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Pacers could take advantage of rough Eastern Conference


VIDEO: Recap: Rodney Stuckey scores 22 points as the Pacers defeat the Knicks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for the final playoff spot. And, unless the Dallas Mavericks continue to slide, two of those teams will miss the postseason.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we’re going to have two playoff teams out of a group that includes …

  • The 20-25 Miami Heat, who are missing Dwyane Wade for the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The 19-27 Charlotte Bobcats, who have the league’s worst offense outside of Philadelphia and are without Kemba Walker until at least mid-March.
  • The 18-27 Brooklyn Nets, who are looking to trade their three highest paid players and are 3-17 against teams currently over .500.
  • The 16-28 Boston Celtics, who have already traded two of their three highest paid players and just lost to the 8-37 Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The 17-30 Detroit Pistons, who are 0-3 with a 20-point loss to the Sixers since losing Brandon Jennings for the season.
  • The 17-31 Indiana Pacers, who rank 28th offensively and are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with losses to the Sixers, Wolves, and Hornets.

Oof.

The good thing about the East is that there’s some fresh blood at the top. The top six teams in the standings won a total of one playoff series last year, so we’re going to have a lot of new faces in the conference semifinals.

But who will take those last two playoff spots? The numbers could help us with the forecast.

First, with apologies to Bill Parcells, let’s accept the notion that the standings don’t tell us everything about how well or how poorly a team has played.

Point differential is a better predictor of future success than wins and losses. And there’s a formula to calculate how many wins a team should have (“expected wins”) based on their point differential. That formula says that both the Pacers and Celtics should have about three more wins than they do.

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Indiana has a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than Brooklyn, but is 2 1/2 games behind the Nets in the standings, in part because the Pacers are 11-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and the Nets are 11-11.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have the eighth best NetRtg in the East (just a hair behind the Heat), but are 8-16 in close games.

Among the group of teams listed above, the Pistons, Heat and Hornets have played the toughest schedule thus far. But the Celtics aren’t fare behind. And going forward, the schedule favors the Pacers.

Indiana actually has more games remaining vs. teams that are currently at or above .500 than vs. teams that are below. But they have six more home games than road games and have 13 games left against teams that are playing the second night of a back-to-back.

When you adjust for those situations, the Pacers have the easiest schedule of the six teams that have between 17 and 20 wins in the East …

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Of course, the Pacers are just 9-12 at home and just 4-7 against teams on the second night of back-to-back. As noted above, they’ve lost to both the Wolves and Sixers this month.

But when you take into account some bad luck in close games and a favorable future schedule, they have a decent chance of moving up from 12th to seventh or eighth.

One Stat, One Play: Big Spain at the Elbow


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Big Spain at the Elbow

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Marc Gasol was the Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of two teams that has ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency each of the last four seasons, and Gasol has been their anchor on that end of the floor.

But Gasol has also seen an increase in his usage rate each of the last few years. And this year, he leads the Grizzlies in that category.

The ball is more often in Mike Conley‘s hands (he ranks in the top 10 in time of possession), who leads the Grizz in time of possession, but the play is more often ending with Gasol, working out of both the low post and high post. He has become as critical to the Memphis offense as he is to the D.

According to SportVU, Gasol ranks fourth (behind Al Jefferson, Pau Gasol and Nikola Vucevic) in the league with 395 post-ups. And he leads the league with 601 elbow touches and 49 assists from those elbow touches.

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The Grizz have fallen off big defensively this season. But with Gasol leading the team in usage rate, they rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency for just the second time in franchise history.

The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” featuring at a play where Gasol acts as a release valve at the elbow and registers one of those 49 elbow-touch assists.

The Grizzlies host the Denver Nuggets in the first game of TNT’s doubleheader (8 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

You can’t protect the rim if you’re not there


VIDEO: Inside The NBA: Rachel Nichols sits down with Anthony Davis

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Rim protection is a key element to a good defense. But your center can’t protect the rim if he isn’t there.

And while *our SportVU defensive impact numbers tell us how well opponents shoot when a player is at the rim to defend it, it helps to know just how often he’s actually there.

* Note: After you navigate to the defensive impact page, it helps to set a filter of >= 4 Opp FGA at Rim per game to narrow the list down to big men. At this point in the season, an additional filter of 15 games played eliminates anybody with a small sample size. The filters are found by clicking on the gear on the right side of the blue header bar.

