1. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14): The boom-or-bust rim defense
This was going to be a huge year for the Lakers, no matter how they did in the regular season. LeBron’s personal respect is at a level that, had this team gone 45-37 en route to the 7 seed, a ton of people still would’ve rightfully expected them to make the NBA Finals. When you make it eight seasons in a row, you’ve earned that expectation. So it was kind of a big deal when LeBron, Anthony Davis, and friends decided to take the regular season seriously. The Lakers were on pace for about 64 wins prior to the pandemic, which would’ve been their best season since 2008-09 and one of the five best seasons in franchise history. They’ve showed off their best offense since the Gasol/Kobe peak years, and that’s important, but they wouldn’t be where they are without a defense that’s demolished a ton of great competition:
Opponents have tried to attack the rim against the Lakers this season, and it hasn’t always been successful. The Lakers block 13% of opponent two-point attempts, easily the highest rate in the NBA. All of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard have blocked a bunch of layup/dunk attempts, and almost no player on the active roster is a true target for defenses. Players like Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris have come close at times, but neither is an outright bad defender. In fact, they might possess the most underrated defender in the league on their team in shooting guard Alex Caruso.
As nice as all of this is, you’d expect the team with the highest block rate to also possess the lowest opponent FG% at the rim. You’d be wrong; that’s the Bucks, and it isn’t close. The Lakers rank fourth, because they’ve struggled at times to keep opponents from scoring when they haven’t eliminated the shot in the first place. They’ve struggled with overpursuing plays in the paint at times, and some teams have been able to take serious advantage:
Look, it’s not much; this is still a fantastic defense. But the hole does exist, and they’ll have to patch it up, possibly by being a little less aggressive at times.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20): ZUBAC
Without Googling, could you name the player who ranks third on the Clippers in terms of win shares, fourth in wins added, and second in Estimated Plus-Minus? Well, you didn’t have to Google, as his name leads off this section, but it’s unheralded center Ivica Zubac. Prior to 2019-20, you would’ve been forgiven for not knowing who he was in the first place. Zubac turned 23 in August and spent his first three years bouncing around both the Lakers and Clippers, finally settling in as the starter at center late in the 2018-19 season. Given the hype surrounding the Clippers this offseason after grabbing both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and considering the rest of his teammates, Zubac probably figured to be about the eighth-most important Clipper this season.
I would like to offer the following: Zubac is a good player even without Leonard and George. He’s a genuinely fantastic rebounder:
Quietly has flashed solid range outside of the paint to go with a 67% hit rate at the rim:
And, maybe most surprisingly, has turned into a legitimately excellent defender, especially in the paint.
Zubac still commits six fouls per 100 possessions, and it’s unrealistic to expect him to play 30+ minutes in the bubble. He’s pretty consistently been an 18-22 minute player, and routinely spends large stretches of games off the court. That said, he’s been a pleasantly big surprise for the Clippers this year. All three of LAC’s main 5-man lineups include him at center, and all three are outscoring opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions or greater. While I’m not a huge On/Off fan, Zubac does have the third-best number among all players, as the Clippers are 3.2 points better with him on the court. Zubac appears to be very good at knowing his own limits, he rarely takes a bad shot, and he does a ton of stuff that helps the Clippers win games. Sounds like a legitimately good player to me.
3. Denver Nuggets (43-22): How far can Ripped Jokic drag this roster?
One of the few bright basketball spots of the last four-plus months was the moment this photo appeared on my Twitter feed:
Jokic apparently started dieting and working out regularly while stuck in Serbia, which is fascinating for several reasons, none of which I have time to dive into all that much. (It took a pandemic for him to figure out personal fitness existed???) The main point: Jokic looks to be in the best shape he’s ever been in, which seems quite important for the NBA’s restart. He’ll be operating at full energy, and he’ll be able to make these plays look even more athletic:
This is key, because the rest of the Nuggets haven’t lived up to expectations. Jamal Murray’s been a pretty average shooter this year, barely getting to 35% on threes and right at the league average at the rim. Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris are all either a tad worse or much worse than they were a season ago. Only Will Barton has gotten actively better, but he’s still a poor finisher and the Nuggets are heavily reliant on him continuing to hit a lot of threes. (Same for Paul Millsap.) That leaves Jokic, who has recovered from a poor start to have a phenomenal season.
Jokic has been one of the NBA’s best mid-range shooters, has posted a ton of fantastic assists, and posted 12 triple-doubles – tying his own career record – right before the pandemic hit. He’s been somewhere between the 5th and 10th best player in the league this year. For every rough play he made during his weaker-than-usual start to the season, he’s recovered with plays like this one:
For the Nuggets to do anything at all, it’ll entirely come on the back of Jokic. There’s no consistent second-banana on this team, and there won’t be until Jamal Murray becomes a better defender or Paul Millsap gets better on offense. (Or Bol Bol turns into a top 50 player.) I’m fascinated to see how far he can go in his work to drag this surprisingly thin roster to at least the conference finals.
