December 16, 2017

Throughout the first two months of each NBA season, viewers are smacked with surprising storylines, trends, or statistical feats. There are both encouraging and disappointing outcomes we learn from a team’s first 20 games, which allows us to set a baseline for either future improvement or diminishment.

Biting too early on success or failure can be tricky, as there’s still 75 percent of the season left to play. What has stood out so far? It’s time to go through 10 intriguing observations around the league and dive into each. There are about 50 you could name, but these won the first 10 spots.

Stay tuned as we’ll search for more as Christmas draws closer:

1. The Hornets losing their ball movement

Regardless if he’s the direct reason or just a small part of the bigger problem, Dwight Howard’s teams tend to go downhill. Individually, his production is better than it was last season in just one particular category: scoring. He’s averaging 18.9 points per 36 minutes, but it’s on more field goal attempts and a lower field goal percentage.

You could ask 20 writers if they think Howard has been a positive addition in Charlotte, and you would likely get a 10-10 split. Maybe even 15-5, in favor of yes.

In reality, it isn’t the perfect marriage, and never really was. The Hornets’ projections took a slight hit before the season because of the Nic Batum injury, but he returned a bit earlier than expected. They still find themselves 8-13, with a below-average offense and mediocre defense, which doesn’t exactly bode well. The idea of bringing Howard in via trade was to significantly improve their defensive prowess, after being below Steve Clifford’s standards in 2016-17.

Nothing has changed.

Well, actually, a few things have changed. Just negatively.

Even if Howard is loved by the coaching staff and (finally) gets along with a group of teammates this time, the Hornets have lost a lot of what made them the Hornets. They have went from a solid ball-movement team to the 28th-ranked unit in passes per game, and dropped 18 slots in potential assists.

One of the extreme areas of concern is their assist-to-turnover ratio as a team, which has dwindled from elite status (second) to a league-average level (13th).

Does all of this point toward Howard? Sadly, yes.

If you’re asking how could they possibly be turning the ball over more if Howard is a seasoned veteran, the answer is shocking. For starters, he’s averaging 6.3 turnovers per 100 possessions, the highest mark of his career. It’s nearly double his rate in Atlanta last year.

Then, there’s his post-ups. You know, those absolutely necessary possessions where he needs the ball in the low post just because he’s Dwight Howard?

So far this season, Howard has finished 136 possessions with a post-up — the third-highest amount in the league. There have been 26 players to record at least 50 post-up possessions. Out of those 26, Howard ranks 24th in points per possession (0.77).

The answer isn’t his poor shooting in these situations. Actually, he’s shooting 51.2 percent on those post-ups, a very solid efficiency level.

However, it’s the turnovers. On those 136 possessions, Howard has turned the ball over 27.9 percent of the time, dead-last of all post-up players by a landslide. That will explain the lack of ball movement — as it’s dribble, dribble, dribble for numerous seconds — and Charlotte’s wild turnover numbers.

At this point, most people realize Howard’s days as the first or second offensive guy are over. It’s just long overdue that he realizes it.

2. Batman Porzingis protecting Gotham City

Once Kristaps Porzingis was given the green light to take over the New York Knicks, who have a league average offense and defense now without Carmelo Anthony, nobody was expecting a delightful team in Madison Square Garden. They were projected to finish in the same cluster as the anemic Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, compete for another top draft pick, and let Porzingis experience the natural ups and downs of being “the guy.”

Twenty-one games into the season, the Knicks have outperformed early expectations, even with Porzingis being used at a position we thought was unfavorable for him. Since Enes Kanter was the main trade piece in the Anthony deal, head coach Jeff Hornacek has gone with two seven-footers in the starting lineup. Out of Porzingis’s 598 total minutes this season, 92 percent of them have come at the power forward slot. He and Kanter have played 371 minutes together thus far.

