Archive for February, 2017

Trade Deadline Recap

Posted: 02/26/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

It was a relatively quiet NBA trade deadline, but there are still things to be taken away from deadline day and the week that led up to it…

Raptors now clear #2: Before the trade deadline, I ranked Toronto as the second best team in the Eastern Conference, just a smidge over the Wizards and Celtics. Now, they’re the clear #2. Serge Ibaka fits in very well as a power forward and especially as a small ball center. And P.J. Tucker is one of the most underrated additions of the deadline. He gives Toronto exactly what they needed: a wing defender, versatility, and toughness. Tucker averages just 7.1 points per game, but he brings a lot to the table. I could see him being on the court in crunch time in the playoffs. To get a guy like that for two second round picks is a coup, especially since neither Boston nor Washington ended up adding anyone significant (sorry Bogdanovic, but you don’t quite cut it). The Raptors are now probably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, because while the Celtics probably have more quality players, Toronto’s roster construction makes more sense and Dwayne Casey has more viable lineup machinations to consider.

Despite not making a trade, Cavs are clear winners: In terms of the title race, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the deadline’s clear winners, even though they didn’t make a single trade. They must have breathed a sigh of relief when Boston decided not to trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, because the Celtics would have instantly become co-favorites with a trade for a star wing. Just as importantly, they look well positioned to sign Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut, both of whom were recently bought out. If they weren’t odds-on favorites to make the Finals before, they surely are now. Williams gives them a playmaker off the bench, something they sorely lacked, and the backup point guard they thought they had in Mo Williams, who retired right before the season. And Bogut is the new Timofey Mozgov, a big man who can gobble up rebounds and lock down the paint or play just a few minutes a game depending on the situation. Cleveland is now as deep and versatile as they were last year.

Cousins goes for very little… but Sacramento had no choice: To some extent, I agree with all of the criticism and belittling of Vlade Divac and the Kings’ front office. They didn’t get much for DeMarcus Cousins, one of the most talented players in the NBA. But Divac’s hands were tied. I can assure you that a sizable portion of the teams that have trade chips did not want to go anywhere near Cousins. His adverse effect on morale and chemistry is well-documented. And while some of that might dissipate with a new situation, it’s a real thing that scared many GMs off. To the people who say that the Kings should have dealt Boogie earlier, when they had better offers, yes, that’s certainly true. But all indications are that Vlade pushed for a trade earlier and that he couldn’t get owner Vivek Ranadive’s go-ahead. The only reason that they were able to trade Cousins at all was that Vivek loves Buddy Hield (who, to be fair, has played pretty well through two games as a King). So while Hield and a first round pick is certainly not a great return for Cousins, don’t blame it all on Vlade Divac.

Sixers deal the wrong big man: Anyone who’s watched the Sixers play this year will tell you that Nerlens Noel is:
a) better than Jahlil Okafor and
b) a better fit than Jahlil Okafor

The numbers back this up: Jahlil’s net rating is a team-worst -15.6, while Nerlens’ is a far more respectable -5.6. And yet… the front office decided to deal Noel and not Okafor. Now, if they had fetched a king’s ransom for Nerlens, I would have understood the decision. But two second rounders and Justin Anderson is not a king’s ransom (in fact, it’s about as much as they got for Ersan Ilaysova the day before). They likely could have received a similar package for Okafor. They likely decided to trade Noel because he’s going to be a restricted free agent after this season and they don’t like him enough to want to pay him big money. That’s fine, I guess (although I disagree), but they picked a pretty inopportune time to deal him. There was a much more robust market for both big men before the season. Jahlil had a huge game last night (28 and 10), but I expect those games to be few and far between.

Mavericks get a piece but still have a long way to go: The flip side, of course, is that the Mavs got a perfect fit at center. They needed a center, and they got a young one with a pretty high floor. But they’ll have to pay Noel, and their roster still needs a lot of work. Right now, they’re building around Harrison Barnes, Noel, and Wesley Matthews.. not great. They’ll have a chance to add a key piece in the draft, but that would require them to draft a lot better than they recently have. I know they don’t want to start fully rebuilding while Dirk Nowitzki is still playing, but they aren’t going to contend until they get lucky in the draft or sign a big free agent, something they’ve been trying to do for years.

Bulls’ trade isn’t as bad as people are making it out to be: On paper, it looks like the Bulls were fleeced by the Thunder. They dealt Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, and a second round pick for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Anthony Morrow. And the trade was in fact a great move by OKC, which all of a sudden has the pieces to make Houston or San Antonio sweat a little bit in the first round. But people are overreacting. Gibson — a very good player, by the way — is an undrafted free agent this summer. And McDermott hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since the Bulls drafted him. If they think Payne is a starting point guard in the longterm, it’s a deal that makes sense for them. The real mistake was trading the 16th and 19th picks for McDermott, the #11 overall selection. Those picks ended up being Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris, both of whom are better than McBuckets.

Butler and George were never going to be traded: In the days leading up to the trade deadline, as rumors swirled around Jimmy Butler and Paul George, it never seemed very likely that either would change teams. The Bulls and Pacers rightfully asked for a lot in return, and the potential suitors rightfully didn’t want to buy while Chicago and Indiana still have leverage. A deal is much more likely before the draft or later this summer, when there’s no uncertainty surrounding draft picks (Boston’s coveted Brooklyn pick, for example, could wind up first or fourth after the lottery) and when George and Butler are a year and two away from free agency. The problem with trading for George, who I love as a player, is that it’s been heavily speculated that he’ll join the Lakers in free agency. Now, there are a lot of fallacious rumors about player “X” or “Y” wanting to join the Lakers because he’s from LA (see: DeRozan, DeMar), but this is something that scares other teams away. How much of your future are you willing to mortgage for a guy who might leave in a year? This, by the way, was another reason Cousins got dealt for pennies on the dollar.

Rockets go all in on shooting: I expected Houston to target a defensive stopper who could replace Corey Brewer as the guy who can guard, say, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard. Instead, the Rockets shipped out the defensive-oriented poor-shooting Brewer and a first round pick to LA for bench scorer Lou Williams, who’s having a career year. Williams leads bench scorers with 18.7 points per game on 45/39/88 shooting. The Rockets are pairing him with Eric Gordon, the three point contest winner and the second leading bench scorer (17.2 ppg). The results have been predictable. Through two games, the Rockets have scored 271 points and taken 109 threes. Williams has scored 44 and taken 18 threes. In 44 minutes with Gordon and Lou Will together, the Rockets have a 128.2 offensive rating. That won’t last, but it’s pretty darn impressive. It says a lot that the Rockets chose to double down on offense rather than pursuing a little defense. They’re wagering that their best chance to beat Golden State is to push every game over 250 combined points and to shoot close to 60 threes a game. They might be right, but they should expect Durant to average 40 points per game, because I have no idea who’s going to stop him (sorry, Ariza).

