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Around the NBA: the surprising Mavs, mediocre Kings, and stingy Knickerbockers

Dallas is better than expected, Sacramento is “mid,” and how far can the Knicks go in the playoffs?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-24 NBA regular season is more than halfway done.

We now have a pretty good idea of how good each team is, but that could change drastically following the upcoming trade deadline. Before then, though, it’s time to talk about three teams that are on the playoff/play-in bubble, each of which has very different playstyles.

Let’s begin in Dallas.

How far can “Luka Magic” take the Mavs?

Luka Doncic is a basketball savant.

We’ve known that for years, but he’s taking things to a whole new level this season. So far, Luka’s averaging an absurd 33.6 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.3 rebounds on 48.5/37.6/77.8 shooting splits, and I’m mildly surprised when he doesn’t end a game with a 35-point triple-double.

The biggest leap that Luka’s made this season has undoubtedly been his improvement from beyond the arc. A career 34.3% three-point shooter, his current 37.6% conversion rate is an outlier, especially considering that he’s made over twice the number of stepbacks as any other player in the league.

Still, we’ve seen him go through long stretches of being an elite shooter from deep — in the final 36 games that he played in 2021-22, Luka made 39.6% of his threes on 9.5 attempts per game. Whether he can maintain his current pace over an entire season remains to be seen, but Luka’s still a top-five player even if his three-ball regresses.

As usual, though, Luka’s surrounding cast remains the Mavs’ largest variable. Kyrie is having a very good and surprisingly quiet season (...for now) with averages of 25.3/5.4/5.0 on 47.3/41.0/89.3 splits. He’s only played in 26/42 games so far, and that’s before having his annual Kai-drama.

More importantly, the duo works well together. With both on the court, Dallas has a +3.8 net rating (121.3 offense, 117.6 defense) while posting similar numbers when only one is playing, and the Mavs are only below-water when both of them are off. Surprisingly, Dallas’ overall offensive rating of 118.8 is only 10th league-wide, but given that Kyrie’s missed almost half of the team’s games and the proven playoff track record of both him and Luka, I’m not concerned about their attack.

The Mavs’ defense is another story. Dallas’ 117.7 DRTG is 19th, but some of their underlying numbers paint a more concerning picture. The team has relied heavily on rookie Dereck Lively II as a defensive anchor, and he’s done a fantastic job individually: opponents are shooting 58.1% around the rim, which is 4.6% lower than expected. Moreover, Lively’s 2.6% block percentage ranks in the 74th percentile among all bigs, and both his offensive (11.7%, 83rd percentile) and defensive rebounding (17.9%, 50th percentile) rates are stellar too.

Some might think that Lively just gets fed easy looks from Luka, but not enough credit has been given to his motor, which is non-stop.

With that said, Lively is just one player, and his individual success hasn’t translated on a team level. Even with him playing, Dallas’ offensive (26.4%, 34th percentile) and defensive (70.2%, 21st percentile) rebounding rates are putrid, and those drop off even more when he sits (24.6% offensive, 20th percentile, and 70.1% defensive, 20th percentile). The Mavs’ overall rim protection is awful too: opponents are making 69.8% (16th percentile) of their attempts within four feet when Lively is on, and a disgusting 72.0% (6th percentile) when he’s off.

Simply put, outside of Lively, this Dallas team just doesn’t have the interior size to match up with several Western Conference powers, and they’d get absolutely gnawed by the likes of the Wolves or Nuggets. So even if Luka goes god-mode in the playoffs again, I’d be shocked if they made it past the second round.

Why is Sacramento so “mid?”

A feel-good story last year, the Kings have replicated their success by starting 23-18 this season. However, Sac-town actually has a negative net rating of -0.5, which ranks 18th league-wide.

So, what gives?

For starters, the Kings’ 114.5 ORTG is barely above league average (14th), which is a far cry from their record-setting 119.7 ORTG last year. The good news is that their 118.0 DRTG is only slightly below the league average (20th) as opposed to being ranked 25th in 2022-23.

Back to the offense. Two things stand out when comparing this season to the previous one: free throw rate and transition opportunities. Last year, the Kings made 22.7 free throws per 100 field goal attempts (4th), a number that’s dwindled to just 17.8 (26th) now. Interestingly, Sacramento has actually averaged more drives per game this season (52.2 vs 49.4), but their field goal percentage has dropped from 54% to just 49.7%.

