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NBA Hot Take 11–8–18

One piece can solve a puzzle, but one piece too many creates one.

A Tale of Two Cities, NBA Style

NBA analysts and blog boys were convinced of two things this season:

  1. The Lakers don’t have enough outside shooting for a LeBron James-centered team.
  2. The Boston Celtics are a super team with incredible depth and talent.

So far, neither of these opinions are playing out, as the Lakers are shooting 35.3% on 3-pointers (#14 in the league), one spot ahead of the juggernaut Celtics, who are shooting 35.1%. The toothless Lakers are #7 in offensive efficiency, while the potent Celtics are #27.

Neither team is playing up to fans’ expectations, as the Lakers (5–6) have been horrible on defense, while the Celtics (6–4) have been horrible on offense. I think this all has to do with the concept of basketball harmony and making the pieces fit together. Here’s a breakdown of each team’s problems.

A) The Lakers were missing a piece

Ever since training camp began, it was clear that the loss of Julius Randle and Brook Lopez left the Lakers without a playable backup center. They tried Kyle Kuzma as a small ball 5, but that experiment was a disaster. From there, they turned to undrafted, G-League bound Johnathan Williams, and end of bench/G League vet Ivaca Zubac, and the results were just a hair better than complete disaster.

On Sunday, the Phoenix Suns inexplicably bought out Tyson Chandler’s contract. This type of maneuver is usually done much later in the season, but whatever. Chandler wasn’t playing well, and probably didn’t fit in with all the young guys as an aging veteran.

Three days later, he signed with the Lakers and played the same night, and looked like a new man. He had 9 rebounds in 23 minutes, including a couple of offensive rebounds in the last 46 seconds of the game to preserve a close win by the Lakers.

The question is, how much can a role player (who scored only 2 points) mean to the well being of a team? If you break down the Lakers’ terrible defense, you’ll notice a very disjointed picture.

They are a 10 top defensive team in some areas:

  • Steals per defensive play (#9)
  • Block Percentage (#10)
  • Points off Turnovers (#7)

But a bottom 10 team in almost everything else:

  • Opponent FG% (#23)
  • Opponent 3P% (#20)
  • Defensive Rebounding % (#26)
  • Opponent Points off Turnovers (#24)
  • Opponent Second Chance Points (#22)
  • Opponent Points in the Paint (#29)

In one sentence, the Lakers force and score a lot of point off turnovers, are terrible defending shooters, and get absolutely killed on offensive rebounds.

As many people have said, defense doesn’t end until you secure the rebound.

If we look at Defensive Rebounding Percentage and Opponent Points in the Paint, the addition of Chandler seems to have filled a gaping hole in the defense:

Def Reb%, all games: #24

Def Reb%, with Chandler: #7

Opponent Points in the Paint, all games: #29

Opponent Points in the Paint, with Chandler: #6

Do the Lakers still stink on defense?

Sadly, the answer is maybe, as they are currently #26 in defensive efficiency. The veteran players (especially LeBron) don’t hustle to contest 3-point shooters and young players (Ingram, Kuzma, Hart) don’t communicate and make the proper rotations, so even if they run and jump as hard as they can to contest shooters, they are too late getting there to make a difference.

For the Lakers to become a good team, they will need to find a way to become a mid-tier defense, or they will be doomed to repeat the Cleveland formula of the last four years, but in a much tougher conference.

Will Chandler continue to make a huge difference for the rest of the season?

The Lakers still did what they do best, dominating in fast break points (24–13) and points in the paint (46–34), but they also won the rebounding battle (54–47) for one of the few times this year. And rebounding allows the Lakers to get out in transition, where they are in the top 4 in possessions, frequency and points.

If the Minnesota game is a sign of things to come, there were good signs. Minnesota only shot 45.1% on field goals, which would put the Lakers at #15 in the league, which is a huge improvement. Minnesota scored 110 points by virtue of making 20 of 40 3-point shots. Assuming other teams can’t consistently match this degree of accuracy, maybe the Lakers defense will improve to league average.

B) The Celtics have one piece too many.

Last season, the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving before going on an improbable playoff run that got them one game away from the NBA Finals. This year, they are struggling to find a balance between reintegrating the two All-Stars and giving the young core enough minutes to continue playing at last year’s level.

In spite of Brad Stevens’ coaching genius, the Celtics have been unwatchable for most of the season. Their game against OKC pitted the two worst offensive teams in basketball at the time, and it was ugly.

The difficulty of having too many guys demanding minutes has led to offensive problems that show up in the stats of the young guys.

  • Jayson Tatum shot 28.6% on 3-pointers in October (compared to 42.1% last year). Even though he’s improved in that area, he is still shooting only 40.6% overall, down from 47.5% last year. But the iso play is leading to poor shot selection, as his percentage of shots near the rim has dropped to 24%, and his 3-pointers at 32.3%, while his mid range jump shots now make up over 43% of his total shots. (Last year, he finished at the rim 38%, shot 3-pointers 34.2%, and mid-range jumpers 27.6% of the time.)
  • Terry Rozier is playing 3 minutes less per game, but his points, rebounds, and assists have dropped disproportionately. He’s also shooting only 35.5% overall, as he’s pressing to jack up shots, knowing he’s not going to get as much playing time, while hoping to get a big contract when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season.
  • Jaylen Brown is shooting like dog crap (.379 FG%, .297 3P%). He’s playing 1.5 minutes less, but all his stats are disproportionately worse.
  • Marcus Smart is incredibly important to Boston, but he has sacrificed more minutes than anyone on the team. In spite of being the NBA’s premier brick manufacturing facility, Boston’s offensive rating is 112.4 (good for #6 in the NBA) when he’s ON the court! While he is clearly the heart and soul of the Celtics’ defense, he is still producing more in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per minute than he did last year. His overall On/Off rating is +15.9, the best on the team. There’s something seriously wrong with a team that plays their most effective player 22% less minutes per game.

Now, look at the play of the veterans, who make up 63.3% of the Celtics payroll:

  • Gordon Hayward is shooting and defending poorly, with an On/Off rating of -9.8. Even worse, he is taking minutes away from the young guys and Marcus Morris, who has been on fire this season.
  • Kyrie Irving, in spite of his wonderful offense, is still a minus defender. When he is on the court, the team’s defensive rating balloons to 108.6 — the equivalent of the Brooklyn Nets (#17). His On/Off rating is -9.2.
  • Al Horford was expected to make the most sacrifices in terms of shots, to give the more gifted offensive players more opportunities. Guess what? He’s turned into Lance Stephenson, as he’s shooting almost 50% more 3-pointers and only making 29.6% of them. His On/Off rating is -9.1, and his defense has taken a huge dump.

It’s early in the season, and the Celtics have Brad Stevens, so things might work out.

But they might not.

The problem is not the fact that the Toronto Raptors are the best team in the East.

I already predicted that.

The real problem is that the Celtics have a rapidly closing window with their current roster construction.

They can’t afford to alienate their young core by cutting into playing time. And they won’t be able to pay these guys appropriately when they are eligible for their next contract if they keep paying the incredibly bloated salaries going to the three veterans who are either injury prone (Irving), not sure of fully recovering from a gruesome injury (Hayward) or on the down side of their career (Horford is 32, but trying to play like Draymond Green).

The question is can they (should they?) incorporate all of these extra pieces?

My guess is that if Ainge is smart, he will trade Irving who has showy offensive numbers that will intrigue the dumb GMs he regularly bamboozles, just like those shiny mobiles you hang above a baby’s crib to keep them occupied.

To me, this is as good a reason as any to get rid of Irving, who got fined $25K for his ridiculous behavior:

If a team gets bitch slapped all night by a player to the tune of 48 points, you give hard fouls when he goes to the rim. You don’t pretend to be a tough guy by throwing the ball into the stands after the game. That just makes the Celtics look soft, and that goes against the franchise’s DNA.

While I’m not a fan of Hayward, I don’t think the Celtics could move his contract without giving up draft assets. Teams won’t want three years and almost $100 million for a player who was never a max player even at his best, and now struggling to overcome his terrible injury.

Remember, Boston had the contracts and the assets to make San Antonio an offer they couldn’t refuse. Can you imagine a line up of Kawhi Leonard, Rozier, Brown, Tatum and Horford? Not only does that block Toronto from making the leap, it would have given Boston the one thing they need to have a chance to win a title — the one guy who has guarded and beaten Kevin Durant and LeBron James in consecutive playoff series.

Both the Lakers and the Celtics have big questions to answer as the season progresses.

For now, the Celtics are struggling, and Toronto looks like the main competition for Golden State this year. The face a big test on the second game of a back to back, playing in Utah, followed by a trip to Portland. If things don’t go well, the Celtics could be 7–6 before heading home.

In Los Angeles, no one knows if all the close losses are a sign of weakness of just the right kind of preparation for the young players to learn to compete in playoff conditions. They face two winnable games and a chance to be 7–6 before a home game against Portland before going East for two of three games against bottom dwellers.

It will be interesting to follow the journey of each team.