Archive for the ‘Basketball’ Category

All eight NBA first round playoff series’ have now gone two games. There’s plenty to break down from the first 96 minutes of basketball (or 101 in the Boston-Milwaukee series, which had one insane game go to overtime) in each series, and I thought this would be a good time to take a breath and check in on where things stand. I recognize that most teams that get out to 2-0 leads end up winning (the widely circulated stat is 93%, although obviously a large part of that is the team that’s up 2-0 is flat-out better, something that applies to only some of this year’s quintet of 2-0s), so I’m going to split this breakdown into three categories. Here, first, are the easiest series’ to put to bed.

The Three 2-0 Series’ That I’m Ready to Call:

Houston over Minnesota
Golden State over San Antonio
Toronto over Washington

These three series’ reinforce what I was hinting at in the parentheses above. Houston, Golden State, and Toronto are all up 2-0, and they’re also all clearly significantly better than the teams they’re playing. Minnesota-Houston is the biggest bloodbath, as the Rockets’ 20-point win in Game Two showed. Houston won that game by 20 — and the score was 98-75 before the starters were all pulled — despite a 2-of-18 shooting game from James Harden. This came right after a coin-flip game that the Rockets won despite shooting 10-of-37 from three. Minnesota’s offensive gameplan has been horrendous in this series. They got fluky Game One performances off the bench from Jamal Crawford and especially Derrick Rose and were still just average offensively. And last night, they fell apart (85.2 points per 100 possession, per Cleaning the Glass). Karl-Anthony Towns has 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting for the series. Jimmy Butler has taken 17 shots. The team’s leading shot-takers are Andrew Wiggins (29 shots, 31 points) and Rose (22 shots, 25 points). They just can’t score enough. My pre-series prediction was that the series would go five games, with three clear Rockets wins and two coin-flips. I’ll stick with that, although it could easily be a sweep.

There’s even less to say about Golden State-San Antonio. I think it’s fair to say that the Warriors have flipped the switch. Both of these games have been blowouts, and that was true even though LaMarcus Aldridge had a great Game Two (34 and 12 on 11-of-21 shooting and 12-of-12 from the line). The Spurs just aren’t good enough to bother the Warriors even without Steph Curry. I picked the Warriors in six, but that was only because I believed it would take Golden State a little longer to get going in the series. They were ready from the tip, and I now don’t think this series will last more than five games.

The most interesting part of the Toronto-Washington series was seeing whether the Raptors could break their remarkable 10-game losing streak in Game Ones. The answer: yes, they could. It was closer than it should have been, but the Raptors pulled away late and won by eight. They then won the next game by 11, but the spread was 20 when all the starters were pulled with 2:32 left in the game. DeMar DeRozan isn’t going to stay as hot as he was in Game Two, but DeRozan and Kyle Lowry aren’t going to be as quiet as they were in Game One, either. This series is going pretty much as I expected. The Wizards are a midrange heavy team and have shot 23 more times from midrange than Toronto has. Meanwhile, the Raptors are sticking with their gameplan and have hoisted 62 non-garbage time and non-heave threes in two games. They’ve made 28, an unsustainable rate, but the Wizards are shooting pretty well from three, too (17-of-40). They just don’t shoot enough threes to keep up with the Raptors. I do think the Wizards have the talent to be heard from in this series, and it should go back to Toronto for a Game Five. But as long as the Raptors keep playing the way they played all season, it shouldn’t go any further than that. I’ll stick with my pre-series prediction of Raptors in five.

The Two 2-0 Series’ That Aren’t Over:

Boston over Milwaukee
New Orleans over Portland

Let me be clear: both the Celtics and Pelicans should now be considered heavy favorites to win their respective series’. I picked both the Bucks and Blazers to win and would obviously change both picks now that I know both teams are in 2-0 holes. But I wouldn’t be shocked if either team turned it around. Game Two was a throwaway game for the Bucks. The Celtics had a 6.7% turnover rate and shot 12-of-21 on midrange shots (95th percentile) and 12-of-30 on threes (62nd). Given that the Bucks rely on forcing turnovers and seemingly can’t grab a defensive rebound to save their lives, that kind of Celtics offensive performance is going to win almost every time. And Game One, the crazy overtime game that featured two threes in the last second of regulation, also had some troubling signs for the Bucks — a combination of more turnovers and way fewer offensive rebounds than their opponents. One thing that’s definitely proven true through two games is that the Celtics have a major coaching advantage. Brad Stevens is a really good coach, but more important is that Bucks coach Joe Prunty still doesn’t know what he’s doing. Center John Henson, who adds absolutely nothing offensively and is a poor defensive rebounder, has played 37 minutes in each of the first two games. I still believe that Milwaukee’s most talented five man unit — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brodgon, and either Jabari Parker or Tony Snell — is better than Boston’s. And even the Celtics’ vaunted defense hasn’t been able to stop Giannis or Middleton (65 points for the former, 56 for the latter) through two games. Giannis is still the best player in the series, so I refuse to count the Bucks out. And I think some portion of Boston’s offensive success has been a result of unsustainable shooting on tough shots. But Bledsoe is being destroyed by Terry Rozier, Boston’s been surprisingly efficient offensively, and the Celtics have been gobbling up offensive boards. That’s been a recipe for success so far, and I think it’s unlikely that the Bucks get their act together before the series ends. I still think their talent advantage will allow them to win a few games in this series, but Boston should win it, especially if guys like Rozier and Marcus Morris keep draining tough shots.

Right off the bat, it was apparent that the Pelicans would cause serious matchup problems for the Blazers. I recognized that before the series but believed the Blazers still had the talent to pull it out in seven games. Now, after New Orleans stole not one but two games on Portland’s home court, the equation has obviously changed. The Blazers have been flummoxed offensively, scoring 97.9 points per 100 possessions in Game One and 106.3 in Game Two (they scored 108.4 during the regular season). Jrue Holiday has been absolutely stupendous on both ends of the court but especially defensively. As the primary defender of Damian Lillard, he’s almost single-handedly ruined Portland’s offense. According to Tom Haberstroh, Lillard is 2-of-18 (Harden’s line last night!) for seven points when Holiday guards him and 11-of-23 for 28 when anyone else does. C.J. McCollum has 41 points in the two games and is trying his best to take over the scoring load, but the Blazers clearly need Dame. The Pelicans, who are the fastest-paced team in the league, have done a good job limiting fastbreak opportunities going the other way. The Blazers have barely gotten out in transition or to the line all series. On the other end, it doesn’t take long to realize that New Orleans is limited offensively. But they do have Anthony Davis, who flubbed a few layups in Game Two but has been generally awesome in this series. They also have Holiday, who scored at will at the rim against a defense that was the toughest to score on at the rim in 15 years. Portland is strong defensively but doesn’t have a ready-made Davis defender. Jusuf Nurkic is far too slow, and everyone else is too small. Another advantage New Orleans has: they know what their go-to lineup is. Davis, Holiday, Nikola Mirotic (who’s been sneaky-good defensively), and Rajon Rondo have each played 38+ minutes in both games, while E’Twuan Moore is the clear fifth choice (29 minutes per game). Portland, on the other hand, doesn’t know whether to play Nurkic or Evan Turner, both of whom saw big minutes reductions in Game Two. One reason for that was the return of Mo Harkless, who provided instant impact off the bench (11 points on 5-of-5 shooting along with active defense) in Game Two. The Blazers were clearly better when Harkless was on the court. But who plays with Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu (key because he’s the #1 defensive option on Davis), Lillard, and McCollum? In Game Two it was Zach Collins, who missed some big shots down the stretch and was disastrous defensively when he got switched onto Holiday. It could be Pat Connaughton, the springy ex-Notre Dame guard who provides shooting but not much defense. Or maybe they’ll go back to Nurkic, who’s the best player of the bunch. The good news for Portland is that, despite all these questions and despite the poor performances from Lillard and the otherworldly ones from Davis and Holiday, the first two games were each close. And New Orleans’s 24-17 home record was identical to their road one, so there’s no meaningful homecourt advantage. The bad news is that they’re down 2-0 (obviously) and it looks like the Pelicans have the two best players on the court. I still think it’s likely that the Blazers will claw back into this series and it’ll go six or seven games. I hope so, at least, because it’s been a fascinating chess match.

