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December 24, 2009
So This is Christmas
Previewing the NBA's Holiday Matchups

by Kevin Pelton

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For the second straight season, the NBA will unleash a veritable feast of holiday basketball tomorrow with five nationally televised games on Christmas Day. Basketball Prospectus breaks down the storylines and trends in each game. Note that all stats are through games of Dec. 22, though records are current.

Noon E.T., ESPN - Miami Heat (14-12) at New York Knicks (11-17)

Adjusted Point Differential: Miami -0.4 (15th), New York -2.9 (21st)
Offensive Ratings: Miami 110.2 (10th), New York 107.7 (18th)
Defensive Ratings: Miami 108.5 (17th), New York 110.1 (21st)
Pace: Miami 89.6 (25th), New York 93.1 (8th)

Sadly, Pat Riley will be watching from the seats and Jeff Van Gundy will be in L.A. when the Heat and Knicks rekindle what was one of the league's better--albeit not most aesthetically pleasing--rivalries of the late 1990s. This might be called the "Waiting for Next Year" bowl, since both teams are poised to be major players in free agency in the summer of 2010, though Miami remains a very likely playoff team and New York has legitimate aspirations of reaching the postseason after following a 3-14 start with an 8-3 stretch.

As we suggested in November, the Heat's fast start on defense proved to be a mirage. Miami is now 17th in Defensive Rating, which is actually a step backward from last year's 13th-place finish. The Heat has offset that with incremental improvement on offense despite Dwyane Wade taking a step back from his MVP-caliber 2008-09 that was seemingly inevitable.

Given Miami coach Erik Spoelstra's reputation as a fan of statistical analysis, it's surprising the Heat promoted Carlos Arroyo to the starting lineup despite a net plus-minus that can only be described as comically bad--Miami has been 17.8 points worse per 100 possessions with Arroyo on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. In his three starts, Arroyo has posted a +15. I still like Mario Chalmers as a better fit for the Miami starting five because of his ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc, and he has in fact played more minutes than Arroyo since the switch.

Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has credited his team's turnaround to improved defense, but the numbers show New York improving equally at both ends of the floor. In the month of December, the Knicks have improved their Offensive Rating by 2.7 points per 100 possessions and slashed their Defensive Rating by 2.4 points per 100 possessions. On offense, New York is really doing what we expected all along. Chris Duhon has predictably snapped out of his shooting slump, hitting 48.3 percent of his threes in December, while Wilson Chandler has come along as well (though more from inside the arc than beyond it). As for the role of benching Nate Robinson in the recent surge, I think it's overstated and something of a red herring.

2:30 p.m. E.T., ABC - Boston Celtics (22-5) at Orlando Magic (22-7)

Adjusted Point Differential: Boston 7.6 (2nd), Orlando 5.2 (4th)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 112.8 (4th), Orlando 112.8 (5th)
Defensive Ratings: Boston 100.8 (2nd), Orlando 105.4 (8th)
Pace: Boston 90.3 (23rd), Orlando 91.1 (15th)

This rematch of a seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinal series from last spring lost a bit of its luster yesterday when Boston forward Paul Pierce had to have his right knee drained of fluid, sidelining him for the next two weeks. Already without backup swingman Marquis Daniels for an extended period following surgery on his left thumb, the Celtics are now very thin at small forward. Tony Allen, whom the team unsuccessfully tried to give away all summer long, is the likely replacement. Brian Scalabrine should also get minutes at the three, where his lack of quickness is a major issue.

Meanwhile, Orlando is just now getting a look at its full complement of players. Jameer Nelson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery days after Rashard Lewis' 10-game NBA suspension ended, and Nelson is just now working his way back in the lineup, starting and playing 29 minutes on Wednesday after one game off the bench. Jason Williams and Anthony Johnson played very well in Nelson's absence, but his return still should lift an offense that already ranks fifth in the league. The only weak link so far has been Vince Carter, sporting an ugly 42.9 shooting percentage inside the arc.

These teams met once on ESPN in late November, with the Magic going on the road to pick up an impressive victory with defense that held Boston to 87.4 points per 100 possessions. In Pierce's absence, the Celtics will need to get more on offense from Rasheed Wallace, who shot 4-of-16 from the field and missed all eight of his three-point attempts in that game.

5:00 p.m. E.T., ABC - Cleveland Cavaliers (22-8) at L.A. Lakers (23-4)

Adjusted Point Differential: Cleveland 5.1 (5th), L.A. Lakers 6.7 (3rd)
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 111.4 (8th), L.A. Lakers 109.5 (15th)
Defensive Ratings: Cleveland 104.3 (5th), L.A. Lakers 100.4 (1st)
Pace: Cleveland 89.5 (28th), L.A. Lakers 93.5 (6th)

Let's talk about the Cleveland frontcourt. There are six combinations of power forwards and centers Mike Brown has used for at least 100 possessions this season. Here are their respective Offensive and Defensive Ratings, as well as the net of the two (thanks as always to BasketballValue.com for lineup data):

Frontcourt           ORtg    DRtg    Net
----------------------------------------
Hickson-Ilgauskas   102.8   109.4  - 6.6
Varejao-Ilgauskas   113.5    98.6   14.9
Hickson-O'Neal      105.6   109.7  - 4.1
Varejao-O'Neal      104.8    97.6    7.2
Hickson-Varejao     132.4   105.3   27.1
James-Varejao       115.7    94.2   21.5

I've railed about this before, but J.J. Hickson simply is not a very good basketball player at this stage in his career, which makes it odd that he is starting and playing 19 minutes a game for the Cavaliers. They are 10.0 points worse per 100 possessions on defense with Hickson in the game, and the upgrade he offers on Anderson Varejao as a partner for Shaquille O'Neal in the frontcourt comes nowhere near offsetting this problem. Hickson should also never be let anywhere near Zydrunas Ilgauskas, though oddly lineups with him and Varejao have been unstoppable on offense (in just over 200 possessions).

It's also clear here that O'Neal is not the right fit for the Cavaliers. Concerns about his defense have proven overstated by this author and others; lineups with him and Varejao have been excellent defensively and in fact better than the Varejao-Ilgauskas pairing. But the latter duo does a much better job of spacing the floor and is the best of the frontcourts Brown uses on a regular basis. Cleveland's small lineup of LeBron James and Varejao has also been dominant in limited playing time.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that Hickson could be replaced in the rotation by the end of the regular season if Leon Powe successfully returns from his ACL surgery. (He was recently cleared to begin full-court running and drills.) Powe might not be ideal as a floor-stretcher alongside O'Neal, but he's a far superior defensive option with experience playing for the league's best defenses in Boston.

As for the Lakers, I mostly said my peace on the team earlier this week,/a>, but I did want to point out a comment on my column made by Forum Blue and Gold contributor Bill Bridges. He noted that some of the change in the Lakers defense could be attributed to Phil Jackson reclaiming charge of the defense after turning it over to Kurt Rambis in past seasons. It was Rambis who was responsible for instituting the Lakers' aggressive trapping. I also second Bridges' point that Jackson is an underrated defensive coach. When he first came to L.A., the Lakers actually went backward on offense but improved dramatically at the defensive end. Here are the team's ratings as a percentage above or below league average from 1997-98 (Del Harris' last full season, when the Lakers went to the Western Conference Finals), 1998-99 (the lockout-shortened season, when Rambis replaced Harris midyear) and 1999-00 (the first of three straight titles under Jackson):

Year       AdjO    AdjD     Net
-------------------------------
1997-98    +7.1    +1.3    +8.4
1998-99    +5.4    -2.0    +3.4
1999-00    +3.3    +5.6    +8.9

8:00 p.m. E.T., ESPN - L.A. Clippers (12-16) at Phoenix Suns (18-11)

Adjusted Point Differential: L.A. Clippers -3.6 (24th), Phoenix 3.8 (9th)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Clippers 105.7 (23rd), Phoenix 115.7 (1st)
Defensive Ratings: L.A. Clippers 107.7 (16th), Phoenix 111.8 (25th)
Pace: L.A. Clippers 90.6 (19th), Phoenix 93.9 (5th)

Chris Kaman is nearly averaging 20 points per game, which is interesting. Kaman, who heretofore had never used more than 21.9 percent of the team's possessions (that came in 2007-08, the best year of his career) is now tops on the team at a 26.8 percent usage rate. You rarely see adjustments like that midway through a player's career (Kaman is 27), especially without personnel as an obvious explanation (see Ariza, Trevor). Mike Dunleavy made Kaman his go-to guy in the post early on, and while he hasn't been especially efficient (53.7 percent True Shooting Percentage), Kaman has done fairly well in the role.

Kaman will probably take a step back in the offense when Blake Griffin returns to the lineup, giving the Clippers an excellent three-man frontcourt rotation (rounded out by Marcus Camby) with Craig Smith available to slot in as needed. Griffin's contrasting skill set, especially on defense, will be helpful for a frontcourt that Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog points out has struggled against smaller, quicker opponents. That poses a major problem in this matchup. Camby tends to be too help-conscious against good shooters like Channing Frye, and Kaman is too slow to defend on the perimeter.

The Suns come in having gone just 4-8 in the month of December after a 14-3 November, though the magnitude of their drop-off is probably overstated by those records. Phoenix was never playing quite so well, relying heavily on close wins in the early going, and the Suns have played a very difficult schedule this month. Another culprit, predictably, has been cooling beyond the arc. Phoenix, which made 10.6 threes per game in November, is down to 7.5 in December. Oddly, the bigger factor there has been fewer attempts (down from 24.1 per game to 19.8) rather than a declining shooting percentage (it is down from 43.8 percent to 37.8 percent). At the other end of the floor, the Suns have slipped from the middle of the pack in Defensive Rating to 25th in the league. In both cases, this regression is bringing Phoenix closer to what we expected this season.

10:30 p.m. E.T., ESPN - Denver Nuggets (20-9) at Portland Trail Blazers (19-12)

Adjusted Point Differential: Denver 4.7 (6th), Portland 3.6 (10th)
Offensive Ratings: Denver 113.5 (3rd), Portland 109.8 (14th)
Defensive Ratings: Denver 107.5 (14th), Portland 105.3 (7th)
Pace: Denver 94.3 (3rd), Portland 86.7 (30th)

The two teams in last year's Western Conference Finals, the Lakers and the Nuggets, have taken opposite paths in terms of their offense-defense balance. While the Lakers have developed into defensive juggernauts, Denver has become one of the league's more offensive-biased teams, falling from eighth to 14th in Defensive Rating but improving from seventh to third at the other end. With Chris Andersen going from otherworldly (9.2 percent) to merely great (5.6 percent) in his shot blocking, the Nuggets have gone from the league's leaders in that category to barely above average. Denver is also getting fewer steals and forcing fewer turnovers this season, while defensive rebounding has suffered as well.

Of course, none of that has stopped the Nuggets from playing as well as any team not named the Lakers in the Western Conference. With Carmelo Anthony playing the best basketball of his career and Ty Lawson leading the second unit, Denver has been very potent on offense.

The Blazers' injury woes (most recently Joel Przybilla) have been well documented in this space. Improbably, Portland continues to roll along, going 3-1 on a challenging four-game road trip that was capped by last night's win in San Antonio without six of last year's eight leading scorers (including Brandon Roy, who missed the game due to a left shoulder injury, the severity of which is not yet known. At least for one night, Juwan Howard made my dire assessment of his play look ridiculous, while Jerryd Bayless continues to grow into a go-to option on offense. Nate McMillan's teams have a history of playing some of their best basketball when the situation seems most dire, and this stretch might emerge as the premier example of that trend.

Looking for a last-minute gift idea? Consider the 2009-10 Pro Basketball Prospectus, available now at Amazon.com.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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