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. LeBron James still taking down Phil Jackson
LeBron James will say he respects the coaching career of Phil Jackson. And for the most part, I’m sure he does. Jackson won 11 championship rings as an NBA coach, guiding the on-court exploits of all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Mark Madsen. His ability to find harmony and balance for his team on the court was just as important as finding it off the court. That’s why when Jackson took over the New York Knicks as not only a client but also the president, New York had so much hope. Maybe he could stabilize such a mess of a franchise.
Instead, things ultimately worsened and never had a chance of recovering. Jackson gave LeBron’s friend Carmelo Anthony a huge contract with a no-trade clause. Then he threw him under the bus (sometimes deservedly) over and over again. Not only that, but he also threw barbs at LeBron and his camp, referring to them as a posse instead of a business team. This longstanding disrespect clearly never sat well with LeBron, and their back-and-forth over recent years has led to some pretty fun headlines. But all of that should be over since the Knicks sent Jackson packing and then eventually traded away Melo.
It should be over, but it still isn’t. After the Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night, James walked away impressed with rookie Dennis Smith Jr. The Mavs point guard has a fun feel for the game, and his athleticism makes him a special talent in the making. LeBron enjoyed playing against him and even threw some guidance Smith’s way on the court. Then he threw a barb at Jackson’s final move for the Knicks. He mentioned that Smith, who went ninth to the Mavs, “should be a Knick.”
New York selected French point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth pick in this year’s draft — the final move under Jackson before he was out the door. From ESPN:
“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” James said after his Cleveland Cavaliers’ 111-104 win Saturday night over the Mavericks. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
More from LeBron:
The amazing thing about the pettiness of this comment is how unnecessary it is. Eight teams passed on Smith, allowing him to drop to Dallas. LeBron didn’t name any of those teams except the last one. He could have gone out of his way to just praise Smith because of the admiration. Instead, he bullied the spirit of Jackson in the paint before throwing down a verbal dunk. Of course, this led to the Knicks players defending Ntilikina. Enes Kanter said the Knicks love who they ended up with and Kristaps Porzingis lied by saying he wouldn’t trade Ntilikina for anybody.
I’m pretty sure Porzingis would bring in Kawhi Leonard or even LeBron in exchange for Ntilikina.
Regardless of Porzingis’ general manager abilities, LeBron continues to torch the Knicks. But maybe the biggest way to troll Jackson is this summer. LeBron will be a free agent and nobody really believes he’ll return to the Cavs. If that’s the case, finally going to New York in free agency would do several things:
- It puts him in New York eight years after people thought he’d sign there in 2010.
- It keeps LeBron in the East, where he can probably still punch his ticket to the Finals.
- He can make a big spectacle about how Jackson’s departure from the Knicks shows him their commitment to winning in today’s NBA. LeBron can just troll Jackson and do what Phil simply couldn’t do — turn the Knicks into a winner.
Now, I know what some are thinking. Why would LeBron go play for James Dolan? He’s been playing for Dan Gilbert for years. It’s basically the same incompetence.
2. Kemba Walker isn’t enough for the Hornets
This is not a dig at Kemba Walker. He has been fantastic over the last couple years. Walker went from inefficient chucker with occasional big shot-making to a perennial All-Star deserving of high praise. Kemba has struggled early on to find his 3-point shooting stroke this season, but he’s getting to the free-throw line so often that his true shooting percentage has actually gone up. He’s also putting up the best play-making numbers of his career in the first month of the season. But averages or rates of scoring and passing don’t matter as much as actual impact on the floor.
Anybody can measure Kemba’s impact. When he plays, the Hornets basically destroy their opponents. They outscore the opposition by 9.8 points per 100 possessions in the 412 minutes with Walker on the floor. Just to put that in perspective, here are some other East stars and their on-court net rating:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, plus-3.0 per 100 possessions
- Kyrie Irving, plus-8.7 per 100 possessions
- LeBron James, minus-2.7 per 100 possessions
- Kristaps Porzingis, plus-5.8 per 100 possessions
- John Wall, plus-7.7 per 100 possessions
The Hornets with their star are better currently than these other teams with their star on the court. So how are the Hornets just 5-7 in an Eastern Conference that is ripe for the taking? In 164 minutes without Walker on the floor this season, opponents outscore Charlotte by 24.0 points per 100 possessions. It is just destructive enough without Walker on the floor for the Hornets to keep letting these games slip away.
