The biggest advantage in basketball

14 Comments

A quarter of the way through the season, which team do you think possesses the greatest positional advantage in basketball? Is it the Heat with LeBron overwhelming every 3 in the league? The Thunder with Durant at the 3 and the 4? Carmelo thriving at power forward with the Knicks? Kobe beating up on the secretly shallow shooting guard position with the Lakers?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The biggest positional advantage in the league this year, incredibly, belongs to the point guards of the Los Angeles Clippers. And it’s not even all that close.

There are about a million reasons why this shouldn’t be the case. The existence of the aforementioned players and their unstoppable offensive games is one of those reasons.

The depth of the point guard position around the league is another. Think about it — there are about 20 different point guards in the league right now who could very realistically become All-Stars within the next three seasons. Every team seems to have a great one, or at the least, a pretty good one.

Then, of course, there’s the whole handcheck thing. Stopping lightning bug point guards is practically impossible with the way the rules are enforced, and with offenses in general shifting more towards spacing and speed, playing defense as a point guard is sort of like trying to catch a hummingbird in an open field.

That’s the logic, but two 6-foot guys in Los Angeles are defying it on a nightly basis. Here’s how.

***

The data

Thanks to 82games.com, Hoopstats.com, and John Hollinger’s brain (congrats to him, by the way), you can see just how dominant the Clippers point guards have been this year.

Offense: The Clippers point guards are shooting 48.5 percent from the field, which is the third best mark in the league. They also rank third in the league with 11.7 assists and 25.3 points a game. They’re first in rebounds with 6.1 a game and have a league best efficiency number of 33.4 — a whole 7 points ahead of San Antonio in second place.

Defense: The Clippers are holding opposing point guards to 36.6 percent shooting and are causing them to turn the ball over 5.2 times a contest, which are both leagues bests. They’re also 5th in points allowed and are allowing the league’s lowest opponent efficiency rate at 15.9.

Player Efficiency Rating: Both Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe are top 10 players in the league in PER (Paul at 5, Bledsoe at 8). The Clippers point guards this season have posted a PER of 24.9, while their opponents post a number of 8.8. That PER differential of 16.1 is the highest of every position by a longshot. The next closest are San Antonio’s centers (Duncan and Splitter) with a differential of 10.4.

The only player who could have a beef with these rankings is Kevin Durant, who plays both the 3 and the 4 for Oklahoma City. Impressively enough, the Thunder rank 1st in both SF and PF in PER differential, but the difference at those spots still isn’t nearly as big as the Clippers point guards. LeBron James plays both forward spots as well, but the Heat’s shoddy defense this far doesn’t have James in the discussion.

Introducing Eric Bledsoe

Believe it or not, Chris Paul’s shooting percentages and scoring numbers are actually down this year based on his career averages. While he’s certainly still been great, by no means is Paul doing something unsustainable — which might be the conclusion you’d draw from such a small sample size.

While Paul has been very pesky defensively with those lightning quick, strong hands (Zach Harper of CBS Sports coined him the Lobster — which is perfect on multiple levels), don’t overlook the defensive performances of breakout star Eric Bledsoe. The third-year, 6-foot-1 point guard is built like a tank, but his wingspan is incredible. The pressure Bledsoe places on ballhandlers and his nose for the ball in passing lanes gives him Per36 numbers of 3steals and 1.4 blocks a game, something only one player (some guy named Michael Jordan?) has accomplished over a full season.

Bledsoe isn’t a one trick pony though. He possesses otherworldly speed and leaping ability, allowing him to fly up the floor and finish way above where any other point guard not named Russell Westbrook dreams of going vertically. The nickname “Mini LeBron” sounds insane on the surface, but then you watch him block a shot with his face, put in tip dunks on Josh Smith and send away Dwyane Wade at the rim and you begin to wonder just how good this guy can be. Bledsoe has talent you can dream on, and he’s learning behind one of the smartest players in the game. It’s scary to think of how good the Clippers could be if they played Paul and Bledsoe (instead of Willie Green) together, because the plus/minus numbers of that backcourt in limited time are off the charts.

But let’s focus on reality, which is plenty impressive as is. Going from Chris Paul to Eric Bledsoe is like 8 innings of a knuckleballer and then a 9th against a guy who throws 100 MPH, and opposing point guards are befuddled by it. 48 minutes of hell against those two seems a little unfair, but for the Clippers? So far this season, it’s the biggest advantage in basketball.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the Kyrie Irving trade

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Is LeBron James more likely to stay in Cleveland now?

