Three games into the NBA season and there has already been an abundance of fun and exciting storylines. Trae Young and Karl Anthony-Towns have played like MVP candidates, while the Golden State Warriors have looked like one of the worst teams in the league and Dwight Howard has contributed to winning basketball.
While exciting, these declarations usually come with a pinch of humor. Most NBA fans know that the statistics coming out of the first few weeks of the season should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, one particularly fun development has come out of Phoenix, where the Suns have started 2-2 with wins over the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers, along with slim one-point losses to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
The unexpected competence has fans in a frenzy as the team finished last season with just 19 wins, tied for the second-worst mark in the league. But now, their play begs the question: Are they for real, or is their play just a goofy hot streak that will have been forgotten come January?
Of course, to answer that question accurately would require precognition, a skill we have yet to develop as human beings. What we can do, however, is dig into some statistics and make an educated guess as to whether this three-game stretch is a fluke or legitimate foreshadowing of a Suns’ resurgence.
The first stat that might shed some light on this hot start could be their and their opponents’ shooting success, specifically on open three-point attempts, which could vary greatly given the very small sample size.
Per NBA.com, Phoenix has knocked down 33.8 percent of its wide-open threes through three games, good for 19th in the NBA thus far. The Suns shot 35.5 percent on those attempts last season, so there isn’t any indication that they have particularly improved in that area (though, considering the improved roster, they could see an improvement there as the season goes along).
Next would be their opponents’ success on those same, wide-open three-point attempts. Opponents have shot 35.9 percent on these attempts, according to NBA.com. As for last season, the Clippers and Kings were two of the best three-point shooting teams in the league and they shot 42.3 and 40.3 percent on their wide-open attempts, respectively. The Nuggets were a tad below-average at 37.2 percent.
Those teams improved this summer, so it would be fair to say that the Suns have gotten a bit lucky with their opponents’ three-point shooting. It’s also likely that, in the future, teams will knock those shots down at a higher clip.
Nonetheless, it’s an encouraging sign that the Suns have allowed only 13 of those wide-open three-point attempts per game thus far, sixth-fewest in the league, per NBA.com. It’s a sign that their defense has been sound on their rotations and has closed out well on shooters.
Where they have had issues on the defensive end, however, is in the foul department. Per Cleaning the Glass, the team has allowed an opponent free throw rate of 28.1 percent through three games.
Despite this, their defense has been stout, as they have posted a defensive rating of just 99.3 points per 100 possessions to start the season, good for sixth in the NBA.
While their offense hasn’t been nearly as impressive as their defense, it has also been a pleasant surprise and has shown signs of sustainability. For starters, the Suns are second in the league in assists with 27.8 per game; that kind of ball movement will almost always lead to a healthy, efficient offense.
They have also found success at the rim so far this season, as they have finished 69.6 percent of their shots at the basket per Cleaning the Glass.
If it had been revealed before the season that Suns would start 2-1, most would guess that Devin Booker went bonkers for three games to carry the team to a couple of tough wins. While Booker has played well, this has not been the work of one man. The Suns have played terrific team basketball and hard defense, resulting in convincing wins.
So, while they may have been a tad serendipitous thus far, most signs point to this Suns team being a much-improved ball club. The logical next question would be how did this team go from one of the league’s worst to one of the leaders in net rating through a tough first three games?
The first place to look would be the roster, which is much improved with a solid mix of young talent and reliable veterans. What Booker has brought to the table is evident, while Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio have immediately looked like smart additions that instilled a new, defensive-minded presence to the roster. Kelly Oubre Jr. has brought toughness and much-needed shooting on the wing; Jevon Carter has a defensive edge as a reserve guard; Dario Saric has proven a smart buy-low option and Tyler Johnson has provided ball-movement and competent shooting.
Still, those pieces needed a central force to bring them together. Enter Monty Williams, a proven head coach that has a knack for tapping into his players’ potential and pushing them to exert energy on both ends of the court.
In the Western Conference, the Suns may have difficulty stringing together wins as they have. But, assuming health, these pieces could carry the Suns into the feisty middle-class, a place where no team should be taken lightly.
Will they continue to lead the league in net rating and contend for a title? To be frank, probably not. Eventually, the supreme talent of the conference should win out and the Suns will come back to Earth. Fortunately for Suns fans, that could mean anywhere in the vicinity of 34-36 wins — which would be the franchise’s highest tally since the 2014-15 season.
Of course, that would also depend on the core of the roster staying together for most of the season. The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, the first of the Brett Brown-Sam Hinkie era, started 3-0, shocking the NBA before they finished 19-63 and stripped the roster of the little talent it had.
Given the dysfunctional culture that has existed in Phoneix for years, this Suns team could just as easily spiral out of control.
Still, given the reduced lottery odds and with how much the fans seem to be enjoying this team, the best guess here would be that they keep this team together through all 82 games. In that case, while they may not go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the NBA, the new and improved Suns are clearly not a fluke.
And, in that case, it may be time for the league to start taking them seriously.
NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future
Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.
Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.
Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.
Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.
While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.
Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.
Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.
Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.
Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.
Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.
After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.
This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.
The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.
An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.
We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.
The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.
Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.
The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.
But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.
Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.
A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.
So far, so good.
High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram
By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.
For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.
Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.
For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.
However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.
Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.
Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.
Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.
“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.
As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.
Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics
As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.
According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.
Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.
A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?
A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.
Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.
Energy Psychology – Player Development
As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.
Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.
Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.
Younger Players & The G-League
Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.
For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.
The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019
A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.
In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.
A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …
5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards
Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.
At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.
4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers
No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.
In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.
3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets
When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.
If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.
That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.
2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.
His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.
1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.
His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.
The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.