Giannis Antetokounmpo


Before we start up this draft profile, I want to give you all a blind resume of two players’ stat line per 40 minutes.


Per-40 Pts Asts TOs Rebs Stls FG% 3pt% FT% FTA FGA
A 30.9 9.8 5.9 4.4 1.9 42.2% 36% 86.1% 9.7 21.8
B 24.4 9.8 5 5.1 1.2 39.1% 22.8% 82.5% 10.4 18.5

Pretty similar, right? One would think stat lines that close to each other would mean both players are of comparable caliber, huh? Well, Player A is what Atlanta Hawks’ superstar Trae Young pulled off during his lone season at Oklahoma. Who is player B? Don’t worry, I got you. The answer to that question would be… Auburn’s Sharife Cooper.

Granted, Trae Young played a full season at Oklahoma, while Sharife Cooper only played 12 games this season for the Auburn Tigers. but I think it is important to bring Trae Young up and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Cooper’s potential. Now, I’m not saying that Cooper is for sure going to be ‘the next Trae Young,’ but both play with similar styles. I think it is important to bring Trae Young up though and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Sharife Cooper’s potential. In a pick-and-roll-centric league, Young dominated each and every one of his NBA opponents with his supreme blend of playmaking and scoring in that regard. Cooper could possibly be the best pick-and-roll playmaker in this draft outside of Cade Cunningham, but he needs to improve as a shooter to maximize his potential. We’ll talk about that later. But what may be stood out the most to me watching Trae in the playoffs was how he was able to survive on the defensive end of the floor.

I think this is the most important piece of this conversation. The expectation from many, including myself, was for Trae Young to get massacred on the defensive end of the floor. That simply did not happen. Young was mostly able to hide on spot-up shooters, hedge when forced to come up in ball-screens and fight to not relinquish his plush defensive duties while the Hawks’ primary defender fought to get back to his man. On top of that, even when the offense won this power struggle, Young was adequate enough to be far from bbq chicken. This stop on Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will forever ring in my mind to give Young his respect as a defender in the postseason because he stepped up to the challenge, despite his diminutive size at 6’1” 180 pounds.

As luck would have it, Sharife Cooper’s size is comparable to Young’s at… 6’1” 180 pounds! On top of that, the times I’ve seen Cooper play, he gets after it defensively. Cooper moves his feet well and has good hands to get steals and deflections. Cooper is not afraid of withstanding contact either. This play is a great example.

Cooper is right there with Devontae Shuler of Ole Miss, a talented scorer in his own right, matching Shuler stride for stride to give him a solid contest at the rim. This was not an isolated incident, either. No one is going to mistake Cooper for Marcus Smart or Jrue Holiday as a defender, but to me, he showed more often than not he’s up to the task defensively and could stay on the floor in pressured situations, especially if he’s asked to hide on lesser offensive players the way Young was.

Where Sharife Cooper needs to make up ground, however, is his shooting. We all knew Young could scorch the earth from distance while at Norman and uses that to his advantage in the NBA to get to his patented floater. Cooper does not have that same luxury. He shot just 22.8% from deep at Auburn this past season. The advanced numbers don’t paint a rosy picture either. According to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Cooper generated less than 0.7 points per possession when shooting off the dribble this season. Whether his defenders would get caught on screens or they’d go under, Cooper simply didn’t make defenses pay when he got cut off from the paint. 

I think Sharife Cooper can improve as a shooter and finisher, though. Cooper did shoot 82.5% from the free-throw line this season, which has been a better indicator of shooting success over the years than three-point percentages. Though floaters are not there in his bag quite yet, he’s shown he does have soft touch around the rim.

We’ve also seen plenty of instances where guys enter the league not known as shooters only to improve once they’re coached up and have more time to focus solely on basketball. Guys like Lonzo Ball, Kawhi Leonard, Jaylen Brown, and plenty others are just a few examples. Cooper is not a great shooter right now, but it certainly is an area where others have improved, and Cooper has a baseline to get better to be a threat from the outside.

Just because Sharife Cooper’s jumper isn’t up to par yet, that doesn’t mean he can’t score. Cooper has a great handle to match top speed to be able to get by his defender to the rim when he has that runway to get there. Cooper also matches that handle and speed with excellent patience and a change of speeds in the halfcourt to throw off defenders and buy himself extra time and separation to get where he ultimately wants to go. He does all that but also doesn’t mind physicality either. You don’t just luck into 8.6 free throw attempts per game. In fact, Cooper managed to attempt at least 10 free throws in half of his games this season, including a gargantuan 21 attempts in an upset win over Missouri in January. Cooper’s shiftiness matched with his speed and poise to attack once he sees daylight is what allows him to be able to be such an effective scorer without a dependable jumper to rely upon at the moment. Watch how he combines all of those attributes here to earn himself some free throws.

Getting a jumper is important because it can set up his best and most important skill: his passing. In a draft with Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey, Cooper might be the best of them all when it comes to passing and playmaking. He is an absolute savant of a playmaker who manipulates defenders like a puppet master. He sometimes sees plays so quickly that his own teammates don’t even suspect it.

In the pick and roll, he sees everything. What stands out so much about Cooper running pick and roll is his patience reading the floor. He will hardly ever rush or force a pass. Instead, he lets plays develop and pounces on scrambling defenses. A lot like what guys like Trae Young, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and others do, when he sees the weakside defender tagging the roll man, Cooper will laser the ball to the player that defender is guarding like it’s nothing. Advanced reads and passes like this are not that common amongst NBA stars, let alone prospects.

His playmaking genius applies against zone defenses as well. What’s great about Cooper’s playmaking is that he sets up his teammates to succeed in situations that won’t always lead him to assists. He’ll rack up a ton of hockey assists as well when defenses send extra attention his way and force him to give it up. This play here is an ultimate example. Ole Miss’ defenders at the top of the zone creep up towards Cooper, so he sets up teammate JT Thor in the middle of the zone, who then zips a pass to another teammate for a layup.

