Give and Go: Can Kobe revitalize Lakers? Will Knicks fortify D? More trend analysis
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Deciding whether various early performances will hold up or fall apart as the rest of the season plays out. (All stats and records are through Nov.20.)
1. Despite their many well-documented issues last season, the Lakers managed to end the year ranked No. 8 in offensive efficiency. Without Kobe Bryant (injured) and Dwight Howard (departed), L.A. ranks No. 25 overall and 14th in the Western Conference in that category. Will this early futility continue or will Bryant's return dramatically change the Lakers' outlook on offense?
Ben Golliver: No matter what happens during the rest of his coaching career, Mike D'Antoni will be remembered first and foremost as the offensive genius who guided the Suns to the top of the league's scoring charts. If the season ended today, this year would go down as the worst offensive performance by a D'Antoni-coached team, worse even than the inconsistent Knicks clubs he struggled with before abruptly resigning. The Lakers' season doesn't end today, though, and really it's just beginning as we inch closer to Bryant's much-anticipated return from an Achilles injury.
The Lakers -- without Howard or any other go-to scoring option, with Pau Gasol off to a mediocre shooting start (39.5 percent from the field) and with Steve Nash dodging retirement talk -- are asking the world of Bryant. Coming off a season in which he posted a 23 Player Efficiency Rating and ranked No. 3 in scoring, Bryant is sure to improve L.A.'s attack by the end of the season. But how big will his impact be considering his weak cast of colleagues and his recovering Achilles? Those are difficult questions, and there's no concrete history to turn to for answers.
The most ball-dominant year of Bryant's career was 2005-06, when he averaged a career-high 35.4 points and shot more than 27 times (!) per game. That gunning managed to carry L.A. to the No. 8 offense and the playoffs. It must be noted that Bryant was 27 that season, not 35 like he is now, and he played 80 games while averaging 41 minutes. He'll be lucky to play 65 games this season and it's quite possible he plays fewer minutes this season than he has since he was a teenager.
Perhaps the goal should be the standard set by D'Antoni's somewhat dysfunctional Knicks teams, which ranked No. 17 in offense in 2008-09, '09-10 and '11-12. If a recovering Bryant can lift the Lakers from "clearly bad" to "slightly below-average" on offense, that would qualify as a successful comeback in my book. It wouldn't be enough to make the Lakers players in the Western Conference playoff race, but it would at least be something to build on heading into a crucial offseason.
Rob Mahoney: Having some version of Kobe on the floor -- even a diminished one -- should help, though I say that with full acknowledgement that Bryant's return lacks any kind of positive precedent. This is a brutal injury for an NBA player to come back from, even one accustomed to playing through pain and injury-induced limitation. We can say rather safely that Bryant will not be picking up where he left off. He won't likely touch that 2012-13 level of volume and efficiency ever again, and in many ways he could be forced to compromise his game to deal with his new reality. In all, the Lakers need to be prepared for the fact that Kobe won't likely be himself on the court, as well as what that development means for their offense.
In this case, that should still mean a sure improvement over the present, if only because their current marks are so dismal. Scoring this inefficiently is somewhat understandable, given Bryant's absence, Nash's injury and the prevalence of cast-off players in the rotation, but having Kobe around changes that dynamic considerably. He'll free up his teammates for open looks simply by being on the floor, should still be able to pump-fake his way to the free-throw line (he averaged eight attempts last season, particularly relevant as the current Lakers are one of the league's worst foul-drawing teams) and is a better funnel for possessions than the likes of Nick Young or Xavier Henry.
The Lakers are not a good team and likely won't be one even with Kobe. They just shouldn't be expected to be this bad once he does return, particularly if Nash is in any kind of useful (or even usable) form.
2. Oklahoma City ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency last season and San Antonio ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency during the 2013 playoffs. The two Western Conference juggernauts are faring well in the standings this season, but their attacks have gotten off to slow starts, at least by their standards. Which team has a better chance of finishing the season ranked among the league's top five offenses?
