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NBA PM: How Defensive Player of the Year Favorites Excel

Ben Dowsett selects his Defensive Player of the Year, and showcases the favorites as team-driving engines.

Ben Dowsett

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When we think of basketball players who make their teammates better, it’s most common to consider these concepts offensively. An elite passer makes the game easier for teammates by setting them up for easy shots, a knockdown shooter makes creating those lanes easier by providing spacing and a gravity-inducing roll man can do much of the same in different ways.

The theme isn’t unlike many within the game: It’s much easier to describe and quantify offensively, but the true representation of this sort of player might come on the other end. As it turns out, several of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year are fantastic embodiments.

Before we get to the three-man ballot, a nod to one name who isn’t appearing this year, but might represent this theme just as well as anyone.

Just like LeBron James hasn’t vacated the title of world’s best player despite an MVP campaign that feels increasingly unlikely, Kawhi Leonard hasn’t given up the crown of “best perimeter defender alive” despite the possibility that he won’t three-peat for DPOY. His exclusion from the final triumvirate here is as much a nod to what each of these three have done as it is a knock on Leonard’s season.

The Spurs’ defensive performances with Kawhi on and off the court have been covered ad nauseam all year long, and with reason. They’re just curious. San Antonio doesn’t appear to have many other elite-level defenders on paper, which makes the fact that they’re nearly 10 points per-100-possessions better defensively when Leonard sits on the bench – roughly the difference between a league average unit and one of the stingiest defenses in history – extremely intriguing.

There’s a ton of noise in these numbers generally, leading many to speculate that they should be ignored in Leonard’s case given all we know about him. They’re also the polar opposite of several of the top candidates this year, plus a complete reversal from every other season Kawhi has posted in San Antonio outside his rookie year, leading to the other side of the argument leaning heavily on these team figures as a case against him.

A crazy thought: Maybe it’s some of both, and it’s possible to note the departures from the norm without simply assuming the guy forgot how to play defense at age 25. Awards have a way of polarizing things, and even Kawhi hasn’t been spared.

Through this lens, he falls just short of a spot on the podium. Leonard’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure has dropped right along with his on/off court numbers, and while there’s noise here too, there’s less. Something different is certainly happening.

It could trace back to the way Leonard is being matched up with opposing stars, or the way some teams have effectively begun ignoring him – willingly relegating star players to the corner and effectively running the offense four-on-four just so Kawhi can’t screw things up too much. It definitely relates to the three-point percentages the Spurs allow while he plays, which could be chalked up heavily to variance (38 percent while he plays, 29 percent while he sits – at least some of that is pure randomness).

It could have a lot to do with his increased burden offensively, now one of the largest in the league. Most of these things are helping the team overall, even if they aren’t helping Leonard’s individual defensive value through our tracking methods.

Those are very good potential reasons for some of what we’ve seen. Do they absolve him from a value-added standpoint, though? No, at least not entirely. Even if we presume he’s at fault for absolutely none of the team’s superior performance without him on the court, it’s still the case.

This can all be true without us somehow assuming he’s now a subpar defender; it’s a simple reality of the incomplete defensive metrics we have available, and it’s also part of the beauty of basketball. Rest easy, Spurs fans.

3. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder

If you’ve invested yourself deeply in one of recent memory’s most divisive MVP races, chances are you’ve heard a bit about Russell Westbrook and stat-padding. With rebounds in particular, the thinking goes, the Thunder play a wholly unique style that allows Russ to swoop in for a bunch of uncontested boards, especially after missed free throws, while his big men focus solely on making sure there’s no one there to compete with him on the glass.

How the resulting impact on Westbrook’s rebounding figures warps an MVP debate already supercharged by human obsession with round numbers is a question for another time, but there’s a more practical team element here too. Russ is among the league’s premier transition players, and getting the ball in his hands as quickly as possible after opponent misses lets him maximize his skills here. Teammates like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are sacrificing in part for the good of the team.

