NBA Deep Dive 12–10–17
CHAPTER 1: A TALE OF TWO FRANCHISES
Sports is one of the few activities in life where we can experience the entire range of emotions at heart attack inducing levels of intensity — over the course of a single minute.
A regular season game that features constant lead changes and a fired up crowd can feel like a playoff game. And a regular season game featuring young stars gives the same magical feeling as when you discovered the next great band before their first hit song.
But what happens when you see a young star do something that has never been done in the history of the NBA since they started keeping modern stats in 1973? If you’re a fan of a losing team, a game like this takes on enormous proportions. You know you have no shot at winning a championship this year, but the promise of future greatness instills the hope that you are watching a championship team a few years down the road.
Embiid makes history
That’s what happened when fans watched the Philadelphia 76ers win a close game against the Lakers at Staples Center on November 15th.
Joel Embiid had 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 blocks. I would say those are numbers of Olajuwon or Shaq magnitude, except that neither of these Hall of Fame centers ever had a stat line like that.
Ben Simmons was completely ignored with his almost triple double of 18–9–10, 5 steals, 1 block and only 1 turnover. As expected, Philadelphia’s big two dominated the game and took an early 13-point lead, but the Lakers bench kept fighting back to keep the game close. With about 4 minutes left in the game, the Lakers came back to take a 1-point lead, but Embiid and Simmons took over the game and the 76ers ended up winning by 6.
Philadelphia’s long suffering fans have to know that Christmas came early (or finally, depending on your perspective) with the emergence of Embiid and Simmons.
David vs Goliath
If you look at the two teams, their histories couldn’t be more different. The 76ers’ last championship parade (1983) was not powered by horse drawn carriages, but it probably feels that way to their fans. Their last Finals appearance came during those innocent times before 9/11. Since then, they have become infamous for tanking entire seasons in order to get high draft picks.
While the Lakers have a storied history that needs no explanation (except to note that since 1980, they have won 10 MUTHAFUCKIN’ RINGS, as many as the Bulls and the Celtics combined), the franchise was quickly reduced to ashes with the passing of owner Jerry Buss, the decline of Kobe Bryant, and the horrific management by Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak.
Now, unless you count a contract extension for a 35-year-old player with a torn achilles tendon and the hiring of a coach who doesn’t believe 3-pointers are important in today’s NBA as evidence of a plan to get drafts picks, the Lakers have never tanked.
For the last five years, the Lakers management has been myopic, delusional, lazy, incompetent and possibly criminally negligent (see contracts for Kobe, Nash, Deng and Mozgov). It got so bad, you would think the team had been kidnapped and held captive in Brooklyn.
But they’ve never tanked. Last year, the team won 5 of their last 6 games, despite the increased risk of losing their number-three protected draft pick. But they got lucky and drew the #2 pick (for the third straight year).
For the present, though, the two teams have traded places.
After a few busts, Philadelphia hit the jackpot with a true Goliath in Joel Embiid, and one of the new breeds of unicorns in Ben Simmons. While their NBA entrances were delayed a couple of years by injuries, it was worth the wait. These guys have done a pretty good impersonation of Athena, as they have burst onto the scene as fully formed, fully mature, once-in-a-generation players who are potentially the next Kareem-Magic tandem.
After four of the worst seasons in the team’s history, the Lakers have a core of good young prospects, but no real stars, yet. As for the David reference, L.A.’s “transformational” players do look like boys when put side by side with the 76ers’ two-headed monster — Simmons is 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Ball, while Embiid is 3 inches taller and 160 pounds heavier than Brandon Ingram. (Okay, there’s only a 60 pound difference, but have you seen Ingram? Here’s a recent photo.)
CHAPTER 2: 2017, a Digital Space Odyssey
My Discovery and New Appreciation for Advanced Stats
The internet has given us access to fantastic journalists, coaches and players who can teach us regular fans to see and appreciate the game on a completely different level. When I see wondrous things like player shot charts, or +/- ratings, or some other advanced metric that gives me a new insight, I search for the original site. Then, I can apply my own custom criteria and perhaps gain new insights into what the coaches are thinking and get a glimpse of my favorite team’s future.
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
One of the most interesting things about basketball is how different combinations of players perform on the court together, while at the same time matching up to the dominant players on the other team at any given time.
