Rather than do highlights on this Black Friday edition of the Breakfast Special, we’re going to instead take a look at the things in the NBA that make the least sense, the “something weird is going to happen before Christmas” predictions that you can take to the bank.
Why? Because I’m as turkeyed out as the rest of you lot; I took yesterday off, and who really wants to see highlights of two-day-old games?
Let’s begin with…
The Oklahoma City Thunder, A Third-Place Team With an Eighth-Place Record
Oklahoma City is 8-9 through 17 games, and that just makes no sense at all. They destroyed Golden State on Wednesday, Russell Westbrook has followed up a season in which he averaged a triple-double by putting up 20.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 9.6 assists per game this year, and Paul George, freed of the obligation of carrying a couple of rotten Pacers teams by himself, is averaging 21.8 to lead the Thunder while shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc thanks to all the sweet open looks Russ is getting him out there.
And just because you can’t have a Big Three without three genuine quality volume scorers, Carmelo Anthony‘s averaging 20.1 a game and while he’s showing the decline you’d expect from a 33-year-old, it hasn’t been so sharp as to suggest he’s washed up. Not yet. If Carmelo Anthony is your third-best player, you’re probably pretty good.
So why is this team 8-9?
The team has zero double-digit losses; their biggest defeat was by nine points, and four of their losses were by five or less. Their wins? Seven of eight were by double digits and the eighth, against the Clippers two weeks ago, was by nine points.
OKC’s point differential is plus-5.4. Basketball Reference’s “expected W-L” for a team with their net rating (5.5) is 12-5 through 17 games. Applying a dead simple 30-points-a-win estimate over the course of a season, they should be on pace to go 56-26 (and that’s actually a few ticks worse than the 58-24 that their advanced stats give them.
This team has won four of its last six, and they stand to get real good real quick if they keep winning big and losing close.
What The Crap Is Lonzo Ball‘s Deal, Anyway?
If Lonzo doesn’t shoot himself out of the league (his horrendous .374 True Shooting and worse-than-Shaq 42.9 free throw accuracy are the standout numbers)…
…he might win Defensive Player of the Year someday.
Dude’s got 1.0 Defensive Win Shares already this season. Plus a 2.5 defensive Box Plus-Minus. Those figures are 10th and 18th, respectively, in all of basketball.
Basically, Lonzo Ball is the second coming of Bruce Bowen, a guy who had a career PER of 8.2 but was eight-time All-Defensive. Sure, Bowen could actually shoot (he shot a career 39.3 percent from three-point land and led the league at 44.1 percent in 2003), but he had similar free throw woes (failing to crack 50 percent three times and hitting just 57.5 for his career) and couldn’t do anything once he got close to the hoop, just like Lonzo.
The difference is that Bowen never hung his teammates out to dry during a scuffle on the floor.
Someone Woke James Harden Up
James Harden, snubbed in the MVP voting last year, seems to have come into this year determined to leave everyone in the league in his wake, and he’s got the Rockets off to the best record in the West and second-best record in the entire league behind the inexplicably red-hot Celtics.
Harden leads the league in three-pointers made (77, easily putting him on pace to become the first player not named Stephen Curry in NBA history to make 300 in a season), points per game (31.1), assists per game (9.8), free throws made (148, and you have to wonder if he’ll eventually threaten Jerry West‘s record of 840 makes, achieved while shooting 86 percent from the line in 1966), assist percentage (50.5), usage rate (36.1), both offensive (3.3) and total (4.1) win shares along with .303 WS/48, offensive and total Box Plus-Minus (9.9 and 10.1), and Value Over Replacement Player (2.0).
Pick a metric; Harden’s the MVP at it. He’s even got his turnovers (sort of) under control, down to 5.1 a game from 5.7 last season. In fact, Harden no longer leads the league in giveaways; that’s DeMarcus Cousins, at 93 to Harden’s 91.
Harden is even floating just outside the top 20 with 0.8 Defensive Win Shares.
The guy’s on a mission; best to just get the popcorn and watch a man determined to lay waste to the league in pursuit of an elusive MVP award.
Shut Up About Ben Simmons
I grew up in Boston, and even though I’m a Pacers fan, I still side with the Celtics in most sports arguments, and that goes double whenever anything Sam Hinkie ever touched in his life is involved.
