As teams have a few games under their belts, wild projections are being made based on paltry three-game winning streaks and a few surprising wins — or losses. People don’t know if it’s time to panic and a little patience here to led the season unfold would ease concerns. Take last season, for instance. Toronto started the season 6-11 and ended with 48 wins; Philadelphia started 4-2 and by the end of the season we wondered if they were the worst team ever; and Brooklyn was well below average for the first two months yet still made the second round in the playoffs.
Chaos in Cleveland
Few people care that the defending champions are 2-3, but Cleveland, a team built in a day run by a rookie coach, is reverberating with the NBA news world for stories of panic and fear. The defense is bad and probably worse than expected, but the problem is that the offense isn’t anywhere near historic: that’s how strong it would need to be for Cleveland to have contender status with a below average defense. Their three stars have been much less efficient than advertised. LeBron’s TS% has been ten points lower than last season and Love about six points. Those marks won’t hold, and of particular concern is their three-point shooting. Love’s at 33%, Irving’s at 30%, and Miller’s 1/6 for the season. And with 89 assists on the young season, they’re last in the league. It was supposed to be a motion heavy offense with unselfish play featuring a pass-happy frontcourt surrounded by three-point shooting. With a defensive scheme that clearly isn’t working and an offensive plan that is squandering their talents, this doesn’t look like a contender.
While the offense is a work in progress with some untapped potential, LeBron’s apparent decline is worrisome. He’s having unusual problems scoring inside and he’s been playing below the rim. Yet I think that was only a blip on his season. Forgotten with the Utah game is that before Hayward’s crazy, low-percentage game winner is that LeBron had six points in the final 13 seconds. A recent game is encouraging too, as he made a handful of impressive plays on defense that required top-level athleticism and effort.
Typically, a game where Sacramento loses to Oklahoma City wouldn’t be so shocking, but the Kings crashed hard out of the starting gates with a 5-1 record while the Thunder have been dismantled by injuries. After blindingly negative criticism regarding their decision to let Isaiah Thomas go to replace him with Darren Collison, some may feel it’s time to commend Sacramento on its outside-the-box thinking, but I feel that’s premature. Thomas was called a ballstopper and the Kings were plagued by selfish play. The Kings even won the vengeance game against Phoenix recently in a wild overtime game. Yet heading into the game they were last in assists per game and a closer inspection reveals they’ve been riding a (short) hot streak from Rudy Gay, oddly good defense that probably won’t hold up, and a monster start from Cousins. When both Rudy Gay and Cousins are much more efficient than average, significantly different from their career norms, yes, you’re going to win more games than expected.
The role of Collison in this is unclear but I would heed caution with an overreaching theory. He’s been a career backup who’s bounced around from team to team, never known for his distribution skills. He’s essentially a scoring guard you’d bring off the bench to push the pace — tigers don’t often change their stripes at age 27. There is one cogent criticism, however: while Thomas could match Collison in assists, he did so less in the flow in the offense and more looking for his own stats. Think of Rondo hunting for assists. There’s one way to look at this with the new tracking data. Thomas has a pretty poor ratio of assists to secondary (hockey) assists, where the latter is more about good ball movement and team play at the expense of your own stats. Collison’s ratio was a little over four last season, which is where it’s at again so far. Thomas, meanwhile had a ratio near seven. Regardless, they played well with Thomas last season, he’s a couple levels above Collison in scoring, and if they were worried about a ball-stopper, Rudy Gay is the more logical target. You may note Collison’s seven assists in their most recent game, but look at the assists in the videos below: there are many pull-up shots and long drives where being credited with an assist is dubious.
If you want to see some real assists where the passer does deserve credit, watch these two from McRoberts:
Thomas also helped Phoenix take down an early season giant….
Golden State’s dominance
The Warriors just lost to the Suns, but their defense is scary and with a newly modern offense that doesn’t involve isolation basketball and multiple post-ups for guys like Barnes, they’ve been the best team by far. They have a defensive rating of 93.9 right now, per basketball-reference, which would make them arguably the best defense since the Russell-era Celtics if it held for a full season. With Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Bogut, the team has virtually no weaknesses at full strength, and with David Lee out for a few games Green will get more deserving playing time. All the talk is of their offense, but that’s only league average right now. If the team is healthy for the playoffs, a championship would not be unlikely. They suffered their first loss of the season to Phoenix, so they are mortal; but this is a seriously good team.
The Pelican Uprising
The Pelicans entered the season as the darkhorse contender for the last playoff spot in the west, and they’re holding true to form. Last season, the offense wasn’t the problem; it was the awful defense. So far, they’ve acted like an above average defense and all eyes are on Anthony Davis with his eye-popping defensive stats and none on unheralded Omer Asik. The Brow gets credit for his gaudy block totals, but so far opponents are shooting 51.3% near the rim when he’s the closest defender. Meanwhile, Asik in 8 fewer minutes is defending one more rim attempt allowing only 38.5% on shots. Davis fills the stat sheets like a legend already, but box scores do not capture the full story. As I recently studied, rim protection stats like proximity field-goal percentage is a much better indicator of defense than blocks. A blocked shot is only a tiny silver of game action — most defense involves contesting field goals and rebounding. Davis also blocks more jump shots than normal, and those are significantly less valuable than blocks at the rim. Also, he gets credited for a lot of “phantom” blocks where the scorekeeper made a dubious decision. In the first video below you’ll see a real blocked shot but he got two on the same play some how. The last video is strange … how does a blocked shot hit the rim like that?
Errant player statistics
What’s disappointing is that in 2014 in the SportVU era we still don’t have complete, thorough, accurate statistics for everything possible. There’s one stat that’s fallen completely by the wayside due to data collection tendencies and how it’s tracked.
Charges are a stat every basketball fan knows — this isn’t some archaic, math-heavy statistic. Yet we have no official sources for it and no current major site is keeping tabs on it. Recently, I collected charges for my own purposes, and I had to reference four different sites: Hoopdata kept track from 2007 to 2013, HoopsManifesto had 2014 and is keeping track now, WeaksideAwareness fills in the missing year in 2011, and 82games was the first site to list charges and they still have a partial leaderboard for 2006.
That is not an ideal way to tabulate stats and the HoopManifesto version has strangely lower totals than the other sites. This is an important stat too because defense is notoriously tricky to evaluate and charges would seem to be highly valuable: they result in an automatic change of possession and another foul is tacked onto the opposing team and probably to one of their best offensive players.
Obviously, since charges are not in the official box score most sites won’t list it, but it’s got another weird problem: it doesn’t show up in public play-by-play data until 2006. Thus, sites that list stats you can get from play-by-play skip over charges, and all the newer sites that have SportVU data or other new fancy toys don’t go back far enough. You also have to find only the charges and not an offensive foul like an illegal screen. If no one else fixes this issue, I’ll have to collect the data myself — and I may give it to whatever site wants it.