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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Are you feeling good about your favorite NBA team as we gear up for the 2018-19 campaign? Not anymore!
No team is perfect. Not even the Golden State Warriors, who are coming off their second consecutive championship and look to be even stronger after adding yet another All-Star to their ever-growing coffers. Certainly not the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls, among others, as they look to climb out of their spots among the Association’s worst.
We’re here to spoil your fun. Sure, this may be the time of year for unmitigated optimism, but allow us to mitigate it. All it takes is pointing out one number—a fact, statistic or reference to something about the franchise—that might turn the disposition sour.
Sorry, but someone had to do it.
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The Number: Trae Young shot 30.3 percent from the field during his summer-league adventure.
Summer league is only summer league, but the Atlanta Hawks have to be focused on the production of the youngsters as they continue with their full-fledged rebuild. If Trae Young wasn’t already the most important player on the ripped-asunder roster, still only a few years removed from a 60-win season, he surely is after the team dumped Dennis Schroder’s unpalatable contract onto the Oklahoma City Thunder’s books, as first reported by ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
And that makes Young’s performance in Utah and Las Vegas a bit scarier.
Again, the typical summer-league caveats still apply. The Hawks can take solace in the University of Oklahoma product’s improvements throughout the experience, and his playmaking looked impressive from start to finish. But his slash line of 30.3/27.3/77.5 has to trouble them, particularly because he rarely displayed a consistent floater and an ability to finish in traffic—the reason for our selection of his field-goal percentage over his dismal work from beyond the arc.
Forget about Young’s three-point abilities. If he can’t finish around the hoop and instead always looks to make dangerous kick-out passes, he’ll allow defenses to play him tighter on the perimeter and won’t be able to create the requisite space for those treys.
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The Number: The Boston Celtics’ 0.243 free-throw rate ranked No. 18 throughout the league in 2017-18.
Nothing about the Boston Celtics should be too depressing these days. They’re retaining all their key free agents, bringing a healthy Kyrie Irving back into the mix after coming one game shy of the NBA Finals without him and adding Gordon Hayward once he finishes his rehabilitation. This roster is loaded with talent at every position and harbors (at least) five players with realistic All-Star dreams in 2018-19.
But if we have to pick nits (and we do), the fanbase should be moderately bummed that this team struggles to generate free throws at a top-tier pace. It ranked just 18th in the category last year, and while that should improve with Hayward (0.387 free-throw rate throughout his career), it’s still not quite what you want to see from a contending organization attempting to keep pace with the standard-setting Golden State Warriors.
Earning trips to the charity stripe is the easiest way to generate points without exerting excessive amounts of energy, and it’s a hallmark of most elite offenses in the current NBA. If the Celtics can turn this around, they’ll be more complete than ever.
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The Number: The Brooklyn Nets could only hit 35.6 percent of their threes in 2017-18, which ranked No. 20 throughout the league.
The Brooklyn Nets don’t have any hesitations when firing away from downtown. Only the record-setting Houston Rockets took more triples in 2017-18, and that list doesn’t swell much when we expand our search to all of NBA history; the 2016-17 Rockets are the only other squad topping the Nets’ most recent number.
But that’s about volume, not accuracy.
Whether because the Nets featured a roster filled with developing—a nice way of saying “limited”—sharpshooters or because they constantly engaged in poor displays of shot selection by trying to become too modern without the personnel necessary to do so, they couldn’t find their targets frequently enough.
Dragged down by the league’s 20th-ranked three-point percentage, they splashed triples through twine less often than they should.
Maybe this will change with a healthy D’Angelo Russell and a second-year version of Jarrett Allen surrounding underrated sniper Joe Harris. Maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s a troubling sign for a franchise that has become quite adept at making savvy minimal moves and now needs to focus on finding true centerpieces.
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The Number: The Charlotte Hornets finished six wins below their expected Pythagorean wins by going 36-46.
Typically, this wouldn’t be too troubling.
The Charlotte Hornets only went 36-46 despite earning 42 Pythagorean wins—a metric based solely on margin of victory and strength of schedule. So what? They underachieved. That happens to plenty of teams for a wide variety of factors, and it’s hardly an indictment of the franchise as a whole.
