BOSTON – Defense winning championships is one of the oldest clichés in sports.
Still, it’s the “other” D-word – depth – that more than anything else is fueling the success of NBA teams.
The Celtics (9-1) are the hottest team in the NBA right now, fueled by a trio – Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – each averaging better than 19 points and each playing above-average defense.
But with several injuries to rotation players, the Celtics have had to lean on six different starting lineups this season.
And as you start taking a closer look at the top NBA teams, most of them are playing without one of their best players in this still-young NBA season.
The Houston Rockets will be without high-scoring guard Eric Gordon for six weeks because of a knee injury. Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo is expected back sometime next month after suffering a knee injury in the playoffs last spring.
Other notable players out for extended periods include DeMarcus Cousins (knee) of the Los Angeles Lakers; Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox (ankle); Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) and Washington’s John Wall (Achilles).
The best teams have dealt with those injuries and still managed to find success, a clear signal that their strength is more about the number of players they have, rather than just the big-time names on the back of jerseys.
LOTS OF HEAVY TALK LATELY ABOUT LOAD MANAGEMENT
After the league fined the Los Angeles Clippers $50,000 for “statements inconsistent with Kawhi Leonard’s health” as it related to their use of load management, the topic has become a much-talked-about issue among players as well as owners, such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban.
“The problem isn’t load management,” Cuban told reporters in Boston earlier this week. “Teams have to be smarter about when to load manage. I’m all for load management. Worse than missing a player in a [regular season] game is missing him in the playoffs.”
The “load management” phenomenon really took off last season when the Toronto Raptors limited the playing time of Leonard, resulting in him being well-rested for the playoffs, which ended with the Raptors claiming the franchise’s first NBA title.
While there is still some resistance to it among teams, Cuban points to the data suggesting that it works as far as keeping players at or close to their optimum level when it matters most: the postseason.
“We’re not going, ‘OK, let’s just mess with the league and our meal ticket to fans to do something just because it might be interesting,” Cuban said. “We spend so much money, not just on analytics for predictive reasons, but also for biometrics so we know how smart we can be. The dumb thing would be to ignore the science.”
MELO BLAZIN’ NEW TRAIL OUT WEST
The news that Carmelo Anthony was back in the NBA did not come as a total shock.
But the Portland Trail Blazers?
Injuries, particularly in the frontcourt, have been a factor in the team’s 4-8 start, so the idea of adding a player to shake things up makes a lot of sense.
But adding Melo, who hasn’t played in the league in more than a year, doesn’t make a lot of sense even if he’s on a non-guaranteed contract.
Melo is what we call a professional scorer, which is evident by him having scored 25,551 career points, which ranks 19th all-time in NBA history.
And while he does provide some much-needed frontcourt depth, he doesn’t address their biggest issue of late: their defense.
The Blazers are in the bottom-10 this season in points allowed (113.9, 22nd in the NBA) which is in stark contrast to where they finished last season (110.5, 14th in the league).
Adding Melo to the mix won’t help, either.
But for most basketball fans, it will be nice to see Melo back in the league, even if it winds up being for just a few games.
As one of the all-time great scorers, Melo should have an opportunity to write one more chapter in what will eventually be a Hall of Fame career.
FIZDALE ON THE HOT SEAT?
With the losses continue to pile up for the New York Knicks, coach David Fizdale is looking more and more like the first coach to get fired this season. The Knicks (2-9) have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and are showing few signs of improving.
There are a couple of Fizdale assistants (Keith Smart and Kaleb Canales) who have served as NBA coaches previously, but much of the buzz in the Big Apple has centered around bringing one of their own back into the fold – Mark Jackson.
The Brooklyn, N.Y. native played at nearby St. John’s and spent his first five seasons with the Knicks, followed by 12 more seasons with eight different teams. He’s currently an analyst for ABC and ESPN.
Another name to keep an eye on?
Ex-Celtics assistant and former head coach in Chicago and Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau.
BACKUP POWER LACKING FOR ROCKETS
Houston relying heavily on its starting lineup isn’t all that surprising. After all, it includes dynamic scorers James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
And while they have had their share of injuries this season and have still managed to win games, the loss of Eric Gordon is going to really hurt this team both short- and long-term.
Gordon will be out for six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
He wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well before the injury, but here’s the thing: When you look at their depth, which is very thin, Gordon was the one player you could see being able to carry that second unit and make them a lot more respectable, scoring-wise.
Now, Houston will struggle to get much production out a bench brigade that ranks among the league’s worst in most statistical categories.
Look for the Rockets – off to a nice start to the season – to come down to earth soon.
SO, UH, HOW’S IT GOING, DAD?
Having his son Austin as a player in the NBA is sure to create some memorable moments for Doc Rivers but, uh, this is probably not what he had in mind.
Austin, a Rockets guard, was watching his dad, the Clippers coach, in a heated argument with official Tony Brothers and motioned for the official to hit his dad with a technical foul.
Austin got his wish, with Rivers picking up the tech and later being ejected with Austin motioning towards him to “call me.”
Can’t wait to see what Austin’s getting in his Christmas stocking this year.
Revenge, after all, is a dish best served coal; uh, I mean cold.
DEMAR DEROZAN HEADING BACK TO THE EAST?
With so much of the season left to be played, trade talk has been relatively low key thus far. But one name we will see early and often is San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan.
Acquired by the Spurs last year as part of the Kawhi Leonard trade with Toronto, DeRozan can opt out of the final year of his contract after this season and become an unrestricted free agent.
The last thing the Spurs would want to see is DeRozan walk and get nothing in return.
The Orlando Magic have been rumored as a possible team to target DeRozan, but there’s another Southeast Division squad to keep an eye on as it relates to DeRozan – the Atlanta Hawks.
Trae Young and John Collins are central parts of their core, but they could benefit from a battle-tested, savvy veteran.
And if you are the Spurs looking to reload around promising youngsters Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, along with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills still around, there’s the chance to put together a package with Atlanta that nets them a combination of young and experienced wings from a Hawks team where nearly half their roster is wing players (Cam Reddish; Kevin Huerter; De’Andre Hunter; DeAndre’ Bembry; ex-Celtic Evan Turner; Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons).
• Jimmy Butler has gotten a ton of credit for the Miami Heat’s surprisingly strong start. Still, the key to their early success has been their depth. According to hoopsstats.com, the Heat are averaging 44.6 points per game from their bench, which is tops in the Eastern Conference and third overall. …
• We all need friends in our life like Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who has seemingly never met a person he didn’t have something nice to say about. Take LeBron James, who is no stranger to unsolicited praise. There’s praise, and then there’s Kerr saying the four-time league MVP is “probably the best athlete to ever walk this planet.” I wonder how Kerr’s ex-teammate Michael Jordan feels about that. …
• Philly’s Joel Embiid is a card-carrying member of the “load management” club, but he’s not the only Sixers player taking some time off. Ex-Celtic Al Horford was a healthy scratch in Philly’s 98-97 win over Cleveland earlier this week. “I mean, it’s an issue we’re dealing with in today’s NBA, I guess,” Horford told reporters. “I don’t think five or 10 years ago, we’d be talking about these things. But it’s something that is being done, and they’re looking out for our health throughout the season.” …
• Some of the early favorites for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award include Boston’s Brad Stevens; Utah’s Quin Snyder; Phoenix’s Monty Williams; Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel; and Minnesota’s Ryan Saunders.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston’s coverage of Celtics-Warriors, which tips off Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.
A. Sherrod Blakely’s NBA Notebook: All about the D as in depth these days originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston