7. Dallas Mavericks (40-27): Can Luka avoid getting exploited on defense?
Well, I mean, there’s not much more you can say about the guy’s offense. We’re barely two seasons into Luka Doncic’s NBA career, and he’s already an undeniable top six offensive player in the league. You already know he can hit shots from anywhere; you already know that he is an insanely good finisher for a point guard; you already know that he is also a fantastic passer. None of that is news, and none of that needs further writing. What does need a bit more attention: Luka’s alarmingly poor defense.
This is a main reason why Dallas has the best offense in the league and yet is currently the 7 seed in a somewhat-open conference. The Mavericks rank 17th in defensive efficiency, with the best backcourt defender either being Delon Wright or Dorian Finney-Smith, neither a standout. Against Luka specifically, opponents shoot nearly 4.3% better on twos than against the average opponent, and Doncic has gotten hammered at times on the defensive end:
For Dallas to make any run at all, they’ll need to find a way to hide Luka on a non-dangerous offensive player. The Mavericks tried this a few different ways during the season, typically pinning him with either mostly catch-and-shoot guys (Danny Green, Jae Crowder) or players that aren’t typically one of the top two options on an offense (Dejounte Murray, Glenn Robinson, Cory Joseph, etc.). It’s either this or a sudden major step forward on the defensive end for Doncic as the way to elevate the Mavs’ 2019-20 ceiling beyond “hopeful second round participant.”
8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33): Everyone knows Ja. Do you know Brandon?
The above headline says it all. You’ve spent the last year finding out about Ja Morant, the ultra-exciting likely Rookie of the Year who looks poised to be one of the best point guards in the game for years to come. He does a lot of things well offensively, is a highlight machine, and hasn’t been quite as bad defensively as was anticipated by many. (He’s been okay!) But you probably don’t know as much about the other 2019 Grizzlies first-round pick, one who never should’ve fallen as far as he did: Brandon Clarke.
Clarke is averaging 12 & 6 in just 21 minutes per game, and by Value Over Replacement Player, he’s been the best rookie in basketball in 2019-20. (#2 in this metric? You guessed it: Ja Morant. Memphis has a fantastic front office, pals.) Only one other rookie in basketball has shot better than he has from three (Zion), and he leads all rookies in Win Shares and Estimated Plus-Minus. He’s been phenomenal, but it feels like no one’s talking about just how good he is already.
These young Grizzlies are a surprisingly fun watch and feel a year or two ahead of schedule; Clarke is a huge, underrated part of that success. Also, he’s been a reliable defender thus far, holding opponents 3.1% below their normal FG%.
Man, I love watching this guy play.
9. Portland Trailblazers (29-37): The lone good defender on the roster won’t be in Orlando
Portland’s been a strange watch in 2019-20. Damian Lillard’s been as amazing as ever offensively…but they haven’t stopped a soul on defense. They’ve had good stretches of play (a pair of four-game win streaks) coupled with atrocious runs (lost 10 of 16 before the season stopped, started 5-12). C.J. McCollum has scored 22.5 points per game…and has posted his lowest win shares per 48 minutes since his rookie season. That, coupled with injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, has created a Portland team that feels like they should be much better than they are.
This is all before I share with you that the lone noteworthy backcourt defender on the roster, Trevor Ariza, will not be in Orlando for the restart.
Ariza’s +1.0 defensive EPM was the only positive number posted by any non-center member of this Trailblazers group. Without him, the main Blazers lineup should be something like Lillard/McCollum/Carmelo/Nurkic/Whiteside….a lineup with zero minutes together in 2019-20. The main lineup the Blazers were running with before the pandemic hit had Rodney Hood in place of Nurkic, and that lineup was giving up 118 points per 100 possessions to opponents. It ranked 105th out of 110 eligible 5-man lineups (90+ minutes played) in the NBA. So, with that said, expect to see a lot of easy shots like this:
T-10. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36): The Pellies may have a baby Death Lineup
I don’t want this to be exclusively about Zion, because the Pelicans are more than just Zion. He is probably the best rookie in this class; he will almost certainly be a top-25 player by the end of next season. I love watching him play. BUT: I love watching the Pelicans’ Baby Death Lineup more than anything right now.
