Even Tony wants to know where the Spurs stand. - Kevin C. Cox
Has the 2nd quarter of the season given us more insight into the true championship contenders for the Larry O'Brien trophy?
Please refer to last May's introductory 32-year statistical survey, as well as part one and part two of this season's first quarter report for background. The introductory survey showed a pretty consistent separation between contenders and pretenders for the NBA championship, delineated by an end of the regular season offensive-efficiency (OE)/defensive efficiency (DE) differential (OE-DE). The evolving nature of differential as a season progresses could identify a smaller group of "true contenders" earlier than the end of the regular season.
Below are the rankings of the top eight in differential (OE-DE) through the first half of this season (compare it against the end of Q-1 table). The table shows season-to-date games played by each team (GP), their win/loss record (W/L), their efficiency differential score (EDS), their offensive (OE) and defensive efficiency (DE) scores, their strength of schedule (SOS), and their power ranking (PR).
|DR||Team|| Conference || GP || W/L || EDS || OE || DE || SOS* || PR
* Keep in mind, SOS numbers are not apples to apples for both WC and EC teams. These numbers should generally be adjusted higher by some unknown factor for WC teams (or vice versa lower for EC teams), mainly because the East simply has weaker teams on average.
Through Q-2, the Thunder held onto to the number one spot, while the Spurs continue to be ranked number three. The other six spots saw some movement, with the Clippers moving up two spots, the Knicks moving down three spots, and the defending champion Heat sliding up one spot. Meanwhile the upstart Warriors lept into the 8th spot, knocking out the sinking Hawks, the deep and talented Nuggets finally surged up into the 7th position, the Lakers miraculously squeezed into 6th, and the Grizzlies crashed out of the top eight.
The Beasts from the East
While following the Heat this season, I feel like I'm watching three different teams. One is the fluid and powerful machine that hopped, skipped, and jumped through the rest of the league last year on their way to a championship in Year Two of the LBJ era. Another is a team that's just toying with the league with its intermittently lethargic play. Finally, there is the team that is struggling to find the right chemistry with some new players and role adjustments, while searching for that special inspiration necessary to repeat as NBA champions. I'm sure the Heat is all of these things, and yet will undoubtedly emerge as a threat to win it all because, simply put, they have the best player in the NBA. And oh man, is he playing like it: 26.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.7 spg, 54.6 FG%, 40.7 3PT%, 61.6 TS%, 29.6 PER, .274 WS/48 ....... the list is practically endless. Of course, they have the two other, not too shabby, members of the big three and also picked up a pair of savvy vets, those former Sonics teammates that can torch you from deep. Nevertheless, things just seem a little too relaxed for the Heat this year. They play in the weakest conference, their SOS is one of the weakest out of the top eight, their road record is just 9-10, their rebounding sucks (27th vs. 6th last season), and the team has been soft and lazy on the defensive end (13th in defensive efficiency against those crappy EC offenses, compared to 4th last season).
Biggest weakness: Rebounding
Bottom-line: The Heat should again get to the Eastern Finals, but as currently constructed, there's more than a slight chance they get upset there. The winner out West has a decent chance against the Heat this season should they make it back to the Finals.
What I like about the Knicks is they have a definite philosophy on how they want to play, and Coach Woodson does a great job reeling in their most wayward members. On the offensive side, the Knicks like to spread the floor and get crisp ball movement, hit open cutters and the occasional ally oops, take care of the ball (1st in TR), fire from deep (1st in 3-pt attempts and makes, 5th in %), and get the ball to Melo (a deadly scorer) for some periodic iso-action. On defense, they like to keep teams off the offensive boards (5th in opponent offensive rebound %), defensive rebound (5th in DRR), play solid team containment defense (3rd in opponent assists per possession), and pressure the ball opportunistically (7th in opponent turnovers per possession). The Knicks certainly have a geriatric unit (Kidd, Camby, Wallace, and Thomas), but those guys can all make meaningful contributions on and off the court. New York does need to improve defensively though (16th in defensive efficiency, 19th in OFG%) to seriously challenge Miami. They just got back Iman Schumpert (a game-changer defensively out on the perimeter) from injury. It will be interesting to see if they can get Amare Stoudemire to help the team. The fit is not great, but the fact that his pick and roll partner, Felton, is coming back from injury in a couple of weeks should help.
Biggest weakness: Overall team defensive efficiency, scoring in the paint (though Amare could help there)
Bottom-line: New York's depth, experience, length in the front court, and offensive firepower gives them a good shot to take a crack at Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, providing they survive the semis against a still-to-be-determined dark horse. In my view, should the Knicks reach the Finals, they could be a worthy opponent against the lone survivor out West.
The Best of the West
The defending Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder, led by their top-rating in offensive efficiency, has now reached mid-season with the number one ranking in team efficiency differential. But why is the Thunder doing so well after the loss of one of their big three (James Harden) just prior to the start of the season? First, the addition of Kevin Martin has made up for the loss of Harden's scoring. Martin fits in pretty seamlessly off the Thunder bench, putting up an efficient 15.4 ppg, shooting 46.4% from beyond the arc and a stellar 63.5 in TS%. Second, their young studs, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, are all having career years. Each of them is at or near career highs in most of the major statistical categories, including many having to do with efficiency. Third, five of their top seven players have operated together for several years. Familiarity tends to breed efficient and high-caliber play for most good teams. Fourth, Scott Brooks is a very good young coach who's probably only going to improve over the next few years. Fifth, they've had a moderately easy schedule compared to the rest of the top eight, with 56% of their games played in the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena. Overall, the Thunder have had one of the easiest schedules out of the top-eight (.490 SOS). As a result, they've pretty much taken care of business, with their eye-popping Q-1 EDS of 11.2 only dropping a modest .4 to 10.8.
Biggest weakness: Turnovers, no established 3rd play maker.
Bottom-line: The Thunder is still the favorite in the West. They have awesome talent, have very young legs, and possess a solid but not too deep group of support players. Once again, OKC will undoubtedly be a very tough nut to crack once the playoffs roll around.
Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that this team would not only stolen the thunder twice, first against their future hall-of-fame-studded LA rivals and then from the Thunder themselves, with an electrifying 17-game win streak, but also have drilled down to a 2-0 record against their other WC rival, last season's broom-wielding San Antonio Spurs? So what has gotten into this once butt-of-all-jokes franchise? Have they really transformed into this scary-looking hedge-Clipper intent on mowing everything down in its sight? Well, to be honest, I don't think we have a definitive answer to that question. There's no debating that the Clippers are much more competitive this season than they were last season. The main pieces are now in their second season together. They have two young/in-prime, extraordinary talents. They are an unusually athletic and disruptive team defensively. And they also have a great mix of veterans and youth, and are one of, if not the, deepest team in the NBA. On the other hand, in my view, that 17-game streak, while quite impressive, overrates the Clippers' ability to succeed when it matters most - in a seven-game playoff series against top-tier talent. During the streak, the combined record of their opponents was 239-330, a win percentage of .421, and they played 59% of their games at home. The Clippers depend a bit too much on fast break points (3rd in the league, making them somewhat reliant on turnover-prone opponents), and also on perimeter jumpers, performing below average in efficiency in that category (19thranked in 3-point %). And free throws could absolutely haunt these Clippers, where they are ranked 7th in attempts, but 27th in makes at a downright awful 70.7%.
Biggest weakness: Overall perimeter shooting
Bottom-line: The Clippers will be a force to be reckoned with this season, particularly against all of the top WC opponents, who have thus far proven to be highly turnover-prone (unlike NYK & MIA in the East).
First of all, a few mea culpa's are in order. In the Q-1, Differential Report - Part II, I suggested that the Lakers could possibly turn things around rather quickly once they got Nash back. I implied that the defense could turn around, as Nash would help get easier buckets and take better care of the ball on the offensive end. Neither has happened; the Lakers are 5-8 since Nash's return. While the assist-to-turnover ratio has improved considerably (28th to 19th), their defensive efficiency has worsened (from 100.1 to 103.4). Their schedule has stiffened, but that explanation alone is clearly not sufficient. I also implied that the Lakers talent in their top-seven would likely keep them a bonafide title contender when all is said and done. Technically, I'm right about this, as the Lakers are currently 6th in DR, but their EDS has been cut in half (5.5 to 2.7). They have a win percentage of just .436, which would disqualify them from "true contender status" based on a win percentage below .570. In reality, a lack of chemistry and leadership has thus far trumped top-tier talent.
No team keeps a top-eight differential for long, if it doesn't translate into a plus .500 win/loss record. Indeed, the Lakers top-eight ranking is unlikely to last if they don't become more consistent at both ends. They've likely held onto a top eight spot because they've won big (> 15 pts, 47% of the time) much more often than they've lost big (9% of the time). One of the reasons their record is poor is because they lose a large percentage of their games by less than 10 points (68%). But the fact is, this generally well-run franchise continues to compound a fiasco that began with former Coach Brown thinking they should run the "Princeton Offense" after the acquisition of Nash and Howard. This fatal error wasted the entire summer (not acquiring the right support personnel for a Nash-centered offense), all of training camp (getting use to Nash; i.e., others getting used to operating OFF the ball), and the entire preseason (gaining confidence as a new unit by actually winning a game). This fiasco continued with the hiring of Mike D'Antoni (over the better-suited and more qualified Jerry Sloan), who I swear suffered a lobotomy at some point since his Phoenix days (a time when he actually knew how to use [and/or acquire] personnel fairly well). With Nash now back for 13 games, l am pretty much convinced that Howard and Gasol are not even an acceptably good mix together on the front line for the Lakers (a point that E5 and others had suggested over the past month). As a result, at this point Pau Gasol should come off the bench, or preferably be traded.
