|I gotta get mine!|
We’re nearly two weeks into the 2012 NBA season and a lot has happened already. Thanks to the compressed schedule, we’ve had a chance to see everybody five or more times already. Obviously the sample sizes are still far too small to draw definitive conclusions, but there is more than enough to evidence to start making informed (and highly opinionated) observations. From here on out, I’ll be doing this in a weekly NBA Roundup column. Let’s get to it!
The Dallas Mavericks, the league’s defending champs, are really struggling early. At 2-4, they currently reside at the basement of the Southwest division. While I highly doubt they finish out of the playoffs, I think the struggles are much more than just a slow start. They are symptomatic of a team that just isn’t as good as they were last year. Everybody knew the loss of Tyson Chandler would hurt, but few people, myself included, truly grasped how big a downgrade Brendan Haywood really is. Dallas ranked 11th last season in Total Rebound Rate (percentage of available rebounds grabbed) with a solid 50.44%. This season, they rank near the bottom of the league, having only grabbed 45.21% of available rebounds. That’s a huge drop-off! You might think another drop-off area would be defense, but you’d be wrong. While the defense is not performing quite as well as last season, the overall defensive efficiency hasn’t changed drastically. In fact, the other problem area is actually the offense. Last season, Dallas ranked near the top of the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions. This season, they’re only scoring 97.8 points per 100 possessions. That big of a drop-off makes little sense to me, as Dallas scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions the year BEFORE Chandler arrived. One possible answer is the loss of J.J. Barea, but his effect is being drastically overstated after his breakout playoff performance. It’s not him. Another possible answer is the advancing age of Dallas’ core players. Dirk, Terry, Kidd, and Marion are all much closer to the end of their career than the beginning, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the team was just showing their age. My guess is that there is some truth to the latter, but that things will start to level out as the season progresses. Remember, Dallas is integrating several new parts, and did not have the benefit of a full training camp to do so. However, any time you get hammered in three out of your first six games (especially when one is to Minnesota!) there is certainly cause for concern.
I’m VERY concerned about the Celtics. Very. My concern is two-fold:
#1 Defense – Since the Big Three got together, Boston has ranked 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 2nd in defensive efficiency. So far this season, they rank 22nd, allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions. Add in the fact that they also pull in a below average percentage of defensive rebounds (73.01%) and you have evidence of a complete collapse on that end of the floor. Honestly, Celtics fans have seen this coming ever since the Perkins trade and I wrote about it several times last season. Not surprisingly, the biggest reason for the collapse is Jermaine O’Neal. Amongst starting centers, O’Neal currently ranks second to last in total rebound rate and second to last in total efficiency. Basically, he’s the worst starting center in the NBA right now. While that may be overstating things a tad, it really isn’t that far off. While the defense has improved since Pierce’s return, I would be shocked if Boston were anything more than a league average defense this season. Unfortunately, that won’t cut it for a team supposedly built to dominate on that end of the floor.
#2 Bench Play – The Celtics fifth, sixth, and seventh best players are Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, and Marquis Daniels. Ouch.
I was very serious when I said that the Celtics could feasibly miss the playoffs this season. While I think they’ll find a way to secure one of the last three seeds in the East, I don’t think they’re a contender. Not even close. Given the many health risks on the team, I think they’re actually far closer to a lottery team. And don’t forget, there’s always the specter of a dumb Danny Ainge trade looming over things. Should be a fantastic going away party for the Big Three…
The Pacers are very, VERY legit. Laney and I predicted them as the 4-seed in the East, and I’m feeling pretty confident that they’ll be AT LEAST that. The addition of David West was absolute huge, as he gives them the type of frontcourt depth and consistent low post scoring threat they just didn’t have last season. His presence has made both Hibbert and Hansbrough better, and that effect is only going to be magnified as West continues to gain strength in his repaired knee. That having been said, I continue to maintain that the Pacers cannot win a title with Danny Granger as their primary option. He’s a really nice player if he can be a sidekick, but he’s vastly overmatched as a star player. Despite having the fourth highest usage rate amongst starting SF’s, Granger ranks sixth WORST in true shooting percentage (44.1%). That’s worse than Metta World Peace! Ironically, teammate Paul George ranks ahead of Granger in true shooting percentage (68.6%), assist rate, efficiency, and PER. Once again, I think the Pacers should seriously consider dealing Granger while his value remains high. Paul George will be the better player down the road, and he plays the exact same position. If Indiana could pull off a Granger for Eric Gordon deal, the team would be a legit contender within a year.
I’m hesitant in declaring Portland a potential contender in the West, but the numbers are staggering thus far. They score 104.7 points per 100 possessions (4th) and only allow 94.7 points per 100 possessions (6th). That differential ranks them 2nd in the league, just slightly behind….Philadelphia? What? Now you can see why I’m hesitant with early numbers.
I feel like I’m going to have to start the ‘Anthony Davis Sweepstakes’ soon, just so I can have a dedicated space to make fun of the NBA’s worst teams. Without having done enough research on this, I’d have to say it’s a close race between Washington, Charlotte, and New Jersey. Not surprisingly, those are the only three teams with a negative point differential of ten points or more. Charlotte, in particular, is bad, losing games by an average of nearly 15 points.
Speaking of Charlotte, I’m relieved to see our good friend Boris Diaw come back to earth. Not that he could ever really leave earth, thanks to the giant gut he’s currently sporting. One has to wonder how many buffets he visited during the lockout! Diaw ‘blew up’ (see how this works?) with a near triple-double in each of his first two games, but has since gone back to his usual crappy ways. He scored 0 points in last night’s contest with Cleveland.
Speaking of Cleveland, they are one of the biggest early surprises. At 3-2, it certainly looks like their ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process. #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving has been spectacular thus far, posting nearly 15 points and 6 assists per game, while ranking 4th amongst PG’s in PER. Of course, there was little doubt Irving would be good, so this isn’t a massive shock. The real winner for the Cavs has been the early returns on controversial #4 pick Tristan Thompson. In only 20 MPG, Thompson is posting nearly 10 points and 5 rebounds per game, while also chipping in 1.8 blocks per game. I doubt Cleveland can keep up their early pace, but there’s finally a light at the end of the post-Lebron James tunnel.
The Clippers have problems. Serious problems. The offense has been fine, ranking 7th in the league in efficiency, but there are issues on the defensive side. Lob City ranks 3rd to last in defensive efficiency, allowing an obscene 107.8 points per 100 possessions. Not only that, but they rank 2nd to last in defensive rebound rate, grabbing just 66.23% of available defensive rebounds. That number is shocking considering their frontcourt! The Clippers are going to be at their best when playing at a break-neck speed, but the inability to get stops or rebound the ball has prevented them from running the floor, as they currently play at a below average pace. Much of this is likely due to the abbreviated offseason, as integrating three new starters definitely put them behind the 8-ball. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time that a “super team” turned out to be a disappointment. Something to monitor.
I know it’s really early, but this Russell Westbrook thing is very, VERY disturbing. A lot of was made of the Westbrook-Durant dynamic after what happened in last season’s playoffs, and many (including myself) stated that OKC would be wise to pursue a Westbrook-for-Paul swap. It didn’t happen, and it certainly isn’t a positive sign that we’re talking about this again only seven games into the new season. While the Thunder have managed a strong 5-2 start, it’s mostly in spite of Westbrook as opposed to because of him. Yet, it appears as if he still believes he is the true star of the team. Here are the numbers:
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True Shooting Percentage
Durant has a significantly higher true shooting percentage, a lower turnover rate, and is infinitely more efficient…yet Westbrook has a higher usage rate? Huh?
You can see the problem here. It’s not just that Westbrook has a higher usage rate; it’s that he’s been nothing but horrible when he has the ball. He’s not making plays for teammates (just 5.3 assists per game), he’s turning the ball over far too much (4.6 per game), he’s shooting way too many threes (1.9 per game) and making almost none of them (15.4%...lower than Rondo!). Heck, he’s just not making many shots period, as his 39% shooting is just not getting the job done.
The difference between last year’s playoffs and this season is that the tension is far more palpable. Already, we’ve seen Durant and Westbrook getting into it on the sideline, and I wouldn’t be shocked if we see more of that throughout the season. As long as Westbrook thinks he’s the star of the team, there is going to be a problem, because Durant is a FAR superior player. At some point, Westbrook has got to turn into a real PG, or this dynamic is just going to continue to deteriorate. Right now, his mindset seems to be “you just scored one, so now it’s my turn to take a possession.” Not working, Russ.
There’s some definite Marbury-KG potential here, and I honestly believe that Sam Presti needs to be pro-active in cleaning up the situation. Unfortunately, the best possible solution is now off the board thanks to Chris Paul’s relocation to Clipper land. Still, there are two options left that would be absolute wins for the Thunder. Option #1 is somewhat unlikely, but it would be worth exploring whether the Nets would be interested in a Deron Williams-for-Westbrook swap. If the Dwight Howard deal looks like it won’t happen, then maybe New Jersey will feel the need to get something for Williams before he bolts in free agency. It seems like they’re convinced Williams will stay, so I doubt this one will ever work. Option #2 is much more likely, however. Boston has pursued moving Rondo for Westbrook before, and it seems like a natural fit for both franchises. Westbrook needs a team where he can be the main offensive option, and Boston desperately needs that type of dynamic scorer with the team struggling so badly to consistently put up points. Meanwhile, OKC needs someone to set up the rest of their scorers and elevate the team’s defense. That sounds a lot like Rondo to me. We’ll see if OKC ever comes to this conclusion, or if they just let the situation get more and more toxic.