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Steph Curry just won Finals MVP for the now once-again champion Golden State Warriors. Steph did just about everything imaginable on the hardwood, but he did not finish with the highest net rating during the Finals nor the highest plus-minus. No, this is not me trying to take away his Finals MVP more so than hyping up someone who did all the little things like setting tough screens, versatility defensively, and being able to keep the Golden State offensive machine humming. No, it wasn’t Andrew Wiggins either. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson did all those things too, but they didn’t finish first in those regards either. Of course, I’m talking about Kevon Looney.

Kevon Looney was +48 in 130 minutes during the NBA Finals. The Warriors boasted a +23.7 Net Rating when he was on the floor. Looney never did anything spectacular. He’s not a leaper, and you could see many players where lobs or layup attempts at the rim went begging due to his lack of athleticism. But Looney is solid in every area. He’s a good enough passer to capitalize on the advantages Steph and Golden State’s shooting provides him. If you try him 1v1 you’re probably not beating him. He held serve on the glass against Robert Williams III and Al Horford after wiping out Memphis and Dallas’ frontcourts devouring them with offensive rebounds. He knows where to be defensively protecting the rim.

Kevon Looney is just solid in so many areas. Luckily for other NBA teams who missed out on Looney in 2015 (though he is about to be a free agent), there’s a big man in the 2022 Draft who is built from a similar blueprint. That would be Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams.

Charging the Defense

Like Looney, Williams is not a vertical or explosive athlete. But he makes up for it by reading the game at a very high level. Defensively, that comes by positioning himself a step ahead of the offense. That’s how he was able to take 54 charges (as well as the block/charge rule being broken in college basketball).

You could argue some of those should be considered a block. Sometimes Williams would get blocks on plays he beats drivers to the rim but tried to get a charge instead of just contesting the shot. But there are plenty of clips of him shutting off drives or pick-and-rolls positioning himself just like that. That positioning helps him defend on the perimeter too. He finds the balance of not giving enough space to let shooters shoot while also not pressing them into blowing by him. His mobility allows him to cover a lot of ground.

Inverted Playmaking

Jaylin Williams is stout defensively, but he’s very polished offensively as well. Williams’ best skill is his passing. He averaged 2.9 career assists per 40-minutes compared to 2.3 turnovers, a fine number for a guard but a great mark for a center. His 13.3-percent assist percentage is well above the NBA average of roughly 11-percent. For added context, both of Williams’ playmaking numbers best the career playmaking numbers of Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis. Davis averaged 2.2 career assists per 40-minutes and an assist percentage of 12.5-percent. Getting guard-like passing out of your center allows for teams to open their offense and deploy that center in numerous ways to get easy looks.

That’s exactly what Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman did with Jaylin Williams. Sometimes, Williams would operate as the halfcourt fulcrum for Arkansas at the elbow while the rest of the players on the floor would look to spring a teammate free as a cutter. Williams had no problem finding those cutters. Sometimes, that meant finding someone like Justin Smith converging to the rim from the wing…

… Sometimes, Williams would find a cutter sliding from the baseline from the other side of the court, as he does here. Stanley Umude sets a flare screen off the ball on JD Notae’s man. Umude’s man doesn’t communicate with Notae’s man. By the time Notae’s man gets around Umude’s screen, Notae’s gone and Williams finds him to get Arkansas a layup.

That’s not the only way Jaylin Williams’ passing excels. In a pick and roll league, screeners need to be able to scan the floor for open shooters once the ballhandler is forced to get rid of the ball. Luckily, Williams shines there too. And here’s a good example of him doing exactly that. Third-team All-American JD Notae gets trapped so dumps it off to Williams. Williams, under control (he was great all year at staying under control on rolls and not barrelling into defenders for charges), waits until Au’Diese Toney slips to the rim as his man rotates over to Williams. Williams sees it and then slips it to Toney to get him a dunk.

Grounded Rolling

That composure on rolls feeds into Williams’ lack of explosion and overall skill in his game. He’s not going to beat defenses over the top as a lob threat like Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo but he does have a soft touch on short rolls. If the defense rotates over and doesn’t leave shooters, Williams has no problem lofting a floater over the defender. The threat of scoring unlocks kick-outs for threes or dump-offs for dunks so this is an important shot to have as a center. Williams has it.

Jaylin Williams isn’t a lob threat but he can still punch it if he’s got a head of steam on short rolls too. Paolo Banchero needs no reminders. Devo Davis got Mark Williams to bite on a shot here. Davis bails out of the shot and dumps it to Williams as he embarks on the rim. Duke’s defense behind Mark Williams so Jaylin Williams went for the dunk and threw it down on Banchero’s head.

You can see Williams’ lack of explosion in traffic, however. Williams’ touch around the rim is good and knows how to use the rim and angles to find intricate finishes near the rim on rolls or camping at the dunker spot. But, can be discombobulated by longer and more athletic bigs. This is a good example. On the move, he can’t get by Auburn’s Walker Kessler. Instead, he gets enveloped by Kessler and blocked.

Shooting in Progress

Playmaking isn’t the only area Jaylin Williams can contribute offensively. Williams is not a great shooter but he’s capable. His 25.5-percent mark from deep may not reflect it but he has good touch around the rim (as shown above), looks comfortable shooting midrange jumpers, and boasts a career 73.1-percent percentage from the free-throw line. His confidence as a shooter has yet to follow him past the three-point line. He will turn down shots in search of something better even. Sometimes, something better never comes. Other times, Arkansas got a layup or a better look. You admire Williams’ selflessness but becoming a more confident shooter would serve him very well in the NBA. When he lets it fly the shot looks pretty solid leaving his hands. He needs to improve as a shooter but there’s at least something to work with there.

Conclusion

Jaylin Williams may not be a top-flight athlete. He’s not the best stretch five out there. But, a lot like Golden State’s Kevon Looney, he’s just solid. He’s a very smart, well-rounded player who excels at amplifying the players around and making winning plays. It’s hard to find bigs who can stay on the floor in a playoff setting but I have none of those concerns with Jaylin Williams. The NBA is going away from bigs but having one who can contribute in those settings is and will continue to be invaluable. I recently asked Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman where Jaylin Williams could go in the 2022 NBA Draft and he speculated Williams is more likely to last until the second round. 

I think that is likely with how the center position is valued in comparison to guards and wings. But, every team in the 20s could use additional center depth and this year’s center class is not overly deep. I could see one of the teams starting with the Spurs at 20 draft Jaylin Williams and looking to fill other positions with later picks or via free agency. If that does indeed happen, Williams is more than worthy. We do all of this to be the ones holding up the trophy when all is said and done. Why not draft someone who can give a team what one of the most reliable players on a great team gave to help win a championship?

