Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nuggets at Blazers: The Denver Express

Few teams are as highly dedicated to their offensive philosophy than the Denver Nuggets. George Karl's team is absolutely plugged in to a system that is based on constant fast breaking and attacking the basket. Unfortunately for the Portland Trailblazers, they were unable to prohibit Denver from playing exactly that style when they came to the Rose Garden Wednesday night.

The Nuggets play at the league's second-fastest pace, producing 97.5 possessions per game, and it is evident from their never-ending desire to run fast breaks off of opponent missed baskets and turnovers. With one of the fastest end-to-end point guards and a bevy of transition finishers, they are well equipped to turn games into track meets. Denver is also committed to driving to the rim as much as possible and Karl says that he wants to have 80 possessions per game that result in someone driving toward the paint. This clearly shows as 41.4% of their shots come directly at the rim, by far the highest figure in the league. Denver also generates tons of free throws from this strategy (30.5 Free Throw Rate, tied for 5th in the league), another high-value aspect of their offensive scheme.

Denver had little trouble implementing their game plan in last night's game as 29 of their 39 first-half shots came in the paint while they shot 59% from the field. Portland, in return, shot just 38%. The Nuggets also had 17 free throws on their 39 field goal attempts. The Blazers were kept afloat by a tenacious performance by J.J. Hickson, who grabbed 4 offensive boards and drew 7 free throws on his way to 14 first half points.

Portland ran into problems in the 2nd and 3rd quarters as they attempted to run alongside the Nuggets. The Blazers aren't a particularly fast-paced team and creating more possessions favors the superior offensive team, which proved to be the Nuggets. This was most evident on a wild Lillard drive that led to an Iguodala steal and monster dunk. When Portland tempered their offense and ran their high pick-and-roll sets with Lillard or post-ups for Aldridge, they seemed much more comfortable generating shots. Late in the 3rd they were able to regain the lead after calming the tempo.

A rash of 4th quarter Portland turnovers allowed Denver to continue racking up easy points as the game came down to the wire. Late, and with the game tied at 106, the Nuggets gave the ball to Andre Miller for a post-up against J.J. Hickson. While most point guard on center post-ups don't yield many baskets, Miller used some savvy footwork to get a scoop shot and take the lead. After a couple of trips to the line for Denver and a Lillard 3-pointer, LaMarcus Aldridge had a chance to tie the game with a last second shot, much like the one he took to beat Dallas earlier this year. This one clanked off the rim, however, and Denver was able to hold on to the road victory.

Denver was led by Ty Lawson's 30 points with Iguodala, despite continuing to launch some ugly jumpers, adding 29. Lillard was the high scorer for the Blazers with 26 points including 4-6 on 3-pointers. Aldridge contributed 22 points while Hickson gathered another double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Despite the loss, Portland can be encouraged by the play of Meyers Leonard. The Illinois rookie scored 13 points off the bench on 4-7 shooting and went 5-5 from the line, all this on the night of his 21st birthday. And many more.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ranking the Rising Stars

The Rising Stars Challenge (formerly the Rookie-Sophomore game) features 20 prospects from across the league. Here are my rankings of the players involved.

Edit: I left off two players on the original post. 

20. Tyler Zeller, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
Zeller has had a rough go so far. He's shooting 41% from the floor and has generally been a below-average rebounding center. On defense he looks lost and has gotten beaten up by opposing centers. He's big and can run the floor, which are nice traits, but so far he's done little to turn those into on-court value.

19. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
What's there to say about a shooter who can't really shoot. Beal is a catch-and-shoot specialist (almost 70% of his makes are assisted) who has a line of 38.8/36.7/81.3. His best stretch has come playing with Wall, so perhaps having his starting point guard around will help, but as of now he's shooting like Chris Duhon without adding much elsewhere.

18. Brandon Knight, PG, Detroit Pistons
Knight has some defensive value and range on the jumper, but overall he shoots 40.6% and is a bad finisher. Subjectively, he doesn't seem to be that talented of a passer from the point. If he can space the floor when the Pistons run plays through Monroe he'll be able to stay on the court, but I'm not sure if he should be a starter long term.

17. Dion Waiters, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers
Waiters is shooting atrociously (37.8/32.4/78.4) and is not going to the line that much for a slasher-type. Only 39.9% of his baskets are assisted, though, meaning he's not really spotting up. This is good because he takes almost a third of his shots at the rim. However, it also means he wants to isolate a lot and his assist rate shows it. Surprisingly he hasn't had too much trouble with turnovers. Defensively, the Cavs are better without him, but there's hope with the amount of athleticism he's shown.

16. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Sacramento Kings
Thomas is a gem considering where he was drafted. Often the only member of the Kings who seems to get it, he certainly should be playing much more than Aaron Brooks. He's small, but very quick and is able to get to the basket where he shoots an incredible 73%. Thomas is probably more of a good shooter than great (30.6% on 3's this year as opposed to 38.1% last year), but can set up enough offense on a team full of black holes. Defensively, he gets beat up a little due to size, but isn't particularly terrible. Coming from a last overall pick, this is found money for a team that desperately needs it.

15. Harrison Barnes, SF, Golden State Warriors
Barnes appears to be average at a lot of things so far. With Curry, Thompson, and Lee around him his usage isn't very high, but he is definitely trying to get to the rim when he has the ball, which is good. The Warriors can live with his 43.8/38.1/70.7 shooting (though next to Curry it makes him look like Josh Smith). He's gotten beat up defensively so far, especially against smaller, quicker guys, but hasn't completely killed Golden State when he's on the floor.

14. Alexey Shved, SG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Shved isn't that hard to spell or pronounce, but I've heard many announcing crews mess it up including one guy who insisted that the "v" was somehow silent. Whatever you want to call him, he's shown that he isn't the one dimensional bomber from the Olympics. In fact, Shved has had a rough time with his stroke (49.8 TS%, 31.5% from 3), but has made up for it with his ability to pass. Though wirey, Shved is able to penetrate and seems to have great vision and feel which has led to a lot of nice set-ups and an assist rate of 25.8. Subjectively his defense has been pretty good and the numbers back it up. He's surrendered just an 11.8 PER against other shooting guards despite weighing about 38 pounds.

13. Ricky Rubio, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
I'm as big of a Ricky fan as you can find, but it's hard to rank anybody shooting 30.9% overall (!) any higher. The passing skill is elite and incredibly entertaining, but with it comes a healthy turnover rate, though that's something you can live with from the guy who creates your best looks. Bottom line, he has to make a few more shots to justify time on the floor. The defense is still pretty good, though the knee might be holding him back a little. Regardless, he's still getting his hands on 2.8 steals per 40 minutes. Rubio has only appeared in 19 games, so perhaps as the season progresses he'll get back into game shape and look more like the magician we've seen in the past.

12. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
Thompson has absolutely burst into flames in Curry's short absence. So why isn't he higher? Well, he shoots. A lot. But otherwise he doesn't stand out. Obviously 38.8% from 3 and 88.8% from the line are very good, but he doesn't rebound all that well for a 6'7" guard and doesn't particularly set up offense when he draws attention like Curry. He's fit well into Mark Jackson's defensive scheme and has held his own, but will have to diversify his skills a little bit for when he can't find shots.

11. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Charlotte Bobcats
MKG doesn't get quite the attention he deserves due to the fact that he's in Charlotte, but man is he fun to watch. He's a beastly rebounder from the wing and is already starting to wreak some havoc defensively with his steal, block, and charge rates all above average. The jumper is brutal to watch, but it hardly matters as 54% of his attempts come at the rim where he is a good finisher.

10. Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Choosing between the next two guys was killer. Leonard is a great rebounder and the Spurs' stopper who also has a TS% of 60.3. Basically the only knock on him is how low-usage he is on a team that so clearly defines its roles. As the Spurs get older we'll likely get to see more from him and my bet is that it will be pretty great.

9. Chandler Parsons, SF, Houston Rockets
"Chandler Bang" has been a revelation this year and is one of the best values as far as contracts go. He shoots 46.2/36.5/76.7 which is respectable and never seems to force shots. He's smooth off the dribble and runs the floor really well. He also is a deft passer with an assist rate of 19.09, well above-average for a forward. He's more of an average rebounder and defender, but has shown the ability to defend good opposing wing players.

8. Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando Magic
Vucevic is an absolute monster of a rebounder with a defensive rebound rate of 27. While he isn't the strongest individual defender, simply taking away second opportunities from the opposition at this rate has huge value. Offensively he has some touch on the jumper and shoot 51.5% from the floor, but isn't necessarily a go-to option.

7. Tristan Thompson, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Losing Anderson Varejao was tough, but it allowed Thompson to step up and show that he really can play. He's got a solid frame and rebounds well, especially offensively (13.6 offensive rebound rate, league average for forwards is 6.8). He's a fine athlete, but not particularly explosive and often gets lost in traffic. The good news is he's getting fouled much more (.35 FTA/FGA). He shoots 62.4% from the line, so he still leaves something to be desired, but he's improving rapidly. Defensively, he's over-matched if he has to play center, but holds his own against other 4s.

6. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trailblazers
This kid is an assassin. Nothing about the professional game phases him and he's ready to take any shot at any time. He reminds me a little of Kyrie Irving in that he's looking for his own offense first, but he's done that pretty effectively so far. His TS% of 53.7 is pretty good and there's no doubt he has range on the jumper. Again, his assist rate numbers aren't off the charts, but he's done fine without running into turnover troubles (which can't be said for the Blazers' backups). He's got a good bit to learn defensively, but the Blazers are 5.1 points better with him on the court than when he sits.

5. Kemba Walker, PG, Charlotte Bobcats
I'm starting to come around on Walker. I wasn't a huge fan in college and remained skeptical last season, but he seems to be putting it together. His speed and scoring ability are real assets and while he's not a great shooter overall (52.2 TS%), he gets fouled at a decent rate for a guard. His turnover rate is very good this year and he sets up a lot of offense. Walker gets his hands on a lot of steals, but the individual defense still isn't great as he gives up some size and can look apathetic, but he's valuable enough on offense to pick up that slack.

4. Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons
Am I getting carried away? Maybe, but this kid has been beastly in limited minutes. Drummond only plays about 20 minutes per game, but really makes the most of them as the Pistons are 5 points better when he's on the court than off it. He's a low usage offensive player, but shoots 60.2% from the field, a lot of these shots coming on some spectacular dunks. His rebound rates are elite even among centers and he's able to protect the rim and block shots. The free throw shooting is rough to say the very least, but the fact that this guy fell to 9th last year is the surprise of the draft.

3. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Hornets
Davis obviously has elite defensive potential, but I've been very impressed with his maturity offensively. He shoots 52.8% form the field and 72% from the line with a free throw rate of 0.33. He's an amazing finisher at the rim and equally great from 3-9 feet, a distance where many players struggle. Davis is rebounding very well and racking up solid block, steal, and charge numbers. The stats on his individual defense suggest he's going through rookie struggles, but has been a very valuable player for New Orleans from day one.

2. Kenneth Faried, PF, Denver Nuggets
Faried's energy borders on manic and allows him to be an elite level rebounder. The 13.8 offensive rebound rate is especially crazy (6.9 is average for the league's forwards) and allows him to continually throw in put-backs and shoot 55.2% from the field while taking almost 6 shots per game at the rim (68% of his shots come from there). He's also a terror in transition who will put up some electrifying dunks. Defensively he's pretty good, but isn't any sort of stopper and is a little undersized, but few can keep up with his level of intensity and it is really fun to watch.

1. Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
He is absolutely incredible. What more is there to say? He made the actual All-Star game and is putting himself in the category of the league's elite point guards. Irving is one of the best shooters in the game right now and can finish at the rim with either hand. He controls pretty much every offensive possession when he's on the court, but still manages a ridiculous 57.3 TS% while averaging 27 points per 40 minutes.  He's a good passer, but certainly looks to score first and has done so while keeping his turnover rate below league average for guards. His defense is coming along, but we'll still mostly look the other way for now because of just how insanely effective he is on offense.