Jrue Holiday


No one should be surprised that it was possible for teams led by Devin Booker and Trae Young could make the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals one day, respectively. I don’t think many expected that to happen this previous season, however. But damn it, it did. After years of losing and struggling, brilliant draft maneuvering, sturdy head coaching hires, and slick moves to bring in established veterans to help lead the way, Suns GM James Jones and Hawks GM Travis Schlenk deserve tons of credit for building championship-competitive rosters that fit and maximize the strengths of their superstars. Though it is super hard for even grizzled star-studded teams to advance as far as these two teams did, let alone a team led by young studs, perhaps these two inspired others across the league to follow a similar path. Who could be the next Suns or Hawks?

A team that comes to mind is the New Orleans Pelicans. They already have two players that have been named to All-Star games in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, tantalizing other young pieces surrounding them in Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart (should they be retained in restricted free agency), the rambunctious Nickeil Alexander-Walker (who played a brief stint with the Canadian National Team in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics), the speedy rookie Kira Lewis Jr., and the bouncy Jaxson Hayes. They have a treasure trove of picks too after they dealt Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to Finals teams in successive seasons (ten first-round pics in the next seven drafts, to be exact). The Pelicans have the start of something special, but they need to clean up some aspects of their team first to get where they want to go eventually. 

Let’s start on the basketball side of things, they have to address their shooting woes. The Pelicans’ three-point shooting during the 2020-21 season was reminiscent of a stormtrooper. After they finished 26th in the entire league in three-point percentage. Advanced numbers don’t do the Pelicans many favors. The site bball-index.com tracks how great spacing a player is surrounded by. According to their data, neither Brandon Ingram nor Zion Williamson cracked above the 41st percentile for spacing around them. Just watch this play and see how many defenders are packed in the paint when New Orleans is trying to get their offense going. Luckily, Brandon Ingram is a supreme shot-maker and bailed the Pelicans out of this wretched possession, but these types of possessions were far too common and a nightly routine when Zion and Ingram were mostly surrounded by two complete non-shooting entities in Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Despite this, Zion Williamson somehow managed to average 27 points a night while shooting 61% from the field and feasting at the rim, while Brandon Ingram put up a robust 46.6/38.1/87.8 shooting split on the season. The Pelicans’ priority has to be finding more shooting to make life easier on these two stars. It is wholly on the Pelicans’ Front Office (more on them in a bit) to get the shooting required for Zion and Ingram. It was neglected the last offseason and cannot be again.

Defense ailed the Pelicans for much of the 2020-21 season too. New, now former, head coach Stan Van Gundy noted the previous trends of top defenses canceling the paint in exchange for opposing teams to unleash from three at will, and decided to implement that strategy. Let’s just say it took some time for his new young players to get used to. Last season, the Pelicans allowed the fourth most amount of possessions by their opponents to conclude with a three-point shot, according to NBA.com. Those Pelicans opponents shot 38% on those threes, tied for the fifth-best (or worst, whichever way you want to look at it) mark in the league. Oftentimes, it felt like the Pelicans were either overdoing it with their strategy or were too young to properly execute it the way more experienced teams did by leaving certain shooters open and running off the more dangerous ones. Plenty of New Orleans defensive possessions ended like this: 

There were more defensive issues aside from their overall structure. Their stars just have to be better, plain and simple. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are capable of being very good defensive players, at least I think so. Zion looked every bit the part of a modern-day small-ball center at Duke, using his freakish athleticism to protect the rim while also staying in front of his man. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the NBA, but it has been far too fleeting. More times than not, unfortunately, possessions with Zion at center have tended to look like this. Oftentimes, he looks as if his feet are in quicksand, or he doesn’t put himself in the right positions to make the correct plays. Williamson only played 86 minutes all season long playing without another big man, according to NBA.com. He just wasn’t ready yet for that type of role. To be fair to Zion too, he played in a zone defense a lot while at Duke, hasn’t had a ton of top-notch coaching before enrolling at Duke, and big men tend to struggle defensively their first couple of seasons (look at none other than Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns). Those growing pains will help Zion in the long run. He still is more than capable of being a devastating defensive force, in my opinion, but he needs to improve defensively to get there.

Brandon Ingram has to be better defensively too. We know he can be a positive defender from his days in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t brought that part of his game to New Orleans quite yet. Sure, you can still beat Ingram with bulk, but too many times Ingram lacked tenacity, focus, or feistiness on defense.

Ingram gets caught ball-watching and loses sight of his man in the corner (Andrew Wiggins). Two of his teammates are already up with Steph Curry, so he has to momentarily cover Draymond Green and Wiggins. However, Ingram is in no man’s land and doesn’t really guard either, letting Wiggins sneak along the baseline for a dunk. Ingram is way better than that. Until he and Zion catch up on that end of the floor, the Pelicans’ chances of competing will hover around where it is now. With the talent of those two players themselves, let alone the rest of the roster, the Pelicans should not be finishing with the eighth-worst defense in the NBA. Once the Pelicans’ defense catches up, then things could get serious in the near future.

