It’s very early in the 2016-17 NBA season, but there’s already an abundance of intriguing storylines to follow.
Russell Westbrook has carried the Thunder to a 4-0 start while averaging a triple-double (37.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10 assists). The Warriors are must-see TV due to the talent on that roster and their exciting brand of basketball, even though they’re still getting everyone on the same page. Anthony Davis is posting monster numbers and carrying the Pelicans on his back. LeBron James continues to fill the stat sheet and make super-human plays look routine. James Harden is a perfect fit in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, and he has a legitimate shot to lead the league in points per game and assists per game. Kawhi Leonard’s offense is quickly catching up to his dominant defensive abilities, making him one of the NBA’s most talented two-way players. Damian Lillard continues to solidify himself as one of the world’s best point guards and Steve Kerr recently predicted that he’d win this year’s MVP award. These are just some of the subplots from around the league.
Because so much is going on, you may have missed one of the most surprising (and, perhaps, most impressive) early developments of the season: Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career and looks like a legitimate superstar.
After being labeled as an inefficient volume-scorer in recent years, he looks like a completely different player now. He’s taking smarter shots, and he’s averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage while cutting back on his fouls.
The two-time All-Star is currently averaging 36.3 points, while shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 82.1 percent from the free throw line. He’s doing an excellent job of getting to the charity stripe too, averaging 9.8 free throw attempts per game. Over the course of his eight-year NBA career, he has shot just 44.3 percent from the field, so 55.4 percent is an extremely impressive increase – even if the sample size is very small. He’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals (which, again, are both career-highs).
Toward the end of the preseason, DeRozan was scoring the ball with ease and posting some gaudy numbers. In the preseason finale against the Washington Wizards, he had 34 points, which seemed to increase his confidence and allow him to enter the regular season with some momentum. Sure enough, he picked up right where he left off in Toronto’s first game against the Detroit Pistons, hitting five of his first six shots and finishing with 40 points (a Raptors franchise record for a season opener). In the three games since, he has scored 32 points, 33 points and 40 points (again).
DeRozan is currently ranked second in the NBA in points per game, trailing only Westbrook. It’s not like this is a contract-year mirage either. He went through the free agency process in July and re-signed with Toronto on a five-year, $139 million deal. Some pundits criticized the deal at the time, but he’ll earn every penny if he continues to produce at (or near) this level. We’re witnessing the 27-year-old DeRozan in his prime, and it’s everything the Raptors could’ve hoped for and then some.
While the eye test and traditional stats show DeRozan’s effectiveness, his advanced analytics are terrific as well. He’s ranked first among qualified players in points per touch (.556), third in player efficiency rating (35.4), fourth in win shares (1) and fourth in estimated wins added (1.8).
DeRozan’s teammates and coaches have raved about him after each of his stellar performances. Kyle Lowry recently said that he has one job when DeRozan is playing like this: “Get him the ball.”
“I’m just trying to get him some help,” Lowry added. “That’s all I’m trying to do – get him some help. This guy is playing unbelievable basketball, averaging over 30 points. … He is playing on another level right now and making my life a lot easier – making everybody on our team’s lives a lot easier. He is saving possessions, he is creating possessions, he is creating offense.”
“It’s one thing to watch somebody on TV and see what he does every single night, [but] actually being there and seeing how effortless it was, it was amazing,” Raptors rookie Pascal Siakam said. “It was just like poetry. He was just out there, getting to his spots, shooting over people. It was just like, ‘How does he do that?’ It was amazing. He’s an All-Star and that’s the way he’s supposed to play. It was awesome. It felt great to be on the court with him.”
“He’s carrying us,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “DeMar’s been great. His offensive force he’s playing with right now is unreal. … DeMar’s playing at a very high level offensively. We have to maintain that and not wear that out, but he’s been doing a great job. His leadership and Kyle’s leadership have been big time.”
DeRozan has been doing his damage with mid-range pull-ups and drives to the basket. He ranks first in the NBA in points per game off of pull-ups (15.8) and shoots a very efficient 58.5 percent on those attempts. By comparison, Westbrook ranks second in points per game off of pull-ups, but he makes just 35.4 percent of those attempts. DeRozan is the only player in the top 15 in pull-up points per game who’s shooting above 56 percent. Also, DeRozan ranks second in the NBA in points per game off of drives (12.3) and he shoots 58.6 when he’s attacking the basket.
Rather than forcing things, DeRozan is sticking to his strengths and playing within the flow of Toronto’s offense. It’s working exceptionally well. Believe it or not, DeRozan has attempted only six three-pointers through four games and has made just one. He’s not settling for those shots, as he sometimes did in the past. And honestly, his 36.3 points per game is even more impressive when you consider that he’s doing it solely with two-pointers and free throws.
Toronto is currently 3-1, which is tied for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers (who handed Toronto their lone loss in a close game). But keep in mind that the Raptors aren’t at full strength. Jared Sullinger, a key free agent acquisition this summer, is out because he needs surgery to have a screw inserted into the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Lucas Nogueira has also missed time due to an ankle sprain. The backcourt is a bit banged up too, with Lowry recently getting three stitches after taking an elbow to the face and DeRozan dealing with ankle issues. The squad is doing their best to get through this short-handed stretch.
