Ja Morant: Allen Iverson with a 3

Also: James Harden and Damian Lillard starting slow

BY DAVID THORPE
The only thing missing from Ja Morant’s offensive attack was a reliable 3, and it’s not missing anymore. He’s leading the NBA in scoring, and faces the Warriors Thursday night. JUSTIN FORD/GETTY IMAGES

Superman has kryptonite. Ironman has an ego problem. Captain America hates taking orders, and The Hulk, well, he’s an incredibly angry green monster. Even the finest NBA prospects arrive in the league with issues, too. 

There’s always something between here and superstardom. Luka Doncic arrived in the NBA incredibly skilled but slow. Trae Young could make shots from a mile away but couldn’t guard anyone. Ja Morant sped by every defender he faced in college--but couldn’t shoot. Last season he shot 30 percent from 3. If you’re not especially tall, this makes life in the NBA very difficult.

Oops. The season is young, but Ja Morant is shooting 46 percent from 3. His field goal percentage is up 11 percent, and he’s leading the NBA in scoring. 

On Sunday against the Lakers, he made five-of-seven 3s. 

In warmups for his next game, Wednesday against the Blazers, Morant told his teammates “I got whatever flavor you need.”

Allen Iverson combined incredible bravado and imagination with unmatched athleticism in his Hall-of-Fame career. We see elite athletes who have great speed but are not incredibly quick or bouncy. Some are just bouncy, while others are not so fast and don’t jump really high but have amazing quickness. Iverson, one of the best athletes the world has ever seen, had all three. What he didn’t have was NBA height—his listed 6-foot is seen as generous. That made his fearlessness enrapturing. His David vs. Goliath attacks were inspiring bets that his athleticism and craft would overcome the massive size deficit he faced with the giants defending the paint. Iverson was forced to make so many incredible finishes precisely because he wasn’t 6-6, nor was he powerfully muscled like Derrick Rose. High kisses off the glass, putting “English” on shots to spin a ball in around a tall defender—Iverson was so much more than a highlight reel athlete. He was an artist.

Morant is built the same way. Gifted as a creative player who uses a bursting crossover to get to the rim, he has a developed skill at using the entire backboard, and that creative mindset, to make these kinds of shots. It is one thing to be able to create shots like that, another to make them. Morant, like Iverson, is basically impossible to contain. Too quick, too adept at dribbling, and too willing to embarrass defenders with his talent. Just starting his third season at 22 years old, Morant will be cooking opponents one-on-one for years to come. 

But it’s not a bankable strategy to enter games planning for Ja to make five circus shots. That’s a wish, not a plan. And it’s not enough. In the playoffs, Morant destroyed the vaunted Rudy Gobert’s Jazz defense, and the Grizzlies lost four straight games anyway. Iverson is in the Hall of Fame, and won just one NBA Finals game. A “franchise player” that small who can’t shoot is limited. To really contend would mean more.

He may look oftentimes like Superman, flying over defenders or racing past them. But as we saw in Portland, and will be seeing forevermore, even if his shot making from deep is here to stay, defenses will swarm him all over the court. He had nine turnovers Wednesday, most when he was far too casual with the ball, arrogant almost, as two and three defenders surrounded him. He finished with 17 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, a sign that his impact on games will be felt far more than just in scoring. 

I suspect he’ll learn the lesson of the loss, though: There’s a fine line to be walked between thinking “I’m a superhero” and playing like one. Iverson had no choice but to bring all of his energy and athleticism to dominate a league of giants. And he did so, but he didn’t face the kind of early to help defenders Morant does because of different illegal defensive rules. (Iverson won his only league MVP in the 2000-01 season, the last year those old rules existed.) It took another six years or so before teams really exploited those new paths to better help defense, and by then Iverson was over 30. 

Morant will face more and better team defense than Iverson did, he’ll need every ounce of Iverson’s intensity and bravado to battle through. Like a baseball hitter learning when to lay off a pitch, he’ll also have to master when to just make a simple pass out of the crowd—otherwise there’ll be more nine turnover games ahead.

The evolution of the game is what will push Morant past what Iverson once was. AI didn’t need to develop a deep shot to crush opponents, and in fact never did. (Iverson’s best full season saw him make less than 35 percent of his 3s, and he never averaged more than two makes a game.) Morant is on a far steeper trajectory as a shooter. As that part of his game develops so too will his understanding of how to use both of his superpowers to demolish opponents. Based on coverages, he can smash them at the rim or bomb in those deep shots. He’s picked up his defensive efforts this year as well, a key to leading his team deep into the playoffs.

Is he good enough to be a league MVP and take his team to the Finals? Yes and yes. Iverson showed the way. With reliable long-range shooting, Ja is on a path beyond The Answer. 


James Harden: not back yet

We covered James Harden's inability to get to the free throw line in the preseason. Six games into the regular season Harden is averaging three free throws a game, the lowest of his career. On a recent episode of BRING IT IN, Jarod Hector noted that Harden had mentioned needing to get his confidence back. Getting it back means, quite literally, it has been lost. What exactly does he feel less confident about? I suspect it’s his NBA-best ability to roast the defender in front of him with dribbling wizardry and abrupt stop-and-start moves. Maybe he is still not in game shape, perhaps he isn’t fully healthy after last season’s hamstring injury. In September, Harden told a group of young players he was “kinda still in rehab.” Wednesday, ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk quoted Harden saying “as much as I want to get back to just, you know, [scoring] 30's and 40 points, I can't do that [right now]. As much as I want to, obviously I would love to."

I believe him.

Over time we will learn the truth. The Nets are torn without Harden being close to an All-League performer. They don’t have the personnel to control the paint on defense and absent Kyrie Irving, their offense is far too one-dimensional. It’s possible we see Harden play his way into peak form and back to seven-plus free throws a game. We’ll be watching for it, as will the Nets, who very possibly have a title riding on it.


Very little of Damian Lillard’s scoring through the years has come from passing. New coach Chauncey Billups has the Blazers passing far more. Advanced stats show Lillard has less time with the ball, and his scoring is sharply down. ABBIE PARR/GETTY IMAGES

Is the Blazers’ new offense affecting Damian Lillard?

You can read whatever you want into Portland’s 2-2 open. Quality blowout wins over the Suns and Grizzlies show Chauncey Billups’ new defense holds promise. Losses to the Kings and Clippers suggest it’s not exactly reliable yet.

And the jury is certainly still out on the decision to overhaul last season’s offense. It had its flaws before—everything ran through Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and, as defenses knew that, the team got very few easy buckets. But it was the second-best offense in NBA history.

A common discussion on NBA courts arises when a new coach arrives to a team, or a star player signs with a new team, and suddenly the star is asked to play ... differently. The discussion begins with that request, followed by the words “we will win more.” Powerful stuff. Behind closed doors, mostly, the star will say “I’m an All-Star playing this way, why should I trust this guy and change?”

This year’s version is a big change. In the last two seasons the Blazers averaged 244 passes a game, last in the league by a long shot. Chauncey Billups spent most of the summer talking up a new offense that features Jusuf Nurkic catching the ball in the middle of the floor, and a lot of off-ball movement, and the ball pinging around.

The players listened. In the first four games, the Blazers are averaging 280 passes, which has moved them up into the middle of the pack among NBA teams. Predictably, it has come with a big uptick in turnovers—and an offense that’s well outside the top ten in the early going.

I understand the strategy: help Dame with an offensive system and in theory he’ll have more energy to defend, and to be at his best in the playoffs. (There’s also value in simply having more ways to attack.) This isn’t the first time a coach has asked a star to do less so the team can do more. 

The trouble is that playing in isolation—not passing—is what Dame does best. 

Some interesting things bubble up for NBA.com’s tracking stats. First of all, he’s missing wide-open shots like never before, which explains some of his fall from 27.8 to 17.8 points per game. (Know who averaged 17.8  last year? Eric Gordon. Adidas doesn’t pay players like Eric Gordon $100 million like they do Lillard.)

Interestingly, Lillard is shooting plenty—attempts per minute and per play are near career highs. But his free throw attempts are way down, and he’s spending much less time with the ball:

  • Last year, Dame had the ball for 6 or more seconds on 52.1 percent of his shots. This year he has the ball that long on only 40 percent of shots. 

  • Last year Dame dribbled 7 or more times before 44 percent of his shots. This year: 31 percent.

Lillard knows how to get buckets, and it’s not from passing or catching passes. The best stretch of basketball he has played this season was on Wednesday against the Grizzlies when he hit three straight 3s in the third quarter. In one he dribbled around a Nurkic screen into a 3, in the other two he dribbled up the floor and shot. Passing wasn’t part of it. When Lillard actually got going, the offense was a Terry Stotts throwback. (The Blazers made 250 passes in beating the Grizzlies—a number reminiscent of last season.)

Billups’ approach requires adjustment from Lillard. The Blazers have gone from almost the league’s slowest-paced team to almost its fastest. It’s totally possible that a renewed focus on defense, and a sped up game, will take a break-in period. Just like when LeBron got to Miami, incredible players can absolutely adjust. It might be fantastic once they figure this out.

They’re not made of time, though: Lillard could easily miss the All-Star game. Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, and Ja Morant are locks. Lillard must battle Chris Paul and Devin Booker who just made the Finals, and Donovan Mitchell whose team is likely to have the West’s best record at voting time. CJ McCollum is off to an incredible start, Mike Conley made the team last year … there are nine incredible guards scrapping for six spots, before we discuss Russell Westbrook and Anthony Edwards.

Can the delicate Blazers/Lillard relationship withstand Lillard’s missing the All-Star game?

Remember that this is a team worried Lillard might demand a trade at some point. Recently Lillard re-committed to the franchise, but the whole NBA has been watching to see how long that lasts. Since posting a Nipsey Hussle quote “How long should I stay dedicated?” the night Portland was eliminated in the first-round of the playoffs, Lillard has given the NBA every reason to wonder how long he’ll stay dedicated. After a flurry of activity this summer—including TrueHoop’s own reporting, further comments from Lillard about not insisting on a trade yet, then the 76ers cutting a deal to bring in Lillard’s offseason trainer Phil Beckner. Whatever Lillard says, Daryl Morey evidently believes Lillard is in play. 

Lillard is saying all the right things now, publicly, and Portland is absolutely better on defense. But the situation bears watching. What happens if things improve slightly for him, while the team battles for a play-in spot? Teams have abandoned offenses before. But remember that the Blazers didn’t bring in any All-Stars to help Lillard win his first title. Chauncey Billups was the Blazers’ solution to Dame’s concerns. 


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