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San Antonio Spurs 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

For the first time in a decade, the San Antonio Spurs will field a team without one of their former NBA champions. Can the Spurs re-make themselves into legit title contenders again? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the San Antonio Spurs in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Legacy-wise, the Spurs lost so much this summer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom were among the best Spurs of all time, are now off the team. With the three of them out of the picture,  a historic era of basketball is now behind us. But does that mean this is the end of the Spurs’ relevancy? Not necessarily.

When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?

No matter what his roster may look like, Coach Gregg Popovich should never be doubted. He’s earned the status of being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all time. Anyone that tunes into the NBA knows that he can make a playoff team out of just about anything. That is precisely why people should really keep their eye on San Antonio this season. They still have most of the same roster they had last season, but with all they lost this summer, they don’t have nearly the same continuity they once prided themselves on for years. Pop will have to do more shuffling than he’s done in years and possibly more so than he’s ever done as Head Coach.

What does he have to work with this season? Let’s take a gander.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I have predicted the regression of the San Antonio Spurs once or twice over the last couple of years and the team always makes me look foolish for it. However, this might be the year to again predict regression for this proud franchise. Manu Ginobili retired this offseason and Tony Parker has joined up with the Charlotte Hornets. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. I am a fan of DeRozan and am excited to see what he can do under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. However, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to be tasked with leading this team without the cornerstone players that Popovich has relied on for nearly two decades. I’m cautiously optimistic this team will beat expectations but I still think they are going to experience some serious issues this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If there was ever a year to finally bet on the Spurs underachieving after what seems like a decade straight of doing more with less, it might be this year. The Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto wrapped up an unfortunate saga for the franchise, and Manu Ginobili’s retirement more recently left the Spurs without any of the mainstays we’re used to seeing in the black and grey. DeMar DeRozan is no slouch as a trade return for the Spurs, but they’re woefully short on perimeter shooting and lack the wing defense they’ve had in the past. Gregg Popovich is never short on tricks to pull out of his hat, but if he somehow drags this perimeter-deficient bunch to another 50-win season, it’ll be his most deserved Coach of the Year performance yet.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

No matter what they lose in the off-season, the Spurs should never be counted out. As long as they have Gregg Popovich calling the shots, the Spurs will always be in the conversation. This season, however, has a unique premise. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all off the team, the old days are officially gone and in comes a new era. Still, there is plenty of reason to think this team will be fine. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should keep things afloat. But, the question is, do they have enough talent and continuity to compete with the league’s elite?

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

Everything left of the 2014 NBA Championship version of the Spurs is gone, so it’s off and into a new era for Gregg Popovich. He’ll have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli as his most seasoned veterans to help guide the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan is going to play with possibly the biggest chip on any player’s shoulder this upcoming year in a San Antonio uniform. Dejounte Murray will be heavily depended on as the orchestrator of the offense as he’s thrust into his most important role to date. It’s hard to picture the postseason without these guys. While many seem to believe their run is over, it will be a cold day in hell when this organization doesn’t play past mid-April.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers went through a similar situation as San Antonio last year when they needed to trade their best player, and like the Pacers this time last year, the Spurs may come out of the situation with not only a star, but a star that might fit better in the big picture. Let’s be real for a minute, in every scenario you’d want Kawhi Leonard because of his tremendous two-way game, but if you have to part ways, DeMar DeRozan isn’t too shabby as a replacement player, mainly because he’s shown year after year that he can add to and improve his game. The big knock on Leonard was his reluctance to be a vocal leader, something DeRozan has proven to be more than capable of being and with Gregg Popovich in his ear can DeRozan become an MVP caliber future of the franchise guy? The smart money would be yes. DeRozan has a long way to go defensively, but it hard not to see him evolving in that area, mainly because of how good the Spurs staff and process has been with other sub-par defenders. There is no question the Spurs are a different team, but as the league trends more to offense, the Spurs may be better equipped to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

DeRozan’s repertoire makes a strong case for him to be the Spurs’ top offensive option. However, Aldridge gets the nod because he has more familiarity in Pop’s system and has proven he can thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Boy, that sounds weird to say remembering where the man was a year ago.

After his numbers took a slight, albeit noticeable hit in his first two years with the Spurs, Aldridge appeared ready to move on from San Antonio. After meeting with Popovich to work out all the kinks, Aldridge changed his mind, got a nice extension and had himself quite the resurgence last season.

With the offense designed more to revolve around him, Aldridge’s scoring numbers went up to 23.2 points a game on 18 shots, while shooting 51 percent from the field. Basically, he put up numbers that re-established him as one of the league’s top offensive big men. Those weren’t just empty numbers either. The Spurs were +6.0 better in net rating offensively with Aldridge on the floor. His statistical output proved that he could fit in Coach Pop’s game plan as the top offensive option.

