After what feels like years in the wilderness, basketball is returning. It is coming up from the ground…belting out of every speaker…on every television, basketball is coming back. Okay, that’s a bit far, I’ll admit, but as a writer that mostly writes about basketball and its statistics, these last four months without it have been a bit tiring. I’ve missed my good friend, and I’m glad they’re back in town.
Below, there’s a ton of words about the NBA restart. The headline sums it up: what’s the most interesting thing about each team? This is not what’s the best player on each team, but rather: what’s the most interesting, unique, weird thing about each team? It helps if it’s statistically-based, which just about everything here is. I’ve included GIFs for each entry, all 22 of them, and I plan on writing deeper about all 22 teams at various points of the restart. For now, consider this a primer to a whole lot of content coming forward soon. Thanks for hanging with me, friends.
On this page are the 1-4 seeds as they stand in the Eastern Conference. To skip ahead, you can click below:
1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12): Khris Middleton’s midrange game
While most of the attention deservedly goes to the best player in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the second-best player on the Bucks has been one of the league’s 15 best players for a couple of years now. Khris Middleton plays a distinct second banana to the star Giannis, but the Bucks wouldn’t be the Bucks without him. This is maybe Middleton’s finest outing yet: a 21.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG season where he’s shooting 54.7% from two and 41.8% from three. Add that onto his well-deserved reputation as a stout defender, and you can understand the hype for a player who’d be the best player on over half the teams in the league.
What helps Middleton stand out? The fact that, at age 28, he’s quietly become a premier mid-range shooter in a league that’s moved away from the mid-range as a whole. Middleton is shooting an astounding 52.3% on mid-range attempts this season, second only to Chris Paul among players with at least three mid-range attempts per game. (The top five: Paul, Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, C.J. McCollum, and D’Angelo Russell.) Like Paul, what stands out about Middleton is his capability of making them in nearly any situation. He’s made 31 of 52 fadeaway two-point attempts:
20 of 42 step-backs:
And 59 of 99 pull-up twos, many of them coming out of pick-and-roll sets like this one:
While Giannis is likely a guarantee to post 30 and 10 most nights in the bubble, the Bucks’ fortunes will swing based on how well Middleton can provide a reliable second option to Giannis. In losses this season, Middleton has made just 34.7% of his mid-range attempts and has posted 47.1% 2PT/37.1% 3PT shooting splits, versus 56.5% 2PT/43.7% 3PT in wins. For the Bucks to fulfill their work over the first five months of this season, it’s on Middleton to be the same top 15 player he’s been for two years now.
2. Toronto Raptors (46-18): How many corner threes can a team allow?
The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. After Kawhi Leonard’s departure in free agency for Los Angeles, they had to try and make their roster still work in a somewhat-diminished Eastern Conference. At the beginning of the season, the East was largely thought to be a two-team race between Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with Boston and Toronto fighting it out for third/fourth. Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto have held up their end of the bargain; Philadelphia hasn’t. It’s been because of Toronto’s great defense, ranking second-best by Defensive Rating because they force lots of turnovers and have done a great job making life difficult for opponents at the rim.
That said, they’ve got a really baffling thing going on with their three-point defense. No team has forced a lower opposing three-point percentage than Toronto, but no team has allowed a higher percentage of corner three-point attempts. At least with Milwaukee’s large amount of threes allowed, 80.3% of them have been from the wings or the point – less statistically advantageous shots on the whole. No team has come close to the Raps in terms of corner threes allowed; the distance from Toronto’s 30.9% of all three-point attempts to second-place Houston (25.6%) is nearly the same as the distance from Houston to 16th-place Orlando (20.2%).
This hasn’t borne itself out in terms of a win/loss split as much; opponents make 33.3% of their threes in Toronto’s wins versus 34.9% in losses. Still, there’s a huge opportunity available for good-shooting opponents. In particular, the Raps are 0-2 against current 4 seed Miami, who got tons of open looks in both games against Toronto:
I don’t see this affecting Toronto much in the first round, but the second – where the Raps could draw any of Boston (12th in 3PT%), Miami (1st), Indiana (13th), or Philadelphia (14th) – could be the first time a problem presents itself.
3. Boston Celtics (43-21): Robert Williams and his stocks
As a loose Weird Celtics Twitter follower – shoutout to the Riffs Man – I have become quite familiar with one Robert Williams, AKA Time Lord. Williams has been a bit player for the Celtics for a couple of years now, a guy who probably would’ve had a better career had he been born in 1987 and not 1997. (6’8″, 237 pound centers that can’t shoot past ten feet…well, they simply don’t fit the 2020 model.) Williams is fairly efficient the 10-15 minutes a game he sees the floor, but he commits six fouls per 100 possessions, makes a ton of avoidable mistakes, and can never stay on for very long.
It is with all those qualifiers that I have to note he’s the single most fascinating swing player on this roster to me. When Williams gets in the game, he’s been a defensive dynamo: 3 steals and 4.2 blocks per 100 possessions, a +4.4 Defensive Box-Plus Minus, the best steal rate for any frontcourt player in the league, and the third-best block rate among players getting 10+ minutes per game. It is really, really hard to find big guys that can do this:
Before the pandemic hit, Williams was getting anywhere from 10 to 16 minutes a game, and in his final four games, he committed six fouls in 54 minutes played. Far from ideal. BUT: he also blocked seven shots, got three steals, and frequently made plays that made you wonder why he doesn’t play more often.
Of all the players I could pick to be interested in, the Celtics’ 10th/11th man is certainly an odd choice. But he’s a really bizarre odd choice, isn’t he?
4. Miami Heat (41-24): Can Duncan Robinson’s threes make up for Duncan Robinson’s defense?
If you’ve known me for any length of time, you probably know that I lend my fan support to a pair of college basketball programs: Tennessee and Michigan. I graduated from Tennessee so that’s an obvious pick, but I also like Michigan because my dad went there and, to be honest, they were more interesting for most of my youth. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I watched probably 80% of Duncan Robinson’s games during his time at Michigan. He was a fantastic shooter, especially in spot-up situations, and was a very good bench player for the Wolverines. At no point during Duncan Robinson’s time at Michigan did I think he’d have any future in the NBA, much less a future as an NBA starter on one of the league’s best teams.
Well, here we are! Robinson started in 60 of Miami’s first 65 games, gets more minutes per game than everyone not named Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler, and has somehow became the most lethal spot-up shooter in the entire freaking league.
Robinson hits 44.8% of his threes on 8.4 attempts per game, which is crazy high. Only James Harden and Buddy Hield have made more threes this season, and Robinson’s attempted considerably fewer threes than both players. It’s unreal how great of a shooter he is, especially when every opponent knows he’s Miami’s main threat from downtown:
Robinson really does have a future in the NBA, regardless of if he can play on both sides of the ball. A slight issue with his immediate future: he isn’t a positive force yet on defense. Robinson’s -0.9 Defensive EPM ranks in the 30th percentile of the league, and Heat opponents have worked to get him in negative situations. Evan Fournier blows by Robinson pretty easily for a reverse layup here:
Robinson isn’t outrageously bad on defense, but opponents shoot 6.1% better than their normal average against him from two. He’s done a solid enough job sticking with guys on the perimeter, but it’ll be on Erik Spoelstra and the Heat to keep him out of matchups where he’s at an athletic disadvantage.