The M*A*S*H Rankings #1: Laker Woes and Pelican Throes

Hey, all! In this new segment, Aaron will be going over recent major NBA injuries and assessing their impacts on the teams that suffered them. We are also making this into a general power rankings feature, because the kids love that. The overall style here will be similar to Jonah Keri's long-running Grantland series "The 30" where he provides his weekly MLB power rankings with detailed explications of three teams a week. Instead of broader ranking thoughts, Aaron will be discussing current injury ramifications on three teams nestled softly within broader rankings. Let's go!

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30. Philadelphia 76ers (14th in the East) 15-43, SRS of -11.15
29. Milwaukee Bucks (15th in the East) 11-45, SRS of -9.34

28. Los Angeles Lakers (15th in the West) 19-39, SRS of -5.03

FIVE-MAN INJURED ROSTER: Steve Nash (Nerve irritation), Nick Young (Sore knee), Chris Kaman (Sore back), Xavier Henry (Strained knee), Kobe Bryant (Tibia fracture)

It's too little too late to make any bones at playoff contention, but it's worth noting that this five-man-deep injured roster actually represents L.A.'s least injured roster in the last few months. That's right -- five injured players represents a Laker team that's rounding into some morbid approximation of health. At times this season, their injured roster has included nearly all of their regular starters and every productive player they've got. Most notably, they played a game less than a month ago where they ended the contest with less than five eligible players. Their current injured roster is five players deep, with two of them (Henry, Bryant) out indefinitely and the rest out game-to-game with ailments of varying severity.

Personally, I keep going back to one of the saddest-yet-rarely-discussed things about L.A.'s woefully mismatched roster this year. Namely, the fact that almost everyone on this terrible team is in a contract year. Don't get me wrong -- injuries suck for every NBA player. But they almost count double for roleplayers playing for their next contract. Every missed game, every 10-15 game sad stretch where their stats suffer from awful injuries, every lost step and tentative gait... it all matters, and it's all going to conspire to dramatically stifle the amount any of L.A.'s players can expect on their next contract.

A few examples. Jordan Farmar has actually played some decent basketball this season, at least when he's been fully healthy. He signed a one-year deal with L.A. in hopes that he'd play well and stick in the league. But he's missed 30 games with a wide variety of crummy injuries, and his lagging immediately-back-from-injury efforts are deflating his stats a bit. If he'd stayed healthy and continued to play as well as he has this year, I'd probably pencil him in for a small-time several million dollar deal as a cheap point-off-the-bench for a contender. As it stands, he'd be lucky to stick in the league at all. Same goes for Chris Kaman, whose injuries this year have limited him to a little over half of L.A.'s games. He's 31 years old and looking for what will likely be his last decent-length NBA deal. But he can't stay on the floor, and his value as a player is dropping precipitously because of it despite showing himself to be, as always, a dependably mediocre big man who can't really defend a fly. He probably will stick in the league, but I'd be very surprised if his next contract is anything above a veteran's minimum.

As for how L.A.'s current injuries are impacting their play... I'm not sure it really matters. They've been a remarkably bad team this entire season no matter who they put on the floor. This isn't a team that's one piece away from title contention, or even a playoff spot. Their injuries have exacerbated their pre-existing flaws (namely: poor defensive fundamentals, old-as-dirt personnel ill suited to D'Antoni's pet style, players that genuinely don't fit together), but these are all ills that apply to L.A. regardless of their injury woes. I suspect D'Antoni would be able to wrangle a few more wins on the margins with less-injured talent, but the overall trajectory of this team would remain about the same -- they're a mediocre team that excels at nothing-in-particular in the best of times. I'm really curious to see what Kupchak does with this roster in the offseason. Lord knows they need some spring cleaning.

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27. Orlando Magic (13th in the East) 18-42, SRS of -5.68
26. Utah Jazz (13th in the West) 21-36, SRS of -4.17
25. Boston Celtics (12th in the East) 20-39, SRS of -4.16
24. Denver Nuggets (11th in the West) 25-31, SRS of -1.71
23. New York Knicks (11th in the East) 21-36, SRS of -2.33
22. Atlanta Hawks (8th in the East) 26-31, SRS of -0.68
21. Detroit Pistons (9th in the East) 23-35, SRS of -3.37
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (10th in the East) 23-36, SRS of -5.26
19. Brooklyn Nets (7th in the East) 26-29, SRS of -2.86

18. New Orleans Pelicans (12th in the West) 23-34, SRS of -1.70

INJURED ROSTER: Anthony Davis (shoulder sprain), Ryan Anderson (herniated disk), Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), Jason Smith (right knee surgery)

I was pretty high on New Orleans in the offseason, a sentiment that's partially a product of my perhaps-misguided faith in Eric Gordon's defense. Still, their overall roster construction looked solid. Davis and Anderson represent the kind of perfect in-and-out configuration that represents a matchup nightmare for just about any other team in the league. The Jrue Holiday acquisition gave them a defensive bulldog who'd bother their foe's best perimeter scorer and execute a solid offense, Eric Gordon's return from injury would give them another good wing defender, and Tyreke Evans looked like a decent option to fill the gaps offensively without embarrassing them on defense. ... Well, about that. The Pelicans have been one of the NBA's least inspiring teams, if you look at record and results as a part of a trajectory. Last summer's Pelicans made a lot of moves that appeared prime to push their young roster into a tight Western playoff race.

Instead, the results have been an uninspiring stew of alternating mediocrity and horror. Anthony Davis has had one of the best years of any young player in recent memory, but the team around him has largely disappointed -- Holiday was rubbish even when healthy, Gordon and Evans have been replacement-level at best, and Anderson's injuries have made it next to impossible to fully assess how good this team can be. Worse still, their acquisitions and moves have left them financially tapped out for the next few seasons. The question of the hour for the Pelicans isn't really one of whether this season's play can be salvaged. It can't. They're 10 games out of the eight seed with 25 games left to play, which effectively means that they'd need to put up a record on the order of 20-5 to have a serious shot at playing in the postseason. Even if Davis' shoulder sprain is minor, it would make little organizational sense to trot him out there and risk a franchise-altering injury in pursuit of the impossible. The most apt injury-focused question for New Orleans is one of blame.

Namely, how much are their litany of injuries to blame for their crummy year?

I'd tend to think the Pelicans are closer to the rosy offseason projections than they are to this season's sobering reality. Davis and Anderson showed an excellent two-man game in their time together (scant though it was), and a lot of their disappointing acquisitions seem a little bit fluky. Case in point -- Tyreke Evans is putting up the largest usage rate of his career. Unlike most players, though, he's actually put up a more efficient shot distribution this year than ever before. In Sacramento, Evans took just 7% of his threes from the corner -- he's taking 25% of them from the corner this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 43% of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the rim -- he's taking 55% of his shots there this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 19% of his shots from the "long two dead zone" of 16-23 feet -- he's taking 9% of his shots there this year. In terms of shot distribution and general quality-of-shot, Evans is having a really good season. He just can't seem to make any of the well-placed shots he's taking.

Assuming Evans continues his improved shot profile, it isn't unrealistic to expect that he'd post one of his best seasons once his shot starts coming around. And the Pelicans -- despite the woeful broad strokes -- have shown flashes of brilliance even in this lost year. They hold one of the NBA's best four-man combinations in Holiday/Evans/Anderson/Davis, a fearsome group that's outscored opposing teams by 15 points per 100 possessions in the 143 minutes they've shared the court. The Pelicans are circling the toilet bowl on another lost season, but count me as an optimist for their future trajectory. Their genuinely awful defense probably nixes their potential as a contending force in the NBA (barring a massive leap by Anthony Davis on the defensive end -- hardly a remote possibility), but if they can put together a healthy season, they should be firmly in the mix for one of the West's lower-tier playoff spots in the next few years of their locked-up core.

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17. Sacramento Kings (14th in the West) 20-37, SRS of -1.33
16. Charlotte Bobcats (6th in the East) 27-30, SRS of -2.13
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (10th in the West) 28-29, SRS of 4.54
14. Washington Wizards (5th in the East) 29-28, SRS of 0.00
13. Phoenix Suns (8th in the West) 33-24, SRS of 2.85
12. Chicago Bulls (4th in the East) 31-26, SRS of -0.04
11. Memphis Grizzlies (9th in the West) 32-24, SRS of 1.16
10. Toronto Raptors (3rd in the East) 32-25, SRS of 2.7
9. Golden State Warriors (7th in the West) 35-23, SRS of 4.69
8. Dallas Mavericks (6th in the West) 36-23, SRS of 2.52

7. Portland Trail Blazers (3rd in the West) 40-18, SRS of 5.56

INJURED ROSTER: LaMarcus Aldridge (groin), Thomas Robinson (sprained knee), Meyers Leonard (sprained ankle), Joel Freeland (sprained MCL)

I was going to write a bit about San Antonio's revolving door of injuries and their in-process return to form, but last night's Portland win really shocked me. So much so that I had to write about their team. I've been on record as one of Portland's biggest backers this year, and I went so far as to tab LaMarcus Aldridge as the NBA's MVP at the quarter-way mark of the season. I wouldn't quite put Aldridge at #1 on my ballot anymore. Durant has passed him handily. That said, if I had a ballot I'd still slot him firmly in the top five.

Many harbor disdain for Aldridge as an MVP candidate. They note that his play this season isn't drastically different from his play in the last several seasons, following that nobody in their right mind would've considered him an MVP candidate before this year. Ergo, he can't be considered much of one this year, especially when several other big men in his conference are putting up similarly incredible seasons. This logic isn't unreasonable, but I think it misses a few key points about Aldridge's play this season that bear repeating.

