Taking the NBA’s Temperature: Clearing Up Some Big-Picture Questions

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It’s still early enough in the NBA marathon that one short-term injury or random string of easy games can carry undue influence over how we perceive a team. But we’ve reached the point where it’s useful to search out surprising early trends, ask which ones might have staying power, and update projections.

As we enter Week 3, here are some early big-picture questions, quirks, and story lines to watch:

Cloudy at the Top

I mean, look at the preseason favorites flailing around:

Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland is at 3-3 after two get-well wins, but their defense has been a disaster, and their offense burped out points at only a league-average rate until exploding Monday against the Pelicans. The Cavs will be fine on that end, but the stickiness of their offense — especially highlighted against Miami’s continued pass-happy scoring — is a humbling reminder of how difficult it is to construct a modern, go-go NBA system.

“It’s a habit you build,” Erik Spoelstra told me last week in Charlotte, discussing his team’s continued success. “You learn how to play together and make the game easier for each other. It’s not something that’s instinctive for any basketball player, from the youth level all the way up through here.”

Cleveland isn’t there yet. No team has finished more possessions via isolation plays, per Synergy, and the Cavs are dead last in total assist chances.1 They’re using post-ups too often as vehicles for a shot, rather than as a way to draw help and whip the ball around.

In Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland has two guys who have spent their basketball lives either dribbling the ball or waiting to get it back so they can start dribbling again. It is their learned instinct to hold the ball when they catch it after a nice passing sequence, as Waiters does here in torpedoing a promising curl play:

They have never been in an environment where they’ve had to catch the ball against a defense tilted away from them and then instantly do something with it — drive, pass, or shoot.

They’ll end up with one of the league’s two or three best offenses, but the journey there might be more ragged than anticipated.

The lack of rim protection has been as advertised on defense, especially when teams drag Anderson Varejao away from the basket. Cleveland doesn’t have the tools to solve that problem without a trade.

The Cavs have toggled between several different styles on defense, but they’ve mostly been very aggressive — a slower, ground-bound version of the LeBron-era Heat, trapping and leaping out hard on pick-and-rolls. That’s taxing on the big men doing the trapping, but it also makes newish demands of both Irving and Waiters. They have to leave their man, crash into the paint, and dart back out. They can’t be late inside, and their recoveries outside have to be on point — no gambling in passing lanes, no lazy footwork, no shaky balance.

Shockingly, two guys who have played zero minutes of meaningful defense in their NBA careers have struggled. This crunch-time possession against the Knicks is indicative:

In the span of a few seconds, Irving dies on a pick, Waiters blows a closeout on J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love does what he does in the lane.

LeBron hasn’t defended up to his standards, lazily switching assignments, losing track of his guy away from the ball, and leaking out before the possession is over.

The Cavs have time to clean this up, but if they aren’t defending in the ballpark of a top-10 level by April, they’re probably not winning the title.

But who is? We know what has befallen the Thunder. Chicago has scored like gangbusters, a great sign, but that’s mostly thanks to an angel food cake schedule and a super-fun bench that has blown the doors off everyone. The Pau Gasol–Joakim Noah starting duo has been awkward, and in what might be the biggest shock of the season, the burly Bulls rank next to dead stinking last in defensive rebounding rate. Quicker guys slither around Gasol, and Noah is clearly not right after offseason knee surgery.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers just don’t look right. They’ve allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark worthy of 19th place in the league, and they’ve hemorrhaged points when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan share the floor. That’s a reversal from last season. Both have looked out of sorts; Jordan is back to his old hyper-jumpy ways, and Griffin’s pick-and-roll defense has been uneven.

They know better, and they’ve shown in spurts this season they can dial it up when it matters.

The Clips can score, but it has always felt like they get by more on talent than clean roster fit. Griffin has overindulged on midrange jumpers, but when he plays next to Spencer Hawes instead of Jordan, Griffin morphs back into a bulldozer; about 55 percent of Griffin’s shots have come in the restricted area when Jordan sits, compared to just 28 percent when Jordan clogs up the lane, per NBA.com.2

When Griffin dives into the lane instead of popping another jumper, he often must resort to tricky layups if Jordan is lurking nearby:

There’s no macro issue here. This was the best offensive team in the league last season, and the Clips have used killer passing to squeeze the ball through tight spaces; the Griffin-Jordan high-low is probably the best example, an improvisational way for Griffin, a great passer, to create a better option than that floater.

But the spacing is tighter now, since the world knows Matt Barnes is in a horrific shooting slump:

BARNESSPACING2

Jamal Crawford has supplanted Barnes in the starting lineup, but the Clippers won’t defend well enough to survive the West if they lean too much on a Crawford–J.J. Redick pairing. They need Barnes to sniff league-average accuracy from deep, and they should at least see what they have in Reggie Bullock.

San Antonio Spurs: For my entire adult life, the answer to the question “Should we worry about the Spurs?” has been “NO!” — preferably delivered with a Popesque scowl. San Antonio is 3-3 with a sputtering offense that ranks just 29th in points per possession — unthinkable for this crew of basketball artists.

Look under the hood and you’ll find some warning signs. The Spurs are generating fewer open catch-and-shoot jumpers, per both SportVU tracking data and Synergy Sports. More of their shots are coming off the dribble and later in the shot clock. They’re jacking fewer corner 3s, a shot they practically invented, and bricking away from deep.

This is not a team that can compensate for subpar shooting with offensive rebounds and free throws, though they’re getting to the line more this season.

You want to fret about these guys? I won’t join (though I do find it unsettling that any camera shot of Gregg Popovich’s beard triggers the memory of Will Ferrell playing the Unabomber). The track record is too good, the extenuating circumstances too serious. Kawhi Leonard can barely see straight due to a lingering eye infection, and he’s finding his rhythm after missing games in both the preseason and regular season. Tiago Splitter, a crucial two-way cog, is dealing with nerve issues causing pain in both his back and calf. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are hurt, and the Spurs have already sacrificed one game with an eye on long-term health.

Interlopers Abound

While the favorites have scuffed about, at least three Western Conference teams have rammed their way into the fringes of the championship picture.

Golden State Warriors: The hyped-up Warriors resemble what they were last season — a killer defensive team with a starry offense that doesn’t produce at a level matching the talent. Golden State ranks just 17th in points per possession, even though it’s dishing about 74 more passes per game compared to last season, per NBA.com.3

Aesthetic beauty might improve your League Pass ranking, but it doesn’t make you a better team unless it comes from an offense that actually, you know, scores more points.

When I played water polo in high school, our coach4 would sometimes create a separate category on the stat sheet called “D.A. Plays.” It stood for “dumbass plays” — mistakes that didn’t show up in traditional stats, or turnovers so heinous they needed their own category.

Steve Kerr needs to institute this. The Warriors have turned the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions, a rate that would be the worst in league history. That will obviously come down. The Dubs were a high-turnover team for much of last season, including the playoffs, and some of the butterfingers might be endemic to their roster. The Warriors rank toward the bottom of the league in drives per game;5 Stephen Curry is their only reliable rim attacker, though Klay Thompson is getting better at it; and, more than a lot of teams, the Warriors have to rely on passing to create good looks.

Lots of passes can lead to lots of turnovers, especially when spacing gets tight. Nobody guards Andrew Bogut beyond the block/charge circle, Harrison Barnes isn’t scaring anyone from deep, and Andre Iguodala barely looks at the basket anymore. The Splash Brothers cure a lot of spacing issues, and when David Lee comes back, the Dubs should be able to ease their second-unit woes by using him as a central cog and featuring one starter (Thompson so far) with the bench guys.

But holy crap are there a lot of D.A. plays here — Curry flinging behind-the-back passes out of bounds, Bogut tossing an inbounds pass to the other team, and other Keystone Kops nonsense.

If the Warriors exercise some discipline, you can see the upside: the new starting lineup, with Draymond Green in Lee’s place, is a two-way demolition crew, and the team could have enough depth when healthy to wean them off their Curry dependence on offense.

Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis has rampaged in ways that bode well long-term, despite any noise about playing an easy schedule to start the season. Memphis sports the league’s third-stingiest defense, and though its offense overall has been bad, it has thrived with the new starting wing duo of Tony Allen and Courtney Lee on the floor, per NBA.com.

Injuries and caution with Vince Carter have thrust Tayshaun Prince into a larger role than anticipated, and Prince’s midrange bricks have dragged Memphis’s offense down.

Just about every bench player has started ice cold, and Jon Leuer cannot nail down the fourth big-man job. Carter and Quincy Pondexter will eventually find their shots, and Kosta Koufos is presumably aware the point of the game is to put the ball into the basket — and not to bang it off the rim as hard as possible. The ingredients for a really good team are here.

Houston Rockets: Houston, while also playing an easy schedule, has managed to rack up the league’s best point differential. Battering the dregs isn’t as impressive as piling up road wins against contenders, but history suggests it’s just as meaningful an indicator of championship equity.

