NBA Four Quarters (01/20/17)
Division Check-In | Northwest Division
Since Quinn Snyder took over in 2014 there have been two constants for the Jazz. First, they are continuously maligned by injuries. The Jazz have missed the 4th most games to injury this year. Thankfully depth improvement in the offseason and serious injury problems with the Clippers have the Jazz poised to grab home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The second constant under Snyder is a slow playing style – the slowest in the league. There are three primary reasons for this slow down style. First of all, their personnel are not conducive to an up and down game. The Jazz primarily play with two plodding big men on the floor, they don't have any exceptional or explosive athletes, and they have guys like Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw who play very methodically. Second, their offensive system is straight out of the Spurs/Hawks family tree of ball movement and passing up good shots to get great shots, which leads to longer possessions. Finally, Utah is a very stout defensive team and can slow the game down by forcing opponents to work harder to get shots. All together you have a perfect mix for the slowest brand in the league.
Team A missed the playoffs and Team B is currently firmly in the playoffs at this point of the season. Team A was coached by Scott Brooks, the other by Billy Donovan. Kevin Durant played 27 games for Team A, while Team B has now lost convincingly twice to Durant's current team. That's correct, Team A is the 2015 Thunder and Team B is the 2017 Thunder. I think it is appropriate to compare these teams because even though the rosters are different they both featured Russell Westbrook taking it upon himself to do basically everything on the floor to keep the team competitive. It appears that, generally speaking, Victor Oladipo and rookie Domantas Sabonis have not been able to replicate the defense and offensive rebounding that Serge Ibaka once brought.
Shifting the focus to Westbrook, given triple-double mania, the perception is likely that Westbrook is having a much better season than he did in 2015 under similar circumstances. While it is true Westbrook has certainly improved across the board – especially rebounding and shooting threes - his 2015 season holds up remarkably well in comparison as you can see below. The Thunder and Westbrook are having a successful season, just like they did in 2015. The biggest difference might just be the weakened state of the Western Conference, not the Thunder themselves.
The Denver Nuggets have finally embraced who they are – an offense team. On December 15, the Nuggets were 9-16 heading into a contest with the Portland Trail Blazers. That night they unveiled the new starting lineup of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Nikola Jokic en route to a 132-120 shootout victory. The Nuggets are 8-8 since making the lineup switch and have climbed into the 8th seed out West. The offensive numbers are staggering. Since mid December, the Nuggets have the second most efficient offense at 114.3 points scored per 100 possessions (compared with 102.7 prior). Of five man lineups with at least 100 minutes played, Denver's new starters have the 9th best offense, ahead of the starting lineups in Boston, San Antonio, Golden State, and the healthy Clippers starting five. The problem? That unit has the third worst defense and the Nuggets as a whole have the worst defense in the league since implementing the new starters, much to the chagrin of Coach Malone. But he won't mind as long as the Nuggets hold onto the 8th seed. If they do, we could be in for one hell of an offensive showcase in the first round between them and the Warriors.
There is a sentiment of disappointment surrounding this team and rightfully so; however, there are several reasons for hope and a turnaround this year for Portland. Did you know at this time last year the Blazers were 19-25, just one game ahead of their current record? Did you also know that their team is almost exactly the same as it was last year (save for Evan Turner replacing Gerald Henderson)? Perhaps you would also like to know that starting forward Al-Farouq Aminu - who started all 82 games last year and has the largest positive on/off differential on the team – missed 18 games earlier this season. It should also be noted that Portland has played one of the five toughest schedules up to this point in the season. The remainder of their schedule has many appealing features: two games each versus the Suns, Mavs, and Lakers; fourteen games with a rest advantage; and 10 of their last 12 games are at home. The Blazers have a lot of work to do, but the second half is looking up for them to make a run just like last year.
Early in the season we briefly examined the dichotomy of the Wolves first and second half performance. That problem has not subsided but it has softened. The Wolves are currently +5.2 per 100 possessions in the first half – 6th best in the league – and a hearty -7.9 per 100 possessions in the second half – 3rd worst in the league. Essentially, the Wolves are building leads and then blowing them, a problem that dates back to the Kevin Love era. Minnesota has actually managed to accrue leads of larger than ten points in 22 of its 43 games – tied for 10th most in the NBA. However, they are only 12-10 in such games. Besides Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the Wolves have worst winning percentage under these circumstances. On the one hand, it is encouraging to see such a young team build so many double digit leads. Yet, on the other hand, their inability to capitalize has plagued them and will keep them out of the playoff hunt if it continues.
The New Orleans Pelicans are very much in the hunt for the right to get swept by the Warriors in April despite their horrific start. They are now fully healthy and the man who is going unheralded is Tyreke Evans. Coming off the bench as both a mechanism to ease him back into the lineup and a way to split up the playmaking between the starters and the bench, Evans is crushing it as a reserve, posting numbers in these first 15 games beyond anything he's done previously. His assist rate, turnover rate, three-point attempt rate, and defensive rebounding rate are all at career-bests. With his minute-restriction slowly slipping away, Evans scored 18.3 points, dished out 4.5 assists, grabbed 3.5 rebounds, and nabbed 2.5 steals in 23.3 minutes over four games this past week. We will see how much longer Evans remains on the bench, but for now his stellar performance as a bench player has earned him the honor of 6th Man of the Week.
If I had a vote for the All-Star game starting lineups (I do not as a player or media member) my vote would have looked like this:
G – Kyle Lowry
G – Isaiah Thomas
F – LeBron James
F – Giannis Antetokounmpo
F – Joel Embiid
LeBron, Lowry, and Thomas are the best players unequivocally on the three best teams in the East. Giannis is having an all-around impact as impressive as anyone in the league. I don't care that Embiid sits games and is on a minute-restriction, the man elicits “TRUST THE PROCESS” chants on the road!
G – Steph Curry
G – James Harden
F – Kawhi Leonard
F – Kevin Durant
F – Anthony Davis
I match the actual starters because I think they accurately reflect who has been the best for the best teams, with the exception of Davis, but he gets the hometown advantage over Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert. Also his numbers happen to be absurd. Leaving Westbrook off is a tough choice but I bet he would like to spend as little time sharing the court with Durant as possible.