Except for these Hornets, this has officially become a trend:
Three consecutive seasons of underachievement is concerning for an organization that has largely boasted the exact same core. And considering the Hornets have the unquestioned luxury of playing in the drastically weaker Eastern Conference, you might expect the exact opposite—feasting on an easier schedule and outdoing the expectations levied by the underlying numbers.
Perhaps a coaching change to first-year signal-caller James Borrego will finally allow Charlotte to end this unfortunate pattern.
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“I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two people historically that play defense. I’m not going to say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. Because I’ve scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense.”
That was Jabari Parker, newest member of the Chicago Bulls, speaking on 670 The Score in Chicago, as relayed by ESPN.com. And it’s a troubling quote for a player who really is a defensive liability, especially now that he’s joining Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen—two more disheartening defenders—as the biggest basketball names in the Windy City.
The Bulls are paying Parker $40 million over the next two years. They’re giving LaVine four years and $78 million. Both players are known for their offensive acumen, but it’s troubling that neither has been successful in his immediate return from a major injury.
That’s natural, but it’s also part of a trend. Parker has posted negative scores in offensive box plus/minus during three of his four professional seasons, while LaVine has a 50-50 split in his four campaigns. And if either is unable to fulfill his responsibility, this enduring Chicago rebuild will just keep on churning out lottery finishes.
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Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers still harbor postseason expectations in 2018-19. Kevin Love remains an established All-Star, and the roster does have some intriguing pieces surrounding him. What if Collin Sexton makes an immediate impact after coming aboard via the No. 8 pick in this year’s prospect pageant? What if George Hill bounces back with a bigger role?
But more realistically, the Cavs are due for a rebuilding season. Nylon Calculus’ Jacob Goldstein has already run simulations of the upcoming campaign, and he gives Cleveland just a 29 percent shot at advancing past the year’s 82nd game.
Based more anecdotally on the franchise’s levels of success without James, who’s now wearing a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, that might still be too high. Two decades have passed since the Cavs made the playoffs without James on the roster, though much of that time was obviously filled with him donning wine and gold.
The last time? Cleveland lost to the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 1998 postseason, while Cedric Henderson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shawn Kemp, Brevin Knight and Wesley Person featured as its most-used starting five.
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Leon Halip/Getty Images
The Number: The Dallas Mavericks were 8.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Harrison Barnes on the floor in 2017-18.
The Dallas Mavericks can be reasonably excited about their chances of sneaking into the Western Conference’s overstuffed playoff picture. Dirk Nowitzki is determined to keep making a positive impact until he’s a septuagenarian, DeAndre Jordan fills a big void at the 5 and the young core comprised of Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic is brimming with potential.
But what about Harrison Barnes?
Dallas must be a bit concerned that its previous big-money signing has still proved incapable of doing much more than posting empty numbers. Though he can score in volume, his efficiency levels and inadequacies in other facets of the game have made him an enduring liability cashing massive checks.
Not only did the Mavericks see their net rating drop by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, but his score of minus-1.9 in ESPN.com’s real plus/minus (tied for No. 366 throughout the league) also verifies that he wasn’t just the unfortunate victim of poor play from surrounding compatriots.
Sure, we could focus on the net rating plummeting 10.1 points per 100 possessions when Smith was on the floor during his rookie season, but that’s far more understandable. He was tasked with learning on the fly, whereas Barnes was supposedly a steadying veteran presence with championship pedigree.
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The Number: After the All-Star break, the Denver Nuggets gave up 111.1 points per 100 possessions, which left them ahead of only the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks.
The Denver Nuggets are going to score plenty of points in 2018-19. That much is a mortal lock. They’re also going to give up a ridiculous number of buckets, since the trend that pushed them to an even worse defensive rating after the All-Star break will only continue manifesting itself in the Mile High City as time churns onward.
Yes, Paul Millsap should be healthier going forward. Nikola Jokic isn’t the unabashed defensive liability he’s made out to be; just watch him in off-ball scenarios, and you’ll understand, as Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman recently explained in detail. Gary Harris gives the Nuggets a capable wing defender.
But the new additions don’t exactly thrive on the less glamorous end.
