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.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/4

In my post last week, I wrote about the reasons why the Western Conference playoffs are going to be so interesting, with one of the main factors being that the conference is loaded with teams who have bona fide playoff rosters. This week, my three random thoughts will focus on the six teams who are on the postseason bubble out west–the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans, and which one of them has the best shot to upset the conference royalty.

As long as Kawhi Leonard comes back relatively soon, I believe that Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, and Oklahoma City are locks for the postseason. For symmetry’s sake, along with the fact that they are probably the conference’s fifth best team, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be excluded from this week’s discussion.

All-Stars aren’t Enough

 

 

The Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans have built their teams with a similar recipe, but the ingredients could not be more different. The Blazers are built around two guards, both of whom are primarily scorers and prefer to do their scoring from the perimeter. They completed their ‘big two-and-a-half’ by dealing for Jusuf Nurkic at last year’s trade deadline, giving them some kind of presence in the middle. These three guys are supported by a cast of role players, mostly versatile athletic wings who can hit the occasional open shot, or rim-running big men who protect the paint. None of them create their own shot, and there is virtually never a time that Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum are not on the floor, and when either run of them are, the offense will always run through them.

The Pelicans had a team that was essentially Anthony Davis and a bunch of role players, before they flipped a bunch of those role players for DeMarcus Cousins. Now, the team is centered on two uniquely versatile bigs, perhaps the two best in the league, both of whom can impact the game in myriad ways. Beyond that, the team has Jrue Holiday, who is slightly above average as a starting point guard, and a bunch of other pieces that can hardly be classified as role players. Even more so than Portland, the Pelicans rely on their two all-stars to carry the entire load on offense.

Thus far, neither team has been particularly impressive, with Portland sitting at 5-4, including a dramatic late win against the Lakers on Friday, and New Orleans struggling at 3-5, despite exceptionally strong starts from both Davis and Cousins. The two bigs are averaging approximately  a combined 57 points, 25 rebounds, and nine assists per game, numbers that are even skewed downward a little bit because Davis exited one of the games very early with a minor knee injury.

Although it is exciting to have two elite talents on your team at once, these teams stand no chance to overcome the West’s super teams, who combine multiple stars with quality depth and, often, great coaching. All four of those guys can fill up the stat sheet, but dependence on two stars and very few other reliable players is not a recipe to defeat the Western Conference’s elite. Simply because of their overwhelming size, the Pelicans could form an uncomfortable matchup for the Warriors, but the team has not shown enough consistency to create any real fear in potential playoff opponents.

Both these teams are in tough spots for the long run. They are both clearly one more relatively big piece away from contending. McCollum, Lillard, Holiday, and Davis are on expensive long-term contracts, and Cousins will unavoidably join them if he re-signs with New Orleans. This means that their ability to maneuver in the future is rather hamstrung, especially if they hope to keep their cores intact.

I believe that both these teams are going to struggle to make the playoffs, and if they get there, they have little to no shot of making any noise against the big dogs. Moving into next summer, they will need to make important decisions, and it would not come as a huge surprise if either or both of these franchises decided to blow it up by the start of next season.

The League is in an Identity Crisis

As the NBA grows into a more analytic-focused league, many teams have transitioned into offensive-focused, pace-and-space, and primarily three point shooting teams. Four of the five best teams in the league last season by record were also four of the top five in three point attempts.

As the league has grown into this more uniform style of play, teams with unique styles of play or identities are disappearing. Most of the great teams are offensive juggernauts who run, spread the floor, and move the ball quickly. Most of the teams that don’t play this way have become somewhat irrelevant, and most of them don’t have their own characteristics by which they can be distinguished. There are very few competitive teams who aren’t either predicated on these ideals or led by a unique NBA star who can compensate for any other shortcomings.

Two teams in the Western Conference this season that have gotten off to strong starts based not on a high-octane offense, but on a defensive identity that aims to slow opponents down, grind the pace to a halt, and make up for somewhat deficient offenses. What makes these two so impressive to me is that they have managed to combine the strong defense that their rosters are built for with elements of the modern NBA in order to increase their potential for success.