Golliver: The extenuating circumstances here are obvious and must be mentioned: OKC was without Russell Westbrook to begin the season and San Antonio has played through a particularly rough opening stretch from Tim Duncan. Those acknowledgements made, the Thunder are still 7-3 with the No. 8 offense and San Antonio is 10-1 with the No. 10 offense. Even when facing situations that might lead other franchises to serious breakdowns, these two machines continue to find a way to achieve excellence.
Although the two teams aren't separated by much in the standings or in the offensive efficiency ratings, I think San Antonio's start has been significantly more impressive. The Spurs' margin of victory is an outstanding plus-9.3 (No. 2 in the league), whereas Oklahoma City's is plus-2.1 (No. 13 in the league, sandwiched between the Suns and Pelicans). Sure, San Antonio has had an easier schedule, but that's a whopping gap between the two teams. Remember, the Thunder led the league in point differential last season (plus-9.21), so their current performance represents a fairly dramatic fall. I picked the Thunder to reach the Finals and I'm not about to second-guess that pick, but the Reggie Jackson/Jeremy Lamb combination hasn't succeeded in approximating Kevin Martin's impact.
Oklahoma City is still very potent, but there are enough good offenses this season that I can see it getting squeezed out of the top five. Meanwhile, I expect Duncan's end-of-season numbers to look significantly better than his current production, Kawhi Leonard's 28 percent three-point shooting to pick up and Manu Ginobili's contributions (10 points, 41.2 percent shooting) to improve at least somewhat. That, plus Tony Parker's sustained brilliance, should put the Spurs in position to battle for a spot in the top five.
Mahoney: On grounds of approach alone, I'll say the Thunder. Oklahoma City has far more to figure out than San Antonio and has two superstars fit to play major minutes (especially Kevin Durant, who is averaging 39.3 minutes) as the team looks to sort through its various issues. Among those issues is the offense, which is still a bit clumsy after losing Martin's elite floor spacing and suffering a brutal shooting start from Thabo Sefolosha. OKC's starting shooting guard made 42.2 percent from three-point range over the last two seasons, but he's at 25.9 percent this season.
That's killer, and part of the reason why the Thunder starters -- one of the best lineups in the NBA last season -- have scored at a dreary rate of 91.5 points per 100 possessions. With Sefolosha a non-threat, Kendrick Perkins something less than that and Serge Ibaka still a bit limited, it's been a challenge for even that previously successful lineup to generate points. The Thunder will find workarounds eventually, though, as Durant and Russell Westbrook are too sharp in identifying openings on the fly to tread on like this for the remainder of the season.
As it stands, a team accustomed to a dominant effective field goal percentage hasn't quite found itself, even since Westbrook's return. I trust the Thunder will sort some of that out in time, though, and have plenty of ground to make up on the level of shooting efficiency they've made their standard. The Spurs, on the other hand, have suffered a setback in really only one of the four factors -- free-throw rate -- compared to last season. They've simply been nudged downward in overall offensive efficiency, largely due to the number of teams threatening for top-10 slots that weren't a season ago. Of those teams, almost all have more to prove than San Antonio, a team with an intact core fresh off a near-championship run.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows that his base offense works effectively with this group of players. From there, it's all process; Pop will experiment, he'll fine-tune execution and he'll dabble with lineup variations. He'll rest his starters plenty to save their legs and make sure those next in line are ready to contribute. All of this is ultimately good for the general health of the offense, though in this particular case tends to result in offensive marks slightly lower than they otherwise could be.
3. The Nets, Knicks and Clippers all rank among the league's five worst defenses. Which one has the best chance to rebound from its defensive misery?
Golliver: The most tempting answer is "all of them." In the short term, New York probably hasn't hit rock bottom yet. The bigger its sample size without Tyson Chandler, the worse things are going to look. Chandler's defensive rating in four games was 92.2; Andrea Bargnani's is 108.5 over 11 games and Amar'e Stoudemire's is 113.7 over seven games. There's no Band-Aid for that wound. Brooklyn has had more than its share of injury issues, too, and it is staring at a turnaround process that could take a few months to play out.
The Clippers are a different beast because they haven't had to deal with the significant injury issues and lineup questions that have swallowed up both New York teams. That makes their early struggles that much more curious, as they ranked No. 9 in defensive efficiency last year and brought back just about everyone except Eric Bledsoe. I'm inclined to give the Clippers' a pass here, in part because they are still getting used to coach Doc Rivers and a few fairly important new pieces (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens), but also because these guys are classic switch-flippers. Chris Paul's MVP-caliber play has imbued this team with a confidence that it will be able to win a strong majority of its games simply by doing what it does on offense and running teams off the court. The Clippers did it for extended stretches last season and they are off to a blazing start (No. 2 offense) this season.
When it comes time to really tighten things up as the season progresses, I expect the Clippers to be no worse than an average defensive team. They can certainly use an extra big man to work into their rotation and they are positioned nicely to add an Emeka Okafor or Kwame Brown veteran buyout/free agent type. It's even possible that Lamar Odom, who posted a 95.4 defensive rating last year, might be of some use.
Mahoney: I agree that all three have a good chance to crawl out of the cellar, but I think the Clippers could wind up as the best defensive team among the three. Their combination of immediate success and room for improvement is attractive. The former might seem an odd way to classify a team that ranks 27th in points allowed per possession, but the starters have held opponents to 99.3 points per 100 possessions -- a mark that would rank just outside the league's top five on a team level. The defense gets even stingier when Matt Barnes subs in for Dudley, leaving L.A. with a core group that's defending well even as it gets up to speed with Rivers' system.
The problems lie elsewhere in the rotation, where the likes of Mullens and Jamal Crawford compromise that defensive core. Replacing even a few players from the starting lineup has proved to be defensive disaster in some cases, such as when Crawford comes in for Redick. Perhaps the Clippers will adapt to some of their more problematic defenders over the course of the season, but doing so to a degree that would make a tangible difference might be expecting too much. Regardless, I'm inclined to think that further hope for their defense could come elsewhere. If L.A. can acquire even a decent defensive big man via trade, free-agent signing (even the recently waived Brown would be an upgrade) or Odom re-reclamation, it could help to bridge the divide between the top six on the roster and the cast of defensive liabilities below.
4. The Warriors were the only team to shoot better than 40 percent on three-pointers in 2012-13 (40.3 percent). This season, five other teams (Heat, Pelicans, Blazers, Bucks and Lakers) have joined Golden State above the 40 percent threshold. How many will be able to maintain that pace?
Golliver: The 40 percent threshold is rare air. Since 2000, only four teams have done it for a season ('00-01 Spurs, '03-04 Kings, '09-10 Suns and '12-13 Warriors). Only a small handful of teams accomplished the feat before 2000, and most of those came when the league went to a shorter three-point line in the mid-1990s.
We would be looking at history if two or more teams manage to connect on 40-plus percent for the season. The only other year that multiple teams have topped 40 percent came with a shorter line in 1995-96. The fact that six teams are above 40 percent has regression written all over it. The Lakers should fall out of the conversation, if for no other reason than Bryant, a career 33.6 percent shooter, will likely be among their leaders in three-point attempts this season. New Orleans and Milwaukee are both strong candidates for elimination based on sample size, as they are among the bottom-five teams in attempts. If the Pelicans and Bucks can sustain their pace for another month, then maybe it will be time to reassess.
That leaves the Warriors, Heat and Blazers as the three early favorites, with the Mavericks (shooting 39.1 percent) as another strong candidate. While I don't necessarily expect to see two of those four teams stick it out all the way through April, I wouldn't be surprised either. All four teams have offensive systems that are fantastic at setting up high-percentage, open three-point looks, and all four teams possess proven outside threats. This will be a fun chase to watch; if two teams do succeed in hitting the 40 percent standard, that will serve as an excellent mile marker for how the NBA game and offensive strategy have developed.
Mahoney: It's not a coincidence that those three serious contenders -- four if we include the Mavs -- are among the teams that game-plan to create open three-pointers most deliberately. Golden State might be the most likely, if only because Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are not of this planet. The attention they draw also bodes well for Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, both of whom are off to spectacular starts from beyond the arc. If they can pull it off, the Warriors would be the first team to achieve the feat in back-to-back seasons, all with the principal shooters involved ready to go yet another round in the season after.
