Are Teams Really as Good as They Seem?
It’s easy to look at season standings when accessing how good some teams are or how brutal their competition is. You will not catch anyone off guard when you say that the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs are three teams most likely to win a championship this season. You can even add the Clippers into the mix if you ask some analysts.
Point is, the NBA has a clear group of elite teams followed by contenders and pretenders who hope to have a chance of taking the upper echelon of teams down in the postseason. Of course, referring back to the season standings, you could say the next level of competition are the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, maybe even the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.
But, based on advanced stats, there are some rather noticeable flaws in these contenders that can and will prove costly in the playoffs unless these teams polish up their areas of weaknesses. You probably would have never guessed it based solely on the season standings and simple team stats, but things are not always as they seem.
And when it comes to the top two second tier contending teams, they should best hope, that they find a solution to their problems as soon as possible.
The Houston Rockets have been cruising with James Harden at the point guard spot. They are 15-7, with a .682 win percentage and even have a few big team morale boosting wins agains the likes of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, both of which came on the road.
A big chunk of the Rockets impressive season can be attributed to the offensive brilliance run by new head coach, Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets are second in basketball averaging 112.2 points per game, their point differential is in the league’s top five (+5.5) and their offensive efficiency is fourth in the league at 114.3.
The Rockets have everything the new NBA world desires in a title contending basketball team. They have size, lots of shooters and stretchy wing players, and an offensively oriented guard in Harden in the middle of it.
With the Rockets on 0.5 games out of third in the conference, what is holding this team back and how can they possibly improve it?
Like every D’Antoni team in history, defence has been the achilles heel. Houston is in the top ten in points allowed per game in basketball, but where the problems get even worse is when you look deeper into the defensive advanced stats.
The Rockets rank eighth worst in basketball in terms of defensive rating (108.9). With a team that struggles to defend, Houston is 17th in the NBA at defensive rebound percentage (76.4%), thus creating extra opportunities for their opposition, when the D’Antoni defence can barely handle the first line of attack.
With the likes of Clint Capela, Nene, Trevor Ariza, Harden and even Ryan Anderson on the team, you would expect more on the glass, but the Rockets must increase their interior toughness. With Capela being able to act as a respectable defensive anchor in the front court, and Patrick Beverley covering the opposing top guard, it will unfortunately be up to James Harden to pick up his defensive intensity and defend the elite backcourts of the league because if he will not, the Golden State Warriors will run through Houston in a seven game series.
Put it this way. The Rockets were able to overcome a huge lead in an elimination playoff game against the Clippers just last postseason with Harden on the bench, which is a testament with how much the Rockets give up defensively with the offensive superstar on the floor.
At 14-7, the Raptors have the second best record in the entire Eastern Conference. They have a winning percentage of .667 and are just 1.5 games back of the reigning champion Cleveland Cavalier.
What can possibly be wrong with the Raptors in the first quarter of the season? Doing all this without their incumbent starting four, may I add.
There offence has been explosive, the Raptors are second in the conference and fourth in all of basketball at 110.9 points per contest and have a net differential of +8.1, which ranks them first in the conference and third overall. Interestingly enough, their net differential and opponents points per game (102.8) numbers are all better than the first place Cleveland Cavaliers who allow 104.5 and have a net difference of +6.6. The Raps even have the second based offensive efficiency in the game, second only to the Warriors.
So why are the Raptors still behind the Cavs? Based on these stats alone, you would think, they would be the ones up by 1.5 games at the very least.
Well, here is the glaring problem with the Raptors. There defensive rating is ranked at a very average 16th in the league (103.6). Moreover, synergy shows that in the halfcourt is where even bigger problems lie, especially against good three-point shooting teams as the Raptor halfcourt 3PT defence is ranked 20th at 35.4%.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, who don’t rely on the three as much as some of the more elite teams in the game, the Cavs and Warriors offer many options from behind the arc with a very stretchy front line, and smooth-shooting guard play.
Oddly enough, the biggest problem for the Raptors has been the little engine who seems to hustle on every play, Kyle Lowry as he is always forced to defend the guards who shoot most of the three-pointers. It’s not that he’s not trying, but it has everything to do with him not being big enough to quickly fight off screens against bigger NBA players and being too short to have a high enough point of contention.
DeMar DeRozan is ironically the second biggest problem as he has a habit of often coasting on defence, cheating when defences collapse under the basket and not being able to get back to his man on kick outs.
Of course, Lowry growing half a foot or growing out his arms is not a realistic possibility, but the Raptors can fix this in other ways. In terms of Lowry, the team has to communicate more defensively, while Lowry must improve on his footwork and court vision. As for in DeMar’s case, the Raptors must get stronger in the interior, which could very well happen once Jared Sullinger returns and really just continue telling DeRozan to stop cheating. At the end of the day, two points is something any team will give up over three.