(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
By Joe Manganiello
As the season’s tenth full week comes to a close, plenty about the NBA landscape has been confirmed.
But ’12-’13 has already proven to be an odd season, or at the very least a season filled with unexpected storylines. The Los Angeles Clippers have the second-best record in the league.
The New York Knicks, coming off consecutive first round exits, have the fourth best record in the league, and almost exclusively WITHOUT perennial all-star Amar’e Stoudemire.
Anthony Davis is not the ROY favorite (see Damian Lillard: the fastest growing party in the NBA).
The Derrick Rose-less Bulls have a better record than the restocked and relocated Nets (Nate Robinson reminds us here” href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XETtxGScVlY” target=”_blank”>Nate Robinson provides this metaphor for the two team’s this season).
The Warriors and Hawks have a combined record of 42-22; the Lakers and Celtics have a combined mark of 31-34.
In an attempt to help all NBA fans – casual and die-hard alike – keep tabs on the goings-on of the league, I offer a pop quiz to test your knowledge of the ’12-’13 season.
(Answers at the bottom)
1. The Thunder are the league’s highest scoring offense. True or False?
2. The Knicks are the only team hitting double digit threes per game. True or False?
3. Which is the only NBA team holding opponents under 90 ppg?
A) Chicago B) Miami C) Boston D) Memphis
4. Atlanta has the eighth best record in the NBA. True or False?
5. Every team in the NBA has a better home record than road record. True or False?
6. Who is the only player in the league averaging 17.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 2.5 bpg?
A) Dwight Howard B) Serge Ibaka C) Tim Duncan D) Josh Smith
7. Who currently leads the NBA in blocked shots?
A) Marc Gasol B) Serge Ibaka C) Tim Duncan D) Larry Sanders
8. The Warriors have only lost to one Eastern Conference opponent, twice. True or False?
9. Minnesota has the same winning percentages in games with Kevin Love or without Kevin Love or with Ricky Rubio or without Ricky Rubio. True or False?
10. LeBron is the first player in a decade to take 18.6 shots or less and still make 10 shots per game. True or False?
I’d like to pause for a moment to pay my respects to the best point guard on the planet and the most underrated superstar in the league: Chris Paul.
In the hotly contested, cross-town rivalry game Thursday night between the Lakers and Clippers, Paul was spectacular on two fronts. For starters, just look at the box score: 30 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, two steals with 7-7 FTA and a +/- of +14.
But beyond the gaudy numbers was the spiriting efforts of Paul to beat the purple and gold, Kobe and the crowd that is and may always be pro-Lakers. Paul played the first 16:21 of the game, no breaks. During that opening stretch, he led the Clippers out to a 45-27 lead. He had eight points and nine assists during the opening sixteen minutes; compare that to Steve Nash, who had 0 points, 3 assists and 2 turnovers over that stretch.
Paul hit a buzzer beater over Kobe to end the first half and put the Clippers back up by ten points.
He scored seven points and dished a pair of assists in a busy third quarter, giving the Clippers a mountainous sixteen point lead at the end of the third quarter. And despite Kobe’s incredible offensive efforts to bring the Lakers within two points, Paul sealed the game with eight points in the final 67 seconds of action.
This included an absolutely dazzling one-on-one move that Paul used to shoot over Kobe with just 19 seconds remaining.
And the look Paul gave Kobe, the crowd, the national television audience after the play says it all. As an NBA community, we already know the Clippers are “for real,” referring to the often asked question about historically low franchises once they rise to the top as quickly as the Clippers have. The red and white team out of L.A. is as real as it gets, because their floor general is for real.
So how’d you do?
- False – The Thunder are scoring less points per game than the James Harden-led Rockets. It is too early to claim a winner in the James Harden trade. Whether or not the Thunder can win a championship in the next few seasons without their former sixth man of the year will be the greatest barometer. In the meantime, both teams are certainly playing well. The Thunder have the league’s best record, second-best scoring offense and most frustrating combination of speed/height/shooting efficiency. But it is the Rockets who have wowed the league by both exceeding expectations (20-14, 6th in West) and transforming Harden into the league’s second best shooting guard (26.4 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.2 rpg, 2.4 spg, 2.0 3PM). They are scoring over 106 points a night, which is their way of dealing with being one of the youngest rosters in recent memory. Can the Rockets win a seven game series against teams like the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder, as the road team no less? Probably not. But Harden and company are as tough a matchup for opposing defenses as any in the league.
