We’re one month into the NBA season. To make sense of it all, we’ve asked our Shootaround crew to talk about a few things that we think we know after 30 awesome days of basketball.
Retro Basketball Is Alive and Not Doing So Hot
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Jason Concepcion: Here are some of the similarities between the 2014-15 iterations of the Lakers and the Knicks: Both teams are talent-poor, single-star squads, located in the nation’s dueling media capitals, in the midst of transition years, and both are employing offensive schemes from the Saved by the Bell era.
Some random stats from the land of throwback basketball:
The Knicks and the Lakers are nos. 1 and 2 (as of Monday) in percentage of field goal attempts taken from 16 feet to inside the 3-point line — i.e., the much-maligned long 2 — 29.5 percent for the Knicks, 25.6 percent for the Lakers.
Both teams are in the bottom third of the league in percentage of attempts that are 3-pointers, an especially weird stat for the Knicks, who are shooting a league-leading 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The triangle preaches passing. No surprise, then, that the Knicks pass the ball 359 times per game, second-most in the NBA, per NBA.com. Sharing is great, until you realize that it means sharing with the likes of Quincy Acy, who already has 54 FGAs on 4.5 attempts per game, almost double his career average.
Of the 50 players with the most touches at the elbows (Melo is tied for no. 6 on this list, no surprise in the pinch-post-centric triangle), only two are guards: Joe Johnson and Kobe Bryant. The three players directly below Kobe are Kevin Garnett, Zach Randolph, and Nick Collison.
Kobe is, of course, the league leader in misses with 208. That is a full 69 more bricks than the second-most-bricking player, Carmelo Anthony. Four hundred and one NBA players so far have fewer field goal attempts than Kobe has misses.
Don’t Mess With Texas (or the Southwest, for That Matter)
Kirk Goldsberry: The Western Conference is the stronger half of the league, and the Southwest Division is the NBA’s crown jewel. All five of its teams are above .500, and all five are tremendous to watch (unless you hate watching the Rockets, like many of my coworkers). Toss in the fascinating Oklahoma City Thunder, and six of the league’s most intriguing stories are all clustered within an F-150 drive of Texarkana. These League Pass cowboys are all must-see TV.
1. Memphis Grizzlies (277 miles from Texarkana)
Memphis has the best record in the NBA since January 14, when Marc Gasol returned from injury. Since then, the Grizzlies are 45-15 (as of Monday morning). As Andrew Sharp and Danny Chau are wont to point out, they are legitimate title contenders and Gasol could be the NBA’s MVP.
2. Houston Rockets (291 miles from Texarkana)
The Rockets suddenly have a ferocious defense to go with their graphing-calculator offense.
3. Dallas Mavericks (179 miles from Texarkana)
The Mavericks have the best offense on earth and are torching opponents on a nightly basis. They are averaging a mind-boggling 115.2 points per 100 possessions in part because they are leading the league in both points and efficiency close to the basket. (See graphic below.)
4. San Antonio Spurs (452 miles from Texarkana)
The defending champs don’t seem to wake up until springtime, but they still play pretty ball and find ways to win regardless of who is resting.
5. New Orleans Pelicans (398 miles from Texarkana)
The Brow’s PER is 34.6. Your resistance to his looming reign is futile.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (311 miles from Texarkana)
The most compelling “bad” team in NBA history. Can they get to 49 wins?
Everyone Forgot About the Grizzlies
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Andrew Sharp: Before the season started, I was wondering which team to pick for the Finals. Cleveland felt like the obvious choice in the East,1 but then in the West it got tricky. San Antonio was too old, and it’s never fun to pick the Spurs. OKC had the Durant injury looming over it, and that was before Westbrook went down three days into the season. The Clippers were too popular. The Mavs and Blazers were too bad on defense. The Rockets … too Rockets. But what about the Grizzlies?
Or maybe not.
Everyone. Forgot. The Grizzlies.
Where should we start? Memphis has an 8-0 record at home, winning those games by an average of 11 points. The Grizz just destroyed the Clippers on Sunday. Their two losses were by a combined five points to the Bucks and Raptors. Since Marc Gasol came back in January last year, they’re 45-15, on pace for a .750 win percentage across an entire season. They took the Thunder to seven games in last year’s playoffs, and lost Game 7 without a suspended Zach Randolph.
They’re even better this year. Mike Conley has Courtney Lee and a healthy Quincy Pondexter on the wings, and Lee has been especially ruthless through November. It’s why the Grizz now have a top-10 defense (no. 4) AND a top-10 offense (no. 7). Tony Allen and Z-Bo haven’t even been that great thus far, but they’re around for the playoffs when it’s time to wreak havoc. One thing that everyone’s been saying since October is that every team in the West has a flaw, but are we sure that Memphis does?