Isaiah Thomas, acquired on a minimum contract as he seeks to get his career back on track, isn’t known for his point-preventing prowess. Nor is Michael Porter Jr., if the Missouri prospect is even healthy enough to play following yet another back surgery.
The Nuggets seem to be doubling down on the idea that they can hemorrhage points and still outscore the opposition, but whatever defensive rating they produce could be a historically disappointing number that minimizes the team’s overall ceiling.
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The Number: The Pistons could only fill 82.9 percent of their arena during home games in 2017-18.
This has nothing to do with the on-court performance.
The Detroit Pistons were competitive enough to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt for much of the year. They made a midseason move to add a marquee star in Blake Griffin. They finished the season ranked No. 19 with a breakeven net rating—indicative of some quality play that featured entertaining contributors strutting their stuff on the hardwood.
But they still had trouble putting butts in seats, topping only the putrid Atlanta Hawks in home attendance percentage. And this isn’t a new trend, either:
You can blame plenty of external factors—other franchises pumping up their numbers, Little Caesars Arena featuring too many seats, the region’s interest in other sports, etc. This still isn’t the type of attendance you want to see when a franchise isn’t completely bottoming out.
Perhaps 2018-19 will break a streak of bottom-10 finishes that dates back to 2009.
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The Number: The average age of the Golden State Warriors’ four incumbent All-Stars has risen to 28.75.
How do you critique a Golden State Warriors organization that has now won back-to-back championships, retained every important piece of its core and somehow added DeMarcus Cousins, Jacob Evans and Jonas Jerebko into the mix?
Really, you don’t.
But this dominance won’t last forever, even if the Dubs ownership takes an unprecedented step and continues to foot ginormous luxury-tax bills—the bane of previous front offices all over the hoops landscape, which have universally chosen to break up cores rather than break the bank.
Stephen Curry is now 30 years old. Kevin Durant will be celebrating his 30th birthday in late September. Klay Thompson is 28. Draymond Green blew out 28 candles back in March. And if 28 is viewed as the end of a typical athletic prime in the NBA, the average age of that core now exceeds the number for the first time.
Father Time takes no prisoners. Precious few players are able to stave off his advances and continue playing at an All-Star level deep into their 30s. And the Warriors aren’t going to be an exception, though we should obviously now be convinced they’re just going to replace these incumbent All-Stars with every young free agent available deep into the distant future, thereby preserving their reign of terror ad infinitum.
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The Number: Per PBPStats.com, the Houston Rockets had a 110.9 defensive rating without either Luc Mbah a Moute or Trevor Ariza on the floor.
The Houston Rockets boasted enough depth on their 2017-18 roster that they could excel with virtually any lineup combination. So long as one of James Harden or Chris Paul were on the floor, they possessed skill on at least one end of the floor and could manage to outscore the opposition.
Thirteen different quintets logged at least 50 minutes, and 12 of them posted positive net ratings. The lone exception was the lineup comprised of Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, James Harden and PJ Tucker, which was outscored by 12.1 points per 100 possessions in its 55 minutes, logged over the course of 16 games.
But the departures of Luc Mbah a Moute (Los Angeles Clippers) and Trevor Ariza (Phoenix Suns) work to diminish that depth, and the seemingly inevitable addition of Carmelo Anthony isn’t necessarily a positive at this stage of the small forward’s career (note: this could be proved false if he accepts a spot-up role off the bench). The supporting cast is getting worse, and the shift will prove especially troubling on the defensive end.
Clint Capela (when he’s re-signed) and Paul remain defensive stalwarts. The roster features other stoppers of note. But without Ariza or Mbah a Moute, the defensive ceiling falls down a bit, as indicated by the team’s inability to muster a defensive rating better than 110.9 without either wing on the floor in 2017-18.
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The Number: Without Victor Oladipo on the floor, the Indiana Pacers could only muster a minus-7.3 net rating.
To be fair, the Indiana Pacers are already working to remedy this with a sneakily excellent offseason. As phrased by Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale, who went over the acquisitions of Doug McDermott, Tyreke Evans and Kyle O’Quinn in meticulous detail:
“To gain so much value while maintaining access to around $50 million in space next summer, even after accounting for Myles Turner’s restricted free-agency hold, is absurd. In doing so, the Pacers have struck the most delicate balance of all—especially for an overachiever like themselves. They’ve done a lot without doing too much.”
