NBA Trends: Defensive Downturn, Rockets Trade Issues, Rising 2-Guards and More

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NBA Trends: Defensive Downturn, Rockets Trade Issues, Rising 2-Guards and More
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In the 2000-01 season, four teams averaged more than 100 points per game and only one team allowed more than 100 points per game.

Now, 16 teams are averaging more than 100 points per game and 17 teams are allowing more than 100 points per game (entering Thursday's play). The NBA hasn't seen anything like it since 1994-95.

The evolution picked up speed in 2004-05, when Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns went 62-20 and made it to the Western Conference Finals, finishing with an NBA-best 110.4 points per game while giving up a league-worst 103.3 points per game. Since then—except for the 2011-12 lockout season—there's mostly been a steady rise in offensive overloads and defensive deficiencies.

"I think Mike D'Antoni had the biggest impact on how the game is played since I've been around the NBA," ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Bleacher Report. "Going smaller is now common, downsizing and playing four perimeter players with one big, and everything is quick-hitting pick-and-rolls.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

"I think it's had a huge impact on not only offense, but the defenses are stretched a lot more thin. The rules are a little bit different, certainly, but I think it's Mike's influence. It's not just playing faster, because I think it's also how they spread the floor. It's just a lot harder to guard four perimeter players with one big, whereas the floor was more constricted in the past."

The last few seasons have brought about an offensive onslaught with record three-point shooting and more run-and-gun action. It all fits in with the increasing entertainment marketing of today's game experience, including the league choosing to designate only backcourt and frontcourt players in All-Star balloting.

There's no question that defending the evolving offensive style is difficult. In addition to spread half-court sets, teams are running more secondary break schemes, and there's a greater number of scoring point guards operating out of high pick-and-rolls—factors that have all made rotating on defense more challenging. But one NBA scout still notices a "lack of commitment on the defensive end."

"These are the best athletes in the world, so they can do what they want on the court," the scout said. "Some players are more gifted than others, but the bottom line is you have to want to defend."

Another NBA scout sees the same thing, even going so far as to say that "defense sucks" in today's game.

"Athleticism is what's driving the NBA, and I don't think the coaching is that smart," the scout said. "Coaching is now about ego. In order for a coach to keep his job, he will not require certain players to do certain things on defense. But if you look at the Bulls coach (Tom Thibodeau), he removes his ego completely."

One of the scouts made the point that fewer players have the benefit of three or four years of college, where they learn to play both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, NBA coaches have limited time to teach (partly due to turnover; last summer alone, there were 13 new hires), so they go with what the players know best from their AAU days and the one-and-done experience: offense.

"Many coaches have jumped on the bandwagon and said, 'Screw it. We can't guard, so let's run.' Defense is pride, but offense makes ESPN," the scout said. "I'm sure all coaches believe in defense to a certain degree, but more of them prefer to outscore opponents rather than emphasize or implement ways of slowing them down. In this league, no good team and/or player can be stopped, but they can be neutralized."

The bottom line is that the league, teams, coaches and players have all played a role in the modern-day exploding offenses. But when it matters most, Van Gundy, a defensive specialist who led the New York Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals, knows what has to happen.

"I think everybody still knows that if you don't guard, you're not going to be able to weave your way through the playoffs and win four series," he said. "I think of it this way: The best-balanced teams are still going to win. If you're well balanced, you've got a shot. There are very few teams that have enough talent to be well balanced."

 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

10 other insider observations from around the league

1. Three possible reasons why the Houston Rockets can't complete a trade

This past weekend, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ClutchFans, "The window to trade (Omer Asik) was (in December), and teams weren’t aggressive enough to get him." The question is: Why couldn't the Rockets find a trade partner?

The biggest ongoing reason Asik and Jeremy Lin—the Rockets' two biggest trading chips—haven't been moved is that each has a backloaded, roughly $15 million salary next season. Most teams are not going to mortgage their franchise like that for non-All-Stars. Also, while Asik is a solid player, small ball rules the league these days.

The Rockets need an elite two-way point guard and would likely love to trade Lin and Asik to Boston for Rajon Rondo. But why would the Celtics want to move him now that he's healthy, especially when they have a nice young core to build around him, are under the luxury tax and plan to have a high draft pick this summer?

Another reason not in the Rockets' favor could be that some GMs who don't want to work in the public eye have been turned off by the team being open about Asik's availability and the prospect of negotiations making it to the press.

The third factor: The reluctance to deal with Houston could be payback to the Rockets from the Dwight Howard free-agency saga last summer. Two NBA agents close to the team offered their perspectives.

One said, "Teams want Houston to sit there and suffer because they weren't in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and because (there was some boasting) from the Rockets (within league circles) about how they were going to win now that they've got Dwight. So (teams are) like, 'We're not going to help you out. Let Houston sit there and lose in the first round or the second round.' Teams are like that at this point, and it's motivated because of (Howard)."

Another said, "They have arrogance in Houston. So that plays a part in how things are not progressing."

 

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

2. Where the Thunder have a major advantage looking ahead

Their mid-range game features Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Percentage-wise, they are tops in the league from 10-14 feet (.454) and tied for No. 4 from 15-19 feet (.432).

While they're a quieter and less accurate three-point shooting team (36.1 percent), the Thunder can get hot from distance. (They have nine games with at least 10 threes, including Wednesday night against the Miami Heat.) But with Durant and Westbrook (when he returns from injury), the Thunder have arguably the best one-two punch in the league for mid-range scoring. And Ibaka continues to evolve as an outside shooter. Their similar skill opens up even more space in grind-out half-court games that determine playoff wins.

Van Gundy knows it's needed, as well.

"I do think the one thing that I'm interested to see more and more is can you win it all with a heavy emphasis on only three shots—layups, free throws and threes?" he said. "Can that hold up in the playoffs? Do you have to have a little bit less reliance on the three to win it all? I'm interested to see how that evolves."

 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

3. What could Nick Young's market be this summer?

An NBA agent close to the Los Angeles Lakers said it's "very possible" it could be between $6 million and $8 million for 2014-15.

"He's helped himself out tremendously," the agent said. "Two-guards are a premium in this league."

Young, who's averaging 16.9 points per game, has a $1.2 million player option for next season, and he will undoubtedly decline. Young has improved his defense—Synergy Sports calls him an "excellent" isolation stopper—and he's having his best shooting campaign since 2010-11.

Except for Klay Thompson, who's on the third season of his rookie-scale contract, the best shooting guards in the league all make above $6 million per season: James Harden (23.7 points per game), Paul George (23.3), DeMar DeRozan (21.8), Arron Afflalo (20), Monta Ellis (19.4), Kevin Martin (19.3) and Thompson (18.9). Young follows in eighth place in points per game.

 

J Pat Carter/Associated Press

4. Speaking of premium 2-guards...

The Toronto Raptors' DeRozan has taken a big step forward in January, averaging 23.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He's attacking the basket a lot better (6.5-of-8.4 from the foul line) and catapulting to the top of the shooting guard class.

"DeMar works his a-- off, and he's one of the toughest covers at his position in the league right now," said NBA agent Bernie Lee, who lives in Toronto and follows the Raptors closely. "This year, he's started shooting the three, which has opened everything up. He's a good one."

A key for DeRozan with his enhanced driving ability has been his tighter handle—he focused on that and shooting last summer with his personal instructor Chris Farr, now an assistant and player development coach for the Denver Nuggets. DeRozan appears to be weaving through traffic with more creativity and control. In fact, he plays at a steady pace—it almost feels like he slows down the game, making it look easy to play—and he has great balance with his body. You see that in his footwork with spin moves and turnaround jumpers, making the move smoothly and then going straight up for the shot attempt.

DeRozan has also gotten smarter scoring closer to the basket, which has led to more of those free-throw attempts. He's taking an extra dribble to get deeper in the paint, where he's not simply looking to recklessly dunk over opponents like he did when he was younger. He utilizes more ball fakes to get defenders to jump and commit the foul. Also, out of the baseline corner—especially the left one, where he's shooting 47 percent—he's become a pro at knowing how to fake out his defender with quick off-direction cuts when a screen is about to be set.

And then defensively, he's become more committed in his fifth season in the league. He's playing passing lanes well—he's averaging a career-high 1.2 steals per game—and his speed enables him to be a one-man fast break.

While DeRozan suffered a minor sprained left foot/ankle over the weekend, he's not expected to miss a great chunk of time. When he returns soon, his ascension will help fuel the Raptors' continued success this season, as they're currently trailing only the Heat and Indiana Pacers in the East standings.

"DeMar has worked hard every offseason on what it will take for him to get better in the league each year," his agent, Aaron Goodwin, said. "I am not surprised with his rise because I have always known that he has the talent."

 

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

5. How are the Chicago Bulls still hanging in?

Two words: Thibodeau and Joakim Noah. ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell, who covers the 23-22 team without the injured Derrick Rose and the traded-away Luol Deng, said, "They are the two guys that make it go." And it all starts with their tireless work ethic and dedication to defense, which is contagious to the rest of the guys.

