Posts Tagged ‘2014’

Are the 2014 Cavaliers Championship Material?

September 29, 2014

One practice down, and LeBron James is already letting us in on how he expects the team offense to run. He expects it to run through Kyrie Irving. That is to say, Kyrie will play the point, and LeBron will get to work off the ball more than he did in Miami where he split shot-creation duties with Dwyane Wade and certainly more than he did in his last stint with the Cavs where Mike Brown’s lack of an offensive system put the results of every possession squarely on James’s tattooed shoulders.

This is good news for everyone involved. Kyrie is not necessarily best-suited to spending all game making entry passes to James and Kevin Love in the post and then playing a purely catch and shoot role. He’s too dynamic with the dribble to be confined to a Derrick Fisher role. And for James, this means he will get to be a finisher rather than a creator. His assist numbers will likely decrease, and his shooting efficiency may drop some as he won’t be in position to pick and choose his spots as much as he has been in the past. However, his energy reserve for end of game should be much increased. I recall when Phil Jackson instituted the triangle offense and moved the ball into Scottie Pippen’s hands, it had a detrimental effect on Michael Jordan’s efficiency and box score totals, but it also saved him the gas to close games for the Bulls on a more regular basis which I would say contributed to their championship success.

What should we expect the offense to be if it is not a steady diet of LeBron and Love on the blocks? New Cavaliers coach David Blatt is a master of Euro-ball, so we can probably assume that the majority of plays will involve heavy doses of pick and roll. He can set the floor a number of ways and run a lot of different off ball action to free up wing shooters while the primary pick and roll action happens thanks to the mobility of presumed starting shooting guard Dion Waiters and the outside shooting ability of both James and Love. If Kyrie runs a side pick and roll with James while Anderson Varejao and Love set a staggered screen for Waiters curling from the baseline to the top of the key, the defense has to a lot of bad choices to make.

Irving and James cannot be defended without a hedge or an outright double team from on of the other defenders. Kyrie is too good with the ball, and James is too big and athletic, especially at the small forward position. The defense can send Varejao’s defender to help, drop Love’s defender onto Andy, and hope Dion’s defender catches up to him before he gets a wide open shot, but then it’s a swing pass to Love in the corner for an open three pointer. The defense could drop Varejao’s defender to help on the pick and roll and just abandon Andy as the only non-shooter, but that leaves him to cut to the rim for a dump down pass or uncontested offensive rebound. It’s rough, and it’s a lot easier to set up than the synergies that formed in Miami because the pieces fit in more traditional ways.

Setting baseline screens for LeBron off the ball would also be interesting, because he’s likely to have a massive size advantage, and if they can use Kyrie’s dribble attack as misdirection, they could probably hit James with unstoppably deep post position. All in all the offense ought to be very tough because of all the shooters, passers, and ball-handlers available.

Defense on the other hand could be an issue, but we won’t know until we see how they line-up. Kyrie looked decent as an on-ball defender in the World Cup, but he hasn’t had good defensive numbers or habits in the NBA. Love is another player who has not historically been a good rim defender or a one-on-one stopper. James is an All-D regular with the ability to lock up multiple positions, and Andy is a solid position defender as well. The team’s biggest weakness projects to be big guys with post games. However, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and Chris Bosh are probably the only players in the East capable of really taking advantage of that weakness, and none of their teams are expected to contend due to a lack of overall talent or an inability for key players to stay healthy.

I’d expect the Cavs to play a sort of late 80’s / early 90’s style where they pace the game to take advantage of their superior talent and then try to lock down teams for a few minutes at the end of each quarter to really build separation. Danny Ainge told Bill Simmons in a podcast that he felt the 1986 Celtics had a defense on par with the 2008 Celtics but that they didn’t focus as much energy on all-game defense. They exerted themselves more on offense and then locked down on defense selectively. By the numbers the comparison isn’t close. The 2008 team is up there with the mid-90s Knicks and early 2000s Spurs as one of the best defensive teams of the 3 point era. That said, the ’86 Celts were the best defensive team in the league that year (Jordan still dropped 63 on them in the playoffs), and that mentality of playing faster and allowing your offensive dominance to shine most of the game and then really focusing on getting stops, especially turnovers, in short bursts is tried and true. The Celtics did it. The Lakers did it. The Bulls did it. These Cavs could do it too. Maybe.

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2014 Team Profile – Portland Trailblazers

February 5, 2014

Before I get into dissecting the Trailblazers, let me just say that I love this team’s construction.  It is such a classic set up with a sniper point guard, a shooting guard with size, strength, and range, a long, athletic Swiss-army-knife small forward, a post up / pick and pop oversized power forward, and a defensive anchor / dirty work specialist at center.  This is a team where every opponent knows exactly what’s in store and can’t do a thing about it.  Love it.

The Trailblazers are currently the 5th best team in the league by Simple Rating System (margin of victory factored against strength of schedule).  They have the 6th best average margin of victory.  They score the most points per game of any team, and they also have the highest points per possession ranking, meaning that their offense is both the most prolific and most efficient in the NBA.  They are so efficient that they lead the league in points scored per game despite the fact that they are not even in the top ten in pace (possessions per 48 minutes).

How do they maintain such great offensive numbers?  With a very balanced attack plan.  While not spectacularly great like Miami’s or San Antonio’s, Portland sports a top 10 Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG% factors the value of the 3 pointers made into regular FG% for a more accurate estimate of scoring efficiency on field goal attemtps).  Speaking of the 3 pointers, they are 2nd in the league in 3 point field goal percentage and top at in three pointers taken per total field goals attempted (sandwiched between the 3 point-happy Warriors and Heat).  The only weak spot in the Portland offense is getting to the free throw line.  They are ranked 22nd in free throw rate.  However, they shoot free throws at a league-best percentage so their made free throws per field goal attempt ratio (one of Dean Oliver‘s famous Four Factors) is actually league average and doesn’t drag their offense down.

Where the Blazers really excel is in possession maintenance.  They have the third lowest turnover rate and the second best offensive rebounding rate.  No other team in the top 5 in ORb% has an above average eFG%.  So they shoot better than average, almost never lose scoring opportunities to turnovers, and they extend possessions on missed shots better than anyone except the oversized, shooting challenged Pistons.

What I think works best about Portland’s offense is that the responsibilities are properly spread.  The perimeter players, especially Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, play make.  Those two along with Wes Matthews and Mo Williams off the bench provide their great three point shooting.  The primary scoring option, LaMarcus Aldridge does not take open threes, and he doesn’t lurk under the basket taking up space that rebounder / layup offense only Robin Lopez needs to be effective.  LaMarcus does his damage in the most difficult scoring space on the floor, the midrange.  Because the leading usage player on the team is taking the difficult shots in the middle of the half court, he leaves lanes to get dump down passes to Lopez or kick outs for threes to the guards and wings.  The floor balance works because the best player does the heavy lifting, and the talented role players are in position to do their roles.  As a team they also work the ball very quickly into scoring positions, keeping the pace crisp and moving the ball well.  Lillard has made great strides as a pick and roll decision maker, and he’s shooting threes off the high screens like Stephen Curry.

This team’s major issues occur at the defensive end of the floor.  They allow the 5th most points per game and the 10th highest points per possession.  That’s bad.  They do a decent job contesting shots, holding opponents to just under league average eFG%.  They also control their defensive backboard, again a little bit above average in DRb%.  They also keep their fouling to a minimum – top 10 in opponent made FTs per FGA.  Their real weakness is that they are a conservative defense that ranks dead last in causing opponent turnovers, and while opponents don’t shoot a high proportion of threes against the Blazers, they do shoot them very well against the Blazers, top 8 in fact and well above league average 3PT%.  Some of this is by design.  Terry Stotts has the team in a conservative defensive scheme.  The bigs tend to sag on pick and roll coverage instead of challenging the ball handler at the point of the screen.  This limits opportunities to force turnovers and leaves some good shooters open coming off the screen.  But it discourages drives to the rim and limits opponent opportunities to draw free throw attempts.