The Memphis Grizzlies are, once again, one of the league’s most surprising teams. They have beaten both the Rockets (twice) and Warriors en route to a 5-3 record. Their defense ranks third in the league, giving up only 96.3 points per game, and teams shoot a league-worst 41% from the field against Memphis.

The Grizzlies have been the recognized as among the toughest and best defensive teams in the league for a number of years now, and although the personnel has changed, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are still around to carry the grit and grind culture. Last season, the team brought in former Miami Heat assistant coach David Fizdale to coach the team, with the aspiration that the Grizzlies could adapt to the modern era: Playing quicker, shooting more threes, and simply scoring more points.

Fizdale did implement some new wrinkles, as Gasol developed into an outside threat, hitting 104 threes after knocking down only 12 in his first eight seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies also moved long-time power forward Zach Randolph to the bench, giving him a sixth man role in which he eventually thrived. Then, the organization cut ties with Randolph completely as he left town in the off-season, as did “Grindfather”, six-time NBA all-defensive team selection Tony Allen.

These moves permitted the team to move along with the small ball trend that was sweeping the NBA, along with ridding themselves of one of the league’s worst perimeter shooters. Memphis’ changes haven’t yielded much statistical change, as they ranked second to last in points scored and third in points allowed in 2016-17. This year, the Grizzlies rank 25th and third, respectively. The Grizzlies have maintained these results because they have created a culture of a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team, and as long as the pillars of this team remain, that identity will not change.

Utah remains poised to take Memphis’ title as the NBA’s premier defensive squad. They ranked first in points allowed per game last season, and have started well again this season, so far finding themselves just ahead of the Grizzlies and trailing only Boston, giving up 96.0 points per game. Utah’s defensive strength lies, of course, with Rudy Gobert, the league’s most influential rim protector. By surrounding him with length and players that can switch between different positions seamlessly, the Jazz have become a nightmare to score against.

The Jazz, though is even more offensively challenged than their counterparts in Memphis. Points were hard enough to come by last season when the offense was led by all-star Gordon Hayward, but now that he has left for Boston, the team doesn’t really have a go-to guy on offense. As a way to combat that, Utah has preached ball movement, and their offense with littered with guys who are comfortable sharing the ball. Ricky Rubio has been a revelation so far this season, particularly with his outside shooting, and if rookie Donovan Mitchell can continue to develop at the rapid pace he has shown, Utah might find themselves with a reliable scoring threat.

Strong defense always makes for uncomfortable matchups in the postseason. If the Jazz or Grizzlies meet up with one of the conference favorites, which they likely will given that they should be in the lower half of the Western Conference playoff picture, fans can be sure that they will give up a good fight. Ultimately, for these two teams, the talent gap is too wide, but it is good to know that teams short on offensive firepower can still find room in this league if they can develop an identity and stay true to it.

Meet the NBA’s Dangerous ‘2k’ Teams

The next two teams have been two of my favorite teams to watch thus far this season, and are two of the third-tier Western Conference squads that I believe will be most dangerous come playoff time. I have dubbed the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets as the NBA’s ‘2k’ teams. Why? Because they are, as far as I know, the only two teams that could realistically and logically be built via an NBA 2k fantasy draft. Here’s how the round by round picks would go for each squad:

 

  1. Blake Griffin/Nikola Jokic
  2. DeAndre Jordan/Paul Millsap
  3. Danilo Gallinari/Gary Harris
  4. Patrick Beverley/Jamal Murray
  5. Lou Williams/Will Barton
  6. Austin Rivers/Kenneth Faried
  7. Milos Teodosic/Emmanuel Mudiay
  8. Montrezl Harrell/Wilson Chandler

 

(By the way, I actually simulated an NBA 2k fantasy draft, and every player listed fell within one round of where I have them.) So what does this mean? It means that the Clippers and Nuggets both have extremely balanced teams and that the offense can come from a number of different places, even if they both have stars who usually have the ball in their hands and serve as the primary threat.

