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Giannis won this round

NBA Hot Take 11–13–17

How injuries and great rookies remake the balance of NBA power

Watching the Lakers-Celtics game Wednesday night was a primer on what separates playoff and non-playoff teams. Here are a few observations, plus a deeper dive into what can change the balance of power in the NBA:

  1. Young teams like the Lakers haven’t learned to play on the road. The team played their worst quarter of the season, by missing layups, committing 10 turnovers, and not boxing out on the offensive glass. Trailing by 17 after one quarter is a good formula for losing.
  2. A great coach has an even greater influence against a young team. Brad Stephen’s preparation and schemes were the key in the first quarter run by the Celtics. His backup big, Daniel Theis got beat by Kuzma on a drive, but hedged to his right in anticipation of Kuzma’s patented spin move and blocked the shot. On other occasions, the Celtics’ coach used plays that took advantage of Lopez and Bogut’s lack of mobility, and the Lakers’ new-found Top-10 defense crumbled under a hail of post-ups, offensive rebounds and layups.
  3. The team that has the best player on the floor usually wins. Tonight, Kyrie Irving was the main difference in a game where the Lakers fought back to cut a 20 point deficit to 2 in the third quarter. They kept making runs, but Irving did just enough to keep the lead until the Lakers’ coach reinserted Lopez at the end of the game and the defense withered again.
  4. The margin between the #1 team in the East and the #11 team in the West was not as large as expected. With Horford out of the lineup, the Lakers had to commit 20 turnovers and miss 16 (no, this is not a typo) layups to assure a Celtic’s victory. And that leads me to the idea of how a team’s lineup is like a chain. If you remove one link, everything shifts, and possibly breaks during certain games.

Comparing Lineups

For this analysis, I use PER ratings. I know they don’t perfectly mirror the value certain players bring to their team in terms of defense, movement or other intangibles. Draymond Green and Andre Igoudala are key parts of the Warrior championships, but their PER ratings are not impressive.

The Celtics have two stars, two great young prospects, and some good role players. Here’s their lineup based on PER ratings:

Irving 22.60
Horford 20.31
Baynes 15.54
Tatum 17.70
Brown 13.52

Bench: Morris (18.99), Theis (14.49), Smart (11.85), Rozier (14.19), Ojeleye (7.05), Larkin (5.93)

The Lakers have no stars (yet), but a core of four great young prospects, and some good role players. Here’s their lineup based on PER ratings:

Ball 8.76
KCP 10.63
Lopez 19.11
Ingram 13.18
Nance 19.60

Bench: Randle (21.38), Clarkson (21.72), Kuzma (16.55), Hart (6.68), Ennis (10.96), Brewer (3.73), Bogut (5.99)

Under normal circumstances, the Celtics would have a big edge with the starters, while the Lakers would have a big edge on the bench. This is born out by NBA team stats, as of this morning. The Celtics starters have are #4 in the league with a +15.7 point differential, while the Lakers starters are #24, with a -11.6 point differential. On the other hand, the Lakers, as of this writing, have the #3 bench in the league (+11.2 points), while the Celtics are 12th (+2.1). Add it all up, and you would expect the Celtics starters to dominate, and the Lakers bench to chip away at the deficit, but fall short unless the Celtics go cold in their shooting.

That has been the formula for the Lakers initial 5–5 record (before the current road trip) where 8 out of the 10 games played were against playoff-level teams. The bench has fought back and generated fourth quarter leads against three playoff teams (New Orleans, Portland, Washington), and through bad coaching, poor shooting, the team won one of those games. When the team shot well from beyond the arc, they beat Detroit by 20, and Memphis by 5.

(Note: last year, the Lakers bench was #2 in the league, but the starters were #30 with a -27 points per game. It’s easy to see why they lost 56 games).


But what happens when teams have injuries? If it’s a star player, the weakening effects ripple all the way down the lineup. Imagine Cleveland without Lebron, or Houston without Harden.

In the Lakers-Celtics game, each team was without a starter (Horford, and Nance Jr.), but the differences between the starters were relatively small, in that the Celtics still had four starters above league average, while the Lakers still had two starters above league average.

The big change is what happened when everyone moved up a notch in the lineup. Instead of the Lakers having an enormous edge with three above league average players (Randle, Clarkson, Kuzma) they have only two, and are forced to use players (Brewer, Bogut) who are so unplayable on one side of the floor or the other, the Lakers bench no longer dominated the Celtics’ whose best two players are just below league average players (Theis, Rozier).