- True – The Knicks are making 11.3 threes per game, 1.5 more makes than any other team. Credit the Knicks elite three-point totals to the play of veteran guards/wings Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith. Carmelo is hitting 2.7 3PM a game at an impressive rate for such a volume shooter, yes, but what separates the Knicks is Novak coming off the bench and hitting 2.1 3PM AND Jason Kidd, who has been in the startling lineup at both guard spots, hitting 2.2 3PM per game AND both Felton and Smith adding 1.5 3PM of their own every night. Along with taking care of the basketball at a league-high rate and benefiting from Carmelo’s best season to date, what puts the Knicks over the top as an elite offensive team is their ability to stretch defenses out with their three-point shooting.
- Choice D: Memphis. They are the only team holding opponents to less than 90 points a night. The Grizzles starting lineup has to be in the discussion for best starting lineup in the league, on both sides of the court. In accordance with the wonderful 82games.com, Conley/Allen/Gay/Randolph/Gasol have a +110 against opposing five-man floor units. They are scoring 109 points per 100 possessions, while limiting opponents to just 95 points over the same stretch. Even secondary five-man units like Conley/Pondexter/Gay/Randolph/Gasol (109 against 104 per 100 possessions) and Bayless/Ellington/Pondexter/Randolph/Speights (109 against 92 per 100 possessions) are thriving. Randolph and Gasol are top tier defensive player of the year candidates; Conley very well might lead the league in steals by season’s end; and when Allen, arguably the league’s best perimeter defender, is on the court, the Grizzles are outscoring opponents by 9.9 points per 48 minutes.
- True – Atlanta has played with great chemistry under Larry Drew, thriving after the offseason trades of Joe Johnson/Marvin Williams. Atlanta was picked by many – including yours truly – to finish outside of the playoffs this season. Instead, head coach Larry Drew has made quite the argument for COY through the first third of the season. Their most popular five-man unit last season (Teague/Johnson/M.Williams/Smith/Pachulia) allowed more points (106 per 100 possessions) than they scored (103 per 100 possessions).This season, the Hawks have gotten great production out of their top three floor units. Teague/Williams/Korver/Smith/Horford are scoring 112 points per 100 possessions and giving up just 102; substitute DeShawn Stevenson in for Williams, and the Hawks score 113 points per 100 possessions against 96 points; and Teague/Korver/Smith/Horford/Pachulia are scoring 110 points per 100 possessions against just 94 points. They are taking care of business and, in an Eastern Conference absent of Derrick Rose and Danny Granger, are suddenly in a position to secure home court in the first round of the playoffs.Sidebar: My 13-year-old brother, an Atlanta Hawks fan, asked me to include this video of “the most underrated point guard in basketball” in my article. So I obliged him. What a great older brother I am.
- False – The Chicago Bulls have a more losses at home than on the road, and their nine road wins are the fifth-most league wide. This is an unpredictable stat even if the Bulls had the former MVP. The Bulls have averaged just 92.5 ppg, 27th best in the league. But that number rises to 95 ppg on the road. Simple math: the Bulls are getting more offensive production when they travel then when they are tasked with defending their own court. It’s strange, but if it results in Chicago staying in the Eastern Conference playoff picture long enough for Derrick Rose to return and elevate them back amongst the NBA’s elite, I am sure head coach Tom Thibodeau will take it.
- Choice C: Tim Duncan. He is blocking shots at the best rate of his career and providing great production to the league’s third-best offense. The Big Fundamental has stepped up his production in a big way from last season. In ’11-’12, Duncan averaged 15.4 ppg on .492 shooting. Those numbers have risen to 17.7 ppg on .513 shooting this season, and in more minutes. Duncan entered this season in excellent shape. It has benefited his game greatly. Duncan is playing stronger inside the paint this season, taking more attempts inside (35 percent from 31 percent), is getting assisted inside more (64 percent from 58 percent) and is even a greater threat to assist from the post, improving his assist/bad pass ratio (3.5/1 from 2.8/1). His block percentage is up (4.8 percent from 3.2 percent), opponents are only shooting 44 percent against him and are only averaging 4.1 trips to the line per 48 minutes. Absurd production from a 36-year-old seven-footer.When Duncan is on the floor, his average +/- is +12. Duncan has a positive +/- in over 78 percent of his games this season. The offense averages 113 points per 100 possessions against just 100 points from opponents when he is in the game.To this point in the season, he has been arguably the best big man in the league.