And that focuses only on free agency, excluding the addition of Aaron Holiday in the 2018 NBA draft.
Indiana has more useful depth than it did last year, and that should help it at least survive when Victor Oladipo isn’t on the floor and carrying a remarkably heavy load. Just surviving would be a remarkable improvement upon the 2017-18 efforts, which saw the offense and defense both fall apart as the Pacers suddenly morphed into one of the league’s most futile squads sans its unquestioned breakout leader.
Oladipo remains the centerpiece in Indiana. Now, his supporting cast must prove it can avoid squandering the leads he helps earn.
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The Number: No members of the Los Angeles Clippers have made an All-Star team at any point in their careers.
A lack of star power isn’t always problematic, and the Los Angeles Clippers can be reasonably excited about the expected growth of their many young up-and-comers. But this is an abnormal dearth of celestial status, thanks in part to last year’s All-Star snub of a red-hot Lou Williams.
The Clippers didn’t have any representatives in 2018’s midseason festivities, but that’s not too abnormal. Plenty of teams go through All-Star droughts, and Los Angeles has experienced such deficits in the not-too-distant past.
This is different.
Though the factoid could change with midseason additions, the Clippers have put together a roster devoid of current or former All-Stars for the first time since 2001. During each of the last 17 campaigns, at least one member of the squad has represented his conference at some point in his career.
Maybe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will change that in the near future. But for now, this is the most anonymous team the Clippers have fielded in the better part of two decades, allowing fans’ thoughts to creep back to the disheartening periods of the franchise’s lackluster history.
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The Number: Members of the Los Angeles Lakers have a combined five seasons in which they connected on at least 40 percent of their three-point tries.
Apparently, surrounding LeBron James with a cast of non-shooters isn’t some cacoethic desire, but rather part of an established plan. Cue a report from ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst:
“According to multiple sources within the Lakers and close to James, this is the rollout of a plan [team president Magic] Johnson outlined for James the night of June 30 at James’ home. The subsequent deals, which sources say James has consulted on but have been executed at Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s direction, follow this vision.”
Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley (the most recent signing) should be able to help in some areas. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Moritz Wagner could also help negate this stat, since they haven’t yet been granted opportunities to show off their shooting prowess at the NBA level. But it’s still concerning that the entire roster has only five registered individual seasons in which someone connected on no fewer than 40 percent of their triples.
One such campaign comes from James himself (40.6 percent on 3.3 attempts per game for the Miami Heat in 2012-13), but that doesn’t help provide spacing around the world’s best player. You know, because you can’t provide spacing for yourself.
The second belongs to Luol Deng, who went 8-of-20 (40.0 percent) for the Chicago Bulls in 2008-09. Except he played a grand total of 13 minutes last year and isn’t due for a significant uptick, at least from a per-game basis.
The third qualified season belongs to McGee, who heaved a trey in for the Denver Nuggets on his only attempt of 2012-13. The final two come from Beasley, and he combined to go just 51-of-124 in 2008-09 and 2016-17.
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The Number: The Memphis Grizzlies only made 758 three-pointers last year, which ranked No. 24 throughout the Association.
Speaking of three-point-shooting struggles, the Memphis Grizzlies could make more triples than only the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves last year.
Posting a laudable offense is tough when you’re struggling to knock down perimeter jumpers, and it’s tougher still for the Beale Street residents as they attempt to open up driving and cutting lanes around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
Conley’s return to health should help remedy this glaring problem, but the rest of the changes won’t.
Tyreke Evans alone made 15 percent of the team’s triples in 2017-18, and he’s now departed to the Pacers. Ben McLemore was fourth on the team in this particular category, but he’s now back with the Kings. And though the additions of Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi and Jaren Jackson Jr. could all help, we’re still likely looking more at stagnation than a surge up the distance-shooting leaderboards.
Memphis has fought against going modern for years now. But this latest refusal to light up scoreboards from beyond the arc may well be an unintentional and unfortunate development.
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The Number: Thanks to the poison-pill provision, Tyler Johnson will make a whopping $19,245,370 for his efforts in 2018-19.