It’s still early, a lot can happen in five months, everyone has to stay healthy, etc. But after one month of NBA, there’s only one certainty: If you’re looking for a dark-horse title contender, don’t bother with Memphis, because the Grizzlies aren’t a secret anymore.
How Do You Feel About Z-Bo and Gasol, Taylor?
The Raptors Have That Look
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Danny Chau: The Raptors are tied for the best record in the league, but if you really want to make a case against Toronto being the best team out East, you can. Going by strength of schedule, the Raps have had the fifth-easiest schedule thus far, and of the 14 games they’ve played, only four have been away from the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors have played four games against the West, two against teams with win percentages in the .300s and .200s (Jazz, Thunder); a third against the Memphis Grizzlies, which had five players sit out the game because of a stomach bug; and a fourth against the Suns, in which the Raps almost blew a 15-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Toronto has the best margin of victory in the league, but it’s buoyed by a 42-point victory against the Milwaukee Bucks last week.2
[Stares at the Mavericks’ 53-point win against the Sixers, whistles.]
Look, the numbers are there for you. But it seems weird to throw so many caveats at a team doing exactly what it should be doing. The Raptors are winning a lot of games, and winning them by a lot. There’s a simple explanation for all of it: They’re really good, with a style and identity that even a curmudgeon might appreciate.
During what I considered a perfect first-round matchup between Toronto and Brooklyn last season, I called the Raptors “the NBA equivalent of a ’50s American nuclear family.”3 The heady point guard willing to sacrifice his body, the Kobe Bryant acolyte, the workhorse frontline, the sparkplug, the idiosyncratic defender — for whatever it’s worth, the Raptors have that look. The names may be different, but there’s an unmistakable warmth of familiarity in watching a team with so many recognizable parts.
The Bucks Are Making Rebuilding Look Fun
A nod to structural idealism, not psychological repression.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Chris Ryan: Here’s what we know about the Bucks: They have a top-10 defense and a bottom-five offense. As of this writing, they are 8-7 and entering a stretch in which they will play the Rockets, the Cavs, the Heat, and a home-and-home with the Mavs. They will probably be sub-.500 by Christmas.
What’s exciting about the Bucks is what we don’t know.
With the NBA’s very own Sauron at the controls, Brandon Knight taking a minor leap, John Henson polishing his hosting game, Nate Wolters and Kendall Marshall holding down the chemistry end of the bench, and a grip of crafty vets — O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless — the Bucks are competitive on a nightly basis (well, minus that Raptors game). But more important, in Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has the most exciting young duo since the 2009-10 Thunder started rolling.
It’s cool to think about the Bucks in relation to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. You can look at Jabari as the can’t-miss Durant figure, with a big bag of scoring moves, and Giannis as the undefinable Westbrook talent. If you know me, you know that I like Russell Westbrook more than most things in this world, but not even Russ could do this:
Even though the names Jason Kidd and Mayo have not always been synonymous with team building, there’s something about the Bucks “oh, they have that guy, too?” roster that feels comforting. It seems like Giannis and Jabari have a really good bedrock of competent pros, and a coach who knows they are the future and is building the team around that idea while not abandoning them at sea.4 Sure, they’ll get torched some nights, but in a league of major franchise overhauls, Milwaukee has put together the best rebuilding project.
Russell Westbrook Won Halloween
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Jimmy Butler Is a New Man
Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty Images
Danny Chau: If your team hasn’t yet met the wrath of Jimmy Butler this season, just know that it’s coming. One of the league’s best perimeter defenders, who faced a startling offensive regression last year, is suddenly the Bulls’ best offensive player on a team that might approach a top-10 offense for the first time since 2012.
Of course, the chances of that happening are already dwindling. The Bulls are already dealing with the first wave of injuries in what is now cemented as an annual tradition of maximizing a hampered roster. Butler is the latest to rise to the occasion, and he’s done it in a big way. With Derrick Rose in a semipermanent “will he, won’t he” dance, Butler’s numbers are career highs across the board. He’s also taken on more responsibility as a creator. So far, so good.
Butler is in the top 50 in total drives, a list densely populated by ball-dominant point guards. He’s driven the ball to the hoop more often than Chris Paul, in the same number of games. When he drives, good things tend to happen. The Bulls score 1.23 points for every drive Butler takes, a figure nearly identical to Kyrie Irving’s rate, better than John Wall’s and within tenths of Damian Lillard’s and James Harden’s numbers.
