The Anatomy of an Outlet Pass

Photo credit: Star Tribune

One mark of a good team is the signature play, hereafter capitalized for clarification. The Play can be something basic (Dwight Howard’s pick-and-rolls with the ’09 Magic, for example), or it can be something complicated (the wondrous and well-documented elevator set run by Golden State). The Play must involve the team’s best player (iso sets for Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant), but he doesn’t have to be the scorer (any crazy thing designed and executed by Chris Paul). Finally, the Play must be something most well-informed fans start to recognize before it happens. When Ray Allen played in Boston, the crowd started to rise and cheer whenever he started running through a series of screens in his floppy action. It wasn’t the most used set in Boston’s playbook, but it was the most anticipated.

Not every good team has a Play, but it’s pretty rare to see a bad team with one — it’s hard to imagine Sacramento running a functional set, let alone a signature one.

For years, we heard about Kevin Love’s ability to throw the perfect outlet pass, but we never truly saw it in action. Sure, he grabbed a lot of rebounds and certainly, he rarely turned it over throwing an outlet to Ricky Rubio, but frankly who cares? Lots of NBA players can throw that pass, and it doesn’t REALLY set the offense up any faster.

This year, however, the Wolves are using Love’s ability to develop a serious weapon — something which fans recognize as it’s developing, something as exciting as it is effective. The key? Minnesota’s prodigal (well…traded, then traded again, then signed) son Corey Brewer.

Brewer is you-better-call-your-plumber-before-your-entire-house-smells-like-mold leaky, and Minnesota is the perfect team for his style. The Wolves are third in overall rebounds and third in defensive rebounds, and Brewer isn’t much help on that score (he’s last on the team in rebounds per 36 minutes with 2.7), but that’s by design. He’s not really necessary with board vacuumers Love and Nikola Pekovic patrolling the paint.

Let’s take a look at how the play unfolds on its most basic level (and my apologies for the poor video quality…not sure what’s going on with my ripping software).

The first thing that stands out is the stark contrast in styles. The Cavaliers work the ball deliberately around the perimeter and into the lane before getting a baseline jumper. When they miss, it takes Minnesota all of 3.5 seconds to race out and create a layup on the other end.

Once again, this starts because Brewer feels comfortable enough to begin leaking out before he’s even certain the shot is going to miss.

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Once Love gets the rebound, he nearly always takes an exploratory glance down the court to see if an opportunity is presenting itself.

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Here, Brewer’s leak out has given Love the chance to display his rather incredible ability to throw a round object a very long ways very accurately. Cleveland isn’t known for its defensive acuity, but the Cavs are caught badly out of position here, and it’s probably not entirely their fault — keeping track of Brewer is enough to turn any coach’s head prematurely gray.

Although Mike Brown’s hair probably won’t turn gray.

Anyway, Brewer’s leak out has created a one-on-one opportunity at the rim. In some instances, Brewer might pull out of the fast break when another player is back with him, but most of the time he attacks the basket assuming that if he doesn’t score, he’ll be fouled. This approach has worked extremely well — in 70 transition opportunities so far this season, Brewer is averaging 1.27 points per possession which is good for 27th in the NBA. Considering that Brewer isn’t 27th or better in the league at just about anything else imaginable, this might be one of the best examples of maximizing someone’s usefulness we’ve seen in the NBA.

The above play is the basic outlet pass we think of when we imagine Kevin Love throwing them. But sometimes his outlets trigger something without flying 70+ feet.

Unlike the Cavs play we documented above, the Celtics have been decent at defense thus far, surrendering 97.7 points per game, 9th in the NBA. What’s more, it was clear that the Celtics were working to get back off missed shots more than usual. Brad Stevens’ squad has been attacking the offensive glass so far this season, but against the Wolves, Boston was careful to cut off the leak out as much as possible.

But it didn’t always work. Here, we see Love gathering the rebound. Brewer already has his back to the basket and is sprinting up the court, but Gerald Wallace (not pictured) is in pursuit and is able to cut off the passing lane between Brewer and Love.

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So instead, Love throws a fairly long outlet to Ricky Rubio, but it’s a pretty basic pass to set up the offense. Since Brewer never stopped running, however, the Wolves still have a fast break.

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After Love didn’t throw him the ball initially, Brewer began shading toward the middle so that when Phil Pressey stopped Rubio’s progress, the Spaniard was able to loft a pass over every Celtic perfectly into Brewer’s fingertips. Wallace is able to contest Brewer’s shot enough to make him miss, but break has created confusion on the glass and Dante Cunningham is able to lay in an easy putback.

Finally, Love’s rebounding ability sometimes means that the Wolves are able to get out in transition without his involvement in the play at all.

This time, it’s Nikola Pekovic gobbling up the board, but it’s difficult to imagine Pek launching a fullcourt floating outlet pass to a streaking Corey Brewer. Instead, he hands off to Rubio. 4

Meanwhile, Brewer is off to the races once again — as usual, he is able to ignore the glass and race ahead full tilt. This time, he ends up in corner.

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But this time, Brewer wasn’t the only player hustling to get back ahead of the defense. Robbie Hummel and Love are spacing the fast break perfectly. Rubio ignores what would probably have been an easier pass to Hummel and instead fires it crosscourt to Brewer, who drains the corner three.

Running in transition consistently is difficult — defenses tend to adjust, and those adjustments force turnovers if the offense continues to press. More turnovers occur if the the offense starts to get tired from all the running.

But man. It’s a lot of fun to have a Play again.

For your viewing pleasure of many instances of The Play, check out our friend Owen Kinsky’s Kevin Love Outlet Pass Extravaganza, which was showcased on Deadspin early last week:

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

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