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NBA Daily: Examining New Elite Defenses

The unexpected defensive improvement from several teams has been one surprise that hardly anyone’s talked about this season, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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“Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”

When you look at all that’s happened so far in this young NBA season, you’d think that quote would have very little meaning. As of Nov. 5, not one team is currently averaging under 100 points per game this season. Golden State currently leads the league with 124.1 points per game – with DeMarcus Cousins sitting in the sideline – while Orlando mans the No. 30 spot with 101.8.

Even though this offensive explosion makes the NBA all the more entertaining, something that should really catch viewer’s eyes is that most of the best teams in the league right now record-wise are currently sporting some of the league’s best defenses.

Going by defensive rating, these are currently the top ten defenses in the league followed by each team’s record.

1. Boston Celtics: 6-4
2. Milwaukee Bucks: 8-1
3. Denver Nuggets: 9-1
4. Memphis Grizzlies: 5-4
5. Portland Trail Blazers: 7-3
6. Toronto Raptors: 9-1
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: 4-4
8. Indiana Pacers: 7-4
9. Los Angeles Clippers: 5-4
10. Philadelphia 76ers: 6-5

(Note: Golden State, who is 10-1, is currently no. 11)

It appears the “Defense wins championships” still rings true, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The real surprise is when you look at that list, you’ll notice a few newcomers to this list when you compare it to last years. The Celtics, Blazers, Raptors, Thunder and Sixers were all in the top 10 last season, but the Bucks, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pacers and Clippers are all newcomers. In fact, the only one of those five teams that were in the top 15 were the Pacers at No. 13.

So what changed? There’s always an explanation for why a certain team has been doing better on either side of the ball, so let’s begin with the team whose elite defense has come as the biggest surprise.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ improvement shouldn’t be too shocking, especially since Paul Millsap is now healthy and they’ve cut ties with Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. They haven’t improved just a little compared to last season. They’ve done a complete 180.

The Nuggets tied for 25th in the league last season in defensive rating. This season, that number has jumped from allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions to 102.5, good for third overall in the league. Getting Millsap back, who was ninth overall in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, will certainly help. The main ingredient to Denver’s success on defense has been their second unit.

Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, and Trey Lyles all have the best defensive ratings on the team. Offensively, they don’t do the Nuggets many favors – all of them are a negative on that side – but defensively, all their defensive ratings rank from 90.6 to 98.2. The starters actually aren’t too far behind, as the only one who has a defensive rating higher than 103 is Torrey Craig, but the bench holds the fort steady.

When Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. come back from injury, we’ll get to see if Denver can really keep this up all season.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have also made quite the jump compared to last season. They allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions, which tied for 18th, but now they allow 100.6, good for second overall. Their jump to the top defensively is pretty straightforward: Mike Budenholzer.

His reputation speaks for itself. Back when he was running the show with the pesky Atlanta Hawks (2014-2017), Coach Bud’s defense never ranked any lower than sixth overall in defensive rating.

Besides adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who were brought in primarily for offensive purposes, the team is still pretty much the same from last year. Yet, you can see the difference in the Bucks’ defense.

The Bucks were among the worst teams in opponent field goal percentage from the three-point line last season, as they allowed 37 percent from deep (sixth-highest in the league). They weren’t as bad when it came to two-point shots, as they allowed 51 percent from the field (15th in the league). Now, the Bucks allow the fourth-lowest three-point percentage in the league at 32.3 percent, as well as the lowest in the league in two-pointers with 45.7 percent.

This could change when the Bucks have to face some of the league’s better teams fully healthy. For now, let’s just appreciate that, because of Budenholzer, the Bucks have finally become the scary team that everyone thought they could have been for the last four years.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies opted to keep what was left of Grit-and-Grind alive this summer, and so far, it’s worked out well for them. Injuries destroyed their season, as the Grizzlies were tied for No. 25 in defensive rating with 111. Now that number has climbed up to fourth overall at 104.7.

Their success on defense can be attributed to one major reason: Their new additions have been as good as advertised on the defensive end. Garrett Temple has been excellent for Memphis defensively, as the Grizzlies’ defensive rating surrenders 9.9 points per 100 possessions less when Temple is on the floor. The only other Grizzly whose on/off defense rating is better is Omri Casspi, but he has a limited sample size.

Kyle Anderson has also been a plus, as the Grizzlies surrender 1.3 points per 100 possessions less with him on the floor. And while Jaren Jackson Jr. hasn’t been a plus – the Grizzlies allow 1.4 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor, that is still solid for a rookie.

Memphis has to be thrilled with its start, especially after many had doubted them when the organization hired J.B. Bickerstaff full-time to replace the well-respected David Fizdale. Last year, they started out well, too, before everything went to crap. Hopefully, we won’t see deja vu this time.

Los Angeles Clippers

Here’s the dirty little secret about the Clippers: They may wind up being better off without DeAndre Jordan. At least they will defensively.

Last season, the Clippers allowed 5.6 points per 100 possessions more when Jordan was on the floor, and they were 20th overall in defensive rating with 110.2. With him gone, the Clippers have moved up to ninth overall this season in defensive rating at 106.9.

Perhaps that’s all a coincidence, but the fact remains that Jordan’s new team, the Dallas Mavericks, have actually fallen from 17th in the league in defensive rating (109.5) to 24th (114.2). To add to that, Dallas’ defense surrenders 2.6 points per 100 possessions more with Jordan on the floor.

Getting back to the Clippers, the return of Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley certainly helps – though the on/off numbers don’t really help either, especially Beverley. But it’s really Jordan’s replacements who have helped out, namely Boban Marjanovic and Marcin Gortat. The Clippers defense has proven to be better with both Boban (5.9 points per 100 possessions less on the floor) and Gortat (2.0).

If that remains the case for the rest of the season, then the Clippers just found another way to make themselves even more likeable.

Indiana Pacers

There’s not much to say about the Pacers because they haven’t had as big of a jump as the others. They’ve moved from 13th overall in defensive rating (108.1) to eighth (106.5), while still having basically the same team. Maybe adding Tyreke Evans has helped them, as their defense has surrounded 3.5 less points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but who knows?

If anything, their improvement has come from having more continuity with each other. If they build off of that and maybe get themselves into the top five, then more power to them!

There’s no guarantee that any of these teams’ numbers will stay that way for the whole season.

One thing that is for certain, though – whoever does finish among the NBA”s best defensive teams will most likely be the ones who go deep into the playoffs.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players

Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.

Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.

These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.

Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.

1. Willie Reed

The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.

The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.

2. John Jenkins

Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.

He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.

Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.

3. Anthony Bennett

Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.

Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.

This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.

4. Bruno Caboclo

Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”

Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.

Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.

Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston

Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.

Spencer Davies

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James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.

The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.

But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.

Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.

Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.

At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.

According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.

With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.

Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.

Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.

Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.

If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.

Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.

We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.

This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?

Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.

Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.

There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.

Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.

Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.

Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.

Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.

With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.

This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.

Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.

The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?

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