The Three 1-1 Series’:

Philadelphia-Miami
Cleveland-Indiana
Oklahoma City-Utah

A whole lot went wrong for the Sixers in Game Two. The Heat played physically, and it clearly impacted the Sixers’ offense. They scored just 102 points per 100 possessions and shot 42% from the floor and 19% (6-of-37) from three. Meanwhile, the Heat shot 49% from the floor as Dwyane Wade looked 10 years younger (11-of-16 from the floor for 28 points, most of which came on difficult and contested shots). The good news for the Sixers is that they still barely lost. That’s because they attacked the offensive glass and took relatively good care of the ball. The reason that’s so important is that the Sixers almost always shoot better than their opponents. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers’ eFG% (FG% that accounts for the extra point on threes) was 54.2% this year, fifth highest in the NBA. Their opponents’ eFG% was 49.5%, lowest in the league. The 4.7% difference was second only to Golden State’s (6.9%). The Sixers’ problems usually come when they turn the ball over, which they did more than any other team in the regular season. But they improved markedly down the stretch, and that improvement has continued in the playoffs. Some of what Miami did defensively in Game Two hurt Philly’s offense, but the Sixers still scored pretty regularly in the second half and got open shots throughout the game. If Wade doesn’t have a bonkers game, Philly probably wins despite shooting 6-of-37 from three. That’s why I think they’re still clear favorites in this series even if Joel Embiid can’t return. The scoring won’t come as easily as it did in Game One, when the Heat sagged off Ben Simmons and everyone was hot from three, but the Sixers have a track record that shows that they have a better and more explosive offense than Miami. And it’s not as if the Heat have cracked the code to guarding Simmons. He had 24-9-8 in Game Two, the game in which Justice Winslow and the Heat supposedly figured out how to guard him. I picked the Sixers in six before the series and will stick with that, although I do think there’s a good chance this goes seven, especially if Embiid remains out.

I can hardly believe how well the Pacers have played defensively in this series. They held the Cavs to 80 points in Game One and 100 in Game Two. Overall, the first two games have been hugely promising for Indiana. They’ve gotten to the rim at will and, thanks partly to the fact that the Cavs have no rim protection, scored when they’ve gotten there. That was especially apparent in Game Two, when the Oladipo-led Pacers were 29-of-34 on shots at the rim, putting them in the 93rd percentile of getting there and in the 98th percentile of finishing there. Of course, they still lost the game, but that was because LeBron James went nuts, scoring 46 points on 17-of-24 shooting. I can’t blame Indiana for that, because when LeBron’s on, no player or team in the league can stop him. A lot has been made of Nate McMillan’s decision to sit Victor Oladipo for the rest of the first quarter after he picked up two fouls in the first minute, and I agree that he should have brought Oladipo back into the game earlier. He’s generally a low-foul player (one foul-out in his career) and is also so key to the offense that the Pacers could barely score without him. And that decision may well have cost Indiana the game. But I’m choosing to focus on the positives: even despite getting only 28 minutes from their best player, the Pacers had the ball down three with less than a minute left and Oladipo took a wide open three that would have tied the game. He missed it, but the Pacers were right there in a game that LeBron dominated in Cleveland. More good news for Indiana: Kevin Love hurt his thumb, and while Ty Lue says he’ll be back out there in Game Three, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be 100%. Love hasn’t been efficient in this series, but he’s Cleveland’s second option and one of their only players who looks like he knows what he’s doing. Remember when the Cavs’ depth was being called a strength after their deadline deals? Well, it’s getting worked by Indiana’s second unit. Their best wings are J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. Jose Calderon and Jeff Green get consistent minutes. So does Jordan Clarkson, who to this point in his career has shown no evidence that he makes teams better. I don’t really understand why Lue seems so reticent to give more minutes to George Hill (39 through two games) and Rodney Hood (36). Neither of those guys is playing particularly well, but to me, they’re clearly the two role players with the highest two-way upside. Calderon was out of the league last year while Green helps defensively but is 1-of-10 through two games. I do understand the desire to play Korver, who is so deadly from three and at least is aware of his defensive responsibilities, and Smith. But why not cut some Calderon-Green-Clarkson-Larry Nance minutes and give them to Hill and Hood? Really, we haven’t learned anything about the Cavs’ upside through two games. We knew it was all going to depend on LeBron, and we still know that now. But altering those bench units can really help, especially in a series that’s shaping up to be a close one. I told myself not to sleep on the Pacers coming into the playoffs and still managed to do just that. They’ve been playing at a really high defensive level for months, and it seems that that has continued into the playoffs. And on offense, they don’t seemed to be bothered by much that Cleveland tries defensively, and for good reason: the Cavs ranked 29th in the league in defensive efficiency this season. Myles Turner, who I thought could be played off the court in this series, has been really good offensively. Oladipo has been great. Darren Collison, the league’s best three point shooter this year, is still hitting threes. But the best news for the Pacers is that the offense still has a lot of room to grow. Bojan Bogdanovic, the second leading scorer on the season, has been getting and missing open threes. Thad Young has a lot more to give. I picked the Cavs to win this series in five, and I still think there’s an outside chance that could happen. But I now think it’s more likely that it goes seven with a good chance that Indiana wins. I still favor Cleveland, simply because they have LeBron and they can go a few notches higher offensively than Indiana can. If Kevin Love is seriously hampered though, that changes, because the Cavs don’t have another big man who can stretch the floor. Nance is a good piece but can’t shoot at all. I think there’s a chance that the Cavs could give some playing time to Tristan Thompson, who’s been out of the rotation but can make an impact on the offensive glass, where the Pacers are exploitable.

The Utah-OKC series still seems destined to go seven. I don’t have much new to say about it, simply because I think it’s gone pretty much according to script. The Thunder have the best players in the series, and when they exert their influence (see: Game One) the team will win. But the Jazz are well-coached and strong defensively, and in Donovan Mitchell they have a guy who can take games over down the stretch. There is cause for optimism and pessimism for both teams after Game Two. The Thunder will point to Ricky Rubio’s five threes and the free throw disparity (33 attempts for Utah, 18 for OKC) as unsustainable performances. They’ll also take solace in the fact that Jerami Grant has seemingly developed into a weapon off the bench and that Corey Brewer is healthy and playing meaningful minutes. The Jazz, on the other hand, know that Derrick Favors is dominating Carmelo Anthony in their one-on-one matchup. They now have confirmation that Russell Westbrook and Paul George are the only two players who can consistently create for themselves and will feel confident in their ability to slow them down. They also know that Rubio actually shot 35% from three this year and has the ability to make opponents pay if he’s left open. And, of course, they know that they wrested homecourt advantage away in Game Two. I still believe that this series is going seven. I’ll stick with my pre-playoffs prediction of Thunder in seven.

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I’m a bit disappointed by the way the Western Conference’s seeding has turned out. There are eight good teams in, so of course the matchups will turn out fine, but we’re missing out on a few things I would have liked to see. Namely: a really tough first round series for Golden State (vs. Minnesota or OKC); a great second round matchup for Golden State (they get to avoid both Utah and OKC); a winnable first round matchup for the full-strength Timberwolves (i.e. against anyone other than Houston); and a chance to see all four of what I believe to be the best teams in the conference (Houston, GS, OKC, Utah) in the second round. But I shouldn’t be complaining, because the matchups we did get are still compelling. Portland-New Orleans and OKC-Utah seem bound to be super competitive series’, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Golden State-San Antonio went six or seven games either. Houston-Minnesota is a different story, although even that series has plenty of interesting strategic elements attached to it. Here are my Round One predictions:

Note: I didn’t have enough time to, you know, compose full sentences, so this is coming in little snippets.

#1 Houston Rockets over #8 Minnesota Timberwolves in 5: Rockets switch everything on defense, relentlessly attack switches on offense. The Timberwolves never switch, which makes them even more vulnerable. Who guards Harden? Jimmy Butler likely starts on him, but Houston will run him through a gauntlet of screens, and the T-Wolves start multiple subpar defenders. The Rockets should be able to score at will. Towns gets a nice matchup against Clint Capela. Both teams will score, but Minny (30th in frequency of threes) will trade 2s for 3s (Rockets shoot more threes than anyone else).

