NBA Four Quarters (01/06/17)
Eat. Sleep. Conquer. Repeat. When the Royal Rumble comes to the Alamodome this month, it will be Brock Lesnar's name on T-shirts sporting that mantra; however, it is the hometown Spurs that have a more proper claim to those words. No Tim Duncan, the cornerstone of the franchise for two decades, no problem – the Spurs haven't missed a step and are again nipping at the heels of the big dog Golden State. The most notable thing about this new iteration of the Spurs is how familiar it feels, especially when it comes to lineup choices. In an era of downsizing, San Antonio plays almost exclusively with two traditional big men on the floor. That strategy has worked in the past and is certainly effective in the regular season, but in a series with the Warriors they will need more options like playing with Kawhi Leonard as the nominal power forward. Thus, it is perplexing that such lineups have played less than five percent of their total minutes this season. Perhaps they consider Davis Bertans as their small-ball four man, but those lineups have played less than 20 % of the time and Bertans is a rookie and regularly receives DNP's – not exactly grooming for the playoffs. Without sacrificing their place in the standings I hope the Spurs experiment with more Warriors-specific lineups, for their own sake.
Coach Mike D'Antoni is no stranger to great offense. Each of his four playoff teams in Phoenix led the league in offensive efficiency. Fast starters, each of those teams led the league in scoring efficiency in the first quarter (except in 2007, which was 2nd). A Rockets team tailor-made for his playing style is following suit – third in overall efficiency and number one in the first quarter – with a major difference. Those Suns teams maintained a pretty stable level of scoring efficiency from quarter to quarter. The Rockets on the other hand are like a roller coaster, peaking in the first and third with steep drops in the second and fourth quarters. The difference? James Harden. Pretty clearly the most versatile offensive player D'Antoni has ever coached, Harden is irreplaceable for better and worse for Houston. The Rockets are scoring a full 15 points less per 100 possessions when Harden leaves the floor, the equivalent gap between the first and last offense this year. Coach D'Antoni is continuing to work his magic, but this team will only go as far as James Harden can take them.
It is commonplace to get mesmerized by numbers and weave narratives between decimal points. That's why I think it is instructive to remind ourselves how volatile and random this league can be from time to time. The Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of a very bizarre season, continuing the injury-riddled chaos from the end of last season. Of the teams on the receiving end of the biggest blow-out losses this season, the Grizzlies have recorded the largest blow-out victory of their own – a 34-point win over Oklahoma City. That blowout loss, a 36-point drubbing at the hands of the Wolves, featured a Grizzlies lineup without either Mike Conley or Marc Gasol – because of rest surprisingly enough. Rest or not, injuries have reared their ugly heads again, leading the team to come up with a nickname for its hampered early December lineup: the “Nasty Nine.” In the weirdest game of the season, without Mike Conley, Memphis destroyed the Golden State Warriors by 21 points after leading by as many as 30 points. And remember, max-contract free agent signee Chandler Parsons has played just 215 minutes thus far. Point being, take any number featuring the Memphis Grizzlies with a big, nasty grain of salt.
At the beginning of the season I wrote about what the first five games can mean for a team's playoff chances. In the past six seasons, no team that started 0-5 went on to make the playoffs. The Pelicans started 0-8. Yet they are right in the thick of the race for the 8th seed in the West. As it turns out, losing your starting point guard is a big problem. Since Jrue Holiday returned on November 18, the Pelicans have played at a .500 rate and been a top five defense. But the changes don't stop there. Maybe as a Christmas gift to the media members opining for Anthony Davis to play center, Coach Alvin Gentry has trimmed his big man rotation in the five games post-Christmas. Anthony Davis is full-time center now, with Dante Cunningham and Terrence Jones rounding out the “bigs” – New Orleans has embraced a smaller, faster team. We'll see how it turns out or if they stick with it, but since turning to the new style, the Pelicans have the top defense and the fourth best overall efficiency. Things are finally looking up again in New Orleans.
This has been a nightmare season for the Mavericks thus far, so let's take this moment to focus on the emergence of Harrison Barnes. With Dirk out for most of this year, Barnes has taken on a feature role in the offense, presumably similar in spirit to the one promised to DeAndre Jordan in the summer of 2015. According to the Synergy definitions on NBA.com, Barnes is third in isolation opportunities and scoring very efficiently in those opportunities. His focus in the offense becomes even more pronounced down the stretch when the Mavericks often go to him every time down the floor, like they used to for Dirk. The results have been understandably mixed thus far – amongst the top 25 most heavily used players in crunch time (down or up five or less with five or less minutes to go) Barnes has the worst individual efficiency (a flawed but informative statistic). Lest we forget, however, Barnes was the fourth sometime fifth wheel throughout his career in Golden State. This is his first time to shine and it is into the flames he goes. Check out the end of the Mavs recent win over the Wizards, where Barnes has his number called in a variety of fashions on six of the Mavs last seven possessions. He hit two out of six shots, including the dagger to ice the game.
The Atlanta Hawks are all over the news after trading Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it may be because of this man that the Hawks felt comfortable making this trade at all. His numbers on the season are much improved over last and relatively in line with what he did in his second season in New York but he has really come on strong lately. Quietly, the Hawks have won five in a row and climbed to fourth in the East. Playing no small part, Tim Hardaway Jr. has averaged 14.8 points, 3.0 three-pointers, and 3.8 rebounds in 24 minutes per game, shooting a blistering 57.1 % from long distance. Hardaway still has a way to go on the defensive end (are you sensing a theme amongst these bench players?) if he wants to crack the starting lineup at some point in his career. But for now, he is a suitable heir to Kyle Korver in Atlanta and our 6th Man of the Week.
Crazy Stat of the Week
It was a bad week for defenders on the Knicks, Hornets, and Heat. James Harden, Jimmy Butler, and Isaiah Thomas scored 50+ points on these teams, respectively. For his trouble, Harden managed to score the most points in a triple double in the recorded history of the league. Perhaps more remarkable, this week marked just the tenth occasion when three separate players all scored at least 50 points in the same week. The most recent example came last spring, when Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Anthony Davis all scored over 50 points in late February. We are certainly witnessing a phenomenal age of individual scoring in this league at the moment.