This play right here encapsulates Sharife Cooper and his talent level in a nutshell. He gets a stop on a drive at the rim, gets the outlet pass, and rifles a bounce pass from one end of the court to the other.

Sharife Cooper’s feel and playmaking are not easy to find. He really does look like guards of Trae Young and Ja Morant’s level as a passer and playmaker. We just saw Young absolutely dominate the playoffs and carry his team way sooner than expected to the Eastern Conference Finals and what could have been the NBA Finals had he not turned his foot on the shoe of a referee. Again, I’m not saying that Sharife Cooper is going to be the next Trae Young, but his playmaking and frame make it hard not to think of Young when watching Cooper play. Young showed a guard like him can lead a team to playoff prominence. Wouldn’t more teams want a guy like Trae Young?

The NBA is a pick-and-roll game. Sharife Cooper has all the talent in the world to be a big-time difference-making star for whatever team that drafts him, in my opinion. While I’ve made the comp to Trae Young for Cooper, I’m not expecting him to replicate Young and his outstanding achievements, but Young’s success perhaps opens more doors for Cooper to get the chance to attempt to do the same than otherwise. Cooper has work to do with his shooting to enter that stratosphere, but I firmly believe he has what it takes to get there. I think Sharife Cooper should be at minimum a lottery pick and work his way inside the top ten. I’m all in on the Sharife Cooper bandwagon, and there’s plenty of room and time to hop aboard.

The NBA has revolutionized. The pick and roll has completely taken over the game. Thus, the emphasis and importance of having the top-of-the-line pick-and-roll creators that can bend the game to their will are at the top of the minds of NBA teams. The bigger the creator, the better. That’s why Cade Cunningham is at the top of seemingly everyone’s draft boards, and rightfully so. That’s how Luka Doncic can step into the NBA and immediately dominate it. It’s why LeBron James is arguably the greatest player of all time. That isn’t to say Cunningham is going to be either of those two, or anything close, but I do happen to think he is going to be great because he has the facilities to play a similar style those two shares as well. 

You don’t have to be 6’8” or above to dominate the pick and roll either, though. We just saw Trae Young will his Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals way ahead of schedule. Neither Chris Paul nor Devin Booker exceeds 71 inches in height, but they’ve led their teams to the NBA Finals executing the most beautiful and sophisticated pick and roll attack in the NBA today. Look across the landscape of playoff teams and you will find far more dynamic pick and roll creators than skilled, difference-making big men. This shifting NBA landscape is how and why G League Ignite alum Jalen Green is gaining momentum towards being the second pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and could maybe push Cade Cunningham for the top spot.

Yes, it is harder to build around a big man as an offense’s primary option and focal point in today’s NBA. Just look at the Philadelphia 76ers and the constant juggling of their roster surrounding Joel Embiid trying to find the right fits around him, and part (most?) of the reason for their yearly postseason flameouts is the lack of a signature pick and roll creator. Tobias Harris being your primary perimeter creator in the halfcourt and Ben Simmons’s lack of evolution in this field has proven to not be enough.

The Sixers are just one example though. Teams building relying on big men as top-notch offenses still have enjoyed success in recent seasons. Though the Los Angeles Lakers are fortunate to have LeBron James on their roster, Anthony Davis was just as big a factor in their quest to a championship a season ago as the perfect pick and roll dance partner to go alongside LeBron James. Giannis Antetokounmpo only recently becoming more accepting of being the screener and roller in the pick and roll this postseason has helped the Bucks advance further than they ever had in the Giannis era. Nikola Jokic just won the league’s MVP award this season.

Because here’s the thing: every pick and roll needs an avenue towards creating an advantage. And another thing: if you know your opponents are more and more frequenting toward the pick and roll as their primary offensive function, you need a way to stop it too. Though guards screening for each other has grown more and more in popularity (The Atlanta Hawks just used this to their advantage to oust the Sixers in the playoffs by picking on Seth Curry or Furkan Korkmaz every chance they got), it’s arguably easier to gain this advantage with the most versatile of versatile centers. Davis and Antetokounmpo’s combination of lob threats matched with either post force or finesse will either create easier opportunities for them to dominate switches against smaller defenders or their pick and roll partner to create great looks for themselves or their teammates. Neither are great shooters but Davis is at least a capable one from range who can stretch bigs off the floor if they’re unable to defend on the perimeter. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray feed off of each other better than perhaps any duo in the entire NBA. Switching is non-negotiable or else Murray is roasting a center in isolation or Jokic is picking a scrambling defense apart. Both the Bucks and Nuggets had offenses finish inside the top six in the NBA during the regular season, according to NBA.com. The Lakers were tenth in offensive rating at the time Davis got injured and before their season got derailed, so teams can have success offensively off the strength of a big man and have it carry over to success in the postseason. However, the common threading between those teams is they all have a pick and roll partner (LeBron James, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, Jamal Murray) to accentuate their strengths.

So, what’s more important: the dynamic creator capable of creating shots for himself or others and able to bend the game to their will, or the versatile big who can punish mismatches, finish at the rim, and score on the perimeter as well? The answer is… it depends. If you have a big, bruising, playmaking wing who can score like a guard as well as a LeBron James or Luka Doncic, that should be priority number one, in my opinion. But if there is a big man who *can* stretch the floor, punish mismatches, be a lob threat, pass out of double teams AND be able to defend all of those plays on the other end of the floor without putting your defense in a massive disadvantage the way an Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo can do, I think recent NBA trends have shown they can be difference makers and ceiling raisers that can lead your team to championships. Perhaps the last two championships have shown that the NBA is changing again.

