It’s easy to forget that, this time last year, the Orlando Magic were the talk of the NBA. They won six of their first eight games, with the league’s fourth-best net rating in that span, on the strength of unsustainably hot jump shooting and an amazing start from Aaron Gordon. A nine-game losing streak soon followed, and another nine-game losing streak followed that. By mid-January, Orlando was 12-31 and miserable, which was in line with most analysts’ pessimistic preseason predictions.
In honor of that flawed and doomed — but briefly exciting! — Magic team, let’s have a look at five early-season trends, starting with a man who seems to be finding his groove and reestablishing himself as a superstar.
1. Blake is bonkers from behind the 3-point line
Over several summers as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, Blake Griffin broke down and rebuilt his midrange jumper with shooting coach Bob Thate. In a Players’ Tribune story from February 2015, Griffin described the whole ordeal as an effort to rewire his brain — improving his mechanics required him to take more than 250,000 jump shots over three offseasons.
When he first displayed his newfound comfort in the midrange, it was impressive. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t good enough. As high-volume midrange shooting became unfashionable, Griffin drew criticism for taking low-efficiency shots. Tilting his game toward the perimeter was supposed to help his team and open up other parts of his game, but analysts pointed out his declining offensive rebounding numbers and free throw rate. It was as if he had spent years perfecting his cursive right before the world went digital.
In order to be a star in today’s NBA, Griffin’s approach had to change. He did not, however, decide to throw out the countless hours he devoted to repetitive workouts and focus on the inside game that made him a star to begin with. He decided to add a 3-point shot to his arsenal, like a truly modern big man. After mixed results last season, Griffin is shooting 48.7 percent on 5.6 3-point attempts per game.
“Putting in the work all those years, even in the midrange, has helped me now,” Griffin told CBS Sports.”That form and all that translates. I’m glad I wasn’t one of those guys that was just like, screw it, I’m just going to be myself and do what I do and not try to add that to my game.”
Griffin started the season on a rampage, shooting 15-for-23 from deep as the Detroit Pistons won their first four games, including a 133-132 overtime victory against the Philadelphia 76ers in which he scored a career-high 50 points. He cooled off in two losses to Boston, shooting a combined 0-for-8 from behind the 3-point line. Before their game in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Detroit coach Dwane Casey said the cat is out of the bag.
“Teams watch video,” Casey said. “I think that’s something that they’re not going to just sit there and let him [do]. I think teams are adjusting how they’re playing him. It should open up something else for his game. But that’s one great surprise for us: Blake’s 3-point shooting.”
According to Pistons center Zaza Pachulia, Griffin’s confidence from long range has been a topic of discussion within the team. “We want him to actually take 3s, more 3s,” he said, adding that they don’t want him to hesitate: They know as well as anybody that he is a “beast” inside, but trusting his shot will make him the best version of himself he can be.
So far, so good. Griffin is averaging a career-high 27.3 points with a 60.1 true shooting percentage.
This is only Griffin’s second season as a high-volume 3-point shooter and his third taking 3s with any degree of regularity. It is all but impossible that he will maintain the ridiculous efficiency he has now, but that’s not the point: If his percentage is in the high 30s, opponents will have no choice but to respect him as a shooter, and his form is smoother than ever.
“Every shot he shoots looks like it’s gonna fall,” Detroit guard Ish Smith said.
Down the stretch of the Pistons’ 120-119 loss to the Nets, Griffin swished three clutch 3-pointers. If you aren’t used to this new version of Griffin yet, it was as jarring to see him attempt these shots as it was to see them go in. In Detroit, however, everybody is quickly getting used to this kind of thing.
“That’s what he does,” Casey said. “That’s where he’s expanded his game.”
2. Boston’s offensive offense
The Boston Celtics have the league’s best defensive rating, but they haven’t been able to score. It is kind of crazy — despite starting five players who could reasonably have All-Star aspirations, they are scoring just 101.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 25th in the league. (They were 28th before Thursday’s 117-113 win against the Milwaukee Bucks, their best offensive performance of the season.)
The Celtics are way too talented for this to remain the case, but let’s dig into some numbers anyway. They are taking fewer shots at the rim than any team in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Their free throw rate ranks 25th in the league, per NBA.com. Gordon Hayward is the only one of their Big 5 — we really need a nickname for these guys, ugh — making 3s at his normal clip. Jayson Tatum, who was on fire for almost all of his rookie season, is all the way down to 32.3 percent. Al Horford is shooting more 3s than ever before, but he’s only converting 31 percent of them.
Tatum is the only Celtic who has been consistently aggressive, but his efficiency has cratered. Hayward needs time to get healthy. Kyrie Irving has played some of the most mystifying basketball of his career, regularly passing up shots and finishing one game with just three points on 1-for-5 shooting. Jaylen Brown is shooting 36 percent from the field.
None of this is for lack of trying. Dating back to the offseason, the players have been saying the right things since about sacrificing and trying to make this work. The ball is moving — Boston is third in potential assists and second in secondary assists per game, per NBA.com. If anything, it is collectively too unselfish. The Celtics are shooting poorly on open 3s, which means either that they’re pressing or they’re just dealing with bad luck.
