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Credit: Chris Christo

NBA Hot Take 10–23–18


Okay, to be clear, this is a quick summary of what has been happening around the NBA, and by no means a prediction of how the season will end.

#1 Teams are already resting key players

Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Gordon Hayward all sat out the second night of back to back games, against lower ranked teams. In the West, this was deadly, as lowly Dallas beat Minnesota 140–136 in regulation (see comments on defense below). In the East, not so much, as Boston and Toronto won their games.

Toronto has been especially impressive, as the sneaky addition of a true big guard Danny Green has paid dividends. A small stat to track is how well Green and Kawhi Leonard play together, since they were teammates in San Antonio for years. In the 3 games Leonard has been on the court, Green has shot 55% on 3-pointers (55%). In the game Leonard was rested Green shot 1 for 8 on 3-pointers. I’ll be writing more about them in the future, as the Kawhi Leonard experiment unfolds.

#2 Is Boston regressing to the mean?

In the East, either bottom dwellers like New York and Orlando are better than we realize, or the Boston Celtics are not the juggernaut team so many people expected. Boston beat the Knicks 103–101 against a line up of cast offs and either guys who can’t shoot or guys who don’t play defense.

Considering Orlando lost by 32 to Charlotte, and then beat Boston in Boston three days later, it leads me to think people have overestimated the Celtics based on their amazing performance last year.

The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward in the first game of the season, then lost a second game while mourning the loss of their new star player. Somehow, they recovered and won 16 games in a row. During the streak, both Al Horford and Coach Stevens said that the team fought every minute and plays the right way, but that they are not a dominant team. This was born out by late 4th quarter rallies against bottom feeders like Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas, and close home wins (read ref-aided) against Golden State and Toronto.

Then, lost Kyrie Irving late in the season, and battled to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in game 7. What marked their season was the realization that Brad Stevens is the second best coach in the NBA (more about the best coach below), and that he gets more out of his players than just about anyone.

This year, Boston has their three All-Stars playing, and the young stars from last year’s playoffs with another four months of off season training, and the only thing they have to show for it is a big win against a dysfunctional 76ers team trying to start the broken Markelle Fultz.

During the last two seasons, the Celtics were projected to win 48 and 51 games, based on point differential. They were +5 the first year and +4 the second. This year, their current point differential has them projecting to be a 44-win team. Obviously, they won’t have to play Toronto in 25% of their games, but playing close games against teams in the Eastern cellar doesn’t bode well.

Perhaps the players have bought into the media’s hype and aren’t playing with the same urgency they had when they lost Hayward and Irving. Or, are there starters not playing the ferocious defense that makes Boston an elite team?

Let’s look at the Knicks game stats, because Hayward sat out.

Tatum (+15), Smart (+7), Baynes (+15), Brown (+1), Horford (+1), Rozier (+0), and IRVING (-13). How is this possible?

In the loss to Orlando, we expect players to have negative +/- ratings. Guess who didn’t? Rozier (+9), Smart (+5), Theis (+6), and Tatum (+2). Horford and Brown struggled against Orlando’s taller and stronger front court, so I understand their negative ratings. But how does Kyrie Irving have (-8) against a team featuring DJ Augustin at point guard?

Maybe my joke about Terry Rozier being Boston’s best point guard turns out to not really be a joke.

#3 Greg Popovich is not ready to hand over the crown to Brad Stevens.

Once again, reports of the death of the San Antonio Spurs have been greatly exaggerated. Think about this: In the off season, they lost a top-5 NBA player and 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, two of last year’s starters, and two Hall of Fame players who helped the Spurs to win four NBA championships. At the beginning of this season, they lost their starting point guard (NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team), and their top draft pick, another point guard. They have filled in with a bunch of guys who can’t play defense, but can shoot.

They added an All-Star who doesn’t shoot 3’s and was never known as a good passer, and a few cast offs who can shoot but can’t stay on the court because of their awful defense.

Here are San Antonio’s stats from last year: #4 in Defensive Efficiency; and #17 Offensive Efficiency.

