NBA Four Quarters (12/30/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

Division Check – In | Atlantic Division

As someone who picked the Raptors to finish with the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the first 32 games of Raptors basketball have been very encouraging. They have the most efficient offense and the second best net rating in the NBA. However, a case for pessimism had been bubbling beneath the surface long before dropping their last two games. First of all, and perhaps most troubling, their primary starting lineup has a negative point differential. This unit is allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions – a rate that would rank dead last in the league. A sensible solution would be to insert Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup for rookie Pascal Siakam, a move they've been making in second halves of games recently, as that lineup has been destroying opponents this year. However, the Raptors coaching staff has been very resistant to starting Patterson, warranted or not. Notwithstanding any lineup changes, the structural challenges of the Raptors offense in recent years also still remain intact. Of all the top five offenses from the past 35 years, this season's Raptors are assisting on the smallest percentage of made baskets – the only one beneath 50 %. Additionally, the Raptors average the most dribbles and seconds per touch of any top five offense since the data became available in 2014. These trends highlight their deepened entrenchment in the Lowry/DeRozan ball dominance strategy that has left them so vulnerable in the playoffs. Despite the torrid start, some strategic tweaking will be necessary if the Raptors hope to reach the top of the East and truly challenge Cleveland.

Sticking with the idea of challenging Cleveland, the Celtics made a valiant comeback on Thursday night at the Q but proved once again that their flaws remain fatal against the class of the East. In their 118-124 loss, Boston allowed 13 offensive rebounds and 33 free throw attempts. Last season, Boston finished 5th to last in both opponent offensive rebounding and opponent free throw shooting rates. This season, Boston ranks last and 5th to last, respectively, in these categories. As expected, the addition of Al Horford has done little to shore up the defensive glass – his Hawks teams consistently ranked near the bottom in that respect. Horford has added some value when it comes to not fouling, but the other bigs on the team are hacks and Boston remains outsized at nearly every position. Against most teams, Boston's exceptional perimeter defense and offensive talent more than cover for these deficiencies. However, against the Cavaliers, they are insurmountable.

With Carmelo Anthony under assault from several former head coaches via the media over the past number of weeks, the scrutiny of his on-court performance has been magnified, particularly his penchant for isolation. According to Anthony, the Knicks must “stay with” their isolation tendencies because “if something works you don't want to go away from it.” The problem is that the isolation is not really working, at least as well as the more democratic alternative. Comparing its win-loss splits, New York victories can be characterized by a marked increase in the percentage of field goals assisted. The better the Knicks share the ball, the more likely they are to win. Watching the Knicks play, the ball and player movement system exists and when executed they can really hum on offense, but the trust tends to wear down against superior teams, as Carmelo and Derrick Rose feel more responsibility to carry the team to victory. So, while Anthony and Rose remain effective 1-on-1 players at times, trust in their teammates and the offense will yield the best results for New York going forward.

Coach Kenny Atkinson has brought a turbo-charged Hawks-style offense with him from Atlanta and infused Rockets-esque shot selection philosophy. The Nets play at the fastest pace, attempt three-pointers at the third highest rate, and get to the free throw line at the third highest clip in the league. This brash style has yielded less than stellar results, but I believe Coach Atkinson is extracting as much entertaining and competent basketball as possible from this talent-depleted roster. He has unearthed the three-point bombing wizard that is Brook Lopez, a gift worth the price of his contract alone. If the Nets aren't going to be good they might as well be fun.

The emergence of The Process Joel Embiid has brought newfound optimism and feistiness to Philadelphia. However, with the flashes of greatness come the reminders of the work left to do. The Sixers have the worst turnover rate in the league, a problem that only exacerbates itself at the end of the game. In fact, amongst available data, Philadelphia has the worst ever turnover rate in the clutch – when the score differential is no more than five points in the last three minutes of a game. An astounding 23.1 % of the Sixers possessions in the clutch have ended in a turnover. Take a look below at four turnovers Philadelphia committed in the last two minutes to blow a Saturday afternoon game against Cleveland. Taking care of the ball is the biggest challenge facing the youthful Sixers in their first stages of growing out from the bottom of the league.

Perhaps best known as the player who most resembles a traffic cone or for his ill-advised bridge burning, Enes Kanter happens to be an exceptional role player (never mind he's making maximum contract money). With the exception of his rebounding, Kanter is having a career offensive year. His versatility is a great asset for Oklahoma City. He has great chemistry with Russell Westbrook in the pick-and-roll and is extremely potent scoring with his back to the basket – Kanter ranks in the top ten in the league in scoring both as the roll man and out of post-ups. Over the past week, in which the Thunder went 3-1, Kanter averaged 19.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 64.0 % from the field. If it weren't for his defensive struggles, which have slightly decreased over the years, he would be a bona fide starter in this league. For now, he'll have to settle for 6th Man of the Week.

New Year's Day

Sunday is the first day of 2017, aka the day after New Year's Eve. The NBA does not stop out of consideration for the debauchery of that night – 10 teams have games on January 1st. It is not hard to imagine the activities of that night affecting performance on the court the next day. While certainly not a demonstrative sample set, examining the 35 New Year's Day games since 2010 revealed some interesting results. First, the home teams are 26-9 in these games, a winning rate well above the expected home court advantage. Next, the average points scored in the New Year's Day games overall have been below the league average in each season (with the exception of 2014 because there were only two games). For example, last season, teams scored 102.7 points per game on average, yet in the five New Year's games the average score was only 94.6 points. Finally, of the 70 teams that played in these games, 40 of them scored below their season average. Again, take last year for example, seven of the ten teams that played scored fewer points than their season average. The large caveat here of course is that these results come from only the last six seasons, one of which was a lockout shortened season, which means the reliability is questionable. The results are fascinating nevertheless.