For Valentine’s Day, I thought of doing a piece about all the things I love about basketball. I then realized I have done that piece before, in a 2017 piece I called An Ode to Basketball. Strangely, even though that piece talked about everything to love about the game, the picture on the top is a goofy picture of Pau Gasol and Kosta Koufos in a jump ball, which is not one of the things I love about basketball. As a vertically challenged guard, I hated being in a jump ball, and thought the entire concept was unfair. If a guard makes a great play on defense and forces a jump ball with an opposing team’s big guy, it will go all for naught when the taller guy wins the jump ball and gets the ball back for his team.
The college game has solved that problem with the alternating possession rule. That rule also speeds up the game. A little known fact: The NCAA did not adopt the alternating possession rule for fairness or to speed up the game. Instead, they did so because referees were not very good at tossing the ball up the right height and directly between the two players.
In any event, because I had already done my idea for a Valentine’s Day post, I decided to hop on Air Force One for Presidents’ Day. Time for for a quick journey around the NBA to do some campaign stops with various teams worth a comment.
Let’s start with the original thirteen colonies, and in particular Boston, the heart of the American Revolution. Before the season, everyone had the Celtics as one of the co-favorites in the East. Now, not so much, especially with Sunday night’s inexplicable loss to the woeful Washington Wizards, by 13 points, only the Wizards’ seventh win of the season. That dropped the Celtics to .500 on the season, something no one predicted.
For the Wizards, Russell Westbrook looks like he might be toast. Despite almost averaging a triple double, Russell is shooting only 41% overall, 31% from three (chucking up over four per game), with a PER of 15.3 (15.0 is considered league average). All while being paid a gazillion dollars per year for the foreseeable future. Yet another deficit in Washington, D.C.
Down the I-95 from Boston gets you to Brooklyn, where the three-headed monster Nets are doing pretty much what everyone expected when James Harden joined the team. The Nets are scoring a ton of points, averaging 120.9 per game. As also predicted, they are also giving up a ton of points, 117.5 per game. To give you some idea how bad that is, that is the second worst number in the Eastern Conference (the Wizards are worse), and the third worst in the league (the Sacramento Kings are second worst). The Nets are an interesting case study of whether a great offensive team can overcome a terrible defense.
The best two teams in the East are the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. For the 76ers, the “other Curry”, Seth, is shooting 49.2/48.3/97.1. Wow. Though he won’t shoot enough free throws to qualify for the record, that 97.1% from the line would easily break the record. (His brother Steph is at 93.2%.)
Interestingly, even though the 76ers are in first at 18-9, with Joel Embiid an MVP candidate, their point differential of +3.3 per game is dwarfed by the Bucks’ +8.1 per game. Smarter people than me say that point differential is the best predictor of future success, not only in basketball but all sports. (And maybe life itself?) So while the Bucks are presently in second at 16-11, their point differential indicates they are a good bet to once again end up with the best record in the East. Of course, their loss last night to an 11-15 OKC team makes it a bit difficult to Fear the Deer at the moment. That was the Bucks’ third loss in a row, having also just lost to the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz.
Mentioning the Jazz is a good segue to the Western Conference. Dang, the Jazz have been playing well, winning 19 of their last 20 coming into Monday’s game against the 76ers. A week ago, pundits said the Jazz were entering a tough series of games that would really test them. In response, the Jazz beat the Pacers by 8, the Celtics by 14, the Bucks by 14 and the Heat by 18. And the Jazz point differential is +9.3, easily leading the league. FiveThirtyEight.com, which predicted the Jazz to be a middle-of-the-road playoff team, now has them with the fourth best chance to win it all at 16%.
For the first time, the Lakers are not favored by FiveThirtyEight to win it all. The Lakers are down to 19%, behind the Clippers at 23%. (The Lakers’ point differential is +7.1, while the Clippers are at +7.8, despite missing either or both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for a bunch of games.) The Lakers have the usual concerns about their star quality after their two best players. More importantly, they have a real concern about the health of one of their stars. After struggling with a sore achilles tendon for a week, Anthony Davis gimped off the court Sunday night before halftime with “Achilles tendinosis”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but any injury with the word “Achilles” in it is scary. If I was on the Lakers’ coaching staff, I would give AD the rest of the month off — at least. Meanwhile, LeBron James remains LeBron James — and is probably the best 36 year old player ever. Who else is in the conversation? Kareem, the Great Tim Duncan, and ... ?
The biggest disappointment in the West is clearly the Dallas Mavericks at 13-15, with a negative point differential on the year of -1.7. This despite Luka Doncic leading the team in points (29.1), rebounds (8.6) and assists (9.4). Or perhaps because they have the same guy leading the team in all three categories — shades of Harden with the Rockets and Westbrook with OKC. Or for that matter, Jokic in Denver, where the Nuggets were predicted to be top three, but are now only 7th. However, the Nuggets have won three in a row (including thumping the Lakers Sunday night by 17) and have the fourth best point differential in the West at +4.5.
The biggest surprise in the West, other than perhaps the excellence of the Jazz, is the Spurs. Picked by most everyone to be 11th or 12th, they now sit on 6th place at 16-11. In the East, they would be tied for second place. FiveThirtyEight has the Spurs at 69% to make the playoffs. This does come with a big red flag warning — the Spurs have been outscored on the season, with a -0.4 point differential. Perhaps that can be explained, at least partially, by not having Derrick White for much of the season. As shown by Sunday night’s game against Charlotte, if he and Dejounte Murray can both continue to play well, the Spurs just might be able to live up to their record. Especially if Jakob Poeltl continues to swallow up anyone who attacks the Spurs’ rim.