TrueHoop: Chicago Bulls
Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.
With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.
To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.
1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began
The puppets are always the first to know.
In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.
But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.
The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?
Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.
Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.
But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.
The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.
What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.
Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.
According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.
First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.
LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."
Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.
The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.
But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).
Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.
Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.
At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.
The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.
So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.
Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent
Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.
Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?
Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.
It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.
Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.
Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.
Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?
A.) “I want some nasty.”
B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”
C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”
D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”
E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”
TrueHoop TV Live happened Friday at 2p ET. You can watch the rebroadcast, or on the Spreecast website.
The Heat cruised to a 21-point halftime and held on for a 107-95 victory.
Dating back to last season, the Heat have won 38 of their last 40 regular-season games. The Heat and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks are the only teams in NBA history to win at least 38 games in a 40-game stretch (across seasons), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The return of Derrick Rose
Rose scored 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting (1-of-7 on 3-pointers) in his first regular-season game in more than 18 months.
Rose struggled against guards who defended him:
• Against Mario Chalmers, Rose shot 2-of-5 with four turnovers.
• Against Norris Cole, he missed each of his three field-goal attempts.
• With Dwyane Wade defending him, Rose was 0-for-1.
What did the Heat do well?
The Heat shot 6-of-8 on corner 3-pointers, their most makes in a game against the Bulls over the last four seasons (since LeBron James joined the Heat and Tom Thibodeau took over as Bulls head coach).
The Heat shooting well on corner 3-pointers isn’t a surprise: Last season, they led the NBA in corner 3-pointers made and attempted.
But it is a surprise against the Bulls: Since Thibodeau took over, the Bulls have allowed the fewest makes and attempts on corner 3-pointers in the NBA.
Role players come up big for Heat
The numbers show that the Heat's role players should be the ones credited with the win over the Bulls -- not the "Big 3."
James, Wade and Chris Bosh were outscored by four points in 25 minutes on the court together. But when at least one of them was on the bench, the Heat outscored the Bulls by 16.
With the “Big 3” on the court together, the Heat shot 2-of-7 on 3-pointers and were outrebounded by seven. But with at least one of them on the bench, the Heat shot 9-of-13 on 3-point attempts and had six more boards than the Bulls.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Phil Jackson's coach, Red Holzman, preached lessons that sync with today's stat geekery.
Praise be, in this confusing new world of basketball evidence, to those few special hoops topics with clarity. Talk to the most honest coaches, the smartest players, and look at what teams tend to do when they're winning, and once in a while some profound truths emerge. I call this stuff the new basketball common sense.
Three examples I gave, writing about it the other day: managing minutes, shooting 3s and getting the ball to the open shooter. On balance, those things all work.
Phil Jackson's reaction:
Just read a link to H Abbot’s ESPN article about new ideas in NBA thru the advent of stats. 2 thing Henry: Red Holzman had 2 rules:— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) October 11, 2013
“Hit the open man” and “see the ball on defense”…nothing new about getting ball to open man. Two, Utah Jazz was perennially the best in West— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) October 11, 2013
The Jazz also were the team with fewest 3pt attempts yearly. Basketball is played to strengths of individuals. 3pters are not always the key— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) October 11, 2013
Great to hear from you, coach. And first off: When Red Holzman and SportVU agree, that's a beautiful thing. That's as good a definition as any of what interests me. What an endorsement that you, the winningest coach, have long been inspired by principles I'm calling timeless.
As for it not being new ... naturally. We agree there, too. The example I offered, remember, was eating vegetables. Your grandma always knew it was good for you and your doctor always suspected the same.
But there were all kinds of health theories back then. My grandma didn't just believe in vegetables. She also believed heartily in the long-term health benefits of butter. What's new is that medical science has dug in and the vegetable thing has ascended from one of many theories to a bright shining fact. Some age-old lessons look smarter than ever, glowing in a hail of affirmations.
And butter for health? Well, time has been a little rougher on that one.
This new basketball common sense business is about identifying those last theories standing, those happy conclusions that are here for the long haul. I assume neither the coaches nor the stat geeks are correct on every point. They should and do test each other. But here and there the conclusions overlap and agree in interesting ways.
Hit the open man
This open man thing is a wonder. Red knew to hit the open man. You knew to hit the open man. The video says to hit the open man. The stats scream to hit the open man. For all these reasons, I call hitting the open man common sense.