This has been the problem for most of Walker’s career. They just struggle to get him the help on the court he needs. Charlotte tried it with Lance Stephenson years ago and it failed spectacularly. Then they brought Nicolas Batum into the mix and that’s when things really took off for Walker. So far this season, Batum’s absence has hurt the Hornets quite a bit. The depth on the roster isn’t quite there, and without a real backup point guard, Batum’s playmaking presence has been needed more than ever.
The presence of Dwight Howard has been very positive because he plays a lot of his minutes with Walker. But nothing is able to make up for when Steve Clifford refuses to turn fatigue off in the game and ends up resting Kemba. Luckily for the Hornets, Batum should be back this week. Maybe soon after, they’ll find enough depth and rhythm to not get killed when Kemba goes to the bench.
3. Nerlens Noel might not be any good
The Dallas Mavericks can’t really stop anybody. They can’t really score on anybody either. The 2-12 Mavericks rank 26th in offensive rating and 28th in defensive rating. Dallas also ranks 26th in percentage of shots taken within 3 feet of the rim. While they don’t allow a high percentage of shots within 3 feet of the rim, they do allow the highest accuracy in that area of the floor. Getting more shots at the rim and preventing opponents from scoring inside when they get there could both go a long way toward helping this team win games.
In theory, someone like Nerlens Noel should be able to accomplish both of those things. He’s a legitimate lob threat at the rim, both on pick-and-rolls and cutting to the hoop. Noel can protect the rim with good timing, good athleticism, and long arms.
So why isn’t he playing more than 16 minutes per game while splitting time with Salah Mejri? He might just be kind of bad at this point. We certainly know he’s been bad so far this season — which may not be the best timing for someone who turned down a big deal and went for the qualifying offer instead.
The Mavericks haven’t been good much at all this season, but they’ve been a disaster with Noel on the floor. Without him, they get outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s pretty respectable for a team that’s already plus-10 in the loss column. With Noel on the floor, opponents eviscerate Dallas by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. Their defense is 8.8 points per 100 possessions worse with Noel on the floor.
After Noel didn’t play against the Cavs on Saturday, Rick Carlisle was asked about that decision. His response was simply that minutes are earned. If Noel can’t earn minutes on a 2-12 team in desperate need of an interior presence, what does he expect to happen this summer?
4. 76ers coming out of timeouts
Since Synergy Sports started tracking scoring out of timeouts, only three teams in the last 13 seasons have scored at least 100 points per 100 possessions on those plays. Of those three teams, two of them involved LeBron James (2012-13 Heat and 2016-17 Cavs). The other team to do it is the Houston Rockets last season. Other than that, teams really hope to score in the 95-per-100 range.
Coming out of a timeout is supposed to reset your team and get them a designed, easy score. A set defense also coming out of a timeout can blow that theory up in a hurry. Most people probably expect a veteran team to accomplish solid scoring performances out of timeouts. They possess the understanding and experience to hit the defense with their best execution. Something impressive has happened so far this season with the young Philadelphia 76ers leaving the huddle for the court.
The 76ers currently have the best scoring efficiency after timeouts in the past 14 seasons. They score 106.0 points per 100 possessions (2016-17 Houston scored 101.7). Brett Brown has designed some good stuff and refocused his young team. Those players go out and execute it well. They do simple stuff but it’s pretty crisp. They’ll either set Joel Embiid up for a post-up with spacing. Or they’ll use J.J. Redick coming off screens to either get him an easy shot or use his gravity to leave other 76ers open:
Hard to imagine the 76ers can keep up this level of execution and production. But teams should be worried about facing them when they’ve had a chance to reset everything.
5. Warriors in transition are the best we’ve ever seen
I’m not sure how many more superlatives need to be heaped onto the Golden State Warriors. They’re quickly becoming a dynasty that has not only dominated an era but changed the course of history in this league. It’s still very early, but the Warriors are on pace to have the greatest offensive season in NBA history. They’re scoring nearly two points per 100 possessions more than they did last season when they tied the 1985-86 Lakers for best offense in a season. This is the carnage the great oracles of Oracle foretold when Kevin Durant joined them a summer ago.
