At the start of the season there was one known quantity (two if you have learned to never bet against the San Antonio Spurs). The Miami Heat were going to remain at the top of the mountain, with a potential, slight regression coming at the hands of “we just went back-to-back, we don’t really need to care about the regular season” fatigue. Outside of that, though, we did not know too much about how this season would exactly play out. That sentiment became fully cemented about a week into the season when even our most general predictions — there are six clear cut elite team’s out West; the Bulls are going to return to form with a fully healthy roster — went out the window. Over the past month or so, four other teams have joined Miami in the first tier of NBA teams: as most people expected the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have remained dominant to start the season; less expected, the Indiana Pacers may in fact be the best team in basketball; and not expected at all, the Portland Trail Blazers have started off the season so well that their win on Monday over Indiana may have solidified them as a contender (emphasis on “may”). So I decided to take a close look at three of these squads — the Blazers, Pacers and Spurs. I left out Miami and Oklahoma City because a) the format only supports three topics, b) the Heat and Thunder are essentially known properties at this point and c) I know the Spurs are too, but the Spurs never get enough love. Let’s get into it:
First Step: At Trail Blazing Speeds
I do not think we underestimated this Blazers team. We knew this team had one of the best starting fives in basketball; we knew they were going to be able to score the basketball at mind-boggling levels; and we knew their bench was at least marginally better than it was last year. Where we miscalculated was this team’s home court advantage. The Rose Garden (or Moda Center as it is corporately known) is one of the toughest places to win games as a visiting team and when the Blazers squad is actually good — like it is this year — even the best teams in the league struggle to win there. This has been evidenced by San Antonio, Indiana and Chicago (OK, they’re not really “good” anymore) all dropping games in Portland. Their Denver/Utah like home court advantage, combined with the dismal competition they have faced on the road — only the Warriors, Lakers, and Suns (who they have lost to twice on the road) resemble even mediocre competition — and it makes sense that the Blazers have been this good out of the gate. The question is whether this team is actually a contender, or is just enjoying a nice home court advantage and a relatively weak schedule so far.
To answer that question, I present last year’s incarnation of the New York Knickerbockers. This Blazers team looks like a West Coast version of that team in a few major ways, most obvious of which is the way they go about things on offense. The Blazers have been great on that end, scoring 108 points per 100 possessions — the third highest offensive rating in basketball — and have done so largely by being lights out shooting the basketball. Here is there shot chart heading into tonight’s game at Oklahoma City:
There is definitely a chance of regression as the season goes on, but generally speaking, this is a team of knock down shooters and I doubt they fall very far from where they are right now shooting the 3 ball and shooting from the mid-range. There is always a chance this team struggles for short stretches, though, and if one of the those stretches comes around playoff time, the offense could fall of a cliff as defenses step their play to another level. That happened to the Knicks last year and their inability to get a shot in the paint proved to be their downfall when their jump shooting tailed off. Last year, about 35 percent of the Knicks’ shots came in the paint (about 30 percent in the restricted area) while about 60 percent of their shots came from the mid-range or from 3. Similarly about 38 percent of the Blazers shots have come from the paint while the other 62 percent have come from the mid-range and 3. Now the Blazers have been much better shooters than the Knicks so far, so there is a little less concern for a drop off. But they have also been worse in the paint — largely because they take a lot of non-restricted area paint shots — so any fall out shooting the basketball would be a huge concern for them come playoff time.
Their struggles in the paint are mostly due to the struggles of their star point guard so far this season. The Blazers obviously do a really good job of spreading the floor on offense (having four great shooters on the floor on almost all occasions will do that), but Damian Lillard has been the player they have relied on to attack the paint and take advantage of the open floor. Lillard has taken 19.9 percent — about one-fifth — of the Blazers paint shots this year, and while having your starting point guard attack the rim consistently is definitely not a bad thing, Lillard has been horrible within 16 feet (shot chart for proof). He is shooting 37.8 percent in the paint and in general has looked Ricky Rubio-level bad when he is doing anything but taking a jump shot to try to score.
Despite all that, though, this is still the third-best offense in basketball and despite any future patches of play the team is heading for, their ultimate downfall will probably not come solely from their struggles on the offensive end.
The defensive end, instead, is probably the chief area of concern for Blazers at this point in the season. Portland ranks 21st in defensive rating, giving up 103.4 points per 100 possessions. With their great offensive numbers though, they still are managing a 4.6 net rating and seem to be the team this year that will test the “great offense and below average defense cannot win a championship” theory — much like their Big Apple dopplegangers. Portland’s bad defense has mostly come at the hands of poor paint protection, where they rank 26th in points in the paint allowed per 100 possessions. Robin Lopez has actually been good in this regard; he ranks 11th in opposing field goal percentage at shots he contested at the rim — among the 62 players that contest at least five of these shots per game — letting opponents shoot only 42.8 percent on the 10 shots he is contesting per game. The problem is, Lopez is the only player who is doing a good job defending the paint. Aldridge is the only other player even contesting five shots per game and he ranks 41st among the 62 players, allowing opponents to shoot 51.9 percent on the 7.1 shots he contests.
