This time a season ago, the Houston Rockets were champions on the rise.
Most Valuable Player James Harden led a valiant charge against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Despite an injury to running mate Chris Paul, Houston pushed the series, and Golden State, to its limit. But, deflated by the flukiest cold streak ever, the Rockets’ run to the NBA Finals ended then and there in Game 7. They would be back, though, ready to challenge Golden State once again.
So, where did it go wrong?
A modern David built to slay the mythical Goliath that the Warriors have become, the Rockets crumpled in their postseason matchup this time around. Some questionable refereeing aside, Houston has only themselves to blame; a seemingly vulnerable Golden State squad fell into their lap, but Houston squandered the opportunity and fell flat on their collective face, bowing out after just six games in the second round series.
Now, the Rockets seem to be a franchise at a crossroads.
If everyone, sans James Harden, is truly there to be had, Houston may be the biggest question mark of the rapidly approaching offseason. Such a dramatic move would certainly accomplish the goals of General Manager Daryl Morey; a complete reshaping of the roster and the future in Houston – for better or worse – in the name of progress. But could he manage to do the unthinkable? A highly respected figure around the NBA, Morey has the know-how and the pieces to shake things up: Clint Capela, despite the money tied to him, would certainly intrigue a number of teams around the NBA, as would Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and a handful of other Rockets under contract next season and beyond.
But would Morey move the biggest available name on the roster, and, ironically, the Rockets’ biggest impediment to improvement, in Paul? Could he, even?
Morey would be hardpressed to find anyone that would want to take Paul, and the more than $124 million he’s owed over the next three seasons, off his hands. The financial burden alone would be difficult to figure out – finding a team with the salary on hand to match Paul’s future earnings and the willingness to give up multiple players in order to facilitate a trade may be impossible – but Morey and Houston may just be stonewalled by a lack of interest entirely.
Paul has been a premier player in the NBA for the last decade plus, but it is fair to say that he has regressed a fair bit in a number of different areas. Paul averaged just 15.6 points per game this season, the lowest of his career, to go along with 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 41.9% shooting from the field (also the lowest of his career) and 35.8% from beyond the arc.
Paul wasn’t exactly himself in the postseason, either. Paul managed 17 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 11 games these playoffs, compared to his 20.9-point, 5.1-rebound and 8.5-assist postseason career averages.
A lot of that regression has to do with playing next to Harden, who dominated the ball and ran plenty of isolation offense. But, plenty of it can be attributed to Paul succumbing to something every athlete has to deal with at some point or another: Father Time.
Paul missed major time due to injury this season, the latest plot point in an increasingly troublesome trend for the 34-year-old guard. Paul’s games play has trended downward, and harshly, over the last few seasons: after he played in 82 games in 2014, Paul managed 74 in 2015 before he dropped off to 61 in 2016 and now just 58 in back-to-back seasons.
There just isn’t any team that would want to buy into that trend, certainly not an aspiring one on the rise, and especially not at Paul’s price tag.
There are plenty of other factors that could play into a team’s willingness to trade for Paul: whether or not he is a personality fit in his potential new home would be a major question, as would Paul’s own timeline relative to that of another team.
There are also the financial issues that currently plague the Rockets. Any team that was to take on Paul’s contract would be saddled with it for the next three seasons, and Paul is more likely than not to be playing at a level far below his $40-plus million price tag in 2020 and 2021. Even if Paul was to maintain a certain level of play, it would hamstring any acquiring team massively when it came to making improvements elsewhere. Would his addition be worth the financial burden?
To be clear, Paul’s time as an impact player certainly isn’t over. He may no longer sit atop the NBA point guard hierarchy, but, in a vacuum, Paul is still one of the best talents the Association has to offer. Regardless of whether Houston trades or retains him, Paul is capable of contributing to a championship team.
But transactions aren’t made in a vacuum. There are clear reasons for league-wide reservations in regards to bringing on Paul and, because of that, Morey and Co. might never find a trade partner. It may not impossible – nothing is in the NBA – but Houston certainly shouldn’t expect anyone to jump at the opportunity to add Paul as they would have a season or two ago.
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.
NBA Daily: Four Playoff Teams That Won’t Return
Making the playoffs is hard, and staying there is even more challenging. Revisiting last year’s postseason, there are four teams that could find themselves without a chair once the music stops at the end of this season. Chad Smith writes.
Forecasting tomorrow’s weather can be difficult. Trying to predict the outcome of an 82-game schedule for all 30 NBA teams can be just as hard. The playoffs are the goal for every franchise as the regular season gets set to tip-off next week. Every year, there are both surprising and disappointing teams that will shake up the playoff picture.
Despite all of the offseason movement throughout the league, the majority of teams that made the postseason last year should return. Other teams are on the rise and have their sights set on being one of the eight teams from their respective conferences. Here are four teams — two in each conference — that could find themselves on the outside looking in after mid-April, as well as the teams that will replace them.
Detroit had an outstanding season a year ago in large part because of Blake Griffin’s best season as a professional. The star forward spent a lot of time adding to his game last summer, and it showed during the regular season. Griffin carried the Pistons to the No. 8 overall seed, but they were swept after he went down with a knee injury that he tried to battle through.
