We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
NBA Daily: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Still Working Out Kinks
The Philadelphia 76ers are still looking for the best ways to combine Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons offensively. Quinn Davis looks at what the team has done so far and what it could do going to forward to maximize their talents.
Late in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Toronto Raptors, Ben Simmons brought the ball up the court and called a play.
After directing some traffic, Joel Embiid came up to the three-point line and ran a simple pick-and-roll with Simmons. Simmons slashed past Marc Gasol to the rim and threw down a left-handed dunk.
For most teams, this simple high pick-and-roll would go unnoticed, a faint memory from a normal December win. For these Sixers, though, that play is symbolic of the team’s championship aspirations.
There has been much hand-wringing and alarm-sounding over the fit of Embiid and Simmons offensively. The concerns are justified, as Simmons and Embiid both do their best work around the basket. They are yin and bigger yin at times.
As of their win over the Raptors, the Sixers’ best offensive units have been the ones featuring Simmons, but not Embiid. The lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris,and Al Horford has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That same lineup with exception of Furkan Korkmaz in for Thybulle has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Sixers score 107.8 points per 100 possessions when the two young stars share the court.
The key to those Simmons-led lineups has been their pace. At their fastest, they have zoomed up and down the hardwood at a pace of 111.6 possessions per game, per NBA.com. That lineup, which is the Simmons-Thybulle-Ennis-Harris-Horford grouping, would rank first in the NBA by a mile in that category.
With Embiid on the court, playing at that pace is impossible. Lineups with Embiid have hovered around a pace of 98 or 99 possessions per game so far this season.
That is not knock on the star center; any player at his size would be a better fit for a slower game. This is just one example of the tricky fit between the two leaders of the franchise.
This wide gap was not present last season. The starting lineup used at the end of the 2018-19 run, which featured both Embiid and Simmons, ran at a pace of about 106 possessions per game, a number that would rank first in the NBA this season. Also, the offense stagnated when Embiid left the court last season. With Simmons on and Embiid off, the Sixers only could muster 108 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
The change this year can largely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford. Horford, who is now the starting power forward and backup center, has had a profound effect on the team’s offense and pace.
Firstly, he has proven to be an ideal partner for Simmons. Horford is a master at trailing the fastbreak for top the arc threes and also can be weaponized as a pick-and-pop partner against defenses who collapse on Simmons, like in this play against the Raptors.
Secondly, Horford as a power forward contributes to the snail’s pace that the team plays with their starters. The sheer size of that five-man unit makes running up and down the court counter to the advantages that they pose.
With Horford in tow, the differences between Simmons and Embiid are now amplified on the offensive end.
With Embiid and Simmons on the court together, the spacing predictably tightens. The cramped paint leads to turnover problems, as the Sixers’ turnover percentage jumps to nearly 18 percent when those two share the court, per Cleaning the Glass.
Minimizing those turnovers and piecing together a strong half-court offense will be key in the Sixers’ title hopes as the year goes on. They may need to get creative in order to do that considering the unique skillset.
Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is aware of this. He is sure to use the regular season as a laboratory to experiment with the best possible sets when the two share the court.
One of those ways is to have Simmons space to the corner in half-court offensive sets. Brown didn’t mince words over the weekend when asked about Simmons’ second made three of the season, saying he wanted to see “one three-point shot a game,” from his star point guard.
Brown noted that the attempt itself is not only important, but it is the way it would open things up for the rest of Simmons’ game. Brown continued that the ability to attack the paint from that position would lead to dunks and free throws.
As of now, there are a lot of possessions like the one below. The ball gets entered to Embiid while Simmons lurks in the dunker spot on the opposite side of the basket. Most defenses simply collapse into the paint and force the kick out with ease, as the Indiana Pacers do here. The Sixers’ three shooters are located around the top of the arc, so defenders have a short distance to close out.
Simmons spacing to the corner on plays like this would make the Sixers much more difficult to defend. A few passes around the perimeter could lead to an open three or a drive to the rim when a defender closes out wildly.
There is also the step of involving Embiid and Simmons in more two-man actions. The most common two-man action in the NBA is, of course, the pick-and-roll.
Going back to the pick-and-roll at the beginning of this piece, the one thing that stands out immediately is the way Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is guarding Simmons. He is tight on Simmons all the way out five feet above the three-point line. That defense allows Simmons to get free with a head of steam to the basket.
Simmons will rarely see a player guard him that way all season. Most will sag to the foul line or deeper and be content drifting under ever pick. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this specific play and what they could do going forward to get more actions like this, his response was detailed.
“It’s always been a wish to grow those two in pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “It sounds good, in this room. But when you watch how the league is defending him, there’s nobody to screen. You have to go to different angles, like deep pick-and-rolls and I think they have had success out of that.”
The Sixers have dabbled in those deep pick-and-rolls this season. The play usually involves Simmons getting the ball on the mid-block, where Embiid sets the screen and Simmons moves toward the basket. The play usually results in a decent look for Simmons, as it does on the play here.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Simmons has had a bit more trouble with those short hooks this season. His percentage in that area is down from 38 percent last season to 34 percent in this campaign, per Cleaning the Glass. This could be variance, as the season is still young.
Still, there are other ways to maximize their combined skills. Perhaps the Sixers try more actions with Simmons as a screener while Embiid plays the role of the dunker. There is also the possibility of more high-low action, weaponizing Simmons’ ability as a passer from the high post.
It is also important to mention the benefit of having two distinct styles. Having a team that can play multiple ways depending on personnel is an inherently good thing.
While the two make for an odd couple offensively, the situation is not as dire as it may seem. The pair operates at a plus-11.4 net rating when sharing the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the net rating sits at plus-9.7, while that number is a plus-5.7 in the reverse scenario. When you further specify to view lineups with Simmons and Horford sans Embiid, that number jumps to plus-12.7.
These numbers can be attributed to the defensive side of the ball, where the two make for a destructive duo. Embiid has provided his usual rim-protection while Simmons has taken a leap on that end, locking down guards and wings alike while leading the league in steals.
If a few things are tightened up offensively, the Sixers could go from contender to favorite in the championship race.
Buy Or Sell: Northwest Division
Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ latest series “Buy Or Sell” by taking a look at which teams in the Northwest Division will be buyers and sellers when the trading season commences.
The holidays are a joyous time — but particularly so for NBA junkies.
Christmas Day is one of the most highly-anticipated events for basketball fans everywhere. Not only do we get to see the best teams in the league face-off — but the best players in the league show themselves off on national television. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to on Dec. 25.
Did you know, however, that there is one day that the NBA’s most devoted fans look forward to arguably even more than Christmas? If you didn’t, that day in mind is Dec. 15.
Sounds a little random at first, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a good reason for this. On that day, almost all of the players who agreed to new contracts over the summer become eligible to be traded. That means, almost everyone in the entire league is free game to acquire once that date rolls around.
With that moment mere days away, Basketball Insiders will take a look at which teams should consider upgrades and what franchises might be in sellers mode.
Today, we start with the Northwest Division.
Denver Nuggets (14-7) – Buyers
Does a team flip a script if they are still in the same place as they were last year? Ask the Nuggets.
Last year, the Nuggets attained the second seed because of their elite offense first and foremost. That hasn’t been the case this year. Denver is still one of the better teams in their conference, but their offense has fallen down the tubes, going from scoring 113 points per 100 possessions to 107.1. Their defense has made up the difference, as they’ve gone from allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 102.5.
Their offensive woes should change, but their bench needs some offensive help. Denver’s starters are doing just fine as they are plus-11.6 when they’re on the floor together. But their second unit is a different story.
The Nuggets’ highest scorer off their bench is Jerami Grant, who scores 9.5 points a game. That’s adequate for a player like him, except Denver is minus-19.5 when he’s on the floor. Grant also does not have a reputation as a scorer, so the fact that he’s the bench’s highest bucket-getter is troubling.
Denver is tied for 18th in the league in three-point percentage although they are 22nd in three-point attempts a game – 30.6. What could give their bench a boost on that end is adding a pure three-point shooter on that end. Doing so could open up the floor a bit for them.
For now, the Nuggets’ needs aren’t all too pressing for them, but if these offensive woes as a team continue, something has to be done.
Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13) – Buyers (?)
Give credit to the Timberwolves. They’ve managed to be slightly better than everyone thought they would be. Karl-Anthony Towns continues his ascension into the league’s most offensively talented big. Andrew Wiggins has recouped a fair amount of the hype he’s lost over the last two years. As for the rest of their roster, well…
Minnesota has a team full of solid players outside of Towns and Wiggins. The best one among them obviously being Robert Covington, who, at his peak, is an elite role player. After him, it’s a roster full of solid rotation players that — sans Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie — have reached their ceilings.
More likely than not, they’re not going to sell anyone — both because they don’t want to pull the plug on their best young players and their role players outside of Covington wouldn’t fetch much value. At the same time, they don’t really have the assets to get anyone that good. They’ll probably try like mad to get their hands on D’Angelo Russell, but they likely don’t have anything that Golden State would want.