And a further dig into SportVU data can tell us just how often a rim protector is at the rim to protect it.

The defensive impact page shows shots that were taken within five feet of the defender when he was within five feet of the rim. So the shot could have been taken from more than five feet out. To see what rim protectors were most often protecting the rim, I asked the SportVU folks to just show me shots from five feet and in.

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So Denver opponents have attempted 202 shots within five feet of the basket with Jusuf Nurkic on the floor, and he’s been there to defend 115 of those shots. Of course, he hasn’t defended them particularly well for a guy who’s seven feet tall.

Andrew Bogut and Rudy Gobert, however, protect the rim pretty well. And by keeping them near the basket, their teams allow them to protect it more often than not. These numbers also don’t account for shots at the rim that they’ve prevented.

Here’s the other end of the list…

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Most of the guys on this list spend some time at power forward. LaMarcus Aldridge has played about 75 percent of his minutes with either Robin Lopez or Chris Kaman. But he did play some center after Lopez got hurt and before he was injured himself.

Anthony Davis is a more interesting name on this list. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Pelicans allow the highest percentage of opponent shots in the restricted area. That’s still true, the Pelicans still rank as a bottom-six defensive team even though they employ both Davis and Omer Asik, and that’s still rather baffling.

Davis is the power forward when Asik is on the floor. And that he’s sometimes guarding Dirk Nowitzki or Markieff Morris partially explains why he’s on this list.

But Davis would still be on this list if he was the Pelicans’ full-time center. In his minutes without Asik, Alexis Ajinca or Jeff Withey on the floor, Davis has been at the rim to protect only 33.8 percent (125/370) of opponent shots there.

Note: Asik has been at the rim to defend 50.2 percent of opponent shots there, a rate which ranks 19th on this list of 69 centers and PF/Cs. He could certainly be higher on the list himself.

In total, no player 6-foot-8 or taller has been on the floor for more opponent shots within five feet of the basket than Davis. Yet, 20 different guys have been at the rim to defend more of those shots.

Gobert is a few inches taller than Davis, but they’re similarly long-armed and bouncy. For every 100 opponent shots at the rim, Gobert is there to defend 56 of them. Even when he’s playing center, Davis is there for just 34. That’s a big difference.

It’s cool that Davis blocks jump shots, but it would be better if he was defending more shots near the basket. The biggest reason the Pelicans rank in the bottom 10 defensively and can’t win more than two games in a row is that they don’t protect the rim.

One Stat, One Play: No corner 3 for you


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Keeping them away from the corners

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The corner three is one of the best shots on the floor. The league as a whole shoots them at 38.9 percent, scoring 1.17 points per shot on corner threes, slightly less than it does on layups (60.2 percent, 1.20)

If teams want to score efficiently, it’s helpful to have a decent amount of corner threes in one’s offensive diet. Seven of the top 10 offenses in the league also rank in the top 10 in percentage of their shots that come from the corners.

Overall, it’s important for defenses to keep opponents out of the corners. There’s not as strong a correlation between corner threes and efficiency on defense than there is on offense (the Hawks’ third-ranked D allows the highest percentage of shots from the corners), but the correlation still exists.

In each Tom Thibodeau‘s five seasons as coach of the Chicago Bulls, his team has ranked first or second in preventing corner threes.

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The Bulls are the only team that has ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency each of the last four seasons (the Grizzlies are the only other team that’s ranked in the top 10 all four years). They’ve regressed defensively this season, but they’re still keeping their opponent out of the corners.

Our latest installment of “One Stat, One Play,” features a play that illustrates some of the ways the Bulls do this, including the way they defend shooters coming off pin-down screens and the way they defend pick-and-rolls. Other teams employ the same defensive scheme as the Bulls, but none have done it as consistently well as the Bulls have under Thibodeau.

The Bulls host the Spurs (and Danny Green, who ranks sixth in the league with 35 corner threes) in the first game of TNT’s double-header (8 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

Waiters’ more touches are in his head


VIDEO: GameTime: Dion Waiters

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In five games with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dion Waiters has shot much better than he did in Cleveland this season.

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It’s just a small sample size, and it’s possible that Waiters’ shooting would have improved had he not been traded. His 3-point shooting, in particular, had regressed quite a bit from last season.

But if you ask Waiters, the trade has put him in a better place. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman spoke with Waiters about fitting in with his new team

Waiters doesn’t hesitate to disclose the difference between his experience in Cleveland and Oklahoma City. After a 16-point performance Sunday at Orlando in which he made seven of nine shots, Waiters was asked what he’s learned so far about where his shots will come from and how he fit into the offense.

He chuckled.

“Listen,” he said, “they give me the ball. Like, I touch the ball. Like, I actually, like, you know, touch the ball.”

There’s a great Vine post of Waiters getting visibly frustrated waiting for LeBron James to pass him the ball with the Cavs. But the whole thing about the Thunder letting him touch the ball more may just be in Waiters’ head.

SportVU is here to tell us the truth. Its player-tracking cameras can tell us just how many touches Waiters has gotten and how much he’s had the ball with each team.

And the data refutes what Waiters says. Waiters got more touches and had the ball more with the Cavs than he’s had with the Thunder…

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Furthermore, SportVU tells us that LeBron James passed the ball more to Waiters than Kevin Durant has per 36 minutes on the floor together. And Kyrie Irving passed him the ball more than Russell Westbrook has.

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With the Cavs, Waiters attempted more shots per 36 minutes than both Irving and Kevin Love. With the Thunder, he and Durant have attempted the same number of shots per 36 minutes.

It’s early in Waiters’ time with the Thunder and he may indeed feel more comfortable in Oklahoma City than he did in Cleveland. But so far, the numbers don’t support his theory that he’s touching the ball more in OKC.

One Stat, One Play: Iso-KD


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Iso-KD

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Over the last few years, and particularly in last year’s Finals, the San Antonio Spurs have provided the blueprint for how basketball is supposed to be played. They moved the ball better than any team in recent memory.

Come October, much of the league was talking about ball movement. Along the same vein, isolation basketball is looked upon as a bad thing. But an isolation can be very effective when you put the right player in the right position.

According to SportVU, Kevin Durant led the league last season by scoring 1.08 points per isolation, more than the Spurs scored per pick-and-roll possession (1.07).

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With his skills and size, Durant is near impossible to stop one-on-one. And with Russell Westbrook alongside the reigning MVP, the Thunder don’t need to move the ball much to have an effective offense.

OKC is one of three teams – San Antonio and Miami are the others – that ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency each of the last four seasons (2010-11 through ’13-14), and they’ve done it while ranking in the bottom 10 in assist rate each year.

League-wide, there wasn’t any correlation between ball movement and offensive efficiency last season. There were bad offenses (like Charlotte and Philadelphia) that moved the ball a lot and good offenses (like OKC and Phoenix) that didn’t.

With Durant out for 23 of their 37 games and Westbrook out for 14, the Thunder have been a bottom-10 offensive team this year. And even with both of those guys back, their last three games have been pretty ugly. In fact, their offensive efficiency in their last three games (87.2 points scored per 100 possessions) has been almost as bad as their worst three-game stretch with their two stars out (83.2).

But Durant is once again leading the league in points per isolation, tied with Derrick Rose at 1.25. He’s played just 14 games, but he’s isolated on a greater percentage of his half-court touches (8.2 percent) than he did last season (6.9 percent).

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The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a look at a Durant isolation from last year’s playoffs.

Most of Durant’s isolation touches came via a pin-down screen or a straight post-up. A lot of times, he catches the ball 20-plus feet from the basket. But when he screens for Westbrook, the play can be impossible to guard. And if the defense chooses to switch it (to keep Westbrook out of the paint while still staying attached to Durant), it can set up a favorable matchup for the Thunder, who scored 1.20 points per possession on Westbrook/Durant pick-and-rolls last season.

Grizzlies missing their grit and grind


VIDEO: Fan Night: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol explain the Grizzlies’ offense

ATLANTA – The Memphis Grizzlies are reportedly looking for an upgrade on the wing.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein wrote Thursday that the Grizz have been working the phones, looking for a small forward that can help them in the brutal Western Conference…

The Memphis Grizzlies, looking to bolster their scoring options on the wing in the ever-competitive Western Conference, are actively trying to obtain Miami’s Luol Deng or Boston’s Jeff Green ahead of the Feb. 19 trade deadline, according to league sources.

