In chemistry, the word “catalyst” is defined as “a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent change.” Without altering its own characteristics, a catalyst makes life easier, so to speak, for other elements of a chemical reaction.
Utah’s Shelvin Mack doesn’t quite qualify by the strictest scientific definition. Certain elements of his game since arriving in Salt Lake City at the deadline have unquestionably changed or improved, and his role has expanded rapidly. His basic numbers reflect as much, showcasing the degree to which he’s seized the ample opportunity afforded him.
But despite his personal progress, viewing Mack as a true scientific catalyst for this Jazz team might be the best, and maybe only, relevant way of parsing out his impact.
This isn’t the same Shelvin Mack from Atlanta, at least not in a couple pretty vital areas. Shooting from the point guard position was an area of need in Utah at deadline time, and at first glance Mack appeared to offer nothing of the sort. At just 15 percent from three in Atlanta along with a sub-33 percent career mark, things started off badly in his new home as well – Mack was at just 30 percent from deep through his first nine games in a Jazz uniform.
The sample remains pretty tiny, but Mack has flipped that script on its head since. He’s shooting a nearly unfathomable 56.3 percent from beyond the arc over the last eight games, bringing his overall percentage with Utah all the way to a hair under 46 percent, best on the team. His career sample obviously makes it virtually impossible he’ll continue as a mid-40s guy from deep, but it seems fair to expect a capable jump shooter moving forward.
His personal comfort level flipped a switch somewhere in there, perhaps in a strong performance against John Wall and the Wizards; Mack himself said afterward that his adjustment to both his surroundings and Utah’s altitude was finally reaching a comfortable place. Very different teammates stylistically contributed in large part to a learning curve.
“For the past four years, I’ve been playing with mostly pick-and-pop bigs,” Mack said. The adjustment away from Paul Millsap and Al Horford types took time. “Favs [Derrick Favors] and Gobert, that’s not [really] their strength.”
Mack is assisting on easily the highest percentage of teammate baskets in his career, and drawing more free throw attempts than ever before. His percentage of possessions used while on the floor has skyrocketed. On the flip side, his turnovers have risen (as expected) with a 20 per-100-possession rate that remains a tad out of control even as Mack has started to rein things in a bit recently.
Mack’s true value only begins to take shape, though, when one zooms out and looks at the way his presence has galvanized his new surroundings.
The Jazz are outscoring opponents by 6.0 points per-100-possessions with Mack on the floor since his arrival, easily a team-best figure in that time and one that would rank among the league’s top five teams on the season. He’s part of a starting lineup that’s thrashing opponents to the tune of a plus-11.1 per-100 in that time, sixth-best of any five man unit in the NBA that’s logged over 100 minutes since the break. The sample is only growing.
Some areas of improvement are easy to understand, particularly on the defensive end. Mack immediately became Utah’s quickest guard and best option for defending at the point of attack, with a bit more bulk than Raul Neto or Trey Burke – allowing him to switch more often, a Quin Snyder staple on the perimeter. Quick hands combined with quick feet allow him to generate turnovers other Jazz guards aren’t capable of engineering, particularly when opponents unaware of his closing speed and reflexes think they’re clear of him.
Opponents are turning the ball over nearly 20 percent of the time when Mack is the primary defender in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports, among the top quarter for qualified guards in the league. Again, though, the true value is more easily demonstrated in team numbers here than Mack’s own individual stats – the Jazz have generated more opponent turnovers with Mack on the floor than any other player since his arrival, forcing over two extra cough-ups per-100-possessions when he plays compared with when he sits.
Items around the margins are tougher to attribute directly to Mack, but he seems to keep popping up in positive areas. Opponents attempt fewer per-minute shots and free throws with Mack on the floor than any other Jazz player, likely due to some combination of the turnovers, his above average rebounding for a guard and some amount of randomness. Utah’s opposition draws nearly five more fouls per-100 when Mack sits down, and shoots a much lower percentage from deep while he’s on the court. While there’s plenty of noise attached to these numbers, there’s a point at which a guy showing up so positively in enough areas is a clear indication that something is going right while he’s on the floor.
It’s much of the same on offense – good things are clearly happening while Mack plays, but the underlying reasons can be tougher to place. All relevant team shooting numbers plummet when he leaves the court, in part due to his own recent accuracy, but there’s more at play here.
Nearly every primary Jazz player shoots more efficiently when Mack plays next to them, especially the other perimeter players: Gordon Hayward (42 percent from three with Mack, 30.3 percent without him since the trade), Rodney Hood (38.5 percent with, 25 percent without), Joe Ingles (45 percent with, 29.2 percent without) and even rookie stretch big Trey Lyles (47.4 percent with, 21.4 percent without) all show remarkable upticks in accuracy while alongside Mack, per nbawowy.com prior to Wednesday night’s games.
Exactly why this is happening is open to interpretation, though simple variance certainly plays a role with a sample this relatively small.
Mack’s prowess as a passer is near the top of the list; he has elements of creativity to his game that Neto and Burke both lack. His timing is better, as is his feel for the defense he’s baiting. He’s generating more potential assists than any other Jazzman at over 10 a game, creating nearly 14 points nightly through his assists alone, per SportVU data. Utah’s other point guards lack either the burst, the passing skill or both to make some of these plays.
Snyder has talked frequently about Mack’s tempo since his arrival, and the numbers make it clear Quin is referring to a style of play rather than the “pace” element many tend to think of first. The Jazz are still among the slowest teams in the league by possession since Mack’s arrival, and his own presence on the court has actually slowed things down even further in this regard.
That’s not really what Snyder means, though. He’s talking more about the way Mack plays; the speed with which he arrives at his spots and makes his decisions. To some degree, this is the element of team success while Mack is on the floor that’s been tougher to dissect – how does one quantify things like feel outside actual assists? Maybe Mack’s passes find their exact targets more accurately, and allow for a smoother shooting motion. Maybe his teammates find some subconscious comfort in the pace of his game. Maybe his ability to use a higher portion of team possessions while on the floor has trickled down to everyone else on the court (this is likely, though to what degree we can’t really know).
Whatever it is, there’s something here that all our fancy stats don’t fully account for. No combination of figures, individual or team, quite covers the startling gap between when Mack plays and when he doesn’t.
The easiest reasoning is simple: He’s much better than the other guys Utah has at his position. It’s not untrue. Again, though, one delving deeply into the causes of his success can’t help but notice that his individual advantage in a vacuum doesn’t come all that close to accounting for how much better the team has been.
Whether the results can sustain – or are good for the long-term future of the core – is another question, with murkier answers. Certain parts of the success simply can’t continue at this rate – Mack’s own ridiculous rate from three in recent weeks among them. Perhaps more notably, Mack’s presence has cut down the touch time for guys like Hayward and Hood, generally considered the team’s offensive focal points. It’s fair to wonder if Snyder’s reliance on Mack sometimes comes at their expense, though it’s tough to argue with the results recently; if the chips fall differently and depriving the top guys of their command on the offense turns into a problem, it could end up a slightly different conversation.
We’re not there yet, though, and those concerns get tougher to stick with as the franchise’s first playoff berth in four years gets clearer at the end of the tunnel with Mack among the driving forces.
Maybe he’s just one of those tricks your high school chemistry teacher would never reveal to the class. Shelvin Mack has become Utah’s catalyst for success as they push for a playoff berth, and even if it’s tough to capture empirically, that won’t stop anyone from marveling.
NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch
Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.
The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.
And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.
The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?
The Eastern Conference Arms Race
The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.
With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.
While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.
The Competitive Postseason Bubble
There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.
In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.
Out West, it’s more of the same.
Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.
The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.
Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.
The Three-Man Race for the MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.
But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?
Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.
As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.
The Anthony Davis Situation
The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.
So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.
The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.
The Battle for Zion
Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.
The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.
As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.
NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders
Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.
The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.
“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”
It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?
Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.
It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.
In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.
The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2
They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5
Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7
We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.
MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3
The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.
MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?
Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.
With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.
If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.
Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.
NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?
As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.
Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.
For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?
The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.
Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.
What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.
Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.
While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.
Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.
One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.
As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.
The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.
Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”
Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.
As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.
Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.
Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.
But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.