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NBA Daily: Five Numbers That Could Define The Season

In just under two months, 30 NBA teams will kick off the journey that is the 2019-20 NBA season. There will be a myriad of storylines and statistical trends that flesh out as the season chugs along. Some of these trends can be predicted based on last season, while others could be a result of roster turnover or a coaching change.  

These trends will be of particular import for contenders and could make or break a team’s chances of winning a title. This piece will take five of those teams that fall into the contender category and highlight a statistic that could be crucial to watch for in the upcoming campaign. Without further ado…

The 76ers’ Forced Turnover Percentage

The Philadelphia 76ers underwent significant roster changes this offseason.  Most notably losing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, replacing them with Al Horford and Josh Richardson within the starting lineup. Last season, one of the more perplexing statistical trends was the decline in their defense. After finishing third in defensive rating in 2017-18, the Sixers fell all the way to 14th in that category during the 2018-19 season.  

Looking deeper, we see that the Sixers still managed to rank sixth in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage.  The defensive downturn, then, can be partially attributed to the drop in their forced turnover percentage, which fell from 18th all the way to 28th in the league, per cleaningtheglass.com.  

The new-look 76ers will trot out a formidable defensive lineup next season, so they are likely to return to being one of the top outfits in the league. Whether that defense can propel them all the way to a championship, however, could come down the team’s ability to force steals and bad passes. Richardson, an aggressive guard defender who makes his living on being pesky around the perimeter, will help massively in that department.

Live ball turnovers will be of high importance for the Philadelphia offense, one that may struggle in the halfcourt given the lack of an elite perimeter shot creator. Forcing these will allow the team easy transition scoring opportunities and give Ben Simmons a chance to do what he does best — lead the break.

The Lakers’ Half-Court Efficiency

The Los Angeles Lakers also experienced some major roster turnover, bringing in Anthony Davis via a trade with the Pelicans and signing multiple role players like Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels.

Last season, the Lakers struggled to score in the half-court and, as a result, their offense suffered as a whole. They finished 23rd in the league in half-court efficiency, along with 23rd-placed rank in overall offensive rating, per cleaningtheglass.com. This was the first time a LeBron James-led team finished outside the top six in either of those categories since the 2007-08 season in Cleveland, the year before he won his first MVP trophy.

The James injury may have played a minor role in this outlier season — but even when he was on the court, the Lakers only scored 94.7 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. This number would’ve placed them just 17th in the league.

The real culprit may have been nonexistent floor spacing. The Lakers finished 29th in the league last season in three-point percentage, shooting a putrid 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Los Angeles had the third-lowest frequency of spot-ups in the league and had the fourth-lowest efficiency on those attempts, per NBA.com. James was forced to operate in tight spaces and had a tough time generating open looks against set defenses. The clip below shows a James post up in which every Portland defender has a foot in the paint, ready to help.

With the aforementioned additions of Green and Cook, the Lakers have added the elite shooters that could open the floor for their two stars. Davis will definitely demand double teams in the post as well, so his talents may help Los Angeles find cleaner looks at the rim.

The Nuggets’ Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage

The Denver Nuggets will bring back every contributor from last season, with the addition of Jerami Grant and, excitedly, Michael Porter Jr. at some point. Last season, the Nuggets combined their efficient offense with an improved defense to vault to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, eventually losing in the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games.

One of the more significant defensive improvements came in their opponents’ shooting percentage. They held opponents to a 52.4 effective field goal percentage, which ranked 15th in the league, up from 27th in the previous season. Interestingly, the shooting statistics on cleaningtheglass.com show that the Nuggets gave up more efficient shots to opponents last season than they did in 2017-18.

The Nuggets ranked last in the league in giving up corner threes, the most efficient shot in basketball sans the layup.  They also allowed 37.6 percent of their opponents shot attempts to come at the rim, which ranked 24th in the league, down from 17th in the 2017-18 campaign. The Nuggets compounded this by forcing the least amount of long mid-range shots, the most inefficient zone on the court.

How, then, did the Nuggets only rank in the middle of the NBA in terms of their opponent shooting efficiency?  It’s possible that the Nuggets did a better job contesting these shots — but looking at the NBA.com tracking reveals that simple luck played a significant role.