I swear all of this rambling is for a reason. It’s to get us talking about USC’s Evan Mobley. Mobley is in many ways similar to Davis and Giannis. Mobley is a long seven-footer who is extremely dynamic and versatile on both ends of the floor. In just about any other draft, Mobley could easily have his name called first by commissioner Adam Silver but could see himself fall to the third pick in the draft. According to Kevin O’Connor of ‘The Ringer’ the Rockets, holders of the second pick of the draft, currently favor Jalen Green at the moment. I don’t think the Rockets really could do anything wrong with Green or Mobley assuming Cade Cunningham is on his way to Detroit, but if we’re going to split hairs here, I’d slightly prefer Mobley and his supreme versatility than Green’s perimeter creation.

Let’s start defensively regarding Evan Mobley. Mobley is one of the better rim protectors I’ve ever seen at the collegiate ranks. Granted, the NCAA’s rules allowing players to camp out in the lane for more than three seconds really helps matters, but Mobley is already so great at positioning himself in the pick and roll, something that takes big men years to master. Mobley already has it down pat. Take this play as proof:

Mobley sticks himself right where he needs to be to take away both the threat of the lob pass and the mid-range jumper. But the job isn’t done yet. Oregon State’s ballhandler goes to the Nash dribble along the baseline to try to clear out the paint. Evan’s brother Isaiah takes the ballhandler and Evan takes Isaiah’s man in the paint. After that, Mobley sees a Beaver cutting to the rim and rotates over to block his shot. That’s pretty insane defense and just shows that Mobley is already ready to protect the paint. In an NBA that asks its players to switch onto guards and wings, Mobley is already capable of doing that too. He answers the bell of what NBA teams *need* from their big men in the modern game defensively.


Offensively, there just isn’t a lot Evan Mobley can’t do. Mobley wasn’t a great floor spacer, but that’s about it. But he can create space vertically, however. Last season, Mobley generated 1.089 points per possession as a roll man. Considering Andy Enfield’s insistence on cramping the spacing for his team as much as possible by pairing another big man alongside Evan Mobley, this is pretty damn impressive. Look how much attention Mobley garners in the paint when he rolls:


Evan Mobley can also get you a bucket with the ball in his hands. In isolation situations, Mobley generated 1.077 points per possession. That’s a monster number. Not many seven-footers can match athleticism with supreme skill and feel like this.

Ehh, just casually bringing the ball up the floor after a rebound, then spin to dribble at the rim with his off-hand and finish through contact for an and-1, no biggie. Good God, that’s incredible. That’s not just a thing Mobley can pull off in transition with a head of steam, either. Mobley can create shots like that off the dribble in the halfcourt, too. 

Evan Mobley is already damn near impossible to guard as is, but what makes it all the more difficult to check him is his passing ability. Mobley averaged 2.4 assists per game, though did also put up 2.2 turnovers a game as well. To put that in context, however: Tennessee guard and possible lottery pick Keon Johnson averaged 2.5 assists per game with 2.6 turnovers a game, so you’re getting guard-like passing from Mobley as well. What is so great about Mobley is you can give him the ball at the elbows, run the offense through him, and know he’s going to make the right play and execute the offense.

What’s most noticeable from Evan Mobley’s feel and passing ability is how great he is passing out of double teams. It can take big men a very long time to be comfortable reading the floor and finding open teammates in the midst of chaos, but that’s a breeze for Mobley. 

Look how patient Mobley is waiting until his teammate finds open space along the three-point arc. As soon as that happens, Mobley sends a laser from one of the floor to the other to create a wide-open three along the wing. Unfortunately, Mobley doesn’t get the assist here, but he was able to get countless others doing the same thing over the course of the season.

The NBA has changed, but it might be changing again. Though the NBA is now a perimeter, pick and roll centric game, there’s still room for bigs to wreck the game. With all this said, I’d still take Cade Cunningham first overall if I had to make the choice. Were someone to take Jalen Green second, I wouldn’t fault them whatsoever given the direction the league is going. For a big man to warrant a top-three pick, they have to be able to dominate on both ends of the floor. Fortunately, Mobley is a two-way force with the goods to make that so. It shouldn’t shock anybody if we look back on this draft class in five or ten years from now and refer to Mobley as the best player in this class that eventually leads whatever team that drafts him to a title. He’s that good and can change the direction of whatever franchise drafts him.

The phrase ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest link’ is applied to an assortment of contexts. Jay-Z’s ‘if everybody in your clique is rich your clique is rugged. Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches’ line echoes that sentiment. It also has been a running theme throughout the entirety of these NBA playoffs. I’ve heard many people describe playoff basketball as ‘it’s not about what you (as a team or player) do well, it’s about how well you can mask what you can’t do well.’ This year’s postseason has been defined by that notion.

This was wholly on display in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee’s defensive tendencies typically include having their centers (Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis Jr.) chill back in the paint to protect the rim while the player guarding the ball handler goes over the pick and roll ball screen to not allow a player to bomb away from three. In their first-round matchup against the Miami Heat, they were largely able to get by since the Heat lacked perimeter shooting outside of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Kevin Durant was able to torch the Bucks’ strategy but the lack of a healthy Kyrie Irving and James Harden to add the extra scoring punch Brooklyn needed was enough to let the Bucks get by. 

This same assault on coach Mike Budenholzer’s ideology was on full display yet again in the Conference Finals in Game 1 at the hands of Trae Young, who delivered a 48 point, 11 rebound masterpiece on the road. If you noticed a theme watching those highlights, it’s that Young repeatedly sought out the teammate who was being defended by either Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis (mostly either Clint Capela or John Collins) and went into a pick and roll with them. From there, Young had the world in his pocket, getting any floater or pull-up three he wanted as a scorer, or lob, dump-off, or kick out to the three-point line he sought as a playmaker. The numbers back it up too. According to Synergy, Trae Young scored, assisted, or created 80(!!!) of Atlanta’s 108 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s not a typo. Trae Young had a hand in 74% of Atlanta’s points in Game 1. That’s absurd, but not as absurd as how it was allowed to happen. When Young was defended by either Lopez or Portis, he shot 14-23 from the field. When he was defended by Giannis Antetokounmpo, that number fell off a cliff to just 3-11 from the field. The Bucks were +4 in Game 1 when Giannis was not accompanied by any of his center compatriots on the floor. The Hawks were +4 when Trae Young was on the floor with Bobby Portis and +16 in the 20 minutes Young shared with Brook Lopez. When neither was on the floor with Trae Young, the Hawks lost those 13 minutes by three points. Whether or not Mike Budenholzer can make the proper decisions and not allow Young to feast against Milwaukee’s centers will go a long way in determining the outcome of this series.

