Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/12

An NBA Efficiency Puzzle

Usually a highly efficient NBA player will fit into one of the following categories: a big man who takes almost of all of his field goal attempts at or around the basket, a role player who is low-usage and therefore doesn’t take or make many shots, or a superstar who simply is able to make a high percentage of their tries. This year, everyone who is averaging at least 17 points on over 50% percent shooting from the field falls into one of these categories, except for three players: Otto Porter, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. All of three of these guys are having highly productive career years so far in 2017-18.

To me, Gordon is an outlier in this group. Yes, Gordon’s year four leap has been impressive and he has proven that he can be a quality NBA player. However, he is also a career 29% three point shooter who is all of a sudden hitting 55% percent of his triples. That number would not only lead the league this year, but would be a the highest mark for qualified NBA player in the history of the league. No qualified player has shot over 50% from behind the arc since Kyle Korver in 2009-10.

I can believe that Gordon worked hard on his game this summer, but needless to say, those numbers should come crashing back down to earth as the season progresses. Gordon also has outstanding physical and athletic ability that the other two guys on the list don’t.

Porter and Fournier present one of the most interesting case studies in the NBA. Both have steadily improved their counting stats since they’ve arrived in the league (six years for Fournier, five for Porter), and are now averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and field goals attempted. Both are clearly somewhat limited basketball players, they are not particularly athletic, or strong, or fast. But they both have created very high floors for themselves. They are smart players, they consistently take the right shots and make the correct plays. They struggle to create their own shots, but their games are without clear strength or glaring weakness.

Fournier has flourished in Orlando after starting his career with two seasons on the Nuggets. He has hit double digits in scoring in all four of his seasons in Florida, and he and Nikola Vucevic have been the only consistent performers on an otherwise dysfunctional Magic squad over the past three seasons. This year, the improvement and patience he has demonstrated may finally pay off, as the Magic are 8-5, with Fournier, Vucevic and Gordon leading the way. Even if they do not maintain their current standing of third in the Eastern Conference, the team looks like it will challenge for a playoff spot, which will be considered a successful season for Orlando following year after year in the lottery.

As a scorer, Fournier is dangerous at all levels. He can shoot from three and is deadly from midrange. This season, he is shooting over 62% from shots between 16 feet and the three point line. In fact, he shoots at least 45% from every distance, including in the paint, between 3-15 feet, and from three point range. Although he is not physically imposing, Fournier can score inside because he has a deceptively quick first step and is a crafty finisher at the rim. He hasn’t gotten to the line much this season, although that number has fallen off significantly since last year. At the line, the Frenchman is one of the league’s best, shooting just under 90%.

On the other side of the ball, Fournier is adequate but is not a plus defender. He is a solid all-around player and among the most versatile complementary scorers in the league. He could easily put up for 20 points per game season for the first time in 2017-18.

Porter continues to improve and round out his game as his career progresses. He has established himself as a member of the Wizards’ big three and no other member of the team really comes close to matching the level of Porter, John Wall, or Bradley Beal. At the same time, Porter remains the clear third option on offense, and he is asked to do most of his damage without the ball, cutting and moving until he finds an open look.

Porter has continued to improve his three point shooting, hitting at a 52% clip thus far this season. Like Gordon, he is unlikely to keep it up, but his hot start demonstrates that last season’s fourth placed finish in three point percentage was no fluke. Porter also consistently hits mid-range jumpers, and this season he has shown the ability to shoot over smaller guards. No longer can opposing defenses hide their worst perimeter defender on Otto Porter. The former third overall pick is learning to exploit mismatches.

He is also a perfect transition partner for the uber-fast Wall, as he runs the floor hard and finds openings in the defense both in and outside the paint. Porter rarely takes a bad shot–that’s one of the reasons why he’s shooting an absurd 57.3% from the field to date–and also rarely turns it over. He’s turned the ball over only 8 times in twelve games for Washington. Defensively, Porter does an admirable job on most nights. However, he is rather wiry and has a history of really struggling with stronger, more physical forwards like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. With Washington occasionally employing him as a small ball four this season, this problem runs the risk of becoming even more magnified.

What I find so interesting about these two guys is that they are always praised for being able to do their job well, and not try to go past their respective ceilings. However, Porter seems far more hesitant to look for his own shot when sharing the court will Wall or Beal, and he has found success playing as the primary threat with the bench unit. If Washington ran their offense through Porter a little more, he could very well cross the 20-point threshold without hurting his efficiency too much. Furthermore, this could help Scott Brooks with his biggest problem too, as he could stagger his starter’s minutes a bit more and give Porter a chance to shine as the best player in a unit.

The Magic seem to be trusting Fournier more and more to run the offense–he is second on the team in field goals attempted and third in assists–but don’t be surprised if that trend continues and Fournier separates himself from the pack as the Magic’s leading scorer.

When Trends go too Far

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the NBA is increasingly becoming focused on going small, spreading the floor,  getting to the rim, and shooting threes. For the NBA big man, modern basketball means that you must be able to fit at least one of the following descriptions:

  1. Be a threat to shoot the three, either on a drive-and-kick or a pick-and-pop
  2. Be able to move quickly enough to contest other bigs shooting from the perimeter and at least somewhat slow guards when switches are necessary
  3. Protect the rim and clean the glass on defense; rim run, finish lobs and create extra possessions on offense

If you can do one, you will typically be a useful backup big (Kelly Olynyk, John Henson). If you can do two, your role should range from low-level starter to low-level star (Tristan Thompson to Rudy Gobert). If you can do all three, you are Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, or Anthony Davis. Some NBA centers don’t fit any of the three categories, and these guys  might soon struggle to find homes in the NBA. For example, Marcin Gortat would probably not be an NBA starter if not for his hefty contract (and the fact that Ian Mahinmi is his backup), while Greg Monroe will likely be traded twice over the course of a single season.