Minnesota’s not particularly great on either side of the floor — 18th-rated offense/20th-rated defense — so of course, they could use personnel for both sides. Because they lack the assets right now, don’t expect them to make any head-turning moves.
Odds are, they’ll probably do nothing barring any unexpected jumps from anyone else not named Towns or Wiggins. So, technically, they’re more likely to be buyers but that’s because they don’t really have much to sell.
Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12) – TBD
See, the obvious choice here for Oklahoma City is to be sellers and for good reason, too. For starters, the Thunder have already sold off their superstars for lesser players and a hefty dose of youth. Overall, they’re strictly a middle-of-the-road team in a loaded Western Conference. The sooner they get rid of Chris Paul and his expensive contract, the better.
Better, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they already have the next face of the franchise. Beyond that, Oklahoma City has talented players who could fetch them more young value — so no one would blame them if they blew it up.
And yet, there’s so much to like about this team. They come to fight every night. They have enough manpower to compete with just about anyone. They’ve had their good stretches, though it’s pretty evened out by their bad stretches. Above all else, these guys look like they’re having fun playing together.
After sitting next to the OKC bench last night, I’m not surprised by how they’ve been playing. They were an engaged and supportive bunch, led by CP3. His fingerprints are all over that young team. There are other vets that would pout in those circumstances
— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) December 10, 2019
All reports indicate that Chris Paul is fully embracing his new role as the mentor of this young team. He probably would prefer playing for a contender, but he’s teaching this team how to win and they’re soaking it all in. The Thunder would be better off without him clogging up their cap, but he is bringing a positive influence in the locker room — that counts for something.
Whether they decide to really start from scratch depends on how desperate the interested parties would be in their players. They also have to ask how much would they honestly get for Danilo Gallinari, who’s been excellent, but is on an expiring contract.
The Thunder also have the rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it. They can put on a fun, winning team on the court while acquiring young players through the draft. Teams have formed winning cultures by going this route and it’s worked for them. Just ask Boston.
The more sensible direction for Oklahoma City is to blow it up and start fresh, but seeing how their current group does this season isn’t the worst idea, either.
Portland Trail Blazers (9-15) – Buyers
We already knew Portland would look into improving their roster when the season started. We just didn’t know how many wrenches were going to be thrown into their plans. It was bad enough for them to deal with Jusuf Nurkic’s unclear return date. Zach Collins hurting his shoulder early on hindered an already thin frontcourt — and now, Rodney Hood is done for the year at the very least.
Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside have done what they can — although the latter is guilty of falling into the same frustrating habits he had in Miami — but that’s not enough. The Trail Blazers currently have the 21st-rated defense, allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions and their offense hasn’t been as efficient as it was last year. They went from scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions to 109.6. Now that they’ve lost Hood, it’s going to be even harder to keep that up.
Their needs are clear as day: They need depth in the frontcourt or, more specifically, they need interchangeable wings. Portland losing Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu has been very reminiscent of Houston losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last year. Those lock-down assets gave so much cushion with their shooting, defense and versatility that replacing them hasn’t been easy.
That’s why the perfect candidate would be Marcus Morris. He’s a tweener three-four who should fit snugly in Hood’s role as the third off-ball scorer. Admittedly, Morris is a ball-stopper but still a reliable shooter that provides better defense than any of Portland’s other wings.
Further, Morris wold also gives Portland a headstrong personality that would benefit them both on and off the court.
But they will need more than just him. Whiteside’s mammoth expiring deal can be awfully useful in a trade, but if Nurkic isn’t the same guy when he comes back, it may not be the wisest decision to trade Hassan.
For Portland, we’ll get a better picture of things when February arrives.
Utah Jazz (13-11) – Buyers
Something is wrong in Utah. What’s been happening to them over the past week or so is not indicative of a bad stretch. It’s indicative of what they are as a team — broken.
While early-season struggles are a yearly tradition for Utah, this go-round feels different. Their offense isn’t as fluid as it’s been in the past and the defense has somehow taken a step back. The worst part is that the Jazz have seemingly lost their identity in that they don’t play as one unit anymore.
When they added Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic — the talent may have come in, but the grit went out. Their mediocre start in spite of their new toys is garnering them comparisons to the 2018-19 Boston Celtics.
In order to avoid the same fate as that team, the Jazz must address their issues head-on. Plainly, the Jazz have one of the worst benches in the league. The disappearance of Joe Ingles’ three-pointer has hurt a lot, Utah has lacked scoring from the likes of Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum and Ed Davis — so the starters aren’t getting the support they need.