#2 Golden State Warriors over #7 San Antonio Spurs in 6: It may take the Warriors a little while to really get into the series, but they have a big talent advantage even with Steph Curry out. The Spurs haven’t been able to score on GSW without Kawhi in the past. Aldridge posting up 30 times per game won’t work — Draymond Green is too stout defensively. Worth noting that the Warriors have looked rudderless offensively without Curry despite all their other talent. Should be a defensive slugfest, but the Warriors have individual scoring talent (Durant) that the Spurs lack.

#3 Portland Trailblazers over #6 New Orleans Pelicans in 7: Pelicans are likely the worst team (or second-worst to San Antonio) in the West field but provide a tough matchup for Portland. Nobody can guard Davis. Jrue is a ++ defender who can shut down McCollum or slow Lillard. Rondo shows up in the playoffs. Pelicans are a good shooting team. They may put Jrue on CJ and trap Lillard to get the ball out of Damian’s hands. Force Nurkic to make decisions. Who’s stopping Jrue on the other end? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers put Evan Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu on him simply because he’s NO’s only scary scoring threat outside of Davis. Who does Nurkic guard? I guess Davis, but he’ll get a lot of help. Can AD make the right decisions when he’s doubled? In the end, I don’t trust the Pelicans’ role players or defense enough to pick them to steal this series. Should be a good one.

#4 Oklahoma City Thunder over #5 Utah Jazz in 7: Jazz have unquestionably been better down the stretch, but I’m worried about their ability to score in the playoffs. Thunder have a higher ceiling when engaged. Who creates for Utah other than Mitchell? Mitchell isn’t that efficient, either (57th percentile in points per shot attempt, per Cleaning the Glass. Great for a rookie but still), and Paul George can shut him down — there are few more relentless defenders. Of course, Thunder will still play undisciplined defense at times, which is what Utah can pick apart. Westbrook will have his hands full on the other end. Can he score at the rim against Gobert? Will he settle for midrange jumpers? How does PG’s shot look? Will Melo get hot offensively? Tough matchup for OKC because the Jazz execute so well and play so well defensively. But the Thunder have the two best players in the series and should prevail. The Jazz don’t have a gimmicky offense per se, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their streaky offense when defenses tighten up in the playoffs.

NBA Round One Preview — Eastern Conference

Posted: 04/12/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

I didn’t do a first round NHL preview simply because I don’t think I paid close enough attention all season to make credible picks. But I’m trying my best to watch as much as I can of the first round so I can make second round picks. I don’t have the same problem with basketball. It’s been a really fun NBA season, and the playoffs look set to be awesome. The nice part about having nine god-awful teams is that the rest of the league is better than normal. That’s obviously true record-wise, but it’s also true when it comes to roster talent. The good players that the bad teams eschew have to go somewhere, and they generally go to good teams. As a result, even the seven and eight seeds — San Antonio, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Washington — have a lot of talent and pedigree. On the flip side, the top teams don’t seem as invincible going in as Golden State and Cleveland have over the past few years. The Warriors have struggled mightily without Steph Curry and won’t get Steph back until the second round (at the earliest), while the Cavs are clearly not the team they were with Kyrie Irving and have been awful defensively. The one seeds, Toronto and Houston, both had great seasons but have to answer for disappointing playoff performances over the last few years, while some of what makes them great regular season teams may not correlate to the playoffs. The Celtics, owners of the fourth-best record in the NBA, have been destroyed by injuries but can never be counted out. I’m very excited for the playoffs, and especially for the first round, which is generally boring but I think has a chance to have some great series’ this year. Here are my picks for the Eastern Conference Round One series’:

#1 Toronto Raptors over #8 Washington Wizards in 5: Toronto has a long history of being shaky in the playoffs. Their two longtime stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have been banged up, ineffective, or both every single year. The Wizards haven’t been much better, but they did sweep the Raptors three years ago in their last playoff matchup. I understand why people are circling this as a potentially long series. Toronto’s biggest strength this year has been its bench, which has completely obliterated opponents. But benches are shortened in the playoffs as the starting units play more and more. And Toronto also sputtered down the stretch (7-6 in their last 13), especially defensively. Of course, Washington has been way worse all season and especially down the stretch. They’re 7-14 in their last 21 games and are playing more like I thought they would in the immediate aftermath of John Wall’s injury. Some of the losing has coincided with Wall’s return, and there have been rumblings about Wall’s teammates not liking him and about the team’s, er, less than ideal chemistry. I’m sure that’s overblown, because most issues are accentuated when a team simply isn’t playing well. And the Wizards are actually 2-2 in the four games that Wall’s played in since he returned and 1-7 in the rest of their past 12 games. I think the reality is that the Wizards are just a mediocre team. They rank 14th in the league in offensive efficiency and 15th defensively. And the Raptors are just so much better that predicting a close series is a bridge too far for me. Toronto’s done everything right this year. They rank ninth and fifth in frequency of shots at the rim and from three respectively and 27th from midrange. Last year, those numbers were basically flipped. Defensively, they allow the second-fewest threes (just 21% of opposing shots) and the sixth-most midrange shots. They allow a lot of shots at the rim but make up for it by forcing opponents into 59.7% shooting at the rim, second-best in the NBA. Washington, on the other hand, has an offense designed to generate midrange shots. They rank fifth in frequency of midrange shots and fifth in accuracy. Against a defensive team as strong all-around as Toronto (38.7% field goal defense on midrange shots, top-five in the league), I don’t think that’s going to work. I like a lot of Washington’s players — Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre — but they haven’t clicked as a team. Any argument that Washington will win this series has to start with a belief that they will click, that Toronto will fall apart, and that John Wall and Bradley Beal will outplay Lowry and DeRozan. I just don’t believe that’s likely to happen.

#7 Milwaukee Bucks over #2 Boston Celtics in 6: I’m making up for my very rational take on the Toronto-Washington series with an irrational one here. The Celtics have been remarkable all year at bouncing back from seemingly crippling injuries. Gordon Hayward had a horrific leg break in the first quarter of the first game, and Boston responded almost instantly with a long winning streak. Kyrie Irving hurt his knee, and the Celtics didn’t miss a beat. Even Marcus Smart, the team’s do-everything wild card, is out. It hasn’t seemed to matter. But it’s clear that, without their two best shot-creators, offense is a struggle for the Celtics. They don’t create great shots, and they’re below-average when it comes to offensive rebounding and free throw rate. All of that is understandable, and none of it has stopped the Celtics so far. But in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up, I think it’s bound to. The Celtics’ most dynamic offensive players are now Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who are in their second and first years respectively. They’re both good players, but they’re inconsistent. And I’m not sure Boston is well set-up to exploit Milwaukee’s clear defensive issues. The Bucks are an overly aggressive defense. Their aggression, in fact, is part of what cost Jason Kidd his job. Interim coach Joe Prunty has shown no signs of reining them in or doing much innovating of any kind. As a result, the Bucks rank third in turnovers forced but 30th in defensive rebounding and 29th in opposing free throw rate. Teams with great passers, dynamic slashers, or great rebounders can tear them apart. The Celtics have good passers, but they have neither of the latter two. And the Bucks can plug Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great defensive player, on Tatum and force Brown, Terry Rozier, and Al Horford to create more than they’re used to creating.

On the other side of the ball, the Bucks have a lot of offensive talent. They’re not a great shooting team, but they have the talent to get to the rim frequently and finish when they get there. Giannis is one of the best slashers and finishers in the league. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe can both create for themselves too. Jabari Parker is averaging 20 points per game this month, evidence that he’s starting to find himself again. He’ll be a real offensive weapon coming off the bench. Of course, the Celtics have been a phenomenal team all year, ranking first overall in defensive efficiency. They’re the stingiest team against threes (34.1%) and midrange shots (36.7%). They’re just 12th against shots at the rim, though, which seems meaningful against Milwaukee. Boston doesn’t have a real rim protector.

The biggest reason I’m picking the Bucks, though, is obviously Antetokounmpo. He’s the best player in this series, and it isn’t close. Boston’s a better team, with a much better coach, but I think things are simplified in the playoffs. Who has the best closing five? Who has the best player? On both counts, the answer is Milwaukee.

