The annual race for Rookie of the Year is a typically contested competition and, so far, the 2018-19 season appears to be no different. Between the instantly-sensational Luka Dončić, the beastly Deandre Ayton and electric Jaren Jackson Jr., it’ll likely be up for grabs once award season rolls around in the springtime. Yet, for some franchises — both of the contender and pretender variety — they don’t have the luxury of leaning on a generational talent. That, naturally, is where the second round heroes enter the fray.
Back in August, Basketball Insiders detailed five rookies that could potentially carve out early roles. Two of them, Kostas Antetokounmpo and Jevon Carter, have spent the majority of their rookie campaigns in the G League — so, for now, they’re out. But through the holiday period, three of those five choices have done exactly that — and they may just be ready for even more.
If their respective teams decide to loosen the reins on these talented rookies, a productive and encouraging 2019 would almost assuredly be around the corner.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 19.8 minutes per game
The uber-athletic Élie Okobo appeared poised to begin the season behind just veteran Brandon Knight on the depth chart. But following the late summer swap that sent Knight and Marquese Chriss to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, it looked as if the Frenchman might see more of the floor than most originally anticipated. At just 21 years of age, Okobo has had his highs and lows, but those big moments have pointed toward a potentially special player. During a seven-point loss to Oklahoma City in October, Okobo posted 18 points, five rebounds and seven assists to go along with an impressive 3-for-6 display from three-point range.
In recent weeks, however, Okobo has struggled and franchise player Devin Booker has handled even more of the point guard responsibilities. With that, Okobo was assigned to the Northern Arizona for some mid-campaign seasoning, where he’s averaged 18.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. While the Suns have won four of their last five, they’re still well in the Western Conference basement as things stand. Okobo looks like an NBA-caliber asset and he’s proved as much in small bursts — so perhaps this prolonged trip to the G League is just what the 6-foot-3 guard needs.
De’Anthony Melton, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.3 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 18.5 minutes per game
Okobo’s recent stall in production has uncoincidentally come hand-in-hand with the recent emergence of De’Anthony Melton. Perhaps the most promising return piece from that aforementioned offseason trade, Melton has come on strong during the month of December. After only featuring in five total games before this month, Melton has started the last seven for Phoenix. His contributions certainly fluctuate just like Okobo, but Melton has been a fit next to Booker as a strong defender and all-around scorer. During a recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Melton racked up 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals over 33 minutes — promising numbers, indeed, even in a blowout.
With Booker and Ayton’s current shortcomings on the defensive end, it’ll be important for the Suns to surround their pair of budding stars with low-usage ball hawks. Melton and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix’s other talented first round-draftee, have fit the bill through a third of the season. Both Melton and Okobo have shown flashes as longterm answers at the point guard position, so it’s tough to envision which will eventually win out. Right now, Melton’s got the edge, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Okobo jump into the mix again following the All-Star break.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2018-19: 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 17.2 minutes per game
Throughout the pre-draft process, Robinson was described as the most mysterious man of the entire class — a notion that only persisted after he pulled out of his workouts as well. Perceived as a first-round lock for some time, Robinson eventually slipped to the Knicks at No. 36. Even with Enes Kanter and the recently-departed Joakim Noah in tow, the fit could not have been more perfect within the rebuilding Knicks’ organization. Thankfully, Robinson has been involved, more or less, since the beginning of head coach David Fizdale’s tenure this season. Although the leash has been short — and the raw 20-year-old can rack up personal fouls in a flash — Robinson is an undeniable bright spot in New York.
Robinson has only notched one double-double, but his paint-protecting prowess has been exhilarating to watch in these early days. In 28 games, Robinson has tallied at least two blocks in 13 efforts — even going three or more in six of them. The crème de la crème, however, came in a November loss against Orlando as Robinson swatted away nine shots. Sure, he only added four points and four rebounds — but the high-ceiling rookie became just one of five players under the age of 20 to block nine-plus shots in a game.
The others are Josh Smith, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Shaquille O’Neal — so, yeah, Robinson might be on the right track. With the Knicks plummetting toward another top draft pick, look for the 7-foot-1 center to get plenty of extra burn moving forward.
Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
2018-19: 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.8 turnovers in 17 minutes per game
After a tumultuous trip overseas in Spain, it’s safe to say that Rodions Kurucs has felt right at home in black and white. Most expected first round pick Džanan Musa to be the Nets’ best rookie in 2018-19, but the hard-nosed Latvian has quietly chipped away at head coach Kenny Atkinson’s rotation since the opening tip in October. Of course, Brooklyn is 4-1 since Kurucs was named a starter last week and he’s played more than 15 minutes on eight separate occasions already. If he continues to do the dirty work, stretch the floor and make bucket-saving plays, the Nets will have discovered another quality diamond in the rough.
His rapid success comes after the former projected lottery prospect was essentially benched by Barcelona once he announced his intention to play in the NBA. As his playing time dropped off, so did his stock — now the forward is quickly making up for lost time. Kurucs is still just 20 years-old until February, but his confident, aggressive style of play has made him a fan favorite in the borough already. Kurucs has scored double-figures in seven of his 17 appearances and he’s shot 50 percent from the floor to boot.
On Friday night, Kurucs turned in his best performance yet with a career-high 24 points and three rebounds on 4-for-5 from three-point range. Not bad for the No. 40 overall pick, huh?
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19: 6.1 points, 1.7 assists and 0.6 turnovers in 16.1 minutes per game
After nearly winning every award known to mankind in his last season at Villanova, Jalen Brunson has been a steadying hand for the surprise Dallas Mavericks. Whether that’s as a part of their solid bench unit or filling in for the on-and-off-again injured Dennis Smith Jr., Brunson has exceeded expectations through December. It’s been previously mentioned before, but it deserves repeating: Rick Carlisle thinks the Mavericks walked away from June’s draft with a top-15 pick in Brunson. Despite his status as a second rounder, Brunson has played the 19th-most minutes in his class, all while contributing for a team that remains in the thick of a wild postseason chase.
As a professional, it’s unlikely that Brunson’s line will ever pop off the page, especially if he remains the backup point guard indefinitely, but there’s still room to grow from here. At a paltry 16.1 minutes per game, Brunson has carved out a significant role already, a feat made only stronger by the other veteran guards — Devin Harris, J.J. Barea — on the roster. A few weeks ago, Brunson turned in his best effort so far: 17 points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal with a single turnover over 31 minutes. That, right there, is exactly what the controlled, poised abilities of Brunson can bring Dallas in a bigger role — now he just needs to get the minutes.
At the end of the day, not every rookie will be afforded automatic opportunities to immediately soar. For most second rounders, that journey toward consistent minutes is a rocky affair. But for these five late selections, they’ve begun to make a name for themselves rather fast. Playing time for first years is always volatile, but Okobo, Melton, Robinson, Kurucs and Brunson have all made strong cases to not only keep their minutes — but to earn even more.
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19
A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.
A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.
More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns
5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic
Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.
Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.
It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.
Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.
4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT
Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.
Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.
Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.
Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.
As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.
3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.
On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.
Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.
The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.
Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.
2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.
But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.
The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.
No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.
The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.
Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.
That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.
1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.
Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.
The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.
Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.
Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.
Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?
Kyle Collinsworth In Familiar Territory
Kyle Collinsworth has been making his mark for the Salt Lake City Stars, which shouldn’t feel too different to him since he’s dominated in Utah basketball before. Matt John writes.
For Kyle Collinsworth, playing basketball in Utah is nothing out of the ordinary.
The 28-year-old grew up in Provo and went on to become one of the most storied basketball players in the history of Brigham Young University. Since graduating from BYU in 2016, he’s bounced around a bit in the NBA. He’s had stints with the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors. When the Utah Jazz added him this season to play for their G League Affiliate, the SLC Stars, Collinsworth was excited for home aspect alone.
“It’s always good to be home,” Collinsworth told Basketball Insiders. “My family’s here. My wife’s here. We’ve got a house here, so it’s just nice to be able to be home and do what I love at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Even though Collinsworth grew up and played college basketball in the mountainous region, he surprisingly didn’t grow up a Jazz fan. In fact, the team he grew up rooting for happened to be the only one that has given him legitimate NBA minutes in his professional basketball career — the Mavericks.
Going from a Mavericks fan to a Mavericks player was an experience Collinsworth truly treasured, especially since he got to play with his boyhood idol.
“It was incredible,” Collinsworth said. “Growing up, (we were) huge Mavericks fans. (With) Dirk being my favorite player, being teammates with him was surreal.”
In 2016, Collinsworth was brought in to play for the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends, before being called up at various points to play for Dallas. In the 2017-2018 season, Collinsworth played 34 games in Dallas. Collinsworth didn’t mince words when praising the organization and how they’ve been able to get to where they are now.
“It’s just another testament of consistency. Those guys, day in and day out, bring the work, and that’s why they are champions,” Collinsworth said.
Following his stint with the Mavericks, Collinsworth is now back where it all began for him. However, it’s not just the Utah climate that he’s used to. He’s also pretty used to filling up the box score when he’s on the court.
