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.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division
Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.
Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.
But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?
The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.
It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.
Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense
After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.
Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.
The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.
Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.
They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.
John Collins Suspension
The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.
But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.
Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.
As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.
If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.
At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start
Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?
On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.
With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.
And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.
Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.
Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.
Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.
NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution
Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.
Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.
When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.
The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.
The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.
Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.
Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.
Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.
It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.
Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.
He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.
Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.
Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.
Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.
Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.
The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.
And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around.
Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles
Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.
Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).
But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.
The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.
Knicks Offensive Woes
The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.
And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).
Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.
The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.
Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.
Now, he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?
On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.
But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.
Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug
This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.
Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.
And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.
Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again – to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.
We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.
But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.