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
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
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
Ahh, the NBA is back! It’s so nice to have it back, isn’t it? Usually, I like to highlight players before the season starts as guys who could really shape the direction of the NBA season. This season, I want to get a little spicy with it. Everyone else is dropping hot takes into the atmosphere, why can’t I? You want hot takes, well I got them! Six of them, to be exact. Welcome back, NBA!
1) Zach LaVine leads the NBA in Scoring
Last season, there were only four players in the entire NBA who absorbed a usage rate of at least 30%, held an effective field goal percentage of at least 59%, and a true shooting percentage of at least 60%. Those players? Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo… and Zach LaVine. Not bad company to be in, I hear!
The parallels between Zach LaVine entering this season and Devin Booker entering last season are quite similar. Both players were forced into being primary ballhandlers, score-first gunners with a solid blend of playmaking to go with it because the rest of their backcourt mates were not up to par before finally getting them help to ease their burden. The Suns got Booker Chris Paul; the Bulls got LaVine Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso in the offseason and one of the better passing big men in the league in Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline.
The playmaking surrounding LaVine now is robust. During LaVine’s Bulls career, only three times has a player averaged above five assists per game during a season: Kris Dunn (2017-18 and 2018-19) and Tomas Satoransky (2019-20). For context, Lonzo Ball’s career-low in assists per game is 5.4. DeMar DeRozan has averaged at least 5.2 assists per game every season for the last two seasons.
That collective playmaking basketball IQ and playmaking is going to free Zach LaVine up to gobble up some of the easiest buckets in his career. LaVine already is a great off-ball scorer: LaVine ranked in the 97th percentile scoring off of cuts last season, generating 1.69 points per possession where he cut off-ball according to NBA.com. In transition, LaVine averaged 1.24 points per possession and now has one of the best transition passers in the NBA to work with. We know Zach LaVine is one of the best scorers in the NBA with the rock in his hands, but he’s also very good at using his otherworldly athleticism to his advantage when he doesn’t have the ball and now has better distributors to work with. The results have looked promising in the preseason so far. Combine that with what looks like a suspect defense (especially with Patrick Williams currently injured) and a contract year, don’t be surprised when Zach LaVine has another breakout season. LaVine leading the NBA in scoring is absolutely in the cards.
2) OG Anunoby leads the Toronto Raptors in scoring and becomes an All-Star
Let’s start with this: Kyle Lowry is now in South Florida with the Miami Heat, and Pascal Siakam is out until possibly December rehabbing from shoulder surgery. All of a sudden, 47% of Toronto’s usage from last season is going to disappear by the time the regular season comes around. Sure, you figure Goran Dragic (acquired from the Miami Heat in the Lowry sign-and-trade) will eat into some of that void, but a candidate to take a big leap would be OG Anunoby.
It looks like that leap is coming for OG Anunoby. In the preseason, Anunoby has soaked up 24% of Toronto’s possessions. He’s turned in 19.25 points per game on 65% effective field goal percentage and 69.1% true shooting. Yes, the sample size is super small and convoluted (we are talking about preseason basketball after all), but Anunoby has steadily improved in both usage and scoring output over the course of his career.
One area where Anunoby did dip last season is his effectiveness in scoring off the dribble. In the 2019-20 season, Anunoby put up 39 shots off the dribble, converting those with an effective field goal percentage of 52.6% (though he only shot 4-15 on pull-up twos and 11-24 on pull-up threes). Anunoby bumped that total up to 68 last season, but only converted 19 of them and saw an effective field goal percentage of 32.4%. Again, it’s only the preseason, but it looks like Anunoby has leveled up in this regard. Against both the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets, Anunoby has flashed much more polish and confidence in his scoring off the bounce, hitting stepbacks, pull-ups, you name it. Even Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has noticed this growth in Anunoby’s game. It’s possible that preseason is tricking us, but I’m 1000% willing to overreact to this and project very big things for OG Anunoby this season. The path is there; why not?
3) Austin Reaves starts at least 25% of the 82 games for the Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers are stacked with a lot of combo guards who can toggle between either guard spot. The downside is that you can’t play all of them. The plus side, however, is that you have depth in the event of an injury or few. With Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn on the mend, for now, enter 23-year-old Austin Reaves.
Austin Reaves, dubbed with the nickname of Hillbilly Kobe due to his Arkansas roots growing up on a farm (I’ve given him the nickname of Jordan Farmer but we’ll stick with Hillbilly Kobe for now), has quickly become a fan-favorite and for good reason. No, he’s not Alex Caruso 2.0 but he looks like he belongs in the Lakers’ rotation from the jump because of his blend of two-way play. The Lakers may have a lot of combo guards, but really only Kent Bazemore and Kendrick Nunn (defending point guards) are someone you trust to get a stop defensively. Reaves helps there too.