#3 Philadelphia 76ers over #6 Miami Heat in 6: I know the Sixers are on a 16-game winning streak. I’m a big believer in their talent. I think they have a very very bright future. But there are a few reasons that I’m not sure they’re going to romp against the Heat. The first is obvious: they seem likely to be without their best player, Joel Embiid, in at least Game One. And even when Embiid returns, it’ll be with a mask, so we can’t be sure that he’ll be 100%. The second is that the Sixers rely heavily upon players who can’t shoot. All three of their point guards, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and T.J. McConnell, are all-but non-factors from deep. The fact that McConnell is the best and most confident shooter of the bunch says it all. Simmons has overcome his shooting weakness all year long, but that generally becomes harder in the playoffs. Is Simmons just talented enough to overcome that? He may well be. But if there’s any coach who can turn it into a serious issue, it’s probably Erik Spoelstra, one of the best x’s-and-o’s coach in the NBA. The third is that the Heat have bodies to throw at Simmons. James Johnson defended Simmons well in their matchups this year. He’s big and physical and fast, which helps. Josh Richardson is really good and versatile defensively. And then there’s Justice Winslow, who’s one of the most athletic wings in the league. They’re not going to take Simmons out of the game, but they could tire him out. Fourth, the Sixers don’t have many reliable two-way players. Embiid’s return will obviously change that, but guys like Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, and Marco Belinelli have to be on the court to provide shooting but are (to different degrees) defensive liabilities. Robert Covington is a fixture in the lineup because of his two-way ability, and the same obviously goes for Simmons and Embiid. Amir Johnson is the team’s backup center because he’s a good defender. There’s a reason this team’s starting lineup was so dominant and that they rank third in defensive efficiency for a reason. But when it comes to wing defense, the only reliable player is Covington, unless Brett Brown decides to play Justin Anderson, which seems more likely after Anderson exploded in the final regular season game. But the point stands: in the playoffs, two-way players become more valuable, especially on the wings. The Sixers don’t have as many as the Heat.

With all of that said, the fact remains that the Sixers have the two best players in this series. They’ve been the better team all year. Joel Embiid will own Hassan Whiteside if he’s healthy. The Heat have a lot of depth, but the additions of Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have given Philadelphia enough depth, too. If I knew Embiid would be 100% all series long, I may have picked this series to go five games. But I have enough respect for Spoelstra and his team’s defense and toughness (and not enough in Embiid’s health) to make it a six game series. I wouldn’t be shocked if it goes seven, either, just because the Heat are a pain to play against.

#4 Cleveland Cavaliers over #5 Indiana Pacers in 5: There’s not a lot to say here. The Pacers have had a remarkable season, playing far above their talent level and winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo is clearly the league’s most improved player, and the fact that he — surrounded by a bunch of role players and Myles Turner, who still hasn’t unlocked a lot of his potential — has led this team to nearly 50 wins is terrific. A lot of credit should also go to coach Nate McMillan, who will likely get some Coach of the Year votes (although there are a LOT of great candidates for CoY). But the fact is that the Cavs have LeBron James, who’s made seven straight Finals. I’m not convinced that his team is good enough to make it eight. But I am pretty sure that they’ll beat a team they outperformed during the regular season (by record, although granted they had a worse net rating) despite taking a lot of games off. As long as LeBron is playing at a high level — and boy has he ever this year, at least offensively — it’s going to take a lot more than Victor Oladipo and a cast of role players comparable to Cleveland’s to dethrone the King.

This has been a really weird NBA season in terms of record distribution. 18 teams will finish the year above .500, which is a record. There aren’t any truly horrendous teams, with Phoenix currently bringing up the rear with 20 wins. But as I’ve written before, there are an obscene number of teams who are either blatantly tanking or are just terrible. Nine teams have between 20 and 27 wins, and eight of the nine (bar the Nets, who don’t have a first round pick next year and are in the doldrums simply because they suck) have been trying to lose games for month. And that means there are lots of easy wins up for grabs for the rest of the NBA. Bizarrely, with either three or four games left for every team, there are just three teams with between 27 and 42 wins: Detroit (37), Charlotte (34), and the Lakers (34). That leaves the aforementioned 18 teams with 42+ wins heading into the final week of the season. In the Eastern Conference, there’s still some jockeying to be done amongst the eight playoff teams, but all eight — the eight teams in the conference with 42+ wins — have clinched playoff spots, so all that’s up for grabs is seeding. The showdown between the Sixers and Cavs in Philadelphia tomorrow night is the most important game left in the East. The Raptors and Celtics are pretty much locked into #1 and #2 and the same goes for Indiana and #5, but Miami, Washington, and Milwaukee all have 36 losses, so we still have no idea what the playoff matchups will be.

But there’s always some playoff seeding to be determined in the final week of the season. The real intrigue comes in the Western Conference, which obviously has the other 10 teams with at least 42 wins. Just one game separates the fourth seeded Jazz from the tied-for-seventh Pelicans and Timberwolves. The Nuggets are just one game out, and the Clippers are one game behind Denver. I’ll be focusing on the seven teams (Utah, San Antonio, OKC, New Orleans, Minny, Denver, LA)  battling for five spots. Which teams will make it? How will they be seeded? What first round matchups should we be rooting to see?

Utah Jazz (45-33): The Jazz are obviously in the best spot by virtue of being the only team on this list with just 33 losses. They’re two full games up on the ninth-placed Nuggets and would have to drop below four other teams to fall out of the playoffs entirely. Tiebreakers make prognosticating this very tricky because every different combination of teams (and number of teams) with the same record yields a different result, but two wins in their final four games should cinch a playoff spot for the Jazz. And given that the Jazz are 26-5 in their last 31 games, 2-2 should be no problem. The schedule is tricky, with no total pushovers. But all four games are winnable. The Jazz are 7.5 points at home against the Clippers tonight, then go to LA to face the Lakers. They should win both games. But if they don’t, they’ll have good chances against Golden State and Portland, both of whom may well have nothing to play for. By the way: the Jazz are three games behind the Blazers, which means their game would be played for the #3 seed if the Jazz win out and Portland loses out. Seems unlikely, but the Blazers have games at Houston, San Antonio, and Denver in the interim. The Jazz are far more likely to move up to #3 than they are to fall out of the playoffs entirely.

San Antonio Spurs (45-34): The Spurs are in a more precarious position than they’d like. That’s because they were edged out by both LA teams on their two-game road trip, both in games they should have won. The Spurs are now 1-11 in their last 12 road games and 14-26 on the season, which is decidedly un-Spursian. But two of SA’s final three games are at home, where they’re quite good. One of those games is against Sacramento, which is a gimme. The other is Saturday against Portland in what should be one of the best games left in the regular season and what’s a potential playoff preview. Then the Spurs play in New Orleans on the last night of the season in a game that should at the very least have huge seeding implications. If the Spurs take care of business at home, they won’t need to win in New Orleans. But if they split at home, they may need to beat the Pelicans to guarantee their spot in the playoffs. Even if they go 1-2, they’re likely to make the playoffs just because the Nuggets and Clippers have tough schedules and are both unlikely to win out. So for the Spurs (like with the Jazz), these final few games are more about seeding than anything.

Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34): The best thing the Thunder have going for them is a home bout with the Grizzlies in their final game, which is about as easy as it gets. Unfortunately, OKC’s other two games aren’t quite so easy. They’re at Houston and Miami. It’s possible that the Rockets will take it easy as they prepare for the playoffs, but they’ve had the #1 seed locked up for some time now and haven’t seemed eager to ease up on the throttle. The Thunder will be underdogs in that one. And while OKC is probably better than the Heat, the fact that it’s on the road (where Miami is 25-14) means that it’s a toss-up at best. The same that I said about the Spurs applies for the Thunder. If they go 2-1, they’ll make the playoffs. If they go 1-2, they’ll still likely make it but could well drop to the seventh or eighth seed and a first round matchup with Houston or Golden State. I think San Antonio’s final three games are meaningfully easier than OKC’s (partly because they have two of three at home and partly because they avoid Houston), so the Spurs should maintain an edge over the Thunder when it comes to seeding.