But this isn’t the first time the Hawks have exploited an opposing team’s weakness. Just last round, the Hawks were able to get Ben Simmons so far down his own head that he opted not to go up for an open dunk in the late stages of the fourth quarter of Game 7 of that series. In fact, you want to know the two shots he did make in that Game 7? One was a wide-open dunk off an assist after his teammate gathered the ball off an offensive rebound. The other was another wide-open dunk, this time after cleaning up an airball from Furkan Korkmaz. That’s it. Any confidence Simmons had in his game was completely evaporated. Simmons’ usage rate in the playoffs was a pedestrian 16.2%, according to NBA.com. That number was ninth ON HIS OWN TEAM. That’s completely inexcusable. Most possessions, Simmons was reduced to doing nothing but chilling on the dunker spot. This possession in the midst of Philly’s Game 5 collapse was the most emblematic of Simmons’ non-activity. First of all, Embiid is engaging in a two-man with Seth Curry. Curry is a very good player, but the fact that is who is getting Embiid the better looks is an indictment in and of itself. Anyway, their pick and roll get trapped, so Curry hits Embiid on the roll. Problem: Ben Simmons and his man are in the way! So Embiid kicks it out to Tobias Harris on the left corner. He gets to run off the three-point line and runs into another problem: both Simmons and Embiid and their men are in the way! So Harris has to give it back to Embiid as the Sixers’ offense is operating in a phone booth. Harris looks like he’s open for a split second, so Embiid finds him, only for Harris’ shot to get swatted out of bounds by John Collins. Simmons not being a threat in any capacity went a long way in dooming the Sixers. He wasn’t the *only* problem, but he sure was the most glaring (the Hawks hunting Seth Curry the same way the Sixers couldn’t hunt Trae Young was almost as big a problem and was the pathway that led to Kevin Huerter’s brilliant series-clinching Game 7 masterpiece). Atlanta turning a three-time All-Star, third-team all-NBA (2020) member against his own team swung the trajectory of that series and catapulted the Hawks into the conference finals.

That wasn’t the only series that had a team use its own player against them to get into the conference finals. Look no further than what the Los Angeles Clippers did to the Utah Jazz. The Jazz structured the entire defense around the rim protection of Rudy Gobert. Outside of Royce O’Neale, the Jazz lack any perimeter defender of note. Bojan Bogdanovic had his moments; Miye Oni looks like he can fit that bill one day; Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Jr. being compromised surely did not help. But without being able to defend on the perimeter, and Rudy Gobert’s preference, necessity to protect the paint rather than the perimeter and inability to punish smaller defenders on the other end, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue used all of that to his advantage by going much of the game without a center on the floor. It took an anomalous shooting half from the Clippers to erase a 25 point lead at halftime of Game 6, but the Clippers got the boost they were looking for from none other than Terance Mann

The Clippers had no choice but to give up something: either layups or threes from the likes of Terance Mann and Patrick Beverley. There’s are various reasons for that. Rudy Gobert just not being as comfortable defending the perimeter as he is in the paint is one. The Jazz’s roster didn’t help matters either because they don’t have the kind of forward that can upsize into being a small-ball center. Quin Snyder could’ve had Gobert guard someone else. But maybe the worst of all is the ineffectiveness of Rudy Gobert as an offensive player. The Clippers were willing to switch everything in order to limit the number of threes the Jazz could get. Sometimes that meant switching a guard like Reggie Jackson or Terance Mann onto Gobert, but that didn’t really matter. The Jazz wouldn’t even really look to get Gobert the ball in those situations, and who could blame them. In the regular season, the Jazz generated 0.57 points per possession on 28 Rudy Gobert post-ups, according to tracking data from Synergy via NBA.com. Only seven players put up worse numbers: JaVale McGee, Harry Giles III, Zach LaVine, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Porter Jr., Larry Nance Jr., and Isaiah Roby. That’s horribly bad. Do you want to know how many times Gobert posted up in 11 playoff games? Once. Yeah. Oof. Now, there are other ways to punish a small defense, with one of those methods being on the glass. To Gobert’s credit, he did average the third-most offensive rebounds per game in the entire playoffs at 3.9 per game, but that’s about the only tool Gobert has in the toolshed to do so. And to be fair to Gobert, the Clippers pulled the same stunt on Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the playoffs (Porzingis was only able to generate 0.82 points per possession on his post-ups against the Clippers). But that doesn’t make it any less damning on Gobert’s part nor impressive on the Clippers for being able to take him away and ruin the integrity of Utah’s entire defensive structure.

The playoffs are much like the words echoed by the great Mobb Deep: only the strong survive. Whatever a team’s weakness is, it will be tested. If your team can withstand it, your chances of advancing deep are very good. If not, well, then I hear Cancun is a great place to visit this time of year. Look no further than this year’s playoffs if you need proof.

The NBA playoffs are mercifully back, and boy did it deliver as usual. Eight games in 48 hours with seven of those being decided by 11 points or less, two game-winners from the likes of Khris Middleton and Trae Young, and an even split of wins from home and road teams at four apiece. We’re just getting started. The playoffs are all adjustments, so I came up with something in each series that should be monitored that will impact a team’s chances in this crazy first round or later down the road should that team advance.