How the East’s Top Four Match Up

Posted: 02/22/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I’ve got to admit that I was a bit puzzled when I saw that the Wizards essentially traded their first round pick — their best trade chip — to the Nets for Bojan Bogdanovic. The full deal was the first rounder, Marcus Thornton (who hasn’t played since January 3rd), and Andrew Nicholson (25 minutes played since New Year’s) for Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough (D-League for most of the year). Don’t get me wrong: Bogdanovic will certainly improve Washington’s porous bench. The 6’8″ wing is averaging 14 points per game and is solid (36%) from beyond the arc. He’s an obvious upgrade over Tomas Satoransky and Thornton. But the Wizards had to use their first round pick to get him, and they’re still sorely lacking someone who can run the offense when John Wall sits. And while Bogdanovic is fine from beyond the arc, they really need a good-great shooter coming off the bench. That’s why I think they would have been better off dealing for Sacramento’s Darren Collison, a point guard who’s shooting 42% from beyond the arc. Anyway, they’re definitely a better team today than they were yesterday. Now let’s see how they match up with the other three powers in the Eastern Conference.
Note: As of now, it seems unlikely that Boston will trade for either Paul George or Jimmy Butler. If they do get one of those stud wings, everything obviously changes.

 

Boston-Cleveland:
These two teams have played twice this year, with both games following a similar path: Cavs take a big early lead, with the Celtics rallying in the fourth quarter to lose by six in high scoring games. To be fair, the Celtics were without both Al Horford and Jae Crowder the first time they played Cleveland, which was way back in early November. As I detailed in the post about the Celtics, Boston’s biggest issue on either side of the ball is Isaiah Thomas’s defense. It’s the main reason that the Celts have been mediocre defensively. Against Cleveland, Boston can hide Thomas on whomever the Cavaliers are playing at shooting guard (a luxury they won’t have against Toronto or Washington). And the Celtics actually match up pretty well with the Cavaliers across the board defensively, at least on paper. Avery Bradley is one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, and he’d be tasked with sticking Kyrie Irving. Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown are both long, quick defenders, which is the only type of player that can even hope to slow down LeBron James. Kevin Love will be tough to defend, but given that he’ll miss at least the next six weeks with a knee injury, I don’t know how close to 100% he’ll be in the playoffs. I haven’t mentioned Marcus Smart, who can be placed on pretty much anyone defensively and acquit himself well.

A big problem for Boston would be keeping Tristan Thompson, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, off the glass. The Celtics are a really poor defensive rebounding team, as Horford has never really been a commanding rebounding presence. It’s hard to give an offense like Cleveland’s a bunch of extra possessions and survive.

Cleveland’s defense is nothing special, and the Celtics would probably be able to score fairly easily in quarter one through three. But I’d be interested to see what would happen if the Cavs put LeBron on Isaiah Thomas in crunch time. On paper, this is a pretty friendly matchup for Boston. But it’s hard for me to imagine a full-strength Cleveland team losing a series to a team without any two-way stars. The Cavaliers with a semi-hurt Kevin Love? That makes things more interesting.

Washington-Cleveland:
These two teams played one of the best games of the season a couple of weeks ago. The final score was Cavs 140, Wiz 135 in overtime. Kyrie Irving took over after LeBron fouled out. Washington’s five starters scored a combined 119 points, as Bradley Beal led the way with 41. It was an offensive clinic. Kyrie has surprisingly had his way with Wall and the Wizards throughout his career, shooting 47/40/84% and putting up 23.2 points per game. Likewise, Wall has been great against Cleveland, averaging 20.3 points and 9.5 assists per game and shooting 48/37/78%. For Washington to win this hypothetical series, Wall needs to win his personal battle with Irving. I think he’s a better player, but can anyone stop Irving in the playoffs?

The Cavaliers rank in the bottom half of the league in opposing three point percentage at 36.2%. That’s bad news against a team with two of the best three point shooters in the NBA (Otto Porter and Beal). I’d expect Iman Shumpert to play a lot of minutes in this series, because I’m not really sure who else can guard Washington’s guards. And again, look for LeBron to guard Wall down the stretch.

The tough thing for Washington in this series is that the best way to beat Cleveland is by tiring them out with a lot of quality bench players. The Wizards don’t have said quality bench players. If you go mano-a-mano with a starting lineup including LeBron, Kyrie, and Love, you’ll probably lose. That’s especially true given that the Wizards don’t really have anyone who can guard James. Otto Porter’s done a good job defensively this year, but he’s nowhere near athletic enough to slow LeBron down. The Wizards can beat almost anyone with a cohesive starting lineup that will play long stretches together in the playoffs, but I don’t know if they have the versatility to beat the Cavs.

Toronto-Cleveland:
The Raptors have been plagued by close losses all season, so it’s no surprise that their three losses against the Cavaliers this year have come by a combined 11 points. This series would be the most familiar out of all of these, because it was last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. A refresher: the Cavaliers won the first two games, then dropped two in Toronto, then closed out the series in six. The series was never in doubt, and Cleveland’s four wins were by margins of 31, 19, 38, and 26. LeBron shot 62% from the field, and Kyrie scored basically whenever he wanted to. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Raptors have closed the gap, but have they done so by enough?

The answer is that it’s tough to know. If Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are as efficient against Cleveland as they have been in the regular season, then I believe that the Raptors have a legitimate chance of beating the Cavs. But last year, each guard saw his efficiency nosedive in the playoffs. If it takes DeRozan 30 shots to score 30 points, Toronto’s offense isn’t going to be efficient enough to keep up with the Cavaliers. The Raptors also now have the Serge Ibaka factor. I think Ibaka could make a huge difference in a potential series with the Cavs, either as a small-ball center or a power forward. The Raptors were looking to add defense, and they’ve accomplished that goal. I don’t expect Serge to put up huge numbers on a team with two ball-dominant guards, but he’ll provide rim protection, he’ll stretch the floor for Lowry and DeRozan (remember, the Raptors have been dominant offensively when they put enough shooters on the floor. Ibaka gives them that ability while also allowing them to maintain defensive competency), and he’ll be able to guard Kevin Love, who was bad in last year’s playoffs but had seemingly found his game this year before getting injured.