In an interview with Zach Lowe, Coach Stotts basically admitted that he runs this conservative defensive scheme to save his players’ energy on offense.  I suspect the Blazers’ other weakness, depth, contributed to that decision.  Outside of the starting lineup, only three Trailblazers are providing real minutes, and none of them has a PER over 15 or a WS48 over .100.  I don’t think Stotts is willing to tax his starters at both ends while asking them to carry such a big burden.  This is reminiscent of the Pacers who don’t ask for a lot of complexity on offense since their main guys expend so much physical and mental energy on D.

Right now Portland is second in the Northwest Division behind the Thunder and third overall in the West with a slim lead over the Clippers.  If they can maintain a top 4 spot in the conference and take home court advantage into the playoffs, the Blazers will have a strong opportunity to advance to the second round.  Though to be fair bowing out in the first round in the West this year is no cause for shame.  It looks like round two will be a matchup against either the Spurs or Thunder (assuming no big swings are coming our way in the second half of the season), and I wouldn’t expect Portland to win a 7 game series against either of those deeper and more experienced squads.  A semi-finals exit against one of those great teams would have to count as a successful season for this team that missed the playoffs last season and would set them up for future playoff success.

 

2014 NBA Mid-Season Awards & Projections

January 31, 2014

I would normally wait until the All-Star break to start looking at possible award winners and projecting how the All NBA and All Defense teams will break down, but I’m going to be on vacation over the All-Star break, and we are past the halfway point in the season.  Most teams have played at least 45 games, and we have a feel for who is good, who is bad, and why.  Of course a team could get a player back from injury or click into Godzilla vs. Tokyo mode and run off 20 straight wins, but we’ll work with what we know so far.

Awards

Most Valuable Player – Kevin Durant.  We’ve talked about why KD is the best choice for MVP a few times on this site, so I’ll keep this brief.  He plays on the best team.  He has the best statistics / metrics.  He comes through in big moments.  He can’t be defended one-on-one, which disrupts the defense of every opponent and opens things up for his teammates.  He’s doing it all without the help of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green or any of the other young talent the Thunder management drafted to put around him with the exception of Serge Ibaka.  Runners up: LeBron JamesChris Paul has been disqualified after missing so many games (and the fact that his team has excelled without him probably doesn’t help his cause).  No one else is close.

Defensive Player of the Year – Roy Hibbert.  He is the defensive anchor of one of the greatest team defenses in league history.  I’m going to write a post about where the Pacers rank all-time defensively (the Oracle predicts that it will be very high), but suffice it to say that this year, Indiana is the best by a Midwestern mile.  The separation in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) between the #1 Pacers and #2 Bulls is larger than the separation between Chicago and #8 Minnesota.  Roy’s size and alert positioning are keys to the Pacer defensive superiority.  He leads the league in individual defensive rating, and his ability to protect the rim and discourage slashers from even attempting to drive helps Indiana to play man to man along the perimeter limiting fouls committed and 3 point opportunities as well.  He’s a classic NBA giant in a league of stretch bigs, and he is dominant on the defensive end.  Runners up: Paul George, Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut.

Rookie of the Year – Michael Carter-Williams. Not the strongest race in the world this year. Of players given more than 20 minutes a game to show their stuff, MCW is the only one with a PER above the 15 mark, which is the level of an “average” NBA player. Several future stars could emerge in the second half of the season or in years to come, but so far this has been an underwhelming rookie class. Runners up: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tim Hardaway, Jr.

6th Man of the Year – Markieff Morris.  This is a really tough award to pick so far this season.  San Antonio and the Clippers have both gotten fantastic contributions from multiple players off the bench.  Manu Ginobili and Jamal Crawford, both former winners, are producing well and coming up in big moments for their teams.  However, I’m leaning towards Markeiff Morris of the Phoenix Suns for the award this year.  He leads all bench players in Win Share and has a 19.2 PER, and his shooting, defense, and versatility have really helped Phoenix’s second unit excel. Runners up: Manu, Jamal, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, Andre Blatche.

