Kurt Helin

PBT Extra: Injuries already shaping playoff race in West

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The bottom half of the West playoff chase was always going to be a dogfight, with five or so teams packed in between 42-47 and a couple on the bottom of that missing the playoffs.

What was always going to shape that race? Injuries.

It has already started to happen. I delve into it in this latest PBT Extra.

Rudy Gobert is out for the Jazz as they head into the most brutal part of their schedule. Injuries to three starters are one of the factors in the Clippers dropping six in a row. Meanwhile, down in New Orleans Rajon Rondo is getting healthy, about to add a boost to a Pelican team finding it’s footing.

 

Three Things to Know: It’s Joel Embiid’s world, Lonzo Ball has to live in it

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Battle of the young point guards turns into career night for Joel Embiid, who dominates. Don’t make Joel Embiid angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry… unless you’re a Sixers fan. Embiid had a Twitter beef with LaVar Ball, that (as has happened to him more than once) Lonzo Ball got sucked into but tried to avoid.

There were a lot of steps in the process, but it included Embiid getting a $10,000 fine for language from the league for saying “f*** LaVar Ball” on his Instagram account after LaVar was on a Philly radio station saying the crap he always said. Before the Sixers and Lakers met for the first time, Embiid said it was “all love” and just for fun.

Then he went out and destroyed the Lakers Wednesday night — 46 points on 14-of-20 shooting, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 7 blocks. The Lakers defended him (Andrew Bogut got a lot of extra run in that role), but he was 8-of-10 on contested looks. It was a historic stat line, and they weren’t empty calories — Philadelphia was +19 in Embiid’s 34 minutes and -13 when he was on the bench. Apparently, 69 percent of Embiid is this good.

WHAT A NIGHT !!!!! #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

Ben Simmons dominated the point guard battle with 19 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. The Lakers matched their own star rookie on Simmons — Kyle Kuzma. Who did you think we were talking about? Kuzma had a career-best 24 points, and Brandon Ingram had 26. They kept the Lakers in it.

Lonzo Ball had 2 points on 1-of-9 shooting, with 2 assists and 5 rebounds. It’s been a rough week for the Ball family, on and off the court. Maybe that quiets LaVar for a while… Nah, that’s just the dream, it won’t happen.

This was a game won inside the arc as the teams combined to shoot 10-of-52 from three, and that included an uncharacteristic 0-of-8 from deep for J.J. Redick.

The Sixers looked like a playoff team and the kind of team on the rise the Lakers still aspire to be. Mostly though, consider this a reminder that Joel Embiid can be a dominant force, and it turns out he plays well angry and motivated.

2) Sixers also about to make Robert Covington quite wealthy. When the Philadelphia brass talks about their young core, they talk Simmons and Embiid and the injured No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, but they also always mention Robert Covington. When Sam Hinkie was just rotating cheap contract young players through the end of the bench (rather than putting a solid veteran or two on the roster), he was panning for gold. The Sixers found something in Covington as “3&D” specialist, who at age 26 is just entering his prime.

Now they are going to pay him a lot of gold. The Sixers and Covington are about to agree to a renegotiation and extension that will pay him about $62 million over this season and the next four. While the details are not yet known, the 76ers can bump his salary up to $16.7 million for this season (using existing cap space), then extend him off of that. Which sounds like the plan (if you want the salary details, our own Dan Feldman has them here).

Good for Covington, and smart of the Sixers to lock up another quality player, they still have cap space and flexibility going forward.

3) We spent much of Wednesday looking forward to Thursday in the NBA. Thursday night is going to be must-watch television for the NBA.

The first TNT game is the Golden State Warriors going into Boston for a showdown of the top teams in each conference right now. Call this a potential Finals preview if you want, although LeBron James will have his say about that. The Celtics have won 13 in a row and have the best defense in the NBA. The Warriors have won seven in a row, all by double-digits, and the best offense in the league, and have looked like their dominating selves again. Consider this a measuring stick game for the Celtics — we know what the Warriors are and what they will be come the playoffs, but the Celtics are still figuring that out about themselves. Boston as beaten Toronto and Milwaukee and San Antonio during its streak, but Golden State is something else entirely. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have looked great, but going against Kevin Durant and Draymond Green is a different level of challenge. The crowd in Boston will be pumped, but will one of the Warriors’ patented third quarter runs turn this game into another comfortable win for the champs?

The late TNT game doesn’t look like much, the Rockets should handle the Suns easily despite Devin Booker putting up good numbers, but it became far more interesting with the news Wednesday that Chris Paul will return to the Rockets lineup for the game. CP3 will start next to James Harden and play about 20 minutes, coming off resting a sore knee. We haven’t seen Paul since a rough opening night of the season when he didn’t look himself, now we can see where he stands and how he starts to mesh with Harden.

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Paul George

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Oklahoma City had lost four games in a row, were not playing as a unit offensively but as individuals, and they were getting frustrated. So they called the dreaded “team meeting,” which is essentially the Festivus Airing of Grievances in sports form.

One thing to come out of that meeting — Paul George went off.

He dropped 42 on the Clippers, then turned around and had 37 against the Mavericks, and he was a combined +47 in those two games. George seemed to spend the first weeks of the season trying to fit in and not rock the boat, then came out of that meeting ready to be aggressive. Finally.

Those were two wins for the Thunder, although playing two weak teams (the Clippers have dropped six in a row) has helped. We’ll see if the Thunder and George can sustain it.

Chris Paul to return to Rockets, start on Thursday

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Chris Paul is back.

The All-Everything point guard played 33 minutes opening night for the Rockets then shut it down midway through the fourth due to an ailing knee, and he has been out ever since. Now Paul will be back on Thursday when the Rockets host the Suns. Both CP3 and Mike D’Antoni confirmed the rumors.

The Rockets have gone 11-4 to start the season, with James Harden back to his MVP level and leading what has been the second best offense in the NBA this season. Houston’s defense is 13th in the league, which is a marked improvement from previous seasons.

While Harden and CP3 looked good together in preseason, that matters about as much as how they looked at the Drew League over the summer. There are still real questions to answer about who initiates plays in crunch time, as well tempo (the Rockets have been playing slightly slower than last season, but Paul is even more deliberate than that).

Still, the Rockets added Paul to take their run at Golden State, and they need him on the court developing chemistry with his teammates. That starts up again on Thursday night.

Study finds NBA players getting skinnier as teams focus on small ball

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Call it the Mike D’Antoni revolution. Say that it’s a copycat league and everybody wants to be the Warriors. Talk about how advanced analytics and the three-point shot have changed the game.

The NBA has been trending for years toward “small ball” — which is a nebulous term but essentially means playing fast and shooting a lot of threes. It means fewer traditional bigs and more centers and power forwards who can step out and drain a three (think Kristaps Porzingis or DeMarcus Cousins).

Harvard’s Sports Analytics Collective noticed an interesting trend that is going along with this — the NBA is getting skinnier. (Hat tip to Tom Haberstroh writing for Bleacher Report.)

It makes sense: If the focus is on athleticism and speed, then players will want to be thinner rather than bulkier.  Here is what the report found.

While both the height and weight of the league increased drastically from 1952 (the first year with minutes data) to 2000, the pattern in the 2000s is strikingly different. The weight of the league rose 7 pounds (per player) from 2000 to 2013, before dropping nearly 3 pounds steadily over the course of the next 4 years. Meanwhile, the weighted average height has stayed between 78.8 and 79.1 inches (about 6’7”), for the entirety of the 21 century….

This may seem like an incredibly obvious result, but it highlights another efficiency that NBA teams have gravitated toward in the past 5 years. Teams are slimming down, and using their athletic advantages to run the heavier teams of the floor. The NBA is again trending lighter, and it will be interesting to watch how this stabilizes over the next 5-10 years.

What the study also found was no correlation between hight or weight and winning, however, in recent years there is a trend of lighter teams playing faster. Which again just makes sense.

This trend toward lighter players and pace, plus increased three-point shooting, is ultimately a result of the rules and how they are enforced. Once teams were allowed to play zone defense (starting in 2004), it evolved into the Tom Thibodeau overload defense, which was designed to take away wing isolation plays (which were very common at the time) by bringing another defender over to the strong side. The best offenses started adapting to this in two ways — good off-ball movement on the weak side combined with better ball movement to get guys like Kyle Korver clean looks off a couple passes; and playing faster and getting in the offense before these defenses have a chance to set up.

Both of those attacks are designed for players to use their athleticism — so thinner, more athletic players have the advantage.

At some point, the move to get thinner will stabilize. But this style of play in the NBA will stick around until they tweak the rules again.