In a year where many teams were looking ahead, three stood out this summer as clubs that were willing to go for it right now, even if the surrounding pieces didn't totally fit.
The Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith to join a supersized frontcourt that included Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, then traded for Brandon Jennings in the hopes that a change of scenery would revive his career. The New Orleans Pelicans dealt two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday, then completed a risky sign-and-trade where they sent away two starters for Tyreke Evans, a former rookie of the year that had lost his way in Sacramento. The Brooklyn Nets, already spending more than any NBA team, are now paying the GDP of Fiji on a fascinating experiment featuring veteran NBA champions Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Big moves mean big expectations. (Copyright NBA). But three weeks into the season, the three teams are a combined 10-18 and on the fringes of the playoff race. Each offers firm reminders that it takes time for lots of new parts to function properly.
Brooklyn's the most disappointing of the bunch, though they have some major mitigating factors. Deron Williams clearly wasn't himself when he was playing and is now on the shelf again with a different ankle injury. Andrei Kirilenko, who was being counted on to provide depth after the starting five, has been in and out of the lineup with back spasms. Without those two, the Nets aren't the same team.
Nevertheless, even when they come back, there are issues. The hope was that Brooklyn's offense would become dynamic because of all the talent in the starting five, but it's yet to happen. The play-calling has been overly simplistic, with too much posting up and not enough movement. For example:
It's as if the Nets are actively trying to follow a shot quota. Pierce got two straight curls called for him? OK, time to get Johnson a cross-screen so he can go to work on the left side. Whoops, we forgot about Lopez. And we have to keep KG engaged ... wait, why is Blatche trying to score?
Clearly, the Nets' stars need more time to learn how to play off each other. Jason Kidd is trying to encourage them to get shots on the secondary break, which is a good way to facilitate player movement, but they keep looking for themselves more than each other. More misdirection plays in half-court situations may be needed from Kidd to help encourage these stars to develop these habits.
Transition defense has been a major issue as well. Teams are exposing Brooklyn's lack of speed by pushing the ball at every opportunity, particularly up the wings. Watch how Ben McLemore zips by Johnson and Pierce on this transition finish.
There are some good signs. Shaun Livingston has been fantastic in relief of Williams, and Alan Anderson has provided much-needed spacing. The bench in general has been as advertised, and "energy" lineups featuring Livingston, Anderson, Reggie Evans and Mason Plumlee have gone on big runs at times. And while the defense has largely been disappointing, there have been brief glimpses of what Brooklyn's size can do to disrupt teams. The collective length of Livingston and Lopez, combined with the textbook rotation by Garnett and nice weakside defense by Johnson, means Eric Bledsoe can't see much right before a turnover.
Ultimately, Williams' play is the biggest barometer here. If he can rebound and perform like he did in the second half of last season, the Nets will be fine. If not, they will continue to disappoint.
The Pistons and Pelicans, meanwhile, have opposite problems. One could have expected Detroit's supersized frontcourt experiment to struggle offensively, but it's concerning that they have defended so poorly. Detroit has surrendered nearly 115 points per 100 possessions when Smith, Monroe and Drummond have shared the floor, and the normal starting 5 of those two, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups has been particularly awful, allowing a whopping 131.1 points per 100 possessions.
The whole idea of the supersized frontcourt was to make up what it lacked in spacing with great interior defense, so what gives? Monroe's defense has never been excellent and has been especially problematic this year. Drummond has loads of potential, but still gets shoved around by bigger centers and has yet to master the art of positioning. Smith turned in an excellent defensive season in 2012-13, but his effort has lagged and he's not adjusted to playing on the wing well. Part of the problem is concentration, but part of it is also his natural instincts to protect the rim. It's causing him to leave his man wide open for appetizing treys like this.
And Jennings' presence hasn't helped. It's early, but he's carried over all the bad habits he picked up in Milwaukee and then some. His shot selection has been especially poor early on, and it's hurt Detroit's transition defense because the floor is never properly balanced when Jennings fires away. This video only includes his wild jumpers that lead to transition opportunities; it doesn't even include his mad dashes to the rim that inevitably miss and leave him sprawled on the opposite baseline out of the play.
All this reflects in Jennings' plus/minus numbers. Seriously, look at the difference when you replace him with Will Bynum and keep the same other four regular starters in the game:
It's not all negative. A Smith/Drummond frontcourt without Monroe has shown a lot of defensive promise, allowing 96.2 points per 100 possessions in limited time together, per NBAWowy. On the other end, the Pistons have incorporated some Princeton-based motion and other sets to get Smith the ball on the block, and his passing has helped alleviated some spacing concerns. But Smith is also firing way too many threes, nullifying that impact, and the wing rotation is far from settled.
It's early, but there's clearly a lot to work through here. Maurice Cheeks has his work cut out for him given all the options at his disposal and the sketchy histories of Jennings and Smith.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, have the opposite problem: good defense, but major offensive struggles. The starters have been fine, but things have gone haywire once they've gone to the bench. Evans was supposed to carry their second unit, but his style has stalled their offense. Jrue Holiday is also struggling to get by his defenders and create offense for Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis.
There's more room for hope here than in Detroit, though. Most importantly, Davis has been a revelation, rivaling Roy Hibbert for the most intimidating defensive presence in the league. Bulkier centers still give him some trouble, but he's been fine against most others while using his length to disrupt passing lanes. As long as Jason Smith can stay healthy and give them solid minutes in the middle, the Pelicans should be able to match up against bigger teams. (The stress fracture injury to Greg Stiemsma doesn't help there).
And while the offensive system has often been a struggle, there are areas of potential growth. For one, New Orleans has found success with a 2012-13 Nuggets-style three-man weave that turns into a pick and roll for one of the guards.
For another, Ryan Anderson, who was sidelined until Saturday with a foot injury of his own, will improve matters significantly, especially for Evans. Consider the difference in the floor spacing on this Evans drive on Wednesday, when Anderson was sidelined ...
... and this Evans drive on Saturday, when Anderson was healthy.
The hope is that Anderson provides the needed offensive punch for the second unit and keeps New Orleans afloat after their starters go out. Even with Holiday's offensive issues, the starting five of Holiday, Gordon, the underrated Al-Farouq Aminu, Davis and Smith have outscored teams by over 15 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com's stats page. If Anderson's presence also gives New Orleans a new Evans that'll begin to terrorize second units, this'll be a tough team to deal with later in the year. Still, the rough play of Holiday and Evans is a concern, and frontcourt depth is a question given Stiemsma's injury.
Look: it's way too early to make any definitive conclusions about these three teams. These are all interesting trends to watch, but we've played about a tenth of the season and teams with all these new parts sometimes need time to jell. The Pistons and Nets are on long West Coast trips, and the Pelicans didn't have Anderson healthy until Saturday. For now, there's no cause for panic.
Nevertheless, there are definitely areas all three teams need to sort out if they want to meet expectations this season.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
I covered one of the first Linsanity games, a Knicks victory over John Wall and the Wizards at Verizon Center. One of the many things I distinctly remember was how often his then-coach, Mike D'Antoni, talked about what would happen to Lin's game if he developed a consistent jump shot.
Lin's suffered through many growing pains since then, but it's that jump shot that has shown tremendous improvement. In his rookie year in New York, Lin nailed just eight of his 33 spot-up three-point attempts, per MySynergySports.com. This year? Thirteen of 25.
And while the sample is small, you can still see some visible improvements in Lin's motion. Like most good shooters, Lin brings the ball down to his knees before firing away. In fact, according to this blog post by a renown shooting coach, Lin has one of the quickest "dipping" motions in the league. But in the past, he's dipped a little too far across his body, which has thrown off the trajectory of the attempt. Compare this dip location from his time in New York two years ago ...
... to his dip this year.
That adjusted dip has also helped turn his elbow positioning from being way out of whack to now much more benign. And Lin's also getting much more rotation on the ball with a stronger follow through and better finger positioning. Compare the way this shot rolls off the rim ...
With the way this shot does ...
A shot going around and out like the first GIF is a sure sign of the ball spinning sideways. A shot rattling home is a sign of perfect backspin.
There's still more work to be done here. Lin's dip position is inconsistent, and his elbow, while not a dire concern, is still something that could be cleaned up a bit. It's also very early in the season, so this could just be a fluke. But it appears that small changes, combined with lots of repetition, is making Lin a capable spot-up shooter.
