In just under two months, 30 NBA teams will kick off the journey that is the 2019-20 NBA season. There will be a myriad of storylines and statistical trends that flesh out as the season chugs along. Some of these trends can be predicted based on last season, while others could be a result of roster turnover or a coaching change.
These trends will be of particular import for contenders and could make or break a team’s chances of winning a title. This piece will take five of those teams that fall into the contender category and highlight a statistic that could be crucial to watch for in the upcoming campaign. Without further ado…
The 76ers’ Forced Turnover Percentage
The Philadelphia 76ers underwent significant roster changes this offseason. Most notably losing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, replacing them with Al Horford and Josh Richardson within the starting lineup. Last season, one of the more perplexing statistical trends was the decline in their defense. After finishing third in defensive rating in 2017-18, the Sixers fell all the way to 14th in that category during the 2018-19 season.
Looking deeper, we see that the Sixers still managed to rank sixth in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage. The defensive downturn, then, can be partially attributed to the drop in their forced turnover percentage, which fell from 18th all the way to 28th in the league, per cleaningtheglass.com.
The new-look 76ers will trot out a formidable defensive lineup next season, so they are likely to return to being one of the top outfits in the league. Whether that defense can propel them all the way to a championship, however, could come down the team’s ability to force steals and bad passes. Richardson, an aggressive guard defender who makes his living on being pesky around the perimeter, will help massively in that department.
Live ball turnovers will be of high importance for the Philadelphia offense, one that may struggle in the halfcourt given the lack of an elite perimeter shot creator. Forcing these will allow the team easy transition scoring opportunities and give Ben Simmons a chance to do what he does best — lead the break.
The Lakers’ Half-Court Efficiency
The Los Angeles Lakers also experienced some major roster turnover, bringing in Anthony Davis via a trade with the Pelicans and signing multiple role players like Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels.
Last season, the Lakers struggled to score in the half-court and, as a result, their offense suffered as a whole. They finished 23rd in the league in half-court efficiency, along with 23rd-placed rank in overall offensive rating, per cleaningtheglass.com. This was the first time a LeBron James-led team finished outside the top six in either of those categories since the 2007-08 season in Cleveland, the year before he won his first MVP trophy.
The James injury may have played a minor role in this outlier season — but even when he was on the court, the Lakers only scored 94.7 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. This number would’ve placed them just 17th in the league.
The real culprit may have been nonexistent floor spacing. The Lakers finished 29th in the league last season in three-point percentage, shooting a putrid 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Los Angeles had the third-lowest frequency of spot-ups in the league and had the fourth-lowest efficiency on those attempts, per NBA.com. James was forced to operate in tight spaces and had a tough time generating open looks against set defenses. The clip below shows a James post up in which every Portland defender has a foot in the paint, ready to help.
With the aforementioned additions of Green and Cook, the Lakers have added the elite shooters that could open the floor for their two stars. Davis will definitely demand double teams in the post as well, so his talents may help Los Angeles find cleaner looks at the rim.
The Nuggets’ Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage
The Denver Nuggets will bring back every contributor from last season, with the addition of Jerami Grant and, excitedly, Michael Porter Jr. at some point. Last season, the Nuggets combined their efficient offense with an improved defense to vault to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, eventually losing in the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games.
One of the more significant defensive improvements came in their opponents’ shooting percentage. They held opponents to a 52.4 effective field goal percentage, which ranked 15th in the league, up from 27th in the previous season. Interestingly, the shooting statistics on cleaningtheglass.com show that the Nuggets gave up more efficient shots to opponents last season than they did in 2017-18.
The Nuggets ranked last in the league in giving up corner threes, the most efficient shot in basketball sans the layup. They also allowed 37.6 percent of their opponents shot attempts to come at the rim, which ranked 24th in the league, down from 17th in the 2017-18 campaign. The Nuggets compounded this by forcing the least amount of long mid-range shots, the most inefficient zone on the court.
How, then, did the Nuggets only rank in the middle of the NBA in terms of their opponent shooting efficiency? It’s possible that the Nuggets did a better job contesting these shots — but looking at the NBA.com tracking reveals that simple luck played a significant role.
The Nuggets gave up almost exactly the same frequency of shots across the last two seasons where the opponent was considered very open, meaning the defender was six or more feet away. In 2017-18, the opponent shot 41.4 percent on these shots, compared to just 37.6 percent on the same attempts last season. When it comes to merely open shots, situations in which defender was four-to-six feet away, the gap was even more pronounced. Last season, the opponent only shot 31.9 percent on these attempts, compared to 35.7 percent the year before.
