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NBA AM: Detroit Pistons 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Detroit Pistons as they try to climb their way back to the postseason.

Basketball Insiders

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Two seasons removed from a positive record and postseason berth, the Detroit Pistons are looking to take advantage of a weakened Eastern Conference to help propel themselves back into the playoffs.

With Avery Bradley and lottery pick Luke Kennard aboard, some of the offensive woes from last season have the potential to be addressed. But, more importantly, the team’s starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, looks healthy and primed to return to his form that helped lead the Pistons to their last postseason appearance.

Stan Van Gundy and Detroit have their work cut out for them this season in terms of making it a successful one, but the necessary pieces look to be in place for an improvement from last year.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Just five games separated the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers last season. That was all the difference between third place and last place in their division, and making and missing the playoffs.

Well, with Paul George out of Indiana, and Jimmy Butler moving on from Chicago, the Pistons look poised to jump a few spots not only in their division, but in the conference as well. After adding Avery Bradley this offseason, the Pistons have a perfect two-way guard complement to Reggie Jackson. Along with Bradley, rookie Luke Kennard impressed during Summer League and looks to be in the position to provide a decent punch off the bench.

The newcomers at guard, plus the likes of Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond, appear to make Detroit a threat for a bottom half seed come next postseason. Now it’s just a matter of if Stan Van Gundy can put it all together.

3rd place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

Stan Van Gundy shopped literally everybody on his roster this past offseason, so it’s okay if fans aren’t all that excited about this team. The head coach and front office isn’t all that excited about it either, apparently. The Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond trade rumors aren’t going away, and with those guys gone there wouldn’t be a whole lot left to love about this roster outside of Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. The Pistons should finish third in the Central, but only because the Pacers and Bulls traded away their clout. More likely than not, this is a team on the playoff bubble, which should speak volumes as to how weird the Eastern Conference is going to be this year.

3rd Place – Central Division

— Joel Brigham

I’m not really sure what to expect from the Pistons this season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris were each a big part of what the team did the past two years, but after winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the progression that was expected of the bunch last season was a bit of a dud. After 37 wins and missing the playoffs, Caldwell-Pope found a new home and Reggie Jackson, who was openly shopped, will now be pushed by Avery Bradley. Bradley is one of the better combo guards in the league and I’ve also got a lot of love for Langston Galloway. Acquiring those players, though, means that Luke Kennard may not get the minutes he warrants to figure out just how good he is, but I do have confidence in Stan Van Gundy’s ability to figure it all out.

In the end, I suppose it all hinges on Andre Drummond and, to a lesser extent, Stanley Johnson. In the playing time he got last season, Johnson proved himself to be capable of making a difference on both ends of the floor. I like their rotation in Detroit and suppose that they will be battling for a lower playoff seed considering two of the teams in their division should be taking considerable steps back.

3rd Place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

The Pistons have been a team in search of a true identity the last couple years, and that looks to continue moving forward. Most of the pieces are the same, with the exception of Avery Bradley, who was acquired in exchange for Marcus Morris. Bradley will bring some nice defensive chops against quicker guards while allowing Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson to likely man the forward positions – in this sense, the Pistons are a bit more versatile. But to succeed more than they have the last couple years, the improvements need to be internal. They need more from both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, the latter of whom has totally failed to prove his worth on a max deal signed in 2016. They need Johnson to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot of skepticism that all these things can happen, but a couple of them could see the Pistons crawl back into the playoffs. Expect them to finish squarely third in the Central division this year.

3rd place — Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Detroit Pistons were one of last season’s most disappointing team. Reggie jackson struggled with injuries early in the season and never rounded into form. Andre Drummond seemed stagnant and even regressed in some ways. The chemistry issues were real, evidence in the disappointing results in the court. This year, the team is largely the same, with a few significant changes, including the acquisition of Avery Bradley and the departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While Bradley will certainly bring high-level perimeter defense and shooting, the Pistons’ biggest source of improvement will have to come from incumber players who fell short of expectations last season. Stanley Johnson needs to figure out how to stay out of Stan Van Gundy’s dog house. Drummond needs to focus on impacting the game in a multitude of ways, rather than focusing on being a primary scoring option. Jackson needs to earn the trust of his teammates, who seemed to wall him out at various points of last season. The Pistons have talent, but they have some internal hurdles they need to overcome as well.

3rd Place — Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Tobias Harris

When it comes down to which player will be shouldering the offensive load for the Detroit Pistons this season, the answer is the same as last season: Tobias Harris.

The New York native was Detroit’s leading scorer last season, and with Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope both gone from the Pistons roster, Harris returns as the leader in minutes per game from a year ago.

