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The NBA’s Five Most Interesting Teams of the Stretch Run

From contenders scrambling in the East to must-see experiments out West, here are five squads to watch as the regular season nears the finish line

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After a brief post–All-Star siesta, the NBA will resume its regularly scheduled programming on Thursday with a six-game slate. (How did you spend your break? I made a new friend.) We’re eight weeks away from the end of the 2019-20 regular season, with each team having roughly two-thirds of its games already in the books; we can’t reach out and touch the playoffs yet, but squint a little and you can see them on the horizon.

As we get ready to enter the home stretch of our annual basketball marathon, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams (to me!) at the moment, starting in what my Ringer colleague Tyler Tynes recently called the home of “a beautifully deranged church, a fan base filled with haters who pray that their fanciful dreams, positioned as expletives, get answered”:

Philadelphia 76ers

Well, Brett Brown did it. After 54 games of watching his team grind and sputter, he chose Philadelphia’s final game before the All-Star break—a marquee matchup against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the L.A. Clippers—to shuffle his starting lineup that had scored at a bottom-five rate of offensive efficiency. In came sharpshooter Furkan Korkmaz, one of the more pleasant surprises of this shambolic Sixers season. Out went Al Horford, who hasn’t been the cure for what’s ailed Philly that general manager Elton Brand hoped he’d be.

You can’t overstate it: That was a big swing by Brown. Horford hadn’t come off the bench since Game 4 of the first round of the 2012 playoffs, and hadn’t done it in a regular-season game in more than 12 years. As part of the deal that brought him to Philadelphia, the Sixers gave Horford a four-year contract with $97.5 million in guarantees, plus an additional $12 million worth of incentives if the team makes the NBA Finals in any of the next three years. Now, three and a half months into that deal, Brown made the evaluation that his team’s best chance of reaching its ceiling was bumping the proud, respected veteran to the bench. Like I said: big swing.

It was warranted, though. With few notable exceptions—a November blowout of the Heat, the Christmas Day win over the Bucks—the Embiid–Ben Simmons–Horford fit just hasn’t worked. The Sixers have been outscored by nine points in 429 minutes with them on the court, fielding an offense in the throes of a constant cardiac arrest. Philly’s scoring a disastrous 99.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in that floor time, according to Cleaning the Glass, miles below what even the worst offenses in the league cough up.

Given Embiid’s primacy in the post and the fact that Simmons plays less like a point guard and more like a center, the triplet-towers alignment functionally turns Horford into a floor-spacing small forward: His 3-point attempt rate has never been higher, his free throw attempt rate has never been lower, and his average shot distance has never been farther away from the basket. In a related story, Horford’s posting the lowest true shooting percentage of his career.

A funny thing happens, though, when Embiid and Horford play alongside Simmons, but without one another (lineup data per CtG):

76ers Splitting Up Centers

Players On Players Off Possessions NetRtg OffRtg DefRtg
Players On Players Off Possessions NetRtg OffRtg DefRtg
Al Horford, Ben Simmons Joel Embiid 1878 6.8 114.3 107.5
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Al Horford 753 6.3 117.4 111.1

Embiid and Horford both see their individual production rise when the other’s off the court (all numbers per 36 minutes, via NBA.com):

76ers Splitting Up Centers Part Two

Players Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Blocks TS% Free Throw Attempts Plus-Minus
Players Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Blocks TS% Free Throw Attempts Plus-Minus
Embiid,no Horford 28 14.5 4.2 3.4 1.7 60 11 5.9
Embiid with Horford 25.6 13.5 3.2 3.7 1.4 55.9 8.2 -0.9
Horford,no Embiid 17.4 8.2 4.9 1.3 1.2 54 1.6 3.9
Horford with Embiid 6.4 6.9 3.7 1 0.7 42.2 0.7 -0.9

With all that data and a few months of disappointment in his back pocket, Brown made the switch, and even though Korkmaz put up a goose egg in 23 minutes, it worked. Philly scored at a 112.2 points-per-100 pace against the NBA’s no. 6 defense. Embiid good-assholed his way to 26 and nine in 28 minutes, while Horford pick-and-popped to an efficient plus-10 in his 28 minutes; they overlapped for only nine of those 28, giving everybody more room to breathe, and helping the Sixers convincingly beat a championship contender.

