NBA Week 8 in Review: Tis the Season for Trades

We already have some movement in the league, from the small and curious Corey Brewer trade to Houston to the Rajon Rondo trade. A couple months in, teams know who they are and what weaknesses they have. The deluded ones dream about how good they could be if they removed problem X, while others try to stockpile picks or build up in the arms race in the west. The latest move was Josh Smith being waived. The fun part is going to be watching how he adjusts on a different team — that’s a truly interesting gift for the NBA fan.

Rajon Rondo Reaction

This is the trade we’ve been waiting on for years. The Boston title team has finally been completely dismantled, and Boston will go on with its rebuilding project. Rondo’s one of the truly unique players in NBA history and he’s at the center of many basketball arguments about his real value, his assists, his defense, his shooting, and how a player can change on a good team. Well, we finally have a grand opportunity to test Rondo at the helm of one of the best offenses ever. How you take his first game with Dallas depends on how you thought of Rondo before the game. If you’re a fan who thinks he’s still a star, then you see his nine assists, seven rebounds, and the win against the Spurs and state that he’s already a positive addition to the team. However, if you look at more of the details, you’ll see that they played the San Antonio B-team without any of their starters or Manu Ginobili. Dallas had an offensive efficiency of 107.8 according to b-ref, which is about 8 points below their season average.

It’s tough to say how effective Rondo really was since they were playing a neutered team, but his effort on defense was a lot better for at least this game. For example, Rondo drew two charges and two other offensive fouls in the Saturday game. How many did he draw before that? One total charge with Boston this season and seven other offensive fouls drawn as the defender. In the two previous seasons he drew six and then only one foul, respectively, along with 14 and 19 other offensive fouls — so yeah, he had more charges drawn in one game with Dallas than he did in 38 games with the Celtics in 2013. While I doubt Rondo can be some elite perimeter stopper for them — i.e. how well he’s guarding actual shots — I think he’ll still be good at turnover creation, which is better than what Jameer Nelson was providing.

Going through the game footage, Rondo wasn’t the key defensive force Dallas needs and made a few errors. Starting with the positive, he did indeed take a couple charges and there’s an example of one below. It’s a heady, valuable play, and it’s one way to protect the rim. However, then there’s the second video, where he gets caught on a pick and then spends the rest of the play out of position and bouncing around the court. You can see another apparent error in the third video on another pick where he sticks to the point guard Joseph, but Dirk has already dropped back and it leaves Diaw open for a three. In the fourth video, you can see what’s basically the most wide-open three-pointer possible in the halfcourt because Rondo was ball watching and completely lost his man. Lastly, his rebounding numbers are a bit inflated because he takes a lot of rebounds that his teammates could easily get without him, as seen in the final video. It’s tough to tell how effective a defender Rondo is now after spending a while on a non-contender after an ACL injury, but I wouldn’t expect too much.

The Bucks Swarm

Speaking of point guards, the Bucks recently defended Paul with intense pressure. The Clippers won, sure, but it was close and the Bucks just lost Jabari Parker. This speaks to Kidd’s growth as a coach — he’s leading a surprisingly good team and doing a few nifty tricks. Look at the coverage, for example, on Chris Paul in the video below as he drives in for a layup. Kidd is using the team to its full strength, long-armed young defenders darting around the court and creating havoc. There’s a good example of this in the second video where they nearly cause a 24 second shot clock violation and then Paul loses the ball out of bounds.

Too Skinny to Compete

Every draft cycle, we inevitably get the criticisms of a player who’s said to be “too skinny” to make it in the league, as if it’s entirely common plays drop out for being too skinny. Durant infamously couldn’t bench press 185 pounds and was even more of a string-bean in college, but he just won the MVP — and this is a guy listed at 225 lbs at 6′ 9″ without shoes. He’s not even close to the skinniest guy in the league though. Corey Brewer has somehow remained in the league for years even though he’s a wing who shoots under 30% from behind the arc. And he’s 6′ 9″ and 185 lbs.

The NBA media learns little from history, so thus we got more criticisms last year that Nerlens Noel was too skinny to be an effective defender in the NBA. One problem is that he was judged based on his weight after a surgery, not his playing weight. Another is that basketball is a skinny person’s game and less weight means it’s easier to get your body off the ground. He has a similar build as Larry Sanders, who’s one of the best defensive players in the league. The results so far? Noel’s already an above average defender despite being a rookie and a good interior defender. Last week when the NBA critic’s Platonic ideal of an NBA body, Jared Sullinger, drove inside to score on the impossibly skinny Noel, he got stuffed at the rim. If you think Noel was too fazed by being hit like that to get up and play well at the rim again, there’s another block less than a minute in the second video. The last great detail is that he manages to save the ball before it goes out of bounds and tips it to a teammate. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to people why this is so important, but it’s a wonder why a block going back to the offense is called the same as a block that goes to the defense. It’s the difference between a deflection and a steal.