When the Joakim Noah situation became an early disaster for the Knicks, the thought was we would see Porzingis at the five more than anything this year. This would include him having a heavier dosage of roaming the paint, getting his taste of defending bulkier centers, becoming a better 1-5 pick-and-roll defender, and unleashing his rim-protection skills.

Although he’s played a lot with Kanter, we’re still getting the full experience of his interior defense. There are currently 35 players that have defended at least 80 field goal attempts at the rim this season. Porzingis gets tested at the rim 4.6 times per game, about the same average volume as Hassan Whiteside. A bit surprisingly, New York’s unicorn has allowed just 34-of-88 (38.6 percent) efficiency when defending such shots. That’s the lowest of all 35 players, by a margin of nearly 10 percentage points.

For perspective, Joel Embiid, a terrorizing force in the paint who has Philadelphia at a top 10 defense, is second. He’s allowing 48.3 percent at the rim as the primary defender. Getting below 50 percent is tough enough as it is. But for Porzingis to be altering shots and protecting the Knicks inside, despite averaging the same amount of blocks as last year (2.1), it truly demonstrates how much he has valued verticality, patience, and getting back to the rim after defending stretch fours for a solid chunk of his minutes.

3. Are the Lakers going to shoot this poorly all season?

In Luke Walton’s second season leading the purple and gold, expecting a team that starts two 20-year-olds and Brook Lopez at center to play excellent defense seemed unrealistic. They weren’t supposed to be a top 10 defensive unit in the first quarter of the season. Yet, they’ve allowed just 102.9 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-lowest in the league. It has helped them start the year at a 30-win pace, right where we projected them at BBallBreakdown in October.

With the amount of speed, athleticism, and promising offensive pieces Walton had on the roster, struggling to score wasn’t going to be a clear weakness for the Lakers. Drafting Lonzo Ball meant they would push the pace even more, free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would probably lead the team in shot attempts, Brandon Ingram would slowly improve, and Brook Lopez would be featured to the same degree he was in Brooklyn. They could be an impressive offensive squad that gets hot and forces teams to outscore them in shootouts. At least, that was the popular notion.

The direct opposite has transpired, with Los Angeles shooting as miserably as a college team. The only two teams that score fewer points on a per-100-possession basis are the Bulls and Kings, lottery frontrunners in their respective conferences.

They actually aren’t inefficient while penetrating and getting to the rim, as the Lakers are shooting 51.4 percent from two-point range — the same level as the Wolves, Pacers, and Nuggets, and close to the Bucks.

From beyond the arc, it’s usually a nightmare. Out of their 23 games this season, the Lakers have only shot 30 percent or better from 3-point range in 13 of them. Take a look at how efficiently they’ve knocked down the easiest of their 3-point looks, the “open” and “wide-open” triples:

  • “Open” threes (4-6 feet of space):  68-of-224 (30.4 percent) — 27th overall, league average is 34.3 percent
  • “Wide-open” threes (6+ feet of space):  108-of-313 (34.5 percent) — 29th overall, league average is 38.8 percent
  • Total:  176-of-537 (32.8 percent)

It shouldn’t be that surprising considering it’s a young team, but something makes it very weird. Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Jordan Clarkson — all in the top six of minutes played for Los Angeles — are shooting a combined 109-of-300 (36.3 percent) from deep. That’s not great, but around where you would love it to be for a young team.

Then … you see how poorly the rest of the team is shooting. The eight remaining players are a combined 81-of-303 (26.7 percent), a mark so horrific it doesn’t seem real. Is most of that Lonzo Ball’s inability to shoot from literally anywhere?

Yep. Ball has attempted the second-most threes on the team, behind Caldwell-Pope, and is drastically bringing down their efficiency. He’s shooting 25 percent on 112 attempts, being the main culprit of them ranking dead-last in perimeter shooting. Sometimes, you just have stop letting it fly.

For the second straight year, Walton has the Lakers surprising quite a few teams with a hidden bag of tricks. This time, it’s their defensive effort and solid job of defending the restricted area helping them win games. But, the idea of Los Angeles reaching the playoffs was always wack, especially when you consider their December schedule. They are 8-15 now, with one of the most brutal nine-game stretches in the league starting on Dec. 14. They will face the Warriors two more times, Rockets twice, Cavaliers, Blazers, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, and Clippers.

They very well could go 2-12 throughout December unless the shooting woes disappear in a hurry.

4. Yet another insane increase in 3-point volume

Mike D’Antoni is the grandmaster that started it in Phoenix. Daryl Morey is the genius that took a simple philosophy and built a culture around it. Together, they are embarrassing teams in Houston.

Golden State took two chances on undervalued college players, watched them become the two greatest shooters in history, and sprinkled inhuman efficiency on top of D’Antoni’s style.

These two organizations, which happen to field the two most dominant teams, are the most responsible for one thing. They have made this a league predicated on three-pointers more than anything else, revolutionizing the strategies, aesthetics, and mindsets of a sport. Basketball is now an outside-in game, and this is the golden era of NBA offenses.

The amount of unbelievable stats you could use in a comparative light, from era to era, is endless.

For starters, let’s take a stroll back to the 1993 season, when Michael Jordan completed his first three-peat. This was 25 years ago. There were 27 teams in the league, with the 82-game schedule being the same. At the end of the season, 22 teams finished with less than 930 3-pointers attempted.

In 2017-18, the Houston Rockets have played 21 games so far. They have already shot 932 triples, a pace that would have them at 3,639 attempts at the season’s end.

Going back to that 1992-93 season, only four teams finished with at least 1,000 attempts from 3-point range. That was only 14.8 percent of the league.

25 years later? We’re on pace to have all 30 teams shoot at least 1,600 triples.

Any sensible mind would understand it’s almost impossible to compare players (or teams) across different eras. If the game was currently being played the same way it was during the 1980s and 90s? Sure, it would be apples to apples. Instead, forget apples to oranges. This is like … apples to a juicy 12 ounce steak.

As of Dec. 2, the NBA has played 325 games. In those games, a total of 18,724 shots from 3-point range have been hoisted. It puts the league on pace for nearly 71,000 by mid-April, which would break the all-time record. Oh, it would actually break it for the seventh year in a row:

 

*2011-12 is ADJUSTED, since there was a lockout season. The NBA was on pace to attempt 45,218 shots from 3-point distance

Last season, we witnessed the largest increase in history, with 7,181 more triples being taken than the previous year. Just when it felt as if the league couldn’t get more trigger-happy, it did.

Offensive methodologies have rapidly transformed. In 1993, only 10.4 percent of the league’s 7,048 field goal attempts came from 3-point territory. By 2003, that figure jumped to 18.2 percent.

15 years later, the 3-point attempt rate has skyrocketed to 33.8 percent:

This is the overwhelming reason why it’s silly to compare the 2015-16 Warriors — or the current Warriors with Kevin Durant — to any historical team, whether it’s the Showtime Lakers or Jordan’s Bulls.

Sure, all-time legendary players were scattered across those units. But, are they otherworldly enough to disprove mathematics?

Probably not.

Because in the end, it really comes down to the math. The Warriors and Rockets shoot the most 3-pointers in NBA history, at 36.5 percent or better efficiency levels. For Golden State, it’s always above 40 percent.

They’re winning that scoring battle every single time, especially if it’s a seven-game series. We should even open our minds to realize this current Houston team would crush 99 percent of historical teams, too. Offenses are too versatile, talented, and spread out than ever before. It would be too hard to stop, even for some of the most revered championship teams 20-50 years ago.

It’s more than just a different generation. It’s a different game.

And it’s a pretty damn fun one to watch.

5. GIVE US ALL THE SPEED

Sticking to a similar theme, it’s quite an awesome experience to see the NBA play-style getting faster and faster. Most of us millennials weren’t exposed to the 1980s, when Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Alex English’s Nuggets, and George Gervin’s Spurs were running their offenses quicker than any team today.

In 1983-94, nine of the NBA’s 23 teams were averaging at least 103 possessions per 48 minutes. This is what we call “Pace,” and it estimates how quickly you find a shot and how many scoring possessions you have, on average.

More than 3-pointers, it’s the pace of the game that stands out as the weirdest back-and-forth transformation over time. Fast forward 20 years after 1984, to the 2003-04 season. After having nine teams with a pace of 103 or higher, the absolute fastest team in 2004 was averaging a 93.3 possession pace. The dramatic difference in those 20 years between the 1st overall pace? A ridiculous 17.2 possessions per 48 minutes. With the higher volume or low-post big men and likely a higher focus on shot selection, everything slowed down.

But, it’s starting to heat back up again.

In the 14 years since the 2004 season, we’re seeing a progression back toward the Showtime era. Every single team in the league is running at a higher pace than the fastest team in 2004. The slowest current team — the Memphis Grizzlies — is getting 94.4 possessions per 48 minutes.

For fun, let’s track the amount of teams with an average pace over 100 since 2004:

  • 2003-04:  0
  • 2004-05:  0
  • 2005-06:  0
  • 2006-07:  0
  • 2007-08:  0
  • 2008-09:  0
  • 2009-10:  1 (Warriors)
  • 2010-11:  0
  • 2011-12:  0
  • 2012-13:  0
  • 2013-14:  0
  • 2014-15:  0
  • 2015-16:  1 (Kings)
  • 2016-17:  3 (Nets, Suns, Rockets)
  • 2017-18:  7 (Lakers, Suns, Nets, 76ers, Warriors, Magic, Pelicans)

It’s just incredible. Will this simmer? Likely not.

6. Utah’s superb offense without Rudy Gobert

This is different from the Dwight Howard issue. Utah has only finished 57 total possessions with a post-up this season, with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors combining for 35 of them. It’s just not what they do, and it isn’t their style. Charlotte’s offense struggles because they turn the ball over on a ton of post-ups, while the Jazz’s struggled due to a ton of errant passes and lack of spacing.

Gobert and Ricky Rubio didn’t develop a strong on-court connection in the first 12 games of the season, causing a lot of turnovers off the pick-and-roll and lob attempts. While Gobert normally has great hands and ability to finish as a roll-man, some of it could have been attributed to how muddied the offense is with both he and Favors on the floor together.

Rubio hasn’t shown his point guard brilliance either, although we know it’s somewhere hidden inside of him. On the season, he has 111 assists to 69 turnovers, a 1.61 assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s less than half his 3.5 ratio from last season, a drop-off that doesn’t seem realistic for a passer of his caliber. Rubio is on pace for 175 passing turnovers this season if he plays 75 games, which would be far more than his total last year.

When Gobert went down with a bone bruise in his right knee — a rehab process that is reportedly over — the Jazz seemed to be screwed.

In a strange turn of events, they managed to go 7-4 in the 11 games without Gobert, completely flipping the script in desperate times:

During this span, the Jazz actually have a higher offensive rating than Golden State, which is a statement nobody would have imagined to be true for any stretch of the regular season. The difference in 16.9 points per 100 possessions can be a factor of a lot of things. Utah is turning the ball over on just 12.9 percent of its possessions now, compared to the bottom-tier mark of 17.1 percent earlier in the season.

They are getting a lot better shooting production as a result of more spacing, not having to play two traditional bigs together to clog up the lane, and huge sparks from wing scorers.

Rookie Donovan Mitchell is responsible for a significant portion of this turnaround. Removing the first five games of his career, Mitchell is averaging 19 points, 3.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game. He’s shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from three during those 18 games. He just started off the year in a rut, but is working his way up the Rookie of the Year ladder nicely.

Our own Duncan Smith captured the strengths and weaknesses of Mitchell after he scored 41 points in a win over New Orleans.