Minnesota Timberwolves (44-34): The Timberwolves have had four full days to think over the embarrassing 121-97 loss they suffered at home to the Jazz in their last game. Just two unimpressive wins separated that loss from a far more egregious one — at home against Memphis. As a result, the Wolves, who have seemingly been in the 3-5 range for almost the entire season, have dropped to a tie for seventh in the conference. There’s some good news for Minnesota: they’re the only one on this list without a game against a current playoff team left, and, more importantly, they’re probably going to get Jimmy Butler back. Butler is a game-time decision for tonight’s enormous matchup with the Nuggets in Denver. I actually think the T-Wolves may be better served holding him out in the high altitude and bringing him back slowly in should-win games against the Lakers and Grizzlies before ramping him up in their final game, a home tilt against the Nuggets. If Butler’s fully ready to go tonight, of course, he should, because the Wolves could make the final game much less tense if they win their next three games. He’s obviously very important. The Wolves are +7.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and -5.2 when he’s off it. He’s their best defensive player, which is especially important against a Denver team that is very potent at home. Anyway, if Minnesota manages a split against Denver, they’ll be fine. I still am pretty confident that they’ll make the playoffs, and I actually think they could move up out of the dreaded seventh or eighth seed. They shouldn’t have put themselves in this position, but with Butler they have a good enough team to pull themselves out of it.

New Orleans Pelicans (44-34): If any single team that’s currently holding down a playoff spot falls out, it’ll likely be this one. The Pelicans just ended a four game losing streak with a win over the Grizzlies, and they have another cupcake in Phoenix tomorrow night. But New Orleans’s final three games look tough, with games at Golden State and the Clippers before a home tilt against San Antonio. One thing that could end up helping the Pelicans is the fact that the Clips may be out of the playoff race by the time they play the Pels, which would make them easier to beat. The Pelicans seem likely to go 2-2 down the stretch, which should be enough to allow them to hold onto the seventh or eighth seed. They seem unlikely to move up, though, and are vulnerable because Denver holds the tiebreaker over them should they finish in a two-way tie for eighth. So even a 2-2 finish doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth for New Orleans. But Anthony Davis’s squad is still more likely than not to be playing in the postseason.

Denver Nuggets (43-35): The Nuggets control their own destiny. If they go 4-0 down the stretch, they will make the playoffs over the Timberwolves and would likely rise further up the standings. The only reason they can say that is that they have won three straight game, all in nail-biting fashion and all against playoff teams. Twice, they rallied back from double-digits down in the fourth quarter thanks to huge performances from a rapidly improving Paul Millsap, who now looks to be at full strength. The Nuggets have always been a good home team and are 29-10 in their own stadium this season. They have home games against the Timberwolves and Blazers. On the road, they get the Clippers and then the Wolves on the final night of the season. Like the Pelicans, they’ll be rooting for a Utah win over LA tonight, because it’ll make that Clippers game slightly easier. A 3-1 finish would also be good enough for the playoffs if the Nuggets end up in a tie for eighth with the Pelicans, so the Nuggets are certainly still in the hunt.

Los Angeles Clippers (42-36): It’s somewhat miraculous that the Clippers are even still in the hunt. It took a 41-point fourth quarter in a comeback win over the Spurs, but here they are. And they’ll almost certainly need to win out to have a chance. The biggest obstacle is tonight’s game at Utah. As I’ve been hinting at, I don’t think it’s likely that they win that game. But if they do, they’ll like their chances in their final three games, all at home against New Orleans, Denver, and the Lakers. It seems far-fetched that they’ll win all four and equally unlikely that they’d be able to sneak into the playoffs with 45 wins.

My prediction:
4. Utah Jazz (48-34)
5. San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
6. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
8. Denver Nuggets (46-36)
9. New Orleans Pelicans (46-36)
10. Los Angeles Clippers (43-39)

Ideal First Round Matchups:
Here’s a few of the Round One playoff series’ I think we should all be rooting to see.

  • #2 Golden State vs. #7 Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook and his old team. These teams have had some real battles, and can you imagine how ridiculous this matchup would be over the course of a best-of-seven series? To make matters even more interesting, Steph Curry will likely miss the entire first round, which makes it both more of a KD-Russ Alpha Male battle and also more of a real series. Would I be surprised if the Thunder beat a Steph-less Warriors team in Round One? Sure. Would I be shocked? No.
  • #1 Houston vs. #8 San Antonio: This is more likely to be a Round Two series, but  the Spurs could still drop to eighth. The Rockets would almost certainly win the series, but it would still be fun because it would mean another meeting between Mike D’Antoni and Gregg Popovich, who has historically owned D’Antoni in playoff matchups (see: last year). It seems highly unlikely that Kawhi Leonard will return at this point, but that’d make things even more interesting. I bet that the Rockets would be rooting pretty heavily against seeing the Spurs in the playoffs this year, even though San Antonio has less talent than most of the other teams on this list.
  • #3 Portland vs. #6 Minnesota: I just think this would be a super fun, high-scoring, well-played series, especially if Butler is fully healthy. Both teams held serve at home in their four matchups this year, and I think the series would almost certainly go six or seven. There would be a lot of interesting nerdy statistical subplots — like how Minnesota’s unusual offensive approach (lots of midrange shots, fewer threes than anyone else) would match up against Portland’s surprisingly good defense (best opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim but 28th on midrange shots, which they force at a high volume).
  • #4 Utah vs. #5 Minnesota: Classic offense vs. defense. The Timberwolves are fourth in offensive efficiency but 26th defensively, while the Jazz are 17th offensively and second defensively (and easily first since Rudy Gobert returned from injury). Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Gobert would be very fun. The 121-97 score on April 1st may indicate that this wouldn’t be a great series, but I’d guess that Butler’s return will help correct that.

As things stand right now, a little more than three quarters of the way through the regular season, there are two super tight races to keep track of. There’s the race to the bottom, and the Western Conference playoff race, which features seven teams with between 26 and 28 losses vying for six playoff spots (and the surging Jazz, who have 30 losses, could also figure into that equation). The Blazers have won five games in a row and vaulted themselves from the playoff fringe to the fourth seed. The Thunder, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and have still dropped to seventh. Making the playoffs matters, of course, but so does seeding — nobody wants to be the seventh or eighth seed, because that would mean a first round matchup with the Rockets or Warriors and a likely sweep or loss in five games. Over in the Eastern Conference, the standings aren’t quite as tight, but four or five teams have a chance to earn the third seed, and Miami’s recent swoon means that Detroit and even Charlotte can still harbor realistic playoff hopes. All of this means that the final months of the regular season are sure to be exciting and meaningful. But in the grand scheme of the 2017-18 NBA regular season, none of it matters as much as what I think is the central question of this season: can the Rockets knock off the Warriors? Because let’s face it: nobody else is going to. I know the Warriors have fooled around and lost some games this year, but they’re 48-14 and half a game off the Rockets’ pace without even breaking a sweat. They coasted to a 67-15 record and a +11.6 point differential last year, but that was Kevin Durant’s first year with the team, and they had something to prove. Now, they’re just biding their time until the playoffs. And if last year’s 16-1, +16.8 point differential playoff romp is any indication (which it obviously is, given that the team is nearly identical), it’s going to be mighty hard to beat this team. While their trades improved them, the Cavs don’t have the star power to keep up. The Raptors or Celtics? Please. The Thunder have the star power but not much else. It’s likely too late for the Spurs to turn it around, even if Kawhi Leonard does return before the end of the season. The Pelicans may have been able to take advantage of some matchups, but that’s no longer the case without DeMarcus Cousins (although Anthony Davis may have something to say about that). Realistically, the only team that stands between the Warriors and another championship is the Houston Rockets.

I’ll start with the commonly-referenced stat: the Rockets are 31-1 in games that James Harden, Clint Capela, and Chris Paul all play in. You can see why that’s a popular stat. It’s an incredible record, and it makes sense. The Rockets are a really good team who become a really really good team when their three best players, all of whom have injury histories, are healthy. But really, that record is a fluke and a coincidence. You don’t need me to tell you that the Rockets are worse than a .969 team when they’re all healthy or better than a .586 team when one or more is injured. The fact is that the Rockets are a 48-13 team with the presumptive MVP winner and another star guard who has fit in as well as anyone could have hoped. James Harden is having a remarkable season. His assists are down from last year (that’s what adding Chris Paul can do), but he’s more than made up for it by averaging an extremely efficient 31.3/5.2 rebounds/8.9 assists per game. More than half of his field goals come from beyond the arc, and he takes another 10.1 free throws per game. Add it all up and he’s easily the most efficient guard in the NBA, averaging 1.268 points per shot attempt per Cleaning the Glass (including trips to the line as shot attempts, because they do use up possessions). Add in Paul, one of the most efficient point guards ever, and no wonder you have an amazing offense. The Rockets score 120.5 points per 100 possessions when the two are on the court, five points higher than their already astounding overall offensive production. Then there’s Capela, an explosive finisher at the rim who shoots 66% from the field (1.329 points per shot attempt), and Eric Gordon, who’s averaging 18.5 points per game off the bench. This is a very well put-together team, so it’s no surprise that the Rockets also have solid wing defenders and depth. Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute won’t make any headlines, but they’re vital pieces of a defense that is seventh in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, notably higher than Houston’s #15 defense last year. In fact, the Rockets’ overall jump has been almost entirely due to their defensive improvement, because let’s not forget that Houston had the best non-Golden State offense last year, too.

