Category Archives: The Thing Is…

The Thing Is…The Eastern Conference Totally Sucks

The Miami Heat are pretty great.

Just look at the standings. Look at the 27-game winning streak that was finally snapped against the Chicago Bulls. Look at what LeBron James is doing in what may be his best season yet. If you look at the Eastern Conference, you’ll see the Heat sitting comfortably at the top. And you’ll see everybody else so far below them that they need a telescope to catch a glimpse of Erik Spoelstra’s finely tuned juggernaut. Taking all of this into consideration, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Heat will be waiting for the winner of the Western Conference champion when the NBA Finals roll around.

The Heat should roll through the Eastern Conference playoffs, brushing aside the elderly Knicks, the offensively challenged Pacers, or whatever other pretenders may cross their path. But does that say more about the greatness of the Heat or the pathetic state of the Eastern Conference? As I said before, there’s no questioning that Miami is among the elite teams in the NBA this year. If they cruise to the Finals with just one or two losses along the way, people might be tempted to throw Miami in the conversation of all-time great teams. But let’s put into perspective just how easy their road to the Finals should be.

The Heat currently have the 2nd best net rating (point differential per 100 possessions for those of you who aren’t stat-heads) in the NBA at +9.9. Although Miami just lost their first game in nearly two months, they somehow still trail the Oklahoma City Thunder in this category (OKC has a net rating of +11.1). The 3rd and 4th ranked teams in net rating are in the Western Conference with the Thunder, so Miami doesn’t really need to worry about them. The Indiana Pacers round out the top 5 with a net rating of +5.9. If you’ve been paying attention, that’s a difference of four whole points per 100 possessions between the East’s number one seed and number two seed. That’s a damn big drop-off. That’s not something we see very often. Typically, the top teams in either conference are pretty close in net rating. There are usually a few teams that could reasonably reach the Finals from either conference and it adds a good deal of drama to the playoffs.

Going back to 2000-01, there has only been one other year when the top team in a conference had that large of a gap between themselves and the 2nd best team. The 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs posted a net rating of +9.8 while the 2nd ranked Sacramento Kings were right at +5.8.  Of course, the Lakers eventually took down the Kings and the Spurs on their way to an NBA championship that year. To find a similarly large gap, you have to go back to the 2004-05 Miami Heat. That team, led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, only to lose in 7 games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons ended the regular season with a net rating of just +4.8 while the Heat posted a lofty +8.4, a difference of +3.6. Both the 2000-01 Spurs and the 2004-05 Heat appeared to have exceedingly easy paths to the Finals and yet neither team managed to make it there.

If you want to find the team with the easiest path to the Finals in the past 12 years that actually took advantage of this path, take a look at the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. That Celtics team had a +3.5 advantage over their biggest obstacle in the Eastern Conference and, as you know, was able to beat the Lakers in the Finals to win the NBA championship. But even those eventual NBA champs didn’t coast through the first 12 wins of the playoffs. The Hawks and Cavaliers pushed Kevin Garnett and friends to seven games in the first two rounds before Boston beat the 2nd ranked Pistons in six games to earn a trip to the Finals.

Let’s take a look at LeBron’s best team when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Obviously, he never won an NBA championship with the Cavs, but that doesn’t mean that those teams were crap. On the contrary, they were quite good. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games and posted a net rating of +10.3. That’s actually a better regular season than LeBron’s record setting squad this year. But the competition in the East was much better than it is this year. The Celtics and Magic were both close behind with net ratings of +8.7 and +8.3, respectively. It’s not hard to see how much better either of those teams were than this year’s Pacers (a net rating of +5.9, if you recall).

So what does this mean? Nothing, really. I just find it interesting. It may be jumping the gun to anticipate any of this, but it certainly looks like the Heat are destined to meet the best of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And the rest of the Eastern Conference are just placeholders so we can kill some time and watch LeBron and D-Wade toss insane alley-oops to each other. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, and Chris Paul will be duking it out on the other side of the NBA bracket. Do you think we’d view Miami’s berth in the Finals so inevitable if they had to go through the Clippers and Spurs first? Probably not.