“It’s still an adjustment with losing Sully, not having Lucas and guys going down,” DeRozan said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we need to find a rhythm and play when guys are down. We’ve been doing it the last couple of years and we hope that everybody gets back healthy.”
As DeRozan mentioned, this core has a “couple of years” of experience together. In today’s NBA, with so much player movement and coaching changes, it’s pretty rare for a team’s key players to stick together for this long. But Toronto has done a good job of keeping their core intact while adding complementary pieces around their stars. Because of their continuity, the team has very good chemistry and they have experience dealing with obstacles together too.
“It’s always been our advantage, the last couple of years,” DeRozan told Raptors.com when asked about the team’s continuity. “The camaraderie, knowing the coaching staff, not too much changed. We lean on that a lot.”
In addition to entering his prime, DeRozan believes his offseason training helped him make these significant strides. He tries to expand his game each summer – working out in his hometown of Compton and competing in the famed Drew League, which features quite a few NBA players every year.
“I’m just a student of the game and I work extremely hard in the summer time,” DeRozan said. “I just try to put everything together, be a student of the game. [I’m] always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”
While this is obviously a small sample size, it’s promising for Toronto since they went all-in on DeRozan over the offseason. If he can permanently shed the inefficient, volume-scorer label that has been attached to him in recent years, we could see him make the leap from All-Star to superstar at some point in the near future– while also making the Raptors a much scarier contender.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.
NBA DAILY: The Detroit Pistons Are In A Giving Mood
The Pistons were gifting opposing teams with wins during a seven-game losing streak, but Andre Drummond gifted his teammates with nine assists in a near triple-double against the Atlanta Hawks.
During a seven-game losing streak that ended with Thursday night’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta, the Detroit Pistons crisscrossed the country like Santa while giving away wins.
The team lost in D.C., Philadelphia, San Antonio and Milwaukee before returning home for a trio of losses to Golden State, Boston, and Denver. As the losing streak mercifully ended, Pistons center Andre Drummond turned his generosity toward his teammates, falling just one assist shy of a triple-double.
“Call me Santa Dre,” said Drummond after the Pistons dispatched Atlanta 105-91 ahead of Friday night’s visit to the Indiana Pacers.
“I’m handing out gifts. I’m just trying to move the ball around. I’m trying to get my teammates in the right position to score. When they do get cut off, they’re able to pass the ball back to me to finish the play. So it’s just fun the way we’re playing.”
It’s been a while since the Pistons could take a lighthearted approach during postgame interviews. Coach Stan Van Gundy called Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets, the last of the streak, one of the worst he’s coached in a career that has spanned better than 850 NBA games.
“It’s a win,” said Van Gundy, declining to take much away from a victory over the last-place team in the East.
“It certainly feels a little less burdensome now, so maybe we can just get back to playing basketball.”
Van Gundy had a lot to say about those burdens prior to the win in Atlanta. Asked if his team had fallen prey to any finger pointing during a poor stretch that has undone Detroit’s hot start, Van Gundy didn’t hold back.
“It does happen, but it’s generally because guys don’t want to hold themselves accountable,” said Van Gundy. “They want an excuse. It’s somebody else.”
Van Gundy further hinted that off-court issues may be contributing to his team’s poor play over the last two weeks.
“It’s hard to play when you have dilemmas, whatever they are. If your dilemma is an off-the-court thing, if your dilemma is I’m not getting enough shots, I’m not playing enough, this guy doesn’t pass to me … whatever your dilemma is, it’s tough to play,” said Van Gundy. “We do have some guys who just never seem to have — or at least they don’t bring it here — a dilemma.”
Rather than single out the offenders, Van Gundy pointed to reserve point guard Ish Smith, journeyman power forward Anthony Tolliver and backup center Boban Marjanovic as role models for consistent contribution, while also shouting out guard Langston Galloway and stretch four Henry Ellenson.
“To me, Ish, A.T., Boban, those guys are the same guys every day,” said Van Gundy. “How many times in two years have you sat there and said, ‘Wow, Ish’s energy is really down today?’ Or you see A.T. now going into his second year like, ‘Wow, A.T. just didn’t bring anything?’ You never say that because they just come and play. They don’t think about anything. They don’t think about, is practice too long? Is he wearing us [down]? They show up every day and whatever you tell them to do, they do. And Langston and Henry are the same, they just haven’t played quite as much.
“They don’t burden themselves down thinking about all these other things. Losing has guys down. Guys haven’t been shooting the ball well. That brings you down. All these things [are] weighing them down.”
While Van Gundy spoke of players holding themselves accountable, his actions suited his words following the Nuggets defeat as he took to the podium to point the finger directly at himself.
“I selected these players,” said Van Gundy. “I decide who plays. I decide what we run on offense. I decide how we play defense. That was embarrassing tonight. That’s on me.”
A single win against a struggling Atlanta Hawks team isn’t going to turn Detroit’s season around. The Pistons currently sit two games above .500 and only half a game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers, which are presently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. But Galloway, who led Detroit’s bench with 17 points in Atlanta, said the Pistons will take any win they can get, given the recent struggles.
“It’s definitely important to get off the schneid and continue to make an effort to get back on track and continue to keep this thing rolling tomorrow,” he said.
A win on Friday in Indiana would certainly help restore some holiday cheer to the Pistons. But the best gift of all would be to string wins together to put Detroit back in the heart of the playoff race.