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Dunc’d On: Random Thoughts on Nets, Hornets

Nate Duncan shares some thoughts on the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, late-game strategies and calculating per game possessions.

Nate Duncan



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.

Brooklyn Nets

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.

*Forcing the ball handler away from the screen and toward the baseline to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor.

Charlotte Hornets

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 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.

*It should be noted that Stephenson’s pelvic injury and the Hornets’ subsequent righting of the ship made this move more palatable, much as David Lee’s injury paved the way for Draymond Green’s ascendance in Golden State.

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.

*Zone presses try to prevent the opposing team from crossing half court and create turnovers by trapping or forcing the opposition into higher-risk dribbles or passes to beat the eight second count.

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.

*A paper at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference a few years ago found that teams trailing by a large amount usually play a bit better than expected based on prior performance.  However, playing a little bit better won’t help much when a team is down by a wide margin with so little time left.

Actual Versus Estimated Possessions

Speaking of possessions, they are calculated by adding shots, turnovers, and free throw possessions, then subtracting offensive rebounds.  But 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.


Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.


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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays



Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer



The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz



Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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