Remember when the Brooklyn Nets tried to lure Tyler Johnson away from the Miami Heat and made keeping him as penal as possible? That’s now coming back to bite the South Beach representatives, who paid the combo guard only $5.9 million in 2017-18 but are now subjected to a skyrocketing salary, courtesy of the poison-pill provision.
In many ways, this is indicative of the overall team construction.
Between Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters, the Heat are consistently overpaying for mediocrity. They’ve broken the bank to retain a horde of mid-level players, thereby eliminating much of their cap flexibility and minimizing the upside of this team. Maybe it has a high floor, but rising into the title conversation will be impossible without literal magic from head coach Erik Spoelstra.
For example, the 2019-20 cap sheet already has $118.3 million on the books if Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic all pick up their player options. And that only accounts for eight players—the three aforementioned veterans, James Johnson, Waiters, Olynyk, Josh Richardson (perhaps the lone non-rookie-scale bargain) and Bam Adebayo.
How do you build a contender with that start? Unfortunately, the answer is simple: You probably don’t.
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The Number: The Milwaukee Bucks could grab just 75.9 percent of the available defensive rebounds, which topped only the Orlando Magic.
Let’s run through a hypothetical scenario.
Imagine that you’re running a team filled with intriguing players, led by one of the NBA’s most prominent figures in Giannis Antetokounmpo. You have the length and athleticism necessary to suffocate many opposing offenses, if only through sheer talent rather than schematic advantages. Antetokounmpo can’t be stopped on the offensive end, and he’s surrounded by complementary talents who are only just starting to build chemistry together (see: Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton).
But you have one distinct weakness: You’re utterly incapable of grabbing defensive rebounds, which leads to plenty of squandered defensive efforts and easy second-chance points.
Knowing that remedying the situation could help expedite your climb up the Eastern Conference standings, how would you solve this problem?
Myriad answers might suffice. But signing Brook Lopez, who, per Cleaning the Glass, ranked in the 7th percentile relative to his position for defensive rebounding off field-goal attempts, is not one of them. And yet, that’s exactly what the Milwaukee Bucks chose.
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The Number: Jimmy Butler turned down a $100,000,000 extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves, per ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell.
To be clear, Jimmy Butler was never going to accept an extension worth $100 million at this stage of the offseason.
Doing so made little sense for a player who could hit the open market next summer and have a chance to make more money, even if he remained with the Minnesota Timberwolves. If anything, that was a pointless attempt at optics by the franchise, which presumably knew he wasn’t going to accept such an offer when doing so meant eliminating any shot at a five-year, $188 million extension with the ‘Wolves or a four-year, $140 million pact elsewhere.
But this is still the latest in a string of events that indicate Butler has little desire to remain in the Land of 10,000 Lakes any longer than he must.
As revealed by Cycle’s Thomas Duffy, this All-Star previously liked an Instagram comment advocating for him and Kyrie Irving to join the New York Knicks in 2019. He also liked multiple Instagram comments about him teaming up with the San Antonio Spurs, and that was separate from Sporting News’ Sean Deveney’s report that he didn’t care for suiting up alongside Andrew Wiggins.
Topping that all off is Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: “A league source said Butler, who has been frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates—specifically Karl-Anthony Towns—does not intend to sign an extension with the Timberwolves.”
We’re not saying a trade is imminent, but Minnesota fans may have to pay more attention to the rumor mills this season if the team doesn’t get off to a rip-roaring start.
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The Number: Only the Dallas Mavericks grabbed a lower percentage of available offensive rebounds than the New Orleans Pelicans, who could only create second-chance opportunities 20 percent of the time.
The New Orleans Pelicans have plenty to get excited about.
With a projected starting five comprised of Elfrid Payton, Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis while Darius Miller, Solomon Hill and Julius Randle come off the pine (feel free to switch around the forwards if you so desire), they have ability on both ends of the floor. Scoring against Payton, Holiday and Davis should be rather difficult, while offense should come easily with a unibrowed big man surrounded by other shot-creators.
But offensive rebounding could remain a distinct weakness.
The Pelicans rarely created second-chance opportunities even while Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins were on the roster. Randle’s incoming skill set should help mitigate those losses, but he’s still not enough to make this a fundamental part of the team’s identity. New Orleans will likely continue eschewing those glass-crashing changes to get back and play better transition defense, but it might find even more success with a healthy blend of the two philosophies.