Are the Boston Celtics contenders? Are they better set up for the future?

There are a lot more questions that come out of the surprise Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick. It’s a deal that is a big win for Cleveland, they got more than they should have expected in return. However, this is in no way a bad deal for the Celtics.

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Report: Clippers reach deal with Michael Winger to be new GM

Los Angeles Clippers
1 Comment

We knew this was coming, now it’s about to be official.

Former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Michael Winger is about to take over as the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. They offered him the job last week, now the sides have agreed to terms, and he will sign a deal soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City Thunder executive Michael Winger has reached an agreement in principle to become the general manager of the LA Clippers, league sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

Doc Rivers is no longer the guy with the hammer in Los Angeles, he will just be coaching the Clippers (and still getting $10 million a year paychecks, in case you think he’ll just walk away). The power structure now has Lawrence Frank at the top as the President of Basketball Operations, with Winger doing to work under him. The Clippers are expected to hire Trent Redden, one of David Griffin’s former right hand men in Cleveland, to work under Winger as an assistant GM. The Clippers also are expected to hire another assistant GM soon.

Frank, Winger and crew take over a team in transition. Chris Paul is gone, but the Clippers locked up Blake Griffin on a max deal this summer, they got a good veteran point guard in Patrick Beverley from Houston, and they signed Danilo Gallinari. They picked up some good young players in the CP3 trade such as Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker (who they now need to develop). The Clippers should be in the mix for one of the final three playoff slots in the West next season, but that doesn’t answer the bigger picture questions. Are the Clippers a team rebuilding for the future on the fly? Are they looking to stay good and relevant until they can get their new building in Inglewood constructed? Are they a year or two away from a total rebuild?

Steve Ballmer ultimately gets to make that call. It will be up to Winger to execute it.

Kyrie Irving trade doesn’t change LeBron James’ plans. Probably.

4 Comments

The Kyrie Irving trade to Boston was really about LeBron James.

Irving wanted out of LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland and asked for a trade. Cleveland got in Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder two guys who can help them win next season and chase a ring (and the Warriors) while LeBron is in Cleveland. It also gave the Cavaliers the Brooklyn Nets pick next draft and Ante Zizic, players that could help Cleveland rebuild if LeBron leaves next summer as a free agent.

What this trade doesn’t do is change LeBron’s calculus.

Probably.

LeBron can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent next summer, and he almost certainly will do that. Even if he wanted to stay in Cleveland, he’d opt out to sign a bigger, longer deal.

What has not changed with this trade is the sense around the league is LeBron has one foot out the door — good luck finding anyone who thinks he’s likely to stay a Cav after next season. He seems ready to move on to the next chapter and challenge, having brought a ring to Cleveland and it looks like this era and team has played itself out.

However, what LeBron has done well is leave his options open, something he has done very intentionally sources tell me. Maybe he wants to go to Los Angeles to enjoy the weather, be close to his business interests, and chase rings with Lonzo Ball and whoever else the Lakers can land in free agency (such as Paul George). Maybe Blake Griffin is on to something and he wants to be a Knick. Maybe a lot of things, the point is LeBron left his options open to make whatever call he wants.

Including staying in Cleveland. Even if it’s a longshot right now, a season is a lifetime in the NBA and attitudes shift.

With this trade, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East, and Crowder gives them the kind of shooter and wing defender the team desperately needed in a matchup with the Warriors (they need more like him). The reality is that if the Warriors are healthy, maybe the series ends in six games instead of five (and that’s a big maybe), but Golden State is still clearly superior. However, the Cavs will be in the Finals, they will get their shot — and stuff happens. We’ve seen it before, a player misses a game (let’s say due to a suspension for kicking) or another has an injury and is not quite 100 percent, and the door opens — then LeBron and Thomas can bust right through it. If the Cavaliers are in the Finals, they have a chance.

Win a ring, or even if the Cavs look like they can legitimately win a ring, LeBron will take it into consideration. That’s where the Brooklyn Nets pick comes in — maybe the Cavs can draft an elite player to add to the mix, or maybe they can trade the pick to get another top veteran player to come to Cleveland to round out the team.

That’s a lot of ifs. LeBron still is more likely to leave then stay next summer. His thoughts, his calculus does not change. What this trade does is give the Cavaliers a slightly better shot at a ring (even though Thomas has some serious defensive issues that can be exposed). With that there’s a chance.