Here’s the thing: Their individual sacrifice might not be the most significant on the team. That title could easily go to Andre Roberson.

As this pen recently noted in the link above, there might not be a more impressive part of Westbrook’s campaign than his raw physical accomplishment. Only seeding-induced rest will keep him from starting all 82 games this year, with a league record usage rate and a physical burden that possibly no one has ever accomplished before him. Frankly, Russ matching an arbitrary statistical record first set by a guy who didn’t even finish second in MVP voting that season should carry much less weight than this.

Roberson helps make it all possible, often in ways you’d never notice. He’s been on the court for about 80 percent of Westbrook’s minutes on the year, minutes where Russ hasn’t spent a single intentional possession guarding the opponent’s top ball-handler – Roberson takes the task every time. Opponents get fewer layups and threes when he plays with Westbrook than when Westbrook plays alone, and they shoot a lower percentage from everywhere. Most important during these minutes is what Russ isn’t doing: Defending a high-intensity matchup.

Combine Roberson’s defensive prowess and Westbrook’s insane ability to create shots for himself down the stretch with zero help, and you’ve actually arrived at the Thunder’s clutch time strategy.

It’s quite the opposite of most teams, who typically bank on increased energy levels to carry their defense and often put many of their best scorers on the floor to make sure they can get a bucket when it counts. Thunder coach Billy Donovan usually puts a defensive-minded group around Russ instead, led by Roberson, and focuses them as a defensive shutdown unit while Westbrook does his thing with the ball. OKC is the league’s second best per-possession team in the clutch as a result, and their defense in these minutes is also second. Roberson deserves the lion’s share of credit for keeping this roster in the league’s top 10 defensively.

This is a whole new kind of team catalyst, one we’re very unaccustomed to seeing. Some of the gritty details of Roberson’s defensive game were outlined in this space back in February, and not much has changed. He’s still a sneakily great off-ball defender who constantly finds little ways to make things easier on teammates, and he still suppresses opposing field goal percentages by some of the highest amounts in the league among volume wing defenders.

His versatility has been huge, as has his preparation and study of the little details that make him a great defender. There’s no type of lead ball-handler he can’t deal with at an elite level, and he’ll more than hold his own against the kinds of bigger power forwards he used to bang with every game in high school. Some of the best guys in the league on the block have gone at him this season, and have shot an unholy 36 percent, per Synergy Sports.

Whether Roberson is a “better” perimeter defender than Leonard isn’t the question here; whether he’s impacted his team in bigger ways defensively is, and there’s a real case for it this year.

2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

If listing these guys as 1a and 1b didn’t feel so tacky, that’s how this would look. Hell, if the entire North American sports world wasn’t angrily against the ideas of ties, we’d have entertained that designation as well.

These two swapped places on this list at least a dozen times in the last few weeks, and you can switch them in your mind all you want with no complaints. They’ve had two of the most impactful defensive seasons in recent memory, and have done so in completely different ways. You can list all the of stats, the records and the eye test stuff, and it’s still really hard to find objective factors that separate them by a wide enough margin.

By the raw numbers, Gobert gets the small edge. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure leads the league by a not-insignificant margin. He’s about a full point per-100-possessions more “valuable” than Green defensively by this metric, which accounts for teammate and opponent context among other factors, and roughly twice as impactful as any player outside the top 15. Gobert’s figure here would be the highest in the metric’s short history since their calculation methods changed after their first year in public circulation.

The Stifle Tower (the only acceptable nickname in this space, thank you very much) leads the league in defensive win shares, and while Green holds the edge in defensive box plus/minus, Utah has seen a larger negative defensive effect when Gobert hits the bench than when Green does so for the Warriors.

All those numbers have at least some degree of noise involved, and this debate deserves more.

Both these guys are more than the foundation of their teams’ defense; they’re almost synonymous with them. There isn’t a single other player in the league more vital to his team’s basic defensive identity than these two, and there’s a case to be made there hasn’t been one in several years.

