Most obvious rope-a-dope: Warriors
The Western Conference standings have been a nightly adventure, with 14 teams competing for playoff spots and more than a handful rotating through to claim the top seed. But as the Golden State Warriors have trudged through tense moments between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green and jockeyed for spots with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the defending champs have played with one hand tied behind their back.
Throughout the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, Golden State’s so-called “Hamptons Five” small-ball lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Green — pulverized the competition. In 2017, the group posted a blistering plus-32.9 net rating. The next postseason, they were plus-24.8. Simply put, when that quintet was healthy and on the court together, no one came close to challenging them, let alone beating them.
So far this season, the “Hamptons Five” has been on vacation, logging just 14 minutes together all year. While some of that can be explained by injuries to Curry and Green, the lineup’s limited use falls in line with previous seasons, as Coach Steve Kerr has regularly elected to protect Green from wear-and-tear by playing him alongside a traditional center.
Here’s a second, equally frightening proposition: DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors’ major offseason signing, is finally beginning his return to the court with a G-League stint this week. So, while Kerr has chosen to selectively deploy his best lineup, he hasn’t even been able to field what will likely be his second-best look. Swapping Cousins in for Iguodala will give Golden State the ability to play five all-stars at once. On paper, this bigger group has no offensive weakness, as it should be able to punish opponents in the paint, from midrange, at the foul line and from beyond the arc.
If the West’s topsy-turvy nature has revealed anything, it’s that the Warriors at full strength remain head and shoulders above the competition.
Most troubling falloff: Chris Paul, Rockets
There are plenty of explanations for the Houston Rockets’ rocky start: They miss Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute; they got absolutely nothing from the Carmelo Anthony experiment; their switching defensive scheme has been far less effective than it was last year. But no list of what ails Houston is complete without mentioning that Chris Paul simply hasn’t been the same player he was in 2017-18.
While a smaller point guard such as Paul can be expected to decline during his age-33 season, the degree to which his play and Houston’s success are linked has been stunning. Last season, the Rockets were virtually unstoppable with Paul and effective without him. This year, the Rockets are 0-5 when he sits out and exceedingly vulnerable if he doesn’t play well. Paul’s slippage has really emerged in his advanced stats: his player efficiency rating is the lowest of his career, his turnover rate is the highest of his career, and his true shooting percentage is his lowest since his second season. Last year, the Rockets boasted a whopping plus-12.8 net rating when Paul was on the court; in other words, every Rockets lineup that included Paul blew out the opposition in aggregate. This year, Houston is barely breaking even with Paul, who hasn’t gotten to his spots as easily or displayed the night-to-night consistency that has been his hallmark for more than a decade.
Houston enters Tuesday’s action in the West’s 14th seed, a stunning turn of events for a team that won a league-best 65 games last season. While a postseason trip is still well within their grasp, making real noise in the playoffs will only be possible if Paul can find a way to reverse these trends. Without an all-star level sidekick for James Harden, the Rockets will continue to sputter.
Most impressive lineup: Raptors
Here’s the foundation for Masai Ujiri’s argument to win the 2019 executive of the year award: Toronto has the NBA’s top-performing lineup, and three of its five members didn’t start for the Raptors last year.
In 293 minutes together this season, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka have posted an extraordinary 118 offensive rating and a solid 104 defensive rating. The resulting plus-14 net rating is easily the highest among all NBA lineups with at least 175 minutes logged together. This group has a little bit of everything: multiple shot-creators, multiple three-point shooting threats, good size and agility, plenty of positional versatility and loads of frontcourt length.
Remember, Ujiri acquired Leonard and Green in an offseason deal with San Antonio, and he plucked Siakam, a leading most improved player candidate who came off the bench last year, with the 27th pick in 2016. Even Ibaka, who is enjoying a bounce-back season after a poor 2018 postseason, now reflects well on Ujiri, who traded for him and then re-signed him in 2017.