Austin Reaves’ size and athleticism won’t sneak up on anybody, but that doesn’t stop him from competing and knowing where to be. This play provides the ultimate example of his defensive chops. Reaves cuts off the cutter, scrambles back onto a new defender then caps the possession off with contesting a shot at the end of the shot clock. Individually, though Reaves will be at a size disadvantage plenty of times, he can put the clamps on too with quick feet and a willingness to bang. Here, he stays in front of his man on the drive then swipes the ball away from the opposition as he goes up for a shot. You could make the argument that Reaves is one of the best two or three defenders in the Lakers’ backcourt already.
Defense is great, but matching it with a jumper to fear and occupy the defense should jump-start his case for playing time. Before the Lakers’ preseason game on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, Reaves was shooting 8.2 threes per 36 minutes and hitting them at a 41.2% clip. To put that in context, Zach LaVine shot 8.4 threes per 36 minutes & shot 41.9% on them. What’s great about Reaves’ shooting is he can hit threes in any context. He’s a superb catch-and-shoot shooter with an extremely quick release that allows him to shoot and convert in tighter windows. Whether he’s relocating to open spots on the floor, running off screens, or going into a pick and roll or dribble handoff, Reaves can also deliver when on the move too.
Austin Reaves toggled between these roles in college. When he was at Wichita State, Reaves was primarily a catch-and-shoot ancillary piece. After he transferred to Oklahoma, Reaves was forced into a primary ballhandler role, honing in his scoring abilities off the bounce and playmaking that we’ve seen flashes of in the NBA too. Austin Reaves can really play and really help this Lakers team from the jump. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him take off even in his rookie season.
4) Ja Morant makes an All-Star AND All-NBA appearance
Ja Morant leveled up in the playoffs a year ago. A 47-point, 7 assist bonanza would seem to suggest such a thing.
Sure, the Grizzlies got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but Ja was spectacular all the way throughout that series, averaging 30.2 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 48.7% from the field and 77.5% from the free-throw line (on eight attempts per game). Absolute insanity.
That will be a tough act to follow for Ja Morant, especially with his offensive buffer Travis Kel– damnit I messed it up again– Jonas Valanciunas off to New Orleans. More will be thrust upon Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shoulder (health permitting) but also Morant. I just think Morant builds off his postseason brilliance and really etches himself amongst the game’s greats this season.
5) Karl-Anthony Towns leads the Minnesota Timberwolves to an average defense and they qualify for the play-in tournament
Minnesota and turmoil have grown to be quite the potent relationship, and this season already got off to a rollicking start in that department after Head of Basketball operations Gersson Rosas was caught pulling a George Costanza and got fired for that along with other general incompetence. A lot is riding on Towns and Minnesota getting back to some kind of relevance. Health and improvement defensively can get them there.
Let’s start with health because that department has not been kind to the Timberwolves in recent seasons. After the Wolves traded for D’Angelo Russell in February of 2020, he and Karl-Anthony Towns played just 25 minutes together. Then the world caught on fire. Eventually, the Wolves would be fortunate enough to draft what looks like a future All-Star in Anthony Edwards, only for Russell and Towns to combine to miss 52 games while Edwards played in all 72 games in last year’s truncated season. The triumvirate of Towns, Edwards, and Russell only graced the court for 327 minutes last season, boasting a +4.9 Net Rating in the process.
Offense is easy to come by with that group given the nature of their games steering towards that end of the floor. Each of the three coexists well with each other and can tilt their games towards whatever the defense gives them. The problem is on the other end. When all three were on the floor together last season, their defensive rating was at 116 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve been second-worst in the NBA. The Timberwolves’ defensive rating altogether was the third-worst in the NBA a year ago.
Projecting them to even be average is a big leap. Maybe that doesn’t happen, but they should be better. The Timberwolves don’t have many two-way players outside of Jaden McDaniels, but a lot of specialists who skew towards defense in Patrick Beverley, Josh Okogie, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Malik Beasley and Taurean Prince can provide *something* there, and undrafted rookies McKinley Wright IV (Colorado) and Isaiah Miller (UNC-Greensboro) have strong defensive reputations. There are some quality defensive pieces here, but it won’t work if Towns doesn’t improve. He should be a much better defensive anchor than he is and was that in Kentucky. Towns playing higher in pick and roll coverage this preseason is interesting and could be a strategic bump to his defense kind of reminiscent of the way the Nuggets deploy Nikola Jokic on defense. It’s something to keep an eye on. I think Towns and Minnesota can make it happen, but that also is relying more on faith than performance.
6) NBA Patty Mills becomes FIBA Patty Mills for the Brooklyn Nets
Kyrie Irving… *sigh.* I believe Kyrie means well in his stance to not get vaccinated that has prompted the Nets to elect not to play him in any capacity due to the state of New York’s rules prohibiting access to local unvaccinated citizens in indoor gatherings, but that also means he won’t be able to play basketball for the betting favorite to win the title. Luckily, the Nets were able to pluck Patty Mills in free agency, who could not be a better fit next to Kevin Durant and James Harden.
The Nets can deploy Mills as a Steph Curry proxy. Mills runs around the court like an Olympic sprinter with the stamina of a marathon runner to cause headaches for defenses. He’s a willing screener and passer that’s going to help Durant and Harden get any mismatch they want because of fear of Mills’ deep ball. It could work the other way too if Mills captures his FIBA essence and carries that lethal offensive creation into the NBA. With how much space he should have and attention heaped upon Kevin Durant and James Harden, Mills should help keep that Brooklyn train humming just fine in the regular season. The playoffs could see Kyrie’s (he always seems to step it up in the playoffs) absence really matter with individual matchups, but Mills still can pick up *some* of that mantle. Probably enough of it for the Nets to get where they want to go at the end.
The Los Angeles Lakers always like to kick the offseason off with a bang, for better or worse. It wasn’t too long ago when midnight stuck on July 1st only for the Lakers to reach quick agreements with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Last winter, the first domino to drop was the Lakers making the move to acquire Dennis Schröder from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green and the 28th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft (which eventually became Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves). General Manager doubled down once the marriage with Schröder began to go downhill, trading for former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a package that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick of the 2021 NBA Draft (which eventually became Isaiah Jackson who is heading to the Indiana Pacers). It isn’t a perfect marriage between Westbrook and the two superstars the Lakers currently employ in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the move was one worth making to get the best out of the 28-year-old Davis, which is what the goal of this offseason seems to have been.
Let’s start with Russell Westbrook. The fit with him next to James is where his deficiencies as a shooter and off-ball cutter will come to a head at some point this season and likely fester throughout the entirety of it. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three-point shooters in NBA history when accounting for volume. He’s a career 30.5% three-point shooter and hasn’t shot less than three a game since the 2010-11 season. To make matters worse, Westbrook is nothing as a mover, screener, or cutter either. Once Westbrook gives up the ball he typically chills out and watches the play go on. When you aren’t a good shooter, not moving makes it so much easier for the defense to ‘guard’ him and neutralize possessions when his team has the ball. Heck, if anyone knows about those holes in Westbrook’s one would be the Lakers who actively went out of their way not to guard him when they faced the Rockets in the bubble in 2020.
But if there’s anything Westbrook provides, he allows the Lakers to preserve their identity as a transition behemoth and unleash Anthony Davis as a roller when LeBron is not on the floor. The Lakers hoped to get something resembling that from Schröder. We saw it in glimpses, but he is nowhere near the playmaker Westbrook is. Davis is athletic a big man the NBA has to offer and often loves to leak out in transition when he forces a miss on the perimeter. When the opposing team shoots free throws, Davis almost always camps out on the other end of the floor in hopes to get a quick mismatch. Rajon Rondo sought those transition oop opportunities any time he could when he was a Laker, while Schröder typically tried to do it himself and missed some of these chances. Not only can Westbrook do a little bit of both, but he will also bring zip and playmaking in the halfcourt that neither of those two could. According to the B-Ball Index via Alex Regla of Silver Screen and Roll, Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile at ‘getting to the rim,’ ‘box creation,’ and ‘high-value assists.’ Essentially, Westbrook is still really damn good at getting to the rim and feeding bigs with dump-offs or kicking out to shooters. If Westbrook can Daniel Gafford is getting these types of looks, then imagine what he can do with Anthony Davis.
Getting an upgrade from Dennis Schröder to Russell Westbrook as a second playmaker is one way to maximize Davis, but another is to get more shooting around him. I love the holdovers from the 2020 Championship team and appreciate all their contributions over the years, but they often left hands holding their breath with the hope their open threes would go in. They made up for it and more with great effort and tenacity on defense (more on that in a bit), but the shooting was inconsistent, to put it nicely. The Dwight Howard signing aside, amongst the Lakers free agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn, only one of those new Lakers additions have made so far shot worse than 38% a year ago and only two hit threes at worse than a 40% clip. All the additions are far better shooters on catch-and-shoot and wide-open threes than the discarded Lakers of a year ago. Davis should feast with more room to operate. Perhaps he could even be used differently; maybe he gets more chances to operate out of dribble handoffs that can lead to him either keeping the rock himself & driving into open space or dishing to teammates. Davis is not a great passer out of the post but certainly a good one. On top of it all, he’s a total mismatch with the list of players actually capable of guarding him 1v1 is about as many as the number of fingers on a human body. Better playmaking and more space to facilitate that playmaking should make life all the easier for Davis to dominate the paint.
The last two seasons of Lakers basketball may have been frustrating when it comes to perimeter shooting, but they hung their hat on defense. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best defenders in the NBA, missed a boatload of time to injuries last season, the Lakers still finished with the best defense in the NBA. It was their identity. Alex Caruso (now depressingly a member of the Chicago Bulls) is legitimately one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and the Lakers will miss his help and feel on that end of the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled against bruising wings but was very good at chasing around guards off screens. Kyle Kuzma transformed his reputation from scoring chucker to a guy that could hang with some of the best scoring wings the NBA has to offer. No one is going to mistake the Lakers’ new additions with the quality of defender those guys, but the Lakers should still be fine on that end of the floor as long as Davis and James are on the floor and Davis plays more at the center spot. Both Jovan Buha of The Athletic and Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times has reported that Davis will play more at center this season. Signing Dwight Howard is a fine depth move, but he was mitigated to the bench during the Lakers’ title run in 2020 save for banging with Nikola Jokic. He and the incumbent Marc Gasol are the only centers on the Lakers’ roster so far. Even if Davis didn’t want to play center, he has to play more of it this season, and the Lakers typically dominate and modernize when he does. I still don’t suspect he will play center exclusively with Gasol still on the roster, but it should be more than what we’ve seen from him so far. We’ve seen centers be able to anchor a mediocre cast of defenders surrounding them to remain amongst the top of the NBA, and Davis is right up there with the best of them. The Lakers’ defense kind of hinges on Davis’ dominance, but he’s shown he’s up to the task.
The Lakers trade for Westbrook was a gamble, but after the dust has settled on the moves that surrounded that big trade, it looks like the risk was worth it. With the overhaul of playmaking and shooting, life should come much easier for Anthony Davis offensively. It shouldn’t be overlooked any time a team attempts to go all-in for their star(s) and brings in someone that can help them on the basketball floor, and that’s what the Lakers have done. For the first time since Davis arrived in Los Angeles though, the Lakers have questions defensively. Davis can answer a lot of them himself, however. This season we could be the best version of Anthony Davis we have seen yet, and he’s already been damn good. We’ll see if that holds up to be true.
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 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.
The NBA has generally done a good job enhancing its product and growing the game of basketball. The creation and execution of the bubble last October could not have gone more swimmingly to finish off the 2019-20 season. As a Laker fan especially, I could not be more thankful to see my team get crowned as champions, but the basketball was great all the way around. This season, however… has not gone as well. Then again, what else could you reasonably expect traveling from city to city to play basketball during a pandemic? The league is near the finish of its regular season, but I wonder if the juice was worth the squeeze.
When the NBA announced that the 2020-21 regular season would begin on December 22nd, eyebrows were raised. The prior season had just concluded 71 days ago once the Lakers claimed the title. Though this season features 10 fewer games than that of a normal regular season, the NBA could not fit it into a normal NBA calendar with the Olympics at their heels in July after that got postponed a year because of the pandemic, so the NBA had to cram 72 games into roughly four and a half months. Keep in mind, a normal regular season is at least a month longer. Add to it a reduced training camp, and the result from games stacked on top of each other alongside restrictive health and safety protocols (until players opted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which I encourage anyone to receive if you haven’t already) has led to a diminished product. Typically I don’t buy into much rating talk with cord-cutting become a more viable option, but NBA ratings have been down 13% this season. NBA broadcasts being done from home is certainly a part of this, in my opinion, but also how daunting this season has been on the players has to be another. According to Chris Herring of Sports Illustrated, there have been a significant and nearly historic amount of blowouts this season, especially after the All-Star break. A staggering amount of regular season has just lacked any juice whatsoever. While that isn’t foreign to this season, in particular, the nature of this season has made these types of games more common.
A huge reason why more games have concluded in a blowout? The number of games missed. According to ManGamesLost.com’s Twitter account from a tweet posted on May 11th, just seven teams have lost players for fewer than 150 games. These tracked games missed are solely games missed due to injury, not because of COVID-19. However, in an article posted on February 12th, 2021, by injury guru and tracker Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com, Stotts delivered this amazing nugget: ‘the total number of games lost for illness-related issues during the first 20 games of the 2020-21 season is four less than the five previous seasons combined. Nearly 90 percent of these games can be attributed to NBA players that have confirmed a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Furthermore, these elevated totals do not include the over 150 games lost to players sitting out due to the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols.’ Think about that; that was an article posted in February. This NBA season has lasted THREE MORE MONTHS since that article was published, yet multiple seasons’ worth of games missed due to an illness had taken place in the span of not even two months. Do you want to know why there has been a crap-ton of blowouts? Because just about everyone has missed time, one way or another.
Just think about how many teams have had their season altered because of the nature of this season. None of the four conference finalists (Lakers, Celtics, Heat, Nuggets) from last season are above the fourth seed in their respective conferences. The Lakers built their team around LeBron James and Anthony Davis only for them to appear in 77 combined games. The Nuggets lost Jamal Murray to a torn ACL in perhaps the cruelest injury of this season. Miami is just now getting healthy after just about everyone from their Finals run missed time during the season. The Celtics are the exact opposite, with news that All-Star Jaylen Brown will miss the rest of the season the icing on the cake. No Celtics four-man pairing has played at least 300 minutes this season, according to NBA.com. Only three other teams can say the same: the Houston Rockets (who were forced to up-end their entire franchise), the Orlando Magic (who chose to up-end their entire franchise), and the Washington Wizards. The Celtics’ four best players (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart) have appeared together in just 17 games over the course of only 292 minutes. It doesn’t stop there. The Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden have only played 186 minutes together in just seven games. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ three building blocks of the future (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell) have linked up for just 251 minutes over the course of 21 games this season. Multiple teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Washington Wizards, teams currently in the play-in tournament, literally had to pause their season as if this was NBA2K because the coronavirus got so out of hand in their clubhouse, through no fault of their own. Could they be squarely in the playoff field had that not occurred? It’s tough to say, but maybe! Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to ignore how the contamination of this season has affected the actual product.