About the stats: NBA.com has advanced stats for 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-man lineups (search for “NBA 5 man lineups”) that provide a number of measurements, including offensive rating, defensive rating, net rating, assist to turnover ratio and pace. When you dig into these numbers you start find solid evidence that confirms the “eye test.”
While the 76ers and Lakers are young teams trying to establish themselves in the league, their lineups couldn’t be farther apart from a coaching perspective. Here’s my analysis of the two teams.
Philadelphia is a top heavy team, with two of the best young players in the league in Embiid and Simmons, surrounded by floor spacing 3-point shooters: Covington (.416 3P%), Reddick (.388), Bayless (.394) or Saric (.340) and their best bench guys, McConnell (.563) and Luwawu-Cabarrot (.320). Here’s their starting lineup with PER ratings:
Embiid (24.3), Simmons (19.4), Covington (17.1), Redick (13.3), and weaker link in either Saric (12.2) or Bayless (8.8)
How they play: When Embiid gets the ball inside, he will dominate every big man he plays — he may be the best center in the league, or is very close to Cousins and Davis of New Orleans. But teams don’t want to double team him because of those accurate 3-point shooters.
The last piece of the puzzle is Simmons, a 6'10", 240-pound point guard who plays a lot like a young Lebron — good handle, great passer, excellent at finishing at the rim, but a poor outside shooter. (The only difference is that Simmons is a horrible outside shooter, and he knows it, so he never takes a shot outside the paint.)
But opponents won’t pack the paint because of those good outside shooters. Once Simmons gets a screen and penetrates, the team becomes a deadly offensive force as he will find an open shooter, finish at the rim, or dump off a pass for a dunk when Embiid’s defender has to come over as a help defender.
On top of all that, Embiid is a good enough outside shooter that he can play on the high post and force opposing bigs to leave the paint, which gives Simmons even more space to wreck havoc.
Because of Embiid’s size and ability to pound the ball inside, the 76ers like to play at a slower pace than teams like Golden State and Houston, so I won’t include their pace rating. Here are the best 5-man lineups that feature the core of Embiid, Simmons, Covington and Redick:
Add Saric: OffRtg 112.2, DefRtg 96.0, NetRtg +16.2, AST/TO 1.91
Add McConnell: OffRtg 112.3, DefRtg 102.8, NetRtg +9.5, AST/TO 1.50
Add Bayless: OffRtg 101.1, DefRtg 99.4, NetRtg +1.5, AST/TO 1.79
The starters blow people out: With Saric in the lineup, Philadelphia gives up a little bit in 3-point shooting percentage, but is bigger, defends better (currently #10 in defensive efficiency), and has an overwhelming Net Rating of +16.2.
[For context, the starting lineup for Golden State (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green and Pachulia) has a net rating of +20.9, Houston’s starters (Harden, Paul, Ariza, Anderson and Capela) are +14.8, and Boston’s starters (Baynes, Brown, Horford, Irving and Tatum) have a net rating of +13.7.]
That 5-man Net Rating shows how good Embiid and Simmons are when their guys can hit 3-point shots. (When they shoot 23%, they can lose by 14 to a losing team like Phoenix.)
The bench simply blows: The down side of Philadelphia is that their bench is weak. Another great site is hoopsstats.com (search for “NBA Bench Team Stats”), which shows a ton of metrics based on how the starters or the bench plays as a group. According to the site, Philadelphia’s starters are #4 in the league with a point differential of +18.9, while the bench is #27 in the league with a point differential of -10.9. (Obviously, ratings change after each game, so these numbers may change radically as the season progresses.)
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are a balanced young team with no real stars (yet). They play a ten-deep rotation, with the best bench players not only getting big minutes, but playing in crunch time at the end of the game. The keys for the Lakers are to play good defense, share the ball, and run like crazy so they can get easier baskets in transition.
The Good: They are one of the best teams in the league on defense (currently #8 in the NBA), transition frequency (#1), fast break points (#4), and points in the paint (#1). Unfortunately, their PPP (points per possession) in transition is a horrific #29, killed by missed layups, bad free throw shooting and turnovers. (Note: If they could improve in this one area, they would not only make at least one more basket per game, they would avoid some of those devastating turnovers that give the opponents their own fast break baskets. That may not seem like much, but improving to league average would give the Lakers a team point differential of about +1, which corresponds to a team winning 47 games a year.)
The Bad: The problem that kills young teams like the Lakers is turnovers, where they are currently #29 in the league. (Unsurprisingly, the 76ers are dead last in this category. But guess who is #28? Those gods of basketball, the Golden State Warriors. The only thing that keeps other teams in games with them are the extra possessions gained because they turn the ball over 16 times per game. I’ll write a lot more about that when we get to the playoffs.)
The Ugly: The Lakers are the NBA’s worst team at 3-point shooting (31.9%). How bad is their shooting, you ask? Well, through the first 20 games of the season, the Lakers went 6–1 if the shot over 32% from beyond the arc, and that’s 4.5% BELOW league average. (For context, the Warriors are shooting 3.4% ABOVE league average. If all other things are equal, the Warriors will make 4 more 3-point shots per game than the Lakers, a 12-point handicap. And Houston is making almost 8 more 3-point shots per game than the Lakers. Yikes.)
But guess what happens when one of the young stars like Brandon Ingram hits a few jump shots, and the team commits less turnovers than their opponents? You get a game like this, where the Lakers outplayed the mighty Warriors for most of the game:
The Lineups: Starters: Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Nance, and Lopez
Bench guys: Clarkson, Randle, Kuzma, Brewer, Hart and Bogut
I’m not even going to give their PER ratings, as not one player is above 19 at this time. Pretty much every game the Lakers play, the opposing starters will have the best two or even three players on the floor. The result is almost no margin for error, as they have to fight for 48 minutes to have any chance of winning.
How they play: Without a dominant player, the Lakers try to spread the floor by putting their center, Brooke Lopez, on the 3-point line. If he can make some shots, the opposing center gets pulled outside, and then their good young guys like Ball, Randle, Kuzma, Clarkson, and Caldwell-Pope can penetrate and either pass to an open shooter, dump the ball to a someone under the basket, or finish at the rim.
The starters struggle: With Lopez and Nance in the lineup along with Ball who is, for now, the second worst shooter in the league, opposing teams can pack the paint, and watch the Lakers shoot bricks.
Here is the 5-man lineup for their starters: Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Lopez, Nance Jr.: OffRtg 94.7, DefRtg 101.8, NetRtg -7.1, AST/TO 1.27, Pace 101.7
The bench fights back: According to hoopsstats.com, Los Angeles’ starters are #22 in the league with a point differential of -11.6, while the bench is #9 in the league with a point differential of 6.9. (For context, the starters were #30 in the league with a point differential of -26.7 last year, while the bench was #2 in the NBA with a point differential of +8.3. They could score but their defense was also the worst in the league.) In the game at Philadelphia, the Lakers bench outscored their counterparts by 28 to win a game by 3 points. That’s insane when you consider the bench guys played only 84 of the 240 possible minutes.
Here’s the 5-man lineup for the bench: Brewer, Clarkson, Hart, Kuzma, Randle: OffRtg 102.6, DefRtg 107.7, NetRtg -5.1, AST/TO 1.10, Pace 99.13
But the hybrid crunch-time units rock: When you add a couple of starters to the best bench players, you have a completely different team. Here are the 5-man lineup for the guys who play a key role in fighting back after the starters have given up an early lead. There is a little variation, depending on who has the hot hand and match up problems with each team.
Core = Clarkson, Ingram, Kuzma, Randle:
Add Hart: OffRtg 113.4, DefRtg 97.1, NetRtg +16.3, AST/TO 1.5, Pace 98.16
Add Brewer: OffRtg 120.8, DefRtg 105.4, NetRtg +15.5, AST/TO 0.5, Pace 109.42
It’s interesting to note how one player changes the group dynamic. Hart and Brewer are both very good team defenders, but have completely different bodies and approaches. Hart is like a 6'5" linebacker, holding his own against big men in the post, and making key contributions on the boards. Believe it or not, when he’s on the floor, the team plays slower than Philadelphia’s starters.
On the other hand, Brewer is like a humming bird, flitting all over the court at a thousand miles an hour. But he is also built like one, and gets pushed around by post-up players and on the boards. When he runs the floor on a fast break there is a 50–50 chance it will result in a turnover, but when he gets it right, it’s a huge boost for the team.
Determining lineups and minutes distribution: The challenge for a young team and a young coach is figuring out who to play and when. Randle was switched to a small ball 5 this year, and his progress has been phenomenal. But he has only been playing 18–20 minutes per game. Against the Warriors, Philadelphia and a blow out win over Denver, he played 30 minutes.
As he continues to improve and holds his own against the best centers in the league, he has proven that he needs to be playing starter minutes, regardless of whether it hurts the feelings of the starting center. He needs to come in at the 6:00 minute mark of the 1st and 3rd quarters, along with Kyle Kuzma, so the best bench guys play with Ball and Ingram. When the team needs an offensive spark, Clarkson should come in early to relieve Ball. The core of Clarkson, Caldwell-Pope, and Lopez combined with two players from the group of Randle, Nance, Kuzma, or Ingram, have all had positive Net Ratings in the short minutes they’ve been together.
The B.R.I.C.K. Unit: My favorite lineup is the BRICK unit, aptly named for the letters spelled by each player’s name (Ball, Randle, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma), not their inability to shoot. Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for Luke to even try these guys together, since the starters play so many minutes with Lopez and Nance. This is a small sample size, as this group has only been on the court for 4 minutes per game and only appeared in 14 of the team’s 23 games this year. But the stats are off the charts on defense, passing the ball and running the floor. This is Show Time 2.0:
Ball, Randle, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma: OffRtg 114.4, DefRtg 86.9, NetRtg +27.5, AST/TO 2.73, Pace 103.31
These young guys are almost like an embryonic version of the Warriors’ lineup of death — every player is between 6'5" and 6'9", they switch on every player on the court, defend well against the 3-point shot, rebound well and run the court.
Speaking of the “lineup of death”, is their age starting to show, or is this just a lack of effort for regular season games?
S.Curry, K.Durant, D.Green, A.Iguodala, K.Thompson: OffRtg 108.1, DefRtg 116.7, NetRtg -8.6, AST/TO 2.00, Pace 108.68
The Lakers can also go to a 3-guard set that could be deadly if given more minutes (only 4.5 per game for a 6-game sample size):
Ball, Randle, Ingram, Clarkson and K(CP)*: OffRtg 122.6, DefRtg 101.6, NetRtg +21.0, AST/TO 2.17, Pace 98.82
*Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is known by the nickname of KCP. See how I did that?
As bad as their record is so far this season, and the highly publicized shooting struggles of Lonzo and the other players, the Lakers only need to make some small improvements in the basics to become a respectable (.500) team. If they continue to improve and get close (30–40 wins), I think that will prove the potential is there for a top free agent to come to the Lakers and make them a playoff team next year.
Chapter 3: Why we play the games.
On Thursday, December 7th, Philadelphia hosted the Lakers for the rematch. After beating Detroit, the 76ers improved to 13–9 and fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But like so many young teams, they let down and lost to a bad Phoenix team. Their cause wasn’t helped by missing 23 out of 30 from beyond the arc, and Ben Simmons being sick.
One would expect the 76ers to bounce back after the painful lesson of underestimating Phoenix, but Philadelphia still came out flat. Meanwhile, the young Lakers defended, rebounded and ran the floor. But couldn’t shoot.
There were two big surprises to start the game:
- Embiid came out of the game after only 4 minutes and 22 seconds.
- The Lakers were not down by 10.
This blown opportunity for Embiid and Simmons to dominate the game early the way they did in Los Angeles proved to be the difference in the game.
With the score tied 8–8, and Embiid on the bench, the Lakers went on an 18–9 run. When he came back in with 3:11 left in the quarter, Philadelphia only cut the lead to 7. In the second quarter, the Lakers played Embiid fairly even, went on small runs to build the lead when he left the game, and ended the half up by 8.
In the third quarter, Embiid didn’t change the game, leaving at 6:30 with the Lakers up 65–55. A quick 8–2 run by the Lakers built the lead to 16. Embiid came back into the game with 3:50 left in the quarter and the 76ers promptly went on an 13–2 run. With 12 seconds left, Philadelphia had the ball and a chance to cut the lead to a one possession game. Instead, Simmons made a horrible pass that led to a bizarre flurry of mistakes (dumb Embiid foul on a Laker basket, a missed free throw, another Simmons turnover, missed shot and a never-seen-before Andrew Bogut offensive rebound and mid air fall away 19-foot putback) that left the Lakers up by 9.
In the fourth quarter, the Lakers struck with two quick 3’s to lead 85–70 at 11:15 in the fourth quarter. Embiid responded with two consecutive 3’s of his own to establish order. Simmons and Embiid led an offensive charge down the stretch and eventually tied the game 104–104 with 39 seconds remaining.
But then the 20-year-old Lakers, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, got their chance to show their potential as future All-Stars with the game on the line. A quick flurry of pushing the ball in transition, penetration and a final kick out led to a wide open Ingram hitting the game-winning shot.
In spite of his poor shooting night (6 for 20) prior to hitting the first game winning shot of his career, Ingram turned to run back on defense and showed not one sign of emotion. It was as if this was the most normal thing in the world to do, or if he had a psychic read his palm and tell him that his career will be filled with similar last-second heroics.
For Ball, who disappeared at Staples Center against Philadelphia, this was a game of redemption, as he came close to matching Ben Simmons triple double with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 blocks, 3 steals and no turnovers. When Ingram’s shot went in, he showed emotion for one of the few times in this pressure-filled season as he smiled and did a double fist pump.
Both games featured the same dynamic, with Simmons and Embiid dominating often and the Lakers starters hanging on for dear life. Without Embiid, the Lakers bench mob scrambles to fight back or build a lead.
The difference in the game tonight was Embiid was only great, with 33 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, and 5 blocks. Simmons was also great, 12 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists, and 1 block. After that initial cold start, the starters shot a combined 28 for 51 from the field and 10 for 19 from beyond the arc, and outscored the Lakers starters by 25. The game changer was Embiid and Simmons combining for 8 turnovers, compared to 3 in the first game.
The difference for the Lakers was in strength of numbers. For a team with no stars, every injury to a role player is devastating. In the first game, Larry Nance Jr was injured, so Kyle Kuzma started, which improved the starters but depleted the bench unit. In the first game, the Lakers bench only outscored their counter parts by 16. Tonight, the Lakers bench was +28
Both teams still have serious deficiencies before they can become elite teams.
Philadelphia’s bench is really bad, Redick is on the decline but on an expiring contract, and nobody knows what’s going on with Fultz. But they play in the East, so they will be a playoff team for years to come. If they can solve their problems, they will be a serious threat to make the Conference Finals when Lebron James lets go of his stranglehold of the conference.
The Lakers have weaknesses that can kill them in any game, even when they’re playing well. In the game at Staples, the Lakers shot 11.1% on 3-pointers and still had a fourth quarter lead. In the game at Philadelphia, the Lakers unbelievably out shot the 76ers from beyond the arc, making 11 for 28. The down side was they missed 12 free throws, shooting only 50%. (Is it possible for an opponent to play the Hack-A-Shaq the entire game, against the entire team?) Some of these problems will be solved as their young core of seven players continues to improve, but playing in the West means the road will be much tougher.
Chapter 4: A Fan’s Wet Dream
(Because you may never see a reference to wet dreams and sports in the same sentence again. What do you think this is, The Ringer?)
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream… of Champagne and Rings
While Ingram and Ball don’t look like MVP-level players like Embiid and Simmons do, they are over a year younger than Simmons and three years younger than Embiid. With youth comes the potential for growth, and a tiny spark of hope that Thursday’s game is another sign that the team will stay competitive this year, in spite of how tough it is in the West.
As I’ve written before, the Lakers plan is to sign one or two All-Star free agents but the young guys need to show enough on court this year to make Los Angeles a desirable location.
In my delusional hopes for the team, the two Philadelphia games had the intensity of playoff games. And the only way that can happen is a future meeting in the NBA Finals. Forgive me as I fantasized that night about how the Lakers evened the series with the 76ers in the 2021 NBA Finals.
And Then I Woke Up…
On Saturday, the 9th, the Lakers broke open a close game to beat Charlotte by 11 and win two consecutive road games for the first time in over a year. It was quite pleasant to watch their work on defense, passing and running not be sabotaged by turnovers, horrendous 3-point shooting or missed free throws. Luke made some good adjustments in the distribution of minutes, not out of design but probably due to Nance’s foul trouble and riding the hot hands of Randle, Clarkson and Kuzma to finish the fourth quarter.
They’ll have one more chance to climb back up the hill toward .500 at New York on Tuesday, before driving out into the abyss with games at Cleveland, home to Golden State, at Houston and at Golden State.
All they have to do is run the table to have a record of 15–15 and move up to 8th in the West. (Note: the last time I wrote about the Lakers, I qualified my glowing report by assuming they would probably play like a young team and get blown out by Denver. It was also a Bill Simmons reverse jinx, but that strategy failed, so now I will try the never before attempted reverse reverse jinx.)
Hope you enjoyed this deep dive. Next time, I’m going to do another one into advanced stats and look at who should be the Rookie of the Year.