This is the inaugural edition of a monthly 5 X 5 column that will be published throughout the NBA season. It is a deep dive into the one-hundredth of players and the sixth of teams to watch over the next month.
Is there a single fan in the worldwide basketball community who shuns Pascal Siakam? After moving to the United States from Cameroon he worked hard to make a G League roster, was eventually called up to the Raptors, won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, and was a fulcrum of Toronto’s 2019 NBA championship run. All while enduring tremendous personal hardship along the way.
And yet somehow he continues to redefine his limits. Siakam has a legitimate case (though it’s far too early) to be the first player to win the Most Improved Player award in back-to-back seasons. Through 20 games, he’s averaged 25/8/4 on pedestrian efficiency outside of the paint.
So far this season, Siakam has leaned on his dribble-drive ability to score inside. Per nbashotcharts.com, he’s taking 35% of his attempts at the rim, and scoring 1.21 points per shot attempt. That’s All-NBA level efficiency. For comparison, LeBron James has scored 1.33 points per shot attempt on a similar volume of attempts.
Siakam’s learned to use his lanky frame in poetic fashion, changing speed and direction and then go-go-gadget extending to the cup:
He’s still taking 31% of his attempts from the mid-range, and shooting just 38% on such looks. Siakam’s next progression will be increasing his efficiency and his volume from beyond the arc. On just over 100 3-point attempts, he’s in the same efficiency band (36 – 38%) as last season when he made a significant leap. Were he to elevate another level, Siakam would become a perpetual All-Star selection in the East.
He’s largely driven Toronto’s half-court offense so far this season. Transition offense, his early-career calling card, has been unexpectedly poor in the first month. The Raptors were elite in transition when Siakiam was on the floor last season. Expect these numbers to return to form as the sample size grows.
It’s weird how we got here, but Fultz seems to be developing a semblance of offensive capacity as the starting point guard in Orlando. An unexpected wrinkle of Fultz’s early-season improvement so far is his defensive passability. His steal percentage and the Magic’s transition offense when he’s on the court are both above average for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He sealed Orlando’s win over the Washington Wizards with the defense-to-offense sequence of the season thus far:
Flashes like these confirm Fultz was a gamble worth Orlando’s time. He still hasn’t been able to find a reliable way to score outside of the paint. Regardless of whether he is making outside shots at an average clip, he must take those shots when offered. If he’s able to regain confidence over that area of his game, it could change Orlando’s offensive dynamic.
With the announcement of Nikola Vucevic’s injury timeline, Fultz will be expected to shoulder a large offensive burden over the next month-plus. It will be worth watching to see how he performs through the remainder of 2019 with this increased role.
There is no greater satisfaction than the semi-resurgence of Derrick Rose. After serving as Minnesota’s entire bench production last season, Rose has brought his efficient scoring to Detroit. And the Pistons have badly needed his offense with Blake Griffin sidelined to start the season.
Even as the NBA has changed around him, Rose relies on the same toolkit that earned him MVP honors. He still has an elite hesi pull-up jimbo:
And his stop-and-start quickness, the defining Derrick Rose quality, hasn’t left him at 31 years-old:
In 23 minutes per game, Rose is scoring 16 points nightly and shooting 53% from two-point range. He’s expanded his game beyond the comforting mid-range and is finishing 65% of attempts at the rim and 37% from outside (in a very small sample). He still creates a large portion of his offensive looks in self-created “pull up” scenarios, per NBA Stats.
The Pistons offense is 15 points per 100 possessions better when Rose is on the floor than when he sits. Largely driven by an increased foul rate and lower turnovers, Detroit has a 60% eFG% in Derrick Rose minutes. That same level of offensive efficiency is only mirrored in Dallas minutes with Luka Doncic on the floor. That’s the number one offensive team and the league’s most potent offensive player so far this season.
Regardless of how the Pistons perform over the course of 2019-20, Derrick Rose will remain a candidate for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
There isn’t a lot to celebrate as a Blazers fan right now, but one prominent Portland treasure is 20-year-old Anfernee Simons. Simons is scoring at an efficient rate given his age and experience – 50 eFG% on 50% inside the arc and 34% on 3-pointers.
His semi-transition scoring is a thing of beauty:
He already effuses the poise of a veteran, unphased by outstretched arms even on difficult runners:
He even has a Dirk one-legged pull up:
Once Simons starts receiving more minutes and responsibility in Stotts’ system, “Anfernee Simons offensive bingo” should become a thing.
Since the Boston Celtics’ early-season success is detailed below, this is a quick insight into the defensive punch Theis has provided the Celtics this season. The reason for the additional individual nomination: the Celtics’ top-5 defense is 7 points per 100 possessions better when Theis is on the floor.
Opponents shoot less efficiently, turn the ball over more, and take fewer free-throws in Theis minutes. Even in a case of serious small sample size theater, Theis’ production has stood out. With the departure of Horford and Baynes, he’s received Brad Stevens’ blessing as the lead center in the rotation.
But can Theis compete with the best in the East when it matters? The Celtics’ strongest postseason competition will come from Milwaukee and/or Philadelphia, each with an offensive-minded big man serving an integral role in the respective system. The 76ers’ Joel Embiid will serve a larger challenge for Theis, with his ability to pop outside and put the ball on the deck to draw fouls. The Celtics have their first matchup with Philadelphia in December, and it will be worth tuning in for the Theis-Embiid matchup to gather early intel.
Do the Celtics look like they’re enjoying themselves so far this season? The Kemba Walker experiment purports to be a success thus far, though admittedly I’m slightly more bullish on the Celtics’ postseasons odds than most. No team has outperformed their preseason expectations more than the C’s through one month.
The Celtics have the league’s third-highest expected win percentage (eWIN%), according to nbastuffer.com. They’ve owned the turnover battle through 14 games, raising both their offense and defense to a top-10 level. They’re incredibly stingy with the basketball, turning it over on just 13% of possessions while sharing the ball an average amount. Not a single player on the team is averaging more than 5 assists per game, as pointed out on Zach Lowe’s recent podcast with Doris Burke.
Jaylen Brown has contributed nicely after signing his lucrative extension at the end of the summer. He may well be the best offensive third banana in the league. Brown is still taking the majority of his shots from the rim and short mid-range, and his free-throw percentage remains subpar. But, the small increase in 3-point accuracy is promising for his development. If he can round out his offensive game, while maintaining the defensive and rebounding intangibles, Boston becomes a different team.
Can the Celtics compete with the Bucks and 76ers for the conference crown? Jayson Tatum’s strong scoring start has provided Kemba Walker with a running mate to co-pilot the offense late in close games. Tatum is still taking a decent proportion of his shots from the mid-range, some of the egregious step-back variety:
The Celtics defense is for real. Marcus Smart is a legitimate contender for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Daniel Theis has performed remarkably in the Aron Baynes role. The Celtics defense improves dramatically with Theis on the floor, particularly through eliminating second chance opportunities (see above).
With Walker at the helm, the Celtics have become one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA. Can Boston win with him, at 6-foot-1, as the primary creator in late-game situations? If Tatum discovers another level of shot creation, he could hold serve when Walker needs a night off. We have enough of a sample to declare the Celtics good, and possibly a contender in the East.
James Borrego has the Hornets looking like a semi-competent team, which isn’t a simple task given the roster makeup. A lot of the credit goes to Borrego and his staff, and sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham, who has been driving the Hornets’ offense.
Through 22 games, Charlotte has the league’s 19th ranked offense and 29th ranked defense. Translating to a -8 point differential, Charlotte’s 8 wins at the time of this writing make them the second “luckiest” team in the NBA.
As Seth Partnow wrote about for The Athletic, shot profiles stabilize much more quickly than the accuracy allowed on shot attempts, and therefore serve as a better proxy in determining success over the course of a season. As a team, the Hornets take 38, 24, and 38% of their attempts at the rim, from the mid-range, and beyond the arc, respectively. And, so far, they’re shooting average at the rim, boorish from the mid-range, and above-average beyond the arc. Exceptional outside shooting, particularly for a team with a dearth of shooting talent, is playing a major factor in Charlotte’s luck.
On the defensive end, the Hornets have allowed opponents to score from the most lethal areas on the court. Almost 40% of opponent attempts come at the rim. They’ve allowed opponents to take 10% of their attempts from the corners – 28th in the NBA overall. Opponents are making 43% of these looks, which is below league average.
Characteristic of young teams, the Hornets are also turning the ball over on 16% of possessions. According to Cleaning the Glass, Charlotte has the league’s second-worst transition defense off of steals, allowing 2.4 points per possession on such attempts.
The bottom of the East playoff bracket is a dumpster fire. Being a .500 team won’t even be a requirement for qualification, and the next month could determine the Hornets’ chances of admission. An improved defensive shot profile and limiting turnovers is a good start. A semblance of inside scoring would also help the Hornets. PJ Washington and Miles Bridges have proven they can balance out stretches of heavy isolation from the Hornets’ high-usage guards.
Washington is also proven to have a serviceable outside game. Through 22 games, he’s taking 3 three-point attempts per game and shooting 44% from outside. If he can continue to convert at an above-average rate with increased defensive attention, it will open up the paint for Bridges and Cody Zeller. The Hornets have a soft schedule in December, with nine of their fifteen contests at home. They’ll need to win half of them if they expect to contend in 2020.
As one would expect, the Rockets’ start to the season has been rather tumultuous. With James Harden now co-starring with Russell Westbrook, the Rockets’ offense is even more anomalous than in the past. Through 20 games, Houston has taken 46 three-point attempts per game (46% of all shots) and has shot them at a below-average rate. Of the starters, just Daniel House and P.J. Tucker are shooting better than 35% from beyond the arc. Regardless of their sub-par efficiency, Houston is taking and making a tremendous amount of outside shots.
The Rockets just simply aren’t as good without Eric Gordon. His slow start to the season, followed by news he’d need a knee operation to remove debris found from an MRI scan, derailed the Rockets early. Both the D’Antoni system and Harden’s offensive brilliance require another creator who can shoulder a good portion of the team’s usage. Not to mention that Gordon, along with Tucker and Clint Capela, is one of the underrated offensive weapons on this Houston outfit.
Ultimately, Houston’s championship aspirations rest on their defensive capacity. Through one month they’ve allowed 109 points per 100 possessions, which is roughly NBA league average. Without Gordon, Harden and House have been responsible for checking the opponent’s best outside threat. So far this season, Harden’s on-ball defense has ostensibly improved. But his rotational help is still apathetic:
After acquiring Westbrook, the Rockets are essentially out of options to ameliorate the roster mid-season. They’re already over the luxury tax line and are stuck with an extortionate Nene contract with incentives that essentially makes him unplayable this season. It will be worth watching to see if the Rockets can stay atop the West standings long enough for Gordon to return.
Los Angeles Lakers
I don’t know if even Frank Vogel anticipated this level of Laker early-season prowess. They’ve formed a top-10 offense and defense with the addition of Anthony Davis, one of a handful of clear candidates for the way-too-early MVP award. Offensively, the Lakers are scoring at an unbelievable rate near the rim. Accounting for 40% of their attempts, the Lakers have shot 69% within 4 feet, translating to 1.38 points per shot attempt. They’ve shunned the three-point dogma and stuck to their strengths: LeBron James and Anthony Davis barreling towards the rim.
Per NBA Stats, the Lakers have scored 1.2 points per play involving an Anthony Davis pick-and-roll screen. But, the Lakers haven’t leaned heavily on the pick and roll so far this season. Rather, Vogel has opted for a flow offense with opportunities for Davis to leak on the baseline for openings:
The bigger story in L.A. is the defense. The Lakers have allowed just 104 points per 100 possessions through 21 games. Opponents are shooting 59% within 4 feet of the rim, the 6th stingiest mark in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. When Davis is on the floor, that number drops down to 55%. A.D. has already had five blocks in three of the twenty games which he has suited up for.
On the perimeter, Avery Bradley and LeBron James both look revitalized after lackluster defensive seasons in 2018-19. Alex Caruso has driven the Laker bench, and Danny Green has imported his exact production from across the border last season. A five-man group of James, Davis, Bradley, Green, and Caruso may play crunch time playoff minutes if Kuzma slumps.
Even though the roster top-heaviness is still an issue for these Lakers, the early season sample is promising for what is hoped to be a deep postseason run. After barely losing the opener against their cross-town rival Clippers, mark the Christmas Day rematch as the NBA’s must-watch game in December. With Paul George having been sidelined in the first matchup, this round should be a truer glimpse of the promise of an all Los Angeles Western Conference Finals.
It seems appropriate to finish with the Heat, the biggest surprise team of the NBA season so far. Nearly every franchise has an understanding of how to optimize their efficiency through an elected (usually fairly homogenous) strategy, but few have actually implemented a system as effective as the Heat’s this season. Miami has outperformed opponents in each of the four factors except for the turnover battle. Through 20 games, the Heat are the league’s 10th best offense and 8th best defense, largely on the strength of the three-point shot.
With almost a quarter of the season for a sample, Miami has shot 39% on three-pointers and allowed opponents to make just 32% of their attempts. On an average volume of attempts (currently 33.5 attempts per game for the 2019-20 season), this disparity translates into a nightly seven-point advantage for the Heat. But the three-point shot is fluky, and not necessarily a reliable indicator of how the Heat will perform over the next 6 months.
The rebounding battle, which dictates (among other portions of play) style and pace, has also driven the Heat’s offensive efficiency. The Heat has compiled a top-ten halfcourt offense so far this season and supplemented scoring droughts with the league’s second-best free-throw rate.
The Heat roster features a plethora of players with two-way ability to surround Jimmy Butler. Goran Dragic looks more comfortable and has improved his offensive efficiency to the level we’re accustomed to. Kendrick Nunn is one of the more exhilarating rookie scorers in recent memory. This group still hasn’t developed true chemistry. Five of the eight highest-minute earners are newcomers, and major roles are being served by first-year players.
Over the next month, and the remainder of the NBA season, it will be a delight to see how it all comes together.