Bucks-Heat: The Brook Lopez Conundrum

A lot of consternation was made regarding Milwaukee’s utilization of big man Brook Lopez. I can understand head coach Mike Budenholzer’s line of thinking in this sense: Lopez can guard Bam Adebayo effectively 1v1 and forces Miami to guard him with Bam. Jimmy Butler can’t guard both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday at the same time, so Miami opted for Jimmy to stick with Holiday, leaving Miami at a disadvantage by pinning Duncan Robinson to guard Middleton. Sure. But at the same time, that lets Miami hunt Lopez with Bam Adebayo – Duncan Robinson two-man action, and it worked time and time again. Robinson was 7-13 from deep, and the Heat were 20-50 from three as a whole. Putting in Bobby Portis or PJ Tucker in Lopez’s place still presents some matchup decisions for Miami to make while giving Milwaukee much more defensive flexibility. Milwaukee didn’t play a single second with Giannis and Tucker on the floor without Lopez or Portis. That’s a curious decision, especially with Giannis being able to guard Adebayo and Tucker doing a great job defending Butler throughout the game. Butler went a combined 2-12 from the field while being defended by Tucker and Giannis in Game 1 according to NBA.com. Not only can Milwaukee switch any action involving Miami’s two best players, but they can also switch anything involving Duncan Robinson (or Goran Dragic or Tyler Herro) to limit Miami’s three-point attempts. Portis and Tucker saw fewer minutes (18 and 17, respectively) *combined* than Lopez did (36). Milwaukee got away with one during Game 1. Miami likely won’t let them off the hook again if that type of shooting continues.

Clippers-Mavericks: The Clippers’ Shooting

The Clippers led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage-wise by hitting at a 41.4% clip this season. That came to a screeching halt on Saturday, where they shot 11-40. Even worse was the heavy reliance on contested pull-up jumpers from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Shooting such shots helped in their demise in the bubble, and if their supporting cast isn’t hitting from deep then driving lanes for a team that already struggles to get to the rim will get tighter and tighter. Kawhi and George shot just 15 shots in the paint during their Game 1 loss but did shoot 14 free throws between the pair. Kawhi and George aren’t great playmakers either, and their first instinct is to get theirs rather than set up someone else. Getting those easy points will be crucial to staving off droughts and runs from the opposition. If they don’t get the spacing they need, their ability to do that will be even harder.

Nets-Celtics: The Big 3’s Process

Hot take alert!: The Nets are going to win this series. The Celtics just don’t have the firepower to keep up with them. While the Nets should win this series regardless, the process from their Big 3 did not look crisp. Then again, how could it with Game 1 being just the ninth time all season all three have played together in the same game? I felt a lot of ‘your turn, my turn’ ball, with one possession being consumed by one star trying to get a bucket in isolation and the next a different star trying to do the same thing. They can at least maneuver switches and rotations any way they want by involving two stars in a sequence together and moving off of that. I expect we’ll see more of that going forward because what we saw Saturday night offensively likely isn’t going to get the Nets through the East, no matter how loaded they are on that end.

Nuggets-Blazers: ‘Let Jokic Cook’

Presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic scored 34 points. He shot 27 shots from the field and went 3-4 from the free-throw line. However, Jokic registered just one measly assist. Jokic is the greatest passing big man ever, but the Blazers limited his ability to do so by staying home on his teammates. The numbers bear it out too. According to ESPN Stats and Info via Royce Young of ESPN, the Nuggets shot 1-10 off passes from Nikola Jokic. The process worked. I get the thought process behind it too: if you double, Jokic is so good that he’s going to find an open man somewhere, most times being in front of the rim or along the three-point line. But if you don’t double, there’s no one for him to find against a rotating defense in chaos. I get it, I don’t love the strategy, but the strategy surely worked in Game 1. I could easily be wrong here, but I’m not sure if that strategy will stand the test of time. Jokic is absolutely capable of dropping a 50-60 burger on Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter’s heads. Are you not going to double then? We’ll see. But props to the Blazers for finding a formula to help them take away home-court advantage from the Nuggets.

76ers-Wizards: Ben Simmons’ Aggression

This should be a confidence-boosting series for Ben Simmons. As I wrote about Simmons last week, he hasn’t always capitalized in the halfcourt against smaller defenders. Like I said with Jimmy Butler earlier, Rui Hachimura can’t guard Simmons and Tobias Harris (who had a field day against this Wizards squad, putting down a cool 37 piece early Sunday afternoon) at once. Still, despite being guarded by the likes of Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, and even Raul Neto, Simmons looked tentative, passing up drives and not looking to attack the rim. Yet in transition, he was still as sensational as always, finding teammates along the three-point line and rampaging to the rim. He still needs to be more of a factor in the halfcourt though for Philly to get to where it wants to go. The 15 assists Simmons provided is great, but scoring just six points on 3-9 from the field is unacceptable for a player of his talent. He’s certainly capable of more with his size and force. Let’s see if he follows through.

Suns-Lakers: The Lakers’ Big Man Rotation

Obviously, the biggest factor to keep an eye on is the health of Chris Paul. That goes without saying, and hopefully, he’s ok to keep pushing through in this series. That right shoulder he tweaked bumping into teammate Cam Johnson bugged him all throughout the remainder of that game. But before and after that mishap, the Lakers got torched in pick and roll. They gave nothing away. Paul and Devin Booker got to their sweet spots at the elbows; Deandre Ayton got layup after layup (and was a beast on the boards); Phoenix’s supporting cast got great looks at the rim and from deep (non-Jae Crowder Suns shot 9-21 from three, good for a 42.85% clip). Lakers center Andre Drummond is an easy punching bag but he feels like food for Paul and Booker every second he’s out there, not to mention how he (and Montrezl Harrell) cramps the spacing for the rest of the offense. Anthony Davis said the loss was on him and he’s 100% right. Montrezl Harrell was able to score on Phoenix’s backups, but he also gave it right back on defense. Much like the matchup against the Houston Rockets a season ago, this doesn’t feel like a matchup for the traditional bigs. Marc Gasol is a traditional big but he’s much more equipped to hang on the perimeter defensively and keep the offense humming. Markieff Morris nearly built a house with the number of bricks he hoisted to end the regular season, but he brings much more mobility defensively that likely will be needed when Ayton rests. I have no doubts that LeBron James and Anthony Davis (who dropped a 42 point, 15 rebound performance on these same Suns just two weeks ago) will respond. Frank Vogel has historically been a game too late to make adjustments in a playoff series, but he will make them. Playing Davis more at the 5, starting Gasol over Drummond, and playing Morris over Harrell *should* work, in my opinion. I think the matchup calls for it. If it doesn’t work, then the Lakers are *really* in trouble.