And yet the interesting part is how many plays don't, even when old and new signs alike point that way. Some, in fact, including the Thunder with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and even your own Lakers in crunch time, run plays that are designed to get a covered guy a shot.
Call it analytics if you want, or just watch the video, see who's open and count the makes and misses, wins and losses. Count enough plays and the argument for the open man is killer.
Of course you know this; you tell us in books you battled Kobe on this for years.
Indeed, the selflessness of great teamwork is the theme of your excellent "Eleven Rings," in ways I found truly inspiring -- right down to reading and writing about the phenomenal Sebastian Junger "War" book you recommend. Junger calls combat "a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men." Then he writes: "The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what's best for him, but on what's best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat."
The most obvious hoops equivalent, of course, is giving up the rock. You hurt your box score stats, highlights and endorsements. You help your team. You've been making this case all career long. I'm here with some good news: the deeper the stat geekery, the more it has your back.
The Jazz make an extra point
Then there's this point about the Jazz. For starters: This team is a total outlier, an oddity, a cherry-picked example. You can't find three more like it; nearly all the best offenses are 3-focused these days. Of course a team with John Stockton and Karl Malone, probably the best pick-and-roll combination ever, was efficient. They both had conservative shot selection. The whole squad carefully worked Sloan's system to find easy looks. And boy did they ever know how to draw fouls -- those teams got a mind-blowing percentage of their points from the free throw line. Those are enough ingredients to make a great offense whether you shoot a lot of 3s or not.
This is like my grandma. She ate tons of healthy stuff and walked her dogs hours a day, seven days a week. That she lived to a ripe old age -- it probably wasn't the butter, you know? It was the other stuff.
Despite all that, as I'll explain, even your handpicked example still demonstrates my point that an uptick in 3s can help almost any offense.
In the first five years Jerry Sloan coached Stockton and Malone, the Jazz offense typically ended the season as the league's eighth-best. They were good.
Then things went crazy.
The Jazz went on a four-year run starting in 1994-95 when they averaged almost 114 points per 100 possessions, a big improvement. In this period they never had an offense worse than fourth. In the final year of that run, before age caught up to them, they didn't have their best offense ever, but they did have the very best offense in the league. This production carried Stockton and Malone to their only two Finals appearances, in 1997 and 1998.
What made the Jazz offense so special in those four years? The most obvious innovation, to my eyes, was the arrival of marvelous shooter Jeff Hornacek. He came from the Sixers at the end of the 1993-1994 season, and by the time they worked him into the offense the next fall, the Jazz started scoring like water.
Now opponents would pay for crowding Stockton and Malone.
And, importantly: Now the Jazz, at long last, whether in deference to Hornacek or the league's three-year dalliance with a shorter 3-point line, dramatically increased the number of 3s they shot. In Sloan's first five years, when the offense was merely good, his Jazz attempted an average of 504 a season. In the four seasons the offense peaked, they nearly doubled that number, averaging 847 a season. They went from an average of 505 points a season from 3s, to 946.
Today, teams shoot twice as much as that, and even then the Jazz lagged the league.
But nevertheless the truth is their offense took off when they did exactly what I'm prescribing: embrace the 3.
Which is common, and probably could have happened a lot more. You say it's about personnel, and of course you're right. But the Jazz had the shooters. In 1997-98 Hornacek made 44 percent of his 3s. Stockton was at 43 percent, with Howard Eisley at 41. Wonderful numbers! This is a team that led the league with 113 points per 100 possessions, but on plays when they attempted a 3 their rate soared up around 130. I don't know why they were so conservative with them, but I know those were almost certainly the team's best plays, and it's a cinch to suggest the Jazz could have scored more by doing more of that. Assume diminishing returns from tougher looks and you can still pencil in a few more points per game, not to mention more space in the paint for Malone to operate.
In the Finals that year, the Jazz lost games to your Bulls by one, four and five points.
That teams have been too conservative with 3s is not just an idea of analysts. Coaches have ever so slowly, three-and-a-half decades after the shot arrived, come to the same conclusion. Seven 3s per game was typical in the 1980s. Now that number is around 20 and rising. The green light is coming on.
What took those coaches so long?
One big part of it, I believe, is that people in the NBA, like everywhere, just don't have much of an appetite for change. You've written about this as much as anyone. Even your blatantly effective triangle, bedrock of 11 title teams, hasn't become mainstream.
But blending the right lessons of the past with the right innovations from the future can come with big rewards. And that's why some of today's basketball wisdom sounds old, and some of it sounds new.