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Ball Don’t Lie, but Wins and Losses Do

Why the Jazz and Pelicans are better than their records suggest. Plus: Jamal vs. Buddy, and the return of David Lee.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s a scene in 500 Days of Summer when the main character, Tom, attends a party thrown by his ex-girlfriend Summer, with the hopes of rekindling their relationship. We then see two scenarios juxtaposed, one showing Tom’s expectations and one showing what actually happens. The protagonist expects romantic reconciliation, but he winds up drinking away his sorrows, as an engaged Summer shows off her ring to partygoers. We all have hopes and expectations, whether it’s what we want out of ourselves, a movie, a concert, or our favorite teams. Pelicans and Jazz fans might feel a little like Tom right now. Each team went into this season with visions of playoff runs dancing before them, but their current records suggest they are clawing away at stability. Early in this NBA season, there are teams exceeding expectations, like the Clippers and Bulls, and clubs failing to reach them, like the “super team” Knicks. With nearly 20 games down, it’s tempting to look at wins and losses and assume they tell us something definitive. But we’re not even a quarter of the way into the season. Winter is still coming. In some cases, things might be going well for teams even if at first glance they don’t look promising.

Utah Is the Scariest Average Team in the League

After slow but steady improvement over the past two seasons, the Las Vegas SuperBook gave the Jazz an over/under win total of 47.5 going into this season, the fourth highest in the West. Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney called the additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw “a masterwork of fit.” CBS Sports said the Jazz had the NBA’s fifth-best starting five and the best bench. The Ringer’s own Jonathan Tjarks wrote, “The Jazz are an amoeba who can adapt their rotation and their style to play any team in the NBA.”

On the surface, Utah has failed to meet expectations: The Jazz are on the playoff bubble with a 9–8 record. But don’t be fooled by their wins and losses: Utah’s near-.500 record is a ruse. The Jazz have the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (98.7) and are anchored by Rudy Gobert, the league’s best rim protector. They have the fifth-best net rating (plus-5.3), which is a better indicator for predicting success. Over the past 10 nonlockout seasons, the 36 teams with a net rating between four and six finished with an average of 53 wins, and only three had fewer than 50. The historical chances of the Jazz failing to hit the 50-win mark are slim.

The slow start comes down to a couple of factors. Derrick Favors is out for an extended time with a bone contusion in his left knee and Gordon Hayward missed the first six games of the season with a broken finger on his left hand. Once Hayward returned, Hill missed eight games with a sprained right thumb. (Hayward and Hill should learn from Kenny G and use their hands for only one thing: playing basketball.)

Hayward and Hill have played only three games and 82 total minutes together; when they’re both on the court, the Jazz have outscored teams by a dominant 23 points per 100 possessions. “I think those two guys complement each other well,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder recently said. “Sometimes when you see somebody that’s playing that way, that just reminds you of how you want to be and how you have to play when you want to win.”

Hill is playing the best basketball of his career. Per Basketball-Reference, of the 176 players to attempt more than 100 shots so far this season, Hill leads the NBA in effective field goal percentage. Maybe it’s an unsustainable hot streak — some kind of basketball McConaissance — or maybe what Mahoney said about fit is right: Playing in Snyder’s offense, which preaches rapid ball movement, might have unlocked George Hill Version 3. The Jazz have desperately needed a point guard who doesn’t commit careless turnovers. Even if Hill’s scoring regresses, he will be a good system quarterback for Utah. “[Hill] just elevates everybody’s play because the person that provides it is usually conscious of the things that his teammates need to do in order to improve their play,” Snyder said.