The trade also gives Cleveland options if LeBron looks like he’s leaving. They have a little more flexibility, too.

Winners, losers in the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston

Getty Images
4 Comments

Here’s the hard thing about coming up with this list: There really weren’t big losers.

Unlike some of the other blockbuster trades this summer — Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Paul George to Oklahoma City — the trade of Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s first-round pick next draft didn’t have a clear loser. The Cavs did well in the short term and got themselves more flexibility, the Celtics may have set themselves up for future banners. So this list is heavy with winners. But here it is.

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers. Once it became public knowledge that Irving wanted out of Cleveland their leverage was gone. They went looking for a potential young star player in a deal — Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum — and were shot down at each turn. It looked like they would have to settle for a lesser package or bring Irving back to training camp and tell him to get along with LeBron James.

Then this deal came through, and it’s a clear “A+” for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lands an All-NBA point guard whose production next season will be close to what Irving provided, and Thomas plays with more of a chip on his shoulder. Also, the Cavaliers added what they desperately needed — a quality “3&D” wing in Crowder, a guy who can knock down jumpers and cover Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant (as much as anyone can cover them). On top of it, the Cavaliers get what will be a high draft pick — Brooklyn may be better but this is still no worse than the 5-6 pick — in a draft deep with quality big men.

Cleveland is still the best team, the team to beat in the East, and they got a key pick to help add youth and athleticism to the roster.

Winner: Boston in a couple of years. Boston’s argument it won the trade is simple — it got the best player in the trade. Thomas and Irving put up comparable numbers last season, but Irving is capable of defending (even though he rarely does, not even in the Finals last season). Irving is a couple of years younger, and because of his height will likely age better than Thomas. However, in giving up Crowder and the Brooklyn pick, the Celtics surrendered their best trade assets.

Cleveland is going to be a better team than Boston next season, but the Irving/Hayward combo with good role players around them has Boston poised to be even better in a couple of years, once guys like Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown develop. Boston is set to be next (providing they can re-sign Irving).

Winner: Kyrie Irving. He wanted out of the immense shadow of LeBron and he got it — and he still landed on a contender. In Boston, he is the most marketable player and while the team has other stars — Gordon Hayward, Al Horford — none are the kind of dominant force of nature that LeBron is. Kyrie will get plenty of time in the sun, he will get great opportunities in Brad Stevens offense (better sets than he was running in Cleveland), and he will continue to win.

Irving may have wanted to be the star, but he didn’t want to be the one-man show on a bad team. Now he’s in a good place.

Loser: The Los Angeles Lakers (maybe, or any other team with dreams of signing LeBron next summer). LeBron James still more than likely bolts Cleveland next year. But Cleveland got a little closer to keeping them with this trade, and as our own Dan Feldman noted on the PBT podcast that is not good for teams dreaming of signing LeBron. Isaiah Thomas brings buckets at the point guard spot plus he plays with a chip on his shoulder that this team could use (the Cavaliers coast too much during the season). In Crowder the Cavaliers land the kind of wing player they need to match up better with Golden State. If they want to pick up a role player at the trade deadline, Ante Zizic could be part of that package. More importantly, that Brooklyn pick could be used to bring in a high draft pick player LeBron likes, or it could be traded to get a veteran that LeBron wants to play with.

LeBron wants to add rings to his legacy. If this trade helps him think Cleveland is where he can best do that, he could stay. I wouldn’t bet on it as likely, but the odds LeBron stays in Cleveland after next season got just a little more likely. Which makes the Lakers potential losers.

Winner: Koby Altman. I couldn’t bring myself to put Dan Gilbert here, it was still a stupid decision to show David Griffin the door. But give due credit to the man who replaced Gilbert, Kobe Altman. He just orchestrated a brilliant trade that keeps the Cavaliers as the favorites in the East next season and gives them more flexibility going forward. It was a master stroke, getting a guy in Danny Ainge known for hoarding assets to give up two of his best shows Altman knows how to do his job.

Winner: NBA Fans. Opening night, Oct. 17, the first game of the NBA season is the Boston Celtics visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving is going to get booed mercilessly. Isaiah Thomas (if his hip is healthy) will be looking to put on a show for the new home fans. It’s going to be glorious.

It may not have tilted the balance of power in the East, but it made the conference far more entertaining to watch this season.