For the third time in 373 days, we will have an NBA season to watch. Seems crazy, but thus the world that we live in. A new NBA season is here, with plenty of predictions and takes to follow. Every year I put out who I think will make the playoffs and win awards at the end of the season. This year, I’ll be doing so in addition to picking over/under lines for each team. We’ll get to revisit this at the end of the season to see how wrong I ultimately will be, but for now, let’s have some fun. Happy new NBA season everyone!

NBA 2021-22 Over/Under Predictions:

Atlanta Hawks (46.5): Over

Brooklyn Nets (56.5): Over

Boston Celtics (45.5): Over

Charlotte Hornets (38.5): Over

Chicago Bulls (42.5): Under

Cleveland Cavaliers (26.5): Over

Dallas Mavericks (48.5): Under

Denver Nuggets (47.5): Under

Detroit Pistons (24.5): Under

Golden State Warriors (48.5): Under

Houston Rockets (27.5): Under

Indiana Pacers (42.5): Under

Los Angeles Clippers (42.5): Under

Los Angeles Lakers (51.5): Over

Memphis Grizzlies (41.5): Over

Miami Heat (48.5): Under

Minnesota Timberwolves (34.5): Over

New Orleans Pelicans (39.5): Under

New York Knicks (41.5): Over

Oklahoma City Thunder (24.5): Under

Orlando Magic (23.5): Under

Philadelphia 76ers (50.5): Under

Phoenix Suns (51.5): Over

Portland Trail Blazers (44.5): Under

San Antonio Spurs (28.5): Under

Sacramento Kings (36.5): Under

Toronto Raptors (35.5): Over

Utah Jazz (51.5): Over

Washington Wizards (33.5): Over

NBA 2021-22 Playoff Picks

 

East

1) Brooklyn Nets

2) Milwaukee Bucks

3) Atlanta Hawks

4) Boston Celtics

5) Miami Heat

6) New York Knicks

7) Philadelphia 76ers

8) Charlotte Hornets

9) Chicago Bulls

10) Toronto Raptors

 

West

 

1) Utah Jazz

2) Los Angeles Lakers

3) Phoenix Suns

4) Denver Nuggets

5) Golden State Warriors

6) Dallas Mavericks

7) Memphis Grizzlies

8) Los Angeles Clippers

9) Portland Trail Blazers

10) Minnesota Timberwolves

 

Finals: Brooklyn Nets vs Los Angeles Lakers: Nets 4-2

 

NBA 2021-22 Awards Predictions

MVP: Kevin Durant SF BKN

MIP: OG Anunoby SF TOR

6MOY: Tyler Herro SG MIA

COY: Nate McMillan ATL

DPOY: Anthony Davis PF/C LAL

ROY: Cade Cunningham SF DET

The notion that the Green Bay Packers ‘wasted’ the prime of all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers has irked me as a fan of the Packers. Rodgers has had more playoff losses come from the last play of that certain game than not. He’s always had a stellar offensive line and at least one All-Pro caliber receiver to throw to for just about all his tenure. He now has a running game after years without one. The Packers’ defense has stabilized into competence at the very least, but not good enough to get over the hump. That was a big reason why they couldn’t get past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game earlier this January.

Yet there surely were seasons that Aaron Rodgers dragged the Packers single-handedly into places they didn’t belong. The 2016 season is a prime example. After starting the season 4-6 with a running game so barren that Rodgers trailed converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery by just 88 yards for the team’s most rushing yards on the season and a secondary so decimated that poor LaDarius Gunter was forced to shadow cover the great Julio Jones, which went about as well as the Hulk trying to fight Thanos in ‘Infinity War.’ Despite it all, Rodgers still carried that team to the NFC Championship, where they got routed by Julio and crew by a final score of 44-21. That Packers team had no business being there, but in a results-oriented business, success buys you time. Rodgers dragging that team (and the next couple of Packers teams after that in seasons where Rodgers didn’t get injured) into the playoffs bought then-head coach Mike McCarthy and the late general manager Ted Thompson extra seasons despite hindsight suggesting they should’ve been gone long before. 

Which gets us to Portland. It would’ve been very easy for the Portland Trail Blazers to fire now-fired head coach Terry Stotts in the summer of 2018 after the Anthony Davis-led New Orleans Pelicans wiped the floor with them in a dejecting four-game sweep despite being the lower seed in that series. Reports suggest Stotts nearly was in fact canned after that series but survived the flames after Lillard went to bat for him. Lillard’s faith in Stotts was repaid with a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but they were swept there too against a Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors squad despite holding a lead in every fourth quarter of that series.

Things have stagnated drastically since then. It isn’t much of a surprise; the Blazers have a predictable, pick-and-roll-laden offense without a competent defense to back it up. Portland’s possessions were consumed by pick-and-rolls at the 7th-most frequent rate during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They have been in the top ten in that department in every season since the 2015-16 season. Now, it does make sense to play to your players’ strengths, and Lillard is one of the best we have in the league today at slicing defenses in the pick-and-roll, but more variety has been needed, especially without much of a defense to hold the Blazers’ offense down. Since the 2015-16 season, the Blazers have finished with a top ten defense just one time and that was the year they got swept by the Pelicans in the first round. This season they finished 29th in the NBA in defensive rating. If you’re asking yourself if it is bad that only one team was worse than you in something, I’d like to entrench in your brain that yes, that is very very bad.

To be fair, the Blazers have tried to bolster their defense. Trading for Jusuf Nurkic to anchor the rim worked out at first, but he hasn’t been anywhere near the same on that end since breaking his leg. They signed Derrick Jones Jr. using their midlevel exception in the 2020 offseason, but he (strangely) got worked out of the rotation. The Blazers traded two first-round picks for Robert Covington, but I never understood that move either. Covington had routinely been hunted in his previous playoff expenditures. Despite averaging more than a steal and a block a game, Covington is not an elite 1v1 stopper, which is what the Blazers. Trading two first-round picks for him was like an NFL team asking a safety to go shadow an opposing team’s best wide receiver. The fit just wasn’t there, and Covington’s arrival did not help the Blazers’ defense much at all, which is a shame because just a couple of players who would’ve been available with Portland’s first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, to name a few) could’ve helped in this regard immediately while still having the talent to develop. Trading Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell seemed like a lateral move in this regard too. Once Jones Jr. starting racking up DNP-CDs, there was no one left on Portland’s roster that they could count on to get stops. It was all too evident in the Blazers’ first-round series against a decimated Denver Nuggets roster. Sure, it is difficult to stop presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic, but once he’d get Jusuf Nurkic in foul trouble (which happened in every game the Blazers lost in this series), there’d be nothing left to stop Jokic from steamrolling through everybody, freeing up opportunities for his teammates. It would be one thing to get burnt by Jamal Murray; Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Austin Rivers doing it to ya is completely unacceptable.

