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Predictive or Predicament? Three Teams Poised for Regression

Despite mostly maintaining their respective rosters, these three teams may regress next season.

Ben Dowsett

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As with nearly every major team sport worldwide, win-loss record in the NBA can be an imperfect measure of true team quality. A simple yes/no result over 82 attempts lacks deeper context. It’s more than enough to separate the best from the worst in a 30-team league, but can be much less reliable for parsing teams grouped more closely together in the standings.

More importantly, through an offseason lens, raw wins and losses often fall well short in predictive power for future seasons. They don’t offer enough data points with which to accurately judge teams and players, and that’s before considering more obvious year-to-year factors like personnel movement and development, or decline from guys at various stages in their careers.

A few candidates for moderate to severe regression from their 2015-16 performances might surprise you. Note that “regression” here doesn’t necessarily mean playoff teams sliding to the high lottery – at least two of our top examples will still be in the postseason next April barring major catastrophe. There’s evidence to suggest each could take a step back overall, though, and perhaps a bigger one than surface factors would ever indicate.

San Antonio Spurs

There’s no danger of a playoff miss provided Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, but the usual ink we use to mark down the Spurs as elite title contenders might be better swapped with a dark pencil this year.

Personnel moves are the most obvious indicator, and allow us one final (okay, probably not final) ode to Tim Duncan here: He will be missed for more immediate reasons than legacy and culture. Duncan entered the league as one of its best defenders and left it the exact same way, with ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking him as the second-most impactful per-possession defensive player in the NBA last season after controlling for team and opponent quality. Figures from Nylon Calculus continued to rate him among the league’s 10 best rim protectors even as he rarely ever left the ground to contest shots.

True to form, Duncan’s impact was felt on the floor even during plays he wasn’t directly involved in. The Spurs’ famous “anti-Moneyball” defense became markedly less so when he sat down: they allowed more attempts near the rim and a higher conversion percentage, and gave up nearly five more three-point attempts per-100-possessions, per NBAwowy.com. With Duncan out there, they were the NBA’s stingiest defense against the consensus “best” shots in the game.

San Antonio was still great defensively without Duncan so long as Leonard was on the floor, but dropped back to league average or even slightly below when both sat. Those minutes made up just over a quarter of the team total on the year, a figure that could nearly double this season if Kawhi’s minute load, already high for any recent Gregg Popovich player, remains similar. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Pau Gasol has ever proven capable of approximating Duncan’s impact defensively.

There are concerns surrounding current roster players as well, namely fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Dragging around a 40,000-minute ball and chain that’s only further weighted by years of international play he’ll add to this summer in Rio, it’s worth wondering how much Parker has left in the tank. His jump shooting numbers have been exceedingly positive the last two seasons given his age and history here – so positive, in fact, that speculation as to their sustainability is justified. It’s tough to imagine a career 33 percent three-point shooter continuing to bang home over 40 percent from deep for much longer, and he won’t keep matching his career highs from longer midrange areas every year. It’s never fun to forecast a decline from such a crafty and likable player, but the smoke signals are there.

Does Manu Ginobili have another renaissance year in him, particularly gaudy jump-shooting numbers that blasted his career averages out of the water at 38 years old last year? Manu shot a ridiculous 54 percent on all midrange shots 16 feet and further from the hoop last season, per basketball-reference, nearly 20 points higher than his career mark.

Can Gasol fit alongside Aldridge on either end of the floor with both now over the age-30 threshold? David West and Boris Diaw were far from stars last year as both showed their age, but can San Antonio’s depth maintain with David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon in their place? Leonard is among the game’s best all-around players; is he really one of the five best shooters in the league, though, or simply a very good one, as the rest of his career before last season would indicate?

Look, these are the Spurs, and this is Gregg Popovich. They’d need guys playing on broken legs to miss 50 wins or the playoffs. They’re not winning 67 again, though, and it’s fair to wonder whether a more precipitous drop back into the West’s middle might be on the horizon.

Toronto Raptors

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a two seed that reached Game 6 of the conference finals running it back the following year. In practice it’s all about the details, and a few are suspect north of the border.

First and simplest: Toronto’s two best players both had career years last season, and that sort of thing just doesn’t happen all that often. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both great-to-elite players at their positions, but at 30 and 26 respectively are unlikely to improve much. In fact, history – both personal and league-wide – suggests one or both could slide back a bit.

Lowry is a success story who blossomed from an overqualified backup into an All-Star in his late 20s, and he’ll deserve every cent of the mammoth deal he signs next summer after giving the Raptors three years of value that wildly exceeded his dollar figure. He’s also a guy with a history of running out of gas late in the season, and even the high-level peak he reached last winter feels a bit like fool’s gold.

Lowry topped his career high in three-point attempt rate last year; he can keep doing that pretty easily, but will his career-best success rate continue? It seems especially unlikely from the corners, where he shot nearly 50 percent on the year. Likewise with a free-throw rate that was steadily declining every season in Toronto before a sudden resurgence last year – like several elements of his game, it dropped off a cliff late in the season and into the playoffs. Undersized 30-year-old guards don’t often sustain this kind of single-season production when prior multi-year trends suggest they’re outliers, and Lowry’s style offers few distinguishing factors from these types.

DeRozan’s case is a bit murkier. He did post career bests in typically high-variance areas like jump-shooting, but the optimist sees a 26-year-old just entering his prime who can sustain those figures. His peripherals mostly remained solid or improved slightly.