So they have two star ball-handlers, including the MVP of the league. They have depth on the wing, an efficient two-way center, and shot selection to die for. All of that has led to a 48-13 record that is not at all flukey. The Rockets have been the best team in the league this year. And if we’re assuming that the Warriors have an extra gear, why can’t the Rockets? Regular season success is strongly correlated to postseason success, so shouldn’t the Rockets be just slight underdogs at the very least? Well, in theory, yes. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s stats-based predictions give Houston a 52% chance to make the NBA Finals and Golden State a 34% chance. This is despite a change they made in their model to give a boost in the playoffs to teams with more playoff experience (a move forced by Cleveland’s consistent overperformance in the playoffs). But in my just partially stats-based opinion, there are a few factors that should still make the Rockets considerable underdogs against the Warriors. The first is that, while I know the Rockets are much better this year, it’s hard to forget what happened in last year’s second round series against the Spurs. Houston was the more talented team going in and romped to a 126-99 win in San Antonio in the first game of the series. But the Spurs took four of their last five games, culminating in a 114-75 win IN HOUSTON in Game Six in a game that the Rockets simply didn’t show up for. It’s not a good sign when there are somewhat believable theories that your star player was on drugs or hungover during the game (Harden scored just 10 points on 2-11 shooting). That series loss continued what’s been a career full of playoff disappointments for head coach Mike D’Antoni that go back to his days with the Phoenix Suns. D’Antoni has always had boatloads of regular season success but has never quite gotten over the hump in the playoffs, even when he’s had superior teams. More often than not, that’s been due to defensive vulnerabilities, which leads me to my main concern. In crunch time in a series between the Warriors and Rockets, we know that both offenses are going to be elite and that Golden State’s defense will too. We know this because of personnel and because of recent history. The one unit I’m still worried about is Houston’s defense. I know that their defense has been good this year, and is in fact just a tick behind Golden State’s sixth-ranked defense (per Cleaning the Glass). But the Warriors have proven their defensive chops — they were a top four defense in the league in each of the last four regular seasons and turn it up even further in the playoffs. Golden State also has star players who excel on defense: Draymond Green is certainly even better defensively than offensively, Klay Thompson may be too, and Kevin Durant has gotten (probably unwarranted) DPOY buzz this year thanks to his rim protection, while even Steph Curry has proven himself to be adept defensively. The Rockets have Chris Paul, who’s an excellent defender but is just 6’0″ tall and therefore can have trouble when switched onto taller players who can still make plays off the dribble (like, say, Kevin Durant). They also have Ryan Anderson, a starter in the regular season who I hadn’t yet mentioned because he will likely get played off the court against the Warriors. And they have James Harden, whose Houston teams have been worse defensively with him on the court than without him every year. I can’t blame Harden, because he does so much offensively that it’s just impossible for him to expend as much effort on the defensive end. But he’s still a defensive liability, and it’s hard to get away with any liabilities against the Warriors. Now, there’s no doubt that the Rockets recognize this liability and have taken strides to mitigate it. That’s why Mbah a Moute and Tucker are on the team and why the signing of Paul was such an exceptional one for this team. But against a team as devastating as the Warriors, all of these strides may not be enough.

One thing that can work in Houston’s favor: Andre Iguodala isn’t the same guy he was even last year. This is important because we have a pretty good idea what the Warriors’ lineup will be in crunch time: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. In last year’s regular season, that lineup outscored opponents by 23.7 points per 100 possessions. This year, that number is 12.8. Perhaps Iguodala is just saving himself for the playoffs, and that lineup may indeed by its devastating self. But maybe not, and maybe the Rockets can force the Warriors to adjust by playing Iguodala off the court. Houston must make Golden State adjust, because you can be sure that there’ll be some adjustments on their side. Paul, Harden, Ariza, and Capela are all likely to be on the floor when it matters most, but who’s their fifth guy? I hope it’s not Ryan Anderson, because the Warriors will score every time on Ryan Anderson. It may be PJ Tucker or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, but perhaps those guys are bad enough offensively that it negates their effectiveness defensively. Anyway, the fact is that Golden State has a ready-made playoff juggernaut. The Rockets can get there, too, but they’re going to have to adjust on the fly and have the series of their lives.

The bottom line is that the Rockets are certainly talented enough to make the Warriors sweat. They have the explosiveness and three point shooting to turn any game into a romp. Chris Paul helps them immensely on both ends of the court. That’s something we should all be thankful of, because guess what happens when the Warriors start to sweat? They elevate their play. And when the Warriors play their best basketball, I don’t think there’s a team in NBA history that could stop them. This Houston team, with its seventh ranked defense and question marks at perimeter defense, is no exception. So while I do expect the Rockets to win a few games should these teams play in the Conference Finals (which seems inevitable at this point), I believe that the most likely result is a six game series during which the result is never really in doubt.

The Kawhi Leonard Situation is Bizarre

Posted: 02/24/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

Throughout his career, Kawhi Leonard has been known as the consummate San Antonio Spur for a number of reasons. His personality — or lack-thereof, it seems from the outside — reminds everyone of Tim Duncan’s, but it’s not only that. It’s his attention to detail, particularly defensively. It’s his yearly improvement. It’s his unselfishness on the court as well as off it. It’s his development from shaky college shooter to terrific weapon from beyond the arc, thanks largely to renowned shot coach Chip Engelland. For all of these reasons, he became the obvious heir to Duncan, the guy who would keep San Antonio’s dynasty alive. He signed a max contract a few years ago that locked him up for at least four years at what now looks like a bargain (under $19 million a year). And through last year, it looked like he was living up to all of the Spursian expectations and then some. After he became a legitimate star the season before, Leonard exploded into the upper echelon of the league’s star players. He finished third in the MVP voting and was one of three contenders for Defensive Player of the Year (he finished third there, too). He averaged 25.5 points per game, shooting 49/38/88%. In short, he became one of the three or four best players in the league. And then, he just vanished. I think his injury is a rare underreported story in the NBA. That surely has a lot to do with the fact that he’s Kawhi Leonard and plays for the Spurs. Imagine, for example, if LeBron James had come down with a quad injury sometime over the summer and then just didn’t play for months. Anyway, here’s a quick timeline of what’s been the most confounding story of the 2017-18 NBA season.

  • The injury was first revealed to the public in late September, at the Spurs’ first intrasquad scrimmage. Gregg Popovich confirmed that Leonard was rehabbing his thigh and acknowledged that he would miss the preseason or at least a large part of it.
  • Two weeks later, the Spurs gave a non-update, saying that Leonard was still rehabbing and would miss the start of the season. Another non-update followed a week later.
  • On November 7th, at which point the Spurs had already played 10 games, Popovich spoke to the media about Leonard again. This time, he admitted that Leonard’s slow rehab was confusing him, too, saying that “his body hasn’t reacted the same way.” There remained no timeline for his return.
  • On November 15th, Popovich gave good news, saying that Leonard would be back sooner rather than later. He then walked that comment back.
  • On December 12th, without much warning, Leonard returned to the court. He played just 16 minutes and scored 13 points. He then played eight of San Antonio’s next 16 games, ramping up eventually to 31 minutes in a game in which he scored 25 points. In his final five games, he averaged 20.8 points in 28.2 minutes per game. And then, after a solid performance in a blowout win over the Nuggets, the Spurs listed Leonard as out as he continued to rehab what was now deemed “quadriceps tendinopathy.” And we’d heard nothing since then, until a few days ago, when Popovich said that he didn’t expect Leonard to return this season.