The fact that only these two players have contested a lot of shots is somewhat part of the plan for the Blazers. Portland has attempted to adopt defensive schemes from some of the top defenses in basketball and appear to be defending very similar to the Indiana Pacers (scheme-wise) so far this year. That is, they are not doing much helping off of perimeter players, and are relying on their interior defenders to handle much of their paint protection. The strategy has at least worked in one aspect, specifically, they are defending against the 3 ball very effectively. Teams are only shooting 32.5 percent above the break against Portland (ranked fourth) and are only getting 13.8 attempts off (sixth-lowest). They have been even more restrictive guarding the corners, only allowing 3.5 attempts per game from the corners — teams are shooting 37.1 percent from the the corners against them, though (11th). It is a bright spot for what has been a clearly below average defense so far this year. It may be something Portland can build on, though; and if they can sure up the paint as the season goes on (maybe by adding a Omer Asik?), they may be able to put together a decent defense.
In The Lane: Setting The Pace
While the Trail Blazers will be attempting to win with great offense and sub-par defense, the Pacers will doing just the opposite — competing as a contender with outstanding defense and average offense. The Pacers are most likely in better shape out of the two for a couple of reasons: a) history points to great defenses having success in spite of average offense more so than the other way around and b) while the Blazers are a good offense, the Pacers are an historical defense. That is not hyperbole, either. If the Pacers keep up this pace (puns away!) on defense, their defensive rating (90.7) will be the lowest defensive rating in the NBA since 1996, which is as far back as the statistic is tracked. Only a few teams — from the 2003-04 season — come close and in general no team outside of San Antonio (94) can even hold a candle to what they are doing this year — after the Spurs the next closest team is 7.2 points away!
They have been accomplishing this defensively in the same they have been doing it for a couple of years now. The reason for the improvement, mostly, is Roy Hibbert‘s transformation from an amazing to a god-like paint protector. Hibbert is blocking 3.4 shots per game, but more impressively opponents are only shooting 37.8 percent at the rim against Hibbert this year. That is the third-highest figure among the 62 players that contest five shots per game — behind only Chris Kaman and Brook Lopez (you read that right) — and team’s simply cannot score against big Roy around the rim. And Ian Mahinmi has actually done a decent Hibbert impression in relief. Mahinmi ranks 21st on that list of 62, as teams are only shooting 45 percent against him at the rim.
Since both players have been so good defending the rim, the Pacers have been able to defend the perimeter just like the Blazers have and teams are not hitting many 3s as a result. Teams are only shooting 30 percent from the corners (first) and are only making 1.2 corner 3s per game (tied for first with Boston). From above the break teams are shooting 34.5 percent, which only ranks 14th, but teams are only getting 12.9 of these 3s off (second) so are only hitting 4.4 3s above the break per game (also second).
But the question with Indiana is, of course, on the offensive end. As great as Indiana has been collectively this year, they have not been any better offensively. While they are ranked 14th in offensive rating, they are only scoring 101.5 points per 100 possessions — actually 0.1 points worse than last year. This is happening despite amazing improvement on the offensive end from both Paul George and Lance Stephenson. George has transformed himself into a legitimate two-way star, after struggling to be an efficient scorer from the field last year. George has earned a 59.5 true shooting percentage so far this year, which ranks 13th among the 105 players who have played at least nine games, 20 minutes per game and have a usage rate of more than 20 — so first and second option, as well as high usage bench guys — and is actually very close to Kevin Durant (60.3) as far as scoring efficiency goes this season. Stephenson has not made as impressive of a leap, but he has upped his scoring, assists and rebounds with more minutes this year and is also sporting a good looking 3-point stroke to start the year — even if it is only from the top of the key and right corner.
The fact that the improvement from both players has not necessarily led to better offense for Indiana is concerning, though. This far into the season we can figure these guys maintain their numbers, at least somewhat, but Indiana as a whole may need to be better on offense than this if they truly want to make things happen come playoff time. The team has not been able to take advantage of the fact that they are a genuinely good shooting team this year and seem content to continue to assert themselves as a dominant inside presence despite being on the low side of average when it comes to scoring around the rim and in the paint. They are still religiously opposed to upping the pace and my fear with this team is that their offense will prove to be beyond redeemable come playoff time, despite how great this team is on defense. There is no way to count this team out as a contender, and there is definitely a chance it all works out for them despite mediocre offense, though.
The Finish: Doin’ It Again
I’ll keep this short because I have already used up 2,000 words and like I mentioned earlier, this team is essentially a known quantity at this point. I will say this: let’s stop doubting the Spurs or claiming “they’re done” until we actually see them stop dominating. Indiana’s historical defense has overshadowed the fact that San Antonio is also playing some of the greatest defense the NBA has seen in the last 10 years. Unlike Indiana, though, San Antonio is also fronting a top 10 offense and as a result actually have the top net rating in basketball so far (11.2; all stats from NBA.com, by the way). And San Antonio has not necessarily been that good on offense either yet, which is really scary to think about. Tony Parker has been in typical form to start; but Tim Duncan had struggled until his 20 and 20 performance a couple of nights ago; Danny Green has just started to find his shooting stroke; and Kawhi Leonard still has not taken his game up a notch like many though he would — though he is being fairly efficient so far, considering he also cannot hit a 3. Once their starters actually start clicking and playing at their top level offensively, they might be able to take their offense to another level and become even more dominant. Plus they are having way too much fun for an NBA team so far this season. As a matter of fact…
…for today’s last section, here are some of the Spurs “can somebody please give us some competition” highlights. First, here is Matt Bonner and Tony Parker wrestling for a rebound:
Two things to note: 1) Matt Bonner called an isolation for himself after bringing it up the court and 2) this is the freaking second quarter!!! (granted they were up 33 points)
Next up, Manu Ginobili and Parker pulling a paper cup prank on Duncan:
And to finish up here are this year’s four H-E-B commercials featuring Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard and Bonner: