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Looking At The Top Two Teams In The East And West

Four teams sit atop the NBA mountain almost one month into the season. Spencer Davies details why.

Spencer Davies

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Four days away from the one-month mark of the NBA season, the league standings have begun to take shape. So far, there have been a few surprises, but that’s expected in the early parts of the year.

To name some good ones, the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks have gotten off to a better start than some expected. Others, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, have had a rough go out of the gates as new players get adjusted to their teams.

Aside from one big surprise, the teams most people thought would be at the top of both conferences are right there. Let’s take a look at the top two in the East and West.

Boston Celtics, 12-2

The Celtics started off 0-2. They lost Gordon Hayward within minutes of tipping off their season. They didn’t have Marcus Morris for the first couple of weeks. Al Horford has missed two games with a concussion. On top of all that, Kyrie Irving got friendly fired by Aron Baynes’ elbow and will likely miss a game or two in addition to his absence against the Toronto Raptors.

No matter. “Next man up” is a cliché, but Boston has lived up to that saying, piling up 12 straight wins behind a sound defense and crisp ball movement. Everybody’s getting in on the act, whether it’s the starting five or the bench that spells them.

Through 14 games, the Celtics are the top defensive team in the league, allowing a mere 94.5 points per 100 possessions with opponents shooting under 43 percent from the field. Offensively, they’re an unselfish collection of guys. Not once this season have they racked up less than 15 assists in a single game, which explains why 61.4 percent of their made field goals have come from those.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this team is the youth. Brad Stevens has given them a platform and they’ve reciprocated their head coach’s trust by producing and buying into his system. Behind Irving’s superstardom and Horford’s leadership, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have embraced the challenge in front of them. Key members of the second unit like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier have done the same. With such inexperience, only time will tell how sustainable this success is, but as it stands now, this team is clearly the top dog in the East.

Detroit Pistons, 10-3

Joining the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, the Detroit Pistons are the only other team in the NBA that is in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Coming into the season, the attention was going to be on Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond to step back up and make last year’s disappointing campaign a distant memory.

Almost one month in, they’re accomplishing that and then some. The Pistons are off to a tremendous start. As written a few weeks ago, Tobias Harris is stepping up as a go-to primary scoring option. His aggressiveness and willingness to take on the role have been crucial, earning him his first-ever Eastern Conference Player of the Week award. Avery Bradley is also settling in with his new team as the three-and-D threat they brought him in to be.

Most importantly, Jackson has played like the floor general we saw him as in Detroit before last year’s injury-riddled version. He’s taking care of the basketball and scoring when he needs to. In addition, he’s averaging over six assists per game and hitting 91 percent of his free throws.

Drummond, his tandem partner in the frontcourt, is doing much of the same by producing at elite levels in his own way. Leading the team in Box Plus-Minus with a 6.1 rating, he is crashing the boards with extra vigor and finishing with force. Surprisingly enough, he’s also shooting over 63 percent from the charity stripe as well. If he, Jackson and the rest of the Pistons keep this up, we’ll be seeing these guys making some noise in April.

Houston Rockets, 11-3

Talking MVP isn’t easy when there are so many deserving players around the league, but in the case of James Harden, he might be as clear-cut of a number one candidate as it gets right now. He’s the captain of this extremely efficient and fun Rockets squad and it explains why their record is where it is.

Mike D’Antoni’s offense is unfathomable at times. The precision, the open shot creation, the quickness—it’s virtually unguardable. Close to 54 percent of Houston’s field goal attempts have come beyond the arc. Putting Harden at the helm of his vision was a match made in heaven and nothing’s changed about how he’s run it this year. He’s only gotten better, and so have his teammates.

Despite being without Chris Paul since the start of the year, Houston is clicking on every level. Eric Gordon has filled in for the time being and has taken off as the team’s second-leading scorer. Just when you thought last season was a great comeback story for him, he’s displaying an assertiveness and athleticism that hasn’t been seen since his earlier years. The rise of Clint Capela as an elite player on the interior has been evident, as he’s averaged over 18 points and 16 rebounds per 36 minutes.

Newcomers Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker have fit right into D’Antoni’s scheme, and they’ve added a new defensive presence to this previously one-dimensional bunch. Their attitude and veteran savvy approach have rubbed off on that end for nearly everybody on the team. Obviously they’ve got to show it come playoff time, but this could be one of the most dangerous offensive teams we’ve ever seen.

Golden State Warriors, 10-3

Speaking of dangerous teams, the Warriors have been cruising along. It was a bumpy start for the defending NBA champions, but it was clearly nothing more than a little bit of rust. This stacked roster is cohesive, selfless, and loaded with talent. They have the second-best record in the West, but they’re the cream of the crop in this league.

Stephen Curry is unbelievable. Kevin Durant is unstoppable. Klay Thompson can go off at any time he desires to. And to top it all off, Draymond Green is the glue who holds the team together. It’s as simple as those four to dissect why this Golden State group is the standard bearer of the NBA.

They have a heck of a supporting cast, too. You look at guys who have been there like Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee, the young talent like Patrick McCaw and Kevon Looney, and in bunches, rookie Jordan Bell has been an absolute force. Adding sharpshooter Nick Young and swingman Omri Casspi to the mix has proven to be wise, too.

Breaking down the Warriors is simple—they’re a complete basketball team that executes on a nightly basis with ease. It’s like taking elements of the Rockets offense and combining that with the Celtics defense. At the top of the mountain alone in assists per game (31), net rating (14.4), and field goal percentage (52.1), it’s not shocking how well they’ve clicked. There’s a reason why they were the title favorites. Barring an injury, it’s likely they’ll repeat.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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