NBA Four Quarters (12/23/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

Division Check-In | Pacific Division

After winning 73 games and breaking the all-time record last season, there is little novelty to the regular season for the Warriors. The most intriguing part of this season for the Warriors is the integration of Kevin Durant. So far, it appears that if the best team adds a former MVP they remain the best team in the league. But what about the famed “Death Lineup,” featuring Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and now Kevin Durant instead of Harrison Barnes. Last year, this lineup destroyed nearly everyone - outscoring opponents by 47.0 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and 22.8 points per 100 possessions including the postseason. This season, now with KD, the lineup is pounding teams by 31.2 points per 100 possessions through Wednesday. To make matters worse for the rest of the league, this new “Death Lineup” is shooting only 28.4 % from three-point range, well below any reasonable expectations and the 47.3 % they shot last season. When it comes to distributing the ball, Kevin Durant is now the leading scorer in this lineup, bumping everyone down a peg, most notably Curry. The reigning two-time MVP has seen his share of scoring in this lineup drop from 40 % down to 29 %, highlighting both his versatility and selfless nature. I'm sure Curry and the Warriors' staff welcome the lightened burden as they attempt to keep the team in tact physically for another run at a championship.

Few teams have made the regular season more of a routine than Golden State. The Clippers are one of those teams. And, it so happens that we have reached the point in the season where Blake Griffin misses a month or two. Fortunately, the Clippers have made a habit out of winning without their superstar power forward. In the two extended stretches Griffin has missed over the past two seasons, the Clippers are 39-21, equivalent to a 54-win pace. If you watch Inside the NBA, you will hear Charles Barkley conflate that fact with the idea that ‘analytics people' believe the Clippers can win a championship without Griffin. On the contrary, the numbers and common sense support the fact that the Clippers are best with Griffin on the court, with one caveat – Chris Paul must also be on the court. Digging into the time Griffin has missed on, I uncovered some insightful jewels of information. Over the past three years, the Clippers have a 10.3 net rating with Paul on the floor without Griffin. In the games that Griffin has missed over that same time frame, the Clippers have a 10.1 net rating with Paul on the floor in a similar number of minutes. In other words, Paul can lead an elite offense with the peripheral pieces of the roster, especially remarkable considering the shaky quality of the Clippers bench. The same pattern plays out when Paul is off the floor – the Clippers are nearly equally terrible without Paul. Simply put, Chris Paul is critical to the success of the Clippers with or without Griffin. Hopefully Paul truly is fine after leaving the game with a hamstring last night, the Clippers can hardly afford to lose him.

1st Team All-NBA Center looking good for DeMarcus Cousins, as I predicted here.

Top five finish in MVP will be tough if Boogie can't play nice with the media.

Turn the calendar back a month and the Lakers are surprisingly 7-7, Luke Walton is getting early season Coach of the Year buzz, and everything is looking up in Lakerland. Then, the nightmares of seasons past snatched the Lakers and dragged them back towards the bottom of the West. Through Wednesday, over its past 14 games, the Lakers have been the worst team in the league. What happened? Starting with the obvious, starting point guard D'Angelo Russell missed 11 consecutive games, during which time the Lakers went 3-8 and sustained additional injuries to Nick Young and Julius Randle. Starting Jose Calderon and relying upon Lou Williams to generate all the offense are hardly winning strategies. From a statistical standpoint, the largest source of despair is coming from the offense – the defense was already terrible and has gotten slightly more terrible. An offense scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions powered their 7-7 start. The offense behind their recent 3-11 skid is scoring just 99.9 points per 100 possessions. The root causes are difficult to parse out but the symptoms are clear; the Lakers are shooting worse from every spot on the floor compared to the start of the season. At then end of the day, the reality for the Lakers probably sits somewhere in between these two stretches, meaning they can pump the breaks on the playoffs and focus on developing the Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good Five.

Perhaps you've seen Glen “Big Baby” Davis bemoaning his time playing alongside dribble-happy Chris Paul. It's a shame we'll never get to hear what Davis would have to say playing alongside these Phoenix guards – he might have shed some more tears. The Suns are dead last in the percentage of made field goals assisted. Now that could be in part because Phoenix is a below average shooting team and they score a lot of unassisted second chance points – a reasonable possibility, Phoenix is top ten in offensive rebounding. However, the Suns also rank second to last in potential assists per game, despite playing the second fastest pace in the league. Watch the Suns play and it all makes sense. All three of their primary ball handlers – Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and Brandon Knight – have score-first mentalities and they get a lot of opportunities. Phoenix is the number one user of pick and rolls in the NBA. They essentially play end of game half court offense all the time, which has served them well in some close games this year, but is not a long-term strategy for success without an upgrade in talent.

Coach Mike D'Antoni is renowned for coaching great offenses thanks in large part to the confidence he instills in his players and the opportunities he affords them. Eric Gordon has benefitted as much as anyone on the Houston roster from this trust and seen his career revived. Since Patrick Beverly returned in mid-November pushing Gordon out of the starting lineup, Gordon has flourished in the 6th man role, averaging 18.4 points, 3.2 assists, and 4.1 three-pointers per game while ripping the nets from beyond the arc at 45.6 %. As the leader of the second unit, Gordon has the reigns of the offense when James Harden sits, a responsibility he was never trusted with in New Orleans. He is also an ideal running mate (on offense) alongside Harden with his dual shooting and off-the bounce threat. Gordon's size and defensive shortcomings prevent him from being a starter, but his new found home off the bench is a tailor made fit for both him and the Rockets. The Rockets have won 16 of 19 since Gordon joined the bench. His impact on winning has him near the front of the 6th Man of the Year Award race and makes him our 6th Man of the Week.

Crazy Stat of the Week

Speaking of the Houston Rockets, they were on both sides of two of the most improbable comebacks in recent NBA history. Coming into this week, according to ESPN Stats & Info, teams that were up 13 with under 4:30 minutes remaining were 1388-0 over the last three seasons. That record is now 1388-2. First, on Saturday, the Rockets came back down 13 with 3:55 remaining to top the Timberwolves in overtime. Then, just three nights later, Houston collapsed at home versus San Antonio after leading by 13 with just under 4:30 minutes left. Not only was this run of protected leads broken twice in one week, but it involved the same team, absolutely crazy. I would be remiss if I did not mention how proper it was that the first team to blow this kind of lead in three years was Minnesota, the kings of disappointment.