Yes, Ben Simmons is excellent, like unbelievably so. It only took him nine games to get his second triple-double, the second-best in NBA history behind Oscar Robertson, who did it in three back when the NBA played at such a breakneck pace that counting stats were ludicrous by design.
But Jayson Tatum is my Rookie of the Year choice.
After all, Tatum has basically stepped into Gordon Hayward‘s shoes and done quite possibly a better job than Hayward could have.
A .494/.481/.848 slash line. A genuine superstar-level .205 WS/48. A you-gotta-be-kidding-me 58.8 percent on corner threes.
And oh yeah, defense so good that he’s third in the entire league (behind Paul George and his own teammate Jaylen Brown) in Defensive Win Shares, fifth in Defensive Rating, 14th in Defensive Box Plus-Minus, and 15th in the league in WS/48 (nestled between Karl-Anthony Towns and Kemba Walker.)
And sure, Simmons is a great defender as well (3rd in the league in DBPM), but he’s not quite as good (20th in DefRtg, 12th in DWS, and way outside the top 20 in WS/48) as Tatum.
But here’s the other thing; Tatum is an actual rookie, not a second-year player who had a year of learning from professionals even while recovering from injury.
Jayson Tatum, Rookie of the Year. It’s going to take a lot to change my vote.
The Pacers—not the Warriors, not the Rockets, the Indiana Goddamn Pacers—have the best three-point shooting accuracy (40.4 percent) of any team in the league.
The worst shooter on the team is Lance Stephenson (seriously, as much as he’s a great energy guy, he’s a train wreck who should not be given rotation minutes on a team that isn’t tanking; 36.8 percent overall and 21.2 from long range while taking six and a half shots and 1.8 threes a game? Get the ball out of his hands before someone gets hurt!
OK, so maybe I don’t love Lance the way most of Pacers Nation loves Lance, but I’ve never been a big believer in the concept of an “energy guy” who sucks at basketball and soaks up good minutes that could be given to someone else.
All this, however, is beside the point; the Pacers are sixth in the NBA in Offensive Rating, 18th in Defensive Rating, 11th in the league in Expected Winning Percentage, and playing like the 46-win team their record projects to over 82 games.
I’m a Pacers fan, folks. I have a lot to be thankful for.
LeBron James, Inhuman Robot Man
Cleveland has four losses by 17 points or more. When they dropped to 3-5 with a 124-107 loss to Indiana on Nov. 1, their season looked deader than disco just a tenth of the way in; on that day, Cleveland’s minus-6.9 point differential was consistent with a 22-win team.
Now of course nobody seriously expected Cleveland to lose 60 games; we could go get LeBron James into a time machine from the day he gives his Hall of Fame speech a decade from now, drop him into 2017, and he’d lead Cleveland to the playoffs.
So really, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Cavs have won seven straight, sit half a game behind Detroit and Toronto for the second-best record in the East, and look a lot more like that 54 wins that Vegas put them down for before the season.
But LeBron’s 58.5 percent shooting from the field and where-did-that-come-from 42.7 from three (both career bests) are insane even by LeBron’s standards, as is his also-career-best 78.2 percent from the line.
And he’s doing all this while still playing 37.7 minutes per game despite being nearly 33 years old and having played a combined 51,077 minutes in regular season and playoffs, leading the league in minutes played in the postseason five out of the last seven seasons. LeBron led the NBA in minutes per game last year. The man is insane.
And the Cavs are utterly putrid this year without him. J.R. Smith is shooting 34.8 percent, Jae Crowder is at 38.9, and only two players—LeBron and Kevin Love—have started every game for Cleveland so far this season.
And Love…well, he’s not very good, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 34.8 from three as the team’s second-leading scorer. To his credit, Love is averaging a double-double (10.3 boards a game) and making a scary-good clip at the free throw line (89.7 percent), but he needs to stop acting like an outside shooter and do what made him famous in the low post.
The Cavs are shading into old-timers’ game territory (Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Jose Calderon, looking at you); Thompson, at 26, is the youngest guy getting rotation minutes, and LeBron is younger than four of his teammates (all of the above plus Channing Frye.)
But they’re 11-7. And LeBron is having the best statistical season of his career so far.
But Then Again…
Golden State has six players on their roster with at least ten years of experience, and they seem to do just fine…
NBA basketball is back after a rare day off…ten games tonight, so there should be an embarrassment of riches on League Pass.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!