Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we re-convene each Friday to take a snapshot of three plays, trends or stats we’ve seen in the league over the past week.
Today’s Big Three will feature some notes on the league’s record-setting offense(s), a look at rookie Joel Embiid’s ludicrous per-possession statistics, and a fun Play of the Week from the Jazz that demonstrates the value of passing big men and the ability to leverage defensive expectations against them. Let’s get started! As always, all statistics will be from prior to Friday night’s games.
- All the Way Up
It shouldn’t surprise you one bit that there’s a legendary offense in the NBA this season. In fact, it shouldn’t even surprise you that as of this writing, it’s the most dominant offense in the history of the league on a per-possession basis.
Okay, maybe this part will surprise you: It’s not the Warriors.
In fairness, that’s a bit of a disingenuous statement. If the season ended today, the Warriors would indeed have posted a better offense than any team in any prior season before this year. But they’d still be second to the Raptors.
That’s right, Toronto is both the top offense in the league and, to this point, the best the NBA has ever seen. Per basketball-reference.com, the Raps and Dubs would rank first and second on the all-time list if they kept up this rate.
It isn’t all that shocking to see the Warriors on this list given their roster, but this has to qualify as a huge surprise in Toronto’s case. We knew the Raptors were a very good offense – they’ve been in the league’s top 10 the last three seasons, and the top five the last two. But they’ve never come anywhere all that close to this level, and with mostly similar personnel returning this year, this was really hard to see coming.
There isn’t one single big reason for the jump, but rather a few small-to-medium ones. The Raptors were already great at taking care of the ball, but they’ve shaved nearly two turnovers per-100-possessions this year and sit decimals away from the league low in giveaways. They also were quite good shooting the three-ball last year, but once again they’ve been even better – 37 percent has jumped up to an even 40 percent, and they’re shooting about one more per game.
They’re nibbling around the margins to trim the fat in a few other areas, too. They’ve gone from a bottom-10 transition scoring team to a top-10 group overnight, adding a few extra points a game the easy way. They’re grabbing a few extra second-chance buckets here and there, a nice surprise with Bismack Biyombo no longer in town, and are generating more points following turnovers than any other team in the league.
The Raptors still have some of the fewest assisted baskets in the league, a sign many like to point to as a concern for an offense, but it hasn’t mattered one bit. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been just as good as ever, and role players are stepping up.
More than anyone, coach Dwane Casey deserves major credit – he’s taken his share of criticism over the years, especially in the playoffs from this pen, but it’s clear few bench bosses in the league reach their group and get more out of them consistently than Casey in Toronto. He’s got this offense humming on continuity and what’s clearly a perfect system for their skill sets, and they’ve been historically good so far.
- Trust the Awesomeness
Joel Embiid literally nicknamed himself “Trust the Process” earlier this year, and it might not even crack his top-five most entertaining qualities on the season so far. Embiid is running away with the Rookie of the Year race even on a minutes limit for most of the year, and doing it while providing nightly highlights and flashes of his ridiculous potential.
High up on JoJo’s entertainment list are some of his statistical outputs. That aforementioned minutes limit has probably kept him a little fresher, meaning it’s unlikely he’d keep these figures up over the course of a 30-plus minute load nightly, but Embiid’s per-100-possession stats are simply stupid: 36.9 points, 15.7 rebounds, 5.2 blocks and a legitimately awe-inspiring 7.7 (seven-point-seven) turnovers.
Embiid would be the only rookie ever to play at least 100 minutes and average these kinds of figures – shoot, he’d be the only rookie ever to play at least 10 minutes on the season and still post these numbers. You have to significantly lower his point and turnover output to find any other comparables, but once you do, the list is pretty impressive: David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Blake Griffin and Arvydas Sabonis are the only other guys who have even come close to matching Embiid’s output during their first season in the league.
The 76ers have mostly been a mess outside Embiid’s ridiculous nightly performances, but he’s singlehandedly keeping them watchable at this point.
- Play of the Week
Our Play of the Week this time around comes to us via Salt Lake City – or perhaps via France, if you look at it the right way.
The Jazz under Quin Snyder have been moderately maligned at times for a slow-paced, sometimes bland offense – even at points this season, where they’re a borderline top-five per-possession offense in the league. And make no mistake, there are times where the Jazz play a very deliberate and sometimes repetitive style of offense under Snyder. Of course, in his first year with real talent at every position, the results are beginning to speak for themselves.
In some cases, that reputation is yielding some positive results. A few new personnel additions like George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson have allowed Snyder to open up his playbook a bit, and in particular to leverage the expectations he knows his style is sometimes creating in defenses.
On this play against Oklahoma City from Wednesday night, Snyder is leveraging Diaw’s fantastic passing from the four-spot – maybe the best in the entire league (if we count LeBron James as a small forward). It’s something the Jazz have done all year and even more often lately, and it’s easy to see why: Diaw takes a joy in passing most guys his size just don’t.
The bit of leverage we mentioned, however, really isn’t of Diaw’s doing at all. It’s a clever play call from Snyder, and a good bit of recognition from the other two guys involved in the play. Let’s take a look.
The Jazz start the set on the right wing, swinging the ball to Rodney Hood and looking to set up Diaw in post position on the block:
Hood gets the ball in to Diaw, and the Jazz go to work. Notice that even as the pass is just arriving to Diaw in the post, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward (center of the screen) are setting up for some off-ball action.
This is where the little bit of trickery comes in. Look at the above still image again – this is a snapshot opponents see 30 or 40 times a game from Utah, and in almost every case, Hayward (or Hood, or Hill) is about to use a Gobert down screen to fly up to the top of the key. Standard stuff.
Except that’s not what they’re doing here. Within less than a second, Hayward has flipped the script – he’s the one setting the screen on Gobert’s man, Enes Kanter, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, Gobert is rumbling toward the hoop, already aware of something the Thunder still haven’t noticed.
Kanter is stopped dead in his tracks. Never the most hyper-aware defender in the first place, he’s been completely fooled here, and he’s still at the foul line as Gobert is dunking the ball. Kyle Singler notices what’s happening at the last second and makes a valiant effort to contest, but at that point it’s useless. He’s going up for a lob against a seven-footer with the longest recorded wingspan in league history, and there’s only one way that’s ending.
There’s nothing all that complex here, but the play is a great illustration of how the Jazz’s deliberate style (or other teams with similar ones) can lull some defenses to sleep. This set is snuffed out in a couple moments if everyone in a Thunder uniform is fully engaged, but it’s already tough to do that for every second of an intense NBA game – and it inherently becomes tougher when your brain is conditioned to expect the same thing over and over again.
It’s not even the first time the Jazz have run the set to perfection in the past week, in fact. They got an even cleaner dunk for Gobert against the Kings on Saturday using the exact same play, just inverted to the other side of the floor:
It’s the little details that can make the difference in this league, and the Jazz have been well on top of them this year. Snyder has flown below the radar, but may receive some Coach of the Year buzz before long if the Jazz continue to perform at a top-five per-possession rate in the league despite missing multiple starters most of the year.
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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