Trending Player: Darko Milicic, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Might David Kahn have the last laugh? The Timberwolves' GM described the former No. 2 overall pick as being "like manna from heaven" after acquiring Milicic in a trade and re-signing him to a new four-year contract, to the bemusement of the NBA blogosphere. However, Milicic has started to make good on the investment over the past two weeks. Starting with a double-double on Nov. 15 at Charlotte, Milicic has averaged 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks over the past six games--the kind of production teams have been hoping for years that Milicic would provide.
Milicic has nearly played at an All-Star level over the last six games. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't mean much until Milicic sustains improved play over a longer period. However, it is worth noting that Milicic has never had a six-game stretch this productive in his entire career. His 99 points dwarf his previous top six-game effort (79 points, per Basketball-Reference.com's game logs), and this is also Milicic's best six-game stretch in terms of assists (21, previously 18) and blocks (24, previously 23).
As good as Milicic has been lately, he was nearly that bad during the season's first three weeks. As a result, even after his hot stretch, Milicic has a PER of just 12.5 (average is 15) and rates little better than replacement level by Basketball Prospectus' WARP metric. Most of the difference can be traced to Milicic starting to hit shots after making a dismal 28.8 percent of his two-point attempts during the first 11 games. Milicic has also improved his ballhandling, nearly doubling his assist rate while cutting down on his turnovers.
Trending Team: Golden State Warriors
The return of David Lee on Saturday was a welcome sight for the Warriors, who played without the All-Star big man for eight games after he suffered an infection in his left elbow that required two surgeries. Lee's injury stemmed from a collision with the mouth of New York Knicks forward Wilson Chandler during the late stages of a win in New York on Nov. 10. The victory pushed Golden State to a surprising 6-2 on the young season, a hot start that entirely dissipated during Lee's absence. Without him, the Warriors lost seven out of eight games, beating only the Detroit Pistons.
Insider's Tom Haberstroh told you that Golden State's hot start was in large part a product of the team's schedule, and that has caught up to the Warriors. Even adjusting for the schedule, however, Golden State is a far better team with Lee in the lineup. During the nine games Lee has played, the Warriors have averaged a point differential 0.2 points worse than an average team. Essentially, they have been a .500 team in those games, despite a gaudy 7-2 record. By contrast, Golden State has been 6.9 points worse than average during the games Lee has missed. Just three teams--the Washington Wizards (minus-7.7), the Sacramento Kings (minus-8.5) and Timberwolves (minus-9.0)--have been worse this season.
According to BasketballValue.com, the majority of that difference has come at the offensive end, where the Warriors' Offensive Rating is 10.0 points better per 100 possessions with Lee on the floor. Golden State also gives up fewer points when Lee is out there. That reflects both his ability and the fact that the Warriors have few capable replacements for Lee.
Golden State's top two reserve big men, Louis Amundson and Ekpe Udoh, are both sidelined by injuries as well. That has forced Warriors head coach Keith Smart deep into his bench for Dan Gadzuric and Vladimir Radmanovic, both of whom have played below replacement level this season. Gadzuric and Radmanovic averaged a combined 31.5 minutes when Lee was out of the lineup, more than twice their usual average (15.3 mpg). When Amundson returns from a dislocated right index finger, Golden State will be better equipped to survive without Lee.
League Trend: Disappearing technical fouls
The very first league trend we considered in Trend Watch was the uptick in technical fouls during the preseason, ostensibly tied to the league's "Respect for the Game" point of emphasis. When analysts took a look at how the new rules were playing out early in the season, they found players getting whistled for far more technicals than in 2009-10. Case closed, right?
Wrong. As the season has gone on, the rate of technicals has steadily declined. Here's a graphical look at player technicals (via DougStats.com) per 48 minutes--that is, the number a team can expect to be whistled for in a regulation game.
The difference becomes even more apparent when the perspective changes to the technical rate by week, as opposed to the total for the season to date.
Period Min Techs T/48
Through Nov. 7 11045 89 0.39
Nov. 8-14 3975 25 0.30
Nov. 15-21 4410 28 0.30
Nov. 22-28 3810 24 0.30
After the first full week of the season (which also includes the first half-week), the rate of technicals dropped by nearly 22 percent. Since then, it has stayed essentially the same--and similar to last season's rate of technicals, 0.29 per 48 minutes. How insignificant is the difference between what we've seen lately and the 2009-10 technical rate? It amounts to one extra T per team every 119 regulation games.
The drop is likely caused by players and the league meeting in the middle on the "Respect for the Game" guidelines. Referees have not been as strict in their enforcement of the new standards as they were during the preseason and early regular season, but players have also shown newfound ability to moderate their responses to unfavorable calls. The result has been the reduction in complaining the league sought without the constant technicals critics feared.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.