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!
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.