Are the Jazz better without Gobert? Not for the entire season. He’s their defensive savior. But, it’s amazing what can happen in this league when you play with rim-attackers and less non-shooters on the floor.

7. The Pacers turning Victor Oladipo into an All-Star

Before the season, the question of whether or not the Indiana Pacers would have a pathway to creating an all-star was pretty cut-and-dry: Myles Turner would hit his third-year burst, and it would either be him, or nobody. In fact, he was almost a lock for me.

The NBA has a tendency to slap you right in the face with unpredictable scenarios, and make you feel stupid in a short period of time.

In a matter of one month, the Pacers have a clear-cut all-star favorite, and it isn’t Turner.

There’s no need for doing mental gymnastics to debate if Victor Oladipo can make the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. At this current level of play, he can, and it isn’t even close.

After being relegated to 46.7 touches per game last season in the Russell Westbrook show, Oladipo is up to 62.3 per game with the Pacers. That’s nearly identical to his average in Orlando. Throughout his two previous stops, he has spent a good chunk of time in both roles — an on-ball creator and off-ball weapon. He averaged just 2.93 seconds per touch last year, compared to the 3.52 this season.

There’s a major difference between this rejuvenated Oladipo and the one who appeared to hit a wall in the last couple years. He’s far more efficient with his offensive opportunities now, completing the difficult task of matching higher volume with greater percentages.

“I’m trying to improve to where a defense can’t really guard me,” Oladipo told BBallBreakdown last week. “Every part of my career has kind of benefited me, playing on the ball and off the ball. So, I can do a little bit of both.”

Actually, he’s done a whole lot of everything for the Pacers so far. There are currently only eight players in the NBA scoring 20-plus points per game with a True Shooting Percentage over 58 percent. Oladipo is one of them:

“He still feels like he has something to prove,” Darren Collison said. “It’s good for him to be on our team when he has all of those emotions bundled up.”

Oladipo is a top 20 player in Real Plus-Minus during the first month of the season, and has Indiana on a 43-win pace. That would be more games than last year’s Pacers squad won with Paul George having a career year. Indiana may smash our preseason projections by the All-Star break.

The new argument should be about where he ranks among Eastern Conference guards in general. Naptown has to feel extremely pleased with the George trade right now, even though it was a bad deal at the time. Again, things change quickly.

8. The East may not be a dumpster fire

In the past, this trend has typically reverted back to the expected outcome around January. A bunch of East teams catch fire in the early part of the season, leaving us all to wonder if it’s real or a mere fluke.

In the first 325 games, it’s the closest split you could possibly have. The East has won 163 games to the West’s 162. In head-to-head competition, the East has a 69-66 advantage.

At first, Orlando and Detroit were the two biggest surprises of the league, holding the second and third-best records in the East for a few weeks. One of those teams remains seven games above .500, and it’s not the one Stan Van Gundy took to the NBA Finals.

It’s the Pistons, sporting a top 10 offense and league average defense. With Andre Drummond’s case for Most Improved Player becoming sturdier by the day, Detroit is beginning to feel closer to a homecourt playoff seed than an early season hot streak.

The Magic didn’t have similar luck, as they experienced a dreadful nine-game losing streak that plummeted their record to 9-14.

Still, there are legitimately eight or nine exciting teams in the East that could make the playoffs a lot more enjoyable if they continue playing at their current levels. With the way Indiana, Philadelphia, or even New York has played out of the gate, first round matchups may not be distasteful series.

At the same time, this is probably too early and we’ll likely see the West finish with a far better overall record in the end. It’s just hilariously top-heavy, with the Warriors’ and Rockets’ combined Net Rating of +24.7 being the same as Toronto, Boston, San Antonio, Washington, and Utah’s combined total.

9. LaMarcus Aldridge keeping the Spurs above water offensively

First off, the NBA is not the same without Kawhi Anthony Leonard.