Most Improved Player of the Year – DeAndre Jordan.  I don’t think Jordan will win this award, but his improvement has been tremendous.  He has doubled his rebounds per game, is playing over 11 more minutes per game, and has become a positive factor in crunch time.  Doc Rivers deserves some of the credit for positioning Jordan to succeed, but DeAndre certainly has done his part as well.  The actual winner will probably be Lance Stephenson of the Pacers who is also highly deserving.  Runners up: Lance, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas, Roy Hibbert, all of the Suns.

Coach of the Year – Jeff Hornacek. The Suns are great, and their commitment to team play is the reason.  Credit Hornie for keeping them on the same page and instilling a system that is fun and effective.  Runners up: Frank Vogel, Gregg Popovich, Terry Stotts, Doc Rivers.

I’m not going to do full 3 team All-NBA projections, but I will say that I think the voters need to get creative with the positions because so many of the best players this year have been forwards.  LeBron, Durant, Paul George, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki, and Carmelo Anthony all need to be included, and Ibaka and David Lee deserve consideration as well (and I’m probably leaving some guys out too).  Maybe move George to guard and call LaMarcus a center?  I do believe the All-NBA team is still G-G-F-F-C.  I hope so anyway for the sake of historical consistency.

I’ll just give some options on the All-Defense Teams as well.  Hibbert and George need to be on the team, and I could see Lance making it as well.  Ibaka is a no-brainer as is Noah.  I like Bogut for the third center, but Tim Duncan and DeAndre deserve consideration as well.  To beef out the perimeter, I’d go with Andre Igudala, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard then consider some guys on good defensive teams who might not get much press like Thabo Sefolosha and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.  Could I squeeze Dwight Howard in as a forward?  He’s been a great defender on a terrible defensive team.  Surprisingly, I don’t think LeBron James has a guaranteed spot on this team.  He probably will make it, and his athletic ability is one of the keys to causing the turnovers that sustain what is otherwise a mediocre Heat defense, but his attention to detail and overall effort have been lacking this year, and there are a lot of deserving forwards.

All-Injured Too Long to Win Awards This Year Team – SG Eric Bledsoe, PG Derrick Rose, C Brook Lopez, PF Al Horford, SF Kobe Bryant

2014 Team Profile – Oklahoma City Thunder

January 22, 2014

There’s a reason why the push for Kevin Durant to be MVP has teeth. The Thunder is currently the third best team in the league and only a hair behind the Spurs for best in the West. They are a defensive juggernaut at heart, but they play at a fast pace, 6th overall, and have real explosive potential on offense thanks to the NBA’s scoring leader and, when healthy, the hyper-aggressive point guard play of Russell Westbrook. Actually Westbrook’s extended absences this year have turned the Thunder into a team with multiple personalities. Unfortunately for the league, both personalities are deadly on the basketball court. Russ adds a creative and relentless pressure to the Thunder attack when he’s available, and when he’s not, his backup Reggie Jackson steers the ship with great efficiency and plays good defense on the perimeter. Strictly speaking though, OKC’s excellent record with so much missed time from their starting All-Star point guard has to be factored. If Russ can get fully healthy in time to reintegrate for their playoff run, this team can be even more dangerous than the numbers.

Speaking of numbers, the team stats are fantastic. The Thunder ranks third overall in Simple Rating System, third in Margin of Victory, and fifth in Strength of Schedule. They have the 7th best offense by points scored per possession and the 4th best defense as ranked by points allowed per possession. On offense they are top 10 in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and free throws made per field goal attempt (3 of Dean Oliver’s famous 4 factors). Defensively they are third overall in opponent effective field goal percentage and eighth in defensive rebound percentage, so just like Indiana, they excel at keeping the opponent’s made field goals to a minimum and limiting second chance points. However, also like Indiana, they are not good at turning the opponent over, and they have a fairly high turnover rate themselves (bottom 11 in the league).

