This is not the NBA season we were expecting. That can be said most seasons but this year in particular has taken that mantra to its furthest extremes. Almost nothing basketball heads were predicting heading into this season has panned out: Michael Carter-Williams is good at basketball; the Clippers, Warriors and Rockets have barely been better than they were last year (record-wise); Mike Brown and this Cavalier roster have not necessarily meshed like we thought (I guess Dion Waters hands “meshed” into Kyrie Irving‘s face); though Andrew Bynum is on pace to to blast through his games played projections; and Anthony Bennett‘s field goal percentage has jumped 33.3 percent in his last seven games (don’t think about that in context); and Jason Kidd has seemed a little overwhelmed by this coaching thing so far (wait … we predicted that?). The success of the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are the only salvages of something familiar and predictable so far this year. And even then, Miami has dropped a couple head scratchers and the Spurs were not necessarily supposed to be this good (though it has essentially become basketball law to never underestimate the Spurs).
The unpredictability has jumped over to the NBA’s most dynamic position as well. While the position is still as deep as ever — with Tony Parker and Stephen Curry remaining constant while Chris Paul and Michael Conley somehow take their games to another level — a few players many people were anticipating to come back or break out have struggled severely out the gate. Three players in particular are worth looking into in depth:
First Step: God Still Hates Cleveland
Kyrie Irving was projected to make ‘The Leap’ this season and not only take his game to the next level but take a Cavaliers team that seemed to have a playoff bound roster to the playoffs and perhaps beyond. Neither of those things has happened as we thought they would as the Cavaliers have struggled mightily — both on the court and off it — to start the season. Kyrie Irving has started slow out the gate as well. To start the season Irving’s True Shooting Percentage is just 50.2 percent — a number that essentially means Irving is scoring 1.004 points per scoring try. Among players that have played at least eight games, log at least 20 minute per game, and have a usage rate more than 20 percent — first and second options or players who command a lot of touches in a sixth man type role — that number ranks 73rd out of 101 players. The most efficient scoring guards this year — Curry, Paul, Conley and Parker — are all much higher up on the list and typically the most efficient scoring guards (think Parker, Paul and Deron Williams) put up a number that is more so in the 57 to 60 percent range.
This is not necessarily a new trend with Irving, though. While Kyrie was a surprisingly efficient scorer as a rookie — logging a 56.6 true shooting percentage — last year’s scoring efficiency figure (50.3 percent) was almost identical to his numbers so far this year. Despite his fourth quarter brilliance and the scoring binges we typically tie to Irving’s game, he has actually been on the wrong side of average efficiency since his rookie campaign. When trying to find exactly why this has played out like this, looking at Irving’s shot charts over the last three seasons provides a little insight:
In simple terms, Irving is not making jump shots like he did in his rookie season. As a rookie, Irving’s defining attribute — at least to me — was the fact his scoring was in large part due to his efficiency from behind the arc. While the top pick point guards that came before him — John Wall and Derrick Rose — were scoring in spite of their poor shooting strokes, Irving was scoring because of it. In an NBA that was relying more and more on the three point shot and floor spacing, having a player that can spread the floor and knock down the three ball so early in their career was a huge asset. Those shots have stopped falling at the same rate, though and in general Irving’s shooting stroke, from both beyond and in front of three point line, has not been as great as it was in his rookie campaign.
And this year, at least so far, his ability to finish around the rim has waned as well. While Irving’s jump shot and amazing handle are what defined him to begin his career, last year he also continuously flashed his dynamic ability to finish around the rim. While his jump shot has faded, his ability to finish around the paint has suffered this season as well and that has probably contributed just as much to his inability to score it at an efficient clip. This all very well may be a case of a player struggling to recapture his scoring touch with defenses really clamping down and game planning for what has been Cleveland’s only consistent source of offense so far this season. If Irving can find his way into a more functional offensive system and roster, there can definitely be an improvement, but for now he will have to suffer through an intense struggle to score the basketball efficiently.
All that said, there is still plenty of room for optimism. This guy was still — along with Paul George — one of the two breakout players of last season and there is obviously a skill set he has that few scorers in the league possess. He has actually added to that skill set this year, and if you look back at this year’s shot chart, it is very obvious he has developed a nice in between game on both sides of the court. Irving is twelve for 22 from the right side between eight and 16 feet and eight for 14 from the left side from that distance. I took the time to look through all 36 of those shots (because you can do that on NBA.com now!!!) and Irving has developed a very nice game in these areas. He has mastered the righty floater as 7 of the 12 shots he has made from the right side have came via the floating shot. On the left side he does not use that floater — though he will go to it out of desperation — but so far this season has shown a great shooting stroke when pulling up from the left side, with six of his eight makes from that range coming via the jump shot. He has also, on rare occasion, flashed a mid-post isolation game on both sides and if he continues to master that arena, a good coach may be able to parlay that scoring with his passing ability and turn him into a mini-Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony out of the post — a player who can create offense for himself and his teammates out of well run post isolations.