That leads me to the Blazers’ front office. I don’t feel like GM Neil Olshey has gotten enough heat for the Blazers’ yearly underachieving outside of Lillard. So many pieces on this team are redundant: what do Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons provide that they don’t already have in Dame’s backcourt running mate in CJ McCollum? How is it satisfactory to think a Carmelo Anthony – Enes Kanter frontcourt can get enough stops against anybody to think it’s a good idea to pair them together. With how valuable first-round picks are, is Robert Covington really worth two of them? I haven’t even mentioned how Olshey signed Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu to big, cap-draining deals in the summer of the cap spike in 2016. His drafting has often missed the mark for me as well. Trading up to acquire Zach Collins in 2017 has turned out to be a great move (he traded the picks that became Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III to get Collins); it isn’t Olshey’s fault that Collins has been perpetually injured. But drafting Anfernee Simons, for as talented as he is, as a turbo-charged scoring combo guard when you already have two players starting in that mold was puzzling instead of emphasizing defense. Do you think Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, or De’Anthony Melton wouldn’t be useful there? Olshey did also draft Gary Trent Jr. in the second round, but still. The 2019 Draft wasn’t exactly rosy either. Five-star top ten recruit Nassir Little fell farther than he probably should’ve in that draft, but the book on him was that he was a very raw prospect. A team that looks at itself as a contender doesn’t have time to develop raw players like Little, especially since the Blazers don’t have a G League team. Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr., Daniel Gafford, and Terance Mann all got drafted after Little, and all except for Porter Jr. (who would also be quite redundant on this team) contributed towards their teams’ efforts of competing in the postseason. The urgency to surround Lillard with players that fit around him and fix the glaring holes of the roster has been nonexistent. Terry Stotts did not do enough to get the job done as the head coach, but he also always had to deal with a flawed roster from the start of seasons. That isn’t his fault. Olshey has to do better or else he’ll be the next to go (if he even gets the chance that Stotts didn’t get).

The Blazers are down their 2021 first-round pick but will have all their picks after that. The Blazers are already capped out with contracts due to Norman Powell and Zach Collins or risk losing them for nothing. Only Anfernee Simons could have positive trade value on their roster outside of CJ McCollum, but there aren’t many paths to getting an upgrade at the talent and fit without dealing extra assets alongside McCollum himself. If McCollum’s trade market proves cool, would Portland seriously consider their franchise icon in Damian Lillard? It probably wouldn’t come without Lillard himself asking out, but he’s been hell-bent on staying in Portland up to this point. I don’t think it’s impossible, however. It would be a crushing blow if that were to happen. But no one would blame Lillard for making that move. Portland has done little to nothing right to bolster his surrounding cast. The path to a championship looks as arduous as walking a tightrope that is connecting two cliffs with miles of separation in between. It might (likely?) never come for a player who has given his all for that team and that city.

The Trail Blazers need change. The change probably should’ve come a few years ago but is coming now. More should be forthcoming. Damian Lillard has dragged the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason for multiple years now. The Blazers need to give him a better cast to help him compete deep into the playoffs. Failing to do so will mean squandering the great gifts and talents their franchise icon possesses.

The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. Four installments of this miniseries have been completed, and now is time for the grand finale. Our last playoff primer is going to look at James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets.

It may seem weird that a team with one superstar and another all-star in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would *need* another superstar like James Harden, but the Nets kind of do. James Harden is one of the five best playmakers in the NBA. You can only count on a single finger the number of playmakers you’d prefer over Harden. That’s it. He’s that good. And he’s made a difference doing exactly that in Brooklyn.

Kevin Durant is many things, but he’s not the kind of player I’d want bringing the ball up the floor all night. He’s just not that type of player. Kyrie Irving isn’t exactly either. Both are dynamic scorers, guys whose priorities aren’t to get others the best shot possible. Durant and Irving are certainly capable; you don’t get to where these guys are in the league without it. But neither is as good at it as Harden. Lots of times you can see Durant or Irving pound the ball into traffic or be a second too late making the correct read. This play here is a good example of such a transgression. Durant gets trapped in the pick and roll by Kenrich Williams and Isaiah Roby of his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant takes two dribbles only to be seduced directly into the trap, where he is forced to pass to his release valve in Jarrett Allen (now on the Cleveland Cavaliers), only for the pass to be picked off by Hamidou Diallo (now on the Detroit Pistons). 

James Harden has seen this type of defensive look millions of times. Way more weird and aggressive types of looks, at that. He better handles these situations and puts Durant and Irving (and the millions of shooters and lob threats the Nets have) in their proper spots: to get buckets. The Nets’ assist percentage and assist ratio both improve when Harden is on the floor alongside both Durant and Irving as opposed when he isn’t, according to NBA.com. The Nets’ Net Rating jumps from +5.3 to +7.2 when those two stars gain Harden on the floor. There’s a reason why the Nets have gone just 6-5 in games Durant and Irving have shared the floor together without Harden, according to Statmuse. Playmaking chops go a big way in the postseason, and Harden has it.

As for the limited amount of time these three have shared on the court this season, I don’t think that is as big a deal. In the entire regular season, Durant, Harden, and Irving have played a combined 202 minutes. That’s it. That’s less than the run time for the first season of ‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier.’ But I think the Nets will be fine. The biggest dynamic that could ruin the chemistry with this team was if Kyrie Irving were to get disgruntled with the number of touches he got in a given game. That became a moot point very quickly after Irving told Harden that Harden is and should be the point guard of this team. It also helped that of all the All-Star two-man pairings, the duo that played the most amount of games for the Nets this season was Harden and Irving. Those two played 500 minutes together without Durant on the floor this season, and were +35 in those minutes with a Net Rating of +2.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Once those two got comfortable with each other’s games, all the roles on the team coalesced into their proper spots. Durant is arguably the most malleable player in the NBA. He will fit in wherever, whenever, however, the team needs him to. No one is ever going to be able to stop Durant from getting buckets. But if the chemistry between those other two were ever going to cause a rift within the team, that would hold the Nets back more than anything. Obviously, that seems far from the case. 