It’s still overly exciting each and every night, with career performances, player rivalries, ejections, and teams scoring 70-plus points in a half. But, we’re desperately missing the Kawhiet two-way assassin, scoring 25 points a night and ripping the ball from young guards like they’re babies with a jolly rancher. Come back, quickly.

After signing his three-year, $72.3 million extension before the season, LaMarcus Aldridge knew he would have to go back to his Portland days without Leonard in the lineup. We just had no idea that he, at age 32, could be as efficient as those younger seasons. It’s still early and he’s not immune to a slump, but Aldridge’s offensive start is exactly what Gregg Popovich needed.

The Spurs were without two starters for the first month of the season, but Aldridge carried the load and kept them in the top three of the conference. San Antonio sits at 15-8 with a +4.2 Net Rating, in part of because of Aldridge’s 23 points per game on 53 percent shooting from two-point range. While it’s a low sample size, he’s only shot above 52 percent from two once in his career, and that was his first season under Popovich.

Aldridge has finished 83 possessions as the Spurs’ roll-man in pick-and-roll scenarios. Only 24 big men have at least 50 such possessions this season. He has the fourth-highest field goal percentage as the roll-man, shooting 57.5 percent once he catches the ball from the guard. This includes plays where he either immediately shoots or attacks the basket.

The breakdown of his shots and effectiveness from each area is impressive considering he’s absorbing all of the defensive attention:

  • Restricted Area:  5.1 attempts per game, 71.4 percent (7th among players with at least five attempts per game)
  • Mid-Range:  7.6 attempts per game, 44.3 percent
  • Corner threes:  7-of-11, 63.6 percent — San Antonio should try to get him more of these looks

As great as Aldridge has produced, including his 41-point game versus Memphis, the Spurs are 16th in Offensive Rating. Without their superstar, this is all you can really ask of Aldridge, especially when they started out as one of the worst shooting teams in the league:

When Leonard makes his debut, it’s up to Aldridge how he handles his role. He would love to be featured as much as he is now, but everyone knows how often the ball should be in Sugar K’s hands. They still have the defense to be competitive with Houston and Golden State. They should elevate into upper right quadrant in no time.

10. Ben Simmons is the most polished rookie I’ve ever seen

There’s no need to spend too much time on this, since comparing rookie seasons across different positions (and eras) isn’t fair to everyone. The aspect of rookies having completely different team situations/needs also doesn’t get explained with straight stat-line side-by-sides.

Nevertheless, we’re 20 games into Simmons’ NBA career and he’s clearly the most complete rookie — on both sides of the floor — that I’ve ever witnessed.

LeBron at 19 was still dominant for his age, but he was still figuring out a lot of things and only shot 41.7 percent from the field. Simmons is just getting his feet wet, but is already comparing nicely to his two similar styles in their rookie seasons.

Per-36 minutes:

  • 2017-18 Ben Simmons (20 games in):  18.0 points, 7.2 assists, 9.4 rebounds, 3.7 turnovers — 19,5 PER, 52.2 percent True Shooting
  • 2003-04 LeBron James:  19.1 points, 5.4 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 3.1 turnovers — 18.3 PER, 48.8 percent True Shooting
  • 1979-80 Magic Johnson:  17.9 points, 7.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 3.9 turnovers — 20.6 PER, 60.2 percent True Shooting

How advanced Simmons already is at facilitating is the most surprising part. Early in his rookie season, Simmons is scoring or assisting on 35.6 points per game. In 2003-04, James scored or assisted on 33.3 points per game as a rookie.

Now, Philadelphia’s shining star just has to fix that shooting stroke.

Well, perhaps both of their rookies do.

Shane Young

Shane is a credentialed NBA writer in the Indianapolis area, primarily covering the Indiana Pacers & Los Angeles Lakers for HoopsHabit.com. After being introduced into the NBA stratosphere at age 11, he’s been engrossed in the game at an unhealthy level. Enjoys deep breakdowns and all 82 games. You can contact Shane via email at: syoung@HoopsHabit.com

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