  • HIS DEFENSE: Aldridge has always been a decent-to-good defender, at least when he's locked in. He's no Duncan, but he's almost always in the right place and he's fastidious when it comes to maintaining position and switching. There's a caveat, though. His defensive talent is more reminiscent of a very good accountant who knows the ins and outs of the tax system than an artistic savant who shines in any situation. Fittingly, Aldridge is prone to fits of laziness and defensive lapses when he's stuck on teams that are poor at just about everything on the court. That isn't true about this year's team. The 2014 Blazers are a pathetic defensive team -- a fact that will likely be their death knell in the playoffs -- but it's by absolutely no fault of Aldridge. His effort on defense has been phenomenal this year, and the Blazers have actually needed him more on defense than they have on offense -- the Blazers have been five points per 100 possessions better on defense with Aldridge on the floor, essentially representing the difference between Milwaukee's 30th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 110) and Memphis' 10th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 105).
  • HE ACTUALLY IS PLAYING BETTER: People are correct when they note that his play isn't dramatically better than it was before. But even disregarding his markedly increased defensive intensity, Aldridge is posting his best long-two shooting percentage of his career by a decent margin despite massively increased usage from that range. He's rebounding at a higher rate than he ever has before, his assist rate is a comfortable career high, and his turnover rate is a comfortable career low. In a vacuum, the changes are all reasonably small. Compounded, though? In context with his massively increased usage? He's made a leap from "perennial deserving all-star" to a number one option you can actually contend for a title with, even if only on the fringes. That's a pretty big deal.
  • PORTLAND'S OFFENSE MAKES NO SENSE WITHOUT HIM: I'm one of the few remaining weirdos who firmly believe that Dirk Nowitzki deserved the regular season MVP in the 2011 season. So perhaps that's part of where my Aldridge-inspired backing comes from -- I have a soft spot for quixotic big men whose skillset is absolutely essential to the way their team plays the game. Portland's league-leading offense is based around subverting the core concept of most defensive schemes -- mainly, the idea that the long-two is an anathema to efficiency. Most teams use that concept and try to force the opposing team to take as many guarded long twos as possible, aware that they're a better result for the defense than a three point shot or any closer two. The Blazers, Heat, and Mavericks all laugh at that concept, each featuring floor-spacing big men that extend the floor and make that theoretically distasteful long two into a downright enviable result. An offense that turns bad results into good ones is one that can sustain through droughts and playoff pressure. Without Aldridge's skillset (or perhaps more to the point, even if he was equally as skilled with a less quixotic skillset), the Blazers aren't anywhere close to the threat they are.

I maintain serious skepticism at Portland's ability to keep a sustained period of quality play going without Aldridge there to open the offense and keep their defense rolling. Especially when it comes to the defense. The Blazers still have the pieces for a reasonably effective NBA offense without Aldridge, although it's more reliant on threes and less likely to sustain productivity against a playoff defense. They just can't really defend anyone, as evinced by the disappointing home loss they recently suffered to the M*A*S*H unit Spurs last week. They scored 23 points in the last six minutes by running a slightly more traditional offense with their remaining personnel, and it was almost enough to win the game. But filling in Aldridge's absence on defense is exceedingly difficult.

That said? Last night's game was pretty amazing on that front for the Blazers. Perhaps Brooklyn was just having a bad night, and perhaps it's too easy to read too far into a single game. But the Blazers put up one of their very best defensive efforts of the season despite starting Dorrell Wright and playing serious minutes while the game was close with an absolutely bonkers Williams-McCollum-Barton-Matthews-Claver lineup. That lineup shouldn't be able to defend ANYONE, let alone a lineup fielding Brooklyn's "best five" unit of Williams/Johnson/Thornton/Pierce/Garnett. I'm admittedly hesitant to say that my initial read on Portland's no-Aldridge defense is wrong. But I can't deny that Portland's guard-fueled defensive triumph with a single active big man is tantalizing for me, even if it came against a mediocre-to-bad Nets team. If Portland's smalls can put that kind of a defensive effort together with Aldridge and Lopez together on the front line, their ceiling rises dramatically. Worth watching, as the season churns to an end.

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6. Houston Rockets (5th in the West) 39-19, SRS of 4.99
5. Los Angeles Clippers (4th in the West) 40-20, SRS of 6.56
4. San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West) 41-16, SRS of 6.41
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (1st in the West) 43-15, SRS of 6.82
2. Indiana Pacers (1st in the East) 43-13, SRS of 7.37
1. Miami Heat (2nd in the East) 40-14, SRS of 5.06

5 comments on “The M*A*S*H Rankings #1: Laker Woes and Pelican Throes

    • I wrote a piece on the Hot Hand for Truehoop, but I'm not sure if I'm going to do any real GG coverage unfortunately. I was considering going hit-by-hit through the published papers but might save that for summer or next year.

  1. The hook! It's awesome. The rapping stinks, but there's something so infectious about the hook. Also, yes, fuck Kevin Durant, because watching him play is like watching someone play Counterstrike with auto-aim turned on. There's no suspense, there's no strategy, it's just a guy who can aim and fire better than everyone else.

    • It's a great hook, I agree. As a whole song it's rather lacking but it grows on you.

      Maybe I'll put together a 3-on-3 with Arnon and Dewey.

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