No deal is imminent, sources said, but it has become clear that the Grizzlies are intent on upgrading their wing rotation. The teams behind third-place Memphis (25-10) in the Western Conference standings already have made notable in-season additions — such as Dallas (Rajon Rondo) and Houston (Corey Brewer and Josh Smith) — and Oklahoma City has yet to move into playoff position.

Green is much more obtainable, but doesn’t necessarily move the needle on either end of the floor. In fact, the Celtics have been much better both offensively and defensively with Green off the floor this season … as they were last season.

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At 25-10, the Grizzlies are in third place in the Western Conference. Only two West teams — Golden State (fourth offensively and first defensively) and Portland (sixth and third) — rank higher than they do (11th and 11th) on both ends of the floor. They’re one of only two teams (Chicago is the other) that ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency each of the past four seasons, and this is the best offense (scoring 1.9 points per 100 possessions more than the league average) in franchise history).

But things have been trending the wrong way for the Grizzlies of late, especially on defense.

Through November, the Grizzlies ranked fourth defensively, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. But since Dec. 1, they’ve ranked 22nd, having allowed 105.9. That drop-off of 8.1 is the largest in the league, though the Spurs (7.9) have come close.

Strength of schedule hasn’t really been a factor. The average OffRtg of their October-November opponents was 103.5, while the average OffRtg of their December-January opponents has been 103.5.

Injuries have played a role. Tony Allen missed four games in the middle of December with a corneal abrasion, and Zach Randolph has missed the last nine games with a sore knee.

Z-Bo isn’t going to get any Defensive Player of the Year votes anytime soon. In his absence, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger has had to get a little creative offensively. He used three point guards together for the first time in Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta, because “we have to get another playmaker on the floor.”

But Randolph’s absence has meant that Memphis has had to play small most of the time. And generally, smaller lineups are not as good defensively as bigger ones. Tayshaun Prince defending fours is different than Tayshaun Prince defending threes.

“We’re playing some guys out of position, playing a little bit more small-ball than we generally do, mixing and matching some guys,” said Joerger before Wednesday’s game in Atlanta.

Prince also blames a lack of practice time in December.

“No matter how good you are defensively or how veteran-ized your team is,” he said Wednesday, “you still got to get some practice in to keep your mind set right. We haven’t been doing that lately.”

Joerger, meanwhile, thinks his team got a little too comfortable with how well it was playing offensively.

“We won some games by outscoring some people,” the coach said. “Sometimes you can gain confidence in that, and that’s a good thing to have, but then you can rely on that at times too.”

For a lot of different reasons, the Grizz lost their grit-and-grind identity. And with a 4-6 mark in their last 10 games, they have to get it back. You can blame one thing or the other, but a drop-off of more than nine points per 100 possessions is huge. As long as they have Prince, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they should never be a bottom-10 defensive team for near six-week span.

“You can’t just point at one thing,” Gasol said. “It’s a multiple-factor thing. But if we don’t have good one-on-one defense, it’s tough to play. If we don’t keep the ball on the side of the floor, keep the ball away from the middle …

“The [key] to our whole defense is to keep the ball away from the middle and protect that paint. If we don’t pull guys in and do multiple efforts, one side, other side, it’s tough. It’s really tough, because you go, like we did against Denver [last Saturday], into emergency mode way too early.”

Randolph practiced on Thursday and says he will play in New Orleans tonight (8 ET, League Pass). The Pelicans are one of two top-10 offensive teams the Grizz play this weekend (they’re home against Phoenix on Sunday), so their defense is going to be tested.

“We just got to get back to it,” Joerger said. “It’s not going to be one game. It has to be a process of two or three weeks where it’s got to be our focus.”

One Stat, One Play: Nothing free in New York


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Nothing free in New York

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The New York Knicks talked defense in training camp, but we knew they weren’t going to be very good on that end of the floor.

Offensively, the Knicks still have talent. Carmelo Anthony is one of the league’s best scorers, Jose Calderon has been one of the league’s best shooters, and Amar’e Stoudemire has returned to being one of the league’s best finishers. Tim Hardaway Jr., Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are all pretty flammable.

But the Knicks rank 22nd offensively, having scored just 100.9 points per 100 possessions through Wednesday. When you compare their efficiency to the league average, this is their worst offensive season since 2007-08, when Isiah Thomas was coach.

One reason is a lack of free throws. The Knicks rank last in free throw rate, having attempted only 22 freebies for every 100 shots from the field.

Free throws are the most efficient way to score. And in that regard, the Knicks have the same issue on defense. They rank 26th in opponent free throw rate, putting their opponents on the line 32 times for every 100 shots from the floor.

When you put it together, the Knicks have attempted 7.8 fewer free throws per game than their opponents. That’s not just the worst discrepancy in the league. It’s the worst discrepancy since the 1998-99 season, when Rick Pitino‘s Celtics attempted 8.6 fewer free throws per game than their opponents.

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The Knicks had the league’s worst free throw disparity last season too. But it wasn’t nearly as bad: minus-4.6 per game.

The triangle offense has made the Knicks more of a jump-shooting team than they were before. A mere 37 percent of their shots have come from the paint, the lowest rate in the league.

That is, in part, a result of the offense’s lack of ball screens and drives. According to SportVU, the Knicks rank last in both of those categories as well.

Knicks’ lack of attack
% of shots in paint: 37.3% (30th)
Ball screens per game: 37.1 (30th)
Drives per game: 13.2 (30th)

The video above is the latest installment of “One Stat, One Play,” a look at a typical triangle possession, which goes nowhere near the basket.

Some good news: The Knicks have attempted as many or more free throws than their opponents in their last three games. But it was just last week that they attempted 41 fewer freebies than their opponents over a three-game stretch against the Blazers, Pelicans and Spurs.

The Knicks visit Chicago in the first game of TNT’s double-header (8 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

One Stat, One Play: Ariza from the corner


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Ariza from the corner

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Three-point attempts have been trending up for a while now. But the Houston Rockets have taken things to a new level this season.

Houston has attempted 42.2 percent of its shots from 3-point range, the highest rate in NBA history by a wide margin.

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Both Trevor Ariza and James Harden rank in the top six in 3-point attempts. Ariza ranks second in the league in corner 3s…

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Though he’s not shooting them as well as he did last season, when he led the league…

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He has shot them well from the left corner…

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Though three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard has missed 11 of their 21 games, the Rockets’ defense (ranked No. 2 through Wednesday) is more responsible for their 16-5 record than their offense. But their 3-point shooting makes them always tough to guard. And when Howard returns, their offense should climb from 20th in the league toward the top 10.

The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” featuring a fun play that results in one of Ariza’s 3s from the left corner.

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With Howard hoping to return for Saturday’s game against the Nuggets, we may be seeing more of that play soon. In the meantime, you can watch a compilation of it here.

Houston visits the Sacramento Kings in the second game of TNT’s doubleheader (10:30 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

One Stat, One Play: Bogut protects


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Bogut protects the rim

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – To compete for a championship, you need a strong defense. And if you want a strong defense, you have to protect the rim.

The Golden State Warriors have the league’s No. 1 defense, in part, because they’re the best in the league at protecting the rim. The Warriors are the only team that ranks in the top five in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area and percentage of opponent shots that are taken there.

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The restricted area is the most efficient place to score. The Warriors not only defend shots there well, but also prevent their opponents from getting shots there in the first place.

The keys are Andrew Bogut and a pick-and-roll scheme that keeps him near the basket. The Warriors have Bogut sag back on pick-and-rolls to force mid-range shots, protect the rim, and be in position to rebound.

According to SportVU, opponents have shot just 39.3 percent at the rim when Bogut’s been there defending it. That’s the lowest mark among 65 players who have defended at least five shots at the rim in at least five games.

The Warriors’ scheme also allows the defenders not involved in the pick-and-roll to stay at home on shooters. According to SportVU, they’ve contested 38.2 percent of their opponents’ jump shots, the second highest rate in the league. And they rank fourth in opponent 3-point percentage.

The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a look at how the Bogut and the Warriors keep their opponents away from the rim.

Golden State hosts the New Orleans Pelicans in the second game of TNT’s double-header (10:30 p.m. ET) on Thursday.