If the Nets have a problem that could hinder their chances of winning the title, it would be on the defensive end of the floor. Just about no one on the team outside of Bruce Brown is exactly who you would call a stopper. The Nets’ defensive rating allows teams to score 113.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, ranking 22nd in the entire NBA. Since the NBA began tracking this stuff, only two teams have won the championship with a defensive rating outside of the top 10: the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers who dogged the regular season and also coincidentally finished with the 22nd ranked defense only to go 15-1 in the playoffs to finish off a repeat, and the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors, who drastically failed from being a top 10 defense by ending the year with the… 11th ranked defense. But this is the bed they made by trading for James Harden. They built this team under the same goal and premise Houston built Harden’s former Rockets squads: we’re going to win by out-scoring you. Except instead of Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook surrounded by guys that shoot a lot of threes but don’t make as many as you’d want them to make, the Nets gave Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and a poop-ton of awesome shooters. Offense has been inflated this season and in the last couple of seasons, but that approach has resulted in the Nets boasting the most efficient offense of all time. I guess you can make that work! Whether they can get the requisite stops in the postseason remains to be seen, but few teams have the capabilities to match their firepower, that’s for sure.

It’s funny and fitting that James Harden is the last name I bring up to watch in the 2021 playoffs. This season began with Harden violating health and safety protocols in an attempt to force his way away from the sinking ship that was the Houston Rockets and create the latest super-team of the modern era. Harden has made two conference finals as a star since getting to the Finals as the sixth man in Oklahoma City. He’s had great playoff games, but not many signature moments that will remain in our memories forever. He had the block on Luguentz Dort in the first round of the playoffs a year ago but proceeded to be handed a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in their route to a championship. Harden has had many flameouts, most notably a 2-11 doozy against the San Antonio Spurs that was so bad that ESPN’s Stephen A Smith said James Harden looked like he was ‘drugged’ on the floor. Who can forget Houston missing 27 consecutive threes in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals? It’s why he worked his way to get to Brooklyn. It’s why all three of their stars did. Kyrie Irving’s last game as a Boston Celtic was one of the most dreadful performances I’ve ever seen. Almost everyone (not me) applies an asterisk with Kevin Durant’s rings in Golden State. This is all three of those guys’ chances at redemption. All three of them have something to prove. To me, all three of those guys’ fates lays upon the shoulders of James Harden. Whether or not he can deliver is the single thing I’m looking forward to finding out the most in the NBA playoffs.

The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. We’re onto part three of our miniseries, this time touching up on Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns.

The Suns have been a powerhouse all season long. They’ve got the NBA’s sixth-best offense and defense, a sure sign of this team’s contender status. They have an MVP candidate in Chris Paul, who surely won’t win it because of Nikola Jokic’s dominance in Denver, but Paul will definitely appear on ballots. Devin Booker is now a multiple-time All-Star. Players like Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne, Cam Johnson, and Jevon Carter can bring a jolt any given night, while veterans like Jae Crowder and Dario Saric bring stability and sturdiness. Not a lot is missing from this Suns squad, but consistency from Ayton has been at times, but can’t be in the playoffs.

That isn’t to say Deandre Ayton has had a bad season by any means. He’s had a very good one, even if the stats don’t exactly bear it out. Nearly every individual statistic is down from a year ago except for field goal percentage, where Ayton is shooting a career-high 62.6% from the field. It pays well for bigs to play alongside Chris Paul. Ayton can do a little bit of everything offensively. As I mentioned earlier, playing with Chris Paul has done wonders as a roll-man and lob threat in the pick and roll, where Ayton has generated 1.39 points per possession, according to data derived from Synergy via NBA.com. That number ranks tied for the third-best mark in the entire NBA among players who have recorded at least 50 tracked possessions as the roll man. Ayton’s shooting touch hasn’t quite extended out to the three-point line, but he’s capable of hitting the occasional jumper. He’s a slick passer when operating from the mid-post out to the elbows. Ayton also is a got-damn force on the offensive glass. Boxing him out is a chore.

The same versatility applies to the defensive end of the floor. Deandre Ayton always was pretty frisky defending out on the perimeter dating back to his days at Arizona, and that has translated into the NBA. Phoenix can get away with Ayton guarding primary threats and force either a turnover or a tough shot. Where Ayton has really improved significantly is positioning himself manning down the paint in pick and roll coverages. This here is a great example. He sees Jimmy Butler attacking the rim but doesn’t commit too far towards Butler. Ayton commits *just enough* to make Butler dish the rock to his All-Star teammate Bam Adebayo, who has his shot swallowed by Ayton’s verticality at the rim. Deandre Ayton ranks fifth among all centers in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric. Plays like that are a good reason why.

Deandre Ayton is capable of two-way dominance. The reason why I chose to highlight him is mostly whether or not Ayton actually puts all of these gifts he possesses together. Ayton has made many strides this season but will also fall under spells of action where he does not bring anywhere near the force he’s capable of providing in any given possession. Every possession matters in the postseason, something Deandre Ayton will learn soon enough. Sometimes he will lose track of his man defensively. Sometimes he gets beat off the bounce by a springy guard. We know he’s capable of shutting offenses dead in their tracks, but Ayton can get caught off guard at times or not play up to his capabilities. Phoenix’s defense this season has actually been better when Ayton has been OFF of the floor as opposed to when he’s been on it this season, according to NBA.com. Granted, Ayton this stat is sort of noisy starts games and often plays against better offensive talent as opposed to backup bigs Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky, but I also wouldn’t totally write that off as nothing either.

Deandre Ayton not displaying the full capabilities of his force shows up mostly on the offensive end of the floor, however. Ayton’s defense will certainly be vital, but I think he will bring it on that end. He’ll have to step it up offensively, however. Playoff basketball is tough. It can get very physical. When you have a seven-foot, 250-pound mack-truck, that thing has to wear people down. Grind fouls, slow the game down, etc. That isn’t Deandre Ayton’s game at all. Yes, he’s a menace on the offensive glass, but he often bails defenders out on the post. This here is a good example. Deandre Ayton gets the smaller Jimmy Butler mismatched on the block. Now, Butler is a super-strong son of a gun in his own right, but Ayton should be able to move him back when he’s got nearly half a foot and 20 pounds on Butler. Instead, the exact opposite happens, and Ayton’s shot gets blocked from behind by Bam Adebayo. This happens a lot with Ayton. Even with a massive size advantage, Ayton looks to the post-fadeaway as opposed to running smaller dudes over. You’d think it’d be impossible for a skilled starting center to average less than three free throws a game, yet Deandre Ayton has managed to pull that feat off each of the first three seasons of his career! Ayton ranks in the 47th percentile in points per possession generated on a post-up, according to Synergy data via NBA.com (0.94 PPP). Last season he was even worse, finishing in the 21st percentile (0.78 PPP), dead last among players with at least 150 such possessions. At least in his rookie season, Ayton finished in the 75th percentile (1.03 PPP), showing he is capable of being effective and efficient down there. I’m not sure how he dropped off that far from his rookie season to now, but he’ll need to rectify that once the playoffs come along.

Deandre Ayton has come a long way from looking lost in his rookie season. He’s become a well-rounded versatile player on both ends of the floor. Getting a taste of the playoffs will only help in his trajectory as a basketball player. However, he still has his limitations, enough to make me skeptical of Phoenix’s chances of making a deep playoff run. It’ll be tough from the jump where they’ll be the lucky contestants standing in the way of either LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Los Angeles Lakers or Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors. Some reward for the second seed! But even if the Suns flame out in the playoffs, even making it there for the first time in 11 years and winning 50 games in a shrunken season will already have made this year a success, and Ayton has been a big part of it. Hopefully, he puts all of his physical traits together and leads the Suns on a deep playoff run. If not, he’ll learn what he needs to improve upon to help Phoenix eventually get there.

The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year some players step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. Part one of our miniseries will focus on Dennis Schröder of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Dennis Schröder was brought to the Lakers for one primary reason: to take pressure off of LeBron James while playing alongside him. Nobody could’ve reasonably expected Schröder to shoulder a gargantuan offensive load with both James and Anthony Davis injured for most of the regular season, but Schröder certainly had his moments, including a 25 point, 13 assist performance on the road against the Dallas Mavericks that served as one of the bigger games on the Lakers’ regular-season schedule. But Schröder has been a seamless fit when he has been able to play alongside his superstar teammates. The Lakers’ Net Rating is +12.4 when Schröder is on the court with James and Davis this season, according to NBA.com, a fantastic number. Though their Net Rating falls to -2.6 when both of those stars sit, the Lakers will likely stagger their stars in the postseason much like they did on their championship run a year ago. In either case, Schroder has and should continue to make it work. When Schröder is out there with LeBron and no Davis, the Lakers’ Net Rating sits at +5.8. Though the Lakers’ Net Rating when Schröder and Davis share the floor without LeBron is -4.3, Davis has only now played like the Anthony Davis we’ve been accustomed to seeing. That number is concerning, but I believe that will improve, and isn’t exactly all Schröder’s fault. While he’s been overtaxed as the alpha option for the Lakers’ offense, Dennis Schröder has been everything the Lakers could have reasonably expected from Schröder as the third option behind LeBron and Davis.

What appeals the most about Dennis Schröder’s offensive skillset is his ability to be a weapon both with and without the ball, critical with LeBron eating up most of the Lakers’ possessions and Anthony Davis receiving a similar load. Schroder is shooting 36.3% on catch-and-shoot threes this season, according to NBA.com. No one is going to mistake Schröder for Steph Curry, but that will earn the defense’s respect enough to make them pay if they cheat off of Schröder to help on James or Davis. That number could even bump up in the postseason once he’s catching pristine passes from LeBron. Last season, Schröder hit catch-and-shoot threes at a 41% clip while on the receiving end of another all-time facilitator in Chris Paul as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether Schröder meets that mark of a year ago, stays where he’s been at this season or meets somewhere in the middle, it’s apparent that Schröder is a threat back there and will need to be accounted for.

But where Dennis Schröder’s bread gets buttered is in the pick and roll game, where he’s a threat to both score and create for others. When LeBron James was yearning for the Cavaliers to acquire another bleeping playmaker a few years ago, a player like Schröder is who he had in mind. Schröder is a very shifty and creative player. He’s very good at using his speed to get by his man and mixes it up very well with a patient and smooth floater or pull-up jumper to keep defenders off balance. Schröder is shooting a great 48.7% from the midrange this season, according to NBA.com. When Schröder can’t get to the rim, he’ll make you pay and keep defenses honest chucking at the elbows. Another way he keeps defenses honest is as a playmaker. While Schröder isn’t the greatest playmaker out there, Schröder is still a very good one, capable of bending defenses and manipulating defenders to find open shooters. When operating in duets with his big men, he routinely goes to the bounce pass while they’re on the move to serve the ball on a platter for them to finish the play. Dennis Schröder is averaging 0.87 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler over the course of 414 possessions, according to data accumulated by Synergy via NBA.com. While that mark only places him in the 55th percentile, we do have to account for LeBron and Davis both not being available for most of the season. Even still, that mark is better than that of any Laker from a year ago, not anything near the volume that Schröder has accumulated this season.

The Lakers didn’t just acquire Schröder for help on the offensive end, however. Schröder has fit like a glove defensively for a team that prides itself on that end of the floor. He almost always takes on the opposing teams’ best players, even if those guys are big, towering wings like the Kawhi Leonards of the world. That type of physicality Schröder can withstand was apparent at the end of a game in early January against the San Antonio Spurs. With less than 50 seconds to go, Schröder was matched up with the ever slept-on DeMar DeRozan. Despite Schröder’s size not doing him in any favors (DeRozan is 6’6” 220lbs; Schröder is 6’3” 172lbs), Schröder withstands the contact and forces DeRozan into a tough midrange fadeaway that he airballs. All of this came after he straight up swatted a Patty Mills jumper at the end of the shot clock a couple of possessions prior. The Lakers’ defense still sits at the top of the league despite prolonged absences from LeBron and Davis, and Schröder is a big reason why. 

The Lakers brought Dennis Schröder in to take pressure off of their two superstars on both ends of the floor. The context for his arrival only grew in importance after those two superstars got injured. Anthony Davis is just now rounding into form, as evidenced by consecutive 40 point explosions and grinding through a game against the New York Knicks after tweaking his groin. LeBron James only appeared in two games coming off of his high ankle sprain only to tweak that as well and miss more games. James has yet to return since. Dennis Schröder himself is heading into the postseason while missing time after being placed in the Health and Safety protocols on May 3rd. Schröder only returned for the last two games of the regular season against the Indiana Pacers and the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe this could mess with his timing, but it also could be a blessing in disguise that Schröder had nearly two weeks to recover his body. But that doesn’t change the fact that Schröder is and will be very important in the Lakers’ hopes of repeating as NBA Champions for the third time in the new millennium. He’s already shown he’s been a great fit in the regular season with this crew; now he’s got to do it in the postseason. I like his chances of doing so, starting with the Golden State Warriors and the newly-minted play-in format, and helping the Lakers win ball games.

Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic blasted the notion of the NBA’s newly-minted play-in system three weeks, adding that he ‘didn’t understand the idea of the play-in.’ Just last night, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James took that sentiment a step further, saying that whoever came up with the idea of the play-in ‘should be fired.’ While hilarious that these quotes came out only while the teams of those respective players were in danger of having to play in the play-in and confirming that there is a little bit of Stugotz in everybody, it does let us the viewers know that this idea is not exactly what you’d call popular amongst some players. Maybe you could quibble with the fact that this new system was introduced in a truncated 72 game season where games are stacked on top of each other like a house of cards. Fair. But these quotes also confirm that the play-in system is working and likely won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

For those unfamiliar with how this play-in system works, here’s a little debriefing. Teams seeded 1-6 in each conference are automatically berthed into the playoffs. Teams 7-8 play each other in a head-to-head with the winner of that game earning the 7 seed. Seeds 9-10 square off in a single-elimination game akin to the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. The loser goes home, and the winner faces the loser of the 7-8 matchup. The winner of that game earns the 8 seed, and the loser earns a vacation to Cancun if vacations are still a thing during the age of COVID-19.

This system is working for a myriad of reasons, one being the disincentive to tanking. While tanking is still going on (look no further than Oklahoma City’s 57 point loss to the Indiana Pacers during the weekend. Yes, you read that right. Fifty-seven.), it isn’t as rampant as we got accustomed to prior to the NBA adjusted the lottery odds in September of 2017 that took place for the 2018-19 season. Before the 2019 Draft Lottery, the Knicks, Cavaliers, Suns, and Bulls (in that order) finished with the four worst records in the NBA. With the lottery drawing for the top four picks, only one of those four bottom-feeders (at the time) picked inside the top four: the Knicks at the three spot, eventually selecting RJ Barrett (having a very good season, by the way!). The Pelicans and Grizzlies, tied for the 8th-worst record in the league, both jumped into the top two to select Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, while the Lakers got the fourth pick and used it to trade for Anthony Davis.

Because of this rule change, tanking became a little more arduous. It’s one thing to tank and be able to draft Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; it’s another to tank for Coby White. Add this along with the chance to work your way into the playoffs, and tanking has suddenly become less en vogue than ever. Just look to those aforementioned teams in the Lakers and the Mavericks. The Lakers just lost back-to-back games to the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors, neither of whom would even qualify for the play-in had the season ended today. The Mavericks have lost three games to the Kings in the span of two weeks. The Lakers lost to the Wizards on Wednesday, currently holders of the 10 seed in the East, but the Wizards dropped one to the Mavericks on Saturday in an absolute thriller. Would that game be as intense without both teams clearly playing for something at the end of the season? Who is to say.

Another reason the play-in is working is the built-in buffer for injuries or, particularly with this season, other absences. For example, Steph Curry of the Golden State has played in 56 of the Warriors’ 64 games this season. The Warriors are 1-7 in those games Steph has missed. Had Steph been healthy for the entirety of the Warriors’ season, their win percentage in games he has played multiplied over 64 games would put them at around 35 wins, one win behind the trio of the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers all tied for fifth in the West with 36 wins apiece. Instead, the Warriors are ninth in the West. Without the play-in, the Warriors would be out of the playoff field entirely at the moment (but only sit 0.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies). There are plenty of other examples of teams that have been ravaged by injuries or COVID-19 or both this season, too many to count. But the play-in gives them longer to get right and compete for a playoff berth.

Most importantly, though, what the play-in brings is added intrigue. For the reasons listed above, more teams are playing more high-stakes games. People want to see what happens at seeds 5-10 just as much as who finishes 1-4. I sure as hell know that as a Laker fan, I don’t want my team to play an extra game it doesn’t have to play, but it is a very real possibility that happens. Commissioner Adam Silver has always wanted to implement elements of European soccer into the NBA and may have found a way to do so in the play-in. While the play-in isn’t as dramatic as relegation in European leagues from the top league to the second division for the bottom three teams of said league, it adds that sort of element to the seedings of the regular season. It makes the regular season matter. Isn’t that we as viewers wanted? That all of these games actually serve a purpose and aren’t just placeholders for the playoffs come every April, or May in this case. Every game matters, or at least matters more now, and that’s a good thing.

The end of NBA seasons of years prior have mostly felt like a drag. Outside of the race for the 8th seed, there hasn’t been much intrigue. Most playoff matchups are locked in, most teams on the outside are tanking for the future. The new play-in system the NBA has added has mostly eradicated all of those problems. The more teams playing for something, the better. Though star players like LeBron and Luka have railed against it, the likelihood is that it isn’t going away any time soon. If it adds legitimate intrigue to the end of each season, then we should be looking at that as a good thing.

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 NBA was gone, then came back, then was gone, now is back again! Though the 2019-20 season just ended two months ago, the 2020-21 season is set to tip-off! There always are certain characters who find ways to shift the shape of a certain NBA season. As has been a custom now, I have come up with a list of characters to watch to see how they can change the course of the season. Without further ado, here we go!

 

Chris Paul PG Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul may not have the rings to show for it, but all he does is win. He helped max out a crew of talented outcasts into a playoff birth last year in Oklahoma City. Now, he walks into a squad with clear and warranted playoff expectations. Remember when the Phoenix Suns were the talk of the NBA for taking the bubble by storm, handing everyone they played an L in the process? It may seem like ages ago, but that just 4 months ago, when the Suns decided to all-in on featuring shooting to go around their backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker. The starting lineup they featured in the bubble (Rubio-Booker-Mikal Bridges-Cam Johnson-DeAndre Ayton) only played 34 minutes before the bubble and went +23 in those minutes. Those minutes nearly tripled in the bubble, yet the success remained the same, with the Suns winning those minutes by 39 points

 

Finally getting a point guard in Ricky Rubio in the Valley did wonders for their star Devin Booker. The boulder of a playmaking burden was lifted a bit off of Booker’s shoulders and he was able to finally play and move without the ball for the first time since seemingly his lone college season in Lexington. Booker’s 29.4% usage rate was his lowest since the 2016-17 season. Uncoincidentally, last year was Booker’s most efficient season of his career, from an effective field goal, true shooting, and field goal percentage standpoint. Booker is a fantastic scorer and playmaker, averaging at least 6.5 assists per game in each of the last two seasons, but playing with a pure point guard seemed to elevate his game to a new level. Now, he’ll be playing with one of the best point guards of all-time.

 

Chris Paul may not be the MVP candidate he used to be, but he’s still good. A few months ago, I wrote about how he and fellow backcourt mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both seemed to relish playing with each other. Paul seemed like the Jedi master to his new padawan, but Paul still was an All-Star a year ago. I already highlighted the positive momentum the Suns are bringing into this season, but Paul is here to accelerate it. They need to continue to impress on the court to keep their homegrown star in Devin Booker in Phoenix. The Suns are not title contenders, but this is a pretty big season for them to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and the Suns bet big on Chris Paul to help get them there. Putting health aside, I think they can and will get there. The Suns need me to be right or else this season would be a big disappointment for them.

