The Fundamentals: David Lee returns to Warriors team that grew in his absence
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
• This is unexpected: According to the NBA’s optical tracking data, Washington’s John Wall and Trevor Ariza are tied for the league lead in hockey assists — otherwise known as the pass leading to the pass leading to a score. For Wall, this is a surprise only in that he typically sets up shooters on his own; athleticism and vision make Wall a constructive drive-and-kick player, a skill set that has yielded 8.7 assists per game (a top-five mark). Ariza’s candidacy for the lead is very bizarre, as the forward has been historically far more likely to dribble his way into a difficult, contested jumper than swing the ball to the open man. He deserves credit for reeling off a few nice games, though color me skeptical that Ariza continues to play nice as a passer for the Wizards.
• No pair of players has started the season with more committed or effective driving than Rockets guards Jeremy Lin and James Harden. Between them, they have averaged 18.3 half-court drives, with Lin surprisingly leading the league with 12 per game. Even better: Lin, who last season had trouble finishing over help defenders, has converted 61.5 percent of his driving shot attempts as opponents are more mindful of Dwight Howard — who is either rolling to the rim or lingering just outside the paint on many of Lin’s drives — than they were of Omer Asik last season. Harden hasn’t been quite as dominant of a driver as you might expect, if only for his lack of volume. Still, he ranks 10th in points created for the Rockets via drives despite ranking 20th in drives per game — a disparity that reflects the uncanny rate of conversion (72.7 percent) on his attempts.
• Pacers teammates Roy Hibbert and David West both rank in the top 10 in block percentage and average a combined 7.7 blocks. If Hibbert and West were to secede from the Pacers and form their own, self-standing NBA franchise, they’d rank third in blocks per game.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Carlisle’s workshop
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is a notorious tinkerer, never satisfied with convention for convention’s sake. For that reason, one should never assume that Dallas will just fall into default defensive matchups, in which one nominal point guard defends another, a power forward defends a power forward, etc. Such an approach would be amazingly impractical for this roster. With both Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon seemingly incapable of playing reliable perimeter defense and Dirk Nowitzki no stalwart himself, Carlisle will have to find creative ways to forge defensive subsistence.
In Saturday’s game against the Grizzlies, that involved a cross-matching arrangement that might suit Dallas against any opponent lacking explosive scoring on the wing. Rather than waste the defensive talents of Shawn Marion on either Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince, Carlisle opted to have Marion guard the agile Mike Conley for much of the game. That left Calderon to “guard” Allen (this was not a night in which Allen particularly needed guarding) and Ellis to check the far taller Prince. The Mavs even took their approach a step further in having Ellis blatantly leave Prince in order to double-team Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on post touches, an effective strategy that essentially pushed Prince out of the game. Points for execution, but particular regards to the architect.
2. Brooklyn’s offense, three games stale
Very little has come naturally for the new-look Nets. The defense has been sloppy through three games — predictably so, given the changes to both the roster and coaching staff. Yet it’s the offense that has been surprisingly ineffective, as every move has been so damn deliberate. It’s not that Brooklyn is playing too slow or making explicitly wrong decisions, per se; it’s simply that its intentions are telegraphed early in its execution. When a post-up for Brook Lopez is coming, the pieces too predictably slide into place. When a play is doomed to end up an isolation for Joe Johnson or Paul Pierce, one can feel the momentum shift some 5-10 seconds before the one-on-one play even begins. The pieces involved are still terrific and promising, with some (Lopez and Pierce, notably) even playing well already. There’s just no life to the Nets’ offense — no true spontaneity for a team that should be far more flexible than it has been.
3. Hairless Gerald Henderson!
I had caught a glimpse of Henderson’s shaved head in Charlotte’s media day photos, but it’s another thing entirely to see him in action. I assumed that Henderson had planted a flag atop his widow’s peak, championing his high-arching hairline as if it were a badge of honor. That appears to no longer be the case; unless Henderson lost a bet, he’s willingly joined the ranks of the NBA’s generically bald. To be fair, such nondescript styling only serves to make his displays of athleticism that much more striking.
4. Why Nelson plays
The season is young, yet already one can hear the grumbling over veteran point guard Jameer Nelson’s receiving 32 minutes per game for Orlando. Such is the fate of any player who is perceived as siphoning playing time from a young, dynamic teammate. Nelson — along with Arron Afflalo — starts ahead of No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, and for that he’ll likely earn more scoffing criticism than he rightly deserves.
The reasons why Nelson continues to earn so much playing time are simple and threefold. Off the top: Even though he hasn’t consistently shown it, he’s still a quality player — far too good to be cast aside simply to accommodate Oladipo’s arrival. There’s value in a rebuilding franchise committing to some level of meritocracy, no matter the likely outcome of its season, and in such a framework it would seem odd not to play Nelson. If Oladipo is to take more than his already substantial 28 minutes per game, let him pry that playing time away from the two proud veterans ahead of him.
Second: Keeping Nelson involved is the best way to preserve his trade value. Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported last week that Orlando is open to dealing Nelson for a first-round pick. The only way he’s likely to fetch that price is if he plays well, stays visible and happens to entice just the right trade partner.
Third, and perhaps most important: Nelson is precisely the kind of player any lottery team should want setting the tone for its prospects. He’s inherently overmatched — listed generously at 6 feet and lacking the rangy wingspan that could make his life easier on both ends. Yet Nelson works hard as a defender, fighting through screens and sprinting to an open shooter in a last-ditch effort to influence his attempt. Nelson is a sensible offensive player, too, and has a control to his game that Oladipo would do well to learn. His limitations are obvious, and hardly need pointing out. But Nelson is still valuable to his team and plays in a way that’s brimming with instructive potential.
5. The Grizzlies’ transition
Memphis returned much of the roster that reached the Western Conference finals last season and promoted an assistant to head coach to keep the strategic spirit of the team fundamentally the same. But brutal defense has marred the Grizzlies’ first few games, in no small part due to floundering work in transition. Memphis has picked up the tempo of its offense rather noticeably under David Joerger but hasn’t accounted for the possibility that its opponents might do the same. As a result, the Grizz — despite still playing at a pace that ranks in the league’s bottom third — have allowed more fast break points per game than all but three teams.
That’s a significant drag on a set defense as historically formidable as this one, and largely a product of floor balance. Joerger has already added a few new offensive wrinkles, but he needs to be mindful of the potential effect of the scripted actions and placement of certain players — Mike Conley and Tony Allen, in particular — on the team’s transition defense. The Grizzlies just aren’t getting back in time to challenge opponents on the break, and while blame for that shouldn’t fall solely on Joerger by any means, he’s uniquely capable of ensuring that more perimeter players are in a position to counter the break.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.