This month, the Bulls are 11-4, and they've maintained their ability to make stops. Their opponents' 92.8 points per game rank second in the league behind the Pacers' figure (90.2). Like Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan, Noah is a defensive anchor who represents one of the best interior clogs in the game today. The San Antonio Spurs are fifth in points per game allowed (96.8).

Regarding the Bulls' future, something that's been brought up lately (such as in this Yahoo! Sports report from Adrian Wojnarowski) is Carmelo Anthony's chances of ending up in Chicago this summer. The Bulls have the cap space and the All-NBA point guard sidekick (Rose) Anthony has been mostly missing in his career. While it might be tough to convince Anthony to play with an injury-prone point guard—he's been dealing with that already in New York—the scenario seems unlikely for other reasons.

From an NBA agent close to the Knicks, Anthony is "too Hollywood" to play in Chi-Town. "He wants to play in New York or Los Angeles," the agent said. And a source close to Anthony said that "he likes the big market" for hoops and lifestyle. And Friedell said the Bulls wouldn't trade Noah, Taj Gibson, much-coveted 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic and picks to the Knicks.

But could Anthony, who's ball-dominant and not a consistent defender, fit into Thibodeau's demanding and team-oriented system? Friedell believes so.

"Thibs always finds a way," he said.

 

6. What could be behind Stephen Curry's three-point-shooting dip?

The Golden State Warriors' first-time All-Star point guard has a career .436 percentage from three-point range, but this season? Just .393 (.367 from the corner and .401 from above the break).

Lin's renowned shooting coach, Doc Scheppler, who lives in the Bay Area and watches a lot of Warriors games, has the following observations of Curry's long-ball shooting.

"From what I see, it's a combination of really high-difficulty shots and just having to work harder to get his looks," he said. "He'll rush his shot or fade more or have to put a higher arc to not get it blocked. Some nights, he can hit those shots, but not on a high-percentage basis. Then you throw in leg fatigue at this stage of the season, his legs aren't as fresh."

An NBA scout added, "He gets in a hurry at times, which is why he has so many turnovers (a career-high 4.2 per game). But when he's hot, he's on fire." That was the case on Sunday, when he was 5-of-8 from downtown to cap off a 38-point night in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

The scout also noted the evolution in Curry's overall game, saying, "I'd say he's just a more well-rounded basketball player now." This season, he's averaging 9.2 assists per game—up from his 6.6 career average.

Looking ahead, the 27-19 Warriors, who currently hold the No. 7 spot in the West, need more bench production—and they have the scorers to make that happen in Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore and recent acquisition Jordan Crawford. Their second unit is currently averaging 23 points per game (worst in the league).

 

Paul Bereswill/Associated Press

7. The real BrooklyKnight is...

Nets point guard Shaun Livingston. Since he became the starter at the beginning of the new year—replacing the injured Deron Williams—the team has been the fourth-best defensive team in the league (93.3 points per game allowed). Before January 1, the Nets were giving up 102.4 points per game (seventh worst).

Through the Nets' 10-2 mark this month, Livingston, with his height (6'7"), wingspan (6'11") and pick-and-roll defensive skills—awareness, positioning, quick reaction time and communication with his backside big man defender—has kept opposing point guards in check. Make that 37.3 percent shooting (62-of-166) against him.

Livingston is also long and disruptive enough on the ball to guard multiple positions—ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo, who covers the Nets, noted his standout play guarding Kevin Durant on January 2—and he's in all of the team's top-five defensive two-man lineups.

 

8. Big Al thriving under first-season Charlotte Bobcats coaching

Behind his 22.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game averages in January—including 35 points and 11 rebounds on Wednesday night—center Al Jefferson said, first and foremost, he's healthy.

"That was the big key for me, man," he said inside the Bobcats' practice center last week. "Getting hurt in preseason, it took a long time for that process to heal and get in shape. It was kind of tough, but now I'm kind of getting my legs back under me. My ankle is feeling a lot better. It's going pretty good."

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Beyond that, Jefferson raved about head coach Steve Clifford and assistant Patrick Ewing. Regarding Clifford, Jefferson said when Kemba Walker recruited him last summer to come to Charlotte, he wasn't really sold on the team until he met with his future sideline boss. Clifford told Jefferson he could be one of the best defensive centers in the game while highlighting offensive plays that worked for Howard in Orlando. (Clifford was an assistant there when the Magic went to the 2009 NBA Finals.)

"Cliff teaches me a lot," Jefferson said. "It was some of the plays off the ball (he used with Howard)."

Jefferson moved on to the topic of Ewing—a player he "grew up on." In fact, Jefferson said, "Sometimes I forget, 'Wow, that's Patrick Ewing.' Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm working with one of the best."

Like Clifford, Jefferson said Ewing has given him a lot of confidence.

"That's one of the relationships that got tight from day one," Jefferson said. "He believed in me. He said that he felt like I could be a superstar in this league, but I've got to do it on both ends. He's one of those guys that I know he's going to tell me something I don't want to hear, but it's the truth. We watch the film. He's helped me improve my game."

With Jefferson stepping up his play this month, the Bobcats slightly improved in points per game, from 92.5 before the new year to 97.3 since then. So how does Jefferson go to work? He starts in the post usually by extending the ball palmed in one of his big hands out from his body to keep the defense guessing.

"It's an advantage when you have big hands, man," he said. "A lot of guys can't palm that ball."

The Bobcats run a good number of backdoor plays, and Jefferson sees the court well to find the cutting man. He had seven assists in a win over the Raptors on January 20. When he makes a move, he said he utilizes one of three moves: the jump hook, drop step or up-and-under. He said he has to be craftier now that he's 29 years old, and he said some of the moves he comes up with even "shock" himself.

"Now, I'm not athletic like I used to be, so I use the ball fake and get those guys jumping, man," he said. "That's how I make my move and then my jumper has improved, so they have to respect the outside jumper. If not, I'm going to ball fake them and go by them or post them up. So I try to give them some of the different options."

Overall, while the Bobcats have the sixth-best defense—97.2 points per game allowed; they were second worst last season—they still need to improve offensively. Clifford and Rod Higgins, the Bobcats' president of basketball operations, said they need a "range shooter" to spread the court better. They're currently second worst in three-pointers made (262), and sometimes they struggle to create space to score, which eats up a lot of the shot clock. Expect the Bobcats to be active before the February 20 trade deadline.

 

9. Stay tuned from China...

With the Chinese Basketball Association season wrapping up in mid-February, there are six names to watch for who could sign prorated minimum contracts in the NBA at that time, according to two NBA agents. That list: point guards Bobby Brown, Jonathan Gibson and Pooh Jeter (who all starred in the prestigious Drew League last summer; Gibson was the MVP), shooting guard Dominique Jones and big men Ivan Johnson and Randolph Morris.

Entering Saturday's play, here were their points per game averages: Brown (31.5), Gibson (31.2), Jones (27.7), Morris (27.6), Jeter (26.6) and Johnson (25.8). Brown, who was close to signing a one-year minimum deal with the Knicks last fall, scored 74 points in a game. Except for Gibson, the others played sparingly in the NBA in the past, and most of them have some league interest looking ahead. While Johnson, who played for the Atlanta Hawks from 2011-13, has the most NBA interest from four teams, the point guards could have a tougher time finalizing deals.

"All three are well suited to being the man in that (CBA) setting, but I don't know if they fit what (NBA) teams look for in a backup point guard," one of the agents said. "They are too scoring-heavy."

 

10. Hey, I'm Bogdan Bogdanovic, not Bojan

While one European star (Bojan) still has draft rights with the Nets from 2011—he couldn't reach a buyout with his Turkish team, Fenerbahce Ulker, last summer—another Bogdan (not related) is an emerging draft prospect.

"Bogdanovic is the guy who has been the hot name lately Euro-wise," an NBA agent said.

DraftExpress has the 21-year-old Bogdanovic, who's a 6'6", 200-pound shooting guard, pegged to go in the late first round this June. Here's what DraftExpress has to say about him: 

Bogdan Bogdanovic is in the midst of a breakout season in his draft-eligible year. ... Bogdanovic has taken advantage of an injury to Partizan's starting point guard, Leo Westermann, to take on a much more prominent role in his team's offense as a primary ball-handler and facilitator. He's showcasing impressive versatility, leading the team in points, assists, blocks and usage, all while shooting 40 percent from three-point range thus far.

Another NBA agent, however, doesn't think he'll be a sleeper pick this summer, because of past European drafting history in the NBA.

"Just look at the sheer percentage of drafted Europeans that don't work out in the NBA system," the agent said. "Everyone is chasing the next Dirk (Nowitzki) or (Manu) Ginobili. But they are few and far between—their motor, ability to put in extra work and fitting the system the NBA team is running, and the minutes and efficiency the player does early on. There are ways around the athleticism with high IQ play."

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Stats via NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

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