Every Monday of the 2017-18 NBA season, I’ll throw out eight things that caught my eye. It’s a lot like observation posts you see for sports. It isn’t quite enough information to write an entire column on, but it’s just enough to pique someone’s interest in NBA happenings.
Because it’s eight things, I’ve decided to use the Eight-Second Violation basketball term for branding. This will take you longer than eight seconds to read, unless you just skim the subheadings.
1. The Celtics want to know if KFC is still open
Gordon Hayward broke his leg five minutes into the new season, and the Boston Celtics looked like their 2017-18 campaign had a very real ceiling on it. After losing to Cleveland on opening night and Milwaukee in Game 2 of the season, the Celtics have run off eight straight victories. That’s the seventh longest winning streak for the Celtics in the past 25 years. While their schedule hasn’t been full of future “NBA 2K” all-time teams, eight straight victories is eight straight victories.
The Celtics have done this mostly on the defensive end of the floor. Their offense currently ranks 14th in the NBA and the defense sits atop the league. They give up an impressive 94.7 points per 100 possessions. That will eventually regress toward the mean for them because this won’t be a historic all-time NBA team. But let’s say it doesn’t regress and it stays this good when extrapolated out for the entire season. This season would be the best defensive season since the rule changes in 2004-05. It would be one of the 10 best defensive seasons in the 3-point era (1979-80). That’s how good the Celtics have been through their first 10 games.
Offensively, the team has performed well but not otherworldly. The comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder was pretty special, and Kyrie Irving played brilliantly in the second half. But he hasn’t been this supernova player during the streak. He’s averaging 21.4 points on 56.2 percent true shooting and 5.4 assists. Those numbers aren’t bad, but they won’t make you forget Steph Curry. His supporting cast has spread the floor remarkably to give him room to work and outlets to pass to.
Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have combined to shoot 47-of-90 (52.2 percent) from 3-point range during the streak. Brown has been the “slacker” of this trio with just 45.7 percent from deep. It seems like just about every combination Brad Stevens throws out there does the job and then some. Only one of the 10 most used lineups during the streak comes with a negative net rating during this streak. Their most used lineup (Irving-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Aron Baynes) has outscored opponents by 19.3 points per 100 possessions. And the lineup of Marcus Smart, Irving, Brown, Horford and Baynes has produced a ridiculous plus-53.2 points as their second-most used lineup over the last eight games.
The next five games are at the Hawks, home to the Lakers, home to Hornets, home to the Raptors and then at Brooklyn. They could easily be riding a 13-game winning streak when the Warriors come to town.
2. The rebirth of Tyreke Evans
Granted, it’s still early, but Tyreke Evans is having the best season of his career right now. That’s right; he has been better than the historic 20-5-5 rookie season that put him in the company of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James. Coming off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies, Evans has embraced the sixth-man role that many hoped he’d excel in once it became obvious he wasn’t a cornerstone guy in this league. Evans has put up the best scoring and shooting numbers of his career while also taking care of the ball like never before.
Tyreke currently averages 32.2 points per 100 possessions with a true shooting of 60.7 percent. His 2.6 turnovers per 100 possessions are a career best. His previous bests were 27.7 points per 100 possessions (rookie season), 55.8 percent true shooting (2012-13) and 3.3 turnovers per 100 possessions (also 2012-13). Last season was the first time he’d ever been pulled from the starting lineup regularly, beginning just six of his 40 games between New Orleans and Sacramento. In Memphis, David Fizdale has managed to unleash him on opposing second units and he’s feasting like that fat kid at Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.
The biggest difference we’ve seen with his scoring comes in the pick-and-roll. In his first couple of years, the scouting report on Evans was simple. Don’t let him get to the basket while containing his right hand and go under the pick. He rarely went left and he definitely never saw his teammates on the left side of the floor. In that magical rookie season, Evans produced 83.5 points per 100 possessions as a scorer in the pick-and-roll. So far this season, Evans is putting up 115.5 points per 100 possessions as a scorer in the pick-and-roll. Watch him operate here:
Evans goes away from the screen a lot and just bull-rushes the opponent’s coverage as they call out how they want to play it. The Grizzlies’ big men also set a lot of ghost screens, where they fake contact on the screen before slipping or popping away. Evans navigates that perfectly. And you may have noticed that jumper looking a lot smoother than in past years. So far, it’s working for him with 44.7 percent from 3-point range on 47 attempts through 10 games. That, plus the 88.9 percent at the free-throw line, are by far the best he’s ever shot in his career.