These are two very well built teams that are versatile and employ creative offenses. The Clippers are 5-3, and have had one of the best offenses in the league to date. Blake Griffin has been able to show his full potential with Chris Paul gone, and he has excelled as the team’s focal point. He is a matchup nightmare against almost anyone, as he is quick enough to take centers off the dribble and he punishes smaller forwards on the low block. Griffin has been both one of the NBA’s most effective scorers as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and in post-up situations. He has also displayed more confidence as an outside shooter, and he has hit multiple three pointers in every game but one this season.

Outside of Griffin, the Clippers also have Danilo Gallinari, a 6’11’ three point shooter who can handle the ball like a guard. He too creates mismatches all over the floor, especially because of his ability to easily shoot over shorter small forwards. That means that four of LA’s five starters are capable of bringing the ball up the court, making it possible to push the pace and create confusion and mismatches for the defense.

Doc Rivers’ guards also complement each other quite well, with Lou Williams providing scoring, Milos Teodosic (when he returns) playmaking ability and Patrick Beverley defensive tenacity. The team is deeper and more balanced than it was during the Chris Paul era. Paul is still among the league’s best players and a master of the point guard position, but without him to dominate the ball, the Clippers have played quickly and freely, and each player has filled their role impressively through eight games. Defensively, Los Angeles will remain competitive so long as they have DeAndre Jordan and Beverley, who are arguably the best on that side of the ball in their respective positions.  

The Nuggets similarly run an offense that is predicated on speed and decisive ball movement. More than perhaps any other team in the league, their scoring comes from varied sources. Jokic and Millsap are the centerpieces, but they have six guys averaging double figures this season. The 5-4 Nuggets’ offense has failed to replicate last season’s impressive offensive output, but once Millsap and Murray find their touches, the scoring totals should improve. Like he showed in Atlanta with Al Horford, Millsap has the ability to play well with another good passing big, and his partnership with Jokic has shown early promise.

The offense should succeed because both big men can punish one-on-one defense in the post. If they can force defenders to help, they both have passing ability, and they are complemented by guys who can score both in and outside the paint. If the second half of last season is any indication, when this offense hit its stride it will put up points in bunches.

The Nuggets struggled mightily last season on defense, giving up over 111 points per game, good for fourth worst in the league. While they will likely be far from elite this season, Millsap adds an extra dimension because he is solid defender both on the perimeter and inside. The absence of both a rim protector and lockdown outside guy, though, will make stops hard to come by.

These teams combinations of real stars with a solid amount of help from the supporting cast makes these two teams dark-horses to make a run in the postseason. While the Warriors are virtually impossible to beat in a seven games series, the Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder will not want to see Los Angeles or Denver come May. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of them win a round in the playoffs. Blake Griffin is the league’s most underrated superstar, and the Nuggets ability to put so many points without a clear go-to scorer is virtually unmatched in the league. These are both important traits in the playoffs, especially as underdogs. I’m keeping my eyes on these guys.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 10/28

One of the NBA’s Biggest Voids has been Filled

The dominance that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have exhibited over the past three seasons led to dramatic changes across the NBA this past summer. If teams wanted to compete, they had to build rosters that could match up talent wise with the league’s best. That meant that all-stars were on the move and teaming up like never before. Chris Paul joined James Harden in Houston. The Thunder traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, giving league MVP Russell Westbrook some much needed help. Jimmy Butler reunited with former coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Timberwolves team already had two of the league’s brightest young stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to play alongside Nikola Jokic. The Celtics brought in both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, completely revamping a team that had reached the Eastern Conference finals just months prior. This sudden movement of big names meant that the NBA would be more anticipated than ever before. It also marked the potential absence of one of the NBA’s most fun occurrences.

In 2016-17, almost everyone knew that the Cavs and the Warriors were going to meet in the finals. There was rarely a time throughout the season where this was not the case. However, the season season remained interesting and fans remained captivated. This was primarily due to two men: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They were both completely carrying their teams; putting up insane numbers while keeping their teams well above .500. Although Harden seemed to be the MVP frontrunner for much of the year, Westbrook managed to maintain his ridiculous triple-double average for the season and clinched the award, even though Houston won 55 games to Oklahoma City’s 47. If you were to take the worst of their numbers, they would have averaged 29.1/8.1/10.4. They both put up some of the gaudiest numbers in NBA history.

With both of them now teaming up with all-stars, I feared that the one man show on a good team phenomenon may not exist this year. Of course Westbrook and Harden, along with guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant would put up impressive numbers, but none of them would be doing it by themselves.

Well, for two weeks, at least, that void has been filled. Giannis Antetokounmpo first five games has been so great that he already being touted as not only an MVP frontrunner but the likely heir to LeBron’s throne as the best player on the planet. The Greek Freak is currently putting up 35.0 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on over 60% shooting for the 3-2 Bucks, and already has an iconic moment this season, when he made amends for two missed free throws with a steal-dunk-block sequence to clinch a one point win over the Portland Trail Blazers. It was a combination of plays that very few other players in the league can replicate.

It is unreasonable to expect Giannis to maintain these numbers, especially the astronomical scoring and efficiency rates, but if he can keep up his rebound and assist numbers and score over 30 per game, he will automatically be in the MVP discussion. Watching the Greek Freak play is an unbelievable experience. Only 18.4% of his shot attempts have taken place outside of the paint, and he has made just three three pointers thus far. Defenders try to sag off him, but he uses the head of steam that he create with the extra space to effortlessly drive through opposing defenses. No player other than LeBron can get to the rim with as much ease as Giannis has this season. His length permits him to step around defenders, and he can finish from almost any angle. Antetokounmpo’s physical gifts allow him to make plays that others can’t. In the aforementioned sequence against Portland, Giannis stripped the ball from C.J. McCollum, and then made it to the rim from about half court in one dribble before throwing it down.  The Greek Freak was also blessed with tremendous vision and is an excellent decision maker when attacking the basket.

Defensively, Milwaukee’s entire system relies heavily on length and switchability. The Greek Freak is of course the poster boy of both these traits. He can guard all five positions, and he is averaging 1.2 blocks and twice as many steals per game, both good for top 30 in the league. Even though shooting remains a crutch, the Greek Freak can do almost anything else he wants to on a basketball court. Everything the Bucks do on both sides of the court runs through him and he will once again have a chance to lead them in every major statistical category. He should join the usual suspects and be one of the leading contenders for MVP this season. It seems as if only the Bucks’ record could hamper his candidacy.

Just like Westbrook and Harden last year, Antetokounmpo will be a marvel to watch each time he sets foot on the floor and his game to game performance and out of this world numbers will add an extra layer of intrigue to an already special NBA season.

Fun Players on bad Teams are Fun

Another effect of the crazy off-season that yielded so many talent-laden squads was essentially its opposite. Teams that lost superstars who fled for greener pastures were left without hope for the near future. For the most part, these teams had a star that didn’t have enough help and therefore left to have a better chance at winning. This means that the teams that they abandoned are left without any players who have any experience, or are actually capable of, leading an NBA team. There are four NBA teams, all in the Eastern Conference–which somehow got significantly worse this summer–that are depending almost entirely on complementary guards to carry the load on offense.

The Indiana Pacers ended the Paul George era, which had seen some success, but had faltered in recent seasons, after a first round sweep at the hands of a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team just four seasons after pushing another LeBron-led squad to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. They flipped George for what seems like two cents on dollar, bringing in only Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

The offense was supposed to rely around the solid but far from spectacular Oladipo and up-and-coming versatile big Myles Turner, but the third-year center suffered a relatively serious concussion in the season opener and has yet to return. So, the Pacers, who are 2-3 and have scored over 130 points twice, have leaned very heavily on Oladipo to produce on offense. So, far, he has scored at a high clip, averaging 26 points per game at an efficient 50% from the field. He is taking a career-high 17.2 shots per game, more than guys like Demar DeRozan, Andrew Wiggins, and Kemba Walker. The Pacers offense, nothing more than a collection of career secondary or role players, has looked very good, and that’s mainly thanks to Oladipo.