Knicks-Hawks: The Elfrid Payton Conundrum

The Knicks got 44 points on 21-36 shooting from 6th Man of the Year Finalist Derrick Rose, Alec Burks (who had 27 of them thangs), and Immanuel Quickley. Elfrid Payton had 0 points while missing all of his shots from the field. Defenses have ignored Payton all season long; the Knicks’ Net Rating with Payton on the floor during the regular season was -8.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That number was the fifth-worst on the team and by far the worst amongst those that get legit minutes on the Knicks, let alone from someone who starts games for New York. While All-Star Julius Randle navigated that minefield all season-long, it caught up to him on Sunday, scoring just 15 points on 23 shots with all the enhanced attention Randle got. The Knicks may not be able to get by with *any* Elfrid minutes for the rest of this series. I would’ve made the change a while ago, but now is probably the time to switch Elfrid’s starting spot over to one of the aforementioned three bench gunners. I’d start Immanuel Quickley in Payton’s place since Quickley, while he can bring the ball up and playmake, doesn’t the ball in his hands as often as Rose or Burks does, can spread the floor better for Randle and RJ Barrett to operate (Quickley shot 38.9% from three during his rookie season), and keeps Rose and Burks in their same super-sub role off the bench.

Jazz-Grizzlies: Utah’s Wing Shortage

The lack of a big, long, rangy, athletic, defensive wing has been apparent all year for the Jazz. I didn’t think it was so glaring that it meant Dillon Brooks would drop 31 points on them though! Utah’s offense stalled in the first half, but Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley nearly brought them all the way back in the second. The return of All-Star Donovan Mitchell will likely resuscitate Utah’s offense once he returns from his ankle injury. It sounded like that could’ve been last night, but Utah held him out an extra game to be cautious. But, and no disrespect to Dillon Brooks (which surely is a signal that disrespect is on the horizon), if the Jazz can’t stop *him* from scoring, then how exactly are they going to slow down either Luka Doncic or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the next round (if they advance) and possibly LeBron James in the Western Conference Finals should that matchup occur. That’s a big problem down the horizon for Utah. First, however, they need to figure out how to cross the Dillon Brooks-sized bridge in front of them before they get to the next one.

Mister misunderstanding is marryin’ miscommunication today at three. Don’t lose your invitation, they say it’s the place you ought to be.’ This is how Johnny Venus of Hip Hop group EarthGang kicked off his first verse of the duo’s song titled ‘Stuck’ off of their Dreamville debut album ‘Mirrorland.’ When you watch the Golden State Warriors this season, you can’t help but think about how true those words ring about the direction of that franchise.

When Governor Joe Lacob boasted that his team was ‘Light Years Away’ from his competition, he had reason to do so. The Warriors were crushing everything in their sights a year after winning the NBA Championship and were on their way towards setting an NBA record for most wins in a regular season, signed Kevin Durant the following summer after dropping a 3-1 lead at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, then made three more consecutive Finals appearances, winning two of them. Sure, when you have the chance to be that successful for five straight NBA seasons, you take it ten times out of ten. 

However, things have diminished precipitously since then. Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals and hasn’t returned to the hardwood since after an Achilles injury suffered this winter. Steph Curry suffered a hand injury a year ago and missed basically the entire season and has been on and off the court this season due to injury. Draymond Green doesn’t remotely concern defenses anymore at this stage of his career. This all led to the Warriors drafting second overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, selecting James Wiseman. Therein lies the rub with the Warriors.

Steph Curry is still one of the five best players in the NBA. If not five, then surely top 10. Even with a mish-mosh of a roster and at 33 years of age, Curry is putting up numbers paralleling his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16. However, the Warriors are stuck (there’s that word again) at 10th in the West, and that has required a Herculian effort by Steph to even backpack this team to that point. If you need proof just look at what was required of him in his 41 point masterpiece last night against the Milwaukee Bucks (who were sitting Giannis Antetokounmpo) on 67% shooting from the field. How much has Steph backpacked this team? Well, according to Statmuse, when Steph is on the court, the Warriors have the 13th best offense in the league. When he’s off the court the Warriors not only have the worst offense in the NBA, but the worst offense of anyone in the NBA OVER THE LAST FIVE SEASONS. Like Loki said in the new ‘Loki’ series trailer, this is absurd!

Yet despite this, the Warriors are only half a game up on the New Orleans Pelicans for the mini play-in tournament that Draymond himself says ‘doesn’t motivate him.’ After competing for championships over the years, I could see how Draymond could come to that conclusion. However, with youth and new faces filling the majority of the Warriors’ roster, the Warriors have had to juggle competing for today with developing players for their future, and that endeavor has been largely futile. 

Coach Steve Kerr has largely opted to jam his system and read-and-react style of play down this team’s throat and it’s been largely unsuccessful. Get this: of players to have run at least 275 pick and rolls this season, Steph Curry generates 1.13 points per possession, the best mark in the league, whenever he shoots or makes a pass running pick and roll. Despite this absurd efficiency, amongst the same group of players, the frequency with which Curry uses the pick and roll is the second-fewest, trailing only Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns. Not only is it highly effective, but it’d also make matters way easier for the rest of Curry’s teammates to produce. Fortunately last night, the Warriors let Curry cook in pick and roll 36 times, the second-most time Curry has done so in a game this season. The Warriors have almost five big men in the upper half percentile of pick and roll roll men, yet none of those players have more than 63 logged possessions rumbling to the rim.