The product is one thing, but what concerns me the most is how these contaminated results of this season could affect the health and well-being of its players, coaches, and front office personnel. Another team hit hard by COVID-19 this season? The Toronto Raptors… who are not even playing in Toronto this season. They’re in Tampa Bay for Christ’s sake! After spending multiple months in Orlando in the bubble. Do you think their mental health hasn’t been challenged by this hellscape of a season? On top of that, as I said earlier, they had to deal with actually contracting the virus. Guard Fred VanVleet was very open in the complications he experienced fighting the virus. Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum admitted to using an inhaler before games after his bout with COVID that he continues to suffer symptoms from. I’m not sure there will be a quote or soundbite that will be more noteworthy than Tatum’s admission here. One of the league’s brightest ascending stars that has already been to multiple Conference Finals, multiple All-Star games, and an All-NBA team (3rd team All-NBA in 2020) saying that COVID-19 is still affecting him so much so that he needs help to breathe properly to get back to that star level of production. Tatum most notably went through the wringer in February of 2021, averaging his typical 24 points per game, but doing so shooting less than 40% from the field and just 31.6% from deep. He has responded resoundingly since then, including a 60-point masterpiece against the San Antonio Spurs, but this was only after he said he started to use an inhaler before games. That his production could dip like that lets you know this virus can and has impacted the outcomes of these games. Luckily in Tatum’s case, he’s found a way to be productive in the midst of the virus, but there’s also a good chance this won’t be the last we see or learn about COVID-19 looming over the NBA and its games.
These are just a couple of examples, but surely there are more out there. What if Jayson Tatum has to deal with this for the rest of his career and that hinders his play? What if this was the Nuggets’ best chance at a title that got wiped away because of Jamal Murray’s injury? What if a rotation player who plays the role of a specialist for a team suddenly becomes less effective in the role the team needs from him after contracting the virus and finds himself out of the league entirely? Surely that can’t be out of the question.
Players suffering through injuries and COVID-19 infections have ramifications throughout the rest of the league as well. Odds were recently released for the next NBA Head Coach to be revoked of his duties. Uncoincidentally, many of the top favorites involved teams that have been dealt a tough hand in the age of COVID-19, with Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren and Portland’s Terry Stotts most notably in the crossfire. If a team were to underwhelm in the playoffs, they could join the numerous teams outside of the postseason to shake up their roster or power structure. The Timberwolves already fired Head Coach Ryan Saunders. The Hawks firing Lloyd Pierce kind of saved their season, yet key addition Bogdan Bogdanovic and rising forwards De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish both got injured early in the season under Pierce’s watch. Maybe that move was a blessing in disguise with how well interim Head Coach Nate McMillan has done, but it also is plausible Pierce could have resurrected the team as well once he had a full squad to work with, yet he lost his job. More will follow, yet I don’t think it’s all that fair under these daunting circumstances.
That isn’t to say this season hasn’t given us something to celebrate. Nikola Jokic is having a historic season that should result in him winning the MVP. Steph Curry scorched the entire earth during the month of April. Russell Westbrook just broke the All-Time NBA record for Triple-Doubles accumulated over the course of a player’s career. We’ve still seen the greatness we’ve been accustomed to watching during an NBA regular season. It’s just been fewer and farther between with the variables of injuries and COVID-19 contaminating a lot of these games. That isn’t to say the NBA is out of the woods either. Someone could easily contract the virus during the playoffs and be forced to sit out the rest of a series potentially and really alter the results of this season. Let’s hope that it doesn’t.
The NBA had to go through with a regular season this season. There was too much money involved for there not to be one or have one with fewer games than the 72 we ultimately got. I’m thankful in the sense that bad or contaminated basketball is better than no basketball. I usually have no problem watching any kind of NBA basketball, but this season felt different. It felt off. Maybe it’s the many empty seats in the stands altering the viewing experience. More likely, it’s because the pandemic threw this NBA season off its axis from the start and it only continued to spiral downhill from there. But, we’re almost at the end, and the end of the regular season means the start of the postseason, with the NBA’s new play-in format being experimented with for the first time and likely not the last time. The NBA kept COVID-19 out of its playoffs once before; here’s hoping it can keep it out again this time around.
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.
