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NBA Daily: Could Brooklyn Be The Exception To The Rule?

Their roster composition is far from perfect, but the Brooklyn Nets’ offensive firepower may help break an NBA title tradition, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Being an exception to the rule and trends of our modern NBA is a tricky tightrope walk to pull off – but it’s not impossible. Hell, to some degree, the reigning champions were an exception to the rule last season.

In a league that emphasized getting smaller and relying on spacing, the Los Angeles Lakers went the opposite way by loading up on bigs, ultimately ranking in the bottom 10 in both three-point attempts and percentage. Naturally, LeBron James and Anthony Davis make that possible, but the 2019-20 Lakers had a different roster makeup than what we had been used to.

But just because the talent to attempt something drastic exists does not mean it will work. Last year, the Houston Rockets also tried to be an exception, albeit to a different rule. Even as the league has embraced small-ball than ever before, all teams still had at least one traditional center on their roster. That was until the Rockets traded their lone pure big – Clint Capela – for Robert Covington in hopes of opening the floor for Russell Westbrook.

To accommodate, they had Covington, PJ Tucker and Jeff Green, three natural wings, split time at the center spot.

It’s true that the experiment was a failure, but Houston can hang their hat on that it was never given a real chance. Westbrook was playing at full throttle and they were beating good teams before COVID-19 stopped everything. When play resumed, Westbrook had contracted the virus and dealt with quad issues that definitely held him back.

Going back further, the NBA’s brightest exception to the rule occurred in 2003-04 when the Detroit Pistons won the title. Generally, franchises need at least one superstar in order to compete for a championship. The Pistons accomplished the feat despite lacking a true superstar on their roster, all thanks to the right personnel on the roster.

Just rattling off that team’s ahead-of-its-time successes is a mouthful: Detroit had one of the league’s best floor generals in Chauncey Billups; plus a fear shooter with Richard Hamilton; an all-time rim protector with Ben Wallace; Rasheed Wallace’s All-Star-worthy efforts; plus a Hall of Famer on the sidelines named Larry Brown.

They also harnessed one of the best defenses of that era and all-time. Today, it stands as proof that anything is possible with the right guys to pull it off. However, it’s not often advisable as more teams end up like the Rockets rather than the goldens standard Pistons.

Of course, that brings us to the 2020-21 season.

Offense may sell tickets, but defense wins championships. No, seriously, just look at the defensive rating for the previous ten NBA champions:

2019-20, Los Angeles Lakers: 106.3 (3rd overall)
2018-19, Toronto Raptors: 107.1 (5th)
2017-18, Golden State Warriors: 107.6 (11th)
2016-17, Golden State Warriors: 104 (1st)
2015-16, Cleveland Cavaliers: 104.5 (10th)
2014-15, Golden State Warriors: 101.4 (1st)
2013-14, San Antonio Spurs: 102.4 (3rd)
2012-13, Miami HEAT: 103.7 (9th)
2011-12, Miami HEAT: 100.2 (2nd)
2010-11, Dallas Mavericks: 105 (8th)

Clearly, an above-average defense was needed to have an honest shot at the title. But if the Brooklyn Nets stay exactly as they are constructed this season, they may very well be the exception to this rule.

The trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden is arguably the most talented combination of scorers in NBA history. All three of them are capable of running an entire offense individually while putting up 30+ points on any given night. Best of all, every single one of them can take over the game in crunch time. The fact that all three are sharing the ball should only make it easier when the stage matters most.

Their skeptics can fault them all they want for giving up the entire farm for Harden – that may partly be because of how well that went last time – but it’s James Harden. No matter what you may think of his playoff resume or what he does off the court, would you honestly turn down trading for prime James Harden if you had the chance?

It’s made for some beautiful basketball to watch.

But notice, they lost this game. The Nets wound up losing 135-147 to the promising-but-mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, outside of one game in which Brooklyn allowed 85 points against a Jimmy Butler/Tyler Herro-less Miami HEAT, the lowest an opponent has scored on the new-look Nets is 115 points.

The offense has predictably been a marvel, but the defense has been… not a marvel to say the least.

The general crowds saw this coming: Losing the young and talented Jarrett Allen was going to hurt as he was their best defender. Durant, Harden and Irving have shown themselves to be capable defenders in the past, but their previous teams surrounded them with plus defenders to help carry the load. In Brooklyn, it’s a different case entirely. Those three aren’t just the best offensive personnel they have. Now, they are (nearly) the best defensive personnel they have.

With Harden on the floor, the Nets allow 6.9 fewer points per 100 possessions. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the fact that Brooklyn allows 115.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. With Durant, the Nets’ defensive rating is 110.9, which would be around league average, but the defense allows only 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Irving doesn’t make much of a difference on that end whether he’s on the court (112.9 defensive rating) or off (112).

But they barely have anyone else to turn to. DeAndre Jordan is not DeAndre Jordan anymore. Jeff Green’s a valid stretch-five, but he’s not a stopper at this point either.

Plus, because of the Harden trade, there are no more assets to give up to tweak the roster. Brooklyn has the trade exception they got from Spencer Dinwiddie’s ACL tear, but with no first-rounders to offer, the market immediately thins.

While the buyout landscape will likely benefit the Nets, true game-changers rarely end up there.

But in the end, it honestly might not matter. If you watched the slugfest between the Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers, you’d see why.

The Nets’ victory over the Clippers demonstrates exactly what the former is going for. In what was one of our first candidates for Game of the Year, Los Angeles’ supreme offense – on par with Brooklyn right now (117.7) – came up just short thanks to the shotmaking prowess of the Nets’ Big 3.

These were two of the league’s elite offenses trading blows with each other up until the very end. But there was one key difference between them: the Nets owned the sixth-lowest defensive rating in the league, allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions. The Clippers, on the other hand, rocked a much more respectable 108.9 defensive rating, good for 12th overall.

Still, it didn’t matter how good the Clippers were on defense. Brooklyn’s shotmaking capabilities rose above it. While it was their impressive victory of the season, it also sent a message to the league at the same time: offense trumps all.

This Brooklyn squad has a very real shot at forming the greatest offense of all-time. We’ve seen phenomenal offensive teams win it all in the past, but usually because they also brought a respectable defense with it. The Nets may never have anything like that, but the magnitude of their scoring abilities may cancel out whatever plagues them on that end.

They say defense wins championships, yes. But you know what they also say?

There’s always a first time for everything.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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