With Favors out, the Jazz will be without their twin-towers frontcourt, but that means we’ll see a lot more of their small-ball group that features Gobert at the 5, Hill at point, and Hayward, Rodney Hood, and Joe Johnson on the wings. That lineup features four perimeter players who can all spot up from 3 (they shoot 3s at a combined 38.1 percent clip) and run a tight pick-and-roll (the Jazz score more points per possession in the pick-and-roll than any other team in the league, per Synergy). Some NBA coaches would probably give up their firstborn to have this level of lineup versatility. The Jazz don’t even need to go small to play skilled since they have Boris Diaw, who can be plugged in to space the floor, operate as a post facilitator, or even run some point. Diaw hasn’t looked like his Spursian self because he’s been dealing with a leg contusion, but he’s getting closer to full health. Besides, it’s Diaw’s younger clone, Trey Lyles, who’s the true ace in the hole for this roster:

Snyder has taken advantage of Lyles’s clever ballhandling skills by using him as a pick-and-roll ball handler. According to Synergy, he has registered 10 possessions so far this season, and he’s scored on five of them. Gobert is typically the screen setter on the Lyles pick-and-roll, which presents a precarious situation for the defense. If they switch, like the Nuggets do above, Lyles is able to speed by slower-footed bigs. It also opens up the door for lob dunks to Gobert. If a power forward running a pick-and-roll with a rim-shattering center seems familiar, that’s because it’s exactly what the Clippers run with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan:

The Jazz lack a superstar, but they have an elite defense complemented by a flexible offense and can play virtually any way they want. Down in Louisiana, there’s a team that has the opposite problem.

Pelicans Move off Endangered List

With Anthony Davis, the 6–12 Pelicans have the cornerstone that Utah (and a bunch of other teams) is missing. Davis is putting up ludicrous averages of 31.6 points, 11 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.8 blocks, and 1.8 steals per game. Only one player has ever posted similar numbers across those categories: Bob McAdoo, who did it for three consecutive seasons from 1973 through 1975, per Basketball-Reference. Davis is a singular talent, but to win he needs a supporting cast like the one Utah has assembled. New Orleans has suffered a calamitous run of injuries over the past few seasons, but maybe that bad fortune is finally ending.

Since Jrue Holiday returned to the court, the Pelicans are 4–2, with wins against three playoff contenders (Hornets, Hawks, and Blazers). Prior to Holiday’s return, they had the league’s third-worst net rating (minus-6.9), but since then have its third best (plus-11.3). Holiday’s presence alone reduces the minutes of a less effective rotation. “In our case, he does so many things on the floor that what he’s able to do is to put guys back in a role that they’re comfortable with,” Alvin Gentry said before Friday’s game. “For Tim [Frazier] and for some guys like that, they’re back in a role that they’re comfortable with, and everyone’s played like that.” More importantly, Holiday is a lockdown perimeter defender and a stellar communicator; the Pellies are posting an excellent 92.5 defensive rating with him on the court.

New Orleans has the league’s 10th-ranked half-court defense and a top-five pick-and-roll defense, according to Synergy. Maintaining this level of play is key for the Pelicans. Omer Asik is allowing an unforgiving 42.6 conversion rate at the rim. Davis is defensively dominant, allowing only 0.7 points per defensive possession, per Synergy. Solomon Hill is locking down on defense; Terrence Jones is playing out of his mind; Frazier and E’Twaun Moore are putting in a ton of effort. As a unit, they’re finally starting to click defensively.

The Pelicans have the pieces to be competitive, and Holiday’s return has helped those pieces fall into place. The team still isn’t built for true contention (their 10-point loss to the Mavericks is evidence of that), but they certainly aren’t the bottom-feeders they appeared to be before Holiday’s return.

There’s No Defending Portland

New Orleans has a chance because of its defense, and the Blazers may be in for a rocky season for the same reason. Portland was a sexy pick to take the leap before the season, but at 9–10 with the worst defensive rating in the league, its problems might be understated. Zach Lowe took an in-depth look at the Blazers’ problems last week that covered the pressing issues, from communication breakdowns, to poor rim protection, to their lack of chemistry. It’s not like they’re simply allowing easy leak outs in transition, or got pummeled a few times, either. The Blazers have the third-worst half-court defense, per Synergy. Only the Lakers and Nets are worse.

The Blazers are slightly below .500 right now, but few teams have ever had a half-court defense this poor and finished with a winning percentage above .400. Their high-powered offense keeps them afloat, but they’re one turned Damian Lillard ankle away from falling into a segment of that chart no team wants to be part of — just like the Pelicans are a tweak to Davis away from losing all hope.

