The One Stat Killing Your Favorite NBA Team
Even the best NBA teams have flaws.
In a way, that's what makes basketball such a dynamic game. Because it's impossible for any team to be totally stout in every area, there's always a weakness for opponents to exploit. That leads to exciting strategic decisions and, occasionally, thrilling upsets.
A number of this season's most noteworthy teams possess glaring shortcomings.
In some cases, those problems have contributed to massively disappointing early-season efforts—like the one we've seen from the New York Knicks.
In other instances, isolated statistical deficiencies haven't gotten in the way of overall success. But for teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, things that seem like small speed bumps now could wind up being season-altering obstacles down the stretch.
Get out your scuba gear; we're diving deep into the numbers to figure out which stats are killing your favorite squad.
Houston Rockets: 18.3 Percent Turnover Ratio
No team gives the ball away on a larger percentage of its possessions than the Houston Rockets, per NBA.com. Considering the personnel and pace in Houston, I guess that's not especially surprising.
Dwight Howard is a turnover waiting to happen whenever he gets a touch in the post, James Harden surrenders possession of the ball a whopping four times per game, and the uptempo style in Houston lends itself to high-risk play from everyone on the roster.
On the year, the Rockets have still managed to post an elite offensive rating, despite their penchant for giveaways.
But just imagine how much better they'd be if they were slightly more careful with the ball.
Jeremy Lin's injury has hurt the team by removing a primary ball-handler from the lineup, but even when he returns, the Rockets are likely to continue their free-wheeling ways. It's possible that the only way to cut down on turnovers is to slow the pace to something below "breakneck."
Given the success Houston has had so far this season, it might not be willing to make that sacrifice. But if the Rockets are serious about being championship contenders, they'd do well to consider the option.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 31.8 Percent Shooting on Corner Threes
There might not be a more highly prized shot in today's NBA than the corner three. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers have employed heavy doses of those shots in concocting elite offensive attacks.
Even less established up-and-comers like the Washington Wizards (this year's leaders in corner attempts per game) are embracing the shortest triple on the court.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, a team whose offense is otherwise terrific, simply haven't taken advantage of those precious corner threes this year. In just 4.8 attempts per game, Kevin Durant and Co. are knocking down less than a third of their tries, per NBA.com.
That's a surprisingly low number, especially when compared to the 43 percent OKC shot from the same spots last year.
The absence of Kevin Martin is a factor, and both KD and Russell Westbrook generally look to finish plays when they get into the middle rather than kicking to the corner. Overall, Oklahoma City's offense has been highly effective this season. But it's still performing about five points per 100 possessions worse than it did just a year ago.
Some regression is probably in order, but it certainly wouldn't hurt for the Thunder's dynamic scoring duo to take a look toward open teammates in the corner when they cause defenses to collapse at the rim.
Of course, you could also argue that OKC has made the corner threes that matter this year. Ask the Golden State Warriors how they feel about Westbrook casting away from that spot.
On second thought, don't.
Miami Heat: Allowing Opponents to Shoot 46.5 Percent from the Corners
The Heat have a troubling statistic that is the inverse of the one facing the Thunder. Miami is a little too generous when it comes to opponents' corner attempts.
Per NBA.com, Miami's foes have tried 142 triples from the corner this year, good for the fourth-highest total in the league. They've connected on 46.5 percent of those attempts, which ranks third in the NBA.
Miami employs more traps and blitzes on ball-handlers than anybody, and when opponents manage to escape the Heat's aggressive defensive scheme, they often get solid looks as help defenders scramble to rotate. And while it's hard to question the overall effectiveness of the Heat's defensive strategy, it's worth noting that the slightest lapses in effort often lead to disastrous results.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra had this to say after Jeff Green beat Miami with a corner three on Nov. 8, per Michael Wallace of ESPN: "I'll tell you what—we just need to cover more things. We do. We need to cover more situations. That clearly did not work. I could go on and on. You could see it. The lack of awareness, the energy, the effort."
Granted, Green's shot was a desperate one with the clock winding down. Spoelstra's comments, though, are dead on. When Miami doesn't give maximum effort behind its traps, there are plenty of high-percentage opportunities to be had.
Don't expect the Heat to stop aggressively gambling with their pick-and-roll coverages. But do anticipate that they'll tighten up their back-line defense when the games start to matter.