Sans many knockdown marksmen, getting boards might be the best way to push the offense up into the realm of elites. It just doesn’t look like that’s happening.
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The Number: Since Kristaps Porzingis was selected at No. 4 overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the New York Knicks have gone 16-44 (0.267) when he’s unable to play.
Look, it makes sense that the New York Knicks have been bad when Kristaps Porzingis is unable to play. That’s natural when he’s clearly the best player on the roster and they haven’t been particularly good even when he is available.
During the 2017-18 season, the Knicks were 7.1 points per 100 possessions better with Porinzigs on the floor but could still muster nothing more than a 0.1 net rating in that situation. Of course, they’re disastrous when he’s hurt, since that puts even more pressure on Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter and…OK, we’ll stop out of mercy.
But considering the Latvian 7-footer isn’t a lock to play in 2018-19 as he continues rehabbing his torn ACL, it’s worth noting just how bad they’ve been without him. A 0.267 win percentage is terrible, prorating to just 22 wins over the course of a full, 82-game season.
At least another top draft pick might be in the cards?
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The Number: Andre Roberson only shot 31.6 percent from the free-throw line in 2017-18.
The Andre Roberson situation is a tricky one.
Had he remained healthy rather than experiencing a patellar rupture that prematurely ended his campaign, he might have been enough to push the Oklahoma City Thunder beyond their first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz and into a position where they could at least challenge the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. He was that impactful with his DPOY-caliber work on the preventing end, and the Thunder saw their net rating skyrocket by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
We can dive deeper.
Unfortunately, Roberson’s missing shooting stroke makes him such an offensive liability that it’s still tough to justify playing him in key situations. The broken jumper is disheartening, but the free-throw stroke is legitimately problematic because it allows the opposition to foul him and disrupt the flow of the OKC offense.
If Roberson wants to become the true key to this Thunder squad, he has to do better at the line.
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The Number: Aaron Gordon has only earned 3.3 value over replacement player (VORP) throughout his four-year career.
Aaron Gordon looked oh so promising during the opening salvo of 2017-18. Before calendars flipped to 2018, he averaged 18.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks while slashing 49.9/41.3/75.0.
But then came 2018.
Beginning with a Jan. 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Gordon could only average 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks while shooting 38.4 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from downtown and 63.8 percent on his free-throw attempts.
His stroke disappeared entirely, negating the strides he’d apparently made as a new-age power forward comfortable creating his own offense on the wings. And that’s been the story of his entire career, as all signs of gains have been quickly followed by substantial regression.
After earning an even 1.0 VORP in 2017-18 (the second-best mark of his four-year NBA tenure), Gordon is up to 3.3 VORP in his career. Twenty-five players matched or beat that lifetime mark last year alone, but here’s a sampling of the 135 men who have reached that tally over the last four combined seasons:
- Anthony Tolliver (3.3)
- Dwight Powell (3.6)
- Chandler Parsons (4.0)
- John Henson (4.1)
- Cody Zeller (4.4)
- Nerlens Noel (4.7)
- Kyle O’Quinn (4.9)
- Patrick Patterson (5.7)
So on and so forth. Needless to say, that’s not what you want to see from the man who just inked a four-year, $84 million extension to remain with the Orlando Magic.
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The Number: No team was more careless with the basketball than the Philadelphia 76ers, who turned it over on 14.6 percent of their possessions.
The Philadelphia 76ers are brimming with up-and-coming talents, but they have one distinct weakness that reared its ugly head throughout the 2018 playoff run. When faced with intense defensive pressure, they don’t have many players who can consistently create good looks off the bounce. Isolation plays come few and far between, and the best contributors (read: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid) both struggle to remain efficient when tasked with too large a scoring burden.
Markelle Fultz was drafted to change this, and he still might if his shooting work over the offseason allows him to regain the form that made him the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA draft. But even if he remembers how to take and make jumpers, he’ll still be dealing with a pitfall that almost every young scoring guard must overcome when breaking into the Association: turnovers.
Simmons was too careless with the rock during his delayed rookie season (11th percentile relative to his position for turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass). Embiid still struggles immensely (28th percentile) when trying to take care of the ball, either throwing it away or lowering it and making himself susceptible to swipes from secondary defenders. Fultz, we should note, actually finished in the 77th percentile during his limited action.
