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NBA at the Quarter Mark: Things We Know

Sports Illustrated

The NBA season still feels fresh, but the reality is, through Sunday night, 293 total games have been played. This equates to 23.8% of the regular season, meaning we are within a couple days of shooting past the one-quarter mark. Up to this point, it has been easy to dismiss unexpected win-loss records or statistical anomalies as small sample size theater. But the “average” team has now played nearly 1,000 minutes, meaning almost 5,000 total player-minutes. The sample size ain’t that small anymore, sugar-butt.

With that in mind, it seems like a good time to take stock of where we stand. While there is still much to be sorted out (like the Western Conference, for example), we now possess enough data to confidently state some Things We Know. Let’s do five, in no particular order.

[All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.]

1. The pace revolution is here to stay. The offensive explosion has regressed to the mean a bit since I first broke it down a few weeks ago, but even so, the trend has solidified itself. Pace, scoring, and efficiency have all continued to spike to a degree which exceeds what we would expect based on a linear progression from previous seasons. The reasons for the spike I discussed previously all hold up over the larger sample size, but what could before have been waved off as a possible blip on the radar now looks like an unmistakable reality. This is what the league is in 2018.

The teams have had sufficient time to build scouting reports, watch film, make strategic tweaks, and adjust to the “freedom of movement” rule enforcement, so we are likely approaching a sort of homeostasis in the league-wide offensive environment. Scoring is up 4.3 points per game, per team, and pace is up by 2.9 possessions per 48 minutes. Effective FG% is hovering right around last season’s all-time high-water mark (despite a bit of a dip, though not anything out of line historically, in overall 3-point percentage this season), and Offensive Rating is up by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, all while turnover percentage is at an all-time low. Free throw attempts per game are still up from a year ago, but after the early-season parade to the charity stripe, defenses have begun to adapt to their new reality and attempts have dipped back into an era-appropriate range.

“It’s hard, it’s harder. The game is evolving…It sells more tickets…It’s on us to be smart and try to adapt,” said Utah Jazz center (and reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Rudy Gobert, summing up the challenges of defending in this brave, new offensive world. Utah — who has dropped to 11th in Defensive Rating after leading the league last season and is currently second-to-last in the West standings — and the rest of the league are still adapting, but the quote tells you everything you need to know. This is the new paradigm; learn to operate within it or get left behind.

2. The Western Conference is a clusterf*ck. The aforementioned Jazz are sitting at 14th in the West, but are only one game behind Sacramento in eighth. Portland has lost its last three games and dropped from first to sixth. I wrote in the preseason about how the West had more good teams than playoff spots, but I had no idea how right I was. Sacramento and Dallas have emerged from the depths to provide young, exciting night-to-night competition. Memphis and the Clippers have ridden good health and their inner Ubuntu towards the top of the standings — I’ll have more on them in the coming days — leaving Phoenix as the only team in the West without legitimate playoff aspirations. Balance of power between the conferences has long been an issue in the NBA, but fourteen teams for eight spots? Pure insanity.

While the East has quickly stratified itself, the West is likely to remain a dogfight (plus Phoenix) for most of the year. Even if conventional wisdom holds and the biggest underachievers thus far, Houston and Utah, begin to climb up the standings towards their preseason expectations — Houston has won five of its last seven — while the Mavs, Kings, and Wolves fade down the stretch, there will still be a mad scramble for the final few playoff spots. We may not know how it’s going to shake out yet, but it will be fascinating to watch, and the ramifications going forward could be huge (see next item).

USA Today

3. New Orleans needs to make a trade. It would be hard to dream up a franchise more ripe for a deal. The Pels are sitting at .500, tied for 8th in the West, but they have a number of fundamental issues to solve if they are going to stay in the playoff mix all season. The defense has taken a giant step backward (24th in Defensive Rating after ranking 14th last season). The small forward position remains a festering wound. [When Wesley Johnson represents a significant upgrade, you know you’re in a bad place.] Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic play the same position and basically can’t share the floor during crunch time, which is a problem since they are two of the team’s four best players. In a vacuum, they have a lot of good pieces, but as constructed, the lineups just don’t really fit. Hanging over everything is Anthony Davis’ ability to opt out of his contract after next season and/or exercise his pre-agency by demanding a trade if he doesn’t feel the organization is doing enough to help him propel the team into contention. Something has got to give.

Finding a workable deal will be thorny, however. Randle is an obvious candidate to be moved, and he would certainly draw interest from a number of teams, though his below-market deal includes a player option after this year, which could dampen the enthusiasm of a team looking to retain him long-term. Solomon Hill’s contract figure would be exceptionally tradeable, if only he had any on-court value whatsoever. He started logging DNP-CD’s as soon as Johnson hit the rotation, and no one is going to be lining up to pay him $13.3 million next season to wave a towel. Thanks again, summer of 2016!

New Orleans has been linked to all three of Washington’s suddenly-available stars (Bradley Beal, John Wall, and Otto Porter). Of the three, Porter seems the most logical in terms of the assets it would take to acquire him and the need he would fill. If I were Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps, I would also be in touch with Phoenix about the potential availability of wings like Trevor Ariza, TJ Warren, or Josh Jackson, and I would throw my hat in the ring on the forthcoming trade and/or buyout of Kent Bazemore from Atlanta. None of these moves represents a home run, nor would they ensure Davis’ continued commitment to the franchise, but the Pels have to do something. Taking on long-term money without any guarantees from AD is obviously far from ideal, but they are screwed no matter what if he leaves, so who really cares if the darkest timeline turns out to be a bit darker?