Role players weren’t enough to prevent the sweep, but some of them showed promise for the future. Both Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown are trending upward, but the talent outside of the starting five could leave them with not enough star power to replicate the success of last season, especially if Griffin ever goes down again. Detroit will be competitive on a nightly basis, but the additions of Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, and Joe Johnson likely won’t be enough for them to return to the postseason.
Replacement: Miami HEAT
Jimmy Butler’s arrival in South Beach will get most of the attention, but it is the subtle moves that Pat Riley made this summer that should really improve Miami’s odds of returning to the playoffs this year. Tyler Herro was drafted No. 13 overall and the rookie should get minutes on a roster in which shooting and spacing are both needed. Better, Meyers Leonard will also help in that area and should make an immediate impact on offense.
Despite the loss of Josh Richardson, the presence of Butler will be felt on both ends of the floor. He may be a headache at times, but he has proven over the course of his career to be a hard worker and an elite finisher when things get tight. A healthy Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, along with the continued improvement of Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo, should be the combination that puts the HEAT back into the playoffs.
Similarly to the aforementioned Pistons, the Magic realized their success after their big man had a monster season. Nikola Vucevic averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and effective field goal percentage. Orlando relied heavily on its rotation over the course of the season, which resulted in the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. After taking Game 1 on the road, the Magic lost four in a row to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.
Unless a few players take that next step in development, this could be a regression season for the Magic. In particular, Jonathan Isaac needs to make a big leap in his third season. Al-Farouq Aminu adds to a stingy defense that ranked eighth-best last season. Aaron Gordon could be the X-factor for Orlando if it isn’t Markelle Fultz. The ultra-athletic big man had somewhat of a down year in terms of expectations. If he can have a bounce-back season, the Magic could possibly squeak their way back in.
Replacement: Chicago Bulls
Simply put, injuries devastated the Bulls last season. The head coaching change was rocky, a decision that took its toll on an extremely young team. With those things behind them, Chicago is primed for major progression this year. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are both capable of having monstrous breakout seasons. The duo is a part of a talented frontcourt with Otto Porter Jr., who looked impressive and averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per contest over his 15 games for the Bulls last season.
The backcourt should be much improved as well, as Zach LaVine is finally healthy and the addition of Tomas Satoransky should prove helpful. Coby White gives the team an interesting young offensive weapon that will definitely push the pace and allow the young Bulls to thrive in transition. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young will add valuable stability and experience that should bring everything full circle in the Windy City.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Expectations quickly changed for the Thunder after their promising duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George was traded away. Their future looks extremely bright with talented young players and future draft picks. Steven Adams flourished at center for quite some time, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been showing his budding potential in the preseason as well.
Despite all of this, don’t expect Oklahoma City to just roll over. That is not in Chris Paul’s DNA and all of the players on that roster want to compete. Youngsters like Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson are intriguing adds to the rotation, suddenly afforded more playing time. The veteran point guard already has excellent chemistry with offensive weapon Danilo Gallinari. If they were in the Eastern Conference, this would be a playoff team — but the West, unfortunately, is just absolutely loaded.
Replacement: Los Angeles Lakers
After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season, LeBron James is hungry. He and Anthony Davis could be the most dynamic duo this season should they both stay healthy. That will be the key for them, without a doubt. The role players surrounding them are a good enough supporting cast to get them into the postseason.
Like most teams with LeBron, this roster could look much different towards the end of the season. The buyout market likely will provide them with significant pieces needed to get them to their peak later in the year. A championship may be lofty expectations for the Lakers this season, but a return to the playoffs after a seven-year hiatus is a fair benchmark for this group.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard may have single-handedly destroyed an organization in the playoffs last year, but he might not have the opportunity to play more than 82 games this season. He and CJ McCollum are an elite one-two punch, but Portland is a far cry from the team that made it to the Western Conference Finals. The team brought in Hassan Whiteside to fill Jusuf Nurkic’s spot as he continues the rehab on his broken leg. Kent Bazemore is a quality addition, but guys like Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja don’t figure to move the needle.
Losing underrated role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard will ultimately hurt them. Anfernee Simons is oozing with potential, but how the second-year guard fits into the rotation is a mystery at this point. While most other teams made sizeable additions to their roster this summer through the draft or free agency, the Blazers didn’t exactly do themselves any favors in the tough Western Conference.
Replacement: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans could absolutely have the biggest season turnaround this year. After making the deal with the Lakers, New Orleans has dramatically reshaped its roster around All-NBA guard Jrue Holiday. The addition of Zion Williamson will seize all of the eyeballs, but David Griffin has seamlessly put together an incredibly impressive roster of talent.
Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart should thrive in a system outside of Los Angeles. The trade to acquire Derrick Favors was arguably the best low-key addition of the summer. JJ Redick was a home run. The Pelicans also seem to have struck more gold in the draft with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and big man Jaxson Hayes. New Orleans has sensational depth at nearly every position, and it will be up to Alvin Gentry to put it all together. Not only will the Pelicans be fun to watch, they should be able to claim one of the final playoff spots in the West.