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The axiom goes that an NBA team can’t ever have enough wings. It’s true, and if you don’t think so then watch any 2021-22 Los Angeles Laker game (please don’t actually, I care about you) or how puny the Brooklyn Nets were in their lone playoff series against the Finals-bound Boston Celtics. Wings that are big, long, and versatile defensively will always have a shot at cracking a playoff rotation. If they can hit threes or even make smart reads as a passer, even better. If they can create their own shot then they’re going in the lottery. But a player in the 2022 NBA Draft that likely won’t get selected in the lottery but does hit those benchmarks? Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia

Cutting

Jake LaRavia is not going to be a guy you ask to create a lot of offense; he averaged just over eight field goal attempts per game over his college career and finished with a usage rate of just 21.9-percent. But LaRavia excels in filling in the gaps as a mover, a cutter, and a floor spacer, the primary ways he was used at college. He’s always vigilant without the ball in his hands. Once he sees an opening to zip through the lane, he hits it. Playing with a true point guard in Alondes Williams helped in finding LaRavia in those circumstances.

LaRavia shot 61.6-percent on two-point shots this past year and it’s easy to see why. He knows who he is and how to get the shots he knows he can make. He’s also more than sneaky athletic so he can punch those down once he gets the ball with that head of steam.

Shooting

LaRavia is also a very solid shooter. He didn’t shoot a ton of threes but he made 37.1-percent of the 132 threes he attempted over his three-year collegiate career. The stroke looks solid.

If Jake LaRavia is going to stay on the floor in high-leverage moments, he’s going to have to make shots like that. Luckily, he proved he can do so at a high level. LaRavia generated 1.5 points per possession on every unguarded catch-and-shoot jumper he shot last season, according to Zach Welch on Twitter. Excelling as a jump shooter as well as a finisher played a large role in LaRavia finishing last season with a 64.9-percent true-shooting percentage and a 60.6-percent effective field goal percentage. That he’s even somewhat close to the efficiency Chet Holmgren (69.1-percent TS; 68.1-percent eFG) posted is incredible and a testament to how well LaRavia excels at being a complementary piece. It isn’t as if LaRavia is only shooting corner threes like PJ Tucker either; he’s got NBA range and can hit shots on the move as well.

 

Playmaking

Another area of offense Jake LaRavia excels at is his passing. He reads the floor very well and especially so on the move, which will be very important in the NBA. Teams are going to force a team’s star players to get rid of the ball and force others to beat them. LaRavia can diagnose those defensive rotations on the fly and make the correct decisions to get his team a great look. This play is a great example. 

Towson traps the ballhandler. As they do, Wake Forest’s center slips to the rim. LaRavia makes himself available in the middle of the floor and sees the defender in the corner tagging Wake Forest’s roller. As he tags LaRavia zips it to the wing to create an open three. LaRavia is a smart and unselfish passer. It’s no wonder why he averaged 3.5 assists per 40 minutes (to 3 turnovers) and an above-average 17.8-percent assist percentage for his career. (For context: Karl-Anthony Towns and Thaddeus Young finished with a 17.7-percent assist percentage last season.) He has no problem manipulating a defense or making the simple extra pass. He keeps the machine humming.

Defense

The same way Jake LaRavia reads the floor offensively he also does so defensively. This side of the floor is where LaRavia’s bread gets buttered. At 6-8 227-pounds and a 6-9.5 wingspan, he can cover a ton of ground defensively. He has no issue disrupting offenses as a free safety. Watch here how he rotates from the weakside to strip the Towson roll man as he’s going up to force a turnover. 

That’s just one example of LaRavia putting out a fire off the ball. Here’s another. He begins the possession on a Towson big man. But as the ball rotates from one side to the other, a Towson guard is open on the left-wing. LaRavia sees it and zips over to make him put it on the deck, redirecting his rotating teammate Alondes Williams back to his original man. LaRavia sticks with the Towson guard and forces a wild shot as a result.

 

LaRavia can clearly defend in the team scheme, but he can put the clamps on people? That answer is also a definite yes. He’s got the quick feet to stick with guards and the size to stand up bruising wings. He didn’t have much of an issue sticking with two dynamic NC State scorers in Terquavion Smith and Dereon Seabron, both of whom fared well in May’s NBA Combine.

I think Jake LaRavia would probably be better deployed in more of a free safety role like a Robert Covington, but he’s definitely capable of being a point-of-attack stopper too, in my opinion. But it’s clear to me he is a plus defender. The numbers back it up too. LaRavia finished with a 12.7-percent rebound percentage, 2.4-percent steal percentage, 3.9-percent block percentage, and 4.6 defensive win shares (this stat continues to accumulate the more games you play. The more games one plays, the bigger the number. Veterans will have a bigger number than freshmen.). That is very similar to or better than a number of wings projected to go ahead of him in this year’s class. Here are how a few others that share LaRavia’s position in this class compare to LaRavia:

Jeremy Sochan, Baylor: 14.7 RB%, 2.9 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 1.9 DWS

Tari Eason, LSU: 15.2 RB%, 4.5 STL%, 6.2 BLK%, 3.4 DWS

Kendall Brown, Baylor: 10.5 RB%, 2.2 STL%, 1.5 BLK%, 1.8 DWS

EJ Liddell, Ohio State: 13.7 RB%, 1.2 STL%, 6.5 BLK%, 3.8 DWS

Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee: 11.2 RB%, 1.7 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 0.4 DWS

Jake LaRavia is just as good or even a better shooter than some of these guys with the defensive impact, but isn’t mocked in the top 20 the way these guys are or have previously been. I think that’s a mistake. LaRavia is right there amongst the most impactful wings in this draft whose game fits the mold of an Aaron Gordon‘s. He may be a junior but he’s still just 20 years. He’s just six months older than freshman Chet Holmgren and 12 days older than freshman TyTy Washington. There’s plenty of room for LaRavia to grow.

Jake LaRavia should be a top 20 pick in my opinion, but any team that sees themselves as a contender picking in the 20s (such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Golden State Warriors) that is low on wing depth should have no qualms taking LaRavia in the first round. He is a perfect complementary piece on the wing that can step in and help a team immediately. Every team needs players like him to get through the riggers of the playoffs to get that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy. If you like winning players, then Jake LaRavia is your man.

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.’