How Brown fills the fifth spot in the starting lineup promises to be one of the more fascinating questions of the rest of the season. Will he stick with Korkmaz, a catch-and-shoot marksman who can also beat closeouts off the bounce, but provides some of the same defensive concerns that JJ Redick did during his tenure in Philly? Will he take a longer look at rookie Matisse Thybulle, who is an absolute gamebreaker on the defensive end, but whose narrowly tailored offensive game (especially his 3-point shooting) could mitigate some of the gains Philly’s making by splitting up its bigs? Or, as he did to start the second half against the Clippers, will he opt for newcomer Glenn Robinson III, a less dynamic player than Korkmaz, not as havoc-wreaking as Thybulle, but more balanced than either?

There aren’t any perfect solutions on this gigantic and imperfect roster, but Brown had to start somewhere. If Horford buys in and the rest of the team clicks into place as it did against L.A., there’s a chance that Philly—just a game and a half back of Miami for the East’s no. 4 seed—could finally start to reach for its vaulted ceiling.

Indiana Pacers

On January 29, we published Rob Mahoney’s great big honkin’ feature on how the Pacers have managed to build a team better than just about anyone expected in spite of the ongoing absence of injured All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo. Since that story hit the site, naturally, Indiana has lost six of eight, with the NBA’s ninth-worst offense in that span. Congratulations to Rob on what I believe is his first Ringer curse—a big moment for any new staffer.

Of course, Rob’s story dropping wasn’t the only notable thing that happened for the Pacers on January 29. That’s also the day that Oladipo made his season debut, returning to the court for the first time since rupturing the quadriceps tendon in his right knee in January 2019. Everybody expected it would take some time for Oladipo to find his footing after a 12-month layoff; sure enough, he’s shooting just 32.9 percent from the field and 24.4 percent from 3-point range in his seven appearances.

Nearly half of Oladipo’s field goal attempts since returning (41-of-85) have come from beyond the arc, and nearly 40 percent (33-of-85) have come while pulling up off a live dribble. When Oladipo’s right, those quick-trigger pull-ups can be a devastating weapon, punishing drop pick-and-roll coverages and leveraging defenders’ fear of his quickness to make them pay:

Right now, though, you can see Oladipo struggling to find the balance on his takeoffs and landings—understandable, as he continues to develop confidence in his rebuilt right leg—and opting for stop-and-pop looks as a sort of fail-safe rather than driving into traffic, with a release that once looked “feathery” now seeming more flustered:

With Oladipo not yet putting pressure on the rim (he’s taken just 20 shots in the restricted area in his first seven games, making only half of them), not yet finding the touch on his jumper, and working his way into the ecosystem of an attack that coalesced in his absence around new addition Malcolm Brogdon and newly minted All-Star Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers offense has struggled with its former star in the mix. A disjointed and stilted Indiana offense is scoring just 102.6 points per 100 possessions with Oladipo on the floor, and has gotten blitzed by 9.5 points per 100 overall in his minutes.

The good news: Oladipo has been moving great on defense, looking smooth laterally and dealing with the physicality of chasing opponents through screens, which bodes well for his capacity to reacclimate to the banging that will come with going to the hole more frequently. Indy’s record since Oladipo’s return would also look a bit sunnier if it hadn’t been on the business end of a Spencer Dinwiddie game-winning stepback. And it’s not like the Pacers have been getting blown off the court on the whole during this recent skid; all six of their losses have come by three possessions or fewer, and they’ve held late fourth-quarter leads in four of them. (In fairness, the lack of late-game execution that’s led to those four defeats—most notably an epic meltdown in Toronto—is its own object of concern.) It’s still essentially preseason for Oladipo, which is reason enough for optimism at this early stage of his comeback.