The reason that the defensive numbers are so reminiscent of the Pacers is probably because they are built a lot like the Pacers with good size at every position, a commitment to defensive position, and one of the league’s best shotblockers on the back line in Serge Ibaka. Serge is also a reason the offense has been so steady in the absence of Westbrook. Ibaka is not much of a one-on-one scoring threat, but he is absolutely deadeye on midrange jump shots, and he’s a serious threat on quick catch and finish cuts around the rim. For those old enough to remember the first Bulls dynasty prior to Michael Jordan’s departure to play baseball, Serge is playing a lot like a more athletically gifted Horace Grant.

On offense the team is heavily reliant on one-on-one and pick and roll action by Durant, Jackson, and, when available, Westbrook. They have a solid drive and kick system, and they also do a good job finding their bigs like Kendrick Perkins and the rookie Steven Adams on the move around the rim. Their only good facilitator from the power positions is Nick Collison, and their best offensive units have historically tended to include him. The Thunder, and specifically their coach, has been criticized for a lack of creativity in offensive sets and player rotations, but considering the overall lack of creative players in the absence of Russell Westbrook, a 7th best rating overall against a very tough schedule is pretty impressive. Maybe we should just chalk that up to Durant’s amazing exploits, but if so, then kudos to Coach Brooks for empowering KD to put this team on his shoulders.

The prognosis for OKC is entirely wrapped up in the health of Westbrook. Like any other contending team, losing their second best player is pretty devastating when it comes to making a deep playoff run. Defensive excellence and Durant’s explosiveness may carry them through a couple rounds, but getting past the better teams in the West without Russ’s contributions seems impossible. Hopefully for fans of great basketball, Westbrook is back in time for the Thunder to make a solid run. If he is, and the team is firing on all cylinders, they are a legit contender to win a title, maybe not favorites but nipping at the heels of the Spurs and Heat and every bit as capable as Indiana. They will have the best player in any series they play unless and until they meet the Heat in the Finals, and having the best player goes a long way in this league.

Kevin Durant Solidifies Case for 2014 MVP

January 20, 2014

The more the season goes along the more certain I become that Kevin Durant is our MVP.  Below is more statistical evidence of his tremendous season.  The below table, courtesy of Bastketball-Reference.com, shows all the seasons in which a player had a PER of 30+ and a Win Share per 48 minutes of 0.300+.  Obviously these aren’t perfect measures or anything, but it is a rare enough feat to manage either a 30 PER (18 times) or a .0.300 WS48 (10 times), that accomplishing both in the same season is a truly unusual statistical achievement.  Basically it says that a player is simultaneously ridiculously productive and ridiculously efficient.

Player

Season

Age

G

PER

WS/48

Wilt Chamberlain* 1963-64

27

80

31.6

0.325

Michael Jordan* 1987-88

24

82

31.7

0.308

LeBron James 2008-09

24

81

31.7

0.318

Michael Jordan* 1990-91

27

82

31.6

0.321

LeBron James 2012-13

28

76

31.6

0.322

Kevin Durant 2013-14

25

41

30.5

0.324

As you see, if he continues at his current pace this season, Durant will join an elite group of 3 players including Wilt, MJ, and LeBron.  Jordan and James both managed it twice, and both won the MVP each time.  Wilt got there once, but Oscar won the MVP that year.  Given that both PER and WS have to be heavily estimated for seasons prior to 1977, it’s probably fair to limit this to just the Jordan and LeBron seasons anyway.

In my opinion, as long as Durant can keep up this production and efficiency, and his team can weather the loss of Russell Westbrook and keep in the top 4 in the Western Conference (and staying ahead of the Heat wouldn’t hurt), he’s got to be the hands-down favorite for league MVP.  It might sound strange after all the praise we’ve heaped on LeBron’s shoulders this season, but I can’t see it any other way right now.