It’s also worth noting that the Raptors are still looking to add another piece. They need a wing defender, because DeMarre Carroll couldn’t stop LeBron last year and certainly won’t be able to now that he’s deteriorated even more. Carroll was horrendous against the Cavaliers last season, but he’s still probably a member of Toronto’s crunch-time starting five (along with Lowry-DeMar-Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas) simply because he can defend a little bit. But the Raptors are probably hoping that someone else can step up and give them a solid fifth guy who can defend LeBron, because that’s all that’s standing between them and a very competitive series.

Boston-Washington:
This seems like a pretty good matchup for the Wizards. They rebound pretty well and should control the glass against the small Celtics. More importantly, there’s nowhere for the Celtics to hide Thomas. Put him on Wall, and it’s all over. Same goes for Beal. Otto Porter would just shoot over him or take him to the hole. This is a big problem for the Celtics and a large reason that Beal and Wall combined for 58 points the last time these two teams played. Boston, of course, will sink or swim with their star point guard. But I’m worried that they’ll end up sinking, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

The most interesting part of this matchup is the fact that it’s a lot of depth against what’s been a dominant starting lineup. Generally, the better starters will win out in the playoffs, as I’d suspect would happen in this series. But it’s worth considering that these Wizards might be a flash in the pan, since they were the worst of these four teams last year and since they started poorly before their recent torrid stretch. I just think that it’s more likely that something’s clicked for the starting lineup, and that the rapid improvement of Porter and the resurgence of Markieff Morris have made it really tough to stop. I’m also pretty confident that Marcin Gortat would be able to bully Al Horford down low in a way that no Cleveland Cavalier would. The Cavs are a better team, but in a lot of ways the Wizards are the tougher matchup for the Celtics.

Washington, by the way, has also played the best defense of these four teams. That makes it even less likely that the Celtics would be able to keep up with the Wizards’ scoring. Unless, of course, the Celtics find a lineup that’s been as efficient as Washington’s, which is entirely possible given the weapons they have. Here’s the best way for me to leave things: if the series started today, I think the Wizards would win. But the Celtics have a higher upside and (probably) a marginally better chance to beat the Cavaliers.

Boston-Toronto:
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have won 10 of the 15 games between these two teams. That’s because they match up very well with the Celtics. They’re another team with two scoring guards and therefore create another defensive problem for Boston. There’s a reason they’ve gone over 100 points in 10 of their last 12 games against the Celtics. Toronto’s offense is very hard to stop even for a team that matches up well. So can the Celtics keep up in a high-scoring series? Well, yes, which is why I’d expect this to be a very tight series. There’s a reason the Raptors are shopping for more defense. And this probably isn’t a series where Ibaka would help that much, especially if he does what he did last year against the Warriors and falls in love with the three point shot. Ibaka’s a decent long range shooter, but when you have an offense like Toronto’s this year or OKC’s last season, you can usually find a better shot. So that’s one thing I’d look out for if these two teams do end up meeting. In the end, I think this series would go seven games and come down to whether Boston’s young, athletic wings could slow down Toronto’s stud guards.

Washington-Toronto:
These two teams have only played once this season, so I’m excited to see how the upcoming home-and-home at the beginning of March will go. Both teams rely heavily upon a great all-around point guard and a scoring shooting guard. The Wizards have the edge at small forward, but I’m not sure Otto Porter is good enough yet to make the Raptors sweat defensively. That’s big, because the Raptors are a better overall offensive team, so the Wizards will need to take advantage of any matchup advantages they have. Talent-wise, I think these teams are similar, so it’ll come down to which team executes better down the stretch. That’s where the Raptors’ experience might come into play.

The Cavaliers should still obviously be favored to make it out of the Eastern Conference. But they’re going to find it more challenging than they did last season, because Boston, Toronto, and Washington are all really strong teams. The way these teams end up being seeded is important. All three of the challengers obviously want to avoid Cleveland, but the Cavs are a much tougher matchup for Toronto than they are for Boston, for example. There’s a reason that all four of these teams have already tried to strengthen their squads at the trade deadline. I think there’s a legitimate chance that any of the four could end up representing the East. As of today, I’d rank them Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Boston. But the Celtics have the upside to challenge the Cavaliers.

Last night, the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans made a trade. DeMarcus Cousins is now a Pelican. The Kings probably didn’t get enough for DeMarcus Cousins. In fact, a package of Tyreke Evans (salary filler), Langston Galloway, Buddy “Next Steph Curry” Hield, and a first and second round pick almost certainly isn’t a big enough coup for one of the best players in the NBA. But the Kings getting fleeced in a trade is not worth writing about, because it’s a common occurrence at this point. Yeah, the Kings have no real talent left and are probably screwed for a long time. No, they may not be able to reap the benefits of a top pick this year (if their pick ends up being better than the Sixers’, they have to swap). No, they don’t have a 2019 first round pick (also heading to the Sixers, who are the sneaky winners of this trade). But the Cousins-Kings relationship was never going to end well, and that’s not the most interesting part of this trade. Pairing fellow former Kentuckians Cousins and Anthony Davis, though… that’s fascinating.

In an era of more and more floor spacing and smaller and smaller lineups, this is what the NBA needed. There may not be much intrigue over who wins the title this season, but now we get to see the two best big men in the NBA on the same team. The question is: can Cousins and Davis hold up against smaller and quicker power forwards?

First of all, it’s worth noting that neither Cousins nor Davis is just a big brute who scores through sheer physical dominance. These two guys are both extremely skilled players who rank fourth and fifth in the league in scoring. Cousins has developed into a 36% three point shooter. He’s also third in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, and he hits them at a 77% clip. And while he’s listed at 270 pounds, he’s not the kind of player who is going to clog up the paint every time the Pelicans have the ball. He leads big men in touches per game (81.9, Davis is second at 76.5). He averages 1.05 dribbles when he gets the ball, also tops among bigs. He gets more than twice as many touches at the elbow per game (10.5) than in the post (4.5). His 2.3 touches per game in the paint rank 25th among the 26 centers who have played at least 25 games and average 25+ minutes. Sometimes to a fault, Cousins has tried to play like a guard. His 7.6 drives per game are more than double any other big man’s. He’s averaging 4.8 assists per game, which is behind only Draymond Green and Al Horford among power forwards and centers. He’s become a great interior passer, something that will certainly pay dividends now that he’ll be playing next to a fellow tremendously skilled big man. So I find the idea that this won’t work because Cousins will ruin New Orleans’s spacing to be nonsensical.