Last season, Oladipo was in a very tough spot. He would often stand around and watch Russell Westbrook run the show entirely by himself. Then, every once in awhile, when Westbrook was tired, he would throw the ball to Oladipo and expect him to create on his own. Oladipo never settled into a rhythm in Oklahoma City and it was good for both sides to end the relationship after one season. Oladipo is thriving in Indiana’s offense, where he has a far more balanced mix of being the ball-handler and playing off the ball in Darren Collison pick and rolls. It will be fun to watch Oladipo and the rest of the Pacers fight for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs all year.

The Nets agreed to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract in order a land D’Angelo Russell, who in Brooklyn is being given the reigns to the offense in a way in which he never was in Los Angeles. Despite picking him second overall in the draft, it never seemed as if the Lakers fully trusted him as their guard for the future, especially once Magic Johnson joined the front office. As soon as they knew that they would have a chance to land either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the draft, they shipped D’Angelo off for Brook Lopez.

Now, instead of running their offense through Lopez, where the result is predictable and uninspiring, they are running through a third-year guard who wants to prove that the team that drafted him gave up on him too quickly. Through six games for the surprisingly competent Nets, Russell has taken his usage to new heights, averaging 21.6 points on 17 shots per game. He has hit some big shots late in games for Brooklyn. Both Russell and Oladipo were number two overall draft picks and quickly labelled as busts as they moved on from the teams that drafted them. Now, as the focal points on creative offenses for rebuilding teams, they both have a chance to change the narrative of their careers.

The Atlanta Hawks completely cleaned house, letting the final piece of the 2014-15, 60-win  starting lineup walk, as well as moving on from the Dwight Howard experiment after just one season. Their roster may be the most unimpressive one in the league. All that means that they are counting on Dennis Schroder, who has just begun only his second year as an NBA starter, to be the primary offensive threat.  In his first three seasons, when he served as Jeff Teague’s deputy, he never averaged more than 20 minutes or 11 points per game. Now, he is third in the NBA attempting 21.3 shots per game. Although he is not even fit to be the lead man on an NBA team, led alone the only man, Schroder has played admirably well this season, putting up 22.5 points and 6.5 assists with virtually no help. Taurean Prince is the team’s second leading scorer. Schroder has missed two games for the 1-5 Hawks, and they have lost both, scoring 93 and then 86 points. When the German point guard plays, the team averages 103 points per game. The lightning-quick guard has struggled with his outside shooting this season, but he showed glimpses of that ability in last year’s playoff series against the Wizards. If he can hit from the perimeter more consistently, he will see an uptick in his already solid scoring numbers.

The fourth guard from this category may be the most exciting, but he has also not appeared in a game this season. When Zach Lavine returns sometime in the upcoming months, he will become the Bulls’ best offensive player. Although they will surely bring him along slowly as he recovers from an ACL tear, and as the Bulls season will likely be a lost one by then, he will still be counted on to score in the minutes that he does play. Last season in Minnesota, he displayed a unique combination of outside shooting and explosive athleticism.

None of these four guards are franchise players, or even stars. They are all in reality the second, or even third, best player on a good NBA team. But, for this season, at least, I will enjoy watching these guys put up big scoring totals and trying to lead their teams to wins. In an objectively terrible Eastern Conference, watching these guys try to redefine their careers will be more interesting to follow than, say, the Toronto Raptors or the Detroit Pistons.

I’m Already Gearing up for the Western Conference Playoffs

The Western Conference is going to be great this season because, as a conference, it contains all the ingredients necessary for a terrific season. There is a clear favorite with a big target in its back in Golden State. There are great teams that believe that they have a legitimate shot to tackle the champions in Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Then, they have depth. A lot of it. The other four spots in the playoffs will be decided between seven teams that would all easily make the postseason in the East. Franchises in Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Memphis all could realistically expect to make a run to the playoffs. All have talented enough rosters to do so.

That means that the four conference juggernauts will each have to face an undesired matchup in the first round, whether it be uncomfortable because of youth (Timberwolves), defense (Jazz), star power (Blazers, Pelicans), grit (Grizzlies), or versatility (Clippers, Nuggets). All these teams present tricky matchups for one reason or another and will make for great playoff opponents. Each round will then on should theoretically, get better. So, in other words, it’s going to be one hell of a playoff season out west.

