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NBA Hot Take 10–28–18

OBSERVATIONS AFTER A HANDFUL OF GAMES

Okay, to be clear, this is a quick summary of what has been happening around the NBA, and by no means are predictions of how the season will end. I’m just going to ask some questions:

#1 Was David Stern the Roger Goodell of basketball?

For some reason, David Stern, a rich and once powerful asshole, is suffering from the curse of no longer being able to ruin the sport to his liking. He decided to come out and tell the world that Dell Demps was a lousy GM because he made a terrible deal without the owner’s approval. I’m glad we’re all clear on that now.

The Lakers Deal: Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, #16 overall pick in the 2012 draft. That’s two starters, a reigning 6th Man of the Year, and a young guard that would become the Most Improved Player and 3rd team All-NBA in 2014 and an NBA All-Star in 2018. Plus the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft which could have turned into Tyler Zeller, Terrence Jones, Evan Fournier, Miles Plumlee, Khris Middleton, Will Barton, or Draymond Green.

The Clippers Deal: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and #10 overall pick in the 2012 draft. While Gordon is a really good player, he missed 189 games between 2011 and 2016. He finally got it together in Houston, starting in 2016–2017. Aminu was a non descript back up power forward for the four years after the trade, then reinvented himself by becoming a 36.1% 3-point shooter as a starter for Portland in the 2015–2016 season. Kaman was a very streaky backup center who had problems staying focused and missed 166 games over the six seasons he played in the NBA after the trade. All that, and the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, which ended up becoming Austin Rivers.

Why are we surrounded by rich, white septuagenarians who lie like they’re breathing?

#2 Will OKC miss the playoffs this year? (Would Boston, too, if they played in the West?)

The Boston-OKC game was one of the ugliest games I’ve ever watched. Boston’s horrendous, 29th ranked offense dug them into a 16-point hole by the end of the first half. Fortunately for them, they played the 30th ranked offense.

The Celtics have exactly the same weaknesses as last year — streaky outside shooting, bad rebounding, and no real inside threat (#30 in points in the paint). They are again #1 in defense, but #29 on offense. That simply won’t cut it against decent teams, let alone elite ones. At least they have a good coach.

The same thing can’t be said for OKC, which blew a 9-point 4th quarter lead with some of the worst possessions imaginable. They didn’t even have the excuse of blaming Roberson, as he was not on the court to brick every shot taken.

How does a team take the same bad long jump shots over and over again, while getting outscored 15–1 in the last four minutes of a game? Not getting even a decent look in the paint in 11 consecutive possessions is just bad coaching. Two years ago, I think, Billy Donovan set a record for blowing 4th quarter leads. And they are only a mid-tier defensive team. Yikes.

This year, I predicted that OKC would be the 8th seed.

I’m already regretting that prediction. Look for the Spurs, Clippers and maybe even the T-Wolves to end up higher in the standings.

As for Boston, they destroyed a sneaky bad Pistons, whose first three wins were decided by six points and came against the Nets, Bulls and 76ers missing Ben Simmons. Boston started the game 4 for 9 on 3-pointers in the first quarter which helped them take a 9-point lead, followed by making an additional 5 of 7 to take a 22-point lead. With their defense, the game was basically over. Over the last two years, Boston has become an above average 3-point shooting team. Last year, they were #6 at 37.0%, while Golden State was #1 at 38.3%.

As I expected, the Celtics’ bench destroyed Detroit, outscoring them 62–34. What I didn’t expect was for Boston to dominate on the boards and beat Detroit on fast break points, 15–8.

Given Brad Steven credit adjusting their rebounding scheme and playing at a faster pace, which led to these jaw dropping stats:

  1. Kyrie Irving took only 5 shots and score 3 points while grabbing more rebounds than Horford and Brown combined.
  2. Marcus Smart took only 3 shots (and none from beyond the arc) while grabbing rebounds and dishing 9 assists.
  3. Rozier led the team in rebounding (WTF?) while scoring a very efficient 14 points.