4. Charlotte is actually kind of good but can’t close games. This probably deserves its own column, but I’ll just mention it here quickly because it’s become a real thing. Charlotte is 9-10, currently 8th in the East. However, they have the point differential (+4.5, sixth best in the NBA) of a 12-7 team. Seven of their nine wins have been by double digits, and eight of their ten losses have been by five points or less. They have played a relatively easy schedule, but even taking that into consideration, Simple Rating System (SRS) still pegs the Hornets as the eighth-best team in the NBA.

It would be easy to dismiss this season’s crunch time struggles as small sample size nonsense, but there’s more to the story. Since the beginning of the ’16-’17 season, Charlotte is 2-20 in games decided by three points or less, and 23-41 in games where the margin has been within three points any time in the final minute. They moved on from head coach Steve Clifford (replacing him with long-time Spurs’ assistant James Borrego this past offseason) and rid themselves of the Dwightbola virus, yet their “clutch” problem remains. What gives?

The problem is particularly vexing because Kemba Walker, ever since his magical tournament run during his UConn days, has always been thought of as a crunch time assassin. But does the NBA version of Kemba deserve this distinction? Walker is certainly doing his poor man’s Steph Curry impression (27.9/4.3/6.5, 38.5% from three on 9.8 attempts per game) to a T, and garnering some MVP buzz — pun very much intended — in the process, but is he the clutch killer his reputation would suggest? Not exactly, though he hasn’t been terrible either. Excluding one desperation heave, Kemba is shooting 14/36 (38.9%) from the field with three turnovers in the last three minutes of the 4th quarter and any part of overtime when the margin is within 5 points — a rough approximation of “crunch time” for our purposes. Shooting percentages generally dip a bit in these scenarios as players tire and isolations become more prevalent, so his numbers aren’t particularly poor. The team as a whole is shooting 38.6% in these scenarios — again, not great but not atrocious either — so it’s tough to assign much credit or blame either way. It’s possible having a small-ish guard as the primary creator in these situations ratchets up the degree of difficulty (an offshoot of my “beavers” theory of playmaking), but the numbers don’t entirely bear it out.

The root cause may not be entirely clear, but we do know the Hornets are better than their record indicates, and they have the potential to put together a real playoff run if they can just figure out how to finish games.

[Note: Charlotte did in fact close out a crunch time game immediately after this was written, beating Milwaukee 110-107 on Monday night, despite nearly squandering a 25-point lead late in the 3rd quarter. The moral of the story, as always: I’m an idiot.]

5. Luka Doncic is the real deal. When one searches Basketball-Reference’s Season Finder for rookies who averaged 19 ppg/6 rpg/4 apg, here is what emerges:

Look at those names, and more importantly, look at how old they were when they compiled those numbers! If you add 3P% as an additional criteria, the list whittles down to Luka and Larry Legend. That’s it.

[Note: Yes, LeBron clearly belongs on this list in a historical sense, but he “only” averaged 5.5 rebounds per game his rookie year, so he doesn’t quite fit the criteria. Overall, Bron had a slightly superior statistical profile at the same age, but it’s splitting hairs. Counting stats can be arbitrary while simultaneously painting a useful picture.]

Doncic still has some warts as a player, but he’s already in rare company, AND HE’S ONLY 19! We’re witnessing the genesis of a special, special player. He isn’t an athletic super-freak like LeBron, MJ, Kareem, or Elgin, but he already sports the advanced playmaking chops and “basketball genius” instincts only seen in the true greats. And did I mention he’s only 19?

Look, I’m not saying Luka is Larry Bird. BUT….Larry Legend was four years older when he put up those (admittedly superior) stats as a rookie. Anyone who made the comparison pre-draft basically got shouted down as a blasphemer, but having seen Doncic play against real, live, NBA competition, the similarities are pretty striking: the effortless deep range, the surprising size and strength, the fully-developed bag of offensive tricks, the genius-level passing, the remarkably mature ability to manipulate time, space, and pace — it’s all there.

Luka will probably never rebound at the level Bird did (he’s just not as big and he plays further from the basket), but in his age-26 season (’82-’83), Larry averaged 23.6 ppg and 5.8 apg while only attempting one three-pointer per game. Is there anything to suggest Doncic won’t be at least that productive as he enters his prime seven years from now? So long as he stays healthy, as his body matures and he improves his conditioning, there is just no telling how good he could be. [Feel free to pour one out for all the Hawks’ fans who are quietly sobbing as they read this.]

Sure, it’s not all puppies and candy. His defense is pretty lousy — fortunately, “HE’S ONLY 19” works just as well to excuse his faults as it does to sing his praises — and he and Dennis Smith, Jr. have not fit together at all (Doncic has a -5.5 net rating with Smith on the floor and a +10.3 without him), but that problem belongs more to Smith and the Mavs’ front office than it does to Doncic. Even with questions looming about how the organization will build around him, things still look pretty rosy. The team has won seven of its last nine games and sits at .500, tied for 8th in the West in what, by all accounts, was supposed to be a rebuilding year. It’s almost as if acquiring a generational talent dramatically improves a team’s outlook. Who knew?

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