Lakers spacing, Cavs defense and more early NBA takeaways

Los Angeles Lakers, NBA

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With just a handful of NBA games played, we’re already seeing a baseline emerge for trends like the Lakers spacing, Cavs defense and more.

With most teams only having one or two games under their belt, it’s difficult to say anything for certain. So, to avoid any brash generalizations, we will offer a few observations worth keeping tabs on as the season progresses.

No Jalen Brunson, no problem

With the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, and New Orleans Pelicans all re-introducing their star players who missed the entirety of the 2021-22 campaign, the Dallas Mavericks were cited by some as a candidate for regression in the loaded Western Conference.

As you’ll recall, the Mavericks lost Jalen Brunson (arguably their second-best player last year) for ‘nothing’ in free agency this offseason. However, the beautiful thing about basketball is that you almost never lose a player without getting the opportunity to replace their production.

In this case, filling Brunson’s void will likely be a two-man job, but if Game 1 is any indication, those two players — Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie — are up for the task.

Brunson’s two largest contributions last year were his scoring (second on the team in points per game) and ability to masquerade as Luka Doncic when the Slovenian left the floor.

Wood (a 17.9-point-per-game scorer last year) looks primed to handle the first department. In his Mavericks debut, he dropped 25 points (on only 15 shot attempts), including a mesmerizing 16-point run where he flashed every iota of his inside-out scoring game:

Meanwhile, Dinwiddie has already demonstrated the ability to orchestrate Luka-ball lite in the past, and he only reinforced that sentiment when Doncic was on the bench for the first six minutes of the second quarter. During that stretch, Dallas extended its eight-point lead to 17, with Dinwiddie contributing 10 points in that span.

One other note, with Brunson no longer in the fold, the Mavericks are incredibly tall. Of the nine players who saw minutes against the Suns, no one was shorter than 6-foot-5.

The Cavs defense will be good

Many fans tuned in to the Cleveland Cavaliers season opener versus the Toronto Raptors with hopes of seeing how the new backcourt dynamic between Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell would play out. Unfortunately, that experience ended quickly as an eye laceration in the second quarter sidelined Garland for the remainder of the contest.

What we did get a glimpse into was the other overarching question around the team, how will the defense hold up with two smaller guards spearheading the attack?

Fortunately for Cleveland, guard defense is not nearly as consequential as paint protection (we’ll dive into this later in the season). And they are all squared away in that regard as long as Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen don a Cavaliers’ uniform.

Thanks to the tandem’s interior defense, guards can press up on their matchups because if the ballhandler manages to get by them, they have premium coverage on the backline.

But what makes their funneling tactics different from the one’s the Utah Jazz formerly deployed with Rudy Gobert is that there are two of them, so not only do they clean up the guards’ mistakes, but they also clean up each other’s:

In the 21 minutes they shared on the floor in Game 1, the new-age Twin Towers quarterbacked a defensive rating of 106.9 (per PBP Stats). That mark would have tied for first in the entire NBA last season.

Is Matisse Thybulle the odd man out in Philadelphia?

A handful of analysts have pinpointed the Philadelphia 76ers as the team to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this season. And while much of that forecasting is based on the visibility of superstar pairing Joel Embiid and James Harden, this team also boasts a great deal of depth.

The 76ers flashed this depth in their opening battle with the Boston Celtics. In the first quarter alone, Coach Doc Rivers subbed in five different players from off the bench.

The last of those five was fourth-year guard Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle only saw 20.3 seconds that quarter and twenty-four seconds total for the entire game. In the following game, he received the dreaded DNP-CD.

This matters because Thybulle is a reigning two-time All-Defensive Team selection who is less than a year removed from his nationally broadcasted superstar shutdown showcase on Stephen Curry.

Thybulle is one of the premier perimeter stoppers and defensive playmakers, but his offensive woes make it difficult for him to stay on the floor against high-level competition. Do injuries give him a second chance with Philadelphia, does he fight his way into the rotation through improvement, or does the team and Thybulle simply part ways at the deadline or in the offseason?

New year, new Julius Randle?

After bursting onto the scene in 2020-21, last year was a step in the wrong direction for Julius Randle. Most of his struggles were outside of his control (he was likely miscast as an offensive number one), but he also tended to be his own worst enemy at times.

One of the major improvements Randle made during his breakout campaign in 2020-21 was in his passing. His ability to set up teammates with kick outs or laydowns whenever he drew a second defender was a lethal tool in his cache of offensive weapons. However, last season, he got away from this approach, often opting for heavily contested jumpers (like this) instead of trusting his teammates.

This change is illustrated when you look at the trend of his year-to-year output in Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale):

*Data Provided by Backpicks.com

Notice the stark decline from 2020-21 to 2021-22?

The good news is that early returns signal a bounce-back season may be in the cards for Randle. Against the Memphis Grizzlies, he rang up six assists and, in the process, demonstrated a level of poise, patience, and decision-making that was often missing last season.

Lakers are spacing better, now they need their opponents to notice

A maxim applicable to many sports: great offenses space the court, and great defenses shrink it.

The Los Angeles Lakers have (finally) identified the importance of the former portion of that sentiment and have made spacing a priority in their offense. In the halfcourt, the Lakers align in a 4-out, 1-in formation. Like this:

The problem is great offensive spacing requires two attributes — 1) the physical act of spacing the floor properly and 2) the personnel to make the defense react to your spacing.

As the screenshot above illustrates, the Lakers are getting the hang of attribute one. The problem is meeting the criteria necessary to fulfill attribute two. To explain, let’s see how the rest of this sequence plays out:

Los Angeles was set up to, theoretically, stretch the Golden State Warriors’ defense, but as we know, theory doesn’t also translate to practice. None of the three ‘shooters’ the Lakers had on the court were enough of a threat to make Golden State flinch, and the result is a wave of obstacles between LeBron James and the basket.

The Lakers as a whole have struggled from downtown, converting on just 19 of their 85 attempts through two games (22.4 percent), a number they will surely need to improve if they ever want to cash in on their spacing.

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