By: Justin Lynch
The NBA is back! Lynch is here to give you some first impressions.
How could I possibly start another way? My Boston Celtics are 6-4, but have won five of six after starting 1-3, including back-to-back wins at Houston and at Oklahoma City. The Celtics have a top-5 defense right now, giving up just 95.9 points/game. Not only is this a great sign considering they play Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk for extended periods of time, but they have also faced tough competition this year. Toronto, Indiana (twice), San Antonio, Washington, Atlanta, OKC, and Houston are among the top-tier offenses this team has had to face.
Much of the Celtics defense success has come from their defensive duo in the backcourt. Avery Bradley has returned to his, “I’m not letting anyone breathe” mode, and Marcus Smart has taken another step defensively. What’s so great about them is how well they complement each other. Bradley is a waterbug on the perimeter, always sticking to his defender. Smart is super-physical and is not afraid to throw his body around.
However, these two need help from their bigger guys, and Jae Crowder on the wing is helping more than imagined. Crowder did a good job covering LeBron last season in round one, but Crowder is even better this year. Excelling at keeping guys out of the lane, Crowder only allows shots inside six feet at 20.8% frequency. He forces opponents into jumpers from 15 feet or greater at a 55.8% frequency, which plays right into his game. In that area, he causes offensive players to shoot, on average, 5.5 percentage points worse. Not to mention he’s also leading the league in steals/game (3.1) and steals% (4.9), fifth in defensive box plus-minus (4.7), sixth in defensive rating (92.3), and ninth in defensive win shares (0.7).
But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson. Johnson is keeping opponents 4.2 percentage points down from inside 10 feet, while Sully is doing everything he needs to do. He is fourth in defensive rating (91.1, better than Drummond and Gobert), 19th in defensive win shares (0.6, tied with Andre Iguodala), and third in defensive box plus-minus (4.9)
Offensively, the team is driven by Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 21 points and six assists coming off the bench. After Thomas, the C’s have seven players between eight and 13 points/game (Olynyk, Johnson, Turner, Crowder, Sullinger, Bradley, Smart). As a team, they are 10th in points/game (102.5), despite ranking 28th in 3-point shooting (30.1%).
Overall, the Celts are fourth in overall plus/minus (+6.6), which is astounding for a team with this talent. The teams directly above and below the C’s in terms of plus minus are the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs (above), and the Heat, Thunder, and Raptors (behind). The Celtics will have issues defensively with Thomas out there and offensively without him, but Brad Stevens is a mastermind coach and cannot be overlooked as a crucial part of this team. The Celtics are showing early signs of being really dangerous, and I cannot wait to see what is in store.
Of course, I must mention the Houston Rockets. At 4-7 the Rockets currently reside in 11th place in the West (tied with Sacramento), and have been the poster child for when shooting a ton of threes goes wrong. The Rockets have been built around the notion of getting layups, free throws, or three pointers, the NBA’s most efficient shots, but this season the Rockets are 29th in three-point shooting, shooting sub-30% from deep as a team.
The issue starts with James Harden. Harden, now 26, was primed for another MVP-caliber season, and if you just look at the box score, you might see him as an MVP candidate, again. But despite his 28.4 points, and 6+ boards and assists, Harden is no where near the efficiency of last season. He is shooting 37% from the floor (44% last season), 24% from three (38% last season), 43% eFG% (51% last season), and 54% True shooting (60% last season). He also is down to a 22 PER this season (27 last season), and his defense is worse than ever (-1.6 DBPM).
Despite Harden’s struggles shooting the ball, it is tough to put the entirety of the blame on Harden. The Ty Lawson pickup has proved unsuccessful so far, mainly because of their inability to guard anyone on the perimeter. Pairing Harden’s sorry defense with Lawson -5 DBPM (yes, -5) was a recipe for disaster. And with Harden dominating the ball, Lawson has not been nearly as effective. His lower usage rate has lead to a steep decline in his PER, True shooting, and assist percentages.
If Harden and Lawson cannot figure out how to coexist in the backcourt, the Rockets may be forced to move Patrick Beverley back into the starting lineup and save Lawson for when Harden is on the bench. Lawson may best be used as the Isaiah Thomas of the Rockets, coming in for offense when Harden is not out there, but that may not sit well with Lawson, who has had some locker room troubles in the past.
Clearly something is just off with Houston right now who many predicted (including me) to be a regular season juggernaut. Kevin McHale has been on the warm seat (not quite the hot seat) for a while now, but maybe it is finally time to make a move. But then again, how often do you see teams who fire their coach mid-season go onto win big? Never. Maybe they need to try to upgrade Trevor Ariza, who now at 30, has returned to, “I’m not in a contract year so I’m not going to try” mode. But who could they get to replace him? Whatever the issue is, Daryl Morey is as good as it gets in figuring it out, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on big-time moves. I don’t expect the Rockets to all-of-a-sudden be good again, but they simply can’t go sub-.500 with that much talent, right? Right?!?!
I’m stealing one of Denery’s trademarks here, don’t tell him.
Probably as good of a 11-game stretch to start a season ever. The man has a 35+ PER and is shooting double-digit threes/game. I’m sure you are oversaturated with Curry coverage, but I just had to mention how good he has been.
Though overshadowed by Curry, Blake is having a monster year. With the league’s second-best PER (31), Blake has thrusted himself into MVP talk. Also, he finally decided to start rebounding! Now at 9 boards/game, and shooting 56%, Griffin is taking over games on the offensive end. He dribbles up the court, he posts up, and he drives against weak defenders. Griffin may be taking the leap right before our eyes, except nobody is paying attention.
He can shoot three’s now (45% from deep on 4 three-point attempts/game). That is all.
Leading the league in blocks with 4/game. Also averaging 15 and 12 on 62% shooting with a 27 PER. Oh, and he’s 26 years old and an unrestricted free agent this summer.
In case you don’t have league pass or simply are not interested in Orlando (which you should be, they are fun to watch), Evan Fournier has been playing...a lot. He’s been on the floor 38 minutes/game (second-most in the league) for the 5-6 Magic, and is averaging 19 points/game. But here’s the dirty little secret about Fournier’s hot start: he’s only racking up better stats because he’s playing so many minutes. Sure, there is something to be said for players who are trusted enough to be played so many minutes, but doesn’t it just seem that Hezonja is lurking ready to take those minutes? Just look at Fournier’s stats per 36 minutes his whole career.
2012-13: 17 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 49/40/77 (FG/3pt/FT), 20% usage, 14 PER
2013-14: 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 42/38/76, 20% usage, 10 PER
2014-15: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 44/38/73, 20% usage, 12 PER
2015-16: 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 46/36/81, 21% usage, 16 PER
Those numbers are really similar. His PER is up, and his FG% is up, but his 3-point shooting is down. Fournier is the living example of why per 36 stats can be important. It is not often players go from playing sub-30 minutes their entire career to playing nearly 40 minutes/game. And the results are exactly what we expected. He’s playing better, so he’s playing more minutes, but he was not able to keep his shooting pace from deep. He is the same player in terms of usage, but he is just on the court a whole lot more. So don’t get too excited about that points/game number, Magic fans, because Fournier is really just a role player getting extended minutes. Expect Hezonja to start cutting into that time and Fournier to return to a regular amount of minutes for a player of his caliber.