And Davis is famous for his seven inch growth spurt as a high school junior and senior that transformed him from a 6’3″ guard with no scholarship offers to a 6’10” big man who ranked second in the recruiting class because the guard skills he had never vanished. He’s averaging 2.2 assists per game and isn’t the facilitator that Cousins is, but he’s a good dribbler and can shoot from midrange and from the line (80%). He doesn’t have a three point shot just yet, but he is shooting 44% on 15-19 foot shots and 47% on 10-14 footers. He’s also deadly from the elbow, putting up .586 points per elbow touch. Among bigs, that’s the top mark in the league by far, as Nikola Vucevic is second at .432. Davis isn’t the offensive fulcrum that Cousins has been this year, but that’s a good thing, because it makes it less likely that the offense will become dysfunctional. I’ll be interested to see how Davis plays as the 1b option.

Both Cousins and Davis have been criticized for becoming more pick-and-pop players than pick-and-roll players. But whereas that may have been a problem when each player was the centerpiece of his respective offense, it’s now probably a positive, because it will ensure that the paint remains relatively open for drives from either of the big guys or point guard Jrue Holiday. Will we see a lot of 4-5 pick-and-pops, with Cousins as the ball-handler and Davis as the screener? I think we may, because that could be the best way to utilize DeMarcus as a playmaker and Davis as an off-ball menace. Neither of these guys are Hakeem Olajuwon, obviously, but the last time two scoring bigs of this magnitude played together may have been the Dream and Ralph Sampson in Houston. There are obviously a lot of differences (Olajuwon is a top-10 player ever, Sampson is 7’4″, Cousins and Davis are better creators and shooters from distance), but those two both averaged 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in 1984-85, their first season together (also Hakeem’s rookie year). They went 48-34 that year, went 51-31 and made the Finals the next season, and went 42-40 the next year before trading Sampson. So there’s evidence that putting two great bigs together can work but that, even in a much more big-friendly era, it wasn’t enough to get the Rockets over the hump (it wasn’t until almost a decade later, when Hakeem was fully in his prime, that they won consecutive championships).

The Pelicans rank 27th in offensive efficiency. It’s hard to imagine them not being at least average the rest of this year with Cousins, whose Kings have scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the court and just 97.7 with him on the bench. How about the defensive end? Well, they rank eighth in defensive efficiency, largely because Davis is a defensive anchor who is averaging 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks per game. Davis is tied for seventh in the NBA in Defensive Rating (an estimate of individual points allowed per 100 possessions) at 101. He’s super long and has quick feet, which should allow him to stay with smaller power forwards. But I think he’ll make less of an impact with Cousins, who isn’t a very good defender, beside him. One thing’s for sure: their rebounding is going to improve. They currently rank 29th in the league in rebounding, as they’re collecting just 47.5% of misses. Davis is averaging 11.9 rebounds per game, but most of those are uncontested. He’s still not strong enough to nab some of the really contested rebounds, and until now he didn’t have much help, as Terrence Jones ranks second on the team with 5.9 rebounds per game. Enter Cousins, who averages 10.6 rebounds per contest and is big and strong enough to collect some of those pivotal boards. So if the Pelicans get a bit worse defensively, they should make up for it by snuffing out a few possessions with improved rebounding.

There’s no question that the Pelicans are better now than they were yesterday. DeMarcus Cousins is a really, really good player, and he may well be a motivated one now too. If I were the Warriors, I would be praying that the Pelicans miss the playoffs, because I wouldn’t want to have to go up against Davis and Cousins in the first round. Golden State would still obviously win the series, but a physical series like it’d be wouldn’t be good for the Warriors in the longterm. But how about moving forward? If the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins, will they be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference for years to come? I think they’d be a likely playoff team, but I’m not sure that building a team around Cousins and Davis will push them over the hump, just as Houston never won a championship with Olajuwon and Sampson. I don’t think Davis can reach his full potential with Cousins next to him, just as Olajuwon didn’t play his best basketball until Sampson was gone. With that being said, New Orleans had to do this trade. When you can get an elite talent for cheap, you do it, and you figure the rest out later. Besides, Davis and Cousins’s offensive games aren’t incompatible. At their best, they’ll be downright unstoppable. One thing’s for sure: I’ll be watching the Rockets-Pelicans game on Thursday night. It’ll be interesting.

The Boston Celtics are 24-8 in their last 32 games, which is nearly 40% of the regular season. Their hot streak is a bit less surprising than Washington’s, because they were supposed to be good heading into the season, boasting the second best odds to win the Eastern Conference. They’re on pace for 53 wins, which is just a shade over their preseason over/under of 51.5. And their point differential (+2.8) doesn’t suggest that they’re any better than that 53-win pace; if anything, they should be expected to regress a little bit going forward, perhaps putting them right in line with that over/under. But while their win total might not be shocking, the way they’ve won is it a bit more surprising. It starts, of course, with Isaiah Thomas.

Before this year, Isaiah Thomas was correctly seen as a great — albeit somewhat inefficient — scorer who had the heart and ability to transcend the limitations his 5’9″ frame would suggest, at least on the offensive side of the ball. He scored better than 22 points per game last season, shooting 43% from the floor, 36% from three, and 87% from the line. That came two years after he averaged 20 points per game for the Kings, even as he had to share the ball with DeMarcus Cousins. So there was no doubt that he was a great scorer. But I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Thomas is averaging 29.9 points per game this year on 47%/39%/91% shooting. His Offensive Real Plus-Minus ranks fourth in the NBA, behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Steph Curry. The Celtics score 113.5 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the court and 101.6 when he’s off it. He leads the league in drives per game. The main critique of the Celtics before the year was that they didn’t have a true, reliable go-to scorer. Well, Thomas just so happens to be averaging 10.7 points per fourth quarter. That’s easily the best in the league. The second best fourth quarter tally in the 21st century is Kobe Bryant’s 9.5 per game in the 2005-06 season. Thomas is in the midst of a historic season.

