Monday’s Musings: Cleveland’s Waning Defense, the Fire of Stephen Curry, Rockets Injury Issues

Monday Musings is a weekly look at the previous week’s NBA action

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Cleveland’s Waning Defense

The Cleveland Cavaliers have an offense that is capable of keeping up with just about anyone, and they’re going to get even better with Isaiah Thomas returning. Their offensive rating is 111.0, which is tied for the third-best in the league.

On the other hand, their defensive rating is 108.5, which is tied for the third-worst in the league. After a terrible start, it looked like they were going to work things out, but they’re relapsing again, giving up 110.5 points per 100 possessions over their last eight games, and they’ve gone 3–5 as a result.

The main reason — they’re just giving up too many easy points, as they’re tied for second-worst in opponent’s effective field-goal percentage in that span and fourth-worst over the course of the season. That might have something to do with being 24th in contested shots per game and 23rd in deflections per game. Both are indications of not doing much to disrupt what the opponents are doing.

The best way to improve defense might be to actually — you know — defend.

The Fire of Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry has been blistering since his return, and he’s looking a lot like the 2015–16 version who was the first unanimous MVP.

Here are some insane numbers for you.

In the four games since he returned, he’s scored 144 points — most in the NBA — ahead of DeMar DeRozan’s 132. Yet, he’s tied for 53rd in minutes (127), seventh in field-goal attempts (with LeBron James and Goran Dragic at 77), and ninth in free throw attempts.

That’s because his efficiency has been crazy. He’s shooting 58.4 percent from the field, 53.8 percent on three-pointers, and 89.7 percent from the charity stripe. He’s nailed 28-of-52 3-point tries. His true shooting percentage is 80.2.

The Warriors’ offensive rating with him on the court is 128.9 with a net rating 20.9.

When Steph is shooting like this, the Warriors are just impossible to defend, which is why he might be the most impactful offensive player in the NBA.

The Thunder’s Resurgent Offense

The Oklahoma City Thunder offense might be coming around. Over the last 10 games, in fact, they have a 116.8 offensive rating, which leads the NBA over that stretch. They’re 7–3 over that time and are working their way into the position to battle the Minnesota Timberwolves for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

That’s the good news. But the problems is that teams they’ve been playing are hardly a who’s who in the NBA’s best defensive squads. Over that same span, the Lakers are 29th in DRtg; the depleted Rockets are 28th, the Mavericks are 27th, the Jazz (three times) are 26th, and the Bucks are 21st. The only team they played with a top-10 defense is the Raptors (10th) who were playing the second end of a back-to-back with both games on the road.

I’m not saying there’s not some offensive improvement. They’re figuring some things out — chiefly that things are better when they let Russell Westbrook just be Russ and play on his instincts. They’re using Paul George a lot better off the ball, and Carmelo Anthony has been less awful.

But we still need to see what that all looks like against a challenging defense. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The Untankers

With all the hoopla about tanking, I have to appreciate the fight the actual players on bad teams are showing.

The Chicago Bulls finish a portion of their schedule tonight that is straight form the bowels of hell. Since Dec. 21, they’ve played 10 games — nine of which have been against teams with winning records; tonight will their 11th. That’s more games than anyone in that stretch.

In fact, they’ve played as many games against winning teams as anyone else has played games in that stretch. The most recent of those two games were a back-to-back, on the road, with them crossing a time zone in the second.

In spite of that, the Bulls have gone 4–6 through the first 10 games. Not bad for a team that is “tanking.” And they’re not alone. The Dallas Mavericks put together a recent four-game winning streak. The Sacramento Kings are getting some things figured out, as well, while the Phoenix Suns just beat the Thunder.

Front offices might tank, but players don’t. It’s good to see the dredges of the league fighting instead of worrying about lottery balls.

The Rockets Injuries Piling Up

The Houston Rockets can’t seem to catch a break; no sooner does one player get better than another one goes down. The latest injury is the biggest one yet, with James Harden going down for two to four weeks.

Harden was running away with the MVP award when he got hurt, and you don’t do that if you don’t have a lot of value. That’s the downside of having an MVP candidate on your roster — they’re critical to the team’s success.

This situation also indicates the snowball effect of a short rotation and injuries. Players get hurt, which causes the already short rotation to get shorter, which means that the remaining rotation players log more minutes, which increases the chance they get hurt, and when they do, just perpetuates the cycle.

If coaches want to avoid injuries, one thing that could help is expanding the rotation. There just isn’t a lot of history of teams with eight and nine-man rotations avoiding them.

I don’t know how much this will affect the long-term outlook for the Rockets this year. They were looking like the easy challenger for the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Now it’s going to take some doing just for the to stave off the San Antonio Spurs for the №2 seed.

The schedule is fairly favorable for Houston before they play Golden State on Jan. 20, which is the mid-way point on Harden’s timeline. If they can get him and Luc Mbah a Moute back in the next two or three weeks, they can (hopefully) get everyone back and healthy at the same time.

That is if no one else gets hurt between now and then.



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Kelly Scaletta

I write for several outlets as an NBA analyst, including Bleacher Report, FanRag, Dime, BBallBreadown and RealBallInsiders. My political views are my own.