Offering up New Year’s resolutions for every team in the Eastern Conference
Cleveland Cavaliers: Follow through offensively to set up better shots inside.
While the Cavs have made some progress defensively under head coach Mike Brown, their offense remains both unimaginative and unproductive. Part of the problem, though, is that their three primary ball handlers — Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Jarrett Jack — have the same tendency to pull up for jump shots, thereby bringing offensive actions to an abrupt end. In fact, Cleveland is one of just three teams (along with Portland and Milwaukee) to have three players in the top 50 in pull-up attempts per game, per SportVU, which unsurprisingly coincides with a low number of attempts in the restricted area. Far too many offensive sequences for the Cavs are upended with a contested jumper off the dribble or a floater from just inside the paint, both of which could be replaced with better looks nearer to the basket given the creativity, quickness, and ball handling of the players involved.
That’s not a change that can happen overnight, and Cleveland has likely been warded away from the rim by the fact that its players finish their shots there at the worst rate in the league. Yet the looks in the restricted area that the Cavs do generate often aren’t of great quality, as players like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao force up tough looks off scrambled plays or offensive rebounds. Improving too much inside will be tough until Cleveland imports better finishers, but creating more scoring opportunities down low could help center the offense for a team that has otherwise struggled to both make shots and generate free throws.
Detroit Pistons: Finish what they start.
While the Pistons have underwhelmed in many regards, they seem to have a particular talent for floundering in the fourth quarter. Consider as evidence Detroit’s implosion against Washington on Tuesday night; despite entering the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead, the Pistons wound up conceding 28 points in the final frame to lose by 12. That was slightly out of character for a team that, as noted by Dan Feldman of Piston Powered, generally tends to fade when behind rather than blow leads, but overall the fourth has given Detroit all kinds of trouble in most every situation.
Detroit is the league’s worst fourth-quarter team by a mile, as the Pistons are typically outscored by 13.4 points per 100 fourth quarter possessions. Boston comes closest with an eight-point margin in that same measure, though “close” is relative; the difference between the Pistons and Celtics is roughly the same as that between the 29th-ranked Celtics and the 19th-place Nets in terms of fourth quarter performance.
Take a look at how Detroit matches up with the rest of the Eastern Conference in terms of points scored and allowed per fourth quarter possession:
The axes represent the league average for fourth quarter performance: 104.6 points per 100 possessions.
Charlotte has performed worse offensively and Washington has been almost as poor defensively, but no team matches the two-way misery of Detroit’s fourth-quarter play. Consistency from quarter to quarter should not be so elusive.
Indiana Pacers: Return to dominance on the offensive glass.
Paul George has ascended, Roy Hibbert is thriving, Lance Stephenson improves by the day, and David West and George Hill remain sturdy. Yet the Pacers rank 13th in the league in scoring efficiency, just above the likes of Toronto, Sacramento, and Detroit. Turnovers remain a considerable problem on that front, but more glaring is Indiana’s odd slide on the offensive glass. Just last season the Pacers were consistently able to leverage their size into additional scoring opportunities, the frequency of which helped to offset their turnover problems. This season, though, Indiana has ranked 20th in offensive rebounding rate — a swing that has allowed six percent of their own misses to fall to their opponents relative to last season’s mark.
On a per-game basis, that’s a loss of about three potential field goal attempts per game. Accounting for the fact that Indiana returns 1.1 points per offensive rebound per Synergy Sports, that’s a loss of roughly 2.8 points per game — more than 230 points over the course of a full regular season. The decision to let go of Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Ayres is responsible for some of that dip, but Pacers across the board — from Hibbert and West on down — have seen dips in their individual offensive rebounding rates. How could such a big team with a post-centric focus be so underwhelming on the offensive boards?
Miami Heat: Dig around in the couch cushions for Shane Battier’s jump shot.
The defending champs are a team of resolution and as worthy a contender as any in the league. That Miami is playing so well while going to such great lengths to keep Dwyane Wade healthy is remarkable, and bodes well for the team’s performance overall and Wade’s availability come playoff time.
The only thing that seems to be missing is Shane Battier’s three-point stroke, which was last seen in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Miami is getting better at making do when Battier isn’t connecting from long range, but there’s no question that his ability to stretch the floor makes matchups against bigger elite teams easier for the Heat to handle. Battier may have a lead on finding his wayward shot after hitting 5-of-8 from deep in his last three games, but what matters most is that it surfaces by the time the postseason rolls around.
Milwaukee Bucks: Lean in.
One could say that the basketball gods have done Milwaukee a favor, as a roster designed to scrounge for wins has thus far been rendered the worst team in the league by rampant injury. With more losing and some decent lottery luck, the Bucks could soon be building around a core of Larry Sanders, John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a blue-chip prospect to be named later. Also in the stable are solid young contributors in Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, and Nate Wolters, along with a movable assets like O.J. Mayo and a potentially movable asset/reclamation project in Ersan Ilyasova. Also in play: Milwaukee is owed seven second round picks between now and 2019, making for a nice pile of potential deal sweeteners should the situation require it.
That’s not the foundation of the dynasty, but with the right lottery pick and a commitment to the developmental process, this could soon be a very solid team. All Milwaukee needs to do is lean into the stink, if only a bit; it shouldn’t take too much maneuvering to ensure that this roster loses plenty of games, but every effort should be made to preserve this opportunity and the long-term prospects of this core.
New York Knicks: Don’t do anything rash.
This would seem to run contrary to the franchise’s operating standard, but we’ve reached the point with the Knicks where all we can ask is that they keep their hands to themselves and not break anything. There is not a plausible trade out there by which New York could flip its meager assets for a shot at contention. As such, what matters most is that the Knicks retain the tradeable pieces they do have — Iman Shumpert, Tyson Chandler, what future draft considerations New York still owns — for the right deal. If that comes this season, so be it. But there should be no pressure to sell off players or picks to buy a life preserver for this drowning lot, not when their problems run so, so deep.
Consider all options and explore the trade market, by all means. Just fight the urge to be the Knicks when it comes to panic moves in a no-win situation.