Back when he played for the Cougars, he was renowned for his all-around game. In his four years in college, Collinsworth’s total points scored (1,707) placed him 11th all-time among BYU men’s basketball players, while his total rebounds (1,047) and total assists (703) placed him first. In fact, his 12 triple-doubles are the most any player in NCAA history has recorded over his collegiate career.
His game has continued to shine through in the G League this season. In the three games he’s played for the Stars, Collinsworth’s all-around game has shined for the team, as he’s averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Stars head coach Martin Schiller praised Collinsworth for what he brings to the floor.
“His all-around game, offensively and defensively, as well as leadership-wise, his game impacts the team a lot,” Schiller told Basketball Insiders.
With Collinsworth being the oldest player on the roster at 28 years old, his experience has made him quite the influence in the locker room, which has served very well for his younger teammates.
“It stabilizes us,” Schiller said. “The guys listen to him. The guys believe in him. He played legit NBA minutes, so the guys respect him and therefore it’s very important to have him.”
When the Stars faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Friday night, they found themselves down by double digits in the second quarter. The Stars rallied back and were able to come up victorious for their first win of the season. SLC was never deterred even when the odds were stacked against them, which is exactly what Collinsworth has emphasized in the example he sets for his team.
“Just (be) Steady Eddie,” Collinsworth said. “Always bring the energy and just stay steady (because) there’s a lot of games…You have to keep your head up and stay positive, through the good games and the bad.”
Previous BYU alumni have opted to go different routes in their professional basketball careers. After failing to find a place in the NBA, Jimmer Fredette has gone on to become an icon for various leagues overseas. His former college teammate Brandon Davies has also played in various foreign professional basketball leagues.
Others have gone back and forth between the NBA and overseas. Eric Mika has played in several foreign leagues before signing with the Stockton Kings this season. For Collinsworth, his path has steadfastly remained the same in order for him to achieve his one goal — to play in the NBA.
“Back in the NBA is the goal for sure,” Collinsworth said. “That’s why I’m back in the G League. I’m trying to make that happen.”
Everyone has to pay their dues to make their dreams come true. For Kyle Collinsworth, that means showing Utah what he’s got in the G League.
It may not be ideal — but for him, at least it’s familiar terrain.
NBA Daily: Five Stats To Keep An Eye On Revisited
Before the season, Basketball Insiders identified five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. Quinn Davis revisits those five to see how they have looked over the season’s first month.
Before the season, Basketball Insiders pinpointed five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. These statistics each helped tell the story of last season and could be vital in determining the standings of the current campaign.
A month into the season, here’s an update on how those five statistics, and the impact they’ve had thus far.
Philadelphia 76ers — Forced Turnover Percentage
After starting the season 5-0, the Philadelphia 76ers fell a bit back down to earth and are now sitting at 8-5. Some of the regression can be blamed on a Joel Embiid suspension and a Ben Simmons shoulder sprain, but there have been some legitimate areas of concern over the last eight games.
Their defense, which was operating at an elite level during the first five games, has fallen now to a good-not-great 11th in the league. Interestingly, their forced turnover percentage has not been the culprit for the decline.
The 76ers are up to 11th in the league in forcing turnovers this season after finishing 28th in that category in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. The new additions Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, along with an increase in aggressiveness on that end from Simmons, have been in key in forcing loose balls and errant passes.
While this is encouraging, the increased aggressiveness may be a direct factor in one of their biggest flaws over the first 13 games. The 76ers are currently 29th in the league in opponent free throw rate, giving up 25.1 free throws per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
A high foul rate can be seen as a necessary risk for this 76ers team. An increase in turnovers could lead to more transition opportunities, which could help an offensively-challenged team generate more easy baskets.
So far, though, the risk has not been worth the reward. Despite going from 28th to 11th in forced turnover percentage, the 76ers efficiency and frequency in transition have remained relatively the same. They’ve generated transition opportunities off of 68.4 percent of their steals, just one percentage point higher than last season, per Cleaning the Glass. These opportunities have netted them an additional 1.7 points per 100 possessions, only slightly better than last season’s number of 1.6.
For Philadelphia to get back on track, something will have to change. Going forward, it will be important to see if the 76ers can keep up their rate of forcing turnovers while simultaneously reducing their foul rate and generating more transition plans.
Los Angeles Lakers — Half Court Efficiency
The Los Angeles Lakers have jumped out to an 11-2 record and sport the best net rating in the league. They have done so with a very impressive defense that ranks second in the NBA through the first month.
Meanwhile, their offense hasn’t lagged too far behind, as they rank 7th in the league on that side of the ball. Last season, the Lakers struggled offensively, particularly in the half-court where they were unable to consistently generate open looks.
They were a particularly bad shooting team in 2018-19, finishing last season with an overall three-point percentage of only 34 percent. The Lakers were expected to improve in that department this season with multiple shooters being brought into the fold.
