Thursday, November 14, 2013

Points In The Paint - November 14

Andrew Wiggins has moved on up to the college ranks, but he won't be there for long. (Flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

We've been playing NBA basketball for two and a half weeks now, so there's no time like the present to talk a stroll around the league and check in on a few happenings here and there. But before we get to the pros, let's take a quick look at the amateur ranks.

The Kids Are All Right

Freshman Phenoms Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle introduced themselves to the nation at large on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic from Chicago. They did not disappoint.

In the early game, Julius Randle tossed up a 27/13, with most of the damage coming during a strong second-half push by Kentucky that inevitably fell short. Randle looked labored at times scoring on the block, but a lot of that has to do with the simple fact that it's substantially harder to isolate in the low post in the college game - a shorter three-point line, a narrower foul lane, and the lack of a defensive three-second rule clutter the floor from the free throw line down to an almost unnavigable labyrinth. Randle was very good, and with even more space to operate once he reaches the NBA ranks, he could be even better.

In the late game, the two perimeter prodigies squared off. Duke's Jabari Parker displayed a more polished game - a superior shooting stroke (4-for-7 from three), a more comfortable handle on the ball, and better touch around the basket will likely result in a better college season this year. But Kansas' Andrew Wiggins is clearly the more explosive athlete, especially in transition, and he showed a fluidity that many athletes of his caliber don't possess at his age. Parker inspires shades of Grant Hill - a strong athlete with great ball skills, while Wiggins gives off a vibe of Kevin Durant or Tracy McGrady - a pure scorer with unlimited potential.

All three will be high lottery picks next year. The order is a mystery, but there is some certainty - the hype was deserved.

LeBron James: Still Good At The Basketball

It's worth mentioning that the same night that these three made headlines on national TV, LeBron and the Heat blew out Milwaukee, and LeBron scored 33 points in 30 minutes. It happens a handful of times every year, but LeBron made it look effortless. But he only tacked on two assists and three rebounds, so it's pretty much old hat.

Xavier Henry Did This

No words. Just emotions. 

The Nets Are Old And Creaky And Poorly Coached

Through the first handful of games, it seems like Kevin Garnett has embodied that old Far Side cartoon about Dick Clark. KG has looked basically the same since he went from Minnesota to Boston in 2007, but he's been losing mobility and athleticism steadily since then. This season, he can't even manage double-digit scoring or rebounding (mostly because he can't even manage playing half the game - he's averaging 22 minutes per outing) and is shooting a ghastly 30.6% from the floor. His shooting percentage will inevitably sprout back up, just because he's shooting the same exact shots he always has, but based on what we've seen from him so far this season, it seems like his days as a game-changing two-way player are long over; he's struggling to be a difference maker on even one end of the floor.

Garnett is old. Paul Pierce is old. Deron Williams is playing hurt and looks painfully slow. Mixing all these ingredients together for a disappointment cocktail is Jason Kidd, who has never coached basketball at any level before. His lead assistant is Lawrence Frank, one of the best defensive assistants in the league, but Brooklyn's defense has at times looked slow (understandably, they're absurdly old) and others looked undisciplined (also understandably, Andray Blatche, Jason Terry, and Alan Anderson are prominently involved in their 2nd unit). Offensively, they've been even worse, and it doesn't seem like there's any quick fix on the horizon.

If there's a solace to be had, it's that the East has been a giant dumpster fire so far this season. After Wednesday's games, 12 of the 15 teams in the conference were at .500 or worse. The start to this season has been more bizarre than most, so perhaps the cream will start to rise to the top soon.

Game of The Week: Clippers 111, Thunder 103

No, this was not the best game of the season so far. That title either belongs to the Clippers victory over Houston (137-118 last Monday), or the Clippers victory over Golden State (126-115 on Halloween). But this was a the highest-profile game of the last few days, and it was rather well played.

(Noteworthy aside: The Clippers have unquestionably been the league's best ticket so far this season - they've put together two virtuoso performances - the aforementioned wins over Houston and Golden State - a close loss at Miami, a bizarre opening night stumble against the Lakers, and three other entertaining games against Minnesota, Orlando, and Sacramento. It may just be the high-profile games on the schedule - six of their first nine have been on national TV - but they've been exceedingly entertaining throughout.)