This should change naturally as these players mature, but we’re still starting from a rather low point. You can’t score when you turn the ball over, and you compound your difficulties by giving the opposition more transition chances.
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With Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker and plenty of other intriguing youngsters on the roster, the Phoenix Suns have to be feeling good about their long-term potential. This collection of youthful talents is imbued with upside on both ends of the floor, and the starting 2-guard is already tracking toward offensive stardom.
But the desert dwellers still have to be a bit disheartened by just how far they must climb to emerge from the Western Conference basement. After all, they didn’t just finish No. 30 in offensive rating or defensive rating; they were dead last in both, gaining them entry to an ignominious fraternity comprised of precious few teams over the last 20 years:
The Bobcats required a name change and two seasons of work before making the playoffs in the NBA’s weaker half. The Suns probably aren’t changing their nickname anytime soon, and they’re tasked with escaping the lottery against significantly stiffer competition.
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The Number: The Portland Trail Blazers had the league’s second-worst opposing turnover percentage, only forcing cough-ups on 11.7 percent of their foes’ possessions.
The transition game is one of the easiest ways to score points in the NBA. Professional basketball players are such supreme athletes that they frequently capitalize upon defenses when foes are back-peddling or struggling to get in proper position.
The league as a whole had a 109.3 offensive rating in transition last year, which is superior to most anything you’ll find in the half-court set. Pick-and-roll ball-handlers earned an 84.2 offensive rating, while roll men logged a 107.7 offensive rating. And that’s the Association’s pet set.
But the Blazers struggled immensely when trying to force turnovers, electing to gamble minimally and instead remain disciplined so they could contest shots at all times. That worked, but only so far as promoting defensive improvement. Their ultra-safe approach led to precious few run-outs and forced the offense to grind out points in the half court on a nightly basis.
No team turned to transition offense for a lower percentage of its plays, and only the Brooklyn Nets were less efficient on a per-possession basis. That’s an ugly combination that needs to change moving forward, whether through focus in practice or a more balanced approach during game situations.
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The Number: Three represents the small forward position, at which the Sacramento Kings have basically no bodies.
As the Sacramento Bee‘s Jason Jones relayed, the Sacramento Kings do indeed intend to have Marvin Bagley III spend some time at small forward:
“When general manager Vlade Divac said Bagley (6’11”, 234 lbs) could play small forward, it didn’t mean the Kings plan to make Bagley their small forward full time.
“However, the Kings believe that as Bagley’s game develops—especially his outside shooting—playing Bagley as a small forward will be an option.
“Bagley’s athleticism stood out to the Kings, so they plan to get the most out of it and see how much Bagley can handle in the future.”
Of course, this might also happen out of sheer necessity.
The Kings have built a strange roster comprised of guards and bigs. Wings are scarcities in Sacramento these days, with only Justin Jackson truly profiling as a natural 3. They can play Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Iman Shumpert and Ben McLemore at small forward, but they’re either lesser figures on this roster or a bit small for the position.
As such, we may not see the Duke product as the only big downsizing on occasion. With Bagley, Nemanja Bjelica, Harry Giles, Skal Labissiere, Zach Randolph, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos and Deyonta Davis all squabbling for frontcourt minutes, the Kings may swiftly deploy some Brobdingnagian lineups that run counter to the smaller trends of today’s NBA.
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The Number: Only the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks took more two-point jumpers from at least 10 feet than the San Antonio Spurs, who fired away 28.7 percent of their field-goal attempts from that general range.
One of the greatest misconceptions of the analytics movement is that all mid-range jumpers are bad shots.
They’re not. Taken too frequently, they can be detrimental to the efficiency of an offense. But you shouldn’t discourage players adept at making those long twos from playing to their strengths…so long as they’re not piling up too many attempts. Threes are better plays than deep twos, but only if that decision also caters to the skill set of the rostered players.
And that’s why the San Antonio Spurs are seeing how far they can push the envelope. High-powered offenses such as the Golden State Warriors have made eurythmic use of deep shooting and mid-range marksmanship, and that’s apparently empowering San Antonio to see if it can increase the percentage of shots taken from the shorter range. After all, that mark of 28.7 percent is only going to rise after the addition of DeMar DeRozan, who took 42.9 percent of his field-goal attempts from at least 10 feet but inside the arc.
