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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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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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