If they don't, they'll be in big trouble.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Allow Opponents to Shoot 65.7 Percent in Restricted Area
The Minnesota Timberwolves are good at a lot of things. They move the ball well, force the tempo better than most teams and generate easy transition hoops. But they have absolutely no idea how to stop opponents from feasting on shots at the rim.
No NBA club allows a higher field-goal percentage in the restricted area than the Wolves do, per NBA.com.
Put another way, the 65.7 percent that Minnesota allows all of its opponents to shoot at close range makes every player on the other team as devastatingly efficient from that distance as James Harden. That's a scary thought, and it should force the Timberwolves to reevaluate everything they're doing defensively.
Kevin Love rates as a break-even defender, and Nikola Pekovic is (politely) below average on that end. But it's pretty stunning that despite having that relatively imposing duo, the Wolves simply aren't deterring anybody at the rim.
Lateral quickness can't be coached, which means Love and Pekovic will have to improve their initial positioning. Don't be surprised if the Timberwolves start sagging the big man toward the middle on pick-and-roll plays in an attempt to coax guards into more pull-up shots from the mid-range area.
In addition, they might begin to focus on getting back in transition instead of crashing the offensive boards. Those points in the restricted area are also a product of fast-break buckets.
Small tweaks on the pick-and-roll would help, but the remedy suggested is something Minnesota employs to some extent already. But every little bit will help.
If the Timberwolves can't make things tougher on opponents at point-blank range, their playoff dreams could slip away.
New York Knicks: Shooting 30.3 Percent in the Clutch
A truly honest assessment of the one thing killing the New York Knicks requires almost no research. James Dolan is incinerating them, burning the Knicks to the ground with every bizarre trade and nonsensical hire.
But there's no statistic for awful ownership.
Instead, let's focus on another woeful shortcoming in New York: the team's total inability to get good looks when it matters most.
Per NBA.com, the Knicks have the lowest field-goal percentage in close-and-late situations of any team in the league. When the game is within five or fewer points and there are fewer than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Knicks can't hit water from a boat.
At 30.3 percent, no team suffers more in the clutch than New York.
Anyone who's watched the Knicks knows why, too. An offense that looks clunky to begin with devolves into a never-ending series of isolation plays down the stretch. It happens like clockwork. Defenses know they can load up on the ball-handler (usually Carmelo Anthony) with little concern for cutters or spot-up shooters, which makes getting quality looks all but impossible.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney gave a damning account of the Knicks' nail-biting 83-78 win over the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 10:
What began with a few stops gave way to Knicks panic, which predictably led to a series of ill-fated, uninspired isolation attempts for Carmelo Anthony in lieu of the offense that built the lead in the first place. To be fair, Melo only took what he was served; the greater problem was New York’s refusal to incorporate any kind of variety into those simplest of sets.
There's no credible way to argue that if the Knicks rectify this problem with better ball movement, less selfish play and maybe a few drawn-up sets once in a while, they'll suddenly be a good team. They've got plenty of other issues that stand between them and respectable basketball.
But a little less iso-ball at the end of games can only help.
Portland Trail Blazers: Forcing 13.1 Turnovers Per Game
Nobody has a bad word to say about the Portland Trail Blazers' offense, probably because it's currently the best in the league.
There are some problems on the other end, though, and the biggest defensive issue facing the Blazers is a vanilla scheme that puts almost no pressure on opponents. As a result, the Blazers have forced just 13.1 turnovers per game, the fewest in the league, per NBA.com.
Head coach Terry Stotts has made it a point to limit opponents' attempts from long range, a trend that gained popularity after the Indiana Pacers had so much success with it over the past couple of years. In his effort to curtail shots from beyond the arc, Stotts almost never allows his guards to double-team the post.
There are few better ways to generate chaos than by attacking an unsuspecting big man with a second defender. But Portland doesn't double, which means it has to rely on less effective methods to disrupt opponents' offenses.
There's plenty of length and quickness on the Blazers defense between Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, but that trio rarely gambles because of Stotts' mandate to cover perimeter shooters. Instead of clogging passing lanes and seeking out steal opportunities, Portland focuses on staying glued to its matchups and running shooters off the line.
There's something to be said for not gambling on defense. But opponents tend to get a little too comfortable against the Blazers.
That comfort level certainly hasn't led to many upsets so far, but there's going to come a time when the Blazers will have to put a little pressure on. Based on what we've seen, they may not know how to do that.