The most important job the Pelicans need to do, however, is gain organizational stability. GM David Griffin has done a great job of hoarding draft picks for the future, but his moves and actions other than that have been less than stellar. Drafting a center with the eighth overall pick (Jaxson Hayes) in the 2019 NBA Draft didn’t feel like the best allocation of its value and only looks worse after De’Andre Hunter (who they could’ve had with the fourth pick of the draft as part of the Anthony Davis trade and was eventually flipped to Atlanta for the eighth and seventeenth picks), Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, Cam Johnson, and Tyler Herro, all of whom the Pelicans could have drafted and all but Hunter being drafted after the Hawks took Hayes, have had moments of brilliance in the postseason and fit the roster better than Hayes does. Griffin acquired George Hill in the Jrue Holiday trade, yet flipped the sharpshooting (career 38.1% three-point shooter) guard to Oklahoma City for plodding big man Steven Adams, then gave Adams a two-year, $35 million extension! This was disastrous on numerous levels. Adams does not look like the same athlete he was years ago defensively and makes life much more difficult for the Pelicans’ offense.

On top of all that, Adams eats up a ton of the Pelicans’ salary cap. He and Bledsoe combined to make over $35 million next season heading into this offseason. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are scheduled to be restricted free agents. Zion Williamson will be eligible for a contract extension after next season and Ingram is already on a max deal. Adams and Bledsoe both have contracts that bleed until the 2022-2023 season, though Bledsoe’s money that season is not guaranteed. Though Adams nor Bledsoe are in New Orleans’ long-term plans, they could potentially cost the Pelicans Ball, who likely will get a lucrative deal in restricted free agency, or some of the picks they acquired via the Lakers or the Bucks to try to get more cap space to improve the team around Zion and Ingram. There isn’t really anyone but Griffin to blame for not maneuvering that as cleanly as he did.

David Griffin also hasn’t been the best at maintaining relationships while in New Orleans, both from the player and coaching side of things. Months ago, JJ Redick blasted Griffin on his ‘The Old Man and the Three’ podcast for allegedly lying to Redick about sending Redick to somewhere he’d want to go that would be in close proximity to his family in New York after the trade deadline. Instead, he got shipped to Dallas. Granted, JJ Redick doesn’t have the luxury or leverage a star does, but this stuff matters a lot to players. It didn’t stop there with Griffin either. After firing Stan Van Gundy after hiring him less than a year ago, Van Gundy appeared on the ‘STUpodity’ podcast hosted by Stugotz of the ‘Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz.’ Among many notable grievances Van Gundy aired, the most notable was the fact that he flat-out said that he and the front office weren’t on the same page. That is inexcusable. Sure, some blame can be aimed at both sides, but I’d pin most of that onto Griffin. Griffin is a long-time, experienced general manager. He helped lead a team to a championship for Christ’s sake. He knows how to do this, but he has to be better more so than anyone in that organization to get the Pelicans where they want to go. He has to hire the right coach now for the second time in less than 365 days. He has to be more upfront with his players. He has to value shooting. If he doesn’t this video of Zion Williamson swooning over the lore of Madison Square Garden will loom over the Pelicans like a rain cloud. The Pelicans have pressure. It’s up to Griffin to shoo it away.

David Griffin has done a fine job remedying both fronts so far. The Pelicans recently hired former Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns assistant coach and 12 year NBA veteran Willie Green as his new head coach. With how he just helped the Suns recognize their renaissance run this year with a fairly young and inexperienced team, you’d think he knows what it takes to steer this franchise in the right direction. Griffin also executed one of the first trades of the offseason, dealing Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, the 10th and 40th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and a 2022 first-round pick from the Lakers (while placing a top ten protection over it) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and their 17th and 51st selections in the 2021 Draft. While the fit between Valanciunas and Zion seems clunky on both ends of the floor, he still represents a massive upgrade over Adams. Though trading that 2022 first and moving down from 10 to 17 is hardly ideal, it allows the Pelicans to possibly keep both Hart and Ball, or sign another point guard in Lonzo’s place should he walk (Kyle Lowry has long been rumored to be the Pelicans’ target, but Lowry may foil their plans by taking his talents to South Beach). Speaking of the 17th selection, drafting Virginia’s Trey Murphy III should immediately boost New Orleans’ shooting and spacing, as he shot 40.1% from deep during his three-year college career and 81.9% from the free-throw line. The Pelicans need to do more, but this offseason has gone off to a good start to finally get the Pelicans back into the playoffs.

With all that said, there is plenty to be excited about in New Orleans. They have two great young players and ample resources to improve the roster around them. There’s no reason to think the Pelicans can’t find the right supporting cast the same way the Suns and Hawks did. Those two teams proved is that one big and correct offseason can drastically change the outcome of a franchise. Let’s see if the Pelicans can follow in their footsteps and be the next team to surprise with a deep playoff run.

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 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.

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.’

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!