One of the reasons they’re having such a historic offensive season comes from them having a historic transition scoring season. Synergy Sports only goes back to 2004-05 for tracking these kinds of breakdowns. But they measure a per possession scoring rate for different types of scenario. That can be anything from pick-and-roll plays to spot-up scoring opportunities to teams and players getting out in transition to score quickly. Going into this season, the highest rate of transition scoring came from the 2007-08 Phoenix Suns. They put in 124.9 points per 100 transition possessions that season.
So far this season, the Warriors have put up 134.1 points per 100 transition possessions. They’re beating the highest rate we’ve seen by almost 10 points on average. That is an insane level of scoring, even for this Warriors team. The big reason is their 3-point shooting, which shouldn’t come as a shock to most. They’ve made 52.7 percent of their transition 3-pointers. Klay Thompson is responsible for nearly half of those with an absurd 26-of-47 (55.3 percent) shooting from deep in transition.
If you only counted Klay’s 3-point makes in transition, he’d sit in the top 25 in the NBA in overall 3-pointers made this season.
The Warriors just play a different game than everybody else.
6. Thunder are natural disasters in the clutch
We still sit under the umbrella of a small sample size with a lot of this stuff, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have been a disaster in the clutch so far this season. They have seven games so far that qualify as clutch games (score within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime). The Thunder lost their first six games in the clutch this season, often obliterated in crunch time. While many will point to their offense and not knowing how to play alongside each other yet as the reason, that isn’t it.
The biggest reason for their clutch failures so far has been the defensive end of the floor. OKC ranks dead last in both clutch net rating and clutch defensive rating. Both numbers are so bad that they seem like typos. They give up 160 points per 100 possessions in the clutch this season. Their net rating is minus-49.8 points per 100 possessions. That means if they were to play 100 clutch possessions at this rate, they’d lose by nearly 50 points. Luckily, it’s still early and they just acquired a new player.
7. The Thunder acquired Paul George
The trade for Paul George was announced right before free agency hit this past July, but it appears the All-NBA forward has finally joined the Thunder. In the first 11 games of the season, PG-13 looked like he was confused on how he should establish himself on offense. The Thunder looked like they didn’t know how to do it either. Almost by default and with the staggered rotations (at times), OKC made Carmelo Anthony the de facto second option behind Russell Westbrook. That really shouldn’t be how the hierarchy is.
Those first 11 games saw 19.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game from George. His shooting splits sat at 42.3/38.1/81.5. All of those numbers are fine, but it’s not what we’re accustomed to with George. Over the course of a full season, those would be his lowest averages since his 2012-13 breakout season. We expect him to take a hit with his numbers but not something this dramatic. Luckily for him and OKC, the season doesn’t end after 11 games.
Over the last two contests, George has looked much more like himself. In wins over the Clippers and Magic, he scored 79 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out 12 assists. He had shooting splits of 56.8/57.8/85.7. He even joked when asked what he got Russell Westbrook for his birthday on Sunday that he got him “37 [points].” It’s nice of George to join us this season.
8. One of the most bizarre content pieces
The NBA does an amazing job of pumping out content on so many different platforms. They have the best social media by far of any professional league out there. The NBA does the best promotion of its product. And while YouTube isn’t quite the click driver we saw before social media became so mainstream, they consistently crank out interesting videos on their YouTube page. NBA does a phenomenal job of mixing in highlights with some historical features. Also, you can find great videos from “Inside Stuff” and “The Starters.”
They also make these compilation videos. And one caught my this weekend that I thought I’d share with you. For some reason, the NBA made a video of every Pau Gasol 3-point make since joining the San Antonio Spurs. Gasol has only been there since 2016. Maybe you’re asking yourself if he’s hit a high volume of 3-pointers catapulting him up the Spurs’ history books.
Nope. He has hit 68 3-pointers as a Spurs player. That puts him 43rd in Spurs history between Dominique Wilkins and Mike Dunleavy. Granted, he’s shooting 52.7 percent from deep since going to San Antonio. But does that require a video of all those 3-pointers?:
The NBA thought so.
All stats via NBA.com and Synergy Sports Technology.
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