Now, this isn’t the first supposedly short-term NBA injury that has become much more serious than initially expected. But a few things make this Kawhi Leonard story different. First of all, there’s obviously the stature of the player. Second of all, there’s the fact that he’s the key player on what would have been a legitimate (or at least semi-legitimate) title threat. Remember last year, when the Spurs made the Western Conference Finals and jumped out to a huge lead against the Warriors at Oracle Arena in Game One before Leonard hurt his ankle? I’m not one of the people who think the Spurs would have won that series with a healthy Leonard, but those people exist, and it’s hard to blame them after seeing the part of that game that Leonard played in. The Spurs have been remarkably solid without Kawhi this year — they’re 35-24 and currently in third in the West — but their ceiling is no higher than a second round exit without Leonard. They’ve also struggled recently (10-13 in their last 23 games) and are actually just four games ahead of the Clippers, who currently sit in ninth in the conference. It’s unlikely but not inconceivable that they’ll drop out of the playoffs. The biggest reason that this story is bizarre, though, is that Popovich is blaming Leonard for his inability to return. Leonard was given the final say on his return (obviously) and decided against returning to the active roster. The handling of this injury has apparently led to serious disconnect between player and team. And it’s gotten to the point that there are very real rumors that the Spurs will be open to trading Leonard after this season, or at the very least that he’ll opt out after next season and move to a different team. Again, this — tension between star player and team, rumors of a trade — is not unfamiliar terrain in the NBA. But it is for the Spurs. This has the potential to become a league-changing saga this summer and into next season. When healthy, Leonard is a two-way stud who will be just 27 at the start of next season. He’s as good of a bet as any to be a fixture on the MVP voting and on first team All-NBA. He’s one of the only players in the league who can do a great job defensively on players as different as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. He can make a good team a championship-caliber one (see: these Spurs), and his departure could lead San Antonio to its first rebuild since Tim Duncan was drafted. For a long time, this offseason has seemed destined to be a “Where will LeBron go” circus. Now, it’s plausible that there will be another big variable in the mix.

It’s Time to Get Excited for Tankapalooza

Posted: 02/16/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

Every year at about this time — around the All-Star break — something happens to the worst teams in the NBA: they get much, much worse. That’s because the race for the top picks in the draft (well, the best odds at the top picks in the draft) is just as competitive as, say, the race for the #8 seed. The difference between the #1 pick and the #5 pick is massive, and yet often only a couple of games in the standings separates the team with the top lottery odds from teams in the 4-7 range. Because top picks are so valuable in the NBA, and because teams at the bottom of the standings at this point have no chance at making the playoffs, bad teams have every incentive to lose as many games as they can. I know it usually is hard to get excited about a race to the bottom, but this year should be an exception simply because it’s such a wide open race. Usually, there are five-ish teams that have a chance at the worst record and enter full tank mode at this point of the season. Heading into the All-Star break this year, though, there are six teams tied for last with 18 wins, two more with 19 or 20 wins, and the Knicks, who at 23-36 are within shouting distance and just lost their best player to a torn ACL. So there are nine teams with legitimate hopes of finishing at the bottom of the standings. I’m going to go through each team and examine the factors working for and against their push for top lottery odds.

Atlanta Hawks (currently 18-41):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They currently are tied with Phoenix for the worst record in the league, so they have a bit of a head start.
  • They have a tough remaining schedule. Their opponents down the stretch have won 53% of their games, and they play one more road game than home game. They’re 5-24 on the road this season. Included down the stretch is a brutal six game road trip (@MIL, @UTA, @SAC, @GS, @HOU, @MIN) right before they finish six of seven games against likely Eastern Conference playoff teams.
  • Dennis Schroder, their point guard, minutes leader, and leader in points and assists per game (19.5 and 6.3 respectively), is very talented but also inconsistent and poor defensively. That’s obviously hurt them already this season, but the defensive weakness should be exploited more often by playoff teams down the stretch.
  • They bought out Marco Belinelli, their leader in made three pointers and a key cog getting about 23 minutes per game. They also traded Luke Babbitt, a wing shooting 44% from three, in a clear attempt to get less efficient from beyond the arc. The Hawks are actually above average in three point shooting this year, but this should help remedy that. They’ll want Schroder, an effective driver but a 29% three point shooter, to keep jacking threes.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • The Hawks haven’t been the worst team in basketball so far, even if their record suggests that they have been. They rank 27th in net rating and have won about 1.8 fewer games than they should have at this point, according to Cleaning the Glass. Chicago, Sacramento, and Phoenix have all been worse. They rank 29th in offense and 30th in defense.
  • They have some useful role players who will not help them lose games. Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore are solid two-way wings who could be bench pieces on good teams. Rookie big John Collins plays with a lot of energy and puts up good numbers. And veteran big man Dewayne Dedmon has been very good all season, putting up career high numbers and helping the Hawks immensely (they’re 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s off it). Maybe Dedmon will get “injured” at some point down the stretch.
  • They’ve been fairly healthy. Their three highest-usage players, Schroder, Prince, and Bazemore, have missed a total of five games all year and are healthy going into the All-Star break.
  • They’re playing their best basketball of the season, going 8-11 in the 19 games leading into the break. That includes a win at Denver, which is a super tough place to win, as well as victories over the Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans (with Cousins), Timberwolves, and Pistons (with Griffin). And coach Mike Budenholzer is good enough to get some wins in games that the Hawks have no business winning.

Phoenix Suns (currently 18-41):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They currently are tied with Atlanta for the worst record in the league, so they have a bit of a head start.
  • They have a tough remaining schedule. Their opponents down the stretch have won 53% of their games, and they play one more road game than home game (sound familiar?). They have three games against Golden State, two against Cleveland, two against OKC, and one against Houston left.
  • They have the worst net rating in the league (-9.2, per Cleaning the Glass), four points per 100 worse than Atlanta and in the same stratosphere as only Sacramento. They’ve also played some of their worst basketball of late, with just three wins in their last 20 games. They recently lost by 40+ points twice in a three game stretch, meaning they’ve now lost by more than 40 points four times this season. Steve Kerr let Golden State’s players coach the team against the Suns, which shows how worried he was about Phoenix’s talent.
  • Devin Booker, easily their best player, has been hampered with a hip injury lately. He recently returned from a short absence, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the injury keeps him out more down the stretch.
  • They traded for point guard Elfrid Payton and are playing him 35 minutes per game. In fairness, he’s been terrific in his three games with the team, averaging 20.3/8.3/8.7 on 57/50/83 shooting. But anyone who’s seen Payton play in Orlando over the past four years knows that he’s not a great player.
  • Their role players are generally young and not ready to help them win games. Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, and Tyler Ulis all have different games, but they have a few things in common: they’re all between 20 and 22, they’re all playing more than 20 minutes per game, and none of them are particularly good NBA players at this point. Bender’s the only one of the four shooting better than 30% from three, which is part of the reason that the Suns rank dead last in three point percentage (33%).
  • They have a lot of moving parts. 20 players have played games for them already. Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are clearly over the hill and play consistent minutes for this team. And Troy Daniels is the only guy on the team between the ages of 25 and 31. Not good!
  • Jay Triano is just an interim head coach, so it’s unlikely that the players will feel the need to play particularly hard for him down the stretch.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • When Booker is healthy and he and T.J. Warren get it going, they can be pretty hard to stop sometimes. Other than that, I’ve got nothing. This is the team with the best chance to be the worst team going forward.

Dallas Mavericks (18-40):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They’ve been super unlucky, winning just 25% of their games decided by five points or fewer. Who’s to say that bad luck won’t continue for the rest of the season?
  • They may start putting the ball in Dennis Smith Jr.’s hands more often, both to give him experience and to help them lose games. Smith is shooting just 39% from the floor, and the Mavericks have been 15.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor than when he’s off of it. More minutes for DSJ = more losses.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They have a fairly easy schedule. Their opponents have won 48% of their games on average, although they do have two more road games than home games down the stretch.
  • They have a consistent rotation, with six players who have played in 50+ games and are playing 23+ minutes per game.
  • They don’t make many mistakes, as they actually have the lowest turnover rate in the league (12.9%, per Cleaning the Glass).
  • Their net rating is -2.2, which is 21st in the league and the best of the nine teams in this tanking race. The only reason that they’re 18-40 is that they’ve underperformed that net rating by 6.9 games after losing a lot of close games. They’ve been the unluckiest (or, they may argue, the luckiest) team in the league, and it isn’t close. Next up are the Hornets, who have underperformed by 3.3 games.
  • They play hard for Rick Carlisle, their head coach. They also have an experienced team. Dirk is obviously a consummate professional, Harrison Barnes is their best player and in his prime, Wes Matthews and J.J. Barea are solid role players who know what to do, and Yogi Ferrell is a competent point guard.
  • They’ve been relatively injury-free and will likely get Nerlens Noel back at some point. Noel’s been stuck in Carlisle’s doghouse for most of the season, but he can only help.