And yet… I’m still convinced that Wall is the significantly more valuable point guard and that the Celtics should in fact keep looking for a star player to pair with Thomas. Why? Well, although he tries on defense (something that can’t be said about some NBA players), he’s not laterally quick enough to compensate for his lack of height, at least not defensively. He’s allowing opposing players to shoot 65.7% against him, 13th-worst among the 160 players who have played 25+ games and averaged 25+ minutes. Wall, meanwhile, is allowing opponents to shoot just 45.5% against him, eighth-best among the 160 players and second among all guards. (For the record, I’m a bit skeptical about this stat because I’m not quite sure how it’s measured. But the eye test backs the results. The top three are Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gobert, and Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard both rank in the top-10. The bottom three are Jeff Teague, Zach LaVine, and Nik Stauskas.) No matter what stat you prefer, Thomas grades out poorly defensively. He’s hands-down the worst in the league in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. That’s why Thomas ranks just 74th in RPM despite having the fourth best ORPM. The Celtics give up 109.5 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the court and 99.5 when he’s off it. That’s the difference between being the 28th ranked defense in the NBA and easily the best. And if none of these stats impress you, just watch a Celtics game, focus on Thomas on the defensive side of the ball. Then, watch a Wizards game and focus on Wall. You’ll know what I’m talking about. This is why Thomas needs the right pieces around him in order to build a contender. Luckily, the Celtics already have many of those pieces.

Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder have established themselves as very good defensive players. They also combine to average 31.5 points per game. Meanwhile, Al Horford is a good two-way center who provides some rim protection. And the combination of young guards Terry Rozier (who has really quick hands) and Marcus Smart (who is big enough to guard power forwards and quick enough to stick with point guards) makes for great defense when Thomas sits (hence the fact that they’re allowing fewer than a point per possession when he’s off the court). Throw in #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, who’s extremely raw offensively but has the athleticism to make him a plus defender already, and you have a team that should be able to compensate for Thomas’s flaws and rank among the top defensive teams in the league.

The problem is that they aren’t a top defensive team. They rank just 18th in the league in defensive efficiency. Part of that is the fact that Thomas is a bad defender, and that will probably keep them from ever being a top-flight defense. But nobody’s advocating that they take their unstoppable scorer off the court. They have to find a different solution. I would think that the best possible lineup the Celtics could throw out would be Thomas, Bradley, Smart, Crowder, and Horford. There’s shooting there (obviously Thomas, but Bradley and Crowder are both also shooting above 40% from beyond the arc, while Horford’s at 35%). In fact, those five players average a combined 27.6 three point attempts per game. That’s incredible, given that 19 teams don’t even put up that many threes per game. The Celtics, by the way, rank third in the NBA in three point attempts per game behind Houston and Cleveland. Horford theoretically gives the Celtics an interior presence on both ends of the court. But he’s never been a great post scorer, and Boston hasn’t been using him in the post. Of the 26 centers who have played 25 games and 25+ minutes per contest, Horford ranks 22nd in post touches per game. He’s also the second least efficient center from the post with an average of .696 points per post touch. So maybe that’s part of the Celtics’ problem: they lack interior scoring. Anyway, I would have expected the lineup I mentioned above to be Boston’s best, because I believe that those are the Celtics’ five best players. But (and this is what I’ve been getting at) that lineup has only played 64 minutes together, making it Boston’s fifth most used lineup. That has a lot to do with the fact that Bradley’s missed 19 of Boston’s last 20 games. Crowder and Horford both also missed time earlier this season. I’m not comfortable with making conclusions off of 64 minutes, but it’s worth noting that the lineup is a -14.8 points per 100 possessions. I’ll dismiss it as a fluke, especially since they’ve scored well. The real issues have been on the defensive side of the ball, but I don’t expect that to persist given that Smart, Bradley, Crowder, and Horford are four of Boston’s best defenders. I’m eager to see how the lineup performs when Bradley gets back.

Anyway, the Celtics have defensive problems. Some of it is Thomas, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Celtics can’t rebound. They rank 29th in defensive rebounding rate, ahead of just the Knicks. Horford has never been a particularly good rebounder, so this is something that the Celtics should have expected, especially since their backup is Kelly Olynyk, not a particularly strong rebounder himself. I think Boston probably did realize they’d have a rebounding problem, but thought they’d be good enough defensively to negate the damage done on second-chance points. That hasn’t been the case, which is why the rumors that they’re targeting Andrew Bogut make a lot of sense. More intriguing, of course, are the Jimmy Butler trade talks. Butler is a perfect fit alongside Thomas and would easily make the Celtics the biggest threat in the Eastern Conference to knock off LeBron James. I don’t see a trade happening, because the Bulls are (rightfully) asking for a lot and because the Celtics probably won’t be willing to package a bunch of their most enticing assets, but they definitely could get Butler if they really wanted. They have Brooklyn’s unprotected picks for the next two years. Those are two of the most valuable assets in the NBA. They also have a lot of young talent (Rozier, Brown, Crowder, Smart). Again, Butler might make them the Eastern Conference co-favorites. But I don’t think they’ll end up trading for him.

That leaves us with a talented team that’s stacked for the future but still has a few exploitable holes this season. An important part of being successful in the playoffs is finding a killer lineup, something the Cavs, Raptors, and Wizards all have but Boston doesn’t yet. The Celtics certainly have the most depth of the four, but the value of depth goes down in the playoffs. They have the worst starting lineup of the four, especially now that the Raptors have Serge Ibaka. And yet… the Celtics have Isaiah Thomas, easily the top scorer in the East. As you’ll see in my next post, they might also have the players required to cause the Cavaliers a lot of issues. I’m not as high on the Celtics as most people seem to be, but they’re definitely a team to keep an eye on. They have too much talent and too good a coach (Brad Stevens is one of the NBA’s best, and he’s especially good at designing plays out of timeouts, a skill I’ve always admired in coaches) to be ignored.

Next: how Washington and Boston match up with each other, Toronto, and Cleveland

Since the New Year, the Golden State Warriors have the best record in the NBA at 18-4. That’s no surprise. But guess who’s in second place? Hint: it’s not the Spurs (16-7), the Rockets (14-9), or the Cavs (14-9). It’s not the slumping Raptors (11-14), although I still think the Raps are the second best team in the Eastern Conference, especially after they traded for Serge Ibaka. It’s the Washington Wizards, who are 18-5 since the New Year and 18-3 since they dropped their first two games in January. And right behind the Wizards are the Boston Celtics, who are 17-6 since the calendar flipped to January and 11-2 in their last 13 games, even after they lost to the Bulls on Thursday by a point on a soft foul call on Marcus Smart at the buzzer. The Celtics are now 37-20, three games behind the Cavaliers, while the Wizards, who started the year 7-13, are now 34-21, two games ahead of the Raptors in third place in the East. The two teams also have the exact same point differential (+2.8) and are powered by All-Star point guards (Isaiah Thomas and John Wall). They’re having very similar seasons, which begs a few questions: which team is more likely to keep it up? How do they match up against each other? How do they match up against Cleveland and Toronto? It’s worth noting that the four teams I’ve mentioned are the only four in the Eastern Conference with a point differential of better than +.3. Two other EC teams have positive point differentials, but both Milwaukee (25-30, +.3) and Charlotte (24-32, +.2) are currently outside the playoff picture. In a largely mediocre conference, it’s going to be up to Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, and Boston to provide playoff drama.