But while this is less scientific, doesn’t it feel like the book is out on DeRozan after his first deep postseason run? His shooting and free-throw rate both dropped sharply against top defenders leaning on his weaknesses. Most teams don’t have Paul George and days to devote purely to scouting the Raptors, sure, but it’s not exactly tough for coaches to emphasize the sort of sell-out, under-every-pick approach that often turned him into a non-factor in April and May. The playoffs can be a harbinger of things to come in future years – even if DeRozan himself maintains last year’s value in a vacuum, the way he’s defended could strain his production.

The Raptors were dead last in the NBA for percentage of baskets assisted last year, relying heavily on Lowry and DeRozan to work their magic, and it could spell trouble in River City if either takes a step back. They’ll hope for better health from Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, but injuries masked the fact that even once they returned, Toronto was a better team while both sat on the bench.

This is understandable for Carroll, who may have strained himself getting back in time for the stretch run, but it’s a more worrying trend for Valanciunas. Frankly, departed Bismack Biyombo was pretty clearly the more effective center within Toronto’s most used lineup combinations. Valanciunas is a highly skilled beast in the right situation; whether this is that situation is a valid question with DeRozan back on the books long term and limited touches to go around. Don’t be shocked to see the Raptors quietly gauge his trade market on a fair contract if they underachieve.

It’s all a bit concerning for a team that already exceeded their Pythagorean expectation (based on point differential) by three wins, then added precisely zero new talent in the offseason. Biyombo’s departure hurts, especially on defense, where the Raptors would have been a bottom-half team during the minutes he sat. Patrick Patterson and Corey Joseph are nice players who have nonetheless probably reached their value ceilings. Dwane Casey has proven capable of connecting with and motivating his team, but he is also relatively incapable of adjusting his approach when better teams clamp down on Lowry and DeRozan.

Like San Antonio, the Raptors are at least one major injury away from being in any danger of finishing outside the playoff picture. Most simply penciling them in for a home playoff series could be in for a surprise, though, especially if moves from a few of their chief rivals behind Cleveland in the East pan out.

Portland Trail Blazers

Forecasting the Blazers after a pleasantly surprising 2015-16 comes down mostly to this: Do you believe the team that beat Golden State and Oklahoma City on the way to the league’s best record from mid-January through the end of February is the real thing, or is it the sub-.500 group we saw the rest of the year?

Sustainability isn’t an issue for Portland’s star guards, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both following traditional developmental paths and both young enough to expect continuation. Like the guard duo in Toronto, though, smarter teams poked holes in their shooting-driven style as the year went on last season, forcing the supporting cast into larger roles in which they mostly succeeded – and that’s where issues of continuity rear their heads.

Al-Farouq Aminu was a career 29 percent three-point shooter heading into last season; he nearly matched his attempts from those previous five years combined, and still managed 36 percent. Gerald Henderson likewise posted career highs in attempts and percentage from deep (he’s now in Philadelphia). Mason Plumlee hadn’t averaged even a single assist per night in his first two seasons until defenses began blitzing Lillard and McCollum up high last year, forcing the ball into Plumlee’s hands and tripling his output (it nearly doubled again from there in the playoffs as the Clippers and Warriors trapped even more aggressively).

These were non-trivial factors in Portland’s seventh-ranked offense, a unit that conveniently masked a bottom-10 defense. The Blazers did nothing in the offseason to dissuade teams continuing to aggressively hedge their pick-and-rolls; can the supplementary guys, now featuring Evan Turner, ostensibly in Henderson’s place, continue performing?

With the right tinkering from Terry Stotts, it’s certainly possible. Turner is a non-threat from three, but could be smartly staggered with Allen Crabbe to inject a bit more spacing if things tighten up – he’s a solid bench prop-up piece when Lillard or McCollum (or both) sit. Meyers Leonard is around as a spacing option, though he’s been a weakness on the other end. Noah Vonleh is running out of time to prove himself, and it feels like one of Vonleh or Maurice Harkless could become redundant and fall out of the rotation (or be traded). If Lillard and McCollum maintain their level and at least a couple of these guys shine, maybe there isn’t much cause for concern.

Even for glass-half-full types, though, big issues remain on the other end of the court. Portland picked up Festus Ezeli on a below-market deal, but getting a good price isn’t always the same as getting a good player. A return to the promise of a year ago could put Ezeli on track as a defensive anchor, but the 770 minutes he logged in Golden State last year (in an elite defensive culture, no less) offered little convincing proof that he can get back there.

Outside that, it’s tough to see where this group finds organic improvement defensively. Aminu is a wonderful universal jack, Crabbe is solid on the wing and Harkless did his best last year, but this team is devoid of much other defensive talent, especially in the backcourt. There’s only so much Aminu can do to cover for McCollum and especially Lillard, and slotting Crabbe onto tougher guards either opens up a mismatch with a bigger small forward or forces one of the studs to the bench. Rim protection will be a big issue if Ezeli isn’t the answer. It’s basically impossible to post even a league average defense with sieves on the perimeter and no one reliable to clean up inside.

None of this considers injury luck, either. The Blazers were among the league’s healthiest teams, particularly among their top guys – each of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu, Plumlee and Harkless played in at least 75 games, and Henderson logged 72.

Stotts is a proven wizard, and Lillard has made a habit of silencing doubters in his career. Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that a bad break or two could doom a team that was four games from the ninth seed last year. The Blazers have to prove their streaky group can hit last winter’s level consistently.

 

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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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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