NOTE: We discuss this post on BRING IT IN right here.
BY DAVID THORPE
1. Stephen Curry's pass to Andrew Wiggins
By now you know all about Stephen Curry’s crazy night, where he scored a career-best 62 against Damian Lillard, who only scored 32 points on 6-15 3-point shooting. The Warriors won by 15 in the end, but things were a little nervous with just under three minutes to play. Curry had 54 points, tied for a career-best scoring night. The worry, though, was that the Warriors’ 16-point fourth-quarter lead had been vaporized in half, and the Blazers still had Lillard and CJ McCollum on the court. With 2:36 to play, Curry had a choice to make: Launch some craziness to boost his record, or think team-first? My suspicions were confirmed when he used a screen, drew help, and found Andrew Wiggins in the corner for the 3 that locked up the game. Only after that did Curry make the free throws, and two wild 3s to pad his scoring total. But it was that pass to Wiggins that made me think about LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Curry is an incredible shooter, but also incredibly committed to winning, and to hitting players like Andrew Wiggins for game-deciding 3s.
There’s a reason why his teammates acted with pure joy as he set the court on fire. He is the perfect teammate, the superstar who thinks about “we” before “me.”
2. LaMelo Ball’s undeniable talent
I was a fan of Lonzo Ball, a brilliant passer and potentially a great defender. Matched up with better scorers and he could be a key piece on a great team. I still feel that way, and he is on a perfect roster, alongside Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, to be that guy.
When I wrote about LaMelo's faults I did so knowing he also had a chance to be like his brother. He just had to care about winning, defense, and playing a role he could succeed in. To that point, he appeared to focus more on his brand and style. That kind of pivot is an incredibly tough task for someone already so famous.
The Hornets should be very happy with what they have seen from Ball to this point. Not because he’s making over 40 percent of his 3s over the first two weeks. (Though that’s certainly a good sign, it’s early. Maybe it will stick, maybe not.) His willingness to make simple passes, game after game, and on a first touch, rather than only after dribbling, matters. The simple plays help build an unselfish culture. He is fun to play with when he does that! He’s no good as a defender, but in a pleasant development, he’s clearly really trying. If he keeps up the effort, the results will come over the next season or two. All in all, he has been focused and humble on the court, while still showing the pure passing talent he showed in Australia.
When I explained why I wouldn’t draft him high in the draft, I also hedged; “It’s entirely possible that LaMelo will develop into an NBA star. I would love to see an excellent team bring out the best in him over time.” The Hornets are not an excellent team, but the way they are playing and coaching LaMelo is working. He has two far better guards on his team in Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, and to this point Ball seems perfectly content playing the role of “third guard.” Very encouraging!
If he ends up being just a good shooter, not even a great one, and learns the ins and outs of on and off ball NBA defense, he can at the very least be as good as his oldest brother Lonzo. If he becomes an efficient scorer, which means he will develop an ability to earn and make shots around the rim far better than he does now, then “All Star” level is attainable. Was he the best prospect in this draft? Not even close. But if he continues to COMPETE, not just to make highlights but to win games, Hornets fans are going to enjoy the show. Who doesn’t love brilliant passers passing brilliantly?
3. James Wiseman is the real deal
Lost in the excitement over Curry’s game was seeing James Wiseman put up his first career double-double, going for 12 and 11 in just 22 minutes. He blocked two shots too, and showed how nimble he is when attacking the rim. It was a missed shot that caught my eye though, a running right-hander following a hard downhill drive. It wasn’t really close. But he attempted it, which tells us a ton about how the Warriors want him to develop, and what he might become. This is how you add shots to your repertoire. Before players make shots that they once didn’t have in their arsenal, they miss them. The key, though, is the imagination and courage to try them in games. I’m not talking about crazy heat checks. I’m talking about a true scorer’s full complement of either-hand finishes around the rim. Sometimes this season, or perhaps in 2022, Wiseman will routinely make off-handed shots off the dribble. Then what will defenders do? Now they force him right and expect him to miss. Last week, Steve Kerr elected to start a game running a “wide pin,” a play to get a shooter an open look by having him run up the court, away from the rim, while getting a screen to free him up. It’s a standard action for Klay Thompson. Kerr ran it for Wiseman, who caught the ball straddling the 3-point line and shot it anyway, nailing the long 2-pointer. He’s 5-11 on 3s—so he has shown at least the good possibility that he will not just be a dunker in the NBA.
His rebounds are the most impressive in the league right now, impossibly long arms and big hands that seem to swoop from the sky to grab the ball as if it was a volleyball. He is still years away from truly knowing how to play with nine other guys on the court, but it is clear he has an idea of what he needs to do for himself. That’s a great start for him and his team.
