by Corey Kollbocker, Jordan Lee & Spencer Suk
The 2014-15 NBA Season is rolling along. It’s still early, but teams are beginning to show their true colors, players are figuring out their roles, and fans are beginning to form their opinions. So in case you’ve missed out on the action, the Franchise is here to break down three hot topics from the NBA in three days. This is part 3, but you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. So without further ado…
What has surprised you most thus far in the NBA season?
Corey Kollbocker: The Houston Rockets. I was one of many who thought the Rockets’ offseason spelled disaster. They shed Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin for peanuts, and let Chandler Parsons walk freely to their in-state rivals. Those guys were the fifth, sixth, and third best players on their roster last season respectively. They replaced Parsons with Trevor Ariza, who, while a capable shooter and strong defender, is not the playmaker Parsons is, and has been notorious for underperforming after signing a new contract. The rest of the roster they filled in with young heads and journeymen—the only other player making over $5 million is Jason Terry, who the past few seasons has looked as washed up as a beached whale. Addition by subtraction is one thing, but gutting all the talent from your team is not usually a recipe for success.
And yet, eleven games into the season Houston has the second best record in the league at 9-2 (trailing only the Grizzlies). So how is this happening? James Harden hasn’t taken a step forward offensively; in fact he’s posting career low field goal and 3-point percentages while posting a career high usage rate. And while pundits laud the return of the old Dwight Howard, a look at his per-36 minute stats shows he’s actually regressed slightly in shooting and free throw percentage without really increasing his volume.
So why have these Rockets been so good? The answer, surprisingly, is defense. When it comes to points scored, opponent shooting percentage, and opponent 3-point shooting, the Rockets excel, coming in at second in each category. They hold opponents to a sparse 91.6 points a night.
Dwight has been the usual force in the middle, but the main difference comes from a change in team mentality. Last year, the Rockets were the second best offensive team in the league, scoring 107.7 points per game, but they were 21st on the other end of the court, and videos of James Harden standing still on defense were going viral. This year, the team is embracing the strengths of their most dominant player (Howard), and putting most of their effort into the less glamorous side of the court. The young guards are chasing shooters off the three-point line with frenetic energy, Ariza is locking down wing scorers, and Dwight is mopping up what’s left in the middle. And Harden is doing his part—he’s on pace for over 7 defensive win shares, which more than doubles his previous career high, and almost triples his total last year (I wouldn’t expect him to get there; 7 defensive win-shares is All-Defensive team worthy, but it’s surely a sign of improved focus). All told, these Rockets have reduced their opponent’s scoring average by 12 points per game. It’s hard to believe.
Most of us thought the Rocket’s were just getting worse, but really they were changing from an offensive team to a defensive team, and it’s paying off. It’s no coincidence that the only team off to a better start, Memphis, possesses the league’s best defense.
Jordan Lee: Blake Griffin
I thought the Clippers were ready to take another step this season and truly compete for a championship, but it all depends on Griffin. He finished 3rd in MVP voting last year, and the Clippers need another MVP caliber season from him to have any chance this year.
Griffin’s added consistency on his jumper and free throws opened up a lot of doors for him. He can now face up against bigger players that hold their ground in the post, but more importantly, he isn’t afraid of getting fouled and going to the line. In his first three seasons, Griffin dreaded shooting free throws, but now he welcomes them as another way to get two points.
However, it seems like Blake and the Clippers have gotten carried away with his jump shot. His role in the offense this year is more of a step out four, and I hate it. In my mind, what separates Griffin from Aldridge and K-Love offensively is his imposing post game. When Griffin catches the ball on the block, almost every team is forced to throw a double team his way.
This year, Blake’s playing more like Aldridge, and he’s not even half the shooter Aldridge is. This is more of what I expect to see out of a physically declining 34-year old Blake Griffin. Just look at the stats.
The Clippers have to make a concerted effort to get Blake better looks, but he’s also settling. Instead of taking one dribble and throwing it down in someone’s face, he’s taking the jumper. Instead of facing up and making a strong move towards the basket, he’s jab stepping and relying on his 15-footer.
I mean come on... James Harden only takes jumpers 70% of the time (Griffin takes jumpers 72% of the time this year)... Something clearly has to change.
Even when Blake does get it in the post, he’s not playing confidently. He’s hesitating when he gets the ball, instead of quickly committing to a move before the defense can react.
The Clippers have gone away from what made Blake one of the most feared players in the league. Instead of using his jumper as a counter to defenders sagging off him, it’s become Griffin’s go-to. I definitely used to criticize Blake for being too crazy and out of control, but what I’ve come to learn is that he was actually in control. At times, it looked sloppy and reckless, but he’d use that soft touch to somehow put the ball in the basket.
Griffin needs to get back in that attacking mentality. I miss the Blake that used to try to dunk it from so far that he literally had to throw it in.
What happened to this Blake?
Spencer Suk: K.J. McDaniels’ athleticism.
I know this has been another miserable season, filled with tanking, for Sixers fans. But rookie K.J. McDaniels has put on a show for those who are loyal (and crazy) enough to keep watching their games. Especially with his emphatic rejections, which have been utterly outrageous.
So far, McDaniels has been averaging 1.4 blocks, no small feat for a 6’6” shooting guard. For a frame of reference, Dwyane Wade, the all-time career blocks leader for guards, has never averaged more than 1.3 in a season. Once he gains more experience, McDaniels could actually develop into a scary defender.
We’ve seen so little of McDaniels that it’s hard to pinpoint where his career is heading. However, teams are always looking for an athletic wing. If McDaniels can solidify his outside shot (he’s making one 3-pointer per game on 34.5% shooting, which isn’t too shabby), he could quickly turn into a valuable 3-and-D wing.
His athleticism also makes him a major threat in the open court. Just ask Mo Harkless...