Biggest weakness: Defense, 3-point shooting, explosive pick and roll guy and finisher inside, turnovers
Bottom-line: The Lakers are currently only staying alive as a dark horse contender. They have very tiny odds of winning a title this year unless they change personnel and/or use the personnel they do have in a better manner. They should probably start with a big trade that would make both of these teams better (http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=brzpn47). Then they should sign Kenyon Martin for the vet minimum (to replace the disabled Hill), and also sign one or two veteran spot-up shooters, preferably ones that have played with Nash in the past (e.g., Q. Rich, E. House, or R. Bell). Finally, the Lakers should hope Mike D'Antoni remembers how to coach again. But to the delight of Spurs fans from around the globe, sanity and commonsense no longer seem to reign in LA-LA Land!
Against probably the toughest schedule in the league during the first half of the season (.528 SOS, 59% of games on the road, 68% vs. WC foes), this deep and talented Nuggets team finally jumped into the top-eight during Q-2. They're a well-coached team and a very dangerous one for one principal reason: they have an unusually high number of long and/or super-quick athletic guys (7) that can blow you away by seizing a game in a flash at both ends. For example, the Nuggets are 1st in the NBA in crashing the offensive glass for second opportunities and put-backs, 1st in points in the paint, 2nd in fast break points, 3rd in "blocks and steals", and 4th in OFG%. But overall, for the Nuggets to remain highly competitive for a long playoff run, the team will need to more consistently and comprehensively step it up a notch on the defensive end. Presently, they're 13th in defensive efficiency, 26th in defensive rebounding, and 24th in opponents apg, all weaknesses that could cost them in a 7-game playoff series. The Nuggets have a lot of good-to-very-good-players, but they don't really have any established stars to carry the team when the going gets tough.
Biggest weakness: Perimeter shooting (foul line, mid-range, behind the arc)
Bottom-line: The top-eight rank in EDS keeps them alive for a surprise title-run. Despite exhibiting important weaknesses, Denver is still a danger to upset a favorite in the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs. At this point, however, I still consider the Nuggets a long-shot to win the West.
I must admit, this young team gaining a 8th-ranked EDS through the first half of the season, virtually all of it without Andrew Bogut, was a bit of a surprise. That said, the Warriors do have some guys that can play. Indeed, if Curry can continue to stay healthy, he's on the verge of stardom with his tremendous shooting and play making skills (and 1.6 spg.). David Lee has been an All-Star before and is in the running again this year with a great mix of scoring (19.9), rebounding (10.9), and passing (3.7). Klay Thompson can flat-out light you up, and has one of the quickest, sweetest strokes from deep-range in the game (40% from 3). The 7th overall pick, 20 year old Harrison Barnes, has shown flashes indicative of his high draft selection. Solid veteran Carl Landry (12.2/6.5), and late 1st round pick, Festus Ezeli have filled in admirably for the loss of Bogut. And combo-guard Jarrett Jack has also had a fine year in the Warriors mainly three-guard rotation (12.2/5.5, and 41% from 3). The loss of Brandon Rush hurt the depth, but the Warriors still get some useful minutes from rookie Draymond Green, 2nd year guard Charles Jenkins, and veterans Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins. But second year coach Marc Jackson has done a great job with this group, getting them to play together and believe in themselves, and also making a commitment at the defensive end, even with the big loss of their talented rim protector. As a result, at the midpoint the team is solidly at number ten in defensive efficiency, and when combined with their not surprising 10th spot in offensive efficiency, the Warriors are one of only four teams in the entire league that balance a top-ten team efficiency ranking on both sides of the ball (the others being OKC, LAC, and SAS).
Biggest weakness: Turnovers, scoring in the paint
Bottom-line: Despite the impressive first half, I believe that the Warriors' hopes of finishing this season in the top-eight probably hinge on Bogut playing at least the last quarter of the season injury-free. And if he does, this upstart Warriors club could be a dangerous foe come playoff time.
Editor Note: Come back tomorrow for Part II.