But, while the team has taken a step offensively, it hasn’t been because of their shooting.
While Danny Green has been a marksman, shooting 42.2 percent from three, the rest of the Lakers’ roster has not been up to snuff. Overall, they sit at exactly the same percentage as last season when it comes to three-point shooting, 34 percent.
Their offense has been humming thanks to some old-fashioned domination around the rim. The Lakers are shooting 40.4 percent of their total shots at the rim and finishing 69.1 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
That kind of efficiency around the basket will mitigate any shooting concerns. But, if some of the Lakers’ role players can begin to hit their outside shots, the Los Angeles offense could prove even more imposing.
Denver Nuggets — Opponents’ Effective Field Goal Percentage
One of the harder to project statistics in the NBA is the opponents’ field goal percentage. This number can vary from year-to-year for no reason other than luck.
Last season the Nuggets improved their defense greatly and went from one of the worst units in the league to an average one. But, when digging into some of their numbers, it became clear that some of this may have been due to a lucky streak of opponent shooting, as the Nuggets gave up very similar looks to those they gave up in 2017-18, but opponents simply shot a worse percentage on these attempts.
This season, the Nuggets’ defense has improved even further. They are currently holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 49 percent, third in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Nuggets give a few too many threes, particularly from the corner, but opponents haven’t punished them as they’ve shot just 32 percent overall from three against Denver.
So, looking at the tracking data on NBA.com, it would appear as if some of that luck has carried over from last season. The Nuggets are giving up about the same number of wide-open three-point attempts as last season. On these attempts, opponents are shooting 37.1 percent, which is slightly under the 37.6 percent they managed last season.
That number is not extremely lucky, as 11 NBA teams have had better luck than Denver on wide-open shots this season. Where the Nuggets have gotten particularly good bounces, however, is on open shots, classified as those attempts when a defender 4-6 feet away. On these attempts, opponents are shooting just 26.5 percent, good for the second-lowest number in the league.
The Denver defense has certainly improved this season, but it’s unlikely they maintain their current pace in terms of opponent shooting.
Milwaukee Bucks — Offensive Rating without Giannis
One of the big reasons for the Milwaukee Bucks’ success last season was the performance of their bench. While Giannis Antetokounmpo was certainly the conductor of the team’s attack, the team fared very well when he hit the bench.
But, with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, there were some who questioned how the team would perform without their MVP on the court. And, so far, it appears as if those reservations were valid, to a point.
This season, the Bucks have felt the loss of Brogdon quite a bit, but not in an overly drastic way. When Antetokounmpo is on the floor, the Bucks boast about a 112 offensive rating, compared to a 107 rating when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
Last season, the difference dropped about three points, from 116 when Antetokounmpo was on to 113 when he was off.
Milwaukee’s offense stayed at an elite level last year when Antetokounmpo sat on the back of impressive three-point shooting. But, this season, the Bucks have been getting up a similar number of attempts when he sits, but the shots have just haven’t fallen. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, the bench’s three-point percentage has dropped from 37.4 percent to 32.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.
While this is partially attributed to the loss of a 40 percent three-point shooter in Brogdon, the Bucks still have a plethora of solid shooters who should be able to hit more shots as the reigning MVP rests. As the season goes on, it wouldn’t be a shock to see these numbers level out in their favor.
Houston Rockets — Second Half Net Rating
After starting the season in a bit of a rut, the Houston Rockets have ripped off eight straight wins and have played about as well as many expected them to coming into the season. Like last year their success could be attributed mostly to a dominant James Harden, who’s averaged 40 points per game in that stretch.
Last season, the Rockets would often get out to a hot start, but struggle thereon and occasionally give up leads in the second half. The culprit of the second half malaise was theorized to be a tired Harden, given his gargantuan workload, or perhaps a predictable style of play that opponents would catch on and adjust to after a couple of quarters.
Whatever the reason, the addition of Russell Westbrook was to serve as a potential antidote. Last season, Westbrook’s Thunder excelled in the second half of games, as his seemingly boundless energy had a way of wearing opponents down as games went on.
And, in fact, the Rockets have proven much more assertive in second halves. They are currently sporting a 2.2 net rating in the first half, a number that has improved to 3.6 in the second, per NBA.com.
While Harden has continued to take a lion’s share of the work, Westbrook has added a transition threat to the Houston offense and has certainly played a key role in its improvement. If the Rockets can maintain this energy and efficiency throughout entire games, they could prove a major threat come April and May.
Those five statistics are just a few of the interesting trends and storylines to follow across an 82-game season. So, be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders to follow them along.
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