The Wizards have a very strong starting lineup. There’s never been any doubt that, when healthy, John Wall and Bradley Beal form a frightening backcourt. And they’re finally (knock on wood) both healthy. Wall is dynamic, extremely fast, a tenacious defender, and an excellent passer. He can get to the rim, and his jump shot is slowly improving. He’s shooting a career high 45% from the field this year. Beal, meanwhile, is a knockdown (40% from three) shooter who should really have been Kevin Love’s All-Star replacement (it ended up being Carmelo Anthony). He’s also a sneaky-good passer (3.7 assists per game, top-five among shooting guards). Then there’s Otto Porter Jr., who also maybe should have been an All-Star, both because of his solid defensive work and because he’s continued his trend of getting significantly better in each of his (now four) years in the NBA. Offensively, Porter’s exploded, especially from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 53.4% from the field, putting him behind just KD and LeBron among small forwards. He’s the best three-point shooter in the NBA at 46.5%, and he’s taking more than 4.5 threes per game. He’s up at 48% on catch-and-shoot threes, tops in the NBA. He’s actually shooting above 50% from 25+ feet, also obviously best in the NBA. His true shooting % (which is Total points / [(FGA + (0.44 x FTA)] is 65.3%, tops among non-big men and .1% above Kevin Durant’s. I could go on and on about his offense, and he’s only averaging 14.6 points per game because he’s such a low-usage player who rarely drives or posts up. I can’t overstate how important Porter is to the Wizards’ starting lineup. If they wanted or needed him to score 20 points per game, he easily could. But they have two guards putting up a combined 45 points and 35 shots per game, so that’s obviously not what they need. They need an efficient small forward who is good defensively and has the rebounding ability to compensate for the team’s lack of big man depth. Porter was immediately labelled a bust — he barely played in his first year after being drafted #3 overall — but he’s become one of the more versatile and valuable small forwards in the league.

Then there’s Markieff Morris, a power forward who can create his own shot and who has been on fire since the New Year (49% from the field, 42% from three, 18/8/2 per game). Morris, too, fits in perfectly. He is a really solid defensive player, and the team is much better defensively with him on the court (102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) than with him off the court (109.2). And it’s no coincidence that Washington’s hot streak has coincided with Morris’s offensive explosion, because he gives them a fourth dynamic offensive weapon who can create his own shot. When the Wizards want, they can also throw the ball down low to Marcin Gortat and let him demolish small-ball centers. He’s shooting a career-best 60% from the field, ranking seventh in the NBA in points per game from the post (6.3). Just as importantly, he vacuums up 11.4 rebounds per game and has almost single-handedly kept Washington above water rebounding-wise even with backup center Ian Mahinmi missing almost the entire year.

Washington’s starting lineup makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s also worked (unlike many lineups that make sense on paper). Put two lethal shooters on the wings in Beal and Porter, add a power forward who can create his own shot and shoot from beyond the arc in Morris, add a rim-runner in Gortat and top it off with a point guard who will take advantage of any space he’s given in Wall and you have a well-oiled offensive machine. The lineup has played 965 minutes together this season and has a +13 net rating in those minutes. First of all, playing 965 minutes together through 55 games is an extraordinary feat that requires a whole lot of luck. The five starters have missed a combined eight games, which is notable considering the expansive injury histories that both Beal and Wall have. Those 965 minutes are easily the most by a single lineup. Minnesota’s starting lineup ranks second at 880, although they’re quickly falling behind after the Zach LaVine season-ending injury. Oklahoma City’s starters rank third at 601 minutes, and Golden State’s are fourth at 508. I said that this lineup makes a lot of sense; coach Scotty Brooks clearly agrees. As for that +13 net rating, it ranks fourth among the 30 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. First, of course, is the new Death Lineup (last year’s Death Lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green but with Kevin Durant instead of Barnes) at +25. Then come Golden State’s starters (+23) and the Clippers’ oft-injured starters (+16.2). Then the Wizards’ starters are the only other group with a net rating above +10. And remember, this is for lineups that have played as few as 200 minutes. Washington’s has played 965. This is no small sample size fluke. Boston’s starting lineup, by the way, is +7.3 points per 100 possessions. Cleveland’s is +9.3, Houston’s is +9.7, and San Antonio’s is +10.

Looking forward, I don’t see any reason that the starting lineup will slow down (barring injury, of course). It might be a bit too much to assume health going forward, but let’s not kid ourselves: neither the Wizards nor the Celtics have a chance of upsetting the Cavaliers if they’re not at full health. And in the playoffs, I’d expect the starting lineup to play together even more than it is now. Wall’s at 36.6 minutes per game, while the rest of the starters are between 32.1 and 34.5. There’s some wiggle room there. But still, you realistically need at least three quality bench players in order to grind for four playoff rounds. And that’s the problem: they definitely don’t have three quality bench players, at least not at this point. I mentioned that backup Ian Mahinmi has missed most of the year. Well, he’s played between 12 and 15 minutes in the last four games, and he’s expected to play more after the All-Star break. You may not realize it now, but Mahinmi is really important. As I’ve alluded to, Washington has a short bench. They also handed Mahinmi a four year, $64 million deal this offseason after he played very well for the Pacers last season, ranking fifth in defensive Real Plus-Minus. Adding a big man will also be huge for a team that’s struggled to keep teams off the offensive glass (they’re tied for 25th in defensive rebounding at 75.4%). It remains to be seen whether Mahinmi can regain the form that allowed him to sign a $64 million paycheck. One thing’s for sure, though: the Wizards should look to add another bench piece via trade. They fall off a cliff whenever Beal or Wall is off the court, let alone both of them. Trey Burke just isn’t going to get it done as a backup point guard. Ditto for Tomas Satoransky at shooting guard. They should dangle their first round pick, and maybe even young Kelly Oubre, who’s getting 20 minutes per game off the bench and hasn’t been terrible. I think Oubre’s going to end up being a good player, and the Wizards should try to avoid moving him, but they’re really close to having a great chance of winning the Eastern Conference, and if moving Oubre can get them a guard who is locked up for a few seasons and can play 20+ good minutes per game in the playoffs, I think it’s worth it. It looks like the Wizards understand that they must be buyers. Options could include Will Barton and Lou Williams, both guys who are experienced bucket-makers off the bench. I wouldn’t move Oubre in a Williams deal or both Oubre and a first round pick for Barton, but one or the other could get it done and would end up really helping the second unit.

