Five storylines that could define the season
Nearly a quarter of the way through the year, here are five things to keep an eye on
1) The Suns, tilting the math
There have been loads of exciting storylines to follow this season, from the rise of new powers like the Timberwolves, Thunder, and Magic to the integration of new stars for the Clippers and Bucks.
The Suns were supposed to be in that latter category, but Bradley Beal’s injuries have prevented him from appearing in all but three games this season. So it’s gone chiefly unremarked upon that the Suns, under new coach Frank Vogel, have tilted the math in a positive direction while going 11-7, including 7-3 in their last ten matches.
In the Chris Paul era, the Suns were famously midrange-heavy, something the addition of Kevin Durant only exacerbated. They finished dead last in the league in shot attempts at the rim for three straight years, and while they fired up an average-ish number of three-point attempts, their lack of aggression also meant they never shot free throws. Essentially, the team’s offense lived and (too often) died by the fifteen-foot jumper.
This year, though, we’ve seen some positive twists. The Suns are up to 21st in the league in rim attempts — not anything to pop champagne over, but a notable improvement. More excitingly, though, they went from a bottom-six free throw team for three straight years to second this year! They are getting about six more points each game from free throws than before, a major reason for their offensive success.
Kevin Durant is attempting 20% of his shots at the rim — not a huge number, but higher than he’s had since his last year in Golden State. His dunks have also been at their highest per-game rate since then. It’s been a while since we saw him look so mean:
Whatever you want to say about Jusuf Nurkic, who has had an, um, up-and-down start to his Phoenix tenure, his passing has opened up new cutting lanes for Durant:
Relatedly, Durant is averaging more free throw attempts per game than he has since the 2013-2014 season, when he was still in Oklahoma City!
Devin Booker is averaging a career-high in charity stripe appearances, too (8.2 per game). Bradley Beal will return eventually, and he’s traditionally been aggressive going to the hoop and drawing freebies.
The team still doesn’t shoot an abundance of threes, but substituting two-point jumpers for rim attacks and free throws is a fantastic way to buoy an offense, particularly in the playoffs. They are already a top-five offense without Beal; it’s hard to imagine they don’t have another level to reach with him.
2) Rudy Gobert, the forcefield
People buried Gobert early last year, when he was a step slow and out of sorts on both ends as a Timberwolf. It was easy to dunk on Minnesota for trading an enormous basket of assets for a 30-year-old center with notable (if overstated) playoff struggles who appeared on the decline. But like a zombie movie post-credits stinger, Gobert stuck his hand out of the dirt, lightning flashing in the background, and started climbing back to relevance toward the end of last season.
This year, it’s safe to say that Rudy is back. A full offseason to figure stuff out with his teammates and coaches has resuscitated the drive-repelling force who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
The easiest stat to point at: lineups with Gobert have allowed a paltry 24.4% of shot attempts at the rim, lower than any team in the league averages overall…except Golden State (which, yikes!). Essentially, Gobert’s presence turns every opponent into the 2022 Suns… except few of them are equipped with the shooters those Suns teams had, resulting in Minnesota’s league-best defense.
That 24.4% is also vastly lower than last year’s figure of 31.3%. While it’s not all due to Rudy’s improvement and cohesion with his teammates, his individual play has been phenomenal and deserves the bulk of the credit. There’s no reason to think this is particularly fluky, either, and the number doesn’t change much when Gobert is paired with fellow giant Karl-Anthony Towns.
Here’s another fun stat: Gobert is allowing just 49.2% shooting at the rim, one of the best marks in the league…but he’s contesting only 6.7 shots at that location. For a guy who almost always patrols the paint, that number is low. But opponents are once again legitimately terrified to shoot when Gobert looms. Gobert provides both rim protection and rim deterrence, a rarer combination than you might think.
(Pistons’ rookie Jalen Duren leads the league in allowing an insanely low 44.1% shooting at the rim! There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Detroit, but Duren’s defensive development has been phenomenal.)
Gobert has even developed a nice counter when opponents try to drag him out to the perimeter: jumping the passing lanes! He’s been aggressive in denying passes at the three-point line and in the high post, and he has had some legitimately shocking coast-to-coast steals and (sometimes) slams:
The Wolves’ defense was always going to be the way forward for them, but few expected it to be this good. I picked Minnesota to finish third in the West to start the season, and they’ve surpassed even my expectations. I can’t wait to see what they look like in the playoff crucible.
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