Green has been part of a similar debate in this space during each of the last two years (he’d have taken Leonard’s first DPOY title if this pen was the only one voting), and the only thing that’s changed this year is his surroundings. Draymond has even less defensive help than he used to after the departures of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, plus a lengthy injury to Kevin Durant that meant more defensively than many would assume.

It hasn’t mattered much. Green is still humming (yelling?) along as the driving force that makes the league’s most unique defense possible. The switching fad that’s blown up around the NBA the last few years is due more to him than any other single player, and the Warriors can do it in ways virtually no one else can simply because he’s on their team.

Within the course of a few minutes, Draymond can do this to an athletic or crafty ball-handler:

And then do this to a guy who’s five inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier than him in the post:

The list of stuff he does at an elite level is longer than any other defender in the league. He’s the vocal captain of one of the NBA’s smartest defenses; DeAndre Jordan gets a ton of credit in Los Angeles for the way he’s learned opposing play calls and will shut them down in live time, but Green does much of the same for a team that’s way more active on D. Telegraphed actions are suicide against this defense while Draymond is on the floor, and he’s a master at using that extra beat while a team sets up an attack to quickly switch out of a negative matchup.

The Warriors’ tempo is a big factor in their continued success, and Green drives the train here as well. The Dubs dominate the transition game on both sides when he plays. They score nearly double their opponents’ per-possession fast break points during these minutes, a gap that shrinks to almost zero when he sits. Green gets credit on both sides: His ability to push the ball himself following rebounds and turnovers (often of his own creation) juices their attack, and he’s often the first guy back contesting looks the other way.

Curiously, factors that have become something of a calling card for each guy might actually point in the other direction. Gobert has become synonymous with interior defense and rim protection, and with damn good reason, but did you realize the two are giving up identical percentages at the rim?

This is a bit misleading, of course. Gobert challenges a significantly greater number of shots, and that matters a lot. They’re also very different types of shots, on balance.

If you view the numbers only as a plus for Draymond and not a knock on Rudy, though, you’re on the right track. Green might be the most underrated rim protector in the game, and is on the short list for the best in history at his size or shorter. Look at him almost casually get into position to contest against Clint Capela – is there any doubt about what’s about to happen here?

Man, Green probably spent that time in the air thinking about which diss he could yell at Capela after they landed to deliver maximum impact without getting himself T’d up.

On the flip side of that reputational coin, Gobert has had a much more pronounced effect on non-interior elements of defense than his profile would suggest. Green is the prototypical versatile defender, and much of his popular case is the effect he has on every area of the offense – interior, perimeter and everything in between. Most label it a significant edge over Gobert, and in some ways it certainly is.

All this stuff is connected, though. And while numbers here can be noisy, they actually suggest that Gobert’s presence has perhaps meant more to Utah’s non-interior defense than Green’s has to Golden State’s, even if Green is “directly” involved more often.

As we illustrated in this space a few months back, Gobert is a wild card in the NBA’s defensive deck. He allows the Jazz to cover the pick-and-roll, by far the league’s most popular basic play type, in a unique way: With only two guys, and extremely limited help defense. The Warriors’ three-point percentage allowed actually goes up when Draymond plays, as do their per-possession attempts allowed, often a more telling factor. The Jazz, though, see both areas decline marginally with Gobert on the floor.

This could be noise in Green’s case, but it almost certainly isn’t for Gobert. The idea that Rudy doesn’t affect three-point shooting has always been silly – the Jazz allow the second-fewest per-possession three-point attempts in the league and the fewest from the high-value corners, and his impact inside is a huge reason for that.

Have you ever stopped to consider the percentage of threes that result directly from a driver forcing help, scrambling the defense and kicking out to an open shooter? That happens a lot less when you rarely have to bring the help, and that only happens when you have a giant like Gobert who can credibly cover a ball-handler and a roll man at the same time, with zero assistance.

Old-school folks like to talk a lot about plays that “don’t show up on the stat sheet.” In today’s day and age, they get the chance less and less often; advanced video and tracking software makes it tougher and tougher to find an important play within an NBA game that can’t be quantified in any way whatsoever.

Gobert has these folks covered, and his talent here lies in a skill that many stat nerds would kill for in the publicly available SportVU data set: Not rim protection, but rim deterrence. Guys are ready to take that ball hard to the rack… and then Gobert enters their line of sight.

Ball-handlers who should know better find themselves aborting drives at the worst times, and Gobert’s savvier teammates know it’s coming.

“He does such a good job protecting the rim that it allows us to do some other things defensively,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Over time, pushing guys in Gobert’s direction has simply become part of the defense, rather than a bailout. “So it is baked in with what we’re doing.”

Oh, that whole switching thing? He can do that, too, at least for those rare possessions where the Jazz need it out of him.

“The thing that I’m aware of as much as anything is Rudy being able to come out on the floor better,” said Snyder. “That’s another type of ‘deterrence.’”

One more time, loudly and for the record: There isn’t a bad choice here. Both guys drive and define their defenses in incredible ways we’ve rarely seen in recent years. One might be more versatile, and the other might have more raw impact – but even those conclusions are based on incomplete pictures.

Green seems far more likely to take home the actual hardware, but both deserve a spot in our memory for their incredible defensive seasons.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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NBA Daily: Tank Tracker 2018

Basketball Insiders looks at the NBA’s race to the bottom as teams jockey for lottery position.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the NBA All-Star game behind and the home stretch of the regular season ahead, this is the time of year when contenders contend and pretenders stop pretending. It’s time for the NBA’s annual race to the bottom with a crowded field featuring four teams from each conference with better odds of getting help through the draft than making a playoff run.

Although Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for public statements detrimental to the NBA for saying the Mavericks should tank, the assumption here is always that players play to win. Every year the NBA Draft brings 30 new first round picks with guaranteed contracts into the league (minus any players that opt to play overseas). That’s 30 NBA jobs that will be taken away from veterans and given to rookies, not counting second-round picks and undrafted free agents who will take still more jobs. Rank-and-file players are playing for their place in the league, not to help their team get in position to draft a potential replacement.

Here we’ll look at teams that are clearly out of the playoff race and factors that could impact draft position as the final stretch of the season unfolds. Below is a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski from September showing odds to land a top-three pick. This is the final season under the old lottery system (odds in parenthesis) before the new system takes effect next season.

Starting next year, the four worst teams will have nearly-identical odds to land a top-three pick. Since this is the last year in which teams dramatically increase odds of landing a top-three pick the more they lose, the race for lottery position could be as fun to watch as the race for playoff position. With a deep talent pool for the upcoming NBA Draft, the plot gets even thicker.

The Playoff Contenders

Before we look at teams that are clearly not contending for a playoff spot, we’ll mention teams that are out of playoff position but fighting to get in. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons acquired Blake Griffin before the trade deadline and are only 1.5 games behind the Miami HEAT for the eighth playoff seed. If Detroit can get point guard Reggie Jackson back healthy — a big if — then the Pistons could get into the playoffs and constitute a scary match-up in the first round.

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post tweeted Wednesday that Jackson has been cleared for light running and shooting as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Also in the East, although the Charlotte Hornets appear headed nowhere, it’s a veteran-heavy squad that will do all it can to claw its way to a playoff spot. With point guard Kemba Walker making a second All-Star appearance and veterans Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum uninterested in building through the draft this late in their careers, expect Charlotte to do everything in its power to close the five-game gap with the HEAT.

In the West, although the Clippers moved on from Griffin, the team remains just one game behind the eighth-seed Pelicans with a 7-3 record in its last 10 games. The Clippers are another veteran-laden squad with too much pride to play for lottery balls. However, the Clippers’ hopes of being a playoff spoiler are complicated by the league’s hottest team, the Jazz. Utah owns a league-best 11-game win streak and sits a half game behind the Clippers.