With the evolution of the league and the subsequent desirability for these traits, many centers began extending their range out to the three point line so that they would avoid becoming obsolete. The trend, of course, makes a lot of sense. If you develop a three point shot, not only can you become a threat wherever you catch the ball, but defenders have to respect that ability, giving more space to drive both for the big himself and for his teammates.

However, it seems as if centers have decided that they would rather get beat from long range, where the result is inconsistent, than have to engage in a battle on the low block, especially when challenging supremely gifted scoring centers like Cousins or Embiid. Defensively, opposing centers have elected to mostly sit back in the paint in order to not allow guards to get to the rim, and to somewhat taunt their counterparts into throwing up deep shots.  

So far this season, eight centers launch three or more three pointers per game Only three are shooting above the league average success rate of 36%. Of those three, only one would be considered a star in this league–Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets who is hitting on almost 43% of his threes. The other two are Kelly Olynyk and Nikola Vucevic, neither of whom has ever been considered a dominant force down low.

This thought is directed more at the five other guys on this list, guys who shoot no higher than 35% from long range. These centers, are, in order of three pointers attempted, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid. They are all excellent offensive basketball players, and all can shoot the three ball well enough, even Embiid who has hit only eight of 30 for the 76ers through 10 games. However, even if they can shoot the three, they have started to fall in love with their outside shots too much. Since they are such threats inside, they will be given the space to get a good look from three almost whenever they want.

All of them, especially Cousins, Towns, and Embiid create their biggest mismatches when they are in the post. Here they can utilize their full arsenal of offensive weapons, whether it be back-to-the-basket scoring, passing out of the post, shooting from mid range or taking the defender off the dribble.

When they step out beyond the arc, they relegate themselves to nothing more than another below average three point shooter. Shooting from the outside is an important trait to have and might be necessary for many bigs to succeed in today’s NBA, for those that can score inside, it should be a complementary skill and not a primary offensive threat.

How Easily can a Switch be Flipped?

It’s no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled early in the 2017-18 campaign. They are currently in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 6-7. They have no reliable contributor outside of LeBron James. Their defense has been historically bad.

Derrick Rose has already had to fight off two minor injuries. Kevin Love has been wildly inconsistent and seems hesitant to take on a bigger role in the offense. Dwyane Wade is looking like a 35-year old, 15-year NBA veteran with a lengthy injury history. Tristan Thompson is hurt, and it is still unclear when Isaiah Thomas is going to return from his own injury. Jeff Green has arguably been the roster’s third most productive player. Cleveland looks old, slow, and bored.

Of course, the key is to figure out what how much of the issues are age or speed based and how many will be solved as the team’s veterans round into form. No LeBron James-led team has had a dominant regular season since the 2012-13 Miami Heat won 66 games. Even though he didn’t leave his team this offseason, the Cavaliers nonetheless reconfigured their personnel and every time LeBron has changed teammates his squads have gotten off to slow starts.

To me, this one may be more concerning than usual, but there is still no reason to imagine that Cleveland will not be representing the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season. Against all teams that considered to be potential challengers for conference supremacy, Cleveland is 4-0. LeBron is looking as good as ever, and he alone is enough to at least compete for the conference crown every year. Isaiah Thomas is the team’s second best player and has yet to suit up. When he comes back, the offense will become that much better.

Having said that, as currently constructed this rosters has no shot to capture its second NBA title in three years. Golden State would likely beat them more easily than they did last season, and there is at least one other Western Conference team who may be favored over the Cavs in a finals matchup. The East is weak enough to push through, but if Gordon Hayward were healthy, I would be tempted to pick Boston to upend the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

The team’s biggest weakness is clearly on the defensive side of the ball, where they are currently giving up over 113 points per game. Isaiah Thomas is probably the NBA player who is least likely to reverse that trend. If Cleveland doesn’t make any moves come June, they might have to get some very creative with their lineups in order to challenge the heavy three point shooting teams from out west.

Considering that Cleveland has very few athletic wings outside of LeBron, they might have to go with a Thomas-Crowder-Green-James-Love fivesome that provides them with the scoring punch of the big three along with the defensive capabilities and offensive versatility of Crowder and Green. Isaiah will have to sit in certain lineups so that Cleveland can slow offensive juggernauts, but he is also their second best scorer and will be counted on to provide most of LeBron’s support on offense.

Cleveland player’s are mostly one-way players, either specializing in offense or defense at this stage in their respective careers. In order to have any shot of hanging another banner in the Quicken Loans Arena, they will need to both score points and somewhat slow down Golden State and that means that they may have  to use their two-way guys as much as possible, and that might include going routes that they might not try out that much in the regular season against regular competition. If Cleveland isn’t willing to get original and try new wrinkles, they will have no chance at capturing another ring. The Cavaliers will flip the switch insofar as they will likely be able to recreate last season’s accomplishments, but the notion that this roster is far deeper than last season’s and that it will be able to contend with the Warriors for the title of league’s best is misguided.

 

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