Every NBA summer is sure to produce its share of signings that look ridiculous, often from the moment ink is put to paper. It’s just the nature of the business, and while GMs obviously hope to avoid being the guy with the instant laughing-stock deal, plenty of teams deal with it from time to time – even the “smart” ones.
There’s another tier of albatross, though, that stinks up the joint even worse. These aren’t just guys who play badly on their new deals – those are common enough. These are guys who, through a combination of their play, contract and reputation, are actively undermining other important elements of the team. It’s not just that they’re performing negatively on the court; it’s that their performance is blocking an otherwise good thing from happening organically, and optics and locker room hierarchy stop their coaches from being able to do anything about it for fear of causing problems behind the scenes so soon after they were signed for big money.
It’s early and a lot could change, but two guys are already distancing themselves in the race for the Smelly Albatross Award at this point in the year.
Evan Turner, Portland Trailblazers
Through just under a quarter of the season, no player in the league has seen his team outscored while he’s on the floor as much as Turner – it’s not particularly close, in fact. A few players group in right around the negative-80s and 90s, before a couple Phoenix guys barely cross the 100 barrier… and then there’s Turner, sporting a vicious minus-131 in 363 minutes on the court. Turner’s plus-minus has been nearly 25 percent worse than any other player in the league, in other words.
This is remarkable on its own, but it’s downright silly when accounting for one simple factor: Turner plays on a winning team. If we filter only for players with at least 250 minutes on the floor this year (just over 15 minutes a game, so a rough approximation of “rotation players”), you have to go down another 11 spots to find the next guy on a team over .500 – and it’s Turner’s own teammate, Allen Crabbe, who’s still a solid 58 points behind Turner (on about 75 more minutes played, too). To find the next non-Blazer on a winning team, you have to drop down to the 47th row.
Portland is a bit of a strange team, sporting an 8-7 record despite being outscored by 60 points on the year, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear Turner is the chief culprit. He’s dragging other Blazers down with him – Crabbe is only on that ugly list in the first place because he’s played over two thirds of his minutes alongside Turner, during which the Blazers have been outscored by 86 points (they’re a plus-13 when Crabbe plays without Turner).
ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus figures were just released for the beginning of the season, and it would literally be impossible for them to agree any more than they already do. Turner is dead last of 407 players for this metric, which is designed to approximate a player’s per-possession value to his team while factoring for teammate and opponent context.
RPM figures are noisy, especially early in the year, but Turner’s mark is so low that it simply can’t be pawned off as small-sample variance. The gap between Turner at 407th (minus-5.97 points per-100-possessions) and Jerami Grant at 406th (minus-4.56 per-100) is larger than the gap between Grant and a player 20 spots up the list. No single player has been this far below everyone else for a full year since ESPN began tracking this stat publicly – and remember, this is a guy playing nearly 25 minutes per game (guys at the bottom of this list are often spot players without a large sample).
There isn’t a single element of Portland’s game that improves when Turner steps on the court. His grinding, iso-heavy offensive style hasn’t worked at all: The Blazers are assisting on over 60 percent of team baskets while he sits, a borderline top-five team level figure that drops to well below 50 percent (and the lowest mark in the league among teams) while he’s in the game. Portland turns the ball over way more often, struggles rebounding and sees nearly a 10-point drop in their team True Shooting Percentage when Turner steps on the floor.
Portland coach Terry Stotts has at least a couple other options at his disposal, but he doesn’t appear to be panicking just yet. A strong game (by Turner’s standards) against Brooklyn on Sunday may have given him a stay of execution after Stotts lowered his minutes under 20 for the first time all year in the previous game, but this situation is well past sample and variance concerns. Turner needs to be in a different role, or he needs to stay on the bench.
Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been a revelation for folks (this writer included) who weren’t sure about their fit before the season began, but they’ve done so almost completely in spite of one of their flashy offseason signings. A team that outscores opponents by over five points per-100-possessions on the year drops back to virtually neutral when Rondo plays – in a total non-shocker, their best per-possession rating comes while he sits.
Worse yet, on nights when he’s healthy enough to play, Rondo’s contract and reputation are keeping him on the floor over at least one more deserving name. Backup Jerian Grant has been flat-out better than Rondo from a numerical standpoint, and that’s without accounting for the defensive gap (Rondo has been completely lethargic on this end all year).
The Bulls’ starting lineup featuring Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez is doing fine for the year, outscoring opponents by a solid 3.6 points per-100. Insert Grant in Rondo’s place, though, and they’re a crazy plus-28 per-100, one of the 10 best five-man units in the NBA (minimum 25 minutes).
Rondo doesn’t appear interested in being on an NBA court much of the time, and coach Fred Hoiberg should consider obliging him a bit more often – even when he’s healthy. Grant has shown he’s ready for more, and even if Hoiberg doesn’t trust the likes of Isaiah Canaan when Grant sits down, he can go to a committee approach for stretches while Wade or Butler are on the floor with their ball-handling skills. Michael Carter-Williams will be back in a few weeks, as well.
Whatever he does, Hoiberg would be well advised to slow down on Rondo’s 30 nightly minutes. The Bulls are one of the league’s pleasant surprises early, but variance might catch up to them in certain areas at some point – and if Rondo is still torpedoing things for nearly two-thirds of the game once that happens, the margin for error might be too small to manage.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.