Bottom line: John Wall is a legit top-10 NBA player. He also has a huge amount of talent around him, and the starting lineup fits together really well. But for the Wizards to be really taken seriously as a threat to the Cavaliers, they need to improve their bench. Mahinmi might be an in-house improvement, but even a small trade deadline move would be huge in a potential close second round series against Toronto or Boston.

Tomorrow: the Celtics
Monday: how they match up against each other, Cleveland, and Toronto

Around this time last year, I compared the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and Washington Capitals, ultimately determining that the Capitals (who were 45-12-4 with 11 more points than the next best team and a +60 goal differential) were more dominant compared to the rest of their league than the Warriors (who were 53-5 with a +11.3 point differential). Of course, the rest of the season didn’t go the way either team wanted. The Warriors went 73-9 and took a 3-1 series lead against the Cavaliers, but we all know what happened next. Meanwhile, the Caps slumped down the stretch, finishing the regular season 11-6-4 after I published the post and losing in the second round. But both teams have predictably come back strong this year. The Caps brought back every single one of their important pieces (the goalie, the top six scorers, and all of the top six defensemen), while the Warriors added Kevin Durant to an already record-setting team. Washington is 39-11-6, good for a 1.5 point per game total that is slightly worse than last year’s 1.54 when I wrote my post but slightly better than the 1.46 they ended up with. Their goal differential is +71, 11 goals better than it was when I wrote last season. Meanwhile, the Warriors are “just” 46-9 and boast a +12.6 point differential. So even though neither team has as good of a record as they had last year, they’re arguably both performing better than they were when I wrote about them last season. This all begs the question (again): who’s more dominant?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when I looked at the standings today and saw just how well the Capitals are doing. That’s because they started relatively slowly — 13-7-3. They’ve turned things around… and then some. Since December 31st, they’re 19-2-1 with a +53 goal differential. That’s +2.4 goals per game, which is unbelievable. Washington has scored at least five (5!) goals in 11 consecutive home games. They’re being led by all of the familiar faces. Alex Ovechkin is unlikely to get to the 50 goal mark, but he’s scoring nearly a point per game and is on pace to assist more goals than he has in six years. Nicklas Backstrom ranks third in the NHL with 60 points. Evgeni Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer last year, has 44 points. The most impressive thing is that, advanced-stats wise, the Caps’ third line (Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky) has been its strongest. It’s worth noting that the Capitals have been incredibly lucky to this point, at least in 5-on-5 situations. They’re blowing teams out, but that’s largely because of the puck luck they’ve gotten. The numbers are astounding: they’ve scored 65% of the goals in their games at even strength, but they’ve only taken 51.3% of the shots (that is, shots on goal + shot attempts that missed the net or were blocked). To put that in perspective, the Flyers and Flames have also taken 51.3% of 5-on-5 shots. So this is by no means a dominant full-strength team, which could mean that they will regress going forward. But I’m not asking which team will be more dominant going forward, because I think that’s pretty clearly the Warriors. Rather, I’m asking who’s been more dominant so far. And if we take the Capitals’ record and goal differential at face value, which I’m willing to do for this exercise, they have a real argument.

The one thing the Warriors haven’t had this year is a dominant stretch like the Capitals are currently in the midst of. Sure, they’re 46-9 with a +12.6 point differential, so you could argue that the whole season has been a dominant stretch. But their longest winning streak was “just” 12 games, and they were “just” +18 per game in that stretch, which is obviously amazing but isn’t quite “22 game stretch with +2.4 goals per game difference” level awesome. Their starting lineup (Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green-Zaza Pachulia) has played 508 minutes together this year and has a +23 net rating (120.2 points scored per 100 possessions, 97.2 allowed). They lead the league in points, assists, assist percentage, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, fast break points, field goal percentage on drives, catch and shoot points per game, and deflections per game. The only reason they don’t have the record they had last season is that they’ve gotten much less lucky in close games.

So both teams have been incredible. The Warriors seem more incredible, with a four game lead over everyone else and a tidy 46-9 record. But we thought that’s the way it would turn out last year, and yet the Capitals’ season (up to the day I wrote, at least) was actually more remarkable compared to the rest of the NHL than Golden State’s was compared to the rest of the NBA.

Just like last year, I calculated standard deviations (a mathematical way to compare a number to a mean and see just how exceptional that number is) for the NBA by winning percentage and point differential and for the NHL by points per game and goal differential per game, and here are the results:

Warriors Capitals
Winning % / PPG .836 1.50
Standard Deviations From Mean – Winning % / PPG 2.27 (last yr when I wrote: 2.39) 1.99 (last yr: 2.58)
Point/Goal Differential +12.6 +1.27
Standard Dev From mean – Point/Goal Differential 2.72 (last yr: 2.13) 2.29 (last yr: 2.55)

This year, the results are different: the Warriors are clearly the more dominant team, even though the Capitals have had the more dominant hottest stretch. Washington’s season doesn’t match up to where they were last year at this point. Heck, the Caps aren’t even the most remarkable team in the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche have 32 points through 54 games and own a -75 goal differential. Their two standard deviation numbers are 2.8 and 2.48 standard deviations below the mean. The Warriors’ point differential is something else. 2.72 standard deviations above the mean is the 99.67th percentile. The Avalanche’s 32 points, by the way, put them in the .0026th percentile.

