The term “gravity” in basketball may have been born of analytically-inclined thinking, but at its core it speaks to one of the simplest basketball themes imaginable. In the broadest possible sense, gravity is really just any force that helps pull the defense to a certain place – from the offense’s perspective, hopefully to a place that proves undesirable for defending and makes it easier to score.
To watch the modern NBA, and particularly some of the most potent offenses in the game, you’d assume this kind of basic understanding has been present for decades.
Teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs base much of their offensive philosophy around manufacturing ball and player movements that will force certain reactions from the defense, then exploiting those reactions. They beautifully leverage the all-world talents of their players; just when the opposition thinks they’ve found the formula, the best of them have organic counters in place to keep them guessing. Watching one of these elite teams, it feels almost laughable to go about playing offense in basketball any other way.
Curiously enough, though, this hasn’t been anywhere close to the norm for the vast majority of the game’s history. NBA basketball has spent easily the largest chunk of its existence as a game based around mismatches and individual dominance, and huge elements of this approach still pervade the league today. My guy is simply more talented than your guy, the thinking goes; you’re either going to have to bring your guy some help while opening things up for someone else on my team, or I’m going to keep pushing that edge.
This isn’t to say there was no teamwork in prior decades of NBA basketball, or even that those approaches were necessarily bad. As recently as 10 years ago, though, the full power of ball and player movement – from all five guys, not just one or two involved in a given play – wasn’t really understood.
And then along came a guy named Mike D’Antoni.
As a player in his youth, D’Antoni was part of the formative era of modern basketball. He played in both the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the early NBA during the mid-70s, a period where the ABA was pioneering the use of the three-point line. The NBA wouldn’t adopt the three until 1979, by which time D’Antoni was well into a successful playing career in Europe.
During his American playing days, D’Antoni took note of the way coaches and teams reacted to big structural changes like the three-point line – it was “willy-nilly a little bit,” he says now of the response he saw. Like with any big rule change, it took time for the league’s collective understanding to build about the best ways to exploit the new rules. He saw more of the same once the NBA adopted a three-point line.
D’Antoni made the transition from player to coach in the early 90s, beginning overseas. He hadn’t forgotten the impression those old ABA days had made on him. On top of that, he was influenced by one of the most popular teams in history to that point, the Showtime Lakers – not Magic’s flash or Kareem’s quiet dominance, but rather the raw speed with which the Lakers ran their opponents ragged. The seeds of NBA evolution were being planted.
After some stops in personnel and broadcasting plus a few assistant jobs, D’Antoni was hired by the Phoenix Suns in 2002 as an assistant. Partway into the 2003-04 season, he was promoted to head coach. What would follow would have more of an impact on the NBA and basketball as we know it than anyone could have predicted.
We talked earlier about gravity as simply a fancy term for an intuitive NBA concept, and D’Antoni’s offense was the perfect example. Even as they pushed movement and spacing themes harder than anyone in the world had to that point, they weren’t thinking in those sort of terms.
“I’m not sure I ever heard the term ‘gravity’ used,” says Doug Eberhardt, a part time assistant coach and longtime confidant of D’Antoni.
Defining the word in the way it’s used in today’s game, though, is exactly what D’Antoni and his group were getting at.
“You can use all the terminology you want – ‘gravity,’ whatever you want to call it,” D’Antoni tells Basketball Insiders today. “What we just try to do offensively is take all the rules defensively, and go against them… Everything that they preach defensively, we try to do [the] opposite or try and get to a spot they don’t want to be in.”
To accomplish this, D’Antoni drew from his influences: The way Magic and his Lakers kept teams off balance with nothing but sheer speed and decisiveness; the way the entire league was still digesting and processing what the three-pointer was good for.
His system was a hybrid of these ideas, and of other styles. D’Antoni was far from the first to involve multiple players in a given action or use the theme of movement to burn the defense; think of Jerry Sloan’s use of the pick-and-roll in the 90s, for instance.
D’Antoni was, however, one of the very first to realize a concept that seems like grade school stuff to most league thinkers now: If ball and player movement have so much success pulling the defense to places where the offense prefers them, then think about how successful the O could be if the D was never in the right place to begin with.
With that theme in mind, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were born.
Under D’Antoni, the goal is simple: Put the defense to impossible decisions. Using any and all means necessary, every second spent with the ball in D’Antoni’s system is one where players should be finding opportunities to create two-on-ones that force the opposition to decide between the lesser of two evils.
Much of the foundation for this is in the transition game, which at the time was virtually uncharted territory around the league. Sure, teams would run out on the break if they got a steal up at the top of the key and an easy numbers advantage, or if a rebound bounced long into the perfect place. A few even pushed it further. The majority of NBA offense, though, was played in a set, halfcourt format.
D’Antoni made running the break a cornerstone of his system, and flipped the league’s transition principles on their heads while doing it.
“What’s the natural reaction of the defense when you’re in any transition? You’ve been taught since you’re little that you run to the basket, and protect from the basket out,” Eberhardt says.
Not against D’Antoni’s Suns, you don’t.
“On transition [defense], they want to run back into the paint and pack,” D’Antoni says. “Well, then we’re going to shoot threes.”
Instead of running to the basket in transition, bigs were told to stay outside and keep the lane clear for cutters. Instead of hitting the free-throw line extended and cutting inside for a possible layup or dunk, wings were taught to space directly to the corners – the furthest distance away from where the defense naturally wanted to run. Once teams adjusted to that? Hit them with the counter.
“They don’t want to be out hugging the three, because then you give up layups,” D’Antoni says. “They don’t want to be not giving up layups, because then you’re giving up threes. We’re trying to make it so where they have no choice but to not have an answer.”
They may not have been using the term, but think back to our broad definition of gravity – isn’t that exactly what it’s getting at? The fast break is the easiest way to force a defense into a numbers disadvantage; a numbers disadvantage is the easiest way to force the defense into a decision with no good answers. As Eberhardt puts it: “The gravity comes when you realize who the guy is that you have to cover.”
At first, things may have been a tough sell. Not only were D’Antoni and his staff preaching new concepts, they were the type that required both a physical and a mental commitment. Guys were running more than they ever had before, and while they did it they were being asked to remember principles that ran directly contrary to what many had learned coming up.
Superstar Steve Nash quickly bought in, something D’Antoni credits to this day for helping bring things along. But he readily admits the idea wasn’t universally popular – even certain assistants on his own staff were doubtful.
It’s much harder to argue with results, though, as he quickly found out. In his first full season at the helm, the Suns started a blistering 31-4. They averaged an unbelievable 110 points per game during this stretch, a mark they’d maintain for the full season while just five of the 29 other teams in the league would even crack 100.
“It made it an easy sell at that point,” D’Antoni reflects. “‘Hey, this works.’ And then the players were excited, all of them were averaging career-highs and stuff. So it sold itself in that sense.”
When the pure transition opportunities weren’t there, the layers of D’Antoni’s offense kicked in. The Suns’ secondary transition game may have been just as vital to their success as the actual fast breaks themselves, in fact – they actually never led the league in fast break point metrics, a distinction that was always reserved for the Nuggets and their high altitude back then.
With most other teams at that point, though, a fast break that didn’t materialize led to a reset, then a halfcourt play. For the Suns, there was no reset. The speed and decisiveness of the offense continued to flow.
A big piece of this secondary transition was the drag screen, or a pick the big man sets immediately upon entering the halfcourt (remember, D’Antoni’s bigs were told to stay out of the lane in transition to keep space open). Instead of coming up from behind or to the side of his target from his post down inside the paint, the big man would run the floor and, if the Suns’ transition attack hadn’t already generated a bucket, he would often immediately set a high pick for Nash or another ball-handler before ever entering the key.
Once again, the prevailing theme is keeping the defense off balance. Imagine you’re Nash’s defender, and you’ve just sprinted back down the court and narrowly prevented an easy look in transition. You don’t get a rest: Boom, before you’ve even set yourself and found everyone’s place on the court, you’re running into a seven-footer’s chest and Nash is walking into another deadly two-on-one.
Teams just weren’t ready for this sort of decisiveness. The Suns were playing at a speed that’s fast even for today’s game, which has mostly incorporated D’Antoni’s transition principles – per the tracking site inpredictable.com, they averaged a league-low 13.5 seconds elapsed per offensive possession in 2004-05. That’s a big difference from the league average of 14.8 seconds in 2016-17 and actually dead even with the 16-17 Warriors, the league’s fastest offensive team. If it wasn’t the fast break itself that killed you, it was the secondary action that flowed directly from it.
Even the possessions that mostly resembled traditional NBA halfcourt sets were littered with bits of D’Antoni’s dogma. He ran startlingly few actual diagrammed plays, with a much larger emphasis on the kind of heady “flow” that’s become more and more popular today.
“In the old NBA, a lot of times you just called plays out like, ‘Okay, we’ll call 44 because it’s time John touches the ball,’ or ‘Now we’re going to run 65,’” D’Antoni says now. “How that became the old NBA mantra – I hated that. Players would say, ‘I’m not getting any touches.’ I hate that.
“By having energy, we would tell the guys: ‘If you have energy, you run the floor, you cut at the right times, all that, the ball will find you and you’ll have a career-high.’”
D’Antoni’s battle cry in the locker room while hammering home these principles was simple: “The ball will find energy.” He didn’t teach plays; he taught concepts, then he trusted the best in the world at their craft to execute them.
One such concept is the “bottom-side screen.” Big men in pick-and-roll plays have their own form of gravity – the way they roll to the hoop, the threat of the lob or the layup, and perhaps most importantly in D’Antoni’s eyes, the way they set their screens.
“We really emphasize the energy that the big puts in the last three steps going into a pick-and-roll,” D’Antoni says of a screening scheme that continues to this day. “Where he hits the defense on the pick-and-roll – it has to be the bottom side. You want the defense to go over the top and start chasing the point guard.”
What happens when the defense goes over? You guessed it, another two-on-one. More decisions for the defense, and no great answers. “We’ve got guys good enough that it’s, ‘Once you give me a half-step, I’m taking it. I’m gone,’” D’Antoni says.
The emphasis on screen-setting was never about the action itself. Rather, it was about the speed, the precision and the ultimate result of what you were being asked to do – how your pick spatially influenced the defenders in the play to the benefit of the offense.
“The old sayings, you know, ‘Hold your pick, hit the guy,’ all that – we tried to discourage [that],” D’Antoni tells me. “We put more emphasis and more premium on, how do you get into the pick? The speed. How fast do you get out of the pick? And then the angle that you set it.”
As D’Antoni moved through further coaching spots over the years on his way to his current job in Houston, these kinds of little details became more important to maintain an edge. The NBA has long been a copycat league, and others had quickly begun to pick some of the lowest-hanging fruit from D’Antoni’s general theme. Teams ran in transition a bit more opportunistically, looking for chances to catch the defense off-balance. When they played a D’Antoni squad, they were more prepared for what was coming.
The exploits became more granular, but they were still there – and they still all traced back to that theme of gravity.
For instance, D’Antoni has often asked that his spot-up shooters spacing the floor do so from several feet behind the three-point line, rather than just a step or two back. The league took notice during his first year in Houston when guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson would almost comically exaggerate the gap, but it was actually a well-practiced D’Antoni staple from years prior.
“The original reason Mike wanted them to stop up in that area was so they had the opportunity to catch and step in,” Eberhardt says. When guys like Gordon and Anderson, who can simply make those deep shots at a high clip without stepping in, are on the floor, it’s an even bigger edge. “It makes a huge impact, because the defense has that couple extra steps they now have to close out.”
Another scheme that was present in earlier iterations but really gained steam in Houston is the super-high screen. A common tactic for slowing the D’Antoni transition machine quickly became opponents pressing Nash or other ball-handlers further up the court to disrupt their pace, often a halfcourt press or even further.
When that happened, D’Antoni simply had his screening big come way further out beyond the key to set the pick, even as far as halfcourt. A two-on-one is still a two-on-one no matter where it is on the court, and it’s still going to force exploitable rotations from the defense. Virtually any defense silly enough to press up on James Harden in Houston today is going to get this treatment, and chances are Harden is going to use those couple extra steps to make them pay for it. Even when a team isn’t pressing, the Rockets will sometimes intentionally run high pick-and-rolls that start even further up the floor to give Harden a bigger runway. None of this is going away with Chris Paul, already an elite practitioner of the super-high screen, now in the fold.
Finally, of course, there’s the raw volume of threes being taken in D’Antoni’s offense. His Phoenix squads always took plenty, but perhaps weren’t the outlier many remember: They were actually only first in per-possession three-point attempts twice in his four full years with the Suns, and even these years were by relatively thin margins.
Fast forward to today, and the gap between D’Antoni and everyone else is much larger. His Rockets attempted an incredible 39 threes per-100-possessions for the 2016-17 season, miles ahead of second-place Cleveland at just 34. The Warriors are virtually synonymous with the three in today’s game, but Houston took nearly 33 percent more attempts than them on a per-possession basis.
To hear Eberhardt tell it, though, those same Warriors may have simply galvanized D’Antoni to realize the true destiny of his offensive approach.
“Even a coach like that has second thoughts,” Eberhardt says. It’s easy to second-guess yourself when even your own assistants are doubting you. “[But] with Golden State winning and how the league was bending to his philosophy, now he’s gone full-throttle shooting the three.”
True to form, this isn’t an adjustment where just one part of the equation is considered. Three is more than two, but that’s not the only reason D’Antoni is again the league’s biggest outlier in an important area. Once again, he’s exploiting what he knows the defense’s expectations will be.
Just one NBA team in 2016-17 was in the league’s top five for both shots attempted at the rim and conversion percentage on these shots: The Rockets. And while the credit here often falls to longtime GM Daryl Morey and his Moreyball approach that totally cuts out midrange shots, this interplay is another D’Antoni mainstay.
Think about the trickle-down effect of some of what we’ve talked about: Guys spacing out to several feet beyond the three-point line, then actually making shots from there; D’Antoni’s team firing away threes at a ridiculous rate even for a league that’s historically obsessed with them; wings spacing out to the corner three in transition, rather than running for layups. As a defender going against this attack, what kind of effect does that create?
If you said gravity, good work. All that emphasis on threes and extreme versions of spacing will get you some points organically, sure, but more than that, they’ll pull the defense further from the hoop. What D’Antoni was doing with his seemingly ass-backwards transition spacing in Phoenix a decade ago is now working in reverse – teams are so conditioned to track his team’s threes that they’re willing to leave the vital real estate near the basket wide open.
Another day, another impossible decision for a team facing Mike D’Antoni’s offense. His players won’t always make the shots, of course, and they may not even make the right decisions about which shots to take.
But in a game with thousands and thousands of offensive possessions every year, gravity’s pull starts to make a real difference. No basketball mind has more thoroughly plumbed the depths of this concept, or done so with as much success. You’ll forgive D’Antoni for a singular, fleeting moment of bravado.
“Somebody’s going to be open,” D’Antoni tells me. “If you [do] it right, somebody’s going to be open. We don’t always get it right in a sense of picking out the right guy. But I truly believe: You cannot guard it. Period.”
NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham’s Unfathomable Breakout In Charlotte
Devonte’ Graham never drew high praise in high school, college or in draft prep. Breaking through in his second season is a rarity unlike almost any other. Douglas Farmer writes.
Comparing a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-2 guard in his second year with the woebegone Charlotte Hornets to Draymond Green misses its mark on paper, but the poor-shooting forward in his eighth season — three of which have ended with him and the Golden State Warriors hosting an NBA Finals trophy — may be the only player in the league analogous to Devonte’ Graham.
Teams have sought the next Green since he broke through in his third year, seeking a playmaking forward who could defend all five positions. That largely-fruitless search overlooked what made Green so unique — just how overlooked he was.
The No. 122 player in his recruiting class, per Rivals.com, Green did not break into college basketball’s national consciousness until his senior season when he was named a consensus All-American. That pushed him up draft boards all the way to No. 35. He then toiled on the Warrior bench until stepping in for overpriced veteran and changing the trajectory of the Golden State franchise.
Graham was the No. 36 player in his class, per Rivals.com, but otherwise the parallels are nearly exact, and while not as insulting as Green’s recruiting ranking, Graham’s was hardly flattering. He then became a consensus All-American in his senior season, was drafted No. 34 overall and spent his rookie season primarily on the Hornets’ bench. Now, he has usurped free-agent signee Terry Rozier of his starring role and given Charlotte reason to be excited.
Those reasons to be excited are not limited to the long-term, either, as some of Graham’s 20 points per game have included moments of high drama.
Graham’s second-year explosion has come largely off catch-and-shoot threes, clearly showing how different he is from Green, even if their rises from nowhere are similar. Graham has already made 103 threes in just 27 games, a sample size both large enough to end any “Breakout or Mirage? wonders and put him in the company of James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Only Harden and Curry had made it this far into a season on pace to sink 300 shots from deep, and they are also the only ones to actually do so. Maybe Graham cools off and finishes with a mere 280, but given he spent the first 10 games this season coming off the bench, his current pace will likely send him well past 300.
Either way, Graham was never supposed to end up in a sentence comparing him to two surefire Hall of Famers.
Recruits who debate between Virginia Tech, Providence and North Carolina State before ending up at Kansas, who never garner genuine notice until they are three months shy of turning 25, do not break out like this. They go onto decent NBA careers, if that.
While plenty of highly-ranked prep prospects do not pan out at all, it is even rarer for second-tier recruits to reach professional stardom. Of the 120 players Rivals ranked between No. 30 and No. 50 in the six recruiting classes from 2010 to 2015, only 14 have gained genuine traction in the NBA.
2010: No. 31 Meyers Leonard, No. 44 Gorgui Dieng, No. 48 Terrence Ross
2011: No. 31 Dorian Finney-Smith, No. 34 Ben McLemore, No. 37 Otto Porter, No. 41 Maurice Harkless
2012: No. 40 Willie Cauley-Stein
2013: No. 31 Semi Ojeleye, No. 44 Zach LaVine
2014: No. 36 Devonte’ Graham
2015: No. 31 Donovan Mitchell, No. 43 Malik Beasley, No. 46 Dejounte Murray
Porter, LaVine and Mitchell all earned enough notice in college to be drafted in the lottery. Their development into NBA bucket-getters has not been astonishing. It was their play in college that surprised.
Graham did not impress then. Nor did he impress as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game and hitting only 28.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Becoming a 42.9 percent 3-point shooter was not anyone’s expectation. Even in college, Graham topped out at 40.6 percent from behind the shorter arc as a senior when he averaged 17.3 points per game.
Now, he casually went 7-of-12 from deep for 40 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds on Wednesday in a 113-108 road win over the Brooklyn Nets. The seventh of those made threes drove the fact one more time that Graham is not a flash in the pan.
“Unconscionable” is an overused word in sports. These are just sports, after all. But if ever a shot was unconscionable, it was that dagger on Wednesday. If not that, it may have been unfathomable.
Unfathomable when only Graham’s late prep development got him to a collegiate blueblood, unfathomable when he hardly flashed at Kansas, unfathomable when he fell into the second round, unfathomable when Charlotte signed Rozier for three years and $58 million.
Graham was never supposed to do any of this, and he shows no signs of stopping.
In the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench, Graham shot 42.5 percent from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. In his 17 starts since then, he is shooting 43.1 percent from deep and averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 assists per game.
His consistency has rendered the 6-foot-1 Rozier not just an overpriced point guard, but a lineup liability. With both of them on the floor, Charlotte has a minus-3.1 rating per 100 possessions, getting exposed on defense with an undersized backcourt. With Graham on but Rozier off, the Hornets are plus-1.6. The offensive ratings are within a tenth of a point, but the latter lineup is 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense.
Come Sunday, Rozier can be traded. Finding a taker for his onerous deal may be more difficult than one for Graham’s, which pays him only $1.4 million this year and $1.7 million next. Regardless, if Charlotte moves one of them, the organization will be in a better position moving forward because of Graham’s eruption.
At no point was it considered Graham could change the franchise’s direction like this.
Then again, it was never expected of Green, either.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.