NBA Week 2: Are the Suns Flying too Close to the Sun?

At what point do hot takes turn into serious trends?

#1: At least one of the young teams in the West (Phoenix, Dallas, Minnesota, Sacramento and New Orleans) is going to displace a team from the old guard, and maybe two.

Aside from the Clippers and the Lakers, every recent western playoff team has shown weaknesses that could make them vulnerable this season:

  1. San Antonio: their coach is too good and the players are too disciplined to miss the playoffs, even though they don’t have the talent of a lot of other teams. If a key player gets injured in the West, this team seems like the one that will suffer the smallest drop off. They probably won’t have a better record than the next three or four teams, but I think one of those teams could crash and burn this season.
  2. Utah: I’ve watched them lose to the L.A. teams and look pathetic on offense. But they’ve also lost their defensive toughness without Rikcky Rubio and Jae Crowder. Mike Conley looks washed. He can’t defend anymore and doesn’t have the speed to beat people off the dribble.
  3. Denver: usually, roster continuity means a team will kill all the newly assembled teams at the beginning of a season, as they did last year when the Nuggets started 9–1. This year, it seems like the team is suffering from cabin fever and they don’t want to be on the court anymore. The loss to depleted New Orleans was an embarrassment, and they should have lost to Phoenix as well.
  4. Portland: they took a big swing with Whiteside, but their bench has been emptied. Aminu, Jurkic, Harkless, Kanter, Turner, Curry and Layman are all gone. The core of Lillard, McCollum, and Collins is all that remains (until Nurkic recovers from his injury). They have no good wing defenders left in a conference where they will play against Kawhi, Paul George, LeBron, Doncic, Harden, DeRozan, Booker, and eventually Zion. This looks like a formula for a .500 season.
  5. Houston: the Rockets are a defensive mess and this won’t change. With Westbrook’s poor outside shooting, this doesn’t look like a winning combination.
  6. Oklahoma City: even with Steven Adams in the lineup, this team doesn’t look like a playoff team.
  7. Golden State: they are snake bit, and well on their way to being a lottery team.

With the fall of OKC and Golden State, there is one playoff spot that is open in the west, unless one of the other teams above collapses.

My favorite new team is Phoenix, who beat the mighty 76ers and look like the real deal.

They are two plays away from being the only undefeated team in the NBA, having lost by one point at Denver and at home against the Jazz.

Devin Booker, a 6' 5" shooting guard, has looked unstoppable in wins over Ben Simmons and the 76ers (40/4/3) and Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers (30/6/8). He’s on fire, with a TS% of 65.1%.

Ricky Rubio has added the defense and play making skills to complement Booker’s scoring ability. Aaron Baynes can and will shoot from beyond the arc, so he is the perfect stretch big to open up the paint for all Booker and Oubre. Add in Dario Saric and you have a starting five with a net rating of +18.7.

For context, Milwaukee’s best five (Giannis, Bledsoe, Middleton, Matthews, Lopez) is +21.8.

Philadelphia’s starters (Horford, harris, Embiid, Richardson, Simmons) is +15.9.

The Clippers’ crunch time lineup (Leonard, Williams, Harrell, Harkless, Green) is +14.7.

And the Lakers’ starters (LeBron, Davis, Bradley, Green and McGee) is -1.9.

Dallas has the second best chance of grabbing the 8th spot.

The Mavs are the one of the best young teams in the West and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the playoffs, too.

While Luka Doncic is playing like an All-Star and Porzingis looks healthy, the Mavs starting lineup is a work in progress.

According to 5-man stats, the Dallas starters are #22 in point differential at -9.

This is also born out by the net ratings of their best lineups:

The lineup of Doncic, Porzingis, Wright, Kleber, and Brunson is -8.0.

The lineup of Doncic, Porzingis, Curry, Powell, and Finney-Smith is -22.7.

Seven of the eight lineups featuring Doncic and Porzingis that have the most minutes all have negative ratings.

Only the lineup of Doncic, Porzingis, Curry, Powell, and Brunson is positive, at +6.5.

The Mav could have beaten the Lakers in Dallas last week, with huge advantages on the boards and in 3-point shooting, while the Lakers played with no energy in the first half.

Like so many young, talented teams, the Mavs made a few of crucial mistakes at the end and in overtime.

The Mavs lost their determination briefly because of the disappointment they did not win in regulation, and the Lakers jumped out to a 7–0 run to start the overtime. Dallas bounced back to cut the deficit to two points, then Davis and LeBron dominated to put the game away.

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#2: Maybe I was too quick to count out the Pelicans.

They lost in overtime to Toronto, blew an early double digit lead over the Mavs, and played Houston down to the wire without Zion Williamson, and missed Jrue Holiday for the Houston and Golden State games.

Watching the Denver-New Orleans game last night reinforced my original prediction that Denver would be a good regular season team but fall short of championship level.

While that game — a blow out victory by the winless Pelicans over the Nuggets — didn’t change my mind about Denver, it made me rethink me early take on the Pelicans.

Maybe the team, and my young ex-Lakers aren’t as bad as I thought. They adjusted to the loss of Zion and finally got the defensive performance of Jrue Holiday that I anticipated before the season began.

Brandon Ingram has been a good stats on a bad team guy this season, but he has made another jump since last season.

Although his 50% shooting on 3-pointers isn’t sustainable his improved passing and rebounding are. In past seasons with the Lakers, he had a patches of All-Star level play, averaging 19/6/4 in January, 2019, and 18/5/5 in February of 2018. This season, as the #1 option, he’s averaging almost 27/8/5. That will tail off, especially when Zion comes back, but his new coach is putting him in open floor situations all the time where he can either pull up for a quick three (he is averaging 6.4 three-pointers per game compared to less than two under Luke Walton’s terrible Lakers offenses), or drive to the rim. His shot chart for this game looks a lot more like a modern NBA player (almost all three-pointers or shots in the paint) than it did with the Lakers.

Lonzo Ball is probably never going to become a go-to scoring threat, but his jump shot looks completely different than it did when he was with the Lakers.

Can we just ascribe his problems over the previous two seasons to bad offensive schemes and the lack of a shooting coach?

I know it’s early, but that improved shooting form (37.5% on three-pointers and 75% at the free throw line) represent the improvement he needs to make another big jump. With a new coach, a system that stresses running, and the clear job as the #1 point guard (no competing for minutes with Rajon Rondo, or deferring all the time to LeBron James), Lonzo is back to his rookie level, averaging almost 7.5 assists and only 1.6 turnovers.

Josh Hart has earned starter minutes as the first guard off the bench. Because of politics (Klutch Sports and LeBron’s hold over the Lakers), Hart struggled to get big minutes, even when KCP was playing terrible basketball. With his strength, he gets minutes at small forward and guard, and he’s averaging almost 14 points and 6 rebounds per game, while shooting 40% from deep.

In Alvin Gentry’s system, the young ex-Lakers are all taking over six three-pointer per game.

With the offense averaging over 120 points per game, the only question is if this team can defend.

They have five games before hosting the Clippers, so we’ll have a good idea of their capabilities if they can put together some wins. (Unfortunately, Ingram got hurt against Oklahoma City, and Ball got cramps against Brooklyn, so health issues continue.)

Caruso highlight dunk

#3: The Lakers’ internal struggles will determine team success more than the teams they play.

Over the first five games of the season (aside from the first seven minutes of the opening day game against the Clippers), the Lakers starters have been terrible, and the team has been terrible in the first half, with a -4.6 net rating (bottom 10 in the league).

The only factor possible to explain the terrible starting lineup is politics. (These stats do not include Kuzma, who missed the first four games of the season, and will take some time to integrate into the lineup.)

Three players have provided the spark in the third quarters where the Lakers have either gotten back into the game, or built double-digit leads: Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP), and Dwight Howard.

While Coach Vogel has shifted the majority of the minutes to Howard over McGee, the same can’t be said about the Lakers’ two most productive guards.

Caruso is the best overall point guard on the Lakers. He’s the best team defender and rebounder, second best (after Rondo) in setting up the offense, and can switch onto small forwards.

KCP, after missing every shot the first two games, has come back to 4 of 11 three-pointers, with three games shooting 50% or better from the field. He is the Lakers’ fastest guard, and can play good on-ball defense against point guards and follow them around screens. He can’t guard small forwards, so any switch usually results in an easy basket or giving up an offensive rebound.

Here are the overall net ratings of 5-man lineups:

The starters with LeBron, Davis, Green, Bradley, and McGee are -1.9.

Substitute Howard for McGee, and their net rating is +74.6.

Substitute KCP for McGee, and their net rating is +35.0.

Substitute Caruso for McGee, and their net rating is +25.4.

We can use the five man lineups to also isolate how well players perform on the court together.

Here are the net ratings for Lebron playing with one of the Lakers’ point guards:

Caruso: 28 of 35 minutes (80%) have a net rating of at least +23.1, and 7 minutes with a negative net rating.

KCP: 63 of 85 minutes (74.1%) have a net rating over +16.3, 5 slightly positive minutes, and 21 minutes having a negative net rating.

Daniels: 41 of 57 minutes (71.9%) have a net rating over +13.3, 1 neutral minute, and 15 minutes with a negative net rating.

Cook: 16 of 37 minutes (43.2%) have a net rating of over +25.0, 12 minutes slightly positive, and 9 minutes with a net negative rating

Bradley: 45 of 113 minutes (39.8%) have a net rating of over +13.3, 14 slightly positive minutes, and 62 minutes with a negative net rating.

It’s clear that Caruso provides the defense, rebounding and off-ball movement that helps LeBron maximize his talents.

KCP, as part of LeBron’s Klutch Sports team, has and will always receive more playing time, no matter how badly he played over the last two years. It’s hard to say right now whether he’s playing a little better this year, or if the Lakers’ other guards are so much worse compared to previous two seasons.

Half the time Bradley is on the court with LeBron they have a negative net rating. Bradley’s stats were even worse before his best game of the season at San Antonio on Sunday, when he shot 7 for 9 and scored 16 points.

These are small sample sizes, so it’s early to see if there will be any changes, but the minutes distribution is as follows: Bradley (27.8), KCP (24.0), Caruso (16.4), Cook (15.7) and Daniels (15.5).

I shudder to think of what will happen to Caruso’s minutes, and the team overall, when Rondo comes back.

Rondo (last year): 228 of 605 minutes (37.8%) with a net rating over +5.0, 76 minutes with a neutral or slightly positive net rating, and 301 minutes with a negative net rating.

It’s incredible to think a team could sacrifice winning because of player egos and internal politics, but that was certainly evident in the way Luke Walton treated Julius Randle and then Caruso.

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