Typically, we don’t see many players below the age of 21 contributing to championship-contending teams. Stars that age ordinarily are on rebuilding teams not ready to throw their hat in the ring of claiming the throne of the NBA. Role players on ready-made contenders normally tend to be the chiseled vets that know who they are as players and fit a niche the team needs them to fill to help the team win games. You don’t see a lot of young guns ready to help a great team win games now. Jayson Tatum made his name known on the Celtics team that made the Eastern Conference in 2018, his rookie season. Tyler Herro burst onto the scene in the bubble during the Heat’s run to their Finals appearance. This season, however, has been young Laker Talen Horton-Tucker’s turn to breakout.
When Lakers Coach Frank Vogel threw Horton-Tucker into the hyper-intensive crucible of the playoffs (as a 19-year-old at the time) against the Houston Rockets, I was thrown off-guard. Yet you could tell just in those clips and in Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, not only did he and his teammates believe in Talen but that he was ready for that moment. He showcased his flashy playmaking ability on offense and his devastating defensive potential, both of which he has built upon this season.
Offensively, I’m not sure where to begin, because the possibilities seem endless. That kind of statement doesn’t usually get made for a second-round pick taken 46th overall, but Horton-Tucker seems to be the exception. What I love the most about Talen’s offensive package is that he can with both finesse and brute force. When smaller players defend Horton-Tucker, he uses every bit of the 233 pounds God gave him, like here when he pulverized Luke Kennard straight to the rim for an easy layup. That’s just mean, man. That strength doesn’t just work against guards either. Watch here how Talen gets by Jae Crowder (we’ll focus more on this in a second), allowing him to turn on the jets as he makes like a raging bull on his quest to the rim. However, unlike a matador, Deandre Ayton is sitting there waiting to meet Talen at the summit. It doesn’t matter, however, as Talen absorbs the contact and finishes over Ayton anyway. That was a special play. Not everybody can make that type of play.
As I mentioned earlier, Talen Horton-Tucker also wins with finesse. His handle is very snug to go with effective quickness, allowing him to get to his spots whenever he wants, like that play above against the Suns where he rendered Jae Crowder into being as useful as one of those practice cones. This play again against the Suns in the preseason was particularly nasty. After Montrezl Harrell takes Talen’s man out of the play, it’s on him to beat Jonathan Motley, and he does so with a gross hesitation in-and-out dribble in traffic to freeze Motley and get by him to finish for a layup. He’s great at using angles and changing speeds as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, subtle nuances he has already installed into his game. Watch this one how Horton-Tucker stops on a dime to gain separation from Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (no slouch defensively either) to then blow by Walker IV and get himself a layup. He has what the kids call ‘a bag;’ a rather extensive one at that.
Horton-Tucker has shown he can get himself a bucket, but that doesn’t mean he is just a scorer. He can facilitate too. He’s unselfish and doesn’t hog the ball for very long. After all, he still is just 20 years old; just because he can do some stuff doesn’t mean he has all that long to hold the ball with other established vets orchestrating the show. But when it is his turn to rock, Talen knows what to do with it and find the open man. This play from the preseason is a good example. Talen maximizes the potential of the screen bestowed upon him to wipe out his man to get into the teeth of the defense, drawing help. Once the help comes he kicks it to the corner, who then makes the next pass to Jared Dudley, who calmly splashes the dagger to win the game. Talen Horton-Tucker’s game as a ballhandler is advanced beyond his years, and the numbers bear it out. Horton-Tucker has run just 19 possessions as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, a small sample for sure but screw it. Among players with at least that many possessions running pick-and-roll, Horton-Tucker generates 0.90 points per possession when he shoots, someone else shoots off of a pass from him or he turns it over in those circumstances. Again, a small sample and that mark could improve, but also, he just turned 20 in November!
Offensively is not the only place to get excited about Talen Horton-Tucker’s game. He’s a versatile weapon on the defensive end of the floor too. He’s smart, as you can see here how he veers off of Lou Williams onto the rolling Ivica Zubac after his teammate (Kostas Antetokounmpo) takes Williams, where Horton-Tucker gets the steal and runs the fast-break himself, finding Devontae Cacok for an alley-oop. He’s quick to stick with young guards as he does here in stifling the drive of the Spurs’ Dejounte Murray and even getting a piece of the ball. Speaking of getting a piece of the ball, Talen Horton-Tucker excels there too. It’s nice to have a 7’1” wingspan; it’s even better when you use it. Horton-Tucker averages 3.2 deflections per-36 minutes, according to NBA.com, a mark that ranks third on his team behind defensive pest Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. If you want to go by steals per-36 minutes, he ranks 17th in the NBA with 2.1 of them, according to Basketball-Reference. On Sunday, he put those skills to use against the Houston Rockets, registering four steals during the game. Three of which came in spectacular fashion: one where he ripped Eric Gordon that led to Alex Caruso diving for the ball and himself getting a dunk (those two hooked up in a similar fashion earlier in the game after James Harden lost the ball driving on Caruso). Another occurred when Talen straight snatched the aforementioned Harden clean. The last came in garbage time when he put on his best Kawhi impersonation against Ben McLemore.