The big man with the most possessions rolling to the rim is rookie James Wiseman, who has struggled in his rookie campaign. That’s to be expected of a rookie but hurts when you have a superstar creeping up in age and more ready-made prospects are already blooming in LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton. Either would have been seamless fits in San Francisco, but Wiseman has been more of a work in progress. The numbers bear it out too. 

When Steph Curry shares the floor with Wiseman, the Warriors have a Net Rating of -7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. When James Wiseman isn’t on the floor with Steph? That Net Rating boosts all the way up to +8.7. That isn’t entirely Wiseman’s fault; he only played three college games before declaring for the NBA Draft and has had his minutes and starting spot shift all year, including a bizarre game where Steve Kerr benched Wiseman for missing a COVID test, yet decided to play Wiseman in the fourth quarter when it was apparent that game was a blowout and the Warriors had no chance of winning. James Wiseman has only had two games this entire playing more than 30 minutes and just 15 games all season playing at least 25 minutes. Of those 15 games, 11 have come at the hands of double-digit ass-kickings teams across the association have bestowed upon Golden State. Is that really helping Wiseman learn the game and grow in your system?

Adjusting to the Warriors’ system is not just an isolated issue for Wiseman, however. Only four players on the Warriors boast a Win Share per 48 minutes above 0.1: Curry, Kevon Looney, Damion Lee, and the sparsely (but good) used Juan Toscano-Anderson. Yes, young players like Wiseman, Jordan Poole (who has been heating up recently), Nico Mannion, Eric Paschall, and Mychal Mulder along with new faces in Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. need time to develop and learn the system, but again, it is an indictment on the coaching staff to not better play to their strengths and the status of the Warriors at the moment. If you play more experienced players to help Curry win games this year, then experience goes by the wayside for young players who need it. If you play them, you make Curry’s job harder to win games. Yikes.

Golden State is going to remain competitive. Barring a Curry injury like last season, they’re never going to bottom out. Steph is too good for them to do so, as he showed last night in his 41 point masterpiece against the Milwaukee Bucks while shooting 67% from the field. Unless Klay Thompson comes back like the Klay we’ve been accustomed to seeing, it’s unlikely the Warriors will return to the elite of the league. Yet, this problem won’t go away; it’ll only get louder. Golden State will likely keep their pick and select inside the top 20 of this year’s draft. They could have two lottery picks of Minnesota’s ping pong balls cooperate after the D’Angelo Russell trade of a year ago. Do you let Steph cook in the tail-end of his prime or bring along the young guys? Who knows. Like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in the garbage disposal of the Death Star, the Golden State Warriors are stuck and need a lot of help to get out.

The Milwaukee Bucks strived and held legitimate aspirations for an NBA championship the last two seasons. They were exposed a year ago by the Miami Heat. The year prior they were minutes short of a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals before Fred Van Vleet gained superpowers. Watching the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs has been like fans of the DC Cinematic Universe watching mediocre film after mediocre film then yearning for enhanced versions of the film to make up for their viewing displeasure. Skepticism will continue to haunt this team until they get it done in the postseason. Fortunately, this iteration of the Bucks is showing signs that things could be different this time around.

Monster stat lines are nothing foreign to Giannis Antetokounmpo; he is the two-time reigning MVP after all. But his 32 point, 15 rebound, 5 assist outburst on March 17th in Philadelphia that culminated with him plopping his keister on the court inside Wells Fargo Center felt important. Impactful. Not because Giannis had another big night, but *how* he was doing it. I don’t know about you, but I had never seen Giannis ever hit a step-back mid-range jumper off a behind-the-back pull-back dribble while driving to his right before, looking more like Kevin Durant than the modern-day Wilt Chamberlain brute force we’ve been accustomed to Giannis being. Asked after the game about sitting on the court, Giannis rebutted by asking a question of his own: ‘is there anything wrong with having fun?’ If ‘having fun’ is code for improving your game, then no there is nothing wrong with that, and that’s precisely what Giannis is doing this season.

I can’t find many statistics to suggest Giannis has improved as a midrange shooter. We know teams will give him threes that he hoists mostly when the Bucks have a sizable lead, but the midrange is the more pressing shot that he needs to master. Take the last shot in the clip from that Sixers game for example. Dwight Howard is right with Giannis and is ready to contest Giannis at the rim, but Giannis separates a few feet in front of the rim and scores anyway off the jumper. Most times when a center is defending Giannis, they’ll just sag completely off of him and give him the jumper. Most times, Giannis just uses those acres of space as a runway to zoom past defenders and demolish the rim yet again, but here against Portland and Jusuf Nurkic, Giannis calmly and confidently steps into a shot at the elbow and drills it. Every time I have watched the Bucks recently, it seems like Giannis has looked so much more comfortable and confident in that exact type of jump shot, which is huge because those exact shots are going to be there in the playoffs for him. He’s going to have to make defenses pay for playing him like that. Will that end up happening? I’m not sure yet. This season, Giannis is shooting just 33.9% on pull-up two-point shots according to NBA.com, still not very good. However, the frequency with which he takes those shots has boosted from a year ago and the year prior to that, suggesting that he’s taking those shots for the purpose of improving upon it as the season goes on. Giannis has feasted inside the restricted area per usual this season but is not shooting above 40% from anywhere else on the court outside of the corners. But perhaps the fact that he’s shooting more shots from the midrange and inside the paint but outside the restricted area this season than last season with the confidence he’s shown in his shot may lead to a boosted efficiency in those areas sooner than later. It’s something I will be watching closely as the season progresses.