Portland plays a conservative defensive style that applies little pressure and sends few double-teams, so it’s not a surprise the Blazers don’t force many turnovers (only the Nuggets force fewer turnovers per 100 possessions). It’s not like their personnel is awful. They lack rim protection, but adding a big body wouldn’t magically solve their issues on the perimeter. They have multiple two-way players in Moe Harkless, Evan Turner (who has been dismal offensively), and Al-Farouq Aminu (who is currently injured) to complement their stars, but their system requires them to play so conservatively that they can’t attack like they’re capable of. Coach Terry Stotts could change the system, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. “You ask yourself: Should we maybe try something different?” Stotts told Lowe. “But I think most coaches would say, ‘Let’s do what we’re supposed to be doing better before we go changing things.’”

Things don’t look rosy for Portland right now, but as the Blazers themselves showed last year, the story can change fast. The 2015–16 Blazers were a .500 team at the All-Star break, just like they are now, and then they exploded to win 17 of 28 to close the year. But until their defense closes the gap with their offense, they won’t be ready to push any of the truly elite teams in the West.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

Jamal Murray Looks More Ready Than Buddy Hield

The argument for drafting Buddy Hield over Jamal Murray was simple: The Sooner was three years older and therefore more ready to contribute. The case for Murray, was the flip side of the coin: He was three years younger than Hield and therefore had more long-term potential. The side you or a team fell on in that debate would depend on more than just your evaluation of each player. The Pelicans hoped Hield’s college experience gave him a higher chance of contributing early to accelerate their plans of building a contender around Anthony Davis. While the Nuggets, though also ambitious, are still in asset-collection mode.

So far, somewhat ironically, Murray has made an immediate impact, while Hield has already seen his minutes wane. Of the 106 players to attempt at least 50 3-pointers so far this season, Murray ranks 16th in 3-point percentage. Hield ranks last. Murray has scored at least 18 points five times already this season. Hield has done so only twice. Murray appears more comfortable each game — he overcame a 0-for-17 shooting slump to start his career — while Hield is relatively stagnant.

Were the Pelicans wrong to select Hield? Don’t go there yet. It’s not even December. We might not even know who the better player is in December 2020 since everyone develops at a different rate. It took Hield until his junior season at Oklahoma to resemble even a second-round-level prospect, and then he made his leap as a senior. But so far, the clear edge for Murray has come as somewhat of a surprise. Hield is too good of a pure shooter for his shots not to start falling soon, but until they do the rest of his game is going to be scrutinized.

Zach LaVine’s Shooting and Dunking Is Enough

Earlier this month, I wrote about how to scout college hoops from your couch. I forgot to include something: learn from your mistakes. It’s awesome to nail an evaluation, but it’s equally important to self-check what skills you might overrate or underrate, and how you can better assess draft prospects in the future.

Sometimes you can be wrong even when you’re right. I ranked Zach LaVine 26th in my draft guide and thought the Timberwolves made a mistake taking him 13th in 2014 over Gary Harris. I was wrong about their decision, but what I saw in the player’s strengths and weaknesses proved to be true: LaVine is still an underwhelming passer and decision-maker who struggles to defend and doesn’t rebound well. The mistake? I let those issues cloud his blatant strengths: world-class athleticism, shooting upside, and an impeccable first step.

I put too much emphasis on what LaVine couldn’t do rather than what he could do at an elite level. More focus was placed on how he wouldn’t develop into a point guard (which he hasn’t) and less on how he could develop into a knockdown shooter who runs through the elevator doors (like in the video above). Weaknesses have to be accounted for, but the right role can minimize the damage they can cause. As J.R. Smith has shown, an athletic microwave scorer can spark a team to crucial playoff victories. LaVine is still only 21 and has plenty of room to improve, but even at his current level he could someday fill a Smithesque role. That’s enough for him to stick in the NBA for a long time.

Trevor Booker, Transition Machine

Kenny Atkinson’s Nets are pushing the tempo and are virtually tied for the league lead in pace (possessions per 48 minutes). They haven’t been effective overall — they own the league’s 20th-ranked transition-scoring offense, per Synergy — but the system has unleashed Trevor Booker as a force on the break. Booker is a muscular-yet-nimble 6-foot-8 forward who wears a headband and likes to go coast-to-coast, so if you squint your eyes from the Barclays Center nosebleed seats, you might trick yourself into thinking you’re watching LeBron James.