Irving has also been turning around his play recently, and over the last four games has been scoring it at a much more efficient clip. Over the last four games Irving has recaptured his 3-point shooting stroke — shooting 44.4 percent from 3– and as result has been a much more efficient scorer. Irving’s True Shooting Percentage has jumped up to 58.2 percent in those games a number that looks much more like the Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker’s of the NBA, and a number that would be one of the top figures in the NBA. In time things should pan out for the Cavs star point guard, it just may be a little bit longer of a process than we projected.
In The Lane: J-Wiz
Like Irving, John Wall has recently turned his scoring up a notch after struggling mightily to start the season. Before that, though, Wall still had one redeemable asset despite his Ricky Rubio-like scoring struggles at the beginning of the season. That is, John Wall has clearly been one of the five best passers in basketball so far this season. Wall is tied for second with Steph Curry for assists per game and ranks seventh in assist percentage so far this season. Above that Wall is also first in hockey assists this year (yes, somebody is actually beating out Chris Paul) and second in points created by assists per game. Chris Paul is obviously the No. 1 passer in the game and you can make an argument for five or six other players being as good or slightly better than Wall so far. But with little argument Wall is at least one of the five best play makers we have in the game so far.
In watching Wall play, the ease at which he reads plays and passes the ball may be more awe-inspiring than the actual numbers. The ability to come off of a screen and be able to make the correct read; manipulate the defense by threatening to drive or hit the roll man to create openings around the court; and then actually be able to make a difficult pass — often a cross court pass while your momentum is taking you the other direction — is a legitimately complex and difficult task. It is one that many young aspiring point guards in the NBA struggle to master, and it is one that John Wall does in a manner that seems essentially effortless when he is on the court. When you add the fact that Wall does not pose a threat as a jump shooter, his ability to still be so successful passing the ball is nothing short of amazing.
But that lack of jump shot is again proving to be a problem this season and in general Wall has struggled score the basketball that efficiently. Wall was a horrible shooter last season, but was at least survived by a surprisingly effective pull up jumper from the right elbow area and — when he got hot to finish the season — a decent stroke from the corners on limited attempts. That stroke from the corners and the pull up from the elbow have been gone most of the season so far and as result Wall has not been that efficient scoring it so far this season. Wall only has a 51 percent True Shooting Percentage so far this season after earning a 53.1 shooting percentage post All-Star break last year (quick side note: Again, True Shooting percentage is a really accurate estimate of points per scoring opportunity cut in half; so a 53.1 percent TS percent is means Wall was scoring 1.06 points per scoring try. I wrote about the stat in depth here).
But Wall has picked up his scoring in a major way over his last two games heading into Tuesday night’s game — he is averaging 34 points, has shot 3-for-4 from 3 and has earned an outstanding 72.5 True Shooting Percentage — and in general his offense has been salvaged by a new found efficiency around the rim (he is shooting 61.76 percent inside of eight feet) and a nice in between touch from the left side. That in between touch from the left has been a part of Wall’s game since his second season, and it continues to be a hot spot for him. So far this season, he has been using a righty floater on the left side, taking advantage of all the space team’s give him when he comes off picks — because he cannot hit a jumpers coming off of them.
Again, similarly to Irving, Wall has the pieces in place and his scoring will probably get better as his game continues to mature. If he can add a consistent jump shot at some point he will be virtually unstoppable, but even without it he should still become an above average scorer and top notch distributor.
The Finish: Where Do We Go From Here?
The third topic to address this week was supposed to be Derrick Rose and his struggle to regain his form to start the season. Obviously after undergoing season ending knee surgery, that topic is very much a back burner issue, and the more relevant question is exactly where the Bulls go from here. The idea of tanking and potentially drafting Chicago native Jabari Parker next year has been thrown around, but I am not sure this is necessarily the best plan of action for the Bulls. Tanking would most likely imply a Luol Deng trade, and a trade along those lines, along with the prospect of tanking may be enough to break the already thin ice Tom Thibodeau’s relationship with the front office is on. Also, while Rose is clearly a big part of this Bulls team, so far this season he was not necessarily responsible for much of (limited) success they were having. The team was a minus 3.4 per 100 possessions with Derrick Rose on the court and a plus 2.5 when he was off it. That nearly five point swing is not huge but it at least points to the fact that Bulls were not necessarily struggling this year when Rose was out of the mix.
The bigger impact Rose’s injury will have, will just be in the fact that their already paper thin rotation will be getting even thinner. The Bulls essentially were eight deep with Rose in the lineup and now can only put seven legitimate NBA level players on the court night in and night out. Marquis Teague will be force to take on a lot more minutes in the backup point guard role, and Teague has struggled mightily so far this season and in his NBA career in general. This team is going to struggle just because they do not have enough players to be as competitive as they wanted to be.
But it is hard to see a Thibodeau coached team tanking, and even harder to see a team with decent talent a good coach playing themselves out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are in a very interesting place at this point and it is difficult to see just how they will approach the situation going forward.
Last week Chris Paul beat out Magic Johnson‘s record for consecutive double-doubles earned by reaching double digits in both points and assists. So to celebrate, here are the top ten plays from Chris Paul’s career and the top 10 assists from Magic Johnson’s career:
Next Week: “World Domination” featuring the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers.