"In a playoff series, you can figure out shooting. You just cover Kyle Korver. All that cute stuff they ran for him all year long — they only get that once in a while now."
These were the intriguing words of George Karl, buried in a Zach Lowe article from earlier this summer.
"The shooters who have playmaking ability — those are the guys that are really kicking ass."
These words really stuck with me as the offseason progressed. Its hard to argue with Karl, at least with how the playoffs played out. Kyle Korver's Hawks bowed out without much of a challenge to the Cavaliers; on the other hand, Steph Curry's Warriors took home the Larry O'Brien trophy behind his sensational marksmanship off the bounce.
Karl's words didn't seem terribly relevant to the situation of the Kings. They didn't even have a shooter, playmaking or otherwise. That is, until July 3, 2015, when it was learned that Marco Belinelli had agreed to sign a contract with the Kings to play in the Capitol City.
Ok, great, so the Kings had a shooter. But it didn't seem like Belinelli was the type of playmaker Karl was raving about last summer. Belinelli arrived as a cog in Gregg Popovich's machine in San Antonio, a system that produced brutally efficient automatons at generating quality looks and playing unselfishly. NBA's SportVU cameras capture this fairly nicely; in 2014/15, 47% of Belinelli's offense came in spot-up situations, and 74.6% of his shots followed one or less dribbles. His best year, 2013/14, wasn't much different; 51.8% of Belinelli's shot attempts were catch-and-shoot, and over 80% of his offense came with one dribble or less. His assist rate was 10 and 13% respectively, nothing to write home about. Its always hard to argue with Popovich's approach, and with a shiny new championship ring fitted for Marco's finger in 2014, I doubt there were many complaints.
That's kind of what I expected we were going to see from Belinelli. A guy who knew his role, would knock down threes, maybe hit some shots coming off of screens. Mostly play within himself in a smart, steady, and efficient way. Marco clearly had some skills beyond that, as he showed in last summer's European Championships. But pulling off that stuff in the NBA is a completely different ballgame.
So then preseason rolls around. Belinelli came off the bench for all six games, and... OH MY GOD MARCO WHAT'S HAPPENING
You remember that scene from The Matrix where Neo and Trinity shoot up that military building lobby trying to save Morpheus? Yeah, this is that scene translated onto hardwood. Belinelli showed absolutely zero conscience in his shot selection. He was coming off of screens looking to shoot, and any defender who dared give him an inch of daylight was going to be mercilessly fired upon. Not only that, but it was incredible watching Belinelli take the ball at the top of the arc, call for a screen, and probe his way around off the dribble.
Belinelli also showed off his deft passing ability. Coming from the Spurs, you expect the smart, meat-and-potatoes type of simple passes that keep the offense humming.
But what was really eye-opening was the ability to pass out of the pick-and-roll.
Belinelli showed impressive vision, threading pocket passes to bigs and pick-and-pops to the screener, with some of that Ginobili-esque flair that so many Euroleague-trained players come into the league with. Marco's passing ability combined with his itchy trigger finger make him a pretty complete pick-and-roll player, and look for Karl to exploit these skills in all kinds of ways in the coming season.
That being said, with greater responsibility will come a greater concentration of mistakes. There is no way Belinelli keeps that tidy 10-11% turnover rate he's been sporting for the last couple of years in tact with the added pressure of making good decisions so often. It'll be up to him to make sure that plays like this stay the exception rather than the norm:
Belinelli's flair will sometimes result in a pass to the kid sitting in the fourth row. Anyone who watched Jason Williams regularly will nod in fond remembrance. Marco also at times tries to pass through gaps too small, and he shows the ball a little too eagerly to the opposing big. It'll be interesting to track whether these issues were standard preseason slop or a sign of things to come.
The new Belinelli is going to be a fun as hell. This is the guy that Karl was talking about in his quotes; he's going to do some serious damage making plays off the dribble Karl compared him to freaking Pistol Pete of all players, and while I wouldn't go that far, the "HOLY CRAP" factor can at times be the same. Karl is insisting on keeping Belinelli off the bench for the time being to blast opposing benches paired with the dynamic Darren Collison. But if Ben McLemore isn't pulling his weight offensively, I wouldn't count out seeing Belinelli in the starting lineup. Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins are gonna eat, but neither Rajon Rondo nor Willie Cauley-Stein are going to offer much scoring to support. The Kings might need Belinelli to fill up that third gun role and give the starters an extra bit of punchiness to begin the game.
In any case, its going to be hard to ignore Marco Belinelli this season. His game is loud, he's flashy, and he has no conscience. Whether off the bench or as a starter, the Belinelli bandwagon is ready to rumble.