I know I’m not factoring things that don’t show up in these stats like Marcus Smart’s defense, or Lonzo Ball’s playmaking. But this simple analysis shows how the Celtics normal starters would put the best two players on the floor (and four of the top six), while the Lakers bench would put the best two players on the floor (with three of the top four).

As it turned out, the Celtics starters outscored their counterparts by the expected double digits (+13), but the Lakers bench only enjoyed a small advantage (+2), resulting in an 11-point win for Boston.

Any change in the other factors (missed layups, long offensive rebounds, superior coaching, and, of course, the numerous bad calls that favor superstars and the home team) could have completely changed the course of this game.

Free Agents

When a team adds a top free agent, the opposite effect happens. Everyone gets moved down one spot in the lineup chain, so the entire team gets stronger. For the Celtics, the hope was that signing Gordon Hayward would lift them up from being a very good team to a championship contender. Though still far below the Warriors, they had a shot at beating the Cavs. With Hayward’s injury, I don’t think they can overcome Lebron James just yet. He’s still playing at too high a level. And his team will actually try to play defense once the playoffs begin.

In spite of their current winning streak, and playing in the weaker Eastern Conference, there are signs that this is only a good, not elite, team with a great coach. They needed 35 points on 63% shooting by Kyrie Irving to beat the 2–9 Atlanta Hawks on the road last Monday (including six points in the last 1:37 to overcome a two point deficit). Almost blowing a 23-point second quarter lead against the Lakers at home was as much a testament to the holes in the Celtics roster as it was the fighting spirit and energy from the Lakers young players. Without Horford and Irving, the Celtics had to overcome a 12-point 4th quarter deficit against Charlotte. With Horford back and shooting 8 for 9, they still barely won against Toronto.

For the Lakers, adding one top free agent suddenly turns them into a very good team. While the Celtics might have the best player on the floor, add Paul George to the Lakers and now they have maybe the second, fifth and sixth best players on the floor (even with Hayward in the lineup). Throw in the improved scoring of Ingram and Ball’s playmaking, and the gap between the starters tightens considerably, while the Lakers bench (Randle, Kuzma, Clarkson, KCP) increases their lead over a Celtics bench (Morris, Brown, Smart, Rozier).

Great Rookies

People have been roasting Lonzo Ball in the media because of his poor shooting, but on Saturday, we saw what happens if he gets hot:

Not only did he have a triple-double, he had 3 steals and 4 blocks. Those are historic numbers.

While there are a number of great rookies this year, as the season moves forward, teams will figure out all the top rookies and take away their strengths. Then we’ll see if they will truly be impact players.

Meanwhile, with a target on his back, Ball is already at an elite level in four out of the five major stats. Among ALL GUARDS, Lonzo is #4 in rebounding, #6 in assists, #21 in steals, and #2 in blocks.

But the best thing is his decision making. Lonzo’s assist/turnover ratio of 2.82 is better than the the top in 5 assists (Westbrook, Harden, Wall, Teague and Simmons), better than superstars such as Lebron (1.82), Curry (2.56), Lilliard (2.11), and the Greek Freak (1.37) and the best of the rookies. When Lonzo gets the strength to finish at the rim, he will be a triple-double machine.

Imagine the Lakers without Ball and Kuzma (who is a lock on making the All-Rookie first team, along with Simmons and Tatum).

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

Even though the Warriors loom as the dominant team in the league, there are many subplots that will keep this season interesting until the February trade deadline, and possibly through the playoffs. (Let’s hope this year’s post season doesn’t resembles last year’s imitation of Sherman’s march to the sea.)

Can the newly constructed “super teams” (Minnesota, New Orleans, Houston, OKC) turn into something special, or will the sum of the parts remain greater than the whole?

There is also the hero’s quest, as fans wonder if their superstars (Irving, Porzingis, the Greek Freak, Cousins and Davis) can scale the heights to challenge NBA royalty of Curry-Durant in the West and Lebron in the East.

Will there be one big trade that changes the balance of power in the East?

This year seems to be an especially strong rookie crop, with Simmons, Ball, Tatum, Mitchell, Markkanen, Kuzma, Fox, Jackson and Smith Jr. all playing significant roles on their teams.

Fans for each team have hopes that these players turn into a force for the next ten years. For me, watching the baby Lakers competing is almost like watching your kid play little league — they may not be very good against the big boys, but youth means potential, and a hope for the future. Over the last two years, the team has come out of the stone ages, with the final departure of the fossils once known as Kobe Bryant, Byron Scott, Mitch Kupchak and Jimmy Buss. A team grounded in rock pounding, ball-hogging, inefficient two-pointers and statue-like defense, all played at a glacial pace has been replaced by a team that shows the promise of Showtime 2.0.

Written by

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

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