Needless to say, it will be intriguing to watch whether Denver can keep up their defensive improvement from last season, or if the shooting variance will swing back out of their favor.
Milwaukee’s Offensive Rating Without Giannis
The Milwaukee Bucks rampaged their way through the regular season last year, finishing with the best record and the highest net rating in the league. The MVP-awarded Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, dominating the paint in every contest.
The Bucks were not only successful on the back of their Greek superstar though, as they had a plus-3.7 net rating when he was off the court as well. This was largely due to a steady offense, which ranked third in the league last season with a 114.9 offensive rating overall. This number jumped to 116.2 with Giannis on the court and only fell to 112.9 with him on the bench. That means that even without their best player in the lineup, the Bucks had the equivalent of a seventh-ranked offense, per cleaningtheglass.com.
Expectedly, Milwaukee saw a decline in both the frequency and efficiency of shots at the rim when Antetokounmpo took a breather. They made up for this drop by bombing away from three-point, seeing a significant increase in both frequency and efficiency on attempts from deep.
The uptick in outside shot attempts makes sense as the Bucks’ bench lacked a true paint presence like Antetokounmpo, so the team needed to rely more on perimeter play in those minutes. The surprising statistic is the increase in three-point percentage, as it would be logical to assume that Milwaukee would be getting better looks from outside with the league’s MVP attracting multiple defenders around the rim.
Of course, Milwaukee will be without Malcolm Brogdon, their best three-point shooter last season, as the combo guard signed a contract with the Indiana Pacers this offseason. The Bucks will still trot out an abundance of sharpshooters, however, and the onus to create open looks falls on Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton during the minutes when Antetokounmpo rests. Bledsoe is particularly good at finding open shooters, and the Bucks actually performed quite well when he was on the court without Antetokounmpo.
Their plus-9.6 net rating in those minutes was not too far from the plus-12.5 number with the MVP on the court, per cleaningtheglass.com.
Bledsoe is adept at penetrating into the lane and often uses his elite athleticism to leap and hit shooters on the perimeter at difficult angles. Below, he finds Brogdon with an especially wild kick-out.
As mentioned, the Bucks will be without Brogdon’s elite catch-and-shoot services this season, but he can be replaced adequately thanks to a bench that is littered with shooting specialists. If that bench can continue to knock down three-pointers at an elite clip, the Bucks could be on their way back to the No. 1 seed.
The Rockets’ Second Half Net Rating
Last season, James Harden experienced the second-highest usage rate in the years since 1977-78, when the stat could first be calculated. Then, in one of the most surprising moves of the summer, the Rockets swapped out Chris Paul for the player with the highest usage rate ever in that time, Russell Westbrook.
The immense usage may have taken a toll on Harden over the course of games, as the Rockets tended to have trouble in second halves. The Rockets had a plus-8.5 net rating in the first half of games, which was second in the NBA. In the second half, the Rockets had a net rating of just plus-1.2. That difference of 7.3 was the largest separation in the league, per NBA.com.
There could be a variety of factors that caused the split, including the fact that good teams who get out to big leads early will play more garbage time in the second half, and therefore let off the gas pedal. It is also reasonable to infer, however, that the Rockets’ isolation-heavy play style took a toll on their superstar, becoming more predictable for opposing defenses as the game went on.
The Thunder, Westbrook’s former team, had the opposite splits last season. Oklahoma City had a meager plus-1.2 net rating in first halves last season, but this number jumped to plus-5.7 in second halves, per NBA.com. Again, there are a variety of factors for this, and Westbrook was certainly not the only reason for the second half spurt. Then again, the 2017 league MVP is known for his constant ferociousness and motor, so it’s easy to see how he may have played a role in energizing his team out of the halftime break.
It will be interesting to watch how Westbrook’s fire rubs off on this Rockets team and, importantly, if his presence takes just enough burden off of Harden to leave him fresh down the stretch of tight contests.
For these five franchises with championship-worthy aspirations, the above metrics will likely go a far way toward determining their ultimate ceilings. It’s still early on, but don’t be surprised if some of these predictions end up making or breaking a season down the line — keep your eyes peeled!
NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors
Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.
The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.
Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.
Steph Curry edges out Bradley Beal to win the 2020-21 scoring title. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/GmiTD26aJK
— theScore (@theScore) May 17, 2021
With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.
After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.
Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.
The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.
Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.
After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.
One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.
While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.
Andrew Wiggins is gonna end the regular season averaging ~19 & 5 on 48/38/72 shooting.
Missed only 1 game, and that was for rest. Was tremendous defensively, night in and night out.
He’s had a great year.
— Brian Witt (@Wittnessed) May 16, 2021
As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.
Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.
As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.
Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.
Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.
Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.
Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.