Booker is a wrecking ball, scoring 1.43 points per possession as a ball handler in transition, according to Synergy Sports, which ranks near the top of the league (of forwards, only Kevin Durant ranks higher).

Prior to this season Booker tallied just 65 possessions as a transition ball handler, per Synergy, but he already has 29 through 15 games with the Nets. Ballhandling has always been one of Booker’s strengths going back to his college years at Clemson, but he’s never been encouraged to play so freely in the NBA as he has been in Brooklyn. The Nets are one of the worst teams in the league, but Atkinson is finding ways of maximizing the strengths of players like Booker.

The Spurs Brought David Lee Back From the Dead

Two seasons ago, then with the Warriors, David Lee suffered a hamstring injury and lost his job to Draymond Green. One season ago with the Celtics, Lee was (admittedly) out of shape and lost his job to Jonas Jerebko. This season with the Spurs, he’s trying to make sure recent history doesn’t repeat itself. Lee is scoring a near-league-high 1.13 points per possession, according to Synergy, which comes on a small workload of 4.6 shots in 17.1 minutes per game. That speaks to his remarkable consistency off the bench. “He’s been really solid and caught onto the offense real quickly and just plays a good all-around game,” Gregg Popovich said last week.

Lee once beat James White in a dunk contest, but last season his athleticism degraded to the point he was unable to finish efficiently near the rim. He lacked lift, and his shots were being consistently blocked. But with the Spurs, Lee is finishing dump-off passes and even putting defenders on posters:

The Spurs needed a collective effort to replace Tim Duncan, and so far their group of new bigs — Lee, Pau Gasol, Davis Bertans, and Dewayne Dedmon — are all getting the job done in their own ways. The end of Lee’s career is still approaching, but for now the Spurs have given him new life.

Robert Covington’s Defense Deserves Your Applause

Philadelphia fans are notoriously aggressive, relentless, and merciless; this season they’ve unleashed their fury on Robert Covington, who is shooting 26 percent from 3. Any time Covington bricks his shot, he’s met with a flurry of boos. Sixers fans should give him a break, though: Over the past three seasons, Covington shot an above-average 36.3 percent from 3 on 939 total attempts, which is more indicative of his actual shooting skill level. The law of averages will kick in soon and the shots will start falling.

Until then, fans should focus on Covington’s defense, just like he is. “I can’t hang my head that I’m not making shots, I just go down to the other end and make up for it,” Covington recently said. “Fans can say how they feel. That’s fine, but I’m not going to stop playing.” With a thick frame and a long wingspan, Covington has always been versatile on defense, but this year he’s raised his play to a new level. His hands are always in the passing lanes (he’s tied for 10th in steals per game), and he has no trouble switching onto bigger forwards. Maybe once the Sixers are ready to win as a team, Covington’s positive qualities will be recognized; until then, he’s a winning player stuck in a losing situation.

ATO of the Week: The Warriors’ Deadly Decoys

This after-timeout play is slow to develop. It didn’t decide the game. It’s not even that sexy. It’s like a made-for-TV movie with nothing remarkable about it. But it stuck out while watching the Warriors throttle the Lakers since it details just how deadly the Dubs can be even when the ball is stagnant.

Kevin Durant receives the ball at the left elbow and does the Mannequin Challenge while Steph Curry and Klay Thompson set cross screens on the other side of the court. As Curry bursts through a Kevon Looney screen, Durant will decide where to pass depending on how the defense reacts. The split-second José Calderón helps onto Curry opens the window KD needs to fire a pass to Looney for a wide-open slam.

The Warriors have the NBA’s top-ranked half-court scoring offense by a wide margin not only because of their stars’ potency, but also because of how they enhance the skills of their role players. Looney is shooting 70 percent on 30 shots this year. It’s not because he’s the next Shaq: His teammates put him in positions to be that efficient within his role. The Dubs are rolling and it should terrify the NBA.