Season Preview: Northwest Division
By Jay Cipoleti
Prior to the Draft we examined the differences between Lottery and Playoff teams, through the lens of The Four Factors: Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%); Turnover Rate (TOV%); Offensive Rebounding Rate (OR%); and Free Throw Rate (FTA Rate -- a measure of FT attempts relative to FG attempts).
We used the Four Factors to evaluate each team and identify which draft prospects, in terms of skill sets, would help address any deficiencies. As the season approaches later this month, we revisit each team, starting the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that led the League in Net Margin a year ago.
Entering the draft, we suggested it was not about addressing needs as much as pressing leverage for Oklahoma City. The Thunder led the League in Net Margin at 11.0 -- Finals combatants Miami (9.9) and San Antonio (6.8) ranked 2nd and 3rd, respectively. If you accept that players typically peak around 27 (google Dean Oliver and Neil Paine if you are unfamiliar with the effect of aging on performance), then it is safe to assume that the Thunder, with a healthy Westbrook, will distance themselves even further from their nearest regular-season challengers. Who their nearest challengers will be is open to debate:
Age of Big 3
|Durant 25||James 28||Duncan 37||George 23||Gasol 28|
|Westbrook 24||Wade 31||Parker 31||Hibbert 26||Conley 26|
|Ibaka 24||Bosh 29||Ginobli 36||Hill 27||Randolph 32|
|Green 26||Stephenson 23|
|Leonard 22||Granger 30|
To further illustrate Oklahoma City's competitive advantage, consider these points. Only five 2-man lineup combinations played 2,000+ minutes with a 10.0+ Net Margin. The combination of Durant and Westbrook led the league in both minutes (2,619) and Net Margin (12.5), followed by Durant/Ibaka (11.6) and Westbrook/Ibaka (11.4). The combos of Conley/Gasol and George/West rounded out the top five.
Not surprisingly, the trio of KD/Westbrook/Ibaka was one of only two 3-man combos to play 2,000+ minutes, holding a Net Margin of 11.3 with splits of 110.6/99.3 that mirrored the Thunder's regular season 110.2/99.2
As the Big 3 went, so went the Thunder ... and with a healthy Westbrook, they went very, very well. Whether you classify the OKC triumvirate as a 7-8-12 combination or a 2-5-8, per the research paper classifications, both have a significant positive impact on winning basketball games.
Lastly, and perhaps most frighteningly, is this -- the Thunder's shot selection underperformed the rest of the League in 2012-13. Although they ranked 3rd in both Restricted Area and Corner 3 make percentage, they took a combined 150 fewer shots from those high value areas than the League average.
None of their Big 3 have peaked. The pieces fit together almost ideally. And the one defensive weakness -- allowing too many RA shot attempts -- was addressed in the Draft by selecting Steven Adams and his 11.2% Block percentage, good for 19th nationally. Now about that pesky meniscus ...
Denver parlayed a ridiculously high number of Restricted Area shots, high volume Corner 3s and an egalitarian sharing of shots into one of the West's best offenses and a #2 seed. Unfortunately the entropic experiment ended prematurely when Danilo Gallinari went down with an ACL tear.
With several new faces in uniform and a new coaching staff on the sideline, the question is whether that high-efficiency recipe will remain the same. With Ty Lawson still driving the offense and several new faces providing scoring specialization, the answer appears to be yes.
Randy Foye has converted 238 of 589 Above the Break 3 attempts the last two seasons, a 40.4% make rate on a shot the League makes at 35.1%. Nate Robinson provides another 40% shooter from beyond the arc, a much needed boost for a team that despite its offensive prowess was outscored by 498 points from behind the 3-point line last year, next to last in the League.
Last year, Denver took 3,316 shots in the Restricted Area, over 500 more than second-ranked Detroit. Along with returning rim attackers JaVale McGee (369 RA shots in 527 FGA) and Kenneth Faried (483 RA/689 FGA), J.J. Hickson (471 RA/744 FGA) will ensure that the Nuggets again attack the rim.
It is on the defensive end, and specifically beyond the arc, that will be the focus of new head coach Brian Shaw. Denver allowed 2,061 points from 3, better than only the Bobcats' 2,148, despite opponents shooting only the League average against them -- 38.0% from the Corners, 35.8% from Above the Break (League averages were 38.9% and 35.1%). They simply allowed teams to take too many of them. Their 618 C3 attempts allowed was the worst in the League.
The formula is straightforward -- take more 3s, allow fewer 3 attempts, and when all else fails give it to Nate Robinson and enjoy the ride.
The Blazers were outscored by 558 points in the Restricted Area last year, nearly 7 points per game. A couple steps back in the paint, they allowed the highest make rate -- 44.7% - in the last three seasons.
Most season previews present a number of variables and if/then scenarios. Not so with Portland. Defend the paint better and they project to be a playoff team. They scored as well as or better than six of the 16 playoff teams; their 106.9 Defensive Rating was better than only the Bobcats and Kings. Sometimes it really is that simple.
Simple, not easy. They allowed too many RA attempts -- 2,470 in total, second most in the league. They allowed too many RA makes -- 1,530, also second most in the league behind the only the Bucks (1,536 on 164 more attempts). Teams shot 61.9% in the Restricted Area, eight highest in the League and well above the 59.4% average across the NBA. Coupled with the aforementioned 44.7% make rate In the Paint and a 27th-ranked Opp TOV% of 13.9%, the Blazers allowed too many shooting possessions and too many good shots.
Robin Lopez and his 128 blocks last year were brought in to protect the rim this season. Provided he does that, and his teammates protect the rest of the paint more in line with the league average of 38.9%, the Blazers could be very grateful that six of their last eight games are at home.
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." -- Seneca
Following a senior season at Belmont where he shot 34/72 on catch-and-shoot 3s (18/36 Corner, 16/36 Above the Break), Ian Clark went 28/61 from 3 in the Orlando and Vegas Summer Leagues, capped off by a 7/10 effort in the Vegas final.
That landed him a free agent contract with the Jazz, a team that ranked 27th in Corner 3 attempts last year, where he will have the opportunity to catch and shoot passes from Trey Burke. Preparation, meet opportunity.
While that may be the feel good story in Salt Lake City, the real story will be whether the roster turnover delivers much needed improvement on the defensive end. Gone are Al Jefferson (107.6 DefRtg), Randy Foye (106.0), Earl Watson (105.9), Mo Williams (105.7) and Paul Millsap (105.5). Filling that void will mean increased minutes for Enes Kanter (98.4 DefRtg) and Derrick Favors (102.8) and an opportunity for rookie Rudy Gobert to develop his potential as an elite rim protector.
The two-game gap between the Jazz and the eight playoff spot amounted to essentially one more scoring possession and one more stop per game.
The T-Wolves 102.9 DefRtg bested the NBA average of 103.1, as well as four playoff teams (Rockets, Lakers, Nets, Knicks). Their 100.3 OffRtg was well below the 105.0 OffRtg average of playoff teams, due primarily to their inability to hit shots from behind the arc.
Minnesota's 35.8% Corner 3 rate ranked 27th; they weren't that good from Above the Break either, shooting a League worst 29.2%. They needed shooters in the worst way, a need they addressed in the offseason with the acquisition of Kevin Martin and the selection of Shabazz Muhammad.
Martin comes to the Wolves off a season where he made 50% of his Corner 3 attempts (8/16 RC3; 48/96 LC3) and 39.4% of his Above the Break 3s (102/259). Muhammad followed up his 38% 3-point shooting at UCLA with a 38.9% make rate in the Summer League. Both will be given ample opportunities to knock down shots from behind the line. Add Left Corner specialist Corey Brewer (49/119 in '12-'13) and the return of Kevin Love and the Wolves figure to improve on that 100.3 Offensive Rating.
Defensively their greatest need was a legitimate rim protector. That need was addressed with the acquisition of 6'11 rookie Gorgui Dieng, whose 9.4% Block percentage ranked 44th in the NCAA last season.
The challenges in Minnesota have been addressed, although this season will likely be more a work in progress than a finished solution.