It’s not that early, though, in the big picture for the Pacers. The February slide has put Indiana two games behind fifth-place Philly, and 3.5 games back of the Heat for the final home-court advantage spot in the East; with a 75 percent likelihood of landing in the no. 6 spot, according to Mike Beuoy’s seeding projections at Inpredictable.com, Nate McMillan’s club is likely in line for a first-round matchup with the Celtics, Raptors, or Heat—three smart, athletic teams that can be an absolute nightmare for an opposing offense that doesn’t have its i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

If Oladipo can rediscover something approximating his pre-injury form, he could be the most important addition any team made before the February 6 trade deadline. The longer it takes for him to get there, though, the harder it is to see the Pacers making the sort of noise they’d hoped for this season.

Houston Rockets

I know, we’ve covered this, but I can’t help it. By eschewing traditional centers entirely and committing to playing five-out small ball with a rotation consisting solely of players between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-8—a commitment that continued on Monday, with word that free agent Jeff Green and the just-bought-out DeMarre Carroll are both headed to Houston—the Rockets have made themselves the most fascinating team on the board for the rest of the season. Well, everyone knows that having extremely tall players is good for winning at basketball. What this team presupposes is … maybe it isn’t? (Quick: Someone Photoshop Eli Cash’s full face paint onto a headshot of Mike D’Antoni.)

Houston is 5-2 since its January 29 loss to the Trail Blazers—the last game in which Clint Capela played as a Rocket before going out with a right heel injury, which officially shifted P.J. Tucker into a new chapter as the league’s smallest full-time center. The Rockets have outscored opponents by 2.9 points per 100 in that stretch, with the league’s no. 7 offense; perhaps more notably, they’ve also had the NBA’s no. 15 defense in that small sample, smack dab in the middle of the pack despite not giving real minutes to anyone within a couple of inches of 7 feet. They’ve been the worst rebounding team in the league, as you’d expect, but have mitigated that by junking the game up with double-teams when necessary, and using their quickness and length to force a ton of turnovers; they’re generating cough-ups on 18.2 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions, which would lead the league over the full season, and turning those chances into 19 points off turnovers per game, which would rank third.

Here, you may note that Houston actually ranked fourth in offense and 15th in defense before bidding farewell to Capela, and wonder how, exactly, all of this represents an improvement. The short answer: I don’t know! A longer answer: While the Rockets haven’t blown anybody’s doors off with their new look (and in fact have been blown out once), they have been generating even more of the shots that they want.

Since Capela’s last game, an eye-popping 48.5 percent of Houston’s field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc, up from 43.8 percent with him in the fold, while its share of shots at the rim has stayed about the same. With opposing defenses stretched even thinner to account for credible shooting threats around the perimeter, the pocket Rockets are converting 64.7 percent of their looks at the basket and 45.2 percent of corner 3s, both improvements on their previous marks.

A team with Houston’s shot profile since the Capela trade—taking into account who’s taking the shots, where they’re taking them from, defender distance, etc.—is expected to produce an effective field goal percentage of 55.3 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass. Thanks to some cold shooting on above-the-break 3s, the Rockets’ actual eFG% over the last seven games is 53.2 percent—21st in the league. Again: They’ve been a top-seven offense even with that disparity. If Eric Gordon (24.3 percent from deep on 7.4 attempts per game during this stretch) and Austin Rivers (33.3 percent on 4.3 attempts per game) regress to the mean at all, the dam will burst, and the Rockets will have teams doing everything they can just to tread water.