James Harden and Howard are both playing like MVP candidates; Harden has rediscovered the concept of trying on defense, and Howard, always destructive on that end, is a tidy 21-of-40 on post-ups so far, per Synergy.6 Trevor Ariza is hailing death from long range, and this team’s shot selection — all rim, 3s, and free throws — is comically Moreyesque.

These guys may still be a piece away. Kostas Papanikolaou has done well at both forward positions, especially next to Howard, but it’s hard to pencil him in as a crunch-time player when he’s shooting 29 percent. Isaiah Canaan has to prove it over the long haul, Donatas Motiejunas has been unreliable, and though Terrence Jones is a really nice player, he faces a size disadvantage against several Western Conference playoff teams.

Still, the start is encouraging, and no one can keep these guys off the line.

Portland, Dallas, and the Question of Defense

Portland is sixth in points allowed per possession, and given their polished offensive attack, these Blazers will be a legitimate threat if they can maintain a top-10 defense.

The Blazers haven’t changed their scheme, in part because they ranked as an above-average defense after the All-Star break last season, Terry Stotts, the team’s head coach, tells Grantland. They’re still playing a conservative style — dropping back against pick-and-rolls, staying close to shooters on the wing, and diving inside to help only when there is a real threat.

That system produced the second-lowest turnover rate in franchise history last season, but Stotts studied past champions and decided to basically punt turnovers, he says. “It’s just not a priority,” he says. “Good defensive teams don’t necessarily force a lot of turnovers.” Portland is switching more on pick-and-rolls involving screeners with range — Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, etc. — and banking on LaMarcus Aldridge to contain point guards off the dribble.

Much of the early improvement is due to continuity and comfort, Stotts says. He revamped the entire scheme before last season, meaning everyone spent last year learning it. This is Year 2, and it shows. Everyone is moving on the same string, shifting into and out of help position in concert. It looks downright fluid sometimes:

Portland is also paying more attention to transition defense. Stotts has told Nicolas Batum to be more cautious crashing the offensive glass, especially when Damian Lillard either drives or takes a corner 3. “He’d get one or two offensive rebounds a game, but it can’t come at the expense of getting back on defense,” Stotts says.

It hasn’t hurt, since Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman are snagging a ton of offensive rebounds — especially when their defenders rotate out toward an Aldridge jumper, leaving Kaman and Lopez inside position. Kaman has fit in beautifully on both ends.

The news isn’t quite as good in Dallas, where the Mavs rank 26th in points allowed per possession and last in defensive rebounding. You can’t chase a ring like that, even if you bring the best offense in the league — as Dallas does right now.

The Mavs have generally gone small when Nowitzki sits, and those groups, with Chandler Parsons or Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, are getting slaughtered on the glass. The team starts only one plus defender, Tyson Chandler, and almost every guard in the rotation is undersize.

Rick Carlisle has a tough juggling act on his hands. He could use another good defender in the starting lineup, but given their salaries, it’s hard to see either Parsons or Monta Ellis coming off the bench. Carlisle will have to get creative staggering the rotation, finding minutes on the wing for Aminu and the recently unearthed Jae Crowder — and experimenting with bigger lineups when Nowitzki rests. Carlisle broke out the Brandan Wright–Chandler combination over the weekend, but Dallas just doesn’t have a true power forward behind Nowitzki.

Good news: It’s a long season, and Carlisle is the league’s best tinkerer.

The Kings Might Be … Good

Man your fallout shelters and gather the canned goods, because DeMarcus Cousins is a legit MVP candidate. The Kings have outscored opponents by about 14 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the floor, and have been whipped by about the same margin when he sits.

He’s gobbling up foul shots at a Wilt-like rate and thriving as the centerpiece of a toned-down defense that mostly asks Cousins to sit back on the pick-and-roll:

KINGSICE

Cousins is only a so-so rim protector, but he’s a smart player, he has quick hands, and he moves his feet well. He confuses point guards because he doesn’t overcommit in either direction; he sits in that in-between zone — a big, scary body that is simultaneously in the way and a threat to swipe any pocket pass to the rolling big man.

The rest of the Kings seem to better understand Mike Malone’s principles, and this team, long a laughingstock on the defensive boards, is cleaning the glass for the second straight season.

Let’s go easy projecting the Kings into the playoffs in the brutal West. They don’t have a lot of 3-point shooting,7 and Sunday’s loss to the punchless Thunder might be a window into what happens when an opponent keeps Sacramento off the line. The starting lineup has scored at a bottom-five rate, and the team has hit just 29 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers — the second-worst mark in the league, according to available SportVU data.

