Fourth Week Funderkind -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

kawhi vs blake

Last week, I wrote a third installment of a new feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the prior week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, using statistics from NBAWowy, Basketball Reference, and NBA.com, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Let's get to it, then.

• • •

Observation #1: KAWHI LEONARD ISN'T HELPING SAN ANTONIO'S OFFENSE

After last year's finals, just about everyone -- me included -- felt that Kawhi Leonard was due to take the proverbial "next step" this year. The theories on how exactly that would come to pass ranged heavily, but most people agreed that he was due to take a large leap offensively. With more responsibility in the offense, he'd start to learn how to facilitate and search for his own shot through careful examination of defensive seams. He'd couple this with his always improving defensive brilliance and become a quasi-star. Perhaps even an all-star, although everyone admits that's less likely given the West's glut of amazing wings and forwards. Right?

Not so much. At least to date. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Spurs are averaging a pedestrian 1.00 points per possession. With Kawhi off the floor, the Spurs are averaging a blistering 1.18 points per possession. To put that in layman's terms: the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to a bottom-five offensive team when Kawhi's in the game. When he's not, the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to NBA Jam with all sliders maxed out. The main difference? The Spurs aren't making many jumpers when their young star's in the game (0.86 points per shot) -- but they're canning them like sardines when he isn't on the floor, scoring 1.08 points per jumper when Kawhi is stuck to the pine. It's a tricky result for a core player that essentially everyone believes to be San Antonio's future.

The eye test tends to agree with the stats on this one, too -- it doesn't really feel like an anomaly. Although the Spurs are missing a lot of open shots with Kawhi on the floor, it seems like every few shots Kawhi controls ends up in a laughably botched pass or a complete prayer of a jumper. The offense has a bad habit of stalling, leaving half the players on the floor watching helplessly as Kawhi abuses his own screens or dribbles himself into positions where San Antonio's open players are completely inaccessible and multiple defenders have a chance at altering the shot. While the offense is still functioning effectively when Kawhi successfully dishes to a driver or runs a play action, more often than not, that action never really initiates -- the offensive set just ends in a desperation heave or a random step-back jumpshot. And as we all know, the degree of difficulty on a random fadeaway jump shot is way, way higher than the stand-still set shots San Antonio generates when the system has the reins and takes an effort to whip the ball around off screens and motion. Hence the gap in jump shot efficiency.

To put it simply, the Spurs offense is a LOT more clunky than it is when Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili takes the reins. Perhaps that's to be expected, but the vast gap in how smart the plays are is somewhat jarring. Screens lie abandoned, simple easy-to-thwart actions are thwarted, and the off ball movement seems to stall. It's just a very strange look for the Spurs offense, as necessary as it may be to develop it.

The strangest part about it all? Kawhi's personal offensive numbers aren't particularly bad, even as the overall team offense looks bad when he's at the helm. His three point shot is consistently missing the mark by a few inches (and his 27% three point percentage shows it), but Kawhi is shooting 60% from inside the three point line. Most would see that and assume he isn't taking any long two pointers, but that's simply not true -- he's taking a hell of a lot of long two point shots, he's just being polite enough to actually make them. He's shooting 14-of-27 from 16-24 feet, a percentage that would usually lead the league from that range.  His turnover rate is up a tad and he's drawing free throws a bit less than he was last year, but his rebounding rate is through the roof and his assist rate is holding steady. It all stands to reason that Kawhi's personal offensive numbers really aren't that bad, making the team's dismal offense with him on the floor all-the-more confusing.

That said, the Spurs are hardly floundering with Kawhi on the floor, and the defense can be thanked for that. In Zach Lowe's yearly "32 Bold Predictions" post, he waxed philosophical about how Chicago's starting lineup (Rose/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah) might allow less than 90 points per possession, and then noted that San Antonio's starting lineup accomplished the task last year. San Antonio's starters -- surprisingly -- haven't been quite there this year. But every unit Kawhi is a part of comes remarkably close. No matter who the Spurs put next to Kawhi, opposing teams are scoring just 0.91 points per possession with Leonard on deck (compared to 1.01 with him off the floor -- still good, but not world-beating). What makes this even more impressive is that Kawhi tends to be on the floor against starters and the league's best lineups, and in his semi-limited minutes (27 a night), he doesn't tend to get much burn against the crumbs and detritus of the opposition bench mobs.