The Clippers won the game on the strength of their second half, and the strength of their second half was thanks in large part to Oklahoma City being without their two normal starting bigs. Usual center Kendrick Perkins was not with the team following a death in his family, and Serge Ibaka was ejected shortly before halftime following a small kerfuffle with Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes. Ibaka's ejection was a bit dubious - he got tangled up with Griffin and it seemed that Barnes was the one who escalated the altercation - but probably justified. Ibaka did ball his fist and cock his arm as if he were preparing to throw a punch. I seriously doubt he had any intention of throwing said punch (had he, he would be automatically ejected and suspended for at least the next game), but the fact that he at least appeared to be preparing to do so probably warranted the ejection.

With no Ibaka in the second half, the Clippers turned a nine-point halftime deficit into a double-digit lead by the middle of the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City managed just 16 third quarter points, largely due to Ibaka's absence. Without Ibaka (or Perkins), Oklahoma City had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for big men, ending up with Ryan Gomes and Hasheem Thabeet combining for substantial minutes. When neither of the Thunder's bigs provide any offensive threat whatsoever, it becomes much easier for defenses to sink down below the free-throw line and cut off driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The mere threat of an attack or entry pass brought the Clippers' back line of defense rotating towards the strong side of the floor, safe in the knowledge that a ball reversal would merely lead to a Ryan Gomes jump shot or a pass to Hasheem Thabeet which, more likely than not, would not even be caught. With Durant effectively being triple-teamed at times, the Thunder labored to score. When their secondary perimeter players couldn't make plays or knock down shots, either (Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Thabo Sefolosha were a combined 4-for-16), it led to a string of bad shots and turnovers.

The Clippers' offense clicked as usual - Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are developing a deadly high-low game that defenses are still trying to figure out. As Griffin begins to roll to the basket following setting a high ballscreen for Chris Paul, he'll often stop near the elbow to receive the pass. The defense has to react to him, because even if  he's not a true threat to knock down jump shots (although he's improved a bit this year), he's still so deadly attacking off the dribble that he attracts attention. If they step up, there's an easy lob to Jordan, which he executed multiple times Wednesday night. If they don't step up, he either has an open 15-17 foot jump shot (which he will make occasionally, albeit not often), or a full two-step gather before rising to finish around the basket. If for whatever reason the defense steps to him and there's no angle for a lob, he's surrounded by shooters and has proven he will find the open man - overall he finished with seven assists.

Through nine games, the only team that's been able to slow the Clippers' offense is Orlando (like I said above, this season has been BIZARRE), and their strategy in that game basically amounted to "pack the paint and pray to [insert your God here] that everyone misses their jump shots," and it worked. But that's not a sustainable model. The Clippers will finish the season with a top-three offense unless Chris Paul somehow gets trapped under a boulder.


 The Isiah Thomas Division

30. Utah Jazz
29. Denver Nuggets
28. Sacramento Kings
27. Milwaukee Bucks

The Mike Dunleavy Division

26. Detroit Pistons
25. New Orleans Pelicans
24. Washington Wizards

Jesters of New York

23. Brooklyn Nets
22. New York Knicks

One Of These Teams Will Make The Playoffs By Default

21. Orlando Magic
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
19. Boston Celtics
18. Charlotte Bobcats
17. Toronto Raptors

I Refuse To Believe This Team Is Good

16. Los Angeles Lakers


15. Memphis Grizzlies
14. Chicago Bulls
13. Atlanta Hawks

Playoff Sleepers

12. Dallas Mavericks
11. Minnesota Timberwolves

I Give Up - I Know Nothing - Nothing Makes Any Sense

10. Philadelphia 76ers
9. Phoenix Suns
8. Portland Trail Blazers

The Contenders

7. Houston Rockets
6. Golden State Warriors
5. Los Angeles Clippers 

Always Around

4. Oklahoma City Thunder
3. San Antonio Spurs 

The Still-Technically-The-Favorite

2. Miami Heat

The I-Guess-They're-The-Favorite-By-Default-Right-Now

1. Indiana Pacers 

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