The lineup of Zion, Derrick Favors, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday is an insane +26.3 points per 100 possessions over 230 minutes of play. They only got 17 games together to gel prior to the stoppage, but clearly, whatever they’re doing is incredible. Using the same minutes restriction we used for the Blazers above, this Pellies lineup ranks 16th in offensive rating and third in defensive rating. They’ve been crushing opponents on both ends of the court:
Will this continue to be dominant against exclusively playoff-level competition? I can’t say for sure. But I can say that in the 17 games together, this lineup went 9-8 with that insane +26.3 Net Rating, while the Pellies went 19-28 otherwise.
T-10. Sacramento Kings (28-36): An appreciation of all things Richaun Holmes
The Kings, given a great run of play in the eight-game restart, could make their first NBA Playoffs run since 2006. This brutal stretch without any real success has seen a lot of comers and goers; many may remember when it looked like Tyreke Evans was going to be a five-time All-Star some day, or when Isaiah Thomas was getting bucket after bucket. The Kings keep inching closer and closer to the 8 seed, but simply haven’t gotten over the hump. They have several good, young players on the roster – DeAaron Fox and Buddy Hield are names you may know – but the best player by a mile this season has been one Richaun Holmes.
Holmes, in his fifth season out of Bowling Green, ranks second on the Kings in Win Shares (0.1 behind Nemanja Bjelica) despite playing in just 39 of 64 games. He’s overcome injuries to become the best form of himself this year: a guy who takes a lot of good shots in the paint, doesn’t make many obvious mistakes, and is an absolute force on defense. Holmes is easily the best defender on the roster, a guy who takes away shots with ease and eliminates what look like good scoring opportunities in a second:
The Kings are 5.4 points better with Holmes on the court compared to off this season, and while he’s not the only important player here, he appears to be the key for a potential Kings playoff run. A guy this efficient and fun deserves more recognition; also, his nickname is apparently DUNKMAN.
12. San Antonio Spurs (27-36): The other other guy in the Kawhi trade is pretty good
Sure, you remember most of the names in the Kawhi Leonard trade: Kawhi, Danny Green, DeMar DeRozan. Here’s what’s funny: the fourth guy involved in that trade ended up being a fairly good player, too. His name is Jakob Poeltl, and he blocks a ton of shots for the amount of time he plays:
In college at Utah, Poeltl was more of an offensive force, especially in his final season. There, he was simply too large for most Pac-12 opponents, bullying over them with ease to the basket and scoring 17.2 points per game. It was a little too easy:
In the NBA, those same physical advantages are essentially erased from the second you show up. There are a lot of tall guys in the league, and simply being tall no longer makes you unique. He’s had to adjust, and his adjustment has been going all in on his defense. It’s been very successful, and has earned him a rotation spot on both the Raptors and the Spurs. This year, Poeltl’s blocking 1.4 shots per game in just 16.6 minutes of action each night – in other words, 4.2 blocks per 100 possessions. For a Spurs team that’s otherwise been awful defensively, he’s been quite the bright spot:
He likely won’t top 20 minutes or so in any of the games the Spurs play during the restart, but keep an eye on him when he’s out there. If he’s ever able to add much of an offensive game, he’ll have a deservedly long career.
13. Phoenix Suns (26-39): How many points can Devin Booker score in eight games?
The Suns are six games back of the 8 seed, have to win at least two more than the Grizzlies, and will be underdogs in seven of their eight games in the restart. They’ll also have to leapfrog four other teams for the right to even play the Grizzlies in a play-in game. Basically, you’re seeing eight exhibition games for one of the league’s youngest teams, and they’ll probably go somewhere from 1-7 to 4-4. They aren’t of any real importance here, and it’s fair to ask why they are here. Two words: Devin Booker.
Booker, for all of his (major, glarifying, obvious, limiting) defensive flaws, remains one of the most exciting offensive players in basketball. He’ll happily pull up from anywhere, can take you to the rim, can pull up from midrange, can make an impressive pass or two, and is generally a blast to watch when he’s cooking. In the absence of any real things to play for here, why not let Booker take 40 shots a game?
I’m serious! The Suns have eight games and then they’re off until, in all likelihood, December. There’s nothing you’ll remember about this team at all…unless they let Booker do whatever he wants. You remember the 70 point game in 2017, of course, but did you know he’s scored 40+ points three times this season? Let Booker go for 50…then 60…then 70 again, no matter how many shots it takes. Let Kobe’s final game look foolish in comparison. If it takes him 67 shots to get to 70 points, let’s see it – there’s nothing else here to think twice about.