If they are serious about contending this year, they need a reliable scoring option in their second unit. Quin Snyder can stagger Donovan Mitchell and Bogdanovic’s minutes to help their bench, but they can only do so much on their own.
They also have to start asking themselves if they acquired Conley one year too late and — if they believe they have — decide what their next move is. Conley has fallen well short of expectations and his shot isn’t falling nearly as often as it once did. There’s still time for him to get his form back, but if it’s still the same story as it’s been these first two months, the Jazz may have to look for someone else.
It’s not pretty in Utah — and frankly, same for Portland and Minnesota as well — but there’s still time to salvage the season. As for Oklahoma City and Denver, they’ll need to evaluate just high their ceilings rise this season and act accordingly. Trade season only heats up from here — so stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the other divisions this week.
NBA Daily: Welcome To Trade Season
You may not be thinking about NBA trades until closer to February but trade season actually begins this Sunday, writes Douglas Farmer.
Trade season may conventionally be considered February’s territory in the NBA, but its start actually arrives Sunday. Of course, while trades could have come to life at any point in the last couple of months, as much as a third of the league has been off-limits to be moved.
Come Sunday, players who signed new contracts this past offseason can factor into negotiations.
So, unofficially, let D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle join Kevin Love in trade ponderings. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward has long been the cornerstone of the rumor mill — soon, he will have company.
While Love has become a mainstay in imagined trades, Russell and Randle will provide new ground to cover, though far from unexpected being each of their summer signings was met with immediate trade musings.
Love signing a four-year deal worth $120 million never fit with the Cavaliers’ innate youth movement. At the end of the deal, he will be 34. For these first few months, that has simply been a known reality, but now it becomes a distinct possibility. At some point, Cleveland will understandably want to find a frontcourt piece on a timeline more compatible with rookie guard Darius Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton.
Russell’s arrival in the Bay Area always stood out as a redundancy once Klay Thompson gets healthy, while a market already existed for him in free agency — specifically via the Minnesota Timberwolves’ chase. That market was prevalent enough, the Golden State Warriors felt the need to quickly insist Russell was not a piece to flip no matter how worrisome having a fourth max contract player might be given the state of their bench.
And Randle’s three-year contract in New York was a bit of an anomaly during an offseason in which the Knicks otherwise signed a multitude of veterans to only one-year deals. In other words, he was the only new piece with long-term trade potential, while Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson would serve as nothing more than expiring contract rentals in a deal.
New York’s plan may have been to build around Randle, but this season’s first two months have made that less and less likely. Even after head coach David Fizdale’s firing, and maybe more so, the Knicks’ tailspin warrants a seller’s attitude. By no means are they alone in that regard — note the Cavaliers. The same can be said of the Chicago Bulls, where forward Thaddeus Young and guard Tomas Satoransky fit these same qualifications as Russell and Randle.
The layers of possibilities opened on Dec. 15 go further and further.
If the Orlando Magic do want to make a move for a backcourt scorer, perhaps the San Antonio Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan, then being able to include Terrence Ross and/or Al-Farouq Aminu could help along a deal. On the Spurs’ side of things, Rudy Gay, DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles will be trade eligible by the end of the weekend.
The majority of both the Sacramento Kings’ and the Dallas Mavericks’ rotations fit these parameters, one hoping to join the other in playoff contention. Teams trending the opposite way in the standings might try to pilfer those rotations for pieces and a draft pick in exchange for, as examples, the Atlanta Hawks’ Jabari Parker or the Charlotte Hornets’ Terry Rozier, both now tradeable.
Nearly any conversation comes back to Sunday’s opening limit. The Boston Celtics may be a strong frontcourt presence away from genuine contention. Their biggest name in the post, Enes Kanter, could not be moved until this weekend. Maybe flipping him with a pick could net the needed threat, — or maybe it would yield a defensive post piece, the opposite of Kanter.
To further this entire premise and pick a name not available just yet, Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel fits the thought. If the Celtics insisted the post piece have an offensive repertoire, they could do worse than the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jonas Valanciunas.
Four Houston Rockets’ wings were off the market until now, though Austin Rivers essentially remains untradeable given the nature of his contract. As Eric Pincus explained regarding the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, some inherent no-trade clauses do exist.
Otherwise, every name mentioned thus far was exempt from honest discussion until now, aside from Love’s permanent role as trade talk fodder. If trade season both peaks and concludes in February, it logically needs a starting point. With or without Rivers and Caldwell-Pope, that starting point is Sunday when Kevin Love will not be alone in the conversation anymore.