Even with an increase in drives, though, the Kings’ percentage of shots taken around the basket has decreased from 33.9% (15th) to 30.1% (26th). In other words, a large portion of those extra drives have resulted in pull-ups rather than finishes at the rim, where it’s easier to draw calls.

Meanwhile, Sacramento’s transition efficiency has dropped across the board too. Their transition points added per 100 possessions have dipped from 2.8 (9th) to just 1.2 (28th), resulting in their overall transition ORTG going from 126.3 (14th) down to 119.1 (28th).

More specifically, the biggest cause of Sacramento’s struggles has been their transition success off of steals, or lack thereof. Last year, the Kings scored 141.5 points per 100 possessions (13th) in transition from steals, but that figure is down to just 116.9 now (30th). That latter number is more than five points below 29th-ranked Memphis, and over the past five years, only two teams have ended a season with a number below 125.

Given that Sacramento essentially has the same roster and playstyle as they did last year, it seems like that their struggles in transition are largely due to bad luck — especially considering speed demon De’Aaron Fox is the head of the snake.

With that in mind, even if they can’t replicate last season’s historic numbers, I’m confident that the Kings will finish the year with a top-10 offense once they get some more favorable bounces in transition. If that happens, Sacramento could absolutely be a top-six playoff team in the West and give one of the higher seeds a scare in Round 1. Given their lackluster defense, though, anything more would be surprising.

OG & NY: a match made in heaven

Move aside, Kate Upton: OG Anunoby is Tom Thibodeau’s new love.

It’s only been 11 games, but OG has fit in seamlessly with the Knicks: he’s averaging 14.9 points on 51.3/40.8/92.3 splits while playing 36.7 minutes every night. More importantly, New York is 9-2 over that span with the 12th-best offense (119.4) and 2nd-best defense (104.2). Prior to the trade, the Knicks were 18-15 with a 118.7 ORTG (9th) and 116.6 DRTG (19th).

So, how sustainable is their current success?

It’ll be crazy to expect New York to continue playing at a nice 69-win pace for the rest of the season with a defensive rating that’s 12 points better than the league average: since the trade, opponents are shooting an unsustainably low 32.4% from deep, which is the second-lowest percentage league-wide over that span.

With that said, it’s very reasonable for them to be a top-10 defense until the end of the year. OG is one of the best wing defenders in the league and is capable of shutting down 2-4s while also being able to switch on to 1s and 5s without being burned. Take a look at the clip below, where he uses his agility and smarts to cut off a driving angle from Tyrese Maxey, one of the quickest guards in the league.

He also guarded Embiid during brief stretches in that same game, and OG’s size and strength prevented the big man from creating a mismatch in the post.

It’s also important to remember that OG’s replacing RJ Barrett in New York’s starting lineup, the latter of which is a sub-par defender.

Offensively, OG fits much cleaner too. While RJ’s a more natural shot-creator, his inefficiency might’ve actually bogged down the Knicks’ attack — especially considering that they have two better creators in Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle already on the team. Over their careers, OG’s 37.6% three-point percentage and 58.2% true shooting percentage are both better than the league average and vastly superior to RJ’s 34.3% and 52.2%, too.

By replacing RJ with OG, the Knicks have essentially given Brunson and Randle more room to operate since the floor will be better spaced. So even if OG isn’t as natural of an individual creator as RJ, New York’s offensive efficiency will still improve because the ball will be in the hands of their two best players more often while also giving them better driving lanes and a more reliable kick-out option.

Assuming the Knicks stick with their current starting five of Brunson-DiVincenzo-OG-Randle-Hartenstein, New York will have three players shooting over 40% from deep and no real weaknesses to attack on defense. They still need the guy to be considered legitimate contenders, but as of right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team has both a top-10 defense and offense for the rest of the season.

Outside of the East’s big three of Boston, Milwaukee, and Philly, no other team is clearly better than the Knicks, and given the right matchup, they could absolutely make the conference finals.

This week, please check out Jacob’s article on the Spurs’ “loop” action! It’s often tough to understand plays in real-time, and he did a wonderful job of explaining things in a digestible manner.

Thanks for reading! Let’s hope some GMs get frisky and cook up more spicy trades.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.