4. Clippers on offense
L.A.—potentially the best team in the league—still goes through mind-numbing bouts of disinterest, but to be sure, they are playing lots of beautiful offense thus far. Tyronn Lue’s team has the league’s fifth most efficient offense, and the third-best shooting team from 3 (17-29 on Sunday night). They blend a nice mix of stars-in-isolation with creative actions using multiple players away from the ball. As the season unfolds, if the players remain invested in this style, the Clippers will be tough as hell to defend. Turnovers are their biggest flaw on offense—but months of play is the perfect way to hone that.
5. Draymond Green's presence
Draymond Green is far from “back.” He has scored one point in his two games. If he can’t find more points, the Warriors won’t make the playoffs.
But he makes a HUGE impact on this team in two obvious ways. On defense he knows that having his body near the rim as a player attempts a layup or close shot means that player is less likely to make the shot. He is a big-bodied guy with long arms and great timing. Wiseman isn’t a defensive presence yet, despite his size, because he too often isn’t where he needs to be at the right time. Green is. And that alone adds hugely to the Warriors defense.
On offense, Green is the passer and ball mover who makes the Warriors’ “Cuisinart” whirr. Only with Green spraying the ball around can the Warriors fully unlock Curry, Wiggins, and Oubre. Like we mentioned with Ball above, “one touch” passes get the ball going faster than the defense. Green knows where everyone is and should be. We are not surprised he’s doing this because it’s what he has always done, it just needed verifying after a disastrous last season and plenty of roster turnover. Steve Kerr has to be thinking about getting Green weaponized at least a little bit, and if that happens, they are absolutely in playoff contention.
6. Deni Avdija can play
With just under eight minutes to play in the third Kyrie Irving activated one of the league’s most lethal “surge dribbles.” He’s incredible from zero to 60, or 30 to 60, or 60 to 100. And he had a rookie on him. But the young Wizard Deni Avdija slid easily, stayed tidily between Kyrie and the rim. That wouldn’t work so easily here. The Nets star made a simple pass to an open teammate. It’s the kind of play scouts and coaches love, and a very good sign for Wizards fans. Avdija is about 6-10 with dribbling and passing skills, and he entered the draft with a very suspect shot. Like LaMelo Ball, he’s been a big surprise to that end, making 11 of 23 attempts. It won’t stay close to 50 percent all season, but again, like Ball, but it doesn’t have to for him to be an impact guy. Avdija is already a starter and one of the Wizards steadier contributors, who knows how to play on both ends and doesn’t try to do too much. That allows Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook to do what they do. In time, maybe next season, the Israeli lottery pick can feel out the limits of his abilities. For now, being a “three and D” forward is a perfect plan.
7. Mikal Bridges might be my new favorite player
Cutting, racing in transition, making 3s (19-41), defending—Mikal Bridges has evolved into one of the better wing shooters/defenders in the NBA. Considering the Suns’ high-end talent in Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, Bridges has emerged as an incredibly important part of their future. I’ve long said Jerami Grant is my favorite player, and maybe he still is. Though Detroit is bad, as expected, they are getting all they could hope for from Grant, who is having a career season at nearly 23 points per game. His best scoring average coming into this year was 13.6 two seasons ago for the Thunder. Grant is just 26, has been impactful in the playoffs, and can be a very good defender, if not an elite one. For a team like Detroit, it’s step one towards relevance—signing or developing a good player and helping him grow into a great one.
8. DeMar DeRozan shooting 3s
Did anyone expect DeMar DeRozan to have a career year? I didn’t. But he’s off to a great start for a team who badly misses their best overall big man and scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge. DeRozan is at a career high 24.28 PER, and is taking 2.5 3s a game. That only means something when you know he took .5 per game last year, .6 the year before. His career best 3-point shooting had him at 33.8 percent, so seeing him start the year making 46.7 percent from deep is huge. If DeRozan can keep making 40 percent in three attempts a game, he becomes a huge mid-season trade target.
9. Why are so many teams shooting like this?
Last season saw seven teams shoot 37 percent or better from 4. At the moment, it’s 14. The Spurs were the fourth-best shooting team from three at 37.6 percent in 2019-20, this year they rank 12th at 37.2 percent. Who are the three best shooting teams after nearly two weeks? The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers, all north of 40 percent. It’s probably small sample-size theater, as Kevin Pelton says, but worth watching.
10. Derrick Jones Jr. picking up LeBron James full court
The Blazers are a bad defensive team now—or, perhaps, a work in progress. It takes time to build the connective tissue of a stifling defensive team, and they have had very little time with newcomers Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr.
But on Monday, Jones often defended LeBron as he caught the inbounds pass following a Blazers basket. No big deal you say? I’m not sure. He didn’t hound LeBron into turnovers, though he did force LeBron to THINK about his defender some, rather than focus on the chess board in front of him. Sometimes he’d just quickly pass to a teammate to advance the ball forward. Or he’d use a screen near the timeline to get some space away from Jones’ long arms. LeBron ended up with just six assists, a rare low number when he plays 36 minutes, which he did in that game. Jones wasn’t a big impact on that, nor was he the main story behind LA’s lowest point total of the young season.