The Nuggets gave up almost exactly the same frequency of shots across the last two seasons where the opponent was considered very open, meaning the defender was six or more feet away. In 2017-18, the opponent shot 41.4 percent on these shots, compared to just 37.6 percent on the same attempts last season. When it comes to merely open shots, situations in which defender was four-to-six feet away, the gap was even more pronounced.  Last season, the opponent only shot 31.9 percent on these attempts, compared to 35.7 percent the year before.

Needless to say, it will be intriguing to watch whether Denver can keep up their defensive improvement from last season, or if the shooting variance will swing back out of their favor.

Milwaukee’s Offensive Rating Without Giannis

The Milwaukee Bucks rampaged their way through the regular season last year, finishing with the best record and the highest net rating in the league. The MVP-awarded Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, dominating the paint in every contest.

The Bucks were not only successful on the back of their Greek superstar though, as they had a plus-3.7 net rating when he was off the court as well. This was largely due to a steady offense, which ranked third in the league last season with a 114.9 offensive rating overall. This number jumped to 116.2 with Giannis on the court and only fell to 112.9 with him on the bench. That means that even without their best player in the lineup, the Bucks had the equivalent of a seventh-ranked offense, per cleaningtheglass.com.

Expectedly, Milwaukee saw a decline in both the frequency and efficiency of shots at the rim when Antetokounmpo took a breather. They made up for this drop by bombing away from three-point, seeing a significant increase in both frequency and efficiency on attempts from deep.

The uptick in outside shot attempts makes sense as the Bucks’ bench lacked a true paint presence like Antetokounmpo, so the team needed to rely more on perimeter play in those minutes. The surprising statistic is the increase in three-point percentage, as it would be logical to assume that Milwaukee would be getting better looks from outside with the league’s MVP attracting multiple defenders around the rim.

Of course, Milwaukee will be without Malcolm Brogdon, their best three-point shooter last season, as the combo guard signed a contract with the Indiana Pacers this offseason.  The Bucks will still trot out an abundance of sharpshooters, however, and the onus to create open looks falls on Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton during the minutes when Antetokounmpo rests. Bledsoe is particularly good at finding open shooters, and the Bucks actually performed quite well when he was on the court without Antetokounmpo.

Their plus-9.6 net rating in those minutes was not too far from the plus-12.5 number with the MVP on the court, per cleaningtheglass.com.

Bledsoe is adept at penetrating into the lane and often uses his elite athleticism to leap and hit shooters on the perimeter at difficult angles. Below, he finds Brogdon with an especially wild kick-out.

As mentioned, the Bucks will be without Brogdon’s elite catch-and-shoot services this season, but he can be replaced adequately thanks to a bench that is littered with shooting specialists. If that bench can continue to knock down three-pointers at an elite clip, the Bucks could be on their way back to the No. 1 seed.

The Rockets’ Second Half Net Rating

Last season, James Harden experienced the second-highest usage rate in the years since 1977-78, when the stat could first be calculated. Then, in one of the most surprising moves of the summer, the Rockets swapped out Chris Paul for the player with the highest usage rate ever in that time, Russell Westbrook.   

The immense usage may have taken a toll on Harden over the course of games, as the Rockets tended to have trouble in second halves. The Rockets had a plus-8.5 net rating in the first half of games, which was second in the NBA. In the second half, the Rockets had a net rating of just plus-1.2.  That difference of 7.3 was the largest separation in the league, per NBA.com.

There could be a variety of factors that caused the split, including the fact that good teams who get out to big leads early will play more garbage time in the second half, and therefore let off the gas pedal.  It is also reasonable to infer, however, that the Rockets’ isolation-heavy play style took a toll on their superstar, becoming more predictable for opposing defenses as the game went on.

The Thunder, Westbrook’s former team, had the opposite splits last season. Oklahoma City had a meager plus-1.2 net rating in first halves last season, but this number jumped to plus-5.7 in second halves, per NBA.com. Again, there are a variety of factors for this, and Westbrook was certainly not the only reason for the second half spurt. Then again, the 2017 league MVP is known for his constant ferociousness and motor, so it’s easy to see how he may have played a role in energizing his team out of the halftime break.

It will be interesting to watch how Westbrook’s fire rubs off on this Rockets team and, importantly, if his presence takes just enough burden off of Harden to leave him fresh down the stretch of tight contests.

For these five franchises with championship-worthy aspirations, the above metrics will likely go a far way toward determining their ultimate ceilings. It’s still early on, but don’t be surprised if some of these predictions end up making or breaking a season down the line — keep your eyes peeled!

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