Still, the Kings are sniffing top-10 status on both sides of the ball. What a start. The Lakers might represent the only easy victim in the West, Utah is 3-4 with an amped-up offense, and Minnesota has been competitive. But …

Hawks v RaptorsDave Sandford/NBAE/Getty Images

The Masai Ujiri Conundrum

The Spooky Mulder branch of Toronto fans has scanned this column, found no mention of the Drakes, and concluded that Grantland is yet another actor in the vast American conspiracy against Canadian sports. Adam Silver is CSM, yo.

Listen up: The Drakes are really, really good. Anyone in any country paying even token attention realizes this. They haven’t played a murderer’s row, but their only loss came on a road back-to-back in Miami, and they’ve stomped almost every opponent.

They’re up to seventh in points allowed per possession after a suspect start that appeared to be a bad carryover from last season, and they’re living at the line on offense. They’re driving to the basket about seven more times per game than last season, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan slicing through seams Toronto’s fluid side-to-side action opens up. Lowry is nabbing free throws at nearly double his career rate, and though it’s kind of disappointing DeRozan has abandoned the 3-pointer, at least he’s replacing those shots with some more free throws.

Terrence Ross found his stroke over the weekend, James Johnson is creating off the bounce, and their five-man bench mob is extending leads.

They’re not a title contender yet. Amir Johnson’s ankle issues are becoming a chronic problem, and Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t quite gotten on track. He’s fouling more, his minutes are down, and his rim protection is hit-and-miss.

Beware: This team is deep and rooted in continuity, with a fearsome home crowd challenging Golden State as the league’s most intimidating environment. They are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the unformed East.8

That this is kind of a happy accident, the product of an aborted near-tank last season, only makes the story more fun.

Meanwhile, the team that Ujiri helped build in Denver is a train wreck. The Nuggets are 1-5, miserable on both ends, with an ill-fitting roster of potential trade chips that have all declined in value. Some of this was inevitable; there are just too many guys coming off major injuries at the same time, and Danilo Gallinari predictably looks like a shell of himself after two knee surgeries.

These guys are in huge trouble if Ty Lawson’s ankle troubles flare up all season. They have zippo continuity on offense; every possession dies after one or two actions, and Lawson is their only reliable bailout guy. We still have no evidence that the Kenneth Faried–Timofey Mozgov back line can defend adequately, JaVale McGee is unwatchable, and this just seems like a volatile situation.

It will be fascinating to watch what happens if things go south. Denver will get calls on some of its guys, especially Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo, and they could veer into a rebuilding path. That will be tough. This team conceives of itself as a real playoff threat, and there is enough talent here, plus a real home-court advantage, that dive-bombing deep into the lottery might not be possible.

The Heat Look Hot

If Miami keeps playing like this, with the fifth-ranked offense, I’m going to eat serious crow after picking them to finish between sixth and eighth in the East — and declaring them at risk for missing the playoffs.

They’ve adapted their pace-and-space system perfectly for the post-LeBron era. They’re playing smallish lineups, with Shawne Williams starting at power forward, spreading the floor around Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng, and pinging the ball all over the court. Miami has assisted on 64.5 percent of its hoops, no. 2 in the league, and up from 58.8 percent last season, per NBA.com. It is legitimately stunning when Chris Bosh misses an open jumper.

They’re producing nearly the same number of corner 3s as they did with LeBron, driving to the rim at the same rate, and earning more trips to the line. Bosh and Josh McRoberts promise to make beautiful music together as McRoberts steps into more minutes. It’s as if they’ve removed everything only LeBron could do — isolations, targeted post-ups, etc. — and filled in with team-oriented actions.

“The principles are the same,” Spoelstra says. “How we do it is different.”

Reality will creep in at some point. Their shot selection has nudged in the wrong directions, Wade may wear down, their bench is questionable, and they can’t count on above-average defense night-to-night. But so far so good.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. The Czar’s Schedule Sketching

One of the great traditions of NBA broadcasting. The Nets local feed will show Brooklyn’s upcoming schedule, and Mike Fratello will Telestrate tiny images over the name of each opponent. He might draw a big pair of antlers for Milwaukee, the sun for Phoenix, or a golf club for one of the Florida teams.