For now, the Warriors are the more dominant team. But if the Capitals can keep up their torrid hot streak and continue to thumb their noses at the advanced stats, I’ll have to revisit this at the end of the year.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Tanking

Posted: 02/14/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

In the last six NBA seasons, 20 teams have ended the year with a sub-.300 winning percentage (fewer than 25 wins), which, in my estimation, is the true definition of a horrid team. Last year, for example, Phoenix won 23 games, Brooklyn won 21, the Lakers won 17, and the Sixers won 10. We’ve all heard a lot about the pros and cons of “tanking,” largely because the Sixers tanked unabashedly but partly because a number of other teams have also clearly tanked seasons. We’ve also all heard that tanking (to be clear, this is about the front office gutting a team rather than the players actively trying to lose, which obviously doesn’t happen) is an issue that will continue to plague the NBA until it can find some way to discourage teams from doing it in order to gain high draft picks. There have been a lot of interesting ideas, from giving each lottery team similar odds to get the #1 pick (I hate that idea, because it’ll just mean that teams who would otherwise be fighting for the eighth seed will start tanking), to the wheel idea (too complicated for me to quickly explain). But no matter how people have felt about tanking, they’ve generally agreed that it’s not something that will just go away.

This year, however, the Lakers are favored to win their 20th game tonight and will have a good chance to win in Phoenix tomorrow night. If they win either of those two games, all but two teams will enter the All-Star break with at least 20 wins. Only one team is under my entirely arbitrary (it just seems right) .300 mark. And that team is the Brooklyn Nets, who, ironically, have nothing to tank for. They owe their first round pick to the Boston Celtics. Sure, some of those 20 teams of the last six years went on cold streaks to end the year, and one or two more teams may end up losing enough to go sub-.300 to end the year. And it’ll be impossible to really tell who’s tanking until we see what happens at the trade deadline. Already, the Magic have traded Serge Ibaka to the Raptors. But the three year stretch of multiple teams winning fewer than 20 games is almost certain to end, and the one team that will win fewer has no reason to tank and really just has a horrific roster. Why is nobody tanking this year? Well, any conversation about tanking (or lack thereof) has to start with the Sixers, right?

For the first time in four years, the Sixers aren’t tanking. That’s largely because they have a guy named Joel Embiid, as Philadelphia has a net rating of +3.2 when he’s on the court (they’re outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court), which is really incredible given that their overall net rating is -6. But the Sixers are also 7-15 without their star center, which is a heck of a lot better than they’d played any of the previous three years. The gut reaction to “why aren’t teams doing “X” anymore?” is to say “because “X” didn’t work before.” But that’s not the case here, because Philadelphia’s tank has clearly worked. They have Embiid, they have Ben Simmons, they have Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric, they have uncovered hidden gems like Robert Covington, and they still have a boatload of assets. Their future is undoubtedly brighter than it’s been since Allen Iverson was in his prime (and probably longer than that). No, Philly’s tanking results aren’t the reason that nobody’s bottoming out this season. But here are some other possible reasons:

There are a lot of options to choose from in the draft.
Last year, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram were the clear top draft options. The year before, it was Karl-Anthony Towns and then everyone else. Before that, it was Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid. The last time there was no clear top rung of the draft class was in 2013, which just so happened to be the last time nobody won fewer than 20 games. That year, there were no good options, which explains why Anthony Bennett was the #1 overall pick. This time, there might be too many good options to tank for a top pick. I don’t know where I stand with this draft class yet (I can tell you that I love Josh Jackson), but I know that draft evaluators have said that there’s not a huge difference between Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (who are at the top of most draft boards) and De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk (who reside between 8th and 10th on most boards). Again, I’ll know more about what I think the tiers are in the coming months, but it’s a lot harder to rationalize tanking when you can “settle” for a guy like Malik Monk without tanking and when there’s no Karl-Anthony Towns at the top (I like Fultz, who I’ll likely have #1, but I don’t think he’s a Towns-level prospect).

The teams that should tank are refusing to.
This can be true for a number of reasons. The Knicks should have traded Carmelo Anthony a month ago and bottomed out, especially since they’re so close to the bottom of the standings as it is. But they are the New York Knicks and play at MSG, so it’s understandable that they’re hesitant to do that. The Heat seemed on their way to dealing Goran Dragic and tanking, but then they went on a long winning streak. And Pat Riley doesn’t seem like the tanking type of GM. Same goes for Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, who will be trying to win as long as Dirk Nowitzki is on the team. The Mavs were 4-17 at one point and the Heat were 11-30 before their winning streak. Those are the types of teams that would have called it a season in past years. Maybe it’s just that the teams for whom tanking would make sense can’t for whatever reason. That’s why the Suns, Lakers, and Nets were three of the bottom four teams last year and are the three worst again this season, even though the Lakers signed vets Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov and the Suns signed Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa, clear signs that they aren’t trying to bottom out.

GMs are scared off by what happened to Sam Hinkie.
I said that Philly’s tank couldn’t be called a failure. It just so happens that the architect of the tank was run out of town before he could see it to completion. Hinkie, who did a marvelous job as GM, was replaced by Bryan Colangelo, who’s done bupkis. Yes, I’m still angry about it. But seriously, don’t you think GMs who might have wanted to tank are a little wary of doing so now that they saw what happened to Hinkie?

It’s random.
It’s hard to know from just glancing at the standings, but so many games are decided by just a few points. TeamRankings.com keeps track of each team’s record in games decided by five or fewer points. The Nets naturally have a league-worst .214 winning percentage in those games. The Lakers are at .286. But other teams who might otherwise tank — Phoenix (.450), Orlando (.400), Dallas (.500), Miami (.467), Philadelphia (.526) — have been solid in close games. Last year, the four bottom feeders I mentioned earlier were all in the bottom quarter of the league in close game winning percentage, with the Sixers coming in last with a dreadful .118. It’s very telling that the second worst team in close games this year has been the Toronto Raptors, who I still consider to be a very good team. It takes a bad team to tank, but it also takes a lot of bad luck. Aside from the Nets, who have no reason to tank, and the Lakers, whose coach is strongly against tanking, nobody’s luck has been that terrible.

Likely contenders to tank the rest of the year:
Magic — maybe the Ibaka trade was just the beginning of an Orlando attempt to maximize its lottery chances.
Lakers — they need to finish in the top three after the lottery to keep their pick. Otherwise it goes to the Sixers.
The fact that I could only point to those two really says it all. Of course, an Eric Bledsoe or Jimmy Butler or Carmelo Anthony trade would change things. Stay tuned.

I personally think that tanking is the best way to maximize future success, because it’s impossible to win in the NBA without star players and the best way to get star players is by drafting from a top-three slot. But I must admit that it’s more fun to watch the NBA when everyone (uh, besides the Nets) seems to have a legitimate chance of winning every game. I don’t see any reason that this’ll be a longterm shift, aside perhaps from the Hinkie factor, but maybe this is a taste of how things will be if the NBA eventually changes its draft rules.