Between him and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs could be pushing beyond the bounds of beneficial strategy, though questioning the decision-making of this organization is always a dangerous game. Still, that’s not going to stop me from wondering about the fit here. Nor will it keep Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney from penning the following:
“At issue is the extent of his overlap with Aldridge and the rest of the Spurs. What is Rudy Gay, if not a lesser DeRozan? What lanes will be available to Dejounte Murray with yet another questionable three-point shooter playing big minutes? What space will there be for Lonnie Walker to drive or Pau Gasol to make moves of his own?
“The mid-post and the elbows will be so consistently crowded that it seems intentional—as if the court’s natural occupancy limits held some untapped potential. More realistically, the Spurs might find their new roster holds all the virtues of a traffic jam.”
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After the addition of Kawhi Leonard in a blockbuster trade, we can’t realistically home in on any specific numbers relating to the team’s on-court play. Removing the team’s leading scorer and replacing him with a new superstar possessing uncertain health and motivation levels allows for more questions than answers.
So instead, we’ll focus on emotions.
DeMar DeRozan had spent his entire career with the Toronto Raptors, becoming a franchise icon for both his performances between the lines and his relationship with the Canadian community. His jersey will almost certainly be retired when he hangs up his sneakers, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he made a late-career return—if only for the final season of his professional tenure.
But it’s a damn shame he was traded away while just shy of Chris Bosh’s career record for win shares earned in a Raptors uniform. DeRozan racked up 9.6 for himself during the 2017-18 campaign, and merely replicating that number would’ve allowed him to bolt past the big man and take possession of the top spot (barring a similarly excellent campaign from Kyle Lowry).
Regardless of how you feel about the swap from a pure basketball perspective, it’s a rough one for the feelings.
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- Donovan Mitchell, 20.5 points per game
- Rudy Gobert, 13.5
- Ricky Rubio, 13.1
- Derrick Favors, 12.3
- Jae Crowder, 11.8
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The Number: Other than Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert is the Utah Jazz’s leading incumbent scorer, chipping in with 13.5 points per game in 2017-18.
Having a go-to scorer like Donovan Mitchell is quite the luxury, but the Utah Jazz have to find a secondary presence who can help draw defensive attention away from the breakout guard. Maybe Grayson Allen will follow in the rising sophomore’s footsteps and use his scoring acumen to break into the Rookie of the Year race, but does anyone want to count on lightning striking twice?
Unfortunately for Salt Lake City, the Jazz don’t have many incumbent options. Take a gander at their top returning scorers from the 2017-18 roster:
Scoring by committee can work well throughout the regular season, but it makes life tougher during the playoffs. Without another player who can go out and drop a 20-spot on any given night, an opposing defense can focus on stifling the leading scorer and forcing him to play far more inefficiently, thereby dooming the offense to nightly struggles.
For Utah to make the leap into true contention, it must find Mitchell’s bucket-getting counterpart.
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The Number: The Washington Wizards’ bench could only post a minus-2.6 net rating in 2017-18.
Would this score have been better if John Wall had remained healthy? Most likely so. Though the Washington Wizards thrived with Tomas Satoransky taking the reins, that still depleted the team’s depth and forced the second unit to find a new leader whenever it was called upon by head coach Scott Brooks.
Even still, the Wizards’ bench is not a strength. Despite this same weakness plaguing the team year after year, the front office has proved incapable of putting a strong supporting cast behind the opening quintet comprised of Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat Dwight Howard.
Will a different narrative emerge in 2018-19?
Thus far, the indications aren’t positive. Mike Scott, now departed to the Los Angeles Clippers, had emerged as a reliable offensive weapon off the pine, and replacing him with Jeff Green isn’t an upgrade. Austin Rivers might find some success in his new home, but he may also be forced to serve as a headliner for the non-starters. Do you really want to count on him, Green, Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ian Mahinmi/Thomas Bryant?
Especially factoring in Troy Brown, the Wizards have enough intriguing pieces that this story could change. Just don’t count on it, if history is any indication.