If he keeps this up, he’ll be the Sixth Man of the Year.
3. Rookie to keep an eye on: Lauri Markkanen
I’m not necessarily advocating you watch Chicago Bulls games on your own. I wouldn’t do that to you this season — although they’ll be a lot more fun when Zach LaVine returns to the court. However, Lauri Markkanen is playing out of his mind right now, and it isn’t just “he’s playing well for a rookie.” The Bulls have actually done something correctly by putting him on the floor early-and-often to let him play through some rookie issues. That opportunity presented itself with Bobby Portis being suspended and Nikola Mirotic ghosting the organization while his face heals. Trusting Markkanen has yielded impressive results through eight games.
Markkanen is averaging 16.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. He has a true shooting percentage of 57.5 percent. Even on a bad team, those numbers for a rookie are impressive. Obviously, it’s still early, but if those numbers hold true for Markkanen, he’ll be just the seventh rookie in NBA history to put up 16 and 9 with 57 percent true shooting. The others? Jerry Lucas, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Karl-Anthony Towns. That is decent company to be in.
This is pretty close to the Markkanen we saw in EuroBasket before NBA teams met for training camp. As he gets more and more comfortable, we may even see that efficiency rise a bit more.
4. One surprising lineup in a good way, one in a bad way
Jazz starting lineup is bad
Things get a little bit skewed after the Houston Rockets dropped 137 points on the Utah Jazz. A big outing like that in the first month of the season can throw net ratings and lineup data out of whack. For example, the Jazz ranked third in the NBA in defensive rating before the game against Houston. Following that blowout loss, the Jazz rank 10th in defense. So the most recent net rating number on this Jazz lineup looks worse than it did prior to the Rockets embarrassment. Even before that game, the lineup of Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert wasn’t performing well at all.
It currently sits at minus-9.4 per 100 possessions with an anemic offensive rating of 95.0. That puts the defense at 104.5, which isn’t very Jazz-like in the Quin Snyder era. Even if you take that Rockets game out of it, opponents still outscored this lineup by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. And the offense was even worse at 93.8 points for the offensive rating. Nothing about this lineup lines up with the team’s identity in terms of performance. It doesn’t defend well and it plays about two possessions faster than the team’s normal tempo. Their true shooting of 51.9 percent is way below the team’s season true shooting of 55.5 percent.
Either Snyder will stick with this and hope the unit figures it out together or he’ll need to make a change. This is their starting lineup and they’re starting out first and third quarters in too great of a hole right now.
Knicks lineup is good?
The eighth-most effective lineup in the NBA currently belongs to the New York Knicks. Going into this season, I’m not sure anybody would have guessed that sentence would be uttered without a heavy amount of alcohol and selective memory involved. It isn’t just weird that the Knicks have one of the most effective lineups. It’s also weird that this lineup is the one making all of the noise.
Jarrett Jack, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter have outscored opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. Their 105 minutes played as a lineup rank 12th in overall minutes played by a five-man unit. Nothing rates out especially abnormal for this group. The offense is good but not unreal. Their defense is stingy but not completely locking up opponents. The Knicks have just played good basketball with this lineup on the floor, and its ability to produce ends up deciding their fate most nights.
When the Knicks lose, that lineup gets outscored by 15.2 points per 100 possessions. In victories, they dominate opponents by going plus-10.2 per 100 possessions. This lineup could end up being the difference between the Knicks making a real playoff push in the weak East.
5. Domantas Sabonis passing the ball
In this weird Indiana Pacers revival happening, one of most enjoyable aspects of it comes in the form of Domantas Sabonis being allowed to make plays. The scoring and rebounding numbers are pretty nice. He’s giving the Pacers 13.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while making 62.8 percent of his shots. More than half of his shots are coming at the rim, but he’s also knocking down that mid-range jumper with regularity. But where the Pacers have allowed him to expand his game is passing the ball. Sabonis averages 3.0 assists per game. While he won’t exactly make you forget who his dad was with the passing, it’s something we didn’t get to see in Oklahoma City last season.
The Pacers trust Sabonis to run a lot of dribble handoff actions as initiator. That can be a cheap way to get assists for big men because they’re more creating the shot attempt with their screen than their actual passing. Sabonis gets a lot of his assists off of that. But they also put him in the pick-and-roll and ask him to make plays. They put him in the high post and trust him to find cutters:
It’s fun to see he isn’t just some rebounder and finisher inside. He has depth to his game, and it’ll only get better as he’s allowed to explore in NBA games.
6. Mamba Mentality
One of my favorite personalities to experience right now is Ted Talk Kobe. Whether he’s talking about whatever a muse cage is or issuing challenges to current NBA players (sorry, Ben McLemore) or just going up on panels at conferences, Kobe Bryant has tried to embody this all-knowing business and spiritual oracle. It’s really weird to watch and yet I can’t get enough of it. There is actual brilliance in some of the things he says. There is some faux intelligence in some of the other stuff he says. But Ted Talk Kobe always finds a way to give us a fun sound bite.
This character Kobe has become reminds me a lot of Laurence Fishburne shortly after “The Matrix” came out. In all of the subsequent interviews and press junkets, Fishburne talked a lot like his character Morpheus. I don’t know if he meant to do it. I don’t know if he couldn’t break character and it just became his identity. Whatever it was, we see a similar thing with Ted Talk Kobe. Recently, he broke down Mamba Mentality:
“It’s not an attitude, per se. It’s a way to live.”
I’m sure that means something. It has nothing to do with a bravado, as Kobe says. It simply has to do with wanting to get better every day. You know … like mambas do. Those snakes go through life just wanting to slither better day after day. Learn how to strike better. Learn how to shed their skin better. I get it.
7. I can’t stop watching LeBron hurdle Bradley Beal
Before LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were embarrassed by the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, they had a big-time performance against the Washington Wizards. LeBron fueled that win over the Wizards by putting up 57 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. While he had plenty of highlights in that game, the weirdest one came after a rare defensive stop by the Cavs. LeBron took the ball and started heading up the floor. Except instead of finding a clear path up the court, LeBron took a curious route.
He dribbled right over to Bradley Beal, who was on the ground, and decided to hurdle him. It was a dramatic reenactment of the Allen Iverson-Tyronn Lue step-over:
Wait, let’s put our conspiracy hats on for a second. The Cavs have played horrendous defense to start this season. They have the worst defensive rating in the NBA by more than 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Lue doesn’t have any answers to fix the team’s defense. What if LeBron started trying to trigger bad memories in order to get Lue to quit? Then LeBron can pick the coach and start correcting things for the rest of this season. It’s just crazy enough to work (it isn’t).
8. The “I’m Why” campaign is pretty damn fun
The NBA usually does a good job of putting together campaigns celebrating their league. They find ways to marry the past and the present while getting you excited for the future. The league even does the seemingly impossible of turning marketing slogans into something fans don’t hate. Their latest campaign posted all over their YouTube page has the slogan “I’m Why” to show the importance of the individuals and their team goals creating buzz and excitement for the game.
Four ads were released right before the weekend. My favorite of the four features Dirk Nowitzki and his legendary shooting guru Holger Geschwindner. Nowitzki became one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen, and he currently sits within striking distance of Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list. He credits a lot of his development on that perfect jumper to Geschwindner, who keeps crafting the game of the future Hall of Famer:
The next ad centers around legendary Portland Trail Blazers announcer Bill Schonely. Perhaps you’ve heard Portland or the team referred to as “Rip City.” In 1970, Schonely coined the phrase, seemingly out of nowhere. The rabid fan base loved it, Schonely loved it, and it’s stuck with the organization for decades since. Sometimes, a rallying cry for a team can happen out of nowhere and galvanize everything organically:
Then there’s Anthony Davis. The All-NBA big man wasn’t always a big man. It wasn’t until later in high school that a growth spurt turned Davis from a solid guard into a monster of a player:
Then there’s the blank banner in Boston. Everybody knows the Celtics have more banners than any other team in the NBA. Their 17 championships reign supreme on the league and fuel their quest for another one. It’s fitting that the Celtics wear green because their greed for more and more banners in the rafters is used to fuel the current generation to become the next great generation:
Maybe that’s the reason for that eight-game winning streak?
All stats via NBA.com and Synergy Sports Technology.
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