Most improved team in the clutch: Mavericks
Rookie of the year favorite Luka Doncic has already changed an awful lot for the Mavericks, but he’s arguably making his biggest impact late in games. Dallas was nothing short of a late-game train wreck in 2017-18, posting the NBA’s worst record (12-38) and worst net rating (minus-27.4) in clutch situations. With then-rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr. getting his feet wet and a roster lacking in initiators and playmakers, the Mavericks’ late-game struggles were somewhat understandable, even if they were unbearable for fans.
This season has been a totally different story: Dallas is 7-5 in clutch games. And with a plus-12.3 net rating that ranks sixth in the league, the Mavericks currently enjoy the biggest year-over-year improvement in clutch performance. Doncic, who recently lit up the Rockets with a personal 11-0 run in the fourth quarter, has been a major driver of the turnaround. The Slovenian rookie is 14 for 22 from the field in clutch situations, tying him with Indiana’s Victor Oladipo for the best field goal percentage among players with at least 20 attempts.
While Doncic’s “Hero-ball” step-back threes get all the attention, don’t overlook the secondary benefits of his confidence and craftiness as a lead attacker. With Doncic on the court, auxiliary options including Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and Smith are able to settle into supporting roles that are more suited to their skill sets, thereby leading to a healthier balance for the Dallas offense.
Most disappointing sophomore: Josh Jackson, Suns
The list of draft mistakes made by former Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, who was fired just before the season started, is long. Phoenix has already given up on recent lottery picks Alex Len and Marquese Chriss; Dragan Bender, the fourth pick in 2016, is barely seeing the court this season.
Don’t look now, but Josh Jackson, the fourth pick in 2017, could soon be consigned to this lackluster group. Draft analysts viewed Jackson as an NBA-ready wing who could guard multiple positions and help compensate for his lack of shooting with persistent energy. That profile simply hasn’t come to fruition. Jackson hasn’t just looked bad compared to his fellow top-five picks, he’s looked bad compared to his entire class. Of the 53 players selected in the 2017 draft to appear in an NBA game, Jackson ranks dead last with minus-1.9 career win shares. Out of 449 players in ESPN’s real plus-minus database, which tracks a player’s impact on his team’s performance, Jackson ranks 441st.
Jackson has come by those ugly statistical rankings honestly: He’s registered more turnovers than assists in both of his NBA seasons; he’s a below-average rebounder for a 6-foot-8 athlete; and he’s proved to be one of the worst shooters in the league. Among players with at least 200 shot attempts this year, he has the third-lowest true shooting percentage, topping only the New York Knicks’ Kevin Knox and Mario Hezonja. Perhaps the only good news for the Suns, who have the league’s worst record at 4-23, is that Jackson has emerged as a powerful tanking weapon.
Most natural fit: Brook Lopez, Bucks
When the Milwaukee Bucks nabbed Brook Lopez on a one-year, $3.4 million contract over the summer, it seemed like a bargain. The 30-year-old center was years removed from being an all-star, but he had spent the last two seasons building himself into a willing and capable three-point shooter. New Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer was fond of using stretchy centers and five-out formations in Atlanta, and Lopez had already realized that his days as a lead scoring option or a regular post-up threat were behind him.
Milwaukee’s vision for Lopez — as a spot-up shooter whose comfort on the perimeter would open driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo — has played out better than anyone could have hoped. Lopez is posting career highs in three-point percentage (37.4) and three-point attempts per game (6.7), putting him in a class by himself when it comes to big men. Through Sunday, only nine NBA players were shooting better than 37 percent on at least six three-point attempts per game: Lopez, plus eight guards and forwards.
More importantly, Milwaukee’s offense as a whole has thrived with him on the court. When Antetokounmpo and Lopez play together, the Bucks’ offensive rating is a scorching 116.4, up considerably from Antetokounmpo’s pairing with non-shooting center John Henson last year. In related news, the now-superfluous Henson was traded to the Cavaliers last Friday.