Speaking of unstoppable deluges and onrushing forces of nature: Holy hell, Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook was already one of the league’s highest-volume and most productive drivers, but the shift to a full-time five-out scheme has unleashed him to an even greater degree. Since January 31, Russ is averaging 23.8 drives and scoring 18.2 points on them per game, both far and away tops in the league, while shooting 39-for-61 (63.9 percent).

First, Westbrook cut back on the 3-pointers; since going 0-for-8 from deep on Christmas Day, he’s averaging just 2.2 attempts per game, about 40 percent below his career average. Now, Daryl Morey has removed Capela, who never fit well next to Westbrook, allowing the former MVP to operate as the lone non-shooter in Houston’s attack, an alignment that’s been money for the Rockets—Russ lineups with no center have scored 117.1 points per 100 this season.

Add it up, and Westbrook’s playing some of most effective, explosive, and awesome ball of his career, averaging 33.1 points per game on a .571 true shooting percentage while dishing dimes on 39.7 percent of his teammates’ baskets since the beginning of January. The only player who’s ever married that level of offensive production and playmaking efficiency over a full season? Well, as luck would have it, that’d be the dude Westbrook just posed with for the cover of GQ. (Maybe we should’ve had Russ in the top 25 after all.)

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson has been absolutely everything we could’ve asked for; this has been covered, breathlessly and ad nauseum, on this site and elsewhere. (And justifiably so!) One thing I wondered before Zion’s debut was what impact his arrival would have on Brandon Ingram—the 22-year-old playmaking forward who stepped in as New Orleans’s no. 1 option in Williamson’s absence, earning the first All-Star appearance of his career in the process.

A sprained right ankle kept Ingram out for the Pelicans’ final three games before the All-Star break, meaning we’ve seen him slot alongside Williamson for just 134 minutes—not exactly a sample on which to base definitive conclusions. In the seven full games Ingram played with a healthy Zion, Ingram’s overall footprint within the Pelicans’ offense did shrink a bit; he averaged about 11 fewer touches per game than he had before Zion’s arrival, with reductions in his average time of possession, seconds per touch, and dribbles per touch. One thing that didn’t decrease, though: Ingram’s average number of points scored per touch. That went up, from 0.37 pre-Zion to 0.382 after his debut.

With Williamson commanding the post and the paint, Ingram has ceded some ground in the midrange; after averaging seven shots between the restricted area and the arc through the first few months of the season, he took about five per game in the seven full games he played with Zion. And Ingram finished a smaller share of New Orleans’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover when Zion’s on the court (a 23.9 percent usage rate) than when he’s not (28.4). In terms of overall production, though, Ingram still looked like every ounce the ass-kicker he was before the big fella showed up:

Ingram per-36 with Zion off the court (1,467 minutes): 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, one steal; 47.4/40.2/85.8 shooting splits; 1.36 assist-to-turnover ratio; .600 true shooting percentage

Ingram per-36 with Zion on the court (134 minutes): 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.1 steals; 46.4/37.9/90.5 shooting splits; 2.50 assist-to-turnover ratio; .601 true shooting percentage

Ingram has the height to see over the defense and feed Zion an entry pass on the block, as well as the vision and touch to hit him on cuts to the basket and lobs to the top floor:

And as Williamson gets more comfortable looking for teammates rather than finishing, he’ll find in Ingram a smart cutter, a dangerous spot-up release valve, and a dribble handoff partner who can make it rain from the perimeter or get all the way to the cup:

Again, it’s early, but in those 134 shared minutes, New Orleans has outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 with Zion and Ingram on the court—a very strong number that, hilariously, actually wildly underperforms Zion’s overall impact on the Pelicans’ point differential.

Given time and reps, there’s reason to believe that the former Blue Devils might fit together after all; that Ingram might be a bona fide All-Star in his own right, and not just a conditional one who would waste away once Zion arrived; and that, in a league that has shifted toward Big Twos, New Orleans might have already landed its top pair, both under 23, and both (assuming the Pelicans hand Ingram a full-freight max extension this summer) under team control through at least 2024. What a difference a year, some shrewd negotiating, some ping-pong-ball luck, and a heaping helping of good health can make, huh?

