Taking Inventory at Christmastime

The 25-30 game mark is my favorite moment in the NBA season.

Come again? What can you possibly glean from December basketball?

Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane once described his trifurcated view of the long baseball season. The first of the season is for taking inventory of what a team has. The middle third of the schedule is for making the necessary adjustments. And the final third is for making a run.

The formula works for basketball as well. The throat-clearing phase of the season is nearly over. Teams have a better feel for their assets, needs and aspirations than they did at the start of the season. That transition between observation and implementation is happening right now, and last night's slate of games offered a window into what some of the league's more interesting teams are doing.

Orlando vs. Houston

For sheer eye candy, the Orlando Magic's half-court offense is the best thing going this side of the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles. The Magic's first third of the season was largely about appraising to what extent they could replicate last season's efficiency given the turnover in the roster. Hedo Turkoglu offered Stan Van Gundy a special kind of flexibility in the offense, because there aren't many 6-10 players in the league who can hold down ball-handling duties and run either end of the pick-and-roll.

Watching the Magic last night was a reminder that a good system is a powerful thing. Pieces can be added and subtracted without disruption. There's a possession about four minutes into the game where Rashard Lewis runs an early high screen for Jameer Nelson, who's making his first start since November 16. Nelson dribbles to his right, while Lewis runs a little flare cut along the left side of the arc around Dwight Howard, who steps in Luis Scola's path as Scola tries to recover. Lewis gets a wide open at a 3-pointer. He actually misses the shot (and all six of this attempts from beyond the arche finishes 4-7 in 3PAs on the night), but it's a clean look. What's more impressive are the remaining options on the floor even Scola is able to recover or Chuck Hayes is able to close out on the shot. A quick skip pass to Vince Carter or Mickael Pietrus on the weak side would yield similarly good stuff.

The Rockets are a middle-of-the-pack team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, something that's astounding when you look at the roster. They run out of gas in the second half, but for the better part of two quarters, they stay in the game with Aaron Brooks breaking down the defense with penetration, and Scola -- along with Carl Landry -- finding open space for shots at close range. No team in the league squeezes more out of less in a possession of basketball than the Rockets. They fade in the latter stages of the third quarter when Orlando makes some strong defensive adjustments. The Magic defense takes away the 3-pointer and with the luxury of knowing Dwight Howard is right behind them, Orlando's perimeter defenders stay up on Houston's perimeter players one-on-one (very few double teams), denying them room for easy shots.

Atlanta vs. Denver

Last week, John Hollinger wrote about how the NBA's three most efficient offenses were taking vastly different paths to success. The Hawks have gotten there with the league's lowest turnover rate, by killing it on the offensive glass, and with some easy buckets in transition precipitated by strong defense. Wednesday night in Denver, the Hawks aren't themselves in the first half. They nab only a single offensive rebound, turn the ball over eight times and generally give Denver anything it wants in the half-court.

One of the funnier anecdotes from the 2009 postseason came by way of Sekou Smith, who reported that Mike Woodson and Mike Bibby had a spat on the bench after the Hawks coach expressed his displeasure over a decision by Bibby late in a possession against Cleveland to pass the ball to inveterate shooter Josh Smith for an open 24-foot jumper. Bibby snapped back at his coach:

“If you don’t want me to throw to him put him somewhere else,” Bibby shouted. “He’s wide [@*&$%] open. Wide open. What do you want me to do? If you don’t want him shooting that then put him somewhere else. You tell him.”

If the Hawks have unearthed anything in the first third of the season, it's some very persuasive evidence that the Josh Smith Reformation Program for the Undisciplined Jump Shooter has been a success. Only 24 percent of Smith's attempts from the floor this season have been from 16 feet or beyond, down from 34 percent last season.

Against Denver, the entire Hawks team is impatient, launching ill-advised long jumpers en masse. It's a shame, too, because Denver's aggressive, early double-teams against Joe Johnson give the Hawks a bunch of good opportunities which they exploit effectively in the first few minutes of the game, but abandon after that.

The Nuggets' questions over the first third of the season surrounded how they'd maintain their perch near the top of the Western conference with the same roster minus Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza. Denver starts Ty Lawson in place of Chauncey Billups, who misses his third straight game with a left groin strain. How does Lawson measure up as a starter? Just fine, furthering answering critics who felt that his size and "mid-range game" might hold him back. Lawson finishes with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists against a large and capable defender, Joe Johnson. Six of those seven field goals are at close range. Lawson’s patience in the half-court is as pronounced as his decisiveness in transition. He’s absolutely attuned to Denver’s priority on each possession, which is to pound the ball inside for a close-range shot or a trip to the stripe or, if the defense collapses, J.R. Smith from distance (he drains 10 of 17 attempts from beyond the arc).

Watching the Hawks -- and most of Denver's recent opponents -- one thing is certain: The level of disruption Carmelo Anthony is causing in the half-court is profound. The Nuggets are able to play Powerball right now because every defense they encounter is preoccupied with Anthony. It's not Denver's post play that's getting them to the rim at will -- it's all that open space inside that's freed up by defenders cheating over to Anthony, whether he has the ball or not.

Portland vs. San Antonio

This is a battle of two teams with grave existential questions as we enter the second third of the season. For the Spurs, have their early-season struggles been the product of acclimating a bunch of new players, or is there something fundamentally unsound about the pieces they've added to their aging foundation?

For the Trail Blazers, who have lost Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla in recent days, there's desperation in the air, and it's compounded Wednesday night by the absence of Brandon Roy, who's nursing a sore shoulder.

The Spurs toy with Portland on the first couple of possessions, working mismatches Richard Jefferson to get him shots at the rim. But Portland is able to leverage its sole advantage over San Antonio -- speed. The Trail Blazers don't exploit that advantage in transition (only seven fast break points). Instead, they whirl around in the half-court and get some very nice looks for jump shooters, most prominently LaMarcus Aldridge (9-for-13 from the floor). Jerryd Bayless? the speedster doesn't need much help getting nice looks. He'll create them out of thin air -- on the perimeter with a quick release (with out without a high screen) or off the dribble through the seams of the defense.

Blazers Edge describes what else goes right for Portland:

The keys to the game were pretty simple. Portland packed the paint on defense, first denying the ball to Tim Duncan then daring him to score over multiple defenders and the rest of the Spurs to hit outside shots instead of driving. It was the only conceivable way to make up for the utter lack of interior power on that end. Once the shot went up the Blazers rebounded hard down to the last man. You saw four, five guys swarming the glass. On offense the plan was clear: take advantage of any mismatches (Bayless, Aldridge), use screens to get them free, and when the main guys got shot down pass the ball out quickly and hope the jumpers fall. They did. San Antonio's did somewhat but it wasn't enough. Combine that with 8 turnovers and more energy than the Spurs and you walk away with a win....as big of a win as you can get at this stage of the season...a win that didn't depend on lucky threes...a win Blazers got on a night when San Antonio shot 6 percentage points better than they. Priceless.

Reports of the Spurs' demise have been exaggerated for the better part of a decade now, but if you want to diagnose what might prevent them from playing into mid-May, you should examine their defense. In a game that features only 85 possessions per side, the Spurs surrender 98 points, which is more than acceptable against a skeletal Portland lineup. Unusual for a team coached by Gregg Popovich, the Spurs elect to double-team LaMarcus Aldridge. 48 Minutes of Hell wonders aloud:

My last question concerns Gregg Popovich’s decision to aggressively double team LaMarcus Aldridge. In Monday’s game against the Clippers, Pop chose to consistently play Chris Kaman straight up. Apparently he is more threatened by Aldridge, given that he sent two defenders at him throughout the second half. But Aldridge effectively passed out of the double, and the Blazers nailed five of the eleven three-pointers they took before scrambling rotators were able to recover. What was it about tonight’s game that made Pop more willing to stray from his “stay home” defensive strategy, and risk the open three in order to double Aldridge?

It's an interesting question and you can only assume that Popovich feels that his team might not feature the kind of one-on-one matchup advantages they're accustomed to having. The Spurs have racked up championships on the strength of their base defense, but for the first time in a long while, the Spurs are being regularly outmatched and outwitted on the perimeter.

If you simulate this game with the same shot attempts ten times, I'm not sure the Trail Blazers win more than three of the match-ups. Designating 30 of your 77 shot attempts as long 2-point jumpers is treacherous, but being lightning quick to the ball and to the glass has a way of mitigating those kinds of numbers.

One thing's for certain: No two teams will be more interesting to watch during the "middle third of the season adjustment phase" than the Trail Blazers and Spurs.