None of this is intended to tear down the Heat or diminish their accomplishments. I swear, it’s not – I just want to provide some context and perspective. And as we’ve seen, having an easy road to the Finals is hardly a guarantee. The Heat still need to take care of business and we’ve certainly witnessed some big playoff upsets in the past. Nobody will deny that this Heat team is incredibly good – not even me. But it’s possible for the team to be fantastic and for their competition to be pretty damn terrible at the same time.

The Thing Is… The Clippers Are Locking Down

If you went on Twitter and asked, “who’s the best team in Los Angeles?” at the beginning of the season, you’d have been laughed at. Obviously, it was the Lakers. They have Dwight Howard. They have Steve Nash. They have Kobe “BEAN” Bryant. Sitting here in mid-November, they still do have those guys. Except that they have just now reached .500 and have already fired their head coach. Meanwhile, the Clippers – the perpetual “little brothers” in town – are sitting pretty at 7-2 and it’s pretty damn hard to look at those first nine games and come away thinking that they aren’t the best team in Hollywood.

But this article isn’t just “narrative narrative Clippers >>> Lakers best team in LA page viewz.” Instead, I want to look at why and how the Clippers have surpassed the Lakers, at least for the time being.

The obvious answer is Chris Paul. He’s the floor general (as well as essentially the head coach). His brilliance is somehow understated even though he’s been the best point guard in the league for some time now. On the young season, he has 92 assists to just 18 turnovers, leading the way as the Clippers have raced to the 5th best offensive efficiency in the NBA. He’s fourth in PER and near the top of the leaderboard in all of those other fun stats. He’s the best, basically. But Paul was on the Clippers last year. And the Clippers had an elite offense last year.

You may be eager to point to Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe’s insane production off the bench and the enormous improvements from DeAndre Jordan as the reason that the Clippers look so much better overall this year. And you’d be at least somewhat right. But you’d also be wrong. All of those things help, but they aren’t enough to launch the Clippers past the Lakers and into serious contender status.

Instead, the difference is on the other side of the ball. Small sample size caveats aside, the Clippers have gone from the 18th ranked defense to the 3rd ranked defense overnight. So if you’ve been paying attention, that means the Clippers are statistically a better defensive team than they are an offensive team , as of today. When your team has Chris Paul leading your offense and that offense isn’t even the team’s biggest strength to this point, that’s a big problem for everybody else.

This is not to say that the unfathomably deep bench doesn’t deserve credit –it most certainly does. It’s just not in the way that most people think. The bench basically comes into the game and absolutely locks it down. To give you an idea of how ridiculous the Clippers’ bench has been on defense, take a look at Blake Griffin’s on/off splits from last year compared to this year (this ought to give you a decent idea, being that we assume that Blake is typically playing with the starters).

Clippers defensive rating 2011-12
With Blake Griffin: 102.2 points per 100 possessions
Without Blake Griffin: 105.0 points per 100 possessions

Clippers defensive rating 2012-13
With Blake Griffin: 98.4 points per 100 possessions
Without Blake Griffin: 92.4 points per 100 possessions

As you can see, not only has the starting unit improved defensively (and give some credit to Blake, he’s not a total sieve anymore), but also the bench unit has improved by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions from last year to this year. Last season, the most commonly used 2-man combination of non-starters was Mo Williams and Reggie Evans, who are both no longer with the team. That combination produced a defensive rating of 105.2 points per 100 possessions. In 2012-13, the most commonly used 2-man combination of non-starters is Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. That unit has produced a defensive rating of 89.2 points per 100 possessions thus far.

What’s the point of all this; other than to say, “Holy crap the Clippers are good”? While that point is valid, it’s more about a fundamental shift in why they are so good. Last season the team seemed to rely on Chris Paul and the offense to just blow past teams with their Lob City and flopping floppitude. This year, they’re grinding teams into the ground AND letting Chris Paul and the offense blow past teams. Save for two fluky shooting performances from Cleveland and Golden State, the Clippers have been dominant. Their resume includes relatively comfortable wins against Memphis, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and Chicago. And that’s just the first few weeks of the season.

The Lakers are going to be in the spotlight in LA and certainly have the talent to become worthy of that spotlight. But as of right now, they’ve got a long way to go to catch up with their “little brothers.”