But if the Blazers are to contend for anything meaningful, their defense has to get much better, and for that to happen, someone has to step up and take pride in curbing the scoring success of the stars they face each game. Jones looks like that’s the role he wants to play. His quickness, speed, and length work perfectly alongside a mindset focused on earning all-league defensive honors, and allow him to defend almost anyone the Blazers face.
An important effect of his effort against the other team’s superstar—Jones Jr. spent much of the Blazers’ next game on Stephen Curry—is that it allows Robert Covington to be a “relief pitcher.” Instead of wearing himself out every play all regular season, he can switch onto stars when Jones rests, and be a little fresher and more energetic. Plus, off the ball Covington can be an excellent helper or chaos creator in gaps. There’s a chance Covington, Jones, and Nurkic can become an outstanding defensive frontcourt, which might really fired up Lillard and McCollum on that end, too. It is their only path to real relevance as a team, as the roster is currently constructed.
11. Zion Williamson is contesting 3s and the Pelicans are playing defense
He looks 30-plus pounds too heavy, which might help explain why his offensive numbers are less impressive than last year. But Zion leads the league in contesting 3s, something the Pelicans are doing well as they have surged into a top-five defense. Last year they ranked 21st in defensive rating. If you wondered why the Pelicans hired Stan Van Gundy, this is your answer. He’s gotten them to play with more energy and purpose, so far, on defense, especially closing out shooters.
12. Sixers play defense too
On a warm Central Florida New Years eve, the Sixers escaped the cold weather but faced the league’s hottest team, the 4-0 Magic. For six minutes it looked like it would be a shootout. Then the Sixers showed Orlando what cold felt like. Ice cold. Orlando scored 14 points the first six minutes of the game, then managed just 26 points the next 18 minutes. It was 75-40 at halftime, game over. Considering the Magic have already scored 43 points IN A QUARTER (against the Wizards, to be fair), it was an impressive performance by the 76ers’ D. And it wasn’t unique.
Philly leads the league in defensive rating, relentlessly helping to protect the rim (fifth in the league in points allowed in the paint) and leading the league in blocked shots. Their opponents barely make half their attempts within five feet of the rim, some of that is due to luck, but Philly is clearly making an effort to play physically and challenge shooters at the rim. They are not casual on the perimeter either, allowing the fifth fewest 3s per game. Stout inside and solid on the perimeter. They have elite defenders in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, plus Danny Green and Tobias Harris are solid. Among starters, only Seth Curry can be picked on.
So far, the team seems to be following Doc Rivers’ defensive game plan. When the Thunder were dominating the west with James Harden and in the first year after he was traded, head coach Scott Brooks seemed to mention specific defensive plays and themes in public before and after every game. When the head coach expects everyone to contribute on that end, and then it happens, culture is taking form. Before the results occur, they are just words.
One extra note—Quin Snyder has preached about the importance of ball movement and getting players “touches” as being key to building great defenses (and then they acquired and signed Jordan Clarkson so there goes that idea), and look who leads the entire league in touches per game.
13. What should the Rockets do with Harden? How about Donovan Mitchell?
Two weeks ago we wrote about trading him to Orlando. The three main guys who would come to Houston were Aaron Gordon, Markelle Fultz, and rookie Cole Anthony. I still think Houston could do much worse. Fultz is showing signs of being an excellent player, Gordon is struggling from 3 but otherwise playing well, and Anthony is among the more impressive rookies thus far. Add a first-round pick and it’s not a terrible offer.
However, perhaps the Rockets insist on an All-Star. In that case, let me offer another idea: Donovan Mitchell. It’s not a deal I think the Jazz should do. But if their new team governor, Ryan Smith, wants to make a splash, a team built around Harden and Rudy Gobert can get the league talking and … do some real damage.
Think about the success Harden had alongside Clint Capela. Gobert is like Capela, but better at everything. That trade isn’t easy for lots of reasons, but it’s doable with several teams and contortions. The Jazz would be able to keep Mike Conley to play the Chris Paul role. The Rockets would get a young All-Star and they could haggle over what picks and how many, plus another starter—possibly Royce O’Neale. The Rockets would likely be a playoff team and would have a star beginning his new contract next year after signing his max extension this winter. Because of cap limitations, the Knicks and Hornets, the only two teams that can take players into their room would get to take part and come away with valuable players who can later be turned into guys who fit their futures better. Think of this as a placeholder—the key is to swap Mitchell and Harden. Again, not a move I expect or would recommend but if Smith wants to compete with the LA teams right now, this is a way to do it.
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