Phoenix Suns

The Suns come out of the All-Star break in 12th place in the West, 6.5 games back of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. FiveThirtyEight, Basketball-Reference.com, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index all peg Phoenix’s chances of making a shocking bid for the postseason at 1 percent or less, with the overwhelming likelihood that the Suns’ playoff drought will extend to a 10th year.

And yet: I find myself intrigued by the Suns heading into the stretch run! To some degree, that’s because I want to see how Devin Booker finishes things off after his well-deserved first All-Star trip. But it’s also due in part to the fact that I’m finding myself more and more interested in what Deandre Ayton’s doing—especially on the defensive end.

Ayton came out of Arizona with a reputation as a sure-handed, sweet-shooting, super-athletic big man who could roll out of bed and put up 20 and 10, but who also had a long way to go to become a high-level interior defender. His early returns as a rookie did little to dissuade anyone of that opinion, and what progress he made in the second half of the 2018-19 season largely went by the boards when he opened the 2019-20 campaign with a 25-game suspension. Since his return, though, 2018’s no. 1 pick has shown significant improvement as a backline stopper by both the eye test …

… and the numbers. Ayton is holding his assignments to 40.5 percent shooting on the season, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. That’s the sixth-lowest defensive field goal percentage in the league among players who have defended at least 400 shots this season, behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Justin Holiday, Kawhi Leonard, and Rudy Gobert. Focus just on his work inside, and he’s holding opponents to 54.7 percent at the rim—22nd out of 66 players who have played 10 games and defended at least four such shots per game, and a whopping 10.2 percent improvement over his rookie mark.

Ayton grades out as a positive defender according to ESPN’s real plus-minus and player impact plus-minus; the Suns have given up 3.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, allowing buckets at a rate that would rank 15th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. If that doesn’t seem all that exciting to you, you’re probably not a Suns fan who’s been waiting six seasons for a league-average defense—let alone one led by a 21-year-old who seems to be growing in real time.

Progress isn’t always linear; there will be fuck-ups, especially as a help defender working away from the play. But Ayton’s showing more patience before jumping for a block, staying down on fakes and trusting in both his length and athleticism to alter shots. He’s getting better at playing both the ball handler and the roll man in the two-man game, taking away easy dump-offs for dunks and making the dribbler show his cards before reaching in to deflect a pass or leaping to contest a shot. He’s shown great footwork in closing out and tracking drivers into the lane, as well as the fluidity to either stay in front on switches or shadow movements as opponents angle toward the paint, snuffing out their shot attempts before they get to the glass.

Ayton’s physicality, energy, and focus when the ball’s in the air can leave something to be desired—he’s averaging just 2.9 box-outs per 36 minutes of floor time, 61st out of 64 centers who’ve logged at least 500 minutes this season—but he’s also going up and getting it more often, pulling down a higher share of available rebounds than he did as a rookie. The Suns are outscoring opponents by a healthy 5.1 points per 100 possessions when Ayton and Booker share the court; they’re an ass-kicking plus-12 per 100 when the two franchise centerpieces are flanked by pace-setting point guard Ricky Rubio and emerging 3-and-D stud Mikal Bridges. The samples are still fairly small, but they’re getting bigger, and the underpinnings of what they’re showing aren’t changing: Ayton is having a tangible positive effect on how his team plays on both ends of the court.

Very little of this stuff is sexy, and exactly none of it is going to make anybody forget that, at the time of the 2018 draft, the Suns employed the coach of the Slovenian national team and still did not choose Luka Doncic with the no. 1 pick. But the rest of Ayton’s career can’t be about the original sin of its beginning. All he can do is work, get better, and try to prove that the future the Suns did choose still carries the promise of something special.