(Now watch the Spurs hang 120 on the Clippers tonight just to make me look stupid.)

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com

The Thing Is… Dwight Howard’s Back

This is the first of a weekly feature that I’ll be doing here at Hardwood Paroxysm. Each week, I’ll be writing about something stupid that I’ve noticed around the NBA blogosphere or among fans. These will be ideas or notions that constantly come up on Twitter and seem to be readily accepted by most everybody. Everybody other than me, that is. By nature, I’m just a skeptical person. I question everything and I doubt everything. That’s why I frequently spew off 15 tweets in a row about some sort of lazy assumption that seems to be taken as undeniable truth. This column ought to work as a more organized way to project these thoughts.

One point that I feel needs to be clarified is that the line of thinking that I’m promoting here is doubt – not simple rejection. I don’t mean to say “this idea is false you idiots!!!!!!” but rather: “why do we so readily accept this as true? Shouldn’t this be reconsidered?”

All of that said, I present to you the first edition of:

The Thing Is…

The only logical place to start this series would be in Los Angeles. Virtually everybody has an opinion about the Lakers and virtually everybody with a soul was giddy to see them start the season 0-3. Unfortunately, the Lakers had to get their first win of the year on Sunday night when they absolutely destroyed the Detroit Pistons. It was an impressive display – total domination. From the opening tip off to the final buzzer, the Lakers lead rarely (if ever) went below 15 points. Much of this was thanks to Dwight Howard being guarded by guys like Jason Maxiell and Greg Monroe. In this young season, Dwight has put up some nice numbers, at least on the offensive end. It’s just four games, but the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year is dropping a cool 23.3 points on 68.8% (!!) shooting to go along with 9.8 boards and a couple blocks. Those are the superstar numbers on the offensive end that the Lakers were expecting. On the defensive end and on the glass, however, his numbers are down across the board. His rebounding rate is lower than it has ever been at any point in his career and the Lakers currently boast the 27th ranked defense in the league. While Dwight has produced offensively, he hardly looks the part of a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year.

OH MA GOD WHAT HATER ITZ FOUR GAMES GIVE IT SOME TIME. HE’S NOT EVEN FULLY HEALTHY YET JUST WAIT HE’LL ONLY GET BETTER OMG. DWIGHT HAS TO ADJUST TO THE GLARE OF LIGHT COMING OFF OUR SEVENTEEN BANNERS HANGING IN STAPLES CENTER HOW MANY BANNERS ARE IN YOUR HOUSE? NONE. HATER.

Easy there, imaginary Lakers fan that I created to get my point across. There are obviously reasons to explain why Dwight hasn’t lived up to his reputation on the defensive end of the floor. I’ll admit right here that it could simply be because this is a 4-game sample and it’s not at all indicative of how he’ll play the rest of the year. That’s 100% possible. That said, I feel As though the general consensus is that Dwight just had back surgery in the offseason and it’s clearly still slowing him down, that his back isn’t fully healed and that saps his explosiveness which brings down his defensive abilities and rebounding rates, but that it’s definitely going to heal over the course of the season and he will resume his spot as an utterly dominant two-way player.

Again, this is totally possible. But why is it accepted as a given that his back is going to heal through the course of the season? How is playing 35 minutes every night and banging in the post the best way to regain full mobility and strength?

When April rolls around and teams are getting ready for their playoff run, which version of Dwight Howard are the Lakers going to get? One who has fully recovered from his back surgery? Or does the wear and tear of a long 82-game season take its toll on a guy who’s on pace to set a career high in usage rate? Do the Lakers have a good enough bench to let Dwight Howard not play 32 minutes when they’re up by 20 points? I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’m not a doctor – I just play one on the internet. But I think they are worth considering. Does the relative lack of strength in Dwight’s back cause him to get tired more quickly? Will it cause him to overcompensate with other muscles and injure something else? Does Mike Brown really feel the need to play his stars as much as possible every single night? Those are just some things to consider when you see people say “Wow, and Dwight Howard isn’t even fully healthy.”  Because that’s true, but it could also be the healthiest that he’ll be.