At 33, there will be questions as to how much time LaMarcus has left as an elite offensive option. Luckily, he’s on a team that should get the most out of him while he’s still in his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray

With Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson all gone, Dejounte Murray is the obvious choice for the Spurs’ top defender. His 6-foot-5 inch height combined with his absurd 6-foot-10 wingspan made him an all-around menace on the defensive end last season.

His efforts showed themselves through advanced metrics. Murray’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 3.60 led all point guards and was ninth overall among all players. Keep in mind that players who usually are at the top of Defensive Real Plus-Minus are mostly bigs and occasionally wings. Murray is the only point guard in the top ten, and the next point guard after him is Tyus Jones, who was No. 27 at 2.40.

San Antonio’s defense was also much better with Murray as their net rating defensively was +7.8 better with him on the floor. That topped the Spurs’ roster for guys who played at least 1000 minutes.

Murray’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named to the NBA All-defensive second team in just his second year. His role is bound to expand even more for the Spurs this season. Luckily for them, he’ll be more than ready to do his part on defense.

Top Playmaker: The entire team

Sounds odd doesn’t it? At the same time, it’s not exactly a surprise either given the Spurs’ reputation for unselfish basketball. Seriously though, there really isn’t a top playmaker on this team because if you look at the stats last year, the assists numbers were pretty spread out among the players. Tony Parker led the Spurs in assists per game with 3.5. When you factor in per-36 stats, Parker had a distinguished lead, but now he’s gone. Those who came after him are so even with each other that it’s impossible to say who will be the top playmaker.

This is a good thing. It’s clear cut evidence that the Spurs run a system that everyone follows with precision. There’s no particular stand out as a playmaker because everyone plays as one unit at all times. Maybe somebody will eventually stand out, but for now, the team itself is the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Aldridge may be the Spurs’ best offensive option, but DeRozan should be their go-to guy. DeRozan has a track record for hitting clutch shots in the regular season. He isn’t necessarily automatic but, at the very least, when the game is on the line, DeRozan is never afraid and doesn’t back down. He’s never even afraid to go for the highlight reel in crunchtime either. Seriously, last season he won a game off a buzzer-beating dunk.

DeRozan’s stats in the clutch last season are fine for a player of his caliber. In 41 games that featured clutch-time minutes, DeRozan averaged 4.2 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from distance in 3.9 minutes on average. The truth is, when teams are playing in crunchtime against DeRozan, they strategize to stop him primarily.

Unfortunately that track record doesn’t hold up well in the playoffs. Hopefully now that he has Coach Pop to guide him, DeRozan’s clutch play can finally translate when the stakes are much higher.

The Unheralded Player: Rudy Gay

Adding Gay to the Spurs’ roster sparked a lot of skepticism last year because of his reputation as a selfish chucker and his inability to be an effective player on a good team. Expectations for Gay were quite low, especially since he was coming off of a devastating Achilles injury. Gay was by no means spectacular. His averages of 11.5 points, 9.4 field goals attempted and 31.5 percent from three on 21.6 minutes of action are among some of the lowest since his rookie season. Despite that, Gay proved himself to be a productive player on a good team, which is something he hasn’t really done since his days with the Grizzlies.

Another reason why he gets the nod here is because now that it’s almost been two years since he tore his Achilles, he optimistically could regain more of his form. The man is only 32 years old! Also, when you take into account all that the Spurs lost, Gay should expect a more prominent role on the team. Add in his year of experience playing under Pop, and this should be a good year for Rudy Gay.

It may sound odd to say, but San Antonio should be excited for Round Two of Gay and DeRozan.

Best New Addition: DeMar DeRozan

This is an obvious choice for three reasons.

1. The Spurs’ offense was pedestrian last season. Their offensive rating of 107.9 points per 100 possessions was good for 17th in the league. Adding one of the league’s best scorers should be just what the doctor ordered.

2. As evidenced by their diverse playmaking, the Spurs hope to implement DeMar in their pass-heavy offense. Luckily for them, DeRozan made great strides in his passing game last season. His 5.2 assists per game was the highest average of his career and is high enough for them to believe that he should fit seamlessly in their offense.

3. Even without Kawhi, the Spurs managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Now they basically add one of last season’s MVP candidates to their squad. It would be shocking if they don’t add several wins from DeRozan alone.

-Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Enough has already been said about Coach Pop so let’s just leave it at this. Besides LeBron James, there isn’t another figure currently in basketball who is as reliable and consistent as Gregg Popovich. The man is simply a basketball guru. As long as he runs the plays, his team will always be in the conversation no matter what he has to work with. People can doubt the Spurs. They can’t doubt Pop.

2. Pau Gasol

The man deserves league-wide respect. Even at 37, the future Hall-of-Famer is still chugging away. In his eighteenth year in the NBA, Pau averaged a solid 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists for a winning team. Better yet, he’s added a three-point shot to his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent on 1.6 attempts a game last season. Most impressive of all, Gasol has proven himself to be a positive contributor on defense despite his reputation as a defensive liability. The Spurs’ defense was +2.2 in net rating defensively with Gasol on the floor, and his individual defensive rating was an adequate 102. He should be expected to decline more this season, but Pau Gasol should be revered for both his perseverance and his adaptability.

3. Patty Mills

A shout-out needs to be made for the now longest-tenured Spur on the team. Mills has been both a good soldier and one of the league’s best backup point guards since he joined San Antonio in 2011. The Spurs were +4.7 in net rating offensively with Mills on the floor, which was second on the team after LaMarcus Aldridge. In other words, he was doing exactly what a backup point guard should do. On a team that lost a good chunk of its identity this summer, Mills is one of the few remaining remnants from the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili days. As Pop figures out who deserve minutes, he still has a dependable option in Mills.

4. Jakob Poeltl

Plenty have said it already and it needs to be repeated: Jakob Poeltl was a sneaky good acquisition by San Antonio. He’s a fantastic energy big whose only in his third year in the league and now has Gregg Popovich to learn from. It’s not just what he brings to the table. It’s how timely acquiring him right now is for the Spurs. Pau Gasol will do what he can, but his further decline is inevitable. Should his impact continue to dwindle, Poeltl can pick up the slack. Poeltl shouldn’t have too lofty of expectations, but he should help keep the Spurs on course.

5. The Spurs’ handling of Kawhi Leonard

It’s rare to see a team that has a proven method and track record like the Spurs have their best player turn his back on them. It’s also rare to see a team get good value for a disgruntled star in a situation like that. The Spurs could have waited out the situation hoping Leonard would change his mind or they could have started a rebuild. Instead, they went for the best player offered to them so they could try and continue competing in the Western Conference playoff race. DeMar DeRozan by himself was an impressive haul all things considered. With him on board, the Spurs will still be in the playoff conversation. Hats off to Spurs management for making the best of a serious predicament.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

Coach Pop. No questions asked. Their key ingredient to their success has been and still is Pop. Besides him though, the Spurs now have two of the league’s top scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. In them, San Antonio has two guys who they can go to when the going gets tough and who should make the offense more dynamic. Also, an underrated strength the Spurs have is their youth. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are talented young players to groom, and there’s been a fair amount of chatter surrounding Lonnie Walker IV. This may not be Pop’s most talented roster, but it’s far from average.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Pairing DeRozan with Aldridge will give the Spurs two of the league’s top scorers, but it might be a challenge to run the offense through them since neither are reliable floor spacers. Much has been brought up about the Spurs losing Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, but what about Danny Green and Kyle Anderson? Anderson and Green played big roles for the Spurs, producing their third-best defensive rating last season at 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Losing them could spell disaster for San Antonio on the defensive end.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Do the Spurs still have what it takes to compete in the west?

Again, the Spurs did a fantastic job in how they handled their fallout with Kawhi. Getting someone as good as DeRozan for a disgruntled player that was leaving one way or another is impressive, epecially when you consider that Kawhi may leave Toronto after this season. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the same league as a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, and he likely never will be. He’s never been a solid defender and he has a long history of failing to step up in the playoffs. If he does his disappearing act again when and if the Spurs make the playoffs, that doesn’t leave them in a promising spot going forward. This is especially the case because the Warriors and the Rockets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and more challengers in the west are knocking on the door.

-Matt John

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NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain

Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.

“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”

The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.

But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.

“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”

Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9  attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.

Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.

That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.

Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.

The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.

Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.

Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?

Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.

There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.

If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.

Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.

“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”

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The Divide On Analytics

The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.

Drew Mays

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Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.

After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!

LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.

This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.

Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.

Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.

In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.

Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.

The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.

Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.

On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”

This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”

“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.

Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.

Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.

The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.

Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.

The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”

And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).

But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.

Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.

You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.

But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.

Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.

Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.

A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.

So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).

Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.

The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.

To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.

But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.

Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.

Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.

It’s more effective. The math says so.

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NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance

The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.

Jack Winter

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Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.

But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.

But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.

The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.

But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.

These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.

Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.

Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.

The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.

That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.

Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.

The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.

Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.

For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.

Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?

It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.

Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.

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