Busting Myths About Rockets, Spurs, Kemba Walker & DeAndre Ayton

Be careful believing everything you read…

Fallacies make their way through the airwaves of NBA coverage. Whether it is talking heads on television or the profit-grabbing fake headlines that inundate the Internet, actual analysis is often overlooked and even forgotten.

What develops, as a result, is a group of myths or false narratives that even smart basketball fans tend to believe and follow. In sticking with our mission at The Basketball Writers to #ElevateTheConversation, let’s dispel a few of those myths.

1. Mike D’Antoni’s scheme has the Houston Rockets playing fast

The “pace” metric is easy to understand: the number of possessions a team can generate over a 48-minute stretch. The faster a team shoots the ball in a possession and the quicker they can force their opponent to do so, the greater the number of possessions they will have.

But the metric measures purpose rather than result.

A team does not have to be effective at scoring or defending to play with pace; they just have to be willing to push the tempo.

Since Mike D’Antoni was in Phoenix and revolutionized fast-paced offenses, the mantra has stuck. Now it is easy to assume that his teams continue to play at a high pace.

But the league has caught up.

This season, the Rockets are 29th in league-wide pace. Last year, they were only 13th.

There are many reasons those numbers change. For one, the rest of the league is playing faster, as pace records leap higher on an annual basis. The style the Rockets are employing on both ends of the court is also an indicator.

With James Harden and Chris Paul as fantastic creators and one-on-one players, the Rockets are leading the league in isolations by a staggering margin. According to Synergy Sports, 17.7 percent of Houston possessions end with an isolation. The next closest team, the Brooklyn Nets, are at 10.2 percent, and only seven teams are above eight percent. Houston is crushing teams in isolations via the spacing their lineups and offensive structure afford. They average 1.072 points per possession out of isos, also tops in the NBA.

Isolations take time to develop. Harden and CP3 are both deliberate and lull opponents to sleep with their dribble moves. That results in slow possessions, where Houston is top-three in league efficiency and frequency of late shot clock attempts. They just let their two-headed superstars play in space:

Defensively, the Rockets switch nearly every screen or action with their first group. That behavior encourages teams to attack mismatches and play through isolations, which also lends itself to a slower brand of basketball. Houston’s pace numbers are not going to be high if they are frequently running isolations on both ends of the court.

The Rockets still lead the league in 3-point attempts and give up the fewest to opponents. Those numbers are a more significant indication of D’Antoni-esque basketball than anything pace-oriented. As the percentages continue to climb in their favor, it should propel them back towards the West’s upper echelon.

2. The Spurs are losing because they do not shoot enough threes

Gregg Popovich does not like the way the league is trending in regards to the 3-ball. His Spurs are dead last in NBA three-point attempts as he tries to curtail his team’s usage of the long shot in the face of the prevailing high-volume trend.

With the Spurs hovering at or just below .500 from the start of the season, many are beginning to wonder: Is it possible to even win games in the modern NBA without making a ton of long balls? And is Pop’s rugged disenchantment with the style really dooming San Antonio?

Evidence seems to run contrary to that notion. The Spurs are second in three-point percentage and make nearly ten a game. Their offense is once again top 10 in offensive rating.

Perhaps it is not offense and their lack of shooting that is plaguing them.

More accurately, San Antonio has struggled out of the gates due to their defense. San Antonio is last in transition defensive effectiveness, and they are struggling against the pick-and-roll as well. Those two areas can hurt a team, giving away easy opportunities in transition while failing to curtail the league’s most frequent action.

Sliding LaMarcus Aldridge to the center position full-time has led to some growing pains. The Spurs are figuring things out and have won four of their last five. So, before we write them off as dead in the water—too old or failing to evolve with the rest of the league—let’s make sure we know precisely what has been causing their rough start.

3. Kemba Walker is on the trading block

Kemba Walker wants to stay in Charlotte.

Dec 5, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) reacts during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Read the plethora of mainstream media articles about NBA trades, and Kemba’s name will come up frequently. A year ago, he was reportedly on the trade block as the Charlotte Hornets fielded calls regarding their star point guard on a team-friendly deal. That deal is about to run out, as he hits the free agent market this summer and expects a big payday.

The frustrating part: Walker is not even the headline-grabber in most trade rumor pieces, an absolute joke for a point guard who has been playing at an All-Star level.

Numerous fake trade posts get published online each day, most of which include deals that are not even feasible due to the cap restrictions on teams. Others write about the best trade assets, dream up superteams or look at swaps through only one team’s perspective.

Let’s look at things through Charlotte’s perspective: They are 14-15 and tops in the Southeast Division, seventh in the East. They are third in the East in scoring, despite a lack of recognizable star players next to Walker. Charlotte is not in that bad of a place financially. If the salary cap for next season ends up at its projected $109 million mark, Mitch Kupchak will have just over $34 million before he reaches the luxury tax, and only a few key players (Kemba and Jeremy Lamb) hitting free agency. Combine that with their own draft pick, and the Hornets should be fine to teeter on the tax line and still field a solid team.

Better yet, Kemba himself openly states his interest to remain in the Queen City versus joining a superteam or contender. Averaging 25 points and 6 assists per game, he has single-handedly turned the Hornets into the top team in their division. With Washington, Miami, and Orlando all floundering, the Southeast remains ripe for the picking. Perhaps we need to start thinking about Charlotte trying to surround Kemba long-term rather than using him as a high-value trade chip to reset their salary cap situation.

January’s schedule is tough on Charlotte. They have a six-game West Coast trip, and other road contests at Milwaukee, Indiana, Boston and Memphis. If their record and status in the Eastern Conference change, then Walker’s name might end up back on the trade block. For now, he’s the best player on a solid team in the playoff hunt. Those guys rarely get moved during the season.

4. DeAndre Ayton is a bust and a bad defender

Amidst the shambles of the Phoenix Suns season, first overall pick DeAndre Ayton has been crucified on Twitter simply because he isn’t playing at a Luke Doncic-type level. (We may not need much more evidence to say the Suns made the wrong selection than pointing to how spectacular Doncic has been in Dallas).

What that does not mean, however, is that Ayton is bad by any standard or a bust of a first overall pick.

Ayton is averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists through the first 30 games of his NBA career. If those numbers hold, Ayton will become one of three rookies to accomplish such a line over the last twenty-five years. The others: Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan. Ayton is shooting a fantastic 59 percent from the floor as well.

The knock on Ayton has been both his defensive impact and the defensive measurables. As cliche as it sounds, most rookie big men struggle to defend at a high level in the NBA, and Ayton is no exception. When it comes to the measurables, the advanced statistics actually bear in his favor: Ayton has a higher Defensive BPM than Offensive BPM, evidence of a player that makes a greater impact defensively than the other end. The Suns are putrid defensively but are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with Ayton than without.

Combine those factors and Ayton likely is not the root of the issues in Phoenix. The Suns have lacked anything resembling perimeter defense for much of the year. Suns guards are poor at fighting through or recovering off ball screens, often allowing other teams to force a switch. Luckily, Ayton is agile and understands how to use angles and his length. He makes some high-caliber individual defensive plays to mask the shortcomings of his teammates:

The Suns have been running “ice” coverage on side-ball screens, which means the man guarding the ball tries to jump with his chest to the sideline and prevent the ball from approaching the middle of the floor. The one problem: Phoenix guards are not tight at getting to the spot in a timely fashion, which gives scorers a one-on-one window to attack Ayton downhill.

Thus far, he’s been solid in those situations, mirroring the ball with his hands and using his length to deter shots. Opposing offenses routinely change the screen’s angle to encourage a rim attack against Ayton and take Phonix guards out of the equation:

Centers are just expected to do one job in these situations: make guards’ finishes as difficult as possible. Ayton is checking that box.

At the very least, he has demonstrated All-Star potential as a great finisher, an exceptional athlete and a tenacious rebounder. The position he plays is evolving and quickly. Evaluating his defensive merits is difficult when surrounded by a slew of sieves, but Ayton has proven on several occasions to be adequate at guarding the ball. The rest of the anchor and rim protection minutia will come eventually.

He’s been far too good to even be considered a bust.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 16, 2018.

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