During the 2000-01 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, finished 22nd in the league for defensive rating. They went on to win the championship, and are still the only team this century to finish outside the top 10 in defensive rating and win a title.
One key caveat for that Lakers team is that they were a quintessential on-off switch team. Ultimately, that switch was stuck in an off position as the veteran group coasted through its title defense campaign. Famously, the switch was emphatically flipped on in the playoffs as head coach Phil Jackson’s team led all 16 playoff squads in defensive rating en route to a 16-1 rampage.
20 years later, the Brooklyn Nets have assembled a frightening collection of offensive talent. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving has been nearly an unstoppable force in its short time together. Durant’s mid-range pull-up game remains an outlier in NBA history in terms of effectiveness, as does Harden’s step-back three and a knack for drawing fouls. Irving’s artistry in isolation has only been rivaled by the Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired court he calls home.
With those three playing at that level, the Nets should be a clear-cut title favorite. Yet there is understandable trepidation due to the other half of the game.
The Nets currently rank 23rd in defensive rating, and that number is even worse if you filter it since the team traded for Harden and lost an interior presence in Jarrett Allen. The alarm bells rang their loudest when the Nets gave up 149 points, including 48 in the fourth quarter, during that sloppy loss to the Washington Wizards.
Going back to the turn of the century, that Lakers team had solid defenders up and down the roster. While effort has been an issue for this Nets team, their defensive talent extends about as far as Kevin Durant’s wingspan.
Barring a major buyout or trade acquisition, the Nets will not be able to suddenly transform into a great or even good defense. That said, they probably don’t need to be a great or even good defense to win a championship. With an offense poised to shatter records, an average defense could do just fine.
Can this team as currently constructed climb to the middle of the pack defensively? It’s tough to say, given the evidence at this point, but there have been a couple of encouraging signs.
Using Cleaning the Glass, the Nets’ worst defensive performances have come against the league’s bottom-feeders. In that shootout against the Wizards, they allowed Bradley Beal and co. to post a 130.9 offensive rating, good for 18 full points above their current mark for the season. The game before that, they allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to score about 117 points per 100 possessions, up from their 27th ranked 105.6 number for the season.
Meanwhile, they have held up a little better against tougher competition. In their games against the league’s two best offensives, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, the Nets kept those teams right around their average offensive rating for the season. Those numbers hint that poor effort is certainly a factor.
The most frequently used lineups since the Harden trade has held up moderately well. The small-ball lineup of Irving, Harden, Joe Harris, Durant and Jeff Green has posted a 110.3 defensive rating. The more traditional lineup with DeAndre Jordan in Green’s spot boasts a 108.0 number, per Cleaning the Glass. Better, both of those numbers hover around league-average.
The real issues have come when the team goes to its bench. The Nets particularly lack any depth behind Jordan in the frontcourt. Reggie Perry, usually the backup center, was cut out of the rotation against the Clippers – and more recently assigned to the G League affiliate – as the team went exclusively with either a small-ball unit or Jordan at center.
Due to the personnel, the Nets’ defense has relied on a lot of switching when defending both on and off-ball screens. This scheme requires strict attention to detail and can look stout when the team is in sync but leads to very easy attempts for the opposition when a single mistake is made.
Against the Miami HEAT, in what was likely the Nets’ best defensive performance of the season, the group executed these switches well. Here Durant, Green and Bruce Brown perfectly coordinate a three-way switch against a Miami set play, leading to a Brown steal.
Switching constantly can mitigate the Nets’ biggest weakness, interior defense. It can also lead to miscommunications and mismatches that opponents can hunt.
When the focus isn’t there, a blown switch leads to a wide-open layup or three. Against the Wizards, these mistakes were frequent. Here, based on the reaction after the play, it looks like Durant fails to signal the switch on a pin down for Davis Bertans, concluding in a three and the foul.
The Nets also failed to communicate on this Mo Wagner screen-and-roll with Beal, ending up with a wide-open dunk for the big German.
Switching also can allow teams with great scorers to hunt favorable matchups. This was in full display against the Clippers when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard sought out isolations against Irving and Harris.
On the first play of the game, Leonard gets the switch to Irving. The Brooklyn defense shrinks to help on the potential Leonard drive, leaving Nicolas Batum wide-open for three.
While those downsides are less than ideal, the Nets have shown an ability to outweigh them with solid play when engaged. In the same quarter of that game, Durant and Irving do a great job re-switching to get Durant back to Leonard. The two-time Finals MVP makes a great shot, but the defense was solid.
But when Jordan is in the game, the Nets are forced to rely on more drop coverage. This is when the player guarding the screener drops back into the paint as the guard fights over the screen.
The results have been mixed. Brown is feisty, but the Nets do not have many options when they need to defend smaller guards. If the defender tasked with the guard lags over the screen, Jordan will be defending a 1-on-2 in the paint.
The Bucks attacked this coverage repeatedly using Jordan’s man, Giannis Antetokounmpo, as a screener. The Nets held up well, especially when the right defenders were tasked with the play. Here Durant slithers over the screen and makes a great contest from behind to alter the shot, but Brooklyn was unable to secure the rebound.
The issues with this coverage can come when a team with solid guards attack the Nets’ weak links on the perimeter. Below, the Bucks have a favorable matchup with Jrue Holiday guarded by Harden. Harden fails to stay attached over the screen, resulting in Holiday drawing out Jordan and finding Antetokounmpo for a dunk.
While these issues can be attributed to the roster, some of this can also be blamed on the lack of practice time for this group. Newcomer Steve Nash seems to be switching between different schemes on a quarter-to-quarter basis. The experimentation is a conscious choice, of course, as the Nets would rather be making these mistakes in February than in May.
Another encouraging sign for Brooklyn is their transition defense and rebounding, two necessary fundamentals for a good team. They have been right around league-average in rebounding and even slightly above average in transition defense since the Harden trade, per Cleaning the Glass. The old adage that the best defense is a good offense rings true here, as the Nets keep opponents out of transition by simply making shots.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Nets continue to grow as a defensive unit as the season goes on. They have yet to play a true post-up threat that will test their biggest weakness, which comes in the form of Joel Embiid on Saturday.
It is likely they also grab another interior presence via trade or buyout, and they will certainly be interested in the services of someone like PJ Tucker should he be available.
For now, the team will continue to learn through trial and error – really, it is the only option. The effort will come and go in this truncated season, but the key is the ceiling this team can reach when fully engaged. While there are too many weak links on the roster to construct a great defense, an average one paired with a historically great offense could be enough to reach the top of the mountain.
Where Can Dallas Go From Here?
The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?
The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.
Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.
Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.
Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.
The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.
One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.
Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.
Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.
This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.
Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.
Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.
A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.
Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.
Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression
Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.
This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.
The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.
Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.
Whenever Edwards makes a big shot, he immediately tries to make another one. He’ll figure out the composure part as we go along.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 25, 2021
Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.
The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.
Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.
Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.
One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.
There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.
Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.
Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.
It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.
There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!