Miami has last year's precedent on its side as well, as the Heat have maintained the core of the team that shot an excruciatingly close 39.6 percent last season. Having LeBron James and Dwyane Wade drawing double teams and making the right passes will do that, though Miami also does a splendid job of only allowing its most credible shooters to rack up attempts from beyond the arc. Last season, more than three-quarters of Miami's three-point attempts came from players who shot better than 40 percent. That proportion has ballooned even higher this season, in part because Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley are all riding out hot-shooting starts. Also reassuring: Shane Battier (34.3 percent) could help offset some potential drop-off if he catches a groove, which may well be needed when Cole (50 percent), Mario Chalmers (52.8 percent) and others come back to earth.
Portland follows a far stingier shooting formula, with five players taking essentially all of the team's three-pointers. Of those five, only one (Mo Williams) is shooting below 40 percent. Williams could very easily salvage his subpar shooting start, though looming in the distance is the return of C.J. McCollum -- a rookie who won't hesitate to shoot, and could throw off the Blazers' average a bit. If McCollum can either keep his attempts in check or attempt the right kind of three-pointers, Portland has a decent shot at the 40-percent mark for the season. If not, his presence -- along with a slight taper in the percentages of the scalding Wesley Matthews -- would likely pull the Blazers below that threshold.
5. The Jazz are 1-12 (.077) after Wednesday's loss in New Orleans. That's a 6.3-win pace over an 82-game season. The 1972-73 Sixers set an NBA record (in an 82-game season) by winning only nine games, and the 2011-12 Bobcats set a record with a .106 winning percentage in a lockout-shortened 66-game season. Are those records in jeopardy?
Golliver: I'm a sucker for these questions. Before the season, I couldn't help myself from predicting that the Sixers (who are already 5-8) would go under 17 wins, and I'm definitely tempted to pick the Jazz to go under nine wins right now. The Jazz rank last in offense and defense, and their minus-11.5 point differential ranks 30th by a mile. If that point differential continued for the entire season, it would rank second worst over the last decade, ahead of only the 2011-12 Bobcats'. In other words, Utah is seriously Draking it here (starting from the bottom).
Consolation can be found in the fact that Utah's fairly tough early schedule: The Jazz have lost six games to quality teams (OKC, Houston, Chicago, San Antonio and Golden State twice) and five additional games on the road (Phoenix, Brooklyn, Boston, Toronto and New Orleans). Their remaining schedule in November does them no real favors, but an evening-out process is eventually coming and the return of 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke should help, as his stand-ins were just brutal.
I think there's a decent chance that the tanking influence down the stretch will heavily influence Utah's run at infamy. There's no doubt the Jazz will be in position for a top lottery pick this season, but will they be able to pick up some stray wins after the All-Star break from other teams that are trying to position for the 2014 derby? I think that's a possibility, and I also like the Jazz's chances to put together a few home wins once Burke has been fully acclimated to his new teammates. When push comes to shove, I see the Jazz getting to 10 wins, but the amount of "talking myself into this" that just happened doesn't bode well for coach Tyrone Corbin's future.
Mahoney: Nah. It takes a lot of hard flubbing to break that kind of record, and I trust the Jazz to win some when it counts: in the fatty irrelevance of early April. They're playing miserable basketball, but they've also trotted out John Lucas III, Diante Garrett and Jamaal Tinsley (who has since been released) to run point. Given that dreck, it's not at all surprising that Utah would have the worst offense in the league and a correspondingly horrid record.
Burke -- who made his debut Wednesday after recovering from surgery on his right index finger -- should help considerably, even after accounting for the typical rookie point guard struggles. Beyond that, let's not forget that Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are all still getting comfortable in considerably expanded roles. Hayward and Favors, in particular, now rank fifth and sixth among non-point guards in touches per game, according to SportVU, after playing purely complementary basketball alongside Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap last season. There were bound to be growing pains, though some of that awkwardness should subside with a more helpful point guard and mounting experience. Expect Utah to be a crummy team, but not a historically crummy one. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.