The play-by-play guy, Ian Eagle or Ryan Ruocco, has to then guess what Fratello has drawn. Eagle has created an act of not knowing what the hell Fratello is trying to convey, and now Fratello is firing back by questioning how serious Eagle is about the exercise.

It’s delightful. I’ll say it again: From top to bottom, this is the best broadcast experience in the NBA.

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles ClippersAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

2. The Bricky Trey Burke

Burke is shooting 32 percent after clocking in at 38 percent last season. He doesn’t get to the line, he’s short, and he’s a liability on defense. He’s young, but at some point his shooting is going to become a problem.

Dante Exum is lurking, having outperformed expectations over a pretty hefty minutes load for a 19-year-old. He’s 11-of-12 combined from the restricted area and the corners, and he has shown a nice change-of-pace patience off the bounce — advanced stuff for his age.

3. Boston’s Gray Alternates

Burning these as a sacrifice to both the basketball and fashion gods might help delay the coming apocalypse. Boston has perhaps the best jerseys in all of pro sports, and yet continues to conjure up hideous alternates aimed at gouging collectors.

4. Marcin Gortat’s Mohawk

Gortat looks like he just walked off the Polish edition of Mad Max. He has the perfect personality to carry this. Gortat roughs it up down low, and he gives zero craps in doling out unfiltered quotes and crazy stories to the media. This is a really good hair year overall in the NBA.

5. The Positional Funkiness of Aaron Gordon

I have no idea what position Gordon plays, and that is awesome. He’s clearly a forward, but sometimes he guards wing players — even as the opposing power forward defends him on the other end. He and Tobias Harris can freely switch assignments on defense.

Gordon’s ability to defend wings from the nominal power forward spot allows the Magic to do interesting things against stretch power forwards. Gordon defended Joe Johnson for parts of Sunday’s game in Brooklyn, and the Magic in turn shifted a wing player, Willie Green, onto Brooklyn’s power forward, the sweet-shooting Mirza Teletovic.

Teletovic thrives when pick-and-popping against lugs, but he had a harder time shedding Green. This is something to watch with Teletovic, Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova, and other stretch 4s: The league is getting smarter about guarding these guys.

6. Nic Batum’s Heady Deck-a-DeAndre

An intentional foul away from the ball inside the last two minutes is a no-no. The other team gets one free throw and the ball back, meaning teams generally can’t hack-a-Shaq once the clock gets within two minutes — unless those players have the ball.

But watch Nic Batum discover a loophole in the rule by “accidentally” running into a Jordan pick:

This is either brilliant or maddening, depending on your feeling about intentional fouls. Expect other teams to copy this. The Clips can’t pass Jordan the ball late in games; what if they can’t have him set picks, either?

7. Tony Allen’s Cutting Adventures

Good cutters don’t cut randomly. They cut when they know the defense will bend a certain way, leaving them a clear path to the rim. Allen can’t shoot, so it’s a good thing he’s an expert cutter, unleashing beauties like this on the weak side of a Mike Conley pick-and-roll:

As Conley penetrates along the left side, Luke Babbitt has to rotate from the right corner into the paint. That leaves Allen’s man, Eric Gordon, to guard two players at once, meaning Gordon must shift away from Allen and toward Quincy Pondexter in the corner.

Allen knows exactly when Gordon will divert his attention, and slashes to the rim at that moment.

8. “The Great Rudini”

We all enjoy Jerry Reynolds and Grant Napear on the Kings’ broadcast, but I cannot get behind this would-be nickname for Rudy Gay. Hopefully it was just a Reynolds one-off after a clutch Gay shot last week.

9. The Nick Collison Fake Pin-down

The sage of Oklahoma City has already nailed five 3s, as many as he made combined in his prior 10 seasons. Look away from Doc Rivers’s head and watch Collison, at the left elbow, position himself as if he’s going to set a typical pin-down screen for Lance Thomas jetting up from the left corner:

Boom! Collison fakes the screen and then pops out behind a surprise Thomas pick — a reversal of roles. Fun times.

10. What Has Become of the Pacers

Don’t pity the Pacers, because they are not pitying themselves. They’re 2-6, but every loss has been a single-digit job, and they’ve been competitive in every game. They are fighting through a wave of injuries that has wiped out the entire top half of their roster. Roy Hibbert has been sensational on both ends, Lavoy Allen has done nice work off the bench, and Solomon Hill is emerging.

It’s inspiring, but it’s not fun to watch. A year ago, who could have imagined that the Pacers would be running isolations on the wing for leading scorer Chris Copeland?

Filed Under: Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, NBA, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Portland Trail Blazers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA