2nd, 5:38] Here, the Clippers run a high S/R with Fred Jones and Novak out on the arc. Novak’s brush isn’t terribly effective, and Kevin Love — who is assigned to Novak — manages to shoot the gap. The good news is that Brian Skinner is waiting for Love with a second screen. Very well-designed set by the Clippers. Unfortunately, Novak hurries the shot just a bit. [3-5 FGA, 1-3 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 10 points]
- [2nd, 4:41] Another ball screen up top — this time it’s Collins/Novak. Love runs underneath, leaving Novak with just enough time and room to launch another long two-point FG. Novak’s release is lightning quick. [4-6 FGA, 1-3 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 12 points]
- [2nd, 2:41] The Clippers set a pair of high screens for Novak at the elbows to get him from the left wing to the right side of the arc — the first by Gordon, then a more effective one by Skinner. Ryan Gomes fights through both screens very effectively and chases Novak to the far side. Gomes closes so quickly that Novak offers up a ball-fake to buy himself a better look. Gomes bites, Novak dribbles about five feet to his left and tries again. Novak is never totally balanced and the shot misses. [4-7 FGA, 1-3 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 12 points]
- [3rd, 2:16] Again, Skinner and Novak set up at the respective elbows and — again — Novak frees himself from Kevin Love around the Skinner screen. Novak meets Jones at the top of the arc, gets the ball, turns and drains the 3PA. Another screen-assist from Skinner. [5-8 FGA, 2-4 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 15 points]
- [4th, 8:44] Here’s another one of those second-chance 3PAs. When DeAndre Jordan collects the Jones miss, Novak spots up along the arc, where Jordan finds him for the uncontested 3PA. [6-9, FGA, 3-5 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 18 points]
- [4th, 7:48] Yet another second-chance 3PA for Novak. When Thornton’s miss bumps off the rim into a scrum of potential rebounders in the paint, Novak sprints to the left corner. He calls for the ball, and Jones delivers it to him. Novak fires the 3PA, but you can tell from his landing that it isn’t his purest shot of the day — his right leg kicks out from under him. [6-10 FGA, 3-6 3PA, 3-3 FTA, 18 points]
Novak’s 18 points are a career high.
As we can see from the sets, it’s not easy to generate wide open looks for Novak. It requires precision and execution — from the ballhandler, from the screeners [sometimes two], and from Novak. Novak also needs a little luck. He gets his first bucket of the game simply because Craig Smith falls asleep. Novak gets a bunch of attempts because nobody on the Wolves accounts for his whereabouts on the offensive glass, which allows Novak to run to an open spot on the arc, where he gets a kickout from the offensive rebounder.
Novak’s task of getting open shots is made easier by playing the 4. So why doesn’t Dunleavy just start Novak at power forward until Randolph returns? I suspect that if Minnesota had started Kevin Love, Dunleavy would have. Novak simply can’t defend skilled big men on the low block, which is the primary reason he hasn’t seen more minutes in the league, despite having one of the sweetest strokes in the game. But when smallball opportunities arise, we should expect to see a lot more of Steve Novak.