Encouragingly, Irving had his best, most assertive game of the season on Tuesday, scoring 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting in a 108-105 win against Detroit. The team as a whole wasn’t awesome on offense, but getting Irving going must be a priority and he played with the same verve against Milwaukee. Brown has been a bit better lately, too, after a brutal three-game stretch in which he missed 21 of 26 shots, though he had to sit out against the Bucks because of a foot injury.
Boston finished 18th in offensive rating last season, and the only time Brad Stevens has coached a top-10 offense was when it had a clear hierarchy: Isaiah Thomas ran the whole show. I am not going to get in the business of doubting Stevens, but perhaps getting these Celtics need to coalesce will be a bigger challenge for him than getting an undermanned, overlooked team to come together. With their floor spacers and playmakers, there is reason to believe they can turn into a juggernaut before the playoffs start. Before they start thinking about being elite, though, they need to be reliably good on offense.
3. Pushing the pace, Showtime-style
In one respect, the Los Angeles Lakers have lived up to their word. Despite LeBron James’ long history of playing halfcourt basketball and picking apart defenses, they are fourth in pace. They seem intent on taking advantage of their (relative) youth and athleticism as much as possible — according to Synergy Sports, 23 percent of their possessions have come in transition, the highest mark in the league.
The problem is that they are 22nd in defensive rating and 26th in defensive rebounding. They can’t keep opposing teams out of the paint, their halfcourt defense is atrocious and these problems were obvious with or without Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram in the lineup.
I can’t help but wonder what James thinks would fix what ails Los Angeles. Coach Luke Walton doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants to slow things down, but it’s typical for a fast-paced team that struggles on defense to consider being more conservative. Theoretically, if you are more controlled on offense, it leads to better floor balance, better transition defense and more overall flow.
I am not so sure that would be the case with the Lakers, however. Dialing it back would likely mean fewer easy scoring opportunities — Los Angeles leads the league in shots at the rim — and put more pressure on their iffy outside shooting. Without any changes to the roster, Walton might not have the personnel to maintain a solid offense that way. If there is any slowdown at all, I bet it will not be drastic.
4. Denver’s dominant defense
It took less than a week for Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone to rave about his team. “This is the defense I dream about,” he told reporters after they beat the Golden State Warriors 100-98 in their third game of the season.
You could understand Malone’s excitement. Denver had taken down a superteam, and it had the best defensive rating in the NBA. All the Nuggets had talked about throughout training camp and the preseason was their desperate need to be better on that end and their dedication to doing so. They had finished one game shy of a playoff berth for the last two seasons, despite having no problem putting the ball in the basket. It was unclear, however, if their early-season success was indicative of a transformation.
A couple of weeks later, Denver still looks like a good defensive team, if not a great one. It is fourth in defensive rating, which, if sustained for the whole season, would be one of the most shocking stories in the NBA. It has a 7-1 record, its best start in 42 years.
The good news: Nikola Jokic looks like a better pick-and-roll defender, and the whole team is playing with a level of effort and aggressiveness that it didn’t have last season. Paul Millsap, finally healthy and their best defender by a mile, has filled in all the gaps the Nuggets hoped he would. They force a ton of turnovers, they dominate the boards and, even if they end up being merely above-average on defense, they have enough firepower to safely make the playoffs.
The bad news: Statistically there has already been a drop-off, even though Denver has kept winning. It protects the rim almost exactly as poorly as the Lakers. It gives up more corner 3s than any team other than Memphis. And, as optimistic as I am about Isaiah Thomas coming back healthy and giving the Nuggets a spark offensively, his presence sure won’t help on the other end.
5. Simmons, Saric and the Sixers’ scoring struggles
Don’t you miss when the Philadelphia 76ers were fun? I still believe in their talent and think they can get on track, but they have been a weird watch for a bunch of reasons. Brett Brown’s coaching staff made the bold move of breaking up one of the best starting lineups in the league in order to integrate Markelle Fultz, and the short-term struggles are real. Philadelphia is 17th on offense, Ben Simmons played perhaps the worst game of his career on Tuesday and Dario Saric is shooting 33 percent and 24 percent from 3-point range.
The team just hasn’t had much rhythm, their 122-113 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday notwithstanding. When Simmons and Fultz have played together, the Sixers have scored 89 points per 100 possessions. Simmons is hardly taking any jumpers; Fultz is taking some but opposing defenses don’t respect his shot. They are both better without the other, and they both need to figure out how to be effective off the ball.
None of this is meant to pile on Simmons, Fultz or the slumping Saric. It is simply to say that the offense hasn’t been humming. It is not hard to figure out what is going on: Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli are both gone and Wilson Chandler hasn’t played a game yet.
“Last year we had some really good shooters, and this year we don’t have them,” Joel Embiid said after Philadelphia’s 129-112 loss in Toronto, per Sportsnet’s Dave Zarum.
Embiid, by the way, has been extraordinary. After his first healthy offseason, he has averaged 28.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists while significantly cutting down on his turnovers. He looks more athletic and is better able to handle big minutes, and he dropped 41 on the Clippers. The fact that the team only has an average point differential despite this is a reflection of the fact that things aren’t working the way they should be.
Still, it is too early to dismiss the Sixers as Eastern Conference contenders. Fultz is a massive question mark, but they don’t have to play him when it’s winning time. No one sensible is worried about Simmons in the big picture. Chandler should help, and Zhaire Smith might, too. New general manager Elton Brand’s front office could make things a lot easier on everybody by getting another shooter or two in there, though, and I hear a pretty dang good one is available.
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