SACRIFICE OF THE WEEK
There are so many pieces to a play's puzzle that don't show up in the box score. We'll highlight one such piece each week in this section.
There's a reason coaches implore their big men to run the floor. Even if they don't get the ball, the threat of them charging down the lane for a thunderous dunk in transition tilts a defense. Watch how Gordon Hayward reacts to Davis' rim-run, leaving Gordon wide open for three.
Gordon missed, but had he hit the shot, Davis should have received the assist. That Davis ran that far after blocking Utah's shot on the other end is even more impressive.
10 other observations from the week that was.
- There's almost nothing to complain about with the Warriors, but a nitpick: they too often fall into the temptation of milking mismatches with their perimeter players. The Warriors tore up the Thunder in the third quarter Thursday by running through their normal screen-heavy offense and giving Stephen Curry some latitude on pick and rolls, but the Thunder adjusted by switching more and daring Golden State to go to the post with David Lee, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson. The Warriors obliged and it nearly cost them the game. They must remember that as easy as it may seem for Barnes and Thompson to get their shots off over smaller defenders, it's Curry, pristine spacing and the array of off-ball screen plays that makes them go offensively. Keep the post-ups to a minimum.
- The Bobcats are not yet a good team, but they are no longer a pushover because of the work Steve Clifford has done to shore up the team's defense. Charlotte is ninth in the league in defensive efficiency, per Basketball Reference, and it's not because of anything fancy. Clifford's bunch is keeping side pick and rolls out of the middle and helping beautifully to stall offenses. This is textbook work here.
- It's still early, but I'm a little worried about Nikola Pekovic. The Timberwolves are a good team when he is on the court, but they've been lights-out in limited minutes with him on the sidelines, per NBA.com's media-only stats page. Pekovic is much slower defensively than replacement Dante Cunningham, and while he obviously holds the offensive advantage, his finishing ability on those post duck-ins he feasted on last season has fallen off. It's still early, but this is an important trend to watch because the Timberwolves have a lot invested in Pek going forward.
- This is a great look at the Celtics' defensive philosophy from Celtics Blog. Boston's defense has been above-average and its kept the team in games.
- Perhaps the biggest reason the Grizzlies appear so disappointing is that Tony Allen and Marc Gasol have been so out of character defensively. Both have been caught unaware to action happening behind them too often this year, which is especially odd in Gasol's case because it was specifically his awareness in shutting off plays before they could get started that made him Defensive Player of the Year. Could you ever imagine Marc losing track of a backdoor lob play like this last season?
- The Blazers are tearing up teams offensively thanks in part to even more Nicolas Batum playmaking. This area of his game expanded tremendously under Terry Stotts last season and has taken another leap forward this year. This common set -- it's called "Chin Spread" and it was popularized by the Dwight Howard-era Magic and current Rockets -- works because of Batum's ability to lead his big men with perfect pocket passes, like here to Robin Lopez.
- It's fun seeing Jeff Teague operating in a pace-and-space offense like Atlanta has now that Paul Millsap has replaced Smith. Teague has been much more decisive attacking space with long strides and aggressive moves. This play ended in a stepback, but only because he presented the threat of the drive and the footwork to go right into his shot. (Peachtree Hoops has more on Teague's improved pick and roll play).
- After a couple strong games, John Wall has not looked good for the hapless Wizards. As Bullets Forever notes, he's taking fewer shots at the rim and more from the perimeter, even though he hasn't been converting. There are signs of developing pick and roll chemistry with Marcin Gortat, but Wall has to attack more. Also worth noting: Bradley Beal's inconsistency stems in large part to his falling in love with mid-range jumpers. He's so worried about his shot that he's developed tunnel vision off the pick and roll. Notice how he shoots over two defenders here even though he has Gortat wide open rolling to the rim.
- Denver Stiffs has a nice breakdown of a Nuggets backdoor lob play. The Lakers run something similar out of HORNS, a different alignment.
- Speaking of the Lakers, one upside to Mike D'Antoni is his ability to slightly alter a common sequence. Watch how he's turned this dribble handoff into essentially a 2-1 pick and roll.