If Boston can outrebound and outrun their opponents, combined with their elite defense they will have a more sustainable system that can succeed even when their 3-point shooting falls off.

#3 Did the Timberwolves finally catch a break?

Minnesota is one of the longest suffering NBA franchises, marred by the David Kahn years, the Joe Smith tampering penalty, the Kevin Garnett heist, and drafting every point guard in the 2009 NBA draft* except Stephen Curry.

But something good has happened to the T-Wolves, and it came in the form of addition by subtraction, a la Carmelo Anthony.

What happens when you remove an overpaid, ball stopping, volume shooter who has about as much interest in playing defense as the succulent growing on my kitchen table?

Answer: “why you gotta talk trash about Air Maple?

The real answer is Minnesota apparently became a defensive titan after Andrew Wiggins was injured and left the game after the first eight minutes, with the score 20–18 (on pace to give up 108 points).

Over the next 40 minutes, the T-Wolves gave up 73 points (on pace to give up 87.6 points).

Seeing how Minnesota got destroyed by the Raptors and Bucks, I guess the Wiggins effect is not a thing.

But they may play their best game of the season when the Lakers come to town on Monday. With LeBron in Los Angeles, every team gets fired up like it’s an NBA Finals, so I look for Minnesota to play their best game of the season.

*Okay, there were other point guards taken in the draft, but Minnesota decided to draft two point guards that weren’t good shooters.

#4 Is it time to panic in Hollywood?

The Lakers just finished their second week of play on a disappointing note, blowing multiple double digit leads to the Spurs last night. They started the season with three straight hard fought games against playoff level teams the ended in strange, exciting and often controversial ways, followed by two good wins. Here’s a quick summary which show how the team is evolving.

Portland (L)

The Trailblazers are 34–8 at home against the Lakers since the 1996–1997 season, dominating the Shaq-Kobe Three-Peat Lakers just as much as they did during the last 5 losing seasons. They are a very good team with the third best back court in basketball in Lillard and McCollum, so I wasn’t expecting the Lakers to win this game when I saw the schedule.

The surprise was not in the result but who was responsible for the win. Portland’s starters combined for a +/- rating of -36, with Lillard (-8), and McCollum (-9), while Nurkic (-17) was completely run off the floor. What killed the Lakers was a career shooting night from backup guard Nike Stauskus (+18), who made 5 of 8 from deep, and Zach Collins (+24), who dominated the Lakers’ back up centers with 6 points, 6 rebounds, 6 blocks and 2 assists.

Key stats: the Lakers missed their first 15 3-pointers of the night and ended up shooting 23.3% from beyond the arc, while giving up 14 offensive rebounds that resulted in 21 second chance points for Portland.

Houston (L)

The Lakers home opener was a close game with continuous lead changes. With the Rockets leading 109–108, there was a mini-brawl that resulted in the ejections of Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram and Chris Paul.

Ingram and Rondo were clearly in the wrong, but something bad was bound to happen because of a number of plays earlier in the game in which Houston physically abused the Lakers and the refs totally missed the calls:

  1. In iso, behind the 3-point line, and within plain sight of a referee, Harden jab stepped, then lowered his shoulder and drove into Brandon Ingram’s sternum, knocking him 5 feet back. Instead of falling to the ground, Ingram flapped his arms like a drunken pelican to maintain balance, but there was no call for an offensive foul. Harden then drove left and bumped into Ingram near the rim, getting a basket and the foul. Ingram, who has never shows much emotion (and never received a technical foul in his first two seasons in the NBA) was outraged.
  2. On two different occasions, Chris Paul drove to the basket, changed direction and lowered his shoulder into Rajon Rondo, who was running beside him and giving ground. Rondo hit the ground both times, looking more like a kid getting launched on a Slip ‘N Slide than an NBA player.
  3. James Ennis clotheslined Josh Hart with one arm, and made no attempt to hold him back or break his fall. This was an incredibly dangerous non-basketball play — Ennis should have been ejected, but only received a Flagrant 1. Instead, the league decided to call Rondo spitting on Chris Paul dangerous. Yeah, I’m outraged about the hypocrisy on that one.
  4. On the play before the fight broke out, Harden drove and rammed directly into Ingram, who was also trying to avoid contact. Harden then flopped, while Ingram lost his balance and crashed into the basket support. Again the refs called the foul on Ingram. You can see the play at the very beginning of the video:

Key stats: the Lakers outscored the Rockets by 16 in the paint, but the Rockets had a 30–18 advantage in free throws.

San Antonio (L)

Demar DeRozan became the Spurs’ defacto point guard and had a career high 14 assists versus the Lakers. Apparently, Coach Popovich is so good, he turned DeRozan into LeBron James (they both had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 14 assists).

This was a strange game, with many twists and turns. For the first 6:32 of the game, San Antonio made 10 of their first 11 shots and took a 24–7 lead. In the last 50 seconds of overtime, they outscored the Lakers 7–0.

For the other 44:38, the Lakers outscored San Antonio by 23.

When it was all said and done, all LeBron James had to do was make two free throws to either win the game or force a second overtime in the worst case scenario.

Key stats: 8 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks. That was the stat line for Johnathan Williams, an undrafted small ball 5 who had been with the Lakers since Summer League. After a month of watching the Lakers’ reserve centers get torched by teams with good big men, the Lakers turned to Williams at the end of the 3rd quarter in desperation after Ivaca Zubac picked up 5 fouls in 5 minutes. He kept them in the game by containing Aldridge a little and making some key defensive plays.

Phoenix (W)

This wasn’t much of a contest, as a young team with poor 3-point shooting and a high turnover rate plays into the strengths of an elite running team like the Lakers. Defense and turnovers created a 22-point half time lead, and Lance Stephenson dominated the game when he was on the floor (23/8/8) with the second best game of his career, allowing LeBron, Kuzma and McGee to sit out the 4th quarter and rest for the next game.

Key stats: the Lakers outscored the Suns by 20 in the 2nd quarter as they had 6 steals that led to fast break points. The Lakers coasted for much of the second half, but still ended with 68 points in the paint and 23 fast break points. LeBron had 10 assists and 0 turnovers, as the team had only 2 turnovers during the first 3 quarters.

Denver (W)

On the second night of a back to back, the Lakers played their best overall game of the season, with LeBron finally taking over a game in crunch time. Even though they gave up 114 points, this was truly a defensive victory, as they limited Denver’s strong front court players to “only” 22 of 44 shots, a minus-1 differential in offensive rebounds, and a minus-6 point differential in second chance points. The Lakers’ backcourt of Ball and Hart harassed the Denver starting guards with 6 combined steals, and did a good job of contesting 3-pointers as Murray and Harris combined to make only 2 for 8 3-point shots.

Key stats: LeBron had the most efficient triple double performance in the history of Staples Center (4th best in NBA history), with 28–11–11, only 2 turnovers and 3 steals, while shooting 58.3%. (Kobe had a game in 2004 with 31–11–12, 2 turnovers, and 0 steals, but shot 45.8%.)

Of the 32 games of at least 28–11–11 with 2 turnovers or less, LeBron is #1, #3, #4 and #8 on this list when sorted for most points scored, and has six total appearances. Other notables and their appearances: Bird (4), Magic (2), Kidd (2), Westbrook (2), Webber (2), Jokic (2), Jordan (1), Kobe (1).

San Antonio (L)

This was a tough loss for the Lakers as they led 88–77 with 2:32 left in the 3rd quarter and fell apart.

Give Popovich credit for his adjustments, as the Spurs slowed down the pace, dominated the offensive boards, getting 16 second chance points, and prevented the Lakers from scoring at will in the paint as they have against everyone else this season.

Key stats: Two inches. That’s the difference in height between DeMar DeRozan, who hit the game-winning shot over Josh Hart with 15.9 seconds left and the score 106–105. Two inches is also the difference in height between Brandon Ingram (still suspended), and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan again exploded for 30 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists on 60.8% shooting. He actually shot better on mid range jump shots (11 of 18) than he did in the paint (3 of 5). I can’t help but wonder if the taller Ingram wouldn’t have made the difference in containing DeRozan in two games decided by one possession in the last 30 seconds.

Special note: San Antonio had a defensive rating of 102.8 tonight, which would make them a top 5 defense for the season. Contrast this with their 118.6 rating for the season, good for 30th in the NBA. I don’t know if this performance was an anomaly, the beginning of a new trend, or simply a case of the old master getting the better of young Luke.

Conclusions

It’s far too early to see any real trends that haven’t already been discussed in great length and detail since the opening of training camp. I hoped the Lakers would be 4–2 at this point, but completely underestimated the Spurs after the Lakers swept them last year. Here are the positives so far:

  1. Lonzo Ball’s improved shooting. He’s making 40.7% of his 3-pointers on decent volume (5.4 attempts per game).
  2. Kuzma has been set free. Since the suspensions, Kuzma was able to start at his normal position, instead of banging bigs as a backup small ball 5. Without the physical pounding, he has fresher legs and back to being an offensive force, averaging 22.7 ppg, and 4.8 rpg, with a .500 FG% and .346 3P%, and .909 FT%.
  3. Johnathan Williams has made a huge difference as a small ball backup center. He’s a hard nosed, mobile defender, who has played in the post his whole life, so he knows all the right rotations.
  4. Playing with pace. The Lakers are #1 in fast break points, #1 in fast break efficiency, #1 in steals, #2 in points in the paint, #3 in assists, #4 in assists per possession, #5 in assist/turnover ratio, #7 in blocks, which all power the running game.
  5. Offensive efficiency. The Lakers have jumped up to #7 in offensive efficiency (last year, they were #24), and #9 in turnovers per game (last year, they were #29). These improvements are huge, and should help the team’s half court offense, as well.

Unfortunately, there are negatives, as well.

  1. Rebounding. The Lakers dropped from #6 to #25 in offensive rebounding %, and only #23 in team total rebounding. Second chance points are absolutely killing the Lakers: (-11 point differential) in a 9-point lose to Portland; (-8 point differential) in a 4-point loss to San Antonio
  2. Defense. The defense has dropped off considerably (from #13 to #22), especially the ability to defend 3-point defense. where they were the #3 defense against 3-point shooters last year, but have dropped to #17. This is a problem that may never improve. LeBron James is the Lakers’ best player in almost every way, but he no longer wastes energy running out to contest open 3-point shooters, even though this cost them the first San Antonio game. If teams can get a switch where a good 3-point shooter is off ball, while LeBron in playing help defense in the paint, there are going to be a lot of wide open corner 3’s this season.
  3. Interior Play. Javale McGee has been one of the most pleasant surprises with his energy, rim protection and vertical threat on offense. The reason I list this as a negative is because he can only be counted on playing 20–25 minutes per game. This leaves half a game where the Lakers are praying that an undrafted G-League destined player can fill in as a small ball center. San Antonio found a game plan that worked, and other teams with big dominant centers will follow suit.

Most people thought the Lakers needed about 20 games to figure out how the piece work. But the Lakers are six games into the season, and they have to restart this process after the suspensions of Rondo and Ingram, and the addition of Johnathan Williams to the rotation.

The Lakers had 4th quarter leads in 4 of their first 5 games against other playoff teams, but only won one of them. With time and the law of averages, they will start winning these kinds of games.

More important are the upcoming games against Minnesota, Dallas, Sacramento and Atlanta, which will be a big indicator of where the Lakers end the season. Good playoff teams find a way to win most of the games against bad teams, then look to split games against other playoff contenders.

If they can be 10–10, given their difficult early schedule, the Lakers will be about where I thought they would be to start the season. If not, look for some panic from fans and the possibility of some deals when the trading period opens up.

Written by

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

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