Last weekend, NBA fans were treated to what can only be called the Game of the Year thus far. And this game was a preview for how entertaining the Western Conference playoffs will be. The game was between two teams that will most likely be in the middle of the playoff pack by May, meaning that it is not wholly unlikely that they face off in the postseason. The game ended in a 115-113 win for the Timberwolves over Oklahoma City. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had 27 points apiece, and Westbrook led a furious fourth quarter rally to bring Oklahoma City back. He hit a three to tie it at 110, before Towns hit an impressive floater. Westbrook responded by feeding Carmelo Anthony for the go-ahead three. What followed was the first game-winning buzzer beater of the season, as Wiggins, with no timeouts, ran half the length of the floor and banked in a deep three to steal the win.

The game was of a high quality throughout, and it included a dramatic fightback and an even more dramatic conclusion. It was a sign of things to come for the Western Conference, which should see a number of good games this season and very few bad series come playoff time.

An Extra Thought

Now, as I wrote this post, I realized that a lot of the players I focused on, especially the young players, were international. Giannis, Schroeder, Wiggins, even Towns, who played for the Dominican Republic when he was 16 and maintains that he will continue to represent them. Then, as I thought more about the best young players, I realized that a lot of them, in fact, most of them, were international. Jokic, Embiid, Simmons, and Porzingis were probably the first four names I thought of. And none are American. In terms of international competition, this is no problem, both because these international players don’t play for the same countries, and also because there are still a bevy of players in their prime  like Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall who will continue to play for team USA after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry no longer do. It’s the next generation after that one that doesn’t look quite as dominant. Of course, it’s still early, but try to think of who the best under 23 American player is right now. Is is Russell? Devin Booker? Jabari Parker? And where would these guys fit into a league wide ranking of the best young players. Just something to keep in mind as the NBA season begins to gain steam.

 

Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 10/22

This is just something that I’m trying out. I love basketball. I watch a lot of it. I am going to try to write about it. Each week, I will come out with my three random thoughts on the NBA based on that week’s games or transactions. They usually won’t be a specific instance that happened, but rather larger conclusions that can be extrapolated from the week. It will probably mostly end up being a rambling stream of thoughts. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.

The NBA Sucks Sometimes

The first game of the NBA season seemingly could not get any better. Not only was it a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, not only was it Kyrie vs. LeBron but almost every player on the court at tip-off was facing an interesting question or storyline. Could Derrick Rose bring back some of his past magic and be a serviceable point guard for a team with championship aspirations and expectations? Could Jaylen Brown take the necessary leap forward and held Boston challenge the Cavaliers’ conference supremacy? How much did Dwyane Wade have left in the tank? How would Gordon Hayward adapt to playing second fiddle after being the top dog in Utah for the past few seasons? Could Kevin Love adjust his game again to create more for himself after taking a backseat to LeBron and Kyrie for his first three years in Cleveland? Would Jayson Tatum justify Danny Ainge giving up the first pick in order to land him? Could LeBron James continue to play at the incredibly high level he has maintained for more than a decade? And, of course, the biggest one: Would Kyrie Irving be able to succeed as “the man” in Boston, and eventually supplant his former teammate as the King of the East?

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. Although the game got off to a somewhat slow start, it was almost surreal to watch. There were seven all-stars on the court (with one more sitting out), and in the early going, whenever any player got the ball, I was interested to see what they could do. Then, in a matter of seconds, it was all over. Kyrie threw a backdoor alley-oop, Hayward landed awkwardly, and completely shattered his ankle. Players from both teams were shocked, looking away with pained looks on their faces as Hayward writhed under the basket. If you haven’t or don’t want to watch the gruesome video, the Cavaliers’ bench reaction will tell you all you need to know.

The players recuperated admirably to put together an extremely entertaining basketball game that nearly ended in perfect fashion, as Kyrie got a half decent look at a three to tie the game, with LeBron right in his face, but came up well short. Everyone is excited that basketball is back, but that moment reminded everyone that sometimes the NBA can really suck. A player can work hard the entire offseason to improve his game and adapt to a new team, and it can all be taken away on a freak play. The response from the NBA, including members of the opposing Cavaliers, was quick and strong, which gave an air of positivity to the otherwise heart wrenching moment. Gordon Hayward will come back, hopefully as strong as ever, and the NBA will move on, but that moment reminded us all that sometimes basketball can really let us down.