An area where you can statistically track improvement in Giannis’ game is his playmaking. Giannis is averaging a career-high in assists this season, but his playmaking goes beyond that. Giannis just seems to be reading the floor and defensive rotations better. Everyone focuses on the jumper as the crack in Giannis’ game, but his playmaking has held him back in the postseason as well. This season has gone much better in that regard. Watch this play for example. After an offensive rebound and time go by to allow Boston to (somewhat) reset its defense, PJ Tucker (more on him later) nails Boston wing Semi Ojeleye with a screen to force Robert Williams III into guarding Giannis. As Giannis gets by Williams, his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo times a cut perfectly along the baseline as PJ Tucker rumbles to the rim, putting Jaylen Brown in a bind as to who he should guard. Brown chooses Tucker, so Giannis chooses Thanasis and the Bucks get a dunk out of the play. But it isn’t just these types of passes Giannis is making. With all the attention he gets, drive and kick opportunities, as well as finding slithering cutters, are at Giannis’ disposal. Every passing statistic listed on NBA.com, including secondary assists (I believe those would include what many who talk about the NBA deem ‘hockey assists,’ which is when one player’s pass leads into another pass which then leads to a bucket), potential assists, and assist points created have all improved this season on a per-game basis compared to last season for Giannis. This surely should translate into the postseason for Giannis and the Bucks. If it does, it’ll be way more difficult to slow either down.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not the only Buck who has seen his playmaking improve this season. Khris Middleton is also averaging a career-high in assists per game at 5.5 (he’s never averaged more than five a game before this season). Remember those extra passing stats that Giannis has improved in across the board this season compared to last season? The same can be said for the should’ve been All-Star Middleton as well. Middleton has not only processed the floor quicker than he normally has, but he’s also become more daring and confident in his playmaking abilities. Here, for example, he slides this pass in between Markieff Morris’ legs to find Brook Lopez for a monster dunk. He and Giannis have further developed their chemistry when they go into their pick and roll dance. We know Middleton can score with the best of them (he was 0.3 percentage points short of joining the 50/40/90 club last season and is hovering around that area again this season), but the improvement we’ve seen in his ball-handling and play-making has raised the ceiling of his game and the Bucks as a whole. Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer further broke down Middleton’s game and his improvement in this video far better than I could. Watch it and you’ll get a much greater grasp of how much Middleton has improved this season.

When the Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday for all they paid for, I was a bit skeptical. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Jrue and am a big fan of his, but I wondered if he was the right player for the Bucks to get. Jrue is a good, not great playmaker and shooter, and felt those were areas the Bucks needed a bigger boost. Turns out, that skepticism was incredibly stupid, especially with the leaps in playmaking we’ve seen from and talked about from the Bucks’ two other stars. Holiday gives the Bucks an extra scoring dimension they sorely lacked from their backcourt since they let Malcolm Brogdon walk, and that was all apparent in Saturday Night’s game against the Kings where Jrue Holiday went off for a season-high 33 points and 11 assists while shooting 14-23 from the field. To have *another* guy who can get into the paint and take pressure off of Giannis and Middleton, create stress for opposing defenses, and set up great shots for those two and the others on the court have been a Godsend for the Bucks. With Giannis and Middleton in the fold as well, that’s almost always going to force opposing teams to have guards defend Holiday, which would open up his post game. This play is from a year ago, but watch how easy Jrue Holiday discards and plows through Ja Morant on the post. Among players who have logged at least 20 post-ups this season, only four generate more points per possession than Holiday: Nikola Vucevic, Robin Lopez, Kevin Durant, and Gordon Hayward. The post-up is generally not an efficient play anymore, but when you have a clear-cut size advantage and someone who can be efficient out of there, why not use it? Especially if you’re a team like the Bucks that have had their offense stuck in the mud in the playoffs. Jrue Holiday gives the Bucks *another* way to score and create offense. On top of this, Holiday is shooting 39% from deep, tied for the best mark of his career. So, Holiday is demolishing smaller guards in the post, creating as a ball-handler, *and* stretching the floor for Giannis to rampage the rim? Oh, don’t forget about how he routinely puts the clamps on dynamic guards across the association. No wonder why the Bucks gave Jrue Holiday the bag he undoubtedly deserves. He’s been everything the Bucks could’ve asked for.

Perhaps the biggest question now that we could have with the Bucks is for their coaching staff. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer has been severely outcoached by Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra for the last couple of postseasons because of his inability to adapt his philosophies. Luckily, he and the Bucks are FINALLY mixing things up. The Bucks are switching more screens to prepare themselves for the playoffs where they’ll need to switch more often than not. There have been growing pains but those reps will be worthwhile in the playoffs where hopefully these screws will be tightened. Trading for PJ Tucker surely will help in this regard. Take this play as an example where he forces the Celtics into a tough three after switching onto Kemba Walker late in the clock. Getting Tucker will be huge in a potential matchup against the Brooklyn Nets where I imagine he’ll get thrown at Kevin Durant the same way he did in Houston during the Rockets’ duels with the Warriors. It will also allow the Bucks to play Giannis at center more than they did a year ago. Last season, the Bucks played about 305 minutes with Giannis at the center spot. This season they’re only at 92 minutes but have only had Tucker for three games since acquiring him. Hopefully, we see more of those minutes with Giannis at the center spot because it makes the Bucks even more versatile than they already are.

The Bucks still have questions to answer. Will Budenholzer adjust in the playoffs? Can Giannis be the go-to guy he has to be in crunch time? Are Middleton and Holiday capable of creating the shots the Bucks need them to create? Many won’t answer ‘yes’ until they see it with their eyes in the postseason. I think that’s a little unfair to diminish what the Bucks are doing in this regular season. They’ve worked on what’s been asked of them to work upon and look as dangerous as they’ve ever been. Sure, the Nets are the favorites in the East; the Sixers or Heat could take them down too. But what the Bucks are doing and how they’re playing deserves to be recognized and talked about as serious title contenders. If this translates into the postseason, they very well could be the ones hoisting the trophy when all is said and done. Perhaps you could say this year’s Bucks are/will be the NBA equivalent of the Zack Snyder cut of ‘Justice League.’