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Pace and Space

Smart NBA talk for smart NBA fans.

by Fox Doucette

Russell Westbrook's gonna need an awful lot of Mountain Dew Kickstart.

Since the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder are officially Westbrook's team, along with new additions Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis (from Orlando), Joffrey Lauvergne (via Denver), and absolutely nobody (via the draft.)

Which means that the Thunder, who were 13th in Defensive Rating last year, just shipped out their best shot blocker for a guy who can't guard the paint (Ilyasova, with his minus-0.3 Defensive Box Plus/Minus). On the bright side, Oladipo is rounding into an underrated potential defensive star; his 2.7 Defensive Win Shares and plus-0.8 DBPM in only his third year in the league portend a guy who's set to make All-Defense teams, especially if, as part of Billy Donovan's backcourt, Oladipo is counted upon to use his athleticism to guard the enemy's best wing player on any given night; he may well give the likes of Klay Thompson fits against Golden State.

There's an unshakable feeling here that what OKC is going to end up with is something like what's going on in Portland, where Westbrook will be the rich man's Damian Lillard and Oladipo will continue to evolve (he had a solid 16.3 PER and 4.9 overall Win Shares last year) into the poor man's CJ McCollum. If Ilyasova ever figures out how to guard people on the low block, or Mitch McGary learns in the D-League how to play more than ten NBA minutes in a game without fouling out, this team could be really good.

On the other hand, we're probably going to see Westbrook challenge Kobe Bryant's record for Usage Rate in a single season; when Durant got hurt a couple of years back, Westbrook ended up being the ball stopper on 38 percent of the Thunder's chances with the ball.

Usage rate and efficiency beyond a certain point are inversely correlated; initially, as players use more possessions, it's the result of their being the focal point of an offense, but past that point, they simply become ball hogs. In 2014-15, Westbrook demonstrated this principle (an astonishing 38.4 percent, second-highest of all time in a single season only to Kobe's 38.7 in 2006, the year Bryant had one of the worst rosters ever assembled around a superstar on a playoff team; for LA to have won 45 games was about the most underrated thing Kobe ever did.)

Russ's efficiency? The worst shooting percentage since his second year in the league, an utterly horrendous 4.4 turnovers per game and the worst per-100-possessions turnover rate (6.4) of his career, and even a career high in fouls as he committed more charges and other simple overuse of the ball infractions both with the ball and in terms of sloppy fouls on defense.

Put simply, unless Oladipo steps up big time and becomes the new second star on this Thunder team, Westbrook is going to put it all on his own shoulders...and he's gonna suck. And so too will Oklahoma City.

It's going to be real interesting to watch a team that could either get lucky with its acquisitions and win 50 games, or get unlucky, be unable to guard a corpse, and finish out of the playoff race with 30 wins.

THE VERDICT!

The truth will lie somewhere in between. Westbrook's Thunder won 45 games in 2014-15, barely missing the playoffs, even though Russ and KD both missed time. Westbrook is that good, even if he's inefficient, and Oladipo is a plus defender who might just become Bruce Bowen over the years.

You can't just up and call them good, but a team with one of the ten best players in basketball can't be all bad.

This one's Plausible.

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by Fox Doucette

Exum? I hardly even know him!

The Utah Jazz, the only team in the NBA today to play at a pace slower than the league average of the wretched 1999 lockout season that almost killed basketball after Jordan retired, the plodding but defensively excellent (7th in Defensive Rating despite missing Rudy Gobert for a good chunk of the season) bunch of guys toiling for Quin Snyder...and a team that fell short of its projected win total (per Basketball Reference) by six wins, which would've made them the 5 seed (they played like a 46-36 squad; Portland won 44 games), a team that missed the playoffs entirely when they choked away the 8 seed when they lost four of their last five games.

So which is the true measure of this team? The advanced stats (which say they're the team most likely to demonstrate massive improvement)? Or the eye test (they lose when they need a win most, and they are to the NBA in April what the Seattle Mariners are to MLB in September, giving away a playoff spot to less-talented clubs)?

Well, regular readers of this site, or even anyone paying attention to the tagline, you know where we stand on this. Utah is going to be better than anyone thinks this year.

For starters, they upgraded the point guard position from a giant crap sandwich (Raul Neto, who can't shoot, can't pass, and can't play defense, and Shelvin Mack, who is in the “if he's your primary ballhandler, you're screwed” tier of NBA talent) to a competent and occasionally damn good NBA-level point guard (George Hill, who at 40.8 percent was 13th in the league in three-point accuracy and who put up 6.2 Win Shares while being a plus defender despite minor injury woes during the season.)

That upgrade alone should be worth at least six wins by itself. If Hill is able to elevate the play of the guys around him—and he's entirely capable of doing so, as Hill was the glue guy who kept the Pacers from imploding completely after Paul George got injured in 2014, enough so that the team nearly snuck into the 2015 playoffs—he's going to win Most Improved Player and get Quin Snyder in the Coach of the Year conversation.

Meanwhile, these guys added Boris Diaw to a roster that includes Gobert, Gordon Hayward, and Derrick Favors. They brought Joe Johnson in for microwave offense and veteran savvy and leadership. They brought in Hill—note that they've added a ton of playoff experience in their veterans, guys who have won titles or gone to conference finals or otherwise made major playoff impacts.

Dante Exum, who was utterly wretched as a rookie in 2014-15 but returns from a season-killing injury older, wiser, and presumably stronger, gets to take another crack at the spotlight to fulfill the promise he brought when Utah drafted him.

Seeing a pattern developing yet? Everything Utah has done between last year and this year has been united toward the goal of becoming a better basketball team. They were flat unlucky last year in terms of performance compared to stats, and even if you believe the losses were a matter of “heart” or “guts” or other intangibles, they just added three guys who know how to win in the playoffs and who will not accept a half-assed job from their teammates; you'd almost think the guys were ring-chasing the way they gravitated toward Salt Lake City until you remembered that one guy's already got a title.

This team looked a little Magic 8-Ball on the surface...but in point of fact, this is the strongest roster Utah's thrown out there since Stockton and Malone.

THE VERDICT!

So is this team any good? Worst-case, they get closer to the 46 games they should've won last year based on their stats. Best case, this team gets a “wait until next year, these guys are legit” piece written about them after they give the Warriors all they can handle in the conference finals before just getting overpowered by Steph, Kevin, and the rest.

No. Scratch that. Best-case, Utah, a team that seems purpose built for stopping the Warriors' strengths the way the Thunder almost did a year ago, wins the damn title. This team is Confirmed.

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by Fox Doucette

Jesus, man, I don't know, maybe? I mean, they've always looked like they were about to take the leap, and...

Yeah. Minnesota is everything we said about Denver yesterday turned up to 11. The team is greener than a Seattle-area forest except for Kevin Garnett (who is going to be this year's Kobe Bryant in terms of the big Farewell Tour hoopla after 21 years in the league.) Karl-Anthony Towns and Nemanja Bjelica are second-year players; Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine enter their third years, and Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng are going into Year 4. Plus, there's rookie Kris Dunn, selected with the fifth pick in the draft after a 29-53 season a year ago.

Three of their guys (Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine) have only this year gained the ability to legally drink alcohol after a game (Towns is still only 20 until November 10.) Dunn, at 22, is only the fifth-youngest player on the roster and might well have moments where he's the second-oldest player on the floor (a good time for Garnett, who would in all cases be old enough to be those teammates' dad.)

The team couldn't shoot a three-pointer to save its life last year; they were second up from the bottom in threes made and attempted, and they shot an atrocious 33.8 percent on those shots overall. What's worse, that actually represented progress (12.1 percent more threes made on 10.1 percent more attempts, and they'd only shot 33.2 percent in 2014-15; all stats in this article are per Basketball Reference.) What's more, the lack of threes meant they were 18th in eFG% last season, gaining minimal benefit from the “three is more than two” core tenet of modern NBA offense.

Dunn was not a lights-out three-point shooter (37.2 percent last year and 35.4 overall at Providence.) This seems...somehow fitting, but only if they were going to bring Byron Scott in to coach them.

They brought in Brandon Rush, who resurrected his career in Golden State, and they grabbed Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill to try and fix their disastrous rebounding (second up from the bottom, and 28th out of 30 in defensive rebounds in terms of counting stats, and things did not improve when rate stats are considered; they were 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage.)

The bigger question isn't whether they'll score or grab rebounds. As their young players get better, and as the coaching staff instills the fundamentals of position and timing that go into good rebounding, just about any pro-quality player can hit the glass. According to Ben Beecken at Dunking With Wolves, KG is still the sixth-best defender on a per-minute basis in terms of Defensive Real Plus-Minus (and among power forwards he was second behind only Draymond Green), but KG is older than your columnist (who, at 39, is precisely as old as dirt), making him older than dirt.

The bigger question is about defense. Absolutely none of these guys in the Wolves' youth movement has shown any inclination whatsoever that they can guard anyone. Minnesota had the third-worst Defensive Rating in the league, their opponents had the second-best eFG% when playing against the Wolves, and not a single player managed even so much as three Defensive Win Shares, while Garnett—who played only 556 minutes—led the team in Defensive Box Plus-Minus, a stat in which only two other players (Dieng and Rubio) were in positive territory.

Then again, their new coach is Tom Thibodeau. And they have Kevin Garnett teaching the kids, a guy who will surely become a de facto assistant, especially if he gets hurt. Things are going to get better, and fast.

While we're on the subject, how about a Minnesota Nice nod to the crowd? The Wolves were 29th in attendance (Denver was dead last), and Target Center is like a funeral during Wolves home games. Minnesota tied for the third-worst home record (14-27) last year, and the two teams with which they tied (Phoenix and Brooklyn) had 23 and 21 wins overall against Minnesota's 29. The Wolves were the only team in the NBA to win more games on the road (15) than at home (14), and the last time a team did that in a non-lockout year was 2011 (Sacramento, another team that played in a graveyard.)

Maybe we should just move the Wolves to Seattle if their fans aren't going to support them.

THE VERDICT!

So is this team any good? Well, they have electrifying talent, veteran leader- and mentorship from one of the greatest defensive players of all time, a core that's growing into a cohesive unit, a cap-friendly salary structure (just about everyone here is still on his rookie deal), a coach who's seemingly purpose-built to rapidly improve the team's most glaring weakness...

Best-case scenario, it all comes together gloriously and instantly, the team wins 55 games, shocks Golden State, and wins a title.

Worst-case scenario, even Thibs can't get these guys to guard anyone and the coach's unimaginative (to put it uncharitably) offensive schemes stagnate them on that side of the ball, so the team takes a step back, wins 25 games, implodes, and becomes Sixers West (is David Kahn still available?)

Realistic case? They win between 35 and 45 games, still a year away, threaten for a playoff spot, and end up in a thousand Northwest Division think pieces all season long.

Are they any good? It's Plausible. The whole division looks plausible.

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