In this bizarro reality where the best player in the world stinks and the (former?) second-best player in the world is reduced to watching devastation porn in a walking boot, Butler stands alone as the only player this season to average at least 20 points on 49 percent shooting, five rebounds, and three assists. Since 2010-11, only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, and Blake Griffin have met these parameters. If you were still wondering about the state of his confidence after last season’s struggles, stop. Jimmy is already calling himself “Baby Mike.”
Blake Griffin Is Inside Out
Goldsberry: Many things are wrong with the Clippers, but one of the big things is the offensive play of Blake Griffin. Last year, Griffin was the most prolific interior scorer in the NBA. He led all scorers inside eight feet from the basket, and he converted 65 percent of those close-range shots. But that was last year. This year, his interior conversion rate is down to 57 percent and Griffin is relying more and more on his so-so jumper. I’m not sure if the outward migration is by design or the result of some kind of an injury, but regardless of the reason, the effect is the same: This passive version is the least-efficient Blake Griffin ever. I want monster Blake back.
The Death of Tinkering
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Ryan: Are we nearing the end of the age of asset flipping? Based on the success of Danny Ainge in Boston and Pat Riley in Miami, the notion that you can stockpile valuable players and attempt to flip them for stars, or maintain cap flexibility to go after transformative talents in the free-agent market, had been a very popular team-building philosophy. Houston and Cleveland are two teams that, through good management or good fortune, have recently tried to turn 10 nickels into two quarters. This thinking was so widely accepted that even teams that had good 2013-14 seasons, like Golden State and Washington, were being publicly cajoled over the summer to cut bait with some members of their core group and go for big fish like Kevin Durant and Kevin Love.
But if you look at the top of the standings this season, after just a month, the teams that have gotten off to hot starts are the ones that have been cooking with the same ingredients for a little while. Portland added Steve Blake but otherwise stood pat. Golden State held on to Klay Thompson, despite the reported chance to land Love in exchange for the shooting guard. The Wiz added Paul Pierce to play alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal. Toronto re-signed Kyle Lowry and banked guys who are making a leap, like DeMar DeRozan. It looks like these reinvestments are paying huge dividends.
No, the “let’s run it back” program is not new. The Spurs have been doing it for the entirety of the Tim-Manu-Tony era. And it doesn’t always work — for every Raps, there’s a Jazz, a team that has probably shown too much belief in a bunch of guys who have already become whatever it is they were going to be. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right? Maybe. But maybe believing in Klay Thompson isn’t that insane after all?
Gordon Hayward Is the New Money Man
Nobody Knows Anything
Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/MCT
Concepcion: The NBA is the most predictable of the four major sports. Since 1980, only nine teams have won the NBA title — the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Heat, Mavericks, and Spurs. Half the teams in the league have never won a championship, and seven of those have never even been to the Finals. Picking which team wins on a given a night is pretty easy, and if asked to name their top three title contenders, most NBA fans will name the eventual champ among those three.
Last season, Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE computer program precisely predicted the Knicks’ win total, 37 games.
This sucks, inasmuch as one subscribes to variety being an important part of life. Maybe you’re the kind of person who is uncomfortable with simply surrendering to the reality that cold, unfeeling numbers spilling from the soulless maw of various unseen computers hold the answer to all of our fates.
Which is why I love nothing more than the collective wisdom of smart people being wrong about stuff. Not for the schadenfreude, but because I enjoy surprises.
Surprises like Darren Collison, who spent his career looking very much out of his depth as a score-first starting point guard in Indiana and Dallas (where Rick Carlisle eventually went to the immortal Mike James over Collison to close out a season), and with the Clippers. The band of motley castaways known as the Kings sit at 9-5 and Collison is thriving, averaging seven assists a game (two and change over his career average) and sporting a PER of 20.
Small sample size? Yes. He’s just doing stuff he’s always done, except that it’s working for some reason? Also yes. Also I don’t care.
Then there’s the dastardly inhuman menace that is the SCHOENE computer, which had the resurrected Cavaliers pegged at a potential 68 wins with a historic offense projected at 118 points per 100 possessions.
Is there time for the Cavs to go 60-7 from here on out? Technically, yes. Is it realistic to assume that the Cavs, at least offensively, will get lots better? Sure. Still, in a world increasingly run by algorithms that predict everything down to what song we might want to hear next, it’s somehow comforting to know that we, and our machines, haven’t figured out human chemistry yet.