Here are the highlights of what the Spurs did against the Lakers last night in an overtime thriller:

  • Made 10 of their first 11 shots, to go up 24–7
  • Shot 51.5% from the field, which was worse than their 3-point shooting of 53.6% (15 of 28)
  • Turned DeRozen into LeBron James (believe it or not, they both had 32 points, 8 rebounds, 1 steal, and 14 ASSISTS)
  • Outscored the Lakers 7–0 in the last 51 seconds of overtime to win the game 143–142

Now look at the San Antonio’s stats this year: #29 in Defensive Efficiency; and #2 in Offensive Efficiency, trailing only the otherworldly New Orleans Pelicans.

San Antonio is 2–1, against three tough Western Conference opponents, losing only on the road at Portland (an elite team at home). Their two man game with DeRozen and Aldridge shooting lights out in the paint and on mid-range jumpers have open the floor and turned Rudy Gay and Bryn Forbes (6 for 11 on 3-pointers) into Curry and Thompson. If you remove DeRozen’s (career .288 3P%, .333 last season) rather pedestrian 40% shooting from behind the arc, the rest of the team (Cunningham, Bertans, Gasol, Mills, Belinelli) shot 58.3% on 3-pointers (7 of 12).

While I am in no way predicting that San Antonio will continue to shoot like this, the point is that Popovich figured out his system long before any of the so-called experts, who laughed at the Spurs for going all in on the less effective 2-point shot.

If the Spurs make the playoffs with this old (174 of 265 minutes played by players 30+, 45 minutes by DeRozan at 29, and 53 minutes by players aged 25), slow and unathletic (the Lakers had a 41–7 advantage in fast break points, and outrebounded the Spurs by 9) team, given the style of today’s NBA, it will be one of the greatest coaching feats of all time.

#4 Is defense dead?

Draymond Green seems to think so, especially after Denver shot 42 free throws (18 more than the Warriors). The new rules about player freedom of movement have made it impossible for players to even make contact with players. Or do they?

One could make the case that Denver dominated Golden State in rebounds (+15), points in the paint (+4) and on the fast break (+6), which should result in more fouls.

On the other hand, the Lakers are on a record-setting pace for points in the paint and fast break points, which means they are going to the rim all the time and inevitably drawing contact. Here are their averages for the first three games of the season:

Points in the paint: Lakers (70.6), Opponents (52.6) = +17.4

Fast break points: Lakers (32.3), Opponents (12) = +20.3

Rebounds: Lakers (56), Opponents (61) = (-5)

Free Throws: Lakers (24), Opponents (32.4) = (-8.4)

If any team should be rewarded for going to the rim instead of settling for jump shots, it’s the Lakers, but it’s the exact opposite.

What could explain this strange phenomenon?

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AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Oh I forgot to tell you, the Lakers played against James Harden and Chris Paul, who spend the entire night ramming into Lakers defensive players, knocking them to the floor and then getting the call (24 combined free throws).

Have I mentioned how much I hate James Harden and the way he’s ruining basketball? He is single handedly turning the sport in soccer.

We’ll have to wait a while to see how defense is really doing in today’s NBA, because the stats seem to show that some teams are still playing defense.

The top 10 teams in defensive efficiency are fairly similar to last year.

Here’s last year’s range: #1 Utah (1.013), #10 OKC (1.037)

Here’s this year’s range: #1 Denver (0.918), #10 Milwaukee (1.025)

On the other hand, the bottom teams are struggling:

2017–2018: #20 Orlando (1.069), #30 Phoenix (1.093)

2018–2019: #20 New Orleans (1.093), #30 Cleveland (1.180)

A lot of the change has to do with a league wide trend toward playing with more pace, which leads to more easy baskets in transition, or wide open 3-pointers before the defense can get set.

Here are the pace ratings comparison in possessions per game:

2017–2018: #1 New Orleans (104.9), #15 New York (100.7), #30 San Antonio (98.0)

2018–2019: #1 Lakers (115.3), #15 New York (105.8), #30 Phoenix (102.1).

This is totally crazy, as the slowest team in the NBA this year would have been the seventh fastest team in the league the year before.

There is still too small a sample size to really know what’s going on. Historically, the refs make tight calls at the start of the season to make players aware of what they can no longer do, and then pull back as the season progresses. We saw that with the insane and excessive number of technical fouls when they changed that rule. Perhaps, we’ll see the same thing with the player freedom rule.

And certainly, the calls will even out for all teams involved as the season continues (except in TD Garden, of course).

Look for more hot takes on Saturday!

I need to see a couple more games to be able to make comments on the other notable teams starting out this season.

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Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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