4. Utah Jazz (41-23): Is great shooting enough to make up for poor shot volume?
They probably wouldn’t be your first guess, or your second, and maybe not even your third…but the Utah Jazz, by eFG%, are the best-shooting team in the entire league. That’s what happens when you’re top-five in rim efficiency and tied for the best three-point percentage in the NBA. Eight different players have averaged at least one made three per game this season, and of the ten leaders in minutes played, only two – Mike Conley and Jeff Green – rank definitively below the league average in both eFG% and TS%. When things are clicking, this is a surprisingly enjoyable offense to watch, especially when Bojan Bogdanovic is cooking.
Add in the fact that the Jazz have a reliably solid defense, and you can understand why they’ve won 41 games. However: shouldn’t the best-shooting offense rank higher than eighth in offensive efficiency? The issue itself isn’t the shooting; it’s the shot volume. Utah ranks 24th in offensive TO% and 25th in OREB%, well below the league average in both categories. They force the lowest turnover rate of anyone on defense, so they aren’t adding extra possessions much of anywhere. That’s how a team that shoots better than anyone can rank dead last in the league in shots attempted (FGA + FTA) per 100 possessions at 108.9. (The Hawks are the only other team at 109.2 or lower.) When you fumble away possessions this easily:
You’re gonna have a bad time holding onto wins. To be sure, Utah has shot significantly worse in losses – 6% worse, to be exact. But it’s made worse when combined with a TO margin that averages -3.3 in losses and 1.6 fewer offensive rebounds from wins to losses. Those add up, and if you can’t shoot the lights out of the ball, you can’t overcome it. More of this from guys like Donovan Mitchell:
And less of the turnovers, please.
T-5. Houston Rockets (40-24): RoCo season
There’s so much fascinating stuff to talk about with this Houston team that I feel weird focusing on one player. Could the James Harden/Russell Westbrook combo last long enough to pull the Rockets into a surprisingly long playoff run? Does the four-month layoff give Harden extra energy he normally doesn’t have for the first couple of rounds? Can Houston overcome Westbrook’s atrocious shooting numbers by emphasizing other things he does well? Is there anyone on this roster that can be a meaningful X-factor a month from now?
The last of those is the only question I feel somewhat qualified to answer, as Houston has precisely one player not named Harden or Westbrook that ranks out as a positive in EPM. That player? My beloved Robert Covington.
I’ve loved Covington ever since he was putting up numbers in obscurity for Tennessee State and managed to bomb his way to a real rotation spot on the post-Process Sixers. For a period of time, he may have been the most underappreciated player in the league: a 3-and-D forward that made meaningful contributions on both ends of the floor, made a ton of shots, and played smart basketball. He’s a near-perfect fit for a Houston roster with just James Harden on it. With James Harden and Russell Westbrook here, it’s a little less perfect…but still very good. I love watching Covington fly around the floor, because few role players in this league are more truly unafraid to pull up than him:
He’ll be massively important for the small-ball Rockets. He’s likely to play as either a small 4-man or a super-small 5, and either option is fascinating. In his brief 14-game stretch with the team pre-pandemic, the main five-man lineup of Covington, Harden, Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House was outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, holding opponents to just 100.6 points per 100 possessions. This isn’t much, but that lineup does rank 10th out of 50 qualifying five-man lineups in the NBA in terms of defensive efficiency. Covington is a fun piece to watch, eliminating shots all over the court and swiping possessions frequently:
On a team that feels like it has a wide range of outcomes, Covington could realistically be a steadying force.
T-5. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24): Nerlens Noel – yes, Nerlens Noel – can swing a series on defense
Look, I know how stupid the above headline sounds. There are so many interesting things about this surprisingly good Thunder team to discuss otherwise. Chris Paul, unceremoniously dumped from Houston in the offseason, is in the midst of a resurgent season, still hitting as many midrange attempts as ever. Steven Adams continues to be a quiet, successful top 30ish player. Danilo Gallinari, always underrated, has been one of the most efficient offensive players in the league. Dennis Schroder is weird and fun. Super-young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is taking a massive step forward offensively. And yet, this is maybe my 27th attempt to convince the average NBA viewer that Nerlens Noel is Actually Good.
Noel’s pushed forward an amazing defensive season that seemingly no one outside of Oklahoma City is keeping track of. He barely plays 18 minutes per game, yet ranks 16th in the league in blocks. Among players getting 15+ minutes per game, only Andre Drummond has a higher steal rate. Oklahoma City’s three best defensive lineups all feature Noel at center, largely because he’s a fantastic force at the basket:
And can create lots of havoc away from the rim, too.
For several seasons now, Noel has operated as a pretty excellent defender while giving zero upside at all on offense. He’s still pretty middling on that end, but he does hit very basic shots now. Considering that just one game separates the 3 seed from the 6 seed in this conference, a player like Noel with a very specific skill set could be the surprising figure that tips a series in Oklahoma City’s favor.