 

Steph Curry PG Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry is finally back, yet he finds himself on a Warrior team that looks like a shell of himself compared to Warriors’ teams of years past. I wrote more extensively on whether or not Curry can overcome it all to get the Warriors back in the playoffs. It is one of the biggest things I’m looking for this season.

 

Jrue Holiday PG/SG Milwaukee Bucks: Right or wrong, there might not be a player with more pressure heaped onto him than Jrue Holiday, in my opinion. The Bucks agree, after dishing three first-round picks to get him to help win a title and keep star Giannis Antetokounmpo around. They got one of those two chores done, and Holiday surely can help with the other. The Bucks sorely missed Malcolm Brogdon last year and now finally have a replacement for him, an upgrade at that (you could ask yourself if you’d rather just pay Brogdon as opposed to letting him walk and trading three future first-round picks and two pick swaps for Jrue Holiday, but that’s for another day). The loss of Brogdon meant Milwaukee was missing its best perimeter ballhandler and creator in the crucible of the postseason. Eric Bledsoe is a fine regular season player but has routinely turned into a pumpkin for three straight postseasons. Like J Cole once said, ‘fool me three times, bleep the peace sign.’ Jrue Holiday is not the shooter Brogdon is, but he sure as hell is better than Bledsoe there, so the fit should be a little snugger for Giannis. Both Bledsoe and Brogdon are great defensive players, but Jrue Holiday is one of the few guards that would be better on that end of the floor than either of those two.

 

Where Holiday should and needs to help the most is being able to create his own shot in the halfcourt. Giannis *can* do it but has his share of struggles the moment he meets someone who can match his size and physicality. We saw the limits of Khris Middleton being your primary creator once the Bucks’ series against the Miami Heat came to its conclusion. But Jrue Holiday should help in this regard. In the 2017-18 playoffs, Jrue Holiday generated 0.93 points per possession as the pick and roll ball-handler, according to NBA.com. In the 2020 postseason, no Buck generated more than 0.75 points per possession. Jrue Holiday is a physical driver who can get downhill against just about anybody who defends him. That will be much needed when the playoffs become a free-for-all and shots become harder to come by for everybody.

 

Jrue Holiday doesn’t fix all the Bucks’ ails, however. For a team that hasn’t had a pure point guard to set the table for the rest of his teammates, that isn’t Holiday’s team. He’s a fine playmaker able to create for his teammates, but he isn’t the floor general that Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry is, for example (this is where Bogdan Bogdanovic would’ve been a great fit had Milwaukee been able to figure that transaction out). He isn’t a great shooter (he’s a career 35% shooter from deep) but should be good enough to not become a problem the way Eric Bledsoe was for them the last three seasons. He isn’t perfect, but talent is talent, and Holiday is one of the best two-way players in the league. It isn’t his fault he’s only made one All-Star game in his career. He should get in again in the less-crowded Eastern Conference. But he’s in Milwaukee for more than.

 

Michael Porter Jr. SF/PF Denver Nuggets: The talent of Michael Porter Jr. is undeniable. You can see the tantalizing offensive potential with him in an instant. He also already is a great fit next to Denver’s two stars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray offensively, where Porter Jr. excels. He already is a very good floor spacer (he shot 42.2% from three a year ago in the regular season), who can also create and hit some tough shots. Porter Jr. also is a physical and heady cutter without the ball, able to finish in traffic or dump it off to a teammate to finish. In the 2019-20 regular season, Michael Porter Jr. generated 1.49 points per possession off of cuts, per NBA.com, the 9th best mark amongst players who used at least 60 possessions as a cutter. Those are great skills to have, especially when playing alongside one of the best passers ever in Jokic, but the Nuggets are going to need more from Porter Jr. and to unleash him more in order to get back to the Conference Finals and do more beyond that.

 

Let’s start with Porter Jr.’s role and minutes. Last year, Head Coach Michael Malone opted to give Porter Jr. a tight leash in Porter Jr.’s first year getting minutes. Porter Jr. only played 16.4 minutes per game in the regular season. Though his minutes increased in the playoffs, it only went up to 23.7 minutes. While there are reasons for that (which we’ll get into shortly), that isn’t enough for a guy the Nuggets reportedly deem to be untouchable in trade talks for more established NBA stars. More so, when Porter Jr. did play, he wasn’t asked to do much. Porter Jr.’s usage rate in the regular-season was 21.1% and dipped down to 19.6% in the playoffs. If Porter Jr. is as good as his skills seem to indicate, Malone is going to have to trust Porter Jr. more to let him do his thing and give the Nuggets another scoring option to go to in the halfcourt to take some of the load off of Jokic and Murray. Michael Porter Jr. may not be a good enough playmaker to get a sizable bump in usage (in 55 regular-season games, Porter Jr. had 49 turnovers to just 46 assists), but I think it is worth exploring. 

 

On top of that, the Nuggets lost Jerami Grant in free agency to the Detroit Pistons, who was an invaluable part of the Nuggets playoff run a year ago. Grant is not anywhere close to as gifted offensively as Michael Porter Jr. is, but his offense showed up in key spots when the Nuggets needed Grant, and he guarded just about everybody the Nuggets ran into, from Donovan Mitchell to Kawhi Leonard to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And that’s where we get into Porter Jr.’s minutes, or lack thereof, last year. Michael Porter Jr. was just flat bad on defense a year ago and got ruthlessly exposed in the playoffs. In the first round, the Jazz repeatedly sought to get Porter Jr. switched onto star guard Donovan Mitchell, who saw food any time that matchup came into fruition. Porter Jr.’s defensive shortcomings rendered Malone to use Porter Jr. as a super-sub off the bench and to play almost exclusively against opposing bench units. 

 

Denver sees themselves as title contenders, and they should after their run in the bubble. Jamal Murray finally took the leap many were hoping he’d take; Nikola Jokic solidified his standings as one of the top ten players in the league. They have another capable of stardom in Michael Porter Jr. waiting to take off. If he can improve defensively and add another element to Denver’s offense, maybe they can get where they want to go. 

 

Kemba Walker PG Boston Celtics: After losing Gordon Hayward in free agency, the Celtics’ margin for error decreased. They still can be a very good team; they made the Eastern Conference Finals basically without Hayward. Jayson Tatum elevating his game to superstar status will lock the Celtics into the Eastern Conference upper class. While the Celtics did manage to add big man Tristan Thompson in free agency, the Celtics are light in playmaking in the backcourt. Tatum and Jaylen Brown are capable playmakers, but setting the table for others to eat is not at the forefront of their games. It isn’t necessarily what Kemba Walker does best either, but he does give the Celtics someone who can initiate the offense alongside Marcus Smart. Having Hayward meant Boston had a credible threat to run the offense in the event Walker went down, which he did when he missed time with a left knee injury after the All-Star break in February. It was something Walker even had to manage during the bubble, and now before the start of this upcoming season. Walker didn’t play in the preseason, and reports are that he won’t be back until January at the earliest.

