As the calendar flips to 2018, here are New Year’s resolutions for five NBA stars that could propel their teams to even greater heights:
2018 resolution: More movement off the ball
Yes, James Harden leads the league in scoring by a healthy margin. And he’s more efficient than he’s ever been as a go-to guy.
Harden creates more in isolation than anyone in the league. It’s not even close. He averages an NBA-high 11.6 points per game off isos, significantly ahead of second place LeBron James (6.9) and more than twice as much as any other player.
Harden, however, often settles for just standing on the wing when Chris Paul has the ball. How much more of a headache might Houston’s top-ranked offense be if Harden dedicated himself to being a threat when he’s off the ball?
Granted, Harden being pedestrian off the ball is partially by design. It’s a way of allowing Harden, who leads the league with a usage rate of 36.0 percent, to essentially rest for an occasional possession.
The Rockets, having the luxury of featuring two premier penetrating playmakers, don’t set many off-ball screens for anyone. They actually rank dead last in the league in that category, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Houston has set only 40 off-ball screens for Harden all season — that’s less than half of even Russell Westbrook, another elite ball handler who tends to be a spectator when he doesn’t have the rock.
Here’s why Houston might want more of that action for Harden: He’s really good when it happens. In fact, his average of 1.5 points per possession after an off-ball screen is the best in the NBA among players with at least 40 opportunities. — Tim MacMahon
2018 resolution: Consistency on defense
Irving’s defensive commitment drew a lot of attention during Boston’s 16-game win streak and with good reason. The Celtics owned the No. 1 defense in the league, and Irving’s defensive rating of 96.1 was a staggering 13 points better than his final season with the Cavaliers. Irving led the league in steals for a portion of that stretch and seemed to be buying into Brad Stevens’ defense-first philosophy.
Since late November, Irving’s defensive rating has climbed to 106.7. That’s not all on him; the Celtics as a team have slogged through a game-heavy December schedule. But as Irving continues to dazzle on the offensive end, he must recommit on the defensive end as well.
Boston’s defensive rating this season is a team-best 97.5 when Irving is off the court, an improvement of 5.1 points per 100 possession versus when he’s on the floor. Irving had been holding his opponents to league-average shooting during Boston’s winning streak, but the NBA’s tracking data has opponents shooting 50 percent against him over the past 20 games.
The Celtics have played their best basketball when they are defensively engaged, and Irving has repeatedly noted how much easier the game comes when Boston is not taking the ball out of the basket each trip down. Irving must set the tone, defensively, with his effort level, and his defensive-minded teammates will feed off that energy. — Chris Forsberg
2018 resolution: Develop an outside shot
The biggest thing for Antetokounmpo to improve upon is his long-range shooting. Opposing coaches have a look of terror on their face when they describe his all-around game, but they know what remains his Achilles heel, as the Greek Freak is shooting just 26.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.
An ability to catch-and-shoot — and keep defenses honest off the ball in the half court — might be the only thing holding Antetokounmpo back from being a legitimate MVP threat. According to Second Spectrum, among the 216 players that have taken at least 40 3s with one or fewer dribbles, only five have shot worse than Antetokounmpo. Only one of those five — Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren — is even a top-5 scoring option on his team.
The other key for the young star is to continue building confidence within his teammates. Antetokounmpo is so talented that it’s hard for them not to defer to him in games — he has to make sure he emboldens them to succeed in the second half of the year, especially when Jabari Parker returns at some point in the next month or so. — Nick Friedell
2018 resolution: Improved passing
The last three months of 2017 were one long learning experience for Kristaps Porzingis. As the new No. 1 option for the Knicks offense, Porzingis has seen different wrinkles from opposing defenses nearly every night; early double-teams, late double-teams, switches, fronting — you name it.
“It’s an adjustment every game for me,” he said late last month.
One adjustment the Knicks would like to see Porzingis make in 2018? Dealing with — and passing out of — double-teams. Porzingis has seen an extra defender frequently this season and he’s admittedly still getting used to how best to handle it.
“Teams are obviously trying to make it as difficult as they can for me — trying to force the shots I don’t want. So it’s always a battle,” he said.
One way to track Porzingis’ progress against double-teams is via his assist rate. It should increase slightly if he’s able to make the right read when the extra defender comes. Porzingis’ assist rate (6.9) is last among the eight big men who average at least 20 points per game, per Basketball Reference. He’s had more than two assists in just three of his 30 games this season, a number that should be a bit higher considering Porzingis ranks fifth in usage among those who play at least 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com/Stats.
The good news for the Knicks? Porzingis analyzes his weaknesses thoroughly, and he’s already working on how to improve against the double team.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “I think as I get more experienced in these situations I’ll be even more efficient.” — Ian Begley
2018 resolution: More rim protection
Love has bristled — somewhat loudly at times — about playing the 5 after helping the Cavs to three straight NBA Finals appearances at the 4.
“I’m playing out of position,” Love said in mid-November. “A lot of people wouldn’t call me a rim protector. I’m a position guy; try to be the best team defender I can possibly be. But I don’t know what to say about that. We’re a very skilled lineup, we’ve got to score the basketball, we’ve got to get stops, but I’m not the guy going out there going to be the Defensive Player of the Year.
“But I’m going to work my ass off to try to help us.”
Where there is a will, there’s a way, even if Love ranks in just the 4th percentile in opponent field goal percentage as the nearest defender inside the paint, according to Second Spectrum. The Cavs coaching staff cites Love’s ability to draw charges when he is fully engaged — and, when there is a miss, his propensity to gobble up the defensive rebounds to be had. And the idea is that the spacing he provides on offense more than makes up for the defensive deficiencies that come with the position switch, so long as he isn’t a total sieve down low.
After the Cavs shot the ball poorly on 2-point attempts on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors thanks in large part to the Dubs’ rim protection, Love said, “They have a number of guys that kind of make you think in there.”
The best the Cavs can hope for is for Love to cause some kind of pause for opponents as well when he’s the last line of defense. — Dave McMenamin