In just under two months, 30 NBA teams will kick off the journey that is the 2019-20 NBA season. There will be a myriad of storylines and statistical trends that flesh out as the season chugs along. Some of these trends can be predicted based on last season, while others could be a result of roster turnover or a coaching change.
These trends will be of particular import for contenders and could make or break a team’s chances of winning a title. This piece will take five of those teams that fall into the contender category and highlight a statistic that could be crucial to watch for in the upcoming campaign. Without further ado…
The 76ers’ Forced Turnover Percentage
The Philadelphia 76ers underwent significant roster changes this offseason. Most notably losing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, replacing them with Al Horford and Josh Richardson within the starting lineup. Last season, one of the more perplexing statistical trends was the decline in their defense. After finishing third in defensive rating in 2017-18, the Sixers fell all the way to 14th in that category during the 2018-19 season.
Looking deeper, we see that the Sixers still managed to rank sixth in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage. The defensive downturn, then, can be partially attributed to the drop in their forced turnover percentage, which fell from 18th all the way to 28th in the league, per cleaningtheglass.com.
The new-look 76ers will trot out a formidable defensive lineup next season, so they are likely to return to being one of the top outfits in the league. Whether that defense can propel them all the way to a championship, however, could come down the team’s ability to force steals and bad passes. Richardson, an aggressive guard defender who makes his living on being pesky around the perimeter, will help massively in that department.
Live ball turnovers will be of high importance for the Philadelphia offense, one that may struggle in the halfcourt given the lack of an elite perimeter shot creator. Forcing these will allow the team easy transition scoring opportunities and give Ben Simmons a chance to do what he does best — lead the break.
The Lakers’ Half-Court Efficiency
The Los Angeles Lakers also experienced some major roster turnover, bringing in Anthony Davis via a trade with the Pelicans and signing multiple role players like Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels.
Last season, the Lakers struggled to score in the half-court and, as a result, their offense suffered as a whole. They finished 23rd in the league in half-court efficiency, along with 23rd-placed rank in overall offensive rating, per cleaningtheglass.com. This was the first time a LeBron James-led team finished outside the top six in either of those categories since the 2007-08 season in Cleveland, the year before he won his first MVP trophy.
The James injury may have played a minor role in this outlier season — but even when he was on the court, the Lakers only scored 94.7 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. This number would’ve placed them just 17th in the league.
The real culprit may have been nonexistent floor spacing. The Lakers finished 29th in the league last season in three-point percentage, shooting a putrid 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Los Angeles had the third-lowest frequency of spot-ups in the league and had the fourth-lowest efficiency on those attempts, per NBA.com. James was forced to operate in tight spaces and had a tough time generating open looks against set defenses. The clip below shows a James post up in which every Portland defender has a foot in the paint, ready to help.
With the aforementioned additions of Green and Cook, the Lakers have added the elite shooters that could open the floor for their two stars. Davis will definitely demand double teams in the post as well, so his talents may help Los Angeles find cleaner looks at the rim.
The Nuggets’ Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage
The Denver Nuggets will bring back every contributor from last season, with the addition of Jerami Grant and, excitedly, Michael Porter Jr. at some point. Last season, the Nuggets combined their efficient offense with an improved defense to vault to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, eventually losing in the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games.
One of the more significant defensive improvements came in their opponents’ shooting percentage. They held opponents to a 52.4 effective field goal percentage, which ranked 15th in the league, up from 27th in the previous season. Interestingly, the shooting statistics on cleaningtheglass.com show that the Nuggets gave up more efficient shots to opponents last season than they did in 2017-18.
The Nuggets ranked last in the league in giving up corner threes, the most efficient shot in basketball sans the layup. They also allowed 37.6 percent of their opponents shot attempts to come at the rim, which ranked 24th in the league, down from 17th in the 2017-18 campaign. The Nuggets compounded this by forcing the least amount of long mid-range shots, the most inefficient zone on the court.
How, then, did the Nuggets only rank in the middle of the NBA in terms of their opponent shooting efficiency? It’s possible that the Nuggets did a better job contesting these shots — but looking at the NBA.com tracking reveals that simple luck played a significant role.
The Nuggets gave up almost exactly the same frequency of shots across the last two seasons where the opponent was considered very open, meaning the defender was six or more feet away. In 2017-18, the opponent shot 41.4 percent on these shots, compared to just 37.6 percent on the same attempts last season. When it comes to merely open shots, situations in which defender was four-to-six feet away, the gap was even more pronounced. Last season, the opponent only shot 31.9 percent on these attempts, compared to 35.7 percent the year before.
Needless to say, it will be intriguing to watch whether Denver can keep up their defensive improvement from last season, or if the shooting variance will swing back out of their favor.
Milwaukee’s Offensive Rating Without Giannis
The Milwaukee Bucks rampaged their way through the regular season last year, finishing with the best record and the highest net rating in the league. The MVP-awarded Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, dominating the paint in every contest.
The Bucks were not only successful on the back of their Greek superstar though, as they had a plus-3.7 net rating when he was off the court as well. This was largely due to a steady offense, which ranked third in the league last season with a 114.9 offensive rating overall. This number jumped to 116.2 with Giannis on the court and only fell to 112.9 with him on the bench. That means that even without their best player in the lineup, the Bucks had the equivalent of a seventh-ranked offense, per cleaningtheglass.com.
Expectedly, Milwaukee saw a decline in both the frequency and efficiency of shots at the rim when Antetokounmpo took a breather. They made up for this drop by bombing away from three-point, seeing a significant increase in both frequency and efficiency on attempts from deep.
The uptick in outside shot attempts makes sense as the Bucks’ bench lacked a true paint presence like Antetokounmpo, so the team needed to rely more on perimeter play in those minutes. The surprising statistic is the increase in three-point percentage, as it would be logical to assume that Milwaukee would be getting better looks from outside with the league’s MVP attracting multiple defenders around the rim.
Of course, Milwaukee will be without Malcolm Brogdon, their best three-point shooter last season, as the combo guard signed a contract with the Indiana Pacers this offseason. The Bucks will still trot out an abundance of sharpshooters, however, and the onus to create open looks falls on Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton during the minutes when Antetokounmpo rests. Bledsoe is particularly good at finding open shooters, and the Bucks actually performed quite well when he was on the court without Antetokounmpo.
Their plus-9.6 net rating in those minutes was not too far from the plus-12.5 number with the MVP on the court, per cleaningtheglass.com.
Bledsoe is adept at penetrating into the lane and often uses his elite athleticism to leap and hit shooters on the perimeter at difficult angles. Below, he finds Brogdon with an especially wild kick-out.
As mentioned, the Bucks will be without Brogdon’s elite catch-and-shoot services this season, but he can be replaced adequately thanks to a bench that is littered with shooting specialists. If that bench can continue to knock down three-pointers at an elite clip, the Bucks could be on their way back to the No. 1 seed.
The Rockets’ Second Half Net Rating
Last season, James Harden experienced the second-highest usage rate in the years since 1977-78, when the stat could first be calculated. Then, in one of the most surprising moves of the summer, the Rockets swapped out Chris Paul for the player with the highest usage rate ever in that time, Russell Westbrook.
The immense usage may have taken a toll on Harden over the course of games, as the Rockets tended to have trouble in second halves. The Rockets had a plus-8.5 net rating in the first half of games, which was second in the NBA. In the second half, the Rockets had a net rating of just plus-1.2. That difference of 7.3 was the largest separation in the league, per NBA.com.
There could be a variety of factors that caused the split, including the fact that good teams who get out to big leads early will play more garbage time in the second half, and therefore let off the gas pedal. It is also reasonable to infer, however, that the Rockets’ isolation-heavy play style took a toll on their superstar, becoming more predictable for opposing defenses as the game went on.
The Thunder, Westbrook’s former team, had the opposite splits last season. Oklahoma City had a meager plus-1.2 net rating in first halves last season, but this number jumped to plus-5.7 in second halves, per NBA.com. Again, there are a variety of factors for this, and Westbrook was certainly not the only reason for the second half spurt. Then again, the 2017 league MVP is known for his constant ferociousness and motor, so it’s easy to see how he may have played a role in energizing his team out of the halftime break.
It will be interesting to watch how Westbrook’s fire rubs off on this Rockets team and, importantly, if his presence takes just enough burden off of Harden to leave him fresh down the stretch of tight contests.
For these five franchises with championship-worthy aspirations, the above metrics will likely go a far way toward determining their ultimate ceilings. It’s still early on, but don’t be surprised if some of these predictions end up making or breaking a season down the line — keep your eyes peeled!
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.