The whole ‘rest’ thing has gotten out of hand

I’m not one of those people that think that LeBron should be playing 82 games every single season. Over the years, he and the Spurs have shown that it can be effective strategy to rest, especially when you are consistently playing over 100 games every season. Last year, the rest ‘epidemic’ took over more of the league, with multiple teams resting their stars, and many of them would rest their stars together, essentially waving the white flag on that game. This can be a problem when a certain city doesn’t get to see a given superstar for the whole season if he misses a road game, but in the grand scheme of things, the NBA would rather see its stars healthy and playing at their highest level in the postseason.

However, what happened on opening night of this season took this whole thing to another level. The Rockets rested Nene, their backup center, in the first game of the season. Now, Nene is an NBA veteran a long injury history, and the Rockets were playing the first of a back to back set, but resting him actually pointed to something much deeper that’s taking place in the NBA.

In recent years in the MLB playoffs, managers have gotten creative with their pitching rotations. They’ll pull their starters in the second inning just to get a lefty-lefty matchup in order to get out of a jam. They’ll use star relievers to get only one out. They’ll use their closer in the seventh inning so that he can retire the heart of the order. In other words, the MLB is more and more becoming a matchup league.

For the most part, the NBA has avoided this. You put out your best team and see if it can beat the opponent’s’ best on that night. However, in this era of small ball and pace and space, where all five players can shoot and handle the ball, insisting on playing two traditional big men can sometimes be a death wish. Some teams have been forced to adjust their rotations to playing only one big at a time.

Houston and their opening day opponent, the Golden State Warriors, are the two golden boys of modern basketball. They live and die by the three. Neither team ever has more than one guy that can’t spread the floor on the court at once. Still, usually Houston employs two traditional centers: Starter Clint Capela and Nene. Against Golden State, though, Capela played only 18 minutes and Nene zero. Golden State, more than any other team in the league, makes you adjust. Even Houston, known for its desire to go small and spread the floor, had to cut even further into their bigs minutes.

The move paid off. Ryan Anderson, the stretch four turned stretch five, had 13 points and eight rebounds, and new addition PJ Tucker, who became the small ball power forward, had 20 points on four of six shooting from three point range. Capela was a minus -23 when he was in the game. Tucker was a plus-20. The Rockets ended up with the narrowest of victories, one point, and were one tenth of a second away from a loss.

When Golden State zigged, some teams decided to zag by going bigger or building around versatile big men that could play inside and out. In the opening game of the season, Houston tried to opposite approach, to play even smaller, quicker, and shoot more threes than their opponents. The next night, against a Sacramento Kings team that starts two traditional bigs, Capela played 28 minutes. He had 22 points and 17 rebounds. Nene came off the bench, putting up nine and four in his 18 minutes of play. The Rockets won by five. The Rockets are making this more of a matchup league. For two nights, at least, it’s worked.

Consistency Still Counts For Something

To say that this past offseason was a wild one would be a gross understatement. Besides the Golden State Warriors, who sat comfortably on their perch and added useful complementary pieces, most of the NBA contenders made big moves to challenge the Bay Area juggernaut, while others completely threw away any hope of competing in the present 

The teams that everyone wanted to see in the opening few days of the season were those that had seemingly upgraded or revamped their roster over the summer: The Celtics, Cavs, Rockets, Timberwolves, and Thunder.

The Celtics and Cavs had an entertaining opening game. Of course, judging Brad Stevens’ new collection of toys is difficult to do, because Gordon Hayward, their clear second best player, went down so early in the first game. Individually, the Celtics all looked okay. But collectively, something was off. Stevens is a coach known for being able to put his players in the best situations to succeed on offense. On Tuesday, many of the possessions ended with ill-advised threes for Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier. The Celtics’ comeback materialized when they turned to Smart bully ball on the low block or Kyrie isolation. Boston is now 0-2 with both losses against teams against which the Celtics will likely be compared to all season.