 

However, as we’ve already seen from Walker, just because he returns to play doesn’t mean that this knee issue won’t be fully resolved, and the Celtics desperately need for that to be the case. A year ago in the regular season, the Celtics’ offense was 6.3 points per 100 possessions worse when Kemba wasn’t on the floor. That number fattened even more in the playoffs. The preseason hasn’t been much more favorable for the Celtics either. Though it is only two meaningless preseason games, the Celtics’ offense ranks last in the NBA during the preseason.

 

Without Hayward (and Brad Wanamaker, who was a fine backup option for Boston the last couple of years), and now temporarily without Kemba, the Celtics just don’t have many proven perimeter creators outside of Tatum, Brown, and Smart. Jeff Teague is no difference-maker but is a fine stopgap to let Kemba ease back into game shape. Outside of Teague, every other backup option on the perimeter is a rookie or second-year player. Is Romeo Langford, Payton Pritchard, Tremont Waters, Aaron Nesmith, Carsen Edwards, or Javonte Green really ready to contribute right away? Langford already was being counted on to take some of Hayward’s minutes and role vacated from a year ago, but he won’t be ready for the start of the season either. Needless to say, the Celtics really need Kemba Walker to stay healthy. Smaller point guards haven’t always had the most graceful aging experiences, and now that Kemba is 30 along with dealing with this lingering left knee ailment is not exactly what you’d call promising. Maybe Tatum and Brown can take another leap and render this concern moot. Maybe one of the Celtics’ young players shoes their up for the task. But it looks like the Celtics really need Kemba, and really need him to get 100% healthy. It could cost them this season. 

 

Ty Lue HC Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George threw former Los Angeles Clippers and now current Philadelphia 76ers Head Coach Doc Rivers under the bus for last year’s early exit and supposed mismanagement of George’s role (according to George) a year ago. While blaming others for his own transgressions is nothing new to Paulgotz, oh I mean Paul George, it is something that has ramifications for the Clippers locker room that had all kinds of reported problems. While Ty Lue has managed to lead amidst chaos and tension in his last stop as Head Coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was there on the bench next to Doc Rivers all year last year. It also really helps to have LeBron James, who is in Los Angeles, but on the team that actually won the championship. On top of it all, Lue comes from Doc Rivers’ coaching tree, meaning he likely will have the team play a similar style of ball, though hopefully with better in-game adjustments (if George wanted to have a critique of his former coach, that would’ve been the way to go). But most important of all, Lue will have to clean up the locker room and get everyone on the same accord, something Doc Rivers said wasn’t the case. If he does, the Clippers will be right back in title contention. If not, then they likely will flame out again as they did so spectacularly a year ago.

 

Kevin Durant SF/PF Brooklyn Nets: Ok, this is simple: Is Kevin Durant even 90% of his pre-Achilles tear self? Is he more? The Nets have more pressing answers, but if the answer is yes, then the Nets instantly leap into the upper-echelon of the Eastern Conference and the league as a whole. So far, through two preseason games, it looks like Kevin Durant is back to being Kevin Durant, averaging 20 points per game in limited minutes on 50% shooting. More importantly, KD looks as fluid and smooth as ever. Last we saw Durant, he was going toe-for-toe with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Finals. The Nets will only go as far as Durant can physically take them. If his health is up for the challenge, then the Nets are up for a long and successful season.

 

Trae Young PG Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were as active as any team this offseason. After getting a mandate from the higher-ups about making the playoffs, GM Travis Schlenk went to work, nabbing Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, (defending NBA Champion) Rajon Rondo, and defensive hound Kris Dunn in free agency after drafting one of my favorite players in this draft in Onyeka Okongwu with the 6th overall pick and stealing LSU guard Skylar Mays in the second round. Many have put a spotlight on Hawks big John Collins with the log jam in the frontcourt becoming more pronounced as Gallinari (more 4 than 3 nowadays), Okongwu and former Rocket Clint Capela embark on their NBA debut, but I’m more interested in Trae Young. Trae Young’s style has been more Russell Westbrook than Steph Curry in that seemingly every possession begins and ends when Young decides it does. Granted, Young has kind of been forced to doing so with how young and raw his Hawks teams have been, but some stylistic diversity would surely be welcomed. Young’s usage rate was 27.7% his rookie year and up to nearly 34% a year ago. With more playmaking on the board, maybe this can unlock Young to play off the ball more and harness his shooting in more conducive forms to help the Hawks win games.

 

On top of that, hopefully, the offensive burden gets lifted enough for Young to play some actual defense. Last year among point guards, Trae Young had the worst defensive real-plus minus by a mile. Young will never be a great defensive player due to his stature alone, but it would also help to at least try. Young doesn’t on that end hardly at all. If he’s serious about winning, and I believe him to be a winning player because of how great a passer and playmaker he is, but he has to take a step up on the defensive end to help his team.

 

With the NBA instituting the play-in format they experimented with inside of the bubble, the Hawks should be in the top 10 of the Eastern Conference to force a play-in game. I believe the East has seven playoff locks (though the seven and eight seeds will play a play-in game): the Nets, Celtics, Raptors, Pacers, Bucks, 76ers, and Heat. The Wizards, Hornets, and Bulls will likely give the Hawks a push to get in the play-in games. Not making the postseason would be a big disappointment for the Hawks. Hopefully, Trae Young modifies his game to help the Hawks get there.

COVID-19: The biggest variable of them all. It’s one thing that the NBA is re-starting the season; it’s another if they can finish it. As COVID-19 continues to surge across the country, can the league keep it out? The NBA did so tremendously in the bubble and will have to do it again. So far it has worked, as the NBA recently announced that only one new player has tested positive for the virus. The NBA has to keep the virus out for the league to play this season out and have it actually resemble a normal NBA season. College football and basketball have had games canceled left and right. The NFL and the MLB have dealt with multiple team outbreaks. How will the league handle it? What if someone has an inconclusive or positive test before the game like what happened with Dez Bryant of the Baltimore Ravens before his matchup against the Cowboys? How long will players who test positive be out? How many will have to test positive to temporarily shut the league down? Will fans be allowed back in before the vaccine arrives? There will almost surely be a COVID-19 breakout amongst a team this season. Hopefully, the NBA can kick the Rona out like it did in the bubble. That will be much more difficult in the real world than some basketball utopia summer camp that was pulled off to perfection to finish last season, save for the mental strife of those inside it. I hope and pray the NBA’s plan keeps everyone safe this season. WEAR A MASK, PEOPLE!