- Choice D: Larry Sanders. The Bucks starting center has secured playing time with his defensive talents, and is keeping Milwaukee in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference. Larry Sanders, huh? The third-year player whose job wasn’t guaranteed in the beginning of the season.. for Milwaukee? Yep. Nobody saw that one coming. But Sanders has used his long frame to put together a stat line of 8, 8 and 3 with a .542 field goal percentage to boot. If he qualified for field goal percentage, he would be the only player in the league with those numbers.And as Milwaukee continues to stick around the middle seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff mix, note how important Sanders will be for them. The team has struggled painfully to find a rotation that works, and to quantify this, let’s compare their usage of different five-man floor units with that of the Houston Rockets, a similarly aged and built team.The Rockets have played their two top units for at least 231 minutes this season; the Bucks have not played a single unit for more than 133 minutes. Beyond their top two units, the Rockets play five other groupings for 30 or more minutes, a total of seven 30+ minute units; the Bucks have used 11 different 30+ minutes units, eight of them getting between 30-48 minutes. And while only four of the Bucks top 11 units net a positive plus/minus, the Rockets have a positive plus/minus from five of their top seven units.Simply: the Bucks play too many combinations and their players do not know how to play together. After nearly a calendar year on roster together, Jennings/Ellis still do not know how to make it work. They both have negative plus/minus scores on the season, and opposing teams are scoring 104/105 points per 100 possessions against them, respectfully. Inevitably, one of those two is going to get moved before the trade deadline, and it doesn’t matter all that much which one it is.
What does matter is how head coach Scott Skiles changes the rotation once it happens, because Milwaukee might still be a playoff team in the diluted Eastern Conference if they get it right. In a post-Ellis/Jennings world, Sanders will need to be featured better. This means the Bucks must play their best defender more than 24 minutes per game.
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Sanders is averaging 3.1 blocks per game with just 24 minutes per game. They got to make room for this guy to play 30-32 minutes per game; he could become the Eastern Conference’s Serge Ibaka overnight.
- True – The Warriors have an astonishing 13-2 record against the East, losing twice to Orlando. Yes, the young Warriors are only 3-5 in their division, losing to the Kings and Lakers twice and the Clippers once. They have shown weakness against the opponents that see them most often. But against teams that are not from California, they are 20-6. Head coach Marc Jackson‘s team plays with incredible chemistry. Their top eight five-man floor units all have positive plus/minuses.Oh and what went wrong in the Orlando games? The Magic boldly challenged the Warriors to a pair of three-point contests, and surprisingly won: the Magic went 17/44 from behind the arc in the two games; the Warriors shot just 14/37.These teams love to shoot the three-ball when they get together, don’t they?
- True – The Timberwolves are 6-6 with Love; 9-9 without Love, 2-2 with Rubio and 13-13 without Rubio. The Timberwolves totally average start to the season has been a byproduct of Love and Rubio simply not playing together. Last season, the duo led the charge in the Timberwolves best lineup, when Rubio/Luke Ridnour/Wes Johnson/Love/Nikola Pekovic were scoring 111 points per 100 possessions. With Love and Rubio seldom on the floor together this year because of the handful of injuries between them, the Timberwolves have been, well, perfectly average. They win every other game. That won’t get the job done in the Western Conference, if the job is making the playoffs. And unfortunately, the fear in Minnesota is that Love’s time with the T’Wolves will expire if they fail to make the playoffs.If all was fair in Love and war, however, he would give the Timberwolves more credit for battling while he and Rubio were so bruised and leave town the first chance he could.
- True – LeBron is shooting as efficiently as any player since Shaquille O’Neal in ’02-’03, when the Big Diesel needed just 18.1 shots to make 10.4 field goals per game. Keepin’ it simple here. LeBron is shooting at an unreal level right now. He is shooting smart: only 34 percent of his attempts coming from inside, hitting inside shots at 74 percent. He does not waste any offensive opportunities for the team on himself. He is a machine. His shooting splits of .545/.404/.733 are as good as it gets for a player who has the ball as often as he does.Oh and for the record, Shaq posted these ridiculous numbers: 27.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.4 bpg, .574 FG%, 13.2 win shares, and the league’s second-highest PER (29.5). The guy was unreal.