Cleveland won their opening game, although they blew a 17-point lead and never seemed to get into a great rhythm offensively. It is hard to run the same offense when your guards are Kyrie Irving and JR Smith compared to Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. Only once last season did Cleveland attempt fewer than the 22 threes they took against Boston. Fortunately for Ty Lue, the Cavs can rely on LeBron’s brilliance to get them out of almost any situation.

Minnesota added Jimmy Butler to their Timberpup core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Expectations for the team jumped, with many penciling them in for 50 wins and the Western Conference’s fifth seed. The first game, against the San Antonio Spurs, did not go according to plan. Yes, they were going up against the best coached team in the league, but that team was also missing its best player. It was clear what Minnesota’s shortcomings would be this season. There isn’t enough shooting, there isn’t enough space, and there’s very little ball movement. All of their primary rotation players like having the ball in their hands. There will be a lot of ugly possessions and tough shots at the Target Center this season.

Growing pains are to be expected. But none of these newly put together teams seemed cohesive on offense this week. On the flip side, some of the units that have had the opportunity to play and develop together looked like they didn’t miss a beat. The Bucks completely handed the reigns the the Greek Freak and handed the Celtics their second loss of the season. The Bucks rotation is intact, and it looked like it in their first win of the season.

The Wizards first six also remains unchanged. Although John Wall struggled to find his stroke, the Wizards offense was clicking on all cylinders. Wall was dissecting the defense, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter  hit their outside shots and Marcin Gortat looked like the perfect roll man he was two season ago. Kelly Oubre, another young player that the Wizards are developing, looked far more confident than at any point during his first two seasons. His putback dunk off of Beal’s missed three was one of the highlights of the opening week.

The Spurs were without their superstar, but the organization has been the strongest model of consistency and stability over the past two decades. Even if some of the players change, the core remains and the system will never changed. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray and the ageless wonder Manu Ginobili, the Spurs dismantled the new-look Wolves in a seven point win.

Of course there are two exceptions to this rule. And not just any exceptions. The Rockets, with their newly formed all-star backcourt are 2-0 and beat the world champion Warriors. However, in this game, new addition Chris Paul looked like an awkward fit. Granted, he was hobbled, but he finished with only four points and a plus/minus of minus-4. In fact, Paul did not play the last four minutes and change as Houston came back to take its first lead since 2-0 and then held on for a slim win. Houston’s offense looked by far its best when it went back to its bread and butter: Spreading the floor with three point shooters and running everything through Harden. The former Rockets outplayed the new-look ones.

Oklahoma City is the most glaring exception. The Thunder looked great in dismantling Kristaps Porzingis and his collection of G-League level teammates as Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony all played their roles to perfection.

A quick side note on the Thunder before I go into why this experiment worked so well, at least for the first night. The big three played the whole game as if they were just having so much fun. As if they were each realizing Wow. I forgot that basketball could be this much fun. It was hard not to root for this new big three. Westbrook played with the same rage as always, but as far as I can remember, he didn’t take a single free-throw line pull-up. He drove the lane and either finished or kicked. He took only 12 shots, hitting seven. He recorded his 80th career triple double, and it was clearly one of his easiest ones. Paul George slithered around the court, moving without the ball, and ended up with six threes and 28 points. At one point in the game, Carmelo Anthony hit a three, smiled, and shrugged. He had struggled to that point, but he was getting good looks. He was so thankful to close the chapter on the New York years and move on.

This game was against the Knicks. Oklahoma City’s talent was always going to be able to win that game. They didn’t run an intricate offense. When Russ was in the game, it was much like last year. He would go right to the rim and the defense would collapse. Except that this time, when he threw it to the three point line, he teammates actually made the shot. When he wasn’t in, it allowed George and Melo to get some of the iso looks that they have grown accustomed to getting. If all three of them are content with playing these roles, Westbrook mainly as a distributor, and the other two primarily off the ball, this team will be successful.

Now, we shouldn’t read too much into one game, and the retooled teams have a long time to figure this thing out. But for this week, we were reminded that what we know best is sometimes what works best.