And oh yeah, he has a similar build to Anthony Davis, who’s currently terrorizing the league….

Portland’s Refusal to Regress to the Mean

Coming into the season, few believed that Portland was a real team despite grabbing a 5 seed in the tough west and advancing to the second round. There were plenty of detractors detailing how how a team with such a big turnaround from one year to the next (from 2013 to 2014) would inevitably fall. But if you looked at the age of their players and the changes in the off-season, and it was unclear why people thought they’d be much worse.

Portland has proved itself over the first third of the season and they have great odds on locking up the division, securing a top four seed. Lillard and Aldridge are an extraordinary pair and those two positions are linked well historically — from Stockton and Malone to Nash and Amare to Kevin Johnson and Barkley. Going into the post-season next spring, I’m sure more cliches will be brought up to discredit them like about their experience, but it’s tough thinking they have an inability to score in high-pressure, late game situations. Lillard is one of the best in that environment, and Aldridge can get off his shot versus anyone. In clutch situations with those two on the court, the team is incredible to watch and deadly to boot. It’s hard to highlight just one play from one of the best games in the season so far, but Lillard led a comeback, several times, to defeat the Spurs in three overtimes, where the apex was probably the dunk below.

Leaders in the East: The Hawks?

The Hawks have been one of the best teams lately, leading December in defensive rating and net rating according to So far they’re 10-1. At what point do we consider them a real team, and how will the media explain them? They have no apparent true superstar, though I imagine conventional analysts will pin this on Al Horford, a conventional big man. Millsap has turned into the best guy who got stuck on a Utah bench — not Favors or Kanter. Teague would be one of the best point guards in the league if the position weren’t so ridiculously stacked. Carroll is still one of the most overlooked players in a league, a pesky, energetic 3/D guy. Kyle Korver has perfected outside shooting and may leave this planet in a moment of transcendence. They’re outscoring opponents by about six a game — we can’t ignore them now. (I would say that one of the biggest differences actually is that Schroeder is playing well, and last year he was atrocious: that change boosts a team just like when a starter turns into a star.)

New SportVU toy: Movement Diagrams

Released silently over the weekend, you can now watch playable diagrams for ever play, showing the ball and then players as different circles with the corresponding player’s number inside. For example, here’s the Lillard dunk from above diagrammed. You can view these in the box scores or the play-by-play log.

It’s easier to tell just how much attention Chris Paul received on his layup too and it’s another way to explain plays or defensive schemes. They play like interactive coaching playbooks. It’s a little easier to see what’s going on too because of its bird’s eye view and lack of clutter.

It’s a fun way to watch certain plays, like Kobe’s chucking binge on the Lakers. He was recently 8 for 26 on field goals versus the Pacers. How much of this is a Quixotic quest for the all-time scoring leaderboard will never be admitted by Kobe, but it’s pretty sad to watch sometimes. For some fun with the movement tool, the first one below shows him bringing the ball up the court, getting to the three-point line, and then just … shooting. It was really early in the clock. It wasn’t the end of a quarter. They don’t let a play develop. He just shoots. In the second clip, Kobe takes his patented contested midrange shot, but with the movement diagram it’s clear how open Wayne Ellington (number two) is from the three-point line, where he shoots 40% for the year. All five defenders are in the paint watching Kobe and he doesn’t use his influence to get a better shot for a teammate.

What’s evident is that this information is useful when you have all the details because you get exact coordinates of every player and the ball, allowing you to calculate those rim protection stats that are so popular now. If the public got access to that data we would have an unprecedented wealth of information about basketball — what we have now is the tip of the iceberg.

The scary thought is that we don’t know how teams are using this information. I think people assume they are all two generations ahead of us with statistics that renders anything we could ever attempt useless, but this is the same league that gave Eddy Curry a huge contract and continues to make strange decisions. The problem with the private market is that the incentives can be very mangled. If you want to keep your job, you don’t provide information that puts a new draft pick in a bad light. Plus, I assume that front offices control what information is even produced. It’s not a culture for the best possible scientific progress. There are probably some organizations that foster good environments, but having lots of data doesn’t mean you necessarily get better statistics — the best tools don’t always lead to the best build. And NBA teams are building in total secrecy.