That isn’t to say Talen Horton-Tucker doesn’t have any weaknesses to his game. He’s shown he’s already a stout defender, there are still growing pains on that end with him, sometimes getting lost in the speed of the game. That is customary for someone as young as he is, but that won’t fly on a team playing to win now with more than capable veterans at their disposal as well. His jumper also isn’t all the way there yet. He’s shown flashes of an outside shot to go with his scoring ability inside the arc but could stand to show more. He is shooting 40% on catch-and-shoot threes, a must if you want to play alongside LeBron James. However, Horton-Tucker is 2-10 on pull-up jumpers so far this season, but again, he’s shown he can make them. It’s more so a matter of him becoming consistent with that type of shot.
As if the Lakers needed any more help. They’re coming off a championship and upgraded their supporting cast from a year ago before getting to Talen Horton-Tucker. But Horton-Tucker is here, ready to help both now and into the future, as evidenced by his breakout game Sunday night against the Houston Rockets. Yes, he’s 20. Yes, this roster is 11 deep. But depth will be more important this season than ever playing amidst a pandemic where chunks of rosters are being mandated to sit due to contact-tracing protocols and players fully contracting the virus (The Sixers just had to play a game with seven healthy players on Saturday. The Mavericks and Celtics both have had games postponed this week.). Talen can help the Lakers get through this season with little-to-no drop-off from the established who will get the majority of playing-time over Horton-Tucker. He will help in the future as well by sustaining this championship run with Anthony Davis once LeBron James retires. I know it may seem like LeBron will never retire, but he actually will at some point, and someone needs to be there to take the reigns. No, Talen Horton-Tucker will not be the next LeBron James, but he will be in Los Angeles for the long haul and has already shown he’s someone worth investing in, or at least LeBron and Davis think so. Regardless of how much he plays this season or not, both the Lakers’ present and future already glows a bit brighter the more Talen Horton-Tucker plays as well as he has played this season.
Luke Walton cannot escape the scrutiny of fathers of his current players, apparently. After dealing with the LaVar Ball fiasco in Southern California, this predicament has followed him up to Northern California after Marvin Bagley III’s father, Marvin Bagley Jr., tweeted he wanted the Kings to trade his son during last Saturday’s game against the Houston Rockets. Though the tweet has since been deleted, like Luke Skywalker once said: no (tweet) is ever really gone. Since then, this saga has now crescendoed to franchise star De’Aaron Fox’s father also tweeting that he, not his son the basketball star, wants the Kings to trade Bagley III. It’s just the latest in line of mishaps that have befallen the woebegone Sacramento Kings franchise.
Let’s start with Marvin Bagley III. He didn’t ask to be one of the two players taken before already perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic, already All-Star Trae Young, and future All-Star Jaren Jackson. But through two seasons and six games, it’s been more than fair to say that Bagley III has not lived up to the billing of his draft pedigree. Though last season and this season will not play the custom 82 games of normal NBA seasons, Bagley has yet to even reach that number, playing in just 81 games so far in his career. During the aforementioned game on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, Bagley III wasn’t even on the floor to close the game as the offense sputtered to score just 19 points in the 3rd and 4th quarter of that game, with Richaun Holmes playing in his stead. Though Bagley III starts games, he wasn’t there to close that one. Head Coach Luke Walton instead opting to play smaller with Cory Joseph and Kyle Guy to play more perimeter options. With all due respect to Holmes, Joseph, and Guy, if your second overall pick is not on the floor in the minutes that matter, something is wrong.
Something is wrong, however. Marvin Bagley III has his strengths going back to his days at Duke as an athletic rim runner with a super quick second jump to smash the offensive glass and solid post-up player, he had his limitations back then that has haunted him to this day. He’s a rim-running big that plays alongside another rim-running big in the aforementioned Holmes. See a problem there? That situation could be feasible, however, if Bagley III could stretch the floor, but that isn’t his game. In 81 NBA games he’s only shot 131 threes, and has converted a ghastly 29% of them. Bagley III hit nearly 40% of his threes in Durham, but shot just 62.7% from the free-throw line, a more sticky suggestion of where one is at as a shooter (Bagley III is a career 69.7% free-throw shooter).
His most glaring weakness, in particular, has come on the defensive end of the floor. His offensive shortcomings could be more manageable if he were more stout on this end of the floor, but alas. You’d think an athletic big like him would be able to switch on the perimeter against guards, but he routinely gets dusted off the floor when asked to do so. He isn’t ready yet to anchor a defense whatsoever. With the NBA having teams play opponents twice in a row on certain road trips to better handle travel in the days of COVID-19, the Kings’ played Houston on Thursday before playing them again sans James Harden on Saturday. In both games, they attacked Bagley III mercilessly and got just about anything they wanted. In six games so far this season, the Kings’ defense squanders 12.3 points per 100 possessions more when Bagley III is on the floor as opposed to him off the floor. While the difference hasn’t been as stark in the previous two years, the Kings’ defensive rating with him on the floor has hovered above bad as well. There’s a reason he isn’t on the floor to close games.
However, I do see the Bagley side of things here as well. Though things haven’t gotten off to the start I bet he imagined coming into the NBA, he still is super young, as the age clock will only tick toward 22 in March for young Marvin. He’s been unlucky when it comes to nagging foot injuries, though surely concerning for a big man. After Sacramento went 39-43 and blitzed the league at a blistering pace in Bagley III’s rookie season, the Kings decided progress was not enough for then-head coach Dave Joerger to retain his job, hiring Luke Walton to map the future of the franchise instead after he was fired as Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
That decision was curious at the time (purely from the basketball perspective of things, not even including the sexual assault allegation levied upon Walton at the time) and hasn’t aged much gracefully since. The Kings regressed last year and would’ve finished at a 35 win pace had the world not turned upside down from the fallout of COVID-19. The Kings went from the 3rd-fastest team in the NBA in 2018-19 under Joeger to the 11th-slowest under Walton. I do understand some of this; teams figure others out in the NBA, and learning how to better execute in the halfcourt is beneficial for a young team still figuring the league out. Still, it does seem strange for a coach to step in and fairly drastically change what was working pretty damn well. This same episode we’re seeing now with Marvin Bagley III strangely was on display a year ago with Fox’s backcourt running mate in Buddy Hield after Hield, the current champion of All-Star Weekend’s Three-Point Shootout was spectating watching the offense sputter while trailing by… three points! This led to frustration from Buddy Hield, taking to social media to voice, or in this case like, his displeasure with the team.
Neither has player development. As a Lakers fan, the talent and potential of all the team’s previous draft picks were always on display, but neither one was groomed into what they are now. There are many reasons for this: almost none of these picks were finished products by any means with the exception of probably Larry Nance Jr., circumstances changed the instant LeBron James walked into the building and were exacerbated once the Anthony Davis trade rumors shot a dart through the confidence levels of the young players. However, it was quite damning that nearly every player has improved even in a short timeframe from leaving Walton’s stewardship. Brandon Ingram literally won an award for it, now personifying the lethal three-level scoring potential we all envisioned him being. D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star (albeit in the Eastern Conference) for the Brooklyn Nets. Lonzo Ball’s jumper from deep improved from the lower 30 percent mark to 37.5% a year ago. Jordan Clarkson went from a daring chucker to useful sparkplug off the bench for two different playoff teams. Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant both have emerged as starting centers, albeit with drastically different strengths and weaknesses. Larry Nance Jr. never averaged above 2.4 assists per-36 minutes as a Laker; he’s never dipped below three the last two seasons as a Cavalier. Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso emerged as pivotal pieces for a championship team, with the latter literally being the difference-maker in the starting lineup of a closeout Game 6 to win the Lakers a title. Others have come and gone Lakerland during Walton’s tenure, but what does it say that a player the Lakers drafted after Walton was let go, Talen Horton-Tucker, has now fought his way into the rotation of a championship contender, was thrown into the fire in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets, and now has scouts (not affiliated with the Lakers, mind you) buzzing that Horton-Tucker could, in their words, average 20+ points per game *right now as a 20-year-old* on a rebuilding team? Neither Ingram nor Russell could manage to do that under Walton’s watch. Walton and his staff are supposed to elevate the games of their players. That didn’t happen in Los Angeles all that often and it isn’t happening right now with Bagley III.
What does this all mean? Are the Kings really going to give up on a guy they just drafted second overall not even three years ago? Unlikely (even if they wanted, his value isn’t at a spot to get what I imagine they’d want back in return), but maybe? Are the Kings going to fire *another* coach? Well, you can’t put anything past them, which is much at the root of what ails the Kings.
They’ve been the laughing stock of the NBA this side of the New York Knicks with meddling and impatient ownership stepping in the way of incompetent management. Not exactly the combination you want, but get with Vivek Ranadive running the show. This cycle has repeated itself again to where we are now. Luke Walton wasn’t the Head Coach when the Kings drafted Bagley III. Current GM Monte McNair wasn’t in the building when that selection occurred either. Neither of those two owes it Marvin Bagley III or his family to see this thing through. But in order for the team to take the kind of steps the teams of other players in his draft, like the Grizzlies, Suns, Hawks, and Mavericks, have taken the last couple of years, the two sides need each other to help Bagley III become the best version of what he can be. If that happens, perhaps the Kings become what we thought they had a chance of being after the 2018-19 season. If not, they’ll be the same-old’ Kings: churning through another head coach and general manager, another missed draft pick, and perhaps another disgruntled star counting down the days to escape the NBA purgatory Sacramento has found itself to be for nearly the last two decades.