Granted, Reggie Jackson should be available from the jump this season, which wasn’t the case last year as Jackson battled left knee tendinitis. However, having Jackson in the fold completely, and from the beginning of the season, should provide Harris even more opportunity to find open looks and knock them down.

Harris led the Pistons in both Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player last season. With Jackson back up to full speed and a few new weapons on the roster, Harris looks poised to build off of his strong season from a year ago.

Top Defensive Player:Avery Bradley

The newest Detroit Piston also happens to be the best defending Detroit Piston. After letting Caldwell-Pope walk to the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit essentially replaced him with a more offensively capable version in Avery Bradley.

Spending last season sharing a backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Bradley was usually responsible for checking the opposing team’s best offensive wing player. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard posted a 108 defensive rating, which was tied for second on the Boston Celtics last season.

Known for his defensive capabilities around the league, Bradley sometimes goes under the radar as a scorer. Last season, Bradley averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 39 percent from three-point land. Filling in for KCP alongside Jackson, Bradley will become Stan Van Gundy’s defensive wizard who is more than able to hit his open shots.

Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson

After dealing with knee issues last season and managing to play in just 52 games, Reggie Jackson returns this season to the Pistons not a moment too soon.

Last year, the Pistons were one of the worst offensive teams in the entire league — 26th in points per game and 24th in offensive rating — in large part because their starting point guard couldn’t find the floor. Now that Jackson looks on track to play a full season, or to at least start the season healthy, Detroit gets back the guy that averaged 6.2 assists per game just two years ago.

Make no mistake about it: Jackson likes to score the basketball. During his last healthy season, 2015-16, Jackson led the Pistons in field goal attempts per game with 15.7. But his ability to keep defenders honest while checking him allows Jackson to draw attention and then kick it to the nearest open teammate.

Hopefully, with a full season ahead of him, Jackson can return to form and his playmaking abilities can help drag Detroit out of the league’s basement offensively.

Top Clutch Player: Avery Bradley

Yes, Bradley appears to be the team’s best defender, as well as their most clutch player. Of course, a little parity would be nice when it comes to a team preview, but when Bradley has hit the biggest shot out of any player’s respective career on the roster, it’s kind of hard to give the nod to anybody else.

With Game 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals tied at 108, Isaiah Thomas on the sidelines with a hip injury, and pride hanging in the balance for the Celtics, Bradley clanged home a deep three-pointer to take away Cleveland’s perfect postseason record.

After that, there’s no other player on Detroit’s roster better suited for a big time shot than Bradley.

The Unheralded Player: Ish Smith

While Jackson was nursing himself back to health, Ish Smith assumed the role as the team’s point guard, and he did a fantastic job in that role. But now that the big money point guard is back for his job, Smith will be relegated to a reserve role.

During his 32 games as a starter, Smith averaged 12.3 points and 6.3 assists per game. A career journeyman — 10 teams in seven seasons — Smith could easily get lost in the shuffle now that the focus is back on Jackson leading the Pistons’ charge on offense. But, should Jackson go back down with another injury, the unsung hero Smith is more than capable of propelling Detroit’s attack. If a spot doesn’t open up for Smith, however, he’ll just bide his time on the bench while providing a great asset for the second unit.

Best New Addition: Luke Kennard

Avery Bradley lays a strong claim to this title, but since he’s already occupying the position of “best defender,” this spot is reserved for Detroit’s brand new lottery pick.

Luke Kennard makes his way to the Motor City from Duke, and he brings along with him the remedy for Detroit’s most obvious ailment, scoring.

In his sophomore season as a Blue Devil, Kennard emerged as the best scoring threat on a team that was littered with McDonald’s All-Americans. Scoring 19.5 points per game, Kennard really set the tone for Duke as a long ball marksman, where we shot 43.8 percent from range.

Just to show that he is more than capable of hitting his shots from an extended three-point line, Kennard went on to hit 47.8 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc in the Orlando Summer League.

Detroit badly needs an improved offense this season, and with Kennard, they’re taking a step in that direction.

— Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Henry Ellenson 

Entering his second season, Henry Ellenson can provide Detroit with much-needed spacing down on the block.

After a rookie campaign that saw Ellenson dominate for the Pistons’ G-League affiliate, and then a Summer League performance that followed with similar results, the former Marquette big man looks poised to serve as a full-time contributor in the big leagues this season.

What the Pistons know they have for certain in their front court is the behemoth in the middle, Andre Drummond. For the array of things that Drummond is, offensively gifted is not one of them.  Ellenson provides a running-mate that can stretch the floor against opponents and provide extra space on the block for Drummond to operate.

Detroit drafted Ellenson No. 18 overall just a year ago. With how devoid they are of offensive talent, plugging Ellenson in for some extended run this season seems to be an obvious idea.

2. Stanley Johnson

Stanley Johnson hasn’t gotten off to the hottest start in his career after being drafted eighth overall by Detroit in 2015, but next season looks to be a pivotal time for his turnaround.

Last season saw Johnson’s stats drop across the board. He shot at a lower percentage, scored fewer points and played fewer minutes. All in all, Johnson was the epitome of a “sophomore slump.” But in year three, Johnson will be able to provide at the very least a more than capable wing defender for Van Gundy and the Pistons. When Johnson was on the court for Detroit last season, the opposing team’s offensive rating was a full two points lower.

With the third year of a rookie’s career being most pivotal from a contract renegotiating standpoint, Johnson will need to make a statement. It would be a wise bet that the former top-10 draft pick can ramp up his impact this season.

3. Avery Bradley

As noted above, Bradley steps into Detroit as their best — and most important — defender next season. But that’s not all he can do.

Over the course of the last few seasons, Bradley has transformed himself into one of the premier two-way players in the NBA. While playing in Boston, Bradley was responsible for picking up Isaiah Thomas’ defensive slack — of which there was plenty.

By knowing what that responsibility feels like, Bradley should have no problem assuming the same role for Detroit.

However, what the Pistons lack heavily on their roster is scoring and winning experience. Bradley can provide both. A near 40 percent three-point shooter, Bradley knows what it takes to win big games against the league’s best. If you remember, he’s the only reason the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t meet the Golden State Warriors in the Finals with a perfect record

Bradley has the juice of a big time player, on both ends of the court. His presence and leadership are huge scores for Detroit heading into this season as they try to make it back to the playoffs.

Stan Van Gundy

Heading into his fourth season at the helm of the Detroit Pistons, Stan Van Gundy could very well take his team to the postseason for the second time despite having an average offense at best.

It’s clear that the weight of Detroit’s problems come from scoring the ball, but their ability to lock down opponents puts them in a position to win games should they just hit the shots they need to when they need to hit them. Having a guy like Van Gundy — who has led teams the playoffs eight times in his 11 season head coaching career — gives the Pistons an advantage in that on most nights they won’t be outmatched completely when it comes to game planning or preparation.

With his starting point guard healthy, an upgrade at shooting guard in Bradley and capable shooters like Harris and Kennard, Van Gundy should have more firepower this season to couple with his patented stifling defense. Mix those two things together, and with a few things breaking the right way for him, Van Gundy could be making his ninth appearance in the postseason as a head coach.

— Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

The Pistons entered the summer over the salary cap, using their Mid-Level Exception on Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland. Detroit also spent their Bi-Annual Exception on Anthony Tolliver, using up their spending tools locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million. Outside of a $874,636 trade exception, the Pistons have almost nothing left to offer outside of minimum contracts (or trades).

Next summer, the Pistons are not likely to have any cap space with a $102 million salary cap projection. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. The team currently has 13 guaranteed players, a $500,000 investment in Moreland as their 14th and a couple of camp invites in Landry Nnoko and Derek Willis.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

When opposing teams step on the court with the Detroit Pistons, they understand two things. One, scoring won’t come easy; Detroit ranked as a top-10 defense last season. And two, they won’t get very many loose balls off the glass. The Pistons were the fourth-best rebounding team in the whole league last year.

While the NBA game as a whole seems to be shifting towards who can outscore the other guy the quickest, basketball in the Motor City is still very much of the smashmouth variety. It always has been.

With Stan Van Gundy captaining this tough guy squad, the Pistons will enter this season as one of the tougher matchups for opponents. Nothing will come easy against the team up in Detroit.

— Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

For everything awesome that Detroit does on the defensive end of the court, their offensive ineptitude tries its best to negate that.

Across the board, the Pistons ranked as one of the worst teams offensively in the entire league last season. Their scoring was poor, their shot selection was poor, their ball movement was poor and their foul shooting was poor. Watching the Pistons operate a half court offense was at times nauseating. With a few more capable bodies on the team this season, this should improve slightly at the very least. But if not, the Pistons are on the fast track for another sub par season.

— Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Detroit Pistons hit the necessary shots to put themselves back in postseason play?

We’ve been over this: The Detroit Pistons are bad on offense. But there’s reason to believe they can hit the shots they need to, to eek out a playoff berth.

With Avery Bradley and Luke Kennard aboard, a full season from Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris coming back, the Pistons have four guys at the very least that can hit a jump shot. Stan Van Gundy will put his team in the position defensively to compete, so when it comes down to crunch time Detroit should be in most games. Having a guy like Bradley who’s been in that position will serve as a big time band aid for the rest of the offensive woes.

Come April, Detroit will be right there in the thick of things, and if they want to play on until May instead of hitting the golf course, they just need to hit their jump shots.

— Dennis Chambers

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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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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