Sacramento Kings (18-39):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • It’s the Kings, the most futile franchise in the league. They can’t even win games when they really want to.
  • They’re the only team that can challenge Phoenix’s futility through nearly 60 games. Thanks to a league-worst offense (and the #28 defense), they’re just .1 points per 100 possessions better than the Suns and 3.8 worse than the #28 overall Bulls.
  • Like the Suns, their record is way better than it should be based on their net rating. Both teams should probably have 13 or 14 wins right now, and it’s safe to expect that their record down the stretch will be more in line with the net rating than with the current record.
  • They have no go-to scorer. Zach Randolph is their leading scorer, and he’s averaging 14.6 points per game. He was also mysteriously missing from the starting lineup in Sacramento’s last game, which may be a sign of things to come.
  • The Kings benched and then traded veteran guard George Hill, showing how hard they’ll be tanking. They also have extra incentive to get a high draft pick because they’ll be without their first rounder the following season.
  • They have no consistent lineup. Randolph is the only player who’s started more than 38 games, and the Kings as a team have no lineup that has played more than 272 possessions. To put that in perspective, Dallas has three such lineups, including two that have played more than 450 possessions. Heading into tonight’s game with the Lakers, Minnesota’s starting lineup had played 2,090 possessions together, showing how much the Kings really are mixing up their lineups on a night to night basis. That’s not conducive to a lot of on-court success.
  • Their starting point guard, De’Aaron Fox, just recently turned 20, and it shows. He has potential, but he’s one of the worst starting point guards in the league at this point.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • 16 of their final 25 games come at home. Of course, they’ve been the second worst home team in the league behind the Suns, but still.
  • They’re the second best three point shooting team in the league, and guys like Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic can score points in bunches.

Orlando Magic (18-39):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They just traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Payton’s not that good, but he was still their starting point guard.
  • They’re 10-35 since starting 8-4. So they’ve been the worst team in the league if you arbitrarily exclude the first seventh of the season.
  • This has been the case for years, but their players don’t really make sense together. Their four best players — Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Jonathon Simmons — are all forwards or centers, and their guards are very weak, especially without Payton. D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Mario Hezonja, Shelvin Mack… it isn’t pretty.
  • Gordon and Vucevic are both currently injured and will likely miss more games coming up. That’s a good thing for a team that clearly wants to lose games.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • Their remaining opponents have won 48% of their games, and 14 of their final 25 are at home, where they’ve been much better.
  • When healthy, the trio of Fournier, Gordon, and Vucevic allow the Magic to form an offense that can be potent. They rank 18th in offensive efficiency, best among these nine teams. Lineups with Fournier-Gordon-Vucevic at SF-PF-C are putting up 113.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fourth in the NBA. Gordon and Vucevic are getting healthy, which means their offense may be just too good for them to stay in the race for the #1 pick.
  • The lineup of Augustin-Ross-Fournier-Gordon-Vucevic, which we may see a lot more now that Payton is gone, has been an astounding +24.1 points per 100 possessions, albeit in just 153 total possessions. That’s probably just small sample size, but if it’s anything more than that it’ll likely earn the Magic some wins.
  • I think their overall roster talent level is higher than that of any of the other teams I’ve gone over so far.

Memphis Grizzlies (18-38):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • 15 of their final 26 games come on the road, where they’ve gone 5-21 so far this year. That’s a lot of opportunities for losses.
  • Mike Conley is out for the season, and Chandler Parsons is nowhere to be seen. This is a team with very little quality depth, as guys like Andrew Harrison, Mario Chalmers, and Jarell Martin are getting way more minutes than they should be. Ben McLemore is also getting minutes, which, well, he’s Ben McLemore.
  • They’ve lost seven straight games, which may be a sign of things to come. Although they don’t have a difficult schedule overall down the stretch, their first three games are Cleveland, at Miami, and at Boston. Things could snowball pretty quickly for them.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They still have Marc Gasol, who’s probably the best all-around player on any of these nine teams. It’s hard to be the worst team in the league when you have Marc Gasol.
  • They bizarrely didn’t trade Tyreke Evans, who’s having an exceptional season. He’s averaging 19.5/5.1/5 on 46/40/79 shooting this year. That’s a good player to have if you want to win (which is why teams were trying to trade for him) but a very bad player to have if you want to lose. This is also a sign that they’re not going all-in on tanking like Sacramento and some of these other teams.
  • They have a more experienced team than most of these teams. Even the young players they’re giving minutes to, like Dillon Brooks, stayed in college for three or four years and are less raw than the Fox or Jackson type.
  • They’re solid defensively and don’t get blown out as often as, say Sacramento or Phoenix. They’ve been unlucky in close games so far, but that’s likely to change, which should move them (like Dallas) up the standings.

Brooklyn Nets (19-40):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They’ve been riddled with injuries this year. Jeremy Lin got hurt in the first game of the year. Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two key players, are currently out. D’Angelo Russell recently returned after a long injury break and has been ice cold from three since his return. They weren’t very deep to begin with, so this obviously hurts.
  • They’ve played some of their worst basketball recently, going 1-11 in their last 12 games.
  • I don’t think they have a single above-average all-around player, unlike everyone I’ve gone through so far besides Sacramento and Atlanta (and Schroder is also likely better than anyone on the Nets).
  • They have 14 road games and just nine home games left.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They have no incentive to lose. Cleveland owns their first round pick. So while all these other teams try to lose, they’ll be trying to win. Given that they’ve already been better than most of these teams, that’ll likely be enough to keep them from the bottom three or four.

Chicago Bulls (20-37):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They traded Nikola Mirotic. They’re 14-11 with Mirotic in the lineup and 6-26 without him, so if that pace keeps up down the stretch they have a great chance at moving down the rankings.
  • Their top scorers are kings of empty, inefficient points. Zach LaVine and Justin Holiday are sub-40%, while Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen are shooting 43% from the field. This is why they have the third-worst offense in the league ahead of just Sacramento and Phoenix. And how about this for a stat: with Mirotic on the court, they scored 113.9 points per 100 possessions. That would be good for third in the league over the course of a full season. Without him, they’ve scored 101.3, which would easily be last. More last place offense going forward!
  • They’re a very young, inexperienced team.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They may just have too many teams to drop beneath. They’re two games up on most of these teams in terms of wins, so they don’t have much of a margin for error. Of course, they went 3-20 to start the year without Mirotic, so they’ve proven that they can lose with the worst of them.
  • They have a fairly easy schedule down the stretch (opponent winning percentage of 48%).

New York Knicks (23-36):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They just lost Kristaps Porzingis to a torn ACL, which means they may have the worst roster of all of these teams. They were already dropping games before he got hurt, but they’ve looked absolutely hopeless since he got hurt. They blew a 27 point lead against the Wizards, squandering a terrific game from Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • They have a fairly challenging remaining schedule.
  • They traded for Emmanuel Mudiay, who’s a bad point guard. Their point guard rotation is awful (Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina, Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke).

Why they won’t finish last:

  • Too many games to make up. They already have 23 wins, which puts them five games up in the win column over six of these teams. Some of those teams might not even win five games the rest of the season, which puts a floor on how far the Knicks could fall.
  • They didn’t go full tank mode before the deadline. They probably could have traded helpful role players like Courtney Lee, but those guys will now help the Knicks win a few games down the stretch. Not many, mind you, but probably enough to keep the Knicks out of the bottom three.

Here’s my best guess on how this will finish:

30th: Phoenix
29th: Sacramento
28th: Atlanta
27th: Chicago
26th: Orlando
25th: Memphis
24th: Brooklyn
23rd: New York
22nd: Dallas