Honorable mention goes to the Lakers, which sit a dismal eight games behind the Pelicans in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have almost no chance to make the playoffs but won’t be participating in this season’s tank-a-thon since either the 76ers or Celtics will own its first-round draft pick. L.A. traded two future firsts for Steve Nash in 2012 but has yet to convey the final pick due to protections in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The pick will go to Philly if it’s first overall or lower than fifth, but will otherwise convey to the Celtics. The 76ers used the pick with added protections to move up last year and draft Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick.

Additionally, the Nets do not make the list since the Cavaliers own their unprotected first round pick from the Kyrie Irving trade with the Celtics. The Nets aren’t tanking, they just lack the talent to compete and currently hold the league’s fifth-worst record.

New York Knicks, 24-36

The Knicks are the last entrant into the NBA’s annual race to the bottom owing to Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending ACL injury. Prior to the injury, the Knicks were doing everything in the team’s power to start the post-Carmelo Anthony era with a playoff appearance. With Porzingis now sidelined for an extended period, the goal shifts to improving the talent around him.

Chicago Bulls, 20-38

The Bulls recently announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup. Both received a DNP-CD in Thursday’s one-point loss to the 76ers. This is a team in naked tank mode, but it has the most games remaining against other teams on this list. Chicago has its tanking work cut out for it, but the recent lineup decisions show that the Bulls are serious about getting the job done.

Memphis Grizzlies, 18-38

While the Bulls are shameless in pursuit of lottery balls, you can’t blame the Grizzlies for the horrendous injury luck that put the team in this position. It’s a lost season for Memphis, and help in the lottery could be difficult to find since only the Bulls and Magic have more games remaining against teams on this list.

Orlando Magic, 18-40

The Magic have the second-worst record in the East but are matched by the Kings and Mavericks. Counting the Grizzlies, this makes six teams with only 18 wins. This is the heart of the tanking field, and the Magic fully committed when it traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, for a future second-round pick. Orlando has a six-game stretch against teams in playoff contention that should help, but it also has a large number of games remaining against lottery contenders.

Sacramento Kings, 18-40

The Kings did well to get out of the $19 million owed to George Hill next season in a pre-deadline trade with the Cavaliers. Losing the team’s starting point guard also has the benefit of more minutes to develop De’Aaron Fox while upping the odds of adding a quality piece next to him in the draft. Unfortunately, the Kings had a recent stretch of four wins in ten games.

Dallas Mavericks, 18-40

No caveats or disclaimers are needed here since Cuban has gone public with his desire to lose as many games as possible. Aiding Cuban’s cause is that the Mavs are tied with the Hawks and Suns for fewest remaining games against teams on this list.

Atlanta Hawks, 18-41

Equal to the Suns for the league’s worst record, the Hawks come out of the All-Star break in pole position for the Tank 500. However, the team is 4-6 in the last 10 games and lost a ton of close games this year. The Hawks are literally better than the record suggests, and join the Magic and Kings by insisting on shooting themselves in the foot with late-season wins that could poison the lottery well.

As NBA.com’s K.L. Chouinard noted, the Hawks have a net rating of +9.1 in minutes Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon share. Only John Collins and Isaiah Taylor have out-performed this combo among two-man units that have shared at least 200 minutes.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wisely opted to limit the pair to 227 minutes together this season, but the Hawks seem like a team in danger of tumbling out of position for a top-three pick despite how well-positioned the team is currently.

Phoenix Suns, 18-41

When it comes to the gold standard in tanking, nobody tops the Suns. The team shares a league-worst record with the Hawks, has a tough remaining schedule and is showing how it’s done with a 1-9 record in its last 10 games. With the team’s litany of poor draft selections and disastrous trades and free agency decisions, the lottery is the only place Phoenix can turn to for improvement. The prediction here is that nobody out-tanks the Suns the rest of the way.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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