It compounds to make that number all the more impressive. Perhaps more importantly, it also gives the Spurs a lot of time to figure things out -- as long as the defense is this stout with Kawhi on the floor, the flagging offense is something Popovich has time to work out. This does tend to make this year's Spurs team all the more frightening, assuming good health. After all. The team is 13-1 with everyone on an inconceivably short leash, sporting the sixth best offense and the second best defense. Given Duncan's currently slumping shot and the generally poor offense under Kawhi's purview, the question looms -- what if San Antonio's offensive best is yet to come?

• • •

Observation #2: JACQUE VAUGHN REALLY LIKES MAXIELL/VUCEVIC, APPARENTLY

At some point during his explosion in the first game of the season, I started really liking Andrew Nicholson's game. I was essentially neutral on him after his decent-not-great rookie campaign, but that game sort of put me on the bandwagon. Sure, he's a tiny bit short. He turns the ball over a lot. He isn't exactly a defensive mastermind. I get all that. But he's a very good rebounder and an excellent scorer that really helps out an offense. His three point shot isn't exactly making the opposition cower in fear (after going 2-for-2 from three in the first game of the season, Nicholson went 2-for-17 in the following 11 games), but he has picture-perfect form on his long midrange jumpshot and he's comfortable releasing in the rhythm of the offense. He's been pretty solid... which goes a long way toward explaining why the following minutes distribution of Orlando's big men absolutely floored me:

Big #1     Big #2       Poss    Minutes
Maxiell    Vucevic       368      183.4
Nicholson  Vucevic       213      111.2
Harkless   Vucevic       161       80.7
Nicholson  O'Quinn       159       80.6
Maxiell    O'Quinn        44       21.5
Nicholson  Maxiell        24       12.2

Seriously, Jacque Vaughn... what? Even more damning here is the fact that Maxiell has actually played fewer games than Nicholson has -- in terms of possessions per game, Maxiell/Vucevic is just CRUSHING Nicholson/Vucevic in Vaughn's rotations. This really amuses me. I realize that Nicholson is young, but Jason Maxiell is having a really, really bad season. Which is sort of what most people expected; the man hasn't been particularly passable player since 2010, and his PER (currently 8.2) really understates how bad he's been for Orlando. The Magic are scoring 1.01 PPP and allowing 1.12 with Maxiell on the floor -- when he's on the bench, they're actually outscoring their opponents 1.04 to 1.02 PPP.

Their defense is markedly worse, and watching the tape is pretty damning. Maxiell has lost the athleticism that made him valuable and is regularly losing his man and flying off the handle in pursuit of an errant block. And THAT'S the lineup that Jacque Vaughn is leaning on? I've got a post in the works about how sunny the future is in Orlando, and the moments where Vaughn puts Nicholson and Vucevic on the court together make you wonder how good these two can be. But for now, Jason Maxiell looks like Orlando's best chance at a lottery pick.

Looks like Vaughn really wants that pick.

• • •

Observation #3: THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR RACE IS UNFATHOMABLY AWFUL

Seemingly every year, commentators repeat ad nauseum the same tired schtick about how the draft is the weakest we've seen in ages. "No young talent! Are there any functioning NBA players? This draft goes three deep!" Generally, these aspersions turn out to be little more than overreactions. You can find three or four high quality players in almost every draft, even the "awful" ones people decry. To wit, here's a subjective top five players from every draft in the last half-decade.

  • 2012: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, John Henson
  • 2011: Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson
  • 2010: Paul George, John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins
  • 2009: James Harden, Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday
  • 2008: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert

Flip through that list. Almost every draft listed had virtually no hype, despite the fact that they all have multiple all-star caliber players and at least five legitimate NBA starters. The draft is a crap shoot, yes, but almost every year brings a few legitimate stars and starters to bolster the league's lower lights.

You know. Except for this year.

Seriously, I don't really have a lot to add here. Look at this list of the "best" statistical seasons by the NBA's current rookies playing over 15 minutes a night, ordered by PER. Note: only one such rookie has an above-average PER.

Rk  Player                    Tm    G    PER     PTS   TRB   AST   MP      eFG%   TOV%   WS/48
1   Michael Carter-Williams   PHI   11   19.5   17.3   5.7   7.4   36.2   0.452   16.2   0.104
2   Mason Plumlee             BRK   10   14.6    6.2   3.5   0.3   16.8   0.636   12.2   0.117
3   Vitor Faverani            BOS   16   14.0    5.8   5.1   0.6   16.8   0.494   22.0   0.073
4   Steven Adams              OKC   12   13.7    4.8   5.1   0.9   18.8   0.455   13.9   0.148
5   Tim Hardaway              NYK   12   12.6    6.5   1.1   0.8   15.3   0.493    6.3   0.056
6   Nate Wolters              MIL   13   12.5    7.5   2.8   4.5   27.0   0.417   13.0   0.042
7   Victor Oladipo            ORL   13   11.0   12.3   4.1   3.4   27.5   0.428   24.1  -0.038
8   Ben McLemore              SAC   13   10.7    8.8   2.8   0.8   21.8   0.467    9.5   0.033
9   Kentavious Caldwell-Pope  DET   12   10.1    7.9   1.8   1.0   22.3   0.401    2.7   0.047
10  Matthew Dellavedova       CLE   8     9.8    3.9   1.8   1.1   16.0   0.538   15.3   0.065
11  Kelly Olynyk              BOS   14    9.4    7.5   5.4   1.6   22.6   0.407   20.1   0.005
12  Cody Zeller               CHA   15    7.7    4.9   4.1   0.7   18.3   0.342   18.8  -0.001
13  Trey Burke                UTA   4     7.5    8.5   3.5   3.0   21.5   0.369   15.6  -0.098

Michael Carter-Williams is running away with the Rookie of the Year hardware right now, but his overall performance leaves a bit to be desired. He's currently shooting 40-36-60, and with his three point shot having been so poor in college, it's hard to imagine that 36% maintaining over time -- indeed, it's been on the downswing since the first 5 games of the season. His free throw shooting is atrocious, as well. All that said, he does look like he has a good shot at being an above-average NBA player. Which is more than I can say about essentially the entire rest of this draft class. Both Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams have faded a bit after an excellent start, but I'd still take their defensive potential and broken offense over just about anyone else on this thoroughly uninspiring list.

Victor Oladipo has been disappointing, in my eyes -- his defense translates moderately well, but his offensive game is broken and his scoring and distribution potential might have been highly overrated. Anthony Bennett isn't the only high profile rookie to flounder, either. Otto Porter hasn't yet stepped on the court and looked obnoxiously bad in Las Vegas Summer League action. Alex Len has been bad enough that Phoenix has made Miles Plumlee their work-a-day option and buried their 5th overall pick on the bench. McLemore, Burke, and Pope all look decidedly awful in their burn to date, and the Olynyk/Zeller/Muhammad don't even look like NBA-quality roleplayers. That's the entire lottery. Micheal Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, and Steven Adams are the only lottery picks that currently look like they even have the rough potential of becoming an NBA-quality starter -- and the Oladipo/Adams duo have a lot of work to do before they get there, too. Overall? This looks like one of the most inauspicious rookie classes in the last 20 years.

For once, it looks like the nattering nabobs of negativity got it right. Save us, Obi Wan Ke-Noel-bi, you're our only hope!

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

Given that I'm planning on keeping this going all throughout the year, it'd be a bit ridiculous to keep trends on the list the entire year even when they've been irrelevant for weeks. Therefore, I'm going to take trends off the trendspotting ledger once they've been blatantly untrue for two weeks. I'll keep a numbering scheme to remind everyone what post in the series spawned each individual trend, and I'll denote the trends that fell off in each individual week in a small blurb after all the ones we're tracking.

  • Week #1: "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.5. We're starting to get into territory where this is becoming shaky -- last week's games, for instance, were effectively played at snail's pace compared to where we started the season. Again, it's still among the highest in recent memory, but if it doesn't stabilize, we may be down to dismal levels by year's end. Status: STILL TRUE, BUT WAVERING.
  • Week #1: "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still reasonable. The injury bug might be starting to cause a reversion to his usual patterns, though -- Deng is up to 37 MPG in Butler's absence and there's still little to no idea on any side how he's going to cope with Rose being out. That said, it's still his best minutes-shaving rotation in quite a while, so I'd still assess this as true. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #1: "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. They swept a home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks, who look like a legitimately great offense this year. They're up to 8th in full-season offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating. They aren't a contender, but they certainly aren't as awful as they looked to start the season. Status: NOPE, THIS ONE'S GONE
  • Week #2: "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... The Rockets are down to 0.456 free throw attempts per shot. While this isn't historically unprecedented, it's still by large margin the highest rate since the 1950s, so I'd still say this trend is holding. But last week had a huge drop in their rate, so it'll be interesting to see if they start reverting to normal historical levels soon. Status: UNPRECEDENTED, NO. HISTORIC, EFFECTIVELY.
  • Week #2: "Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... Lillard has continued to revert to the mean. He's now at 40% from two and 38% from three. At original writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two. He's essentially returned to career averages over the intervening two weeks. Status: UNLESS SOMETHING CRAZY HAPPENS, IT'S OVER
  • Week #3: "Were selections to be made today, there are no Eastern Conference guards who would deserve to make the Western Conference all-star team." ... With the East going 3-17 to the West over the previous week, there really wasn't much opportunity to add to this list. And sure enough, nobody really has yet. Status: YEP, EAST IS STILL AWFUL.
  • Week #3: "Miami is facing a minor point guard crisis -- they're performing better with Norris Cole on the floor than with Mario Chalmers, throwing into question everything we know about the world." ... The Heat are still scoring at a much better rate (1.17 PPP vs 1.12 PPP) and allowing fewer points (1.03 PPP vs 1.07 PPP) with Cole on the court. Still, if you look at the numbers I outlined last week, that's a far less stark advantage than Cole had a week ago, indicating that the previous week has been good for Chalmers. It's definitely still a debate, but Chalmers is starting a comeback.  Status: CONTROVERSY! COLE/CHALMERS! THE CHILLA IN THE CRIB...LLA?
  • Week #3: "The Atlantic Division is on pace to be historically bad -- every single team is under 0.500, the division as a whole is being outscored by 4 points a night, and everything is awful." ... Last week, the Atlantic Division went 5-12. Hilariously, this has improved their cumulative win percentage. Also, their collective point differential is down from -4.1 to -4.6. Not a good look. Status: STILL TRUE, DEAR GOD.

 TRENDS THAT FELL OFF: Andre Iguodala's free throw percentage (not respectable, but no longer hack-an-Iggy level), Steph Curry on pace to break the three point attempt record (not even close, anymore), LeBron playing over 36 MPG (down to 35 MPG). Bye, trends!

5 comments on “Fourth Week Funderkind -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

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  3. Excellent article, thanks for all your writing. On crummy rookies, I do wonder how those draft classes might have looked 15-20 games into their respective rookie seasons. With hindsight it is easy to believe that we knew from the very beginning that the good/great players were definitely going to be great, but many of them were far from sure things coming into the league. That said, this year's rookies look pretty mediocre.

    • I was pretty overly harsh on the rookies. Many classes do look kind of poor early on only to recoup later. I do contend that, to-date, this class looks pretty impressively mediocre without a star-looking player among them. But it's too early to really make those kinds of vast assumptions.

      Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for reading.

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