Please forgive this rather ad hoc post, but this seems as good a time as any to disgorge a few random thoughts that have been rattling around after an East Coast trip.
The Brooklyn Nets played the most desultory game I have seen in person this year, getting absolutely torched in a 115-91 loss by a Hornets squad that ranks 28th in the league in offense and was still missing Kemba Walker. The defensive performance was so disheartening for the Nets because they were carved up by the same play over and over again, a pick and roll on the left side of the floor. The Nets did not ice* the side pick and roll, instead letting Mo Williams repeatedly get to the middle and hit the roll man going to the basket or finding direct-line passes to shooters on the weakside. The well-known gunner racked up a crazy 14 assists in only 31 minutes. The strategy was to bring the opposite big all the way over to the baseline on the strong side to deal with the roll man, and that failed miserably. But the worst part was Brooklyn never made any visible adjustments.
Many, including your writer, wrote off the Hornets after a miserable start. But they are right back in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference. That beginning was largely blamed on the acquisition of Lance Stephenson, and to be sure he has been awful all season. But much as with their mid-season swoon a year ago, an underrated factor in the early-season malaise was the injury absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Charlotte’s bread and butter is their outstanding defense, for which MKG is the catalyst. He has gotten more attention for his poor shooting stroke and his attempts to fix it thus far in his career, but he is one of the league’s best defending the wing.
Take his exemplary effort against Brooklyn guard Joe Johnson last week, by which Kidd-Gilchrist held the power wing to 1-6 shooting in 23 minutes with zero assists. The few times Johnson went for his trademark mid-post isos, Kidd-Gilchrist snuffed them out with aplomb. Johnson is by no means a top threat at this point, although you can ask the Toronto Raptors about the damage he can inflict in the right matchup. But what a defender can do against mid-tier guys can be more telling than how he defends the elite. Star players will invariably be the focus of the offense and have the type of talent that makes them very difficult to guard for anyone in the league when they are featured. But great defenders can sometimes provide more value-added on average scorers by completely eliminating them from the offense. Kidd-Gilchrist has that type of ability.
Steve Clifford is yet another underrated factor in the Hornets’ success. The then-Bobcats’ sixth-ranked finish in defense a year ago always seemed born of smoke and mirrors with a frontcourt anchored by Al Jefferson. When Charlotte regressed badly to start the year on that end, it appeared last year’s performance may have been unsustainable, especially with the exchange of power forward Josh McRoberts for free agent signee Marvin Williams. But the return of Kidd-Gilchrist and necessary adjustments by Clifford have righted the ship. Since January 1, the Hornets’ 96.1 defensive rating (per NBA.com) leads the league. To effect this change, Clifford elevated Gerald Henderson to the starting lineup over Stephenson while Cody Zeller supplanted Williams (formerly a wing who struggles to defend the post and the basket) at the four. Charlotte’s entire organization deserves credit for the success of Stephenson’s demotion–many teams would have continued to force a prized free agent acquisition into the lineup* in an effort to validate the three-year, $27.4 million ($18 million guaranteed) contract he received in the offseason.
Despite the success of this starting lineup, Clifford did not hesitate to adjust against the small-ball Nets, who started Johnson at power forward. Rather than force Zeller to match up with a wing, Clifford went back to Williams in the starting lineup and saw his squad absolutely crush Brooklyn in the first and third quarters.
Perhaps it is fueled by stubbornness, a desire to avoid appearing unconfident, or the failure of the most salient example of changing one’s starters (Avery Johnson famously sitting Erick Dampier for Devean George in Game 1 of his 67-win squad’s series loss to Golden State in 2007), but few teams are willing to change their starting lineups based on matchups until they have accumulated evidence it is not going to work. And certainly, taking a great player off the floor to match up with the other team is terrible strategy. Zeller, however, is not one of those players. He clearly would have been at a disadvantage trying to guard a wing, and Charlotte wasn’t going to feature him in the post to make up for it on the other end. Rather than punt a few minutes at the start of each half, Clifford went with the lineup he knew was more likely to work right away and it paid off.
Trailing Teams Need to Implement Higher-Variance Strategies Earlier
Viewers generally underestimate how difficult it is to come back from down double digits in the second half of the fourth quarter. The league median for pace is about 93 possessions per game, per the actual possession counts at Nylon Calculus. That means teams get about two possessions per minute. Take a team down 12 with three minutes to go. That team basically has to be perfect on both ends the rest of the game to outscore the opponent by 12 points in six possessions. While they may manage to speed things up by fouling in the last minute, the other team is also more likely to milk the shot clock to counteract that.
This math indicates that higher-risk strategies need to be implemented when trailing by 10 or more points much earlier and more frequently than coaches usually do now. Whether that is fouling earlier (especially taking the chance to foul poor free throw shooting big men immediately upon getting a rebound), shooting as many threes as possible, or (my favored strategy) going to a full-court zone press*, trailing teams need to shake things up. While pressing has been derided and probably would not be effective over a full game, full-court zone presses have never really been tried since the league went to the eight second count. That two seconds could make a huge difference from the days when Rick Pitino tried and failed to press as the Celtics’ head coach. NBA teams do not practice zone press-breakers since they are used so infrequently, and especially during the regular season it could be an effective high-variance strategy at the end of games. A press would also have the benefit of forcing the opponent’s worst free throw shooters to handle the ball more often, allowing more effective fouling as well. At the very least, the press would likely lead to quicker shots from the opponent instead of allowing them to simply milk the clock.
Alas, we are unlikely to see these strategies implemented. Fouling and shooting exclusively threes are bad strategies over the course of a full game, and pressing likely is as well. The most likely outcome of trying them is falling even further behind, but they also give a team a better chance to win by increasing both the number of possessions and the variance of those possessions.
Psychologically though, that team down 12 with three minutes to go still feels like it’s in the game, even if its win probability is really in the low single digits by that point. And continuing to play relatively normally, whittling the lead down a bit more*, and ending up losing by six feels better than the higher-risk strategies. The team was still “in the game” until the very end. By contrast, if a team puts on the press in that situation, they could give up two easy buckets, go down 16 and then the game feels like it was a blowout. But the point of basketball is to win, not feel like you have a chance to win. Risky, high-variance strategies are still better than playing it safe trailing by double digits down the stretch.
Actual Versus Estimated Possessions
Speaking of possessions, they are calculated by adding shots, turnovers, and free throw possessions, then subtracting offensive rebounds. But NBA.com and other websites use an estimated possession calculator that ends up around three possessions per game higher. This is due to what I call odd free throws and actual offensive team rebounds. Most free throws are shot two at a time, which uses a possession. So generally the number of free throws could be divided by two to determine the number of possessions ending in free throws. Odd free throws result from all free throw attempts that are not part of two shot fouls, namely technicals, and ones and three-shot fouls. Estimated possessions multiply the number of free throws by a number designed to approximate the number of odd free throws so that the possessions even out, usually 0.44 in most formulas. But this is just an estimate and penalizes teams that get a lot of and ones or three-shot fouls.
As noted, offensive rebounds are subtracted in calculating total possessions. This makes obvious sense; if a team gets an offensive rebound the possession continues even though a shot has occurred. Actual offensive team rebounds occur when a team misses a shot and the ball goes out of bounds. Sometimes this is due to a shot block by the defense, other times due to pressure from an offensive rebounder resulting in a lost ball out of bounds, or a “stay right here” loose ball foul in favor of the offense. These are scored simply as team rebounds in the box score and play-by-play, but should result in subtracting a possession just like a regular offensive rebound when calculating pace or team per possession efficiency. Unfortunately, the NBA does not differentiate between offensive and defensive team rebounds. What’s more, it also scores team rebounds when the first of two free throws is missed, on missed heaves at the end of a quarter, or when a shot misses the rim resulting in a shot clock violation. This apparently is born of a desire to have a “rebound” credited on each missed shot attempt so everything adds up, debit and credit style. It would be nice if the league changed the scoring to better comport with modern concepts of possessions. It might even go so far as to credit offensive rebounds to players who draw loose ball fouls going for offensive rebounds or contest the rebound so it is lost out of bounds in favor of his team.
Nylon Calculus–and your writer while live-Tweeting games– use the play by play data to determine odd free throws and actual offensive team rebounds to arrive at an actual possession count. A little change in game scoring would make those numbers a lot easier to work with.
The X-Factors: Dallas
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.
The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked news.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.
But back to the NBA’s return…
The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.
We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.
The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup. But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).
But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset? Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.
First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.
While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.
But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.
Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.
“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”
And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.
“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”
Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.
Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.
And that’s all anyone can ask for.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.