Six observations from the season's first quarter
Thorpe on Warriors/Suns, Tatum, Siakam, Lakers, Valanciunas, 76ers’ defense
BY DAVID THORPE
A quarter of the way through the 2021-2011 season, David Thorpe has six observations:
1. The Warriors’ offense is more than Stephen Curry
The Suns won Tuesday’s battle between the two best teams of the young season. Stephen Curry had one of the worst shooting nights of his career, so that was that, right? The Warriors have one key to their offense, and the Suns stopped it.
In examining the video, I’d say: Wrong on both counts.
The teams’ rematch on Friday will test my theory, but I doubt the Suns have discovered anything durable about stopping Curry. The Athletic's Anthony Slater documented how the Suns did a nice job finding Curry early, staying attached, and not fouling. (He attempted only one free throw.) Thanks to defenders like DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, they are a long team—but so are many NBA defenses. Perhaps the Suns’ signature defensive play of the night, Ayton’s block of a Curry 3 near the end of the first half, looked to me like a shot Curry ordinarily would have released with more arc. On most nights, Ayton wouldn’t have touched it. Every scorer has off nights.
The Suns executed far better than the weak defenses the Warriors have seen so far this season. But the reality is, Stephen Curry has cooked far better defenses than this.
Also, this season the Warriors have a lot more to their offense than Steph. On Tuesday, the other Warriors banded together and almost pulled out a win without Curry’s help. That night it was Jordan Poole (28 points), a serious candidate for the Most Improved Player award, whose blazing speed adds a new dimension to the Warriors in the way Leandro Barbosa did in 2015-17 for the Warriors. Otto Porter Jr. helped on offense, too. Other nights this year it has been Andrew Wiggins (a top 50 player right now, and trending up), Kevon Looney (who is an impact player who almost no one notices), or whoever catches the ball in transition or on cuts to the rim.
Over the last several years, we have written about how defenses’ panicking about Curry have made it easy for other Warriors to score. What I’m seeing this year is something new: These ballers are getting buckets whether Curry’s involved or not.
Plays like this are not oddities this season. The Warriors’ top-five offense is about a lot more than one player.
2. Jayson Tatum: good shots, not falling
Did you see Jayson Tatum against the 76ers Wednesday night? He looked like Jayson Tatum, with a 26-point, 16-rebound gem to lead his team to a much-needed win. I know 26 points doesn’t sound so impressive, but his whole team hit for just 88, and he made 9-20 shots and 3-8 from 3, after missing 25 of his last 30 over the last nine day. Those shots falling in at a slightly higher rate might be the medicine that cures the Celtics’ ailment.
Tatum has been getting great looks at the hoop all season. For a reason that I can’t quite figure out, they are simply not falling. It’s a simple observation, but it packs a punch. The Celtics, whose fans are itchy about their roster, their new coach, and everything else, might not need anything other than regular shooting from Tatum for their team to rise in the East standings. Tatum only needs the shot-making talent he had for Team USA this summer to make Ime Udoka look like a really good coaching hire.
Why he has been missing is unclear. He’s getting the shots he wants. He is often open. His shot profiles—where he’s getting shots and how well guarded he is—are eerily similar to last year. The difference is, he’s missing a ton. Despite getting more shots than ever, he’s having his worst season as a shooter. Tatum loves to dribble attack then pull up for a midrange jumper, or to lull a defender to back off him by threatening a drive, then launching a 3. He’s getting plenty of those shots again this season, but he’s making just under 32 percent of his 3s and 31 percent of his midrange, huge drops from the 38+ percent he shot from both areas last season.
Because of his struggles, the Celtics are 23rd in adjusted offensive rating. Last season they were 11th by season's end, with an average defense. This year they have the fifth-best defense. A return of form for Tatum will have a massive impact in the East. Boston has the upside of a contender, thanks to the dynamic play of Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to go with:
the elasticity of Robert Williams’ potential,
the possibility that Dennis Schroeder returns to his OKC Thunder version (which may be happening now),
Marcus Smart on defense.
There is a lot of fire in the media about how Tatum is selfish and that’s the Celtics’ problem. I contend that making more shots puts that fire out and gets Boston into a more serious position as a threat to win the East, perhaps getting into the fourth seed position by season's end.
3. Ten games not enough to get a read on Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam is a big question mark. At his best, Siakam was a two-way star, capable of being the primary scorer most nights while guarding the hell out of opposing stars. Since the Raptors 2019 title, Siakam has been about as excellent as ever on offense—but has dropped off considerably as a defender. Last year it was easy to blame the circumstances, especially COVID. He was very sick and lost 20 pounds. Then he had shoulder problems that caused him to miss the start of this season.
10 games in, it’s too soon to say how that’s going. Until he gets 30 or so games in, we won’t know what he can become.
Before too long, though, Masai Ujiri has decisions to make.
Ujiri knows he has a future star in Scottie Barnes, and Fred VanVleet keeps proving he can be a perfect partner to that combo-forwards. If Siakam is on the right track, all Ujiri has to do is put together the final pieces of what could be an elite team in a few years. But what if he isn’t?
Siakam’s more than seven years older than Barnes, and will be at least 30 by the time Barnes is capable of reaching his prime. Of course, the Raptors can sit tight with him, content to keep winning some while developing young players. Siakam at his best seamlessly meshes with any roster thanks to his versatile game—if he can get back to being an elite defender.
I don’t know why it’s not happening there. His legs are fine, so movement isn’t an issue. Maybe he’s afraid of reinjuring his sore shoulder? Players can control their arms on offense, except for when fouled, but extending them defensively can cause pain when the ball or an opponent, hits their hand at a certain angle. With enough force it can even dislocate the shoulder. The bottom line is, the team needs more time to know what they have in Siakam. There are 33 games before the trade deadline.
4. Lakers desperate for reliable young talent
While LeBron James works his way through COVID protocols, the Lakers face a real test. Much of the attention will be on the remaining stars. Anthony Davis has not been at his best, Russell Westbrook has yet to fit in. But to me the biggest disappointment of the season to date—and something that could be fatal to the Lakers’ title chances—is the young trio of Malik Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Kendrick Nunn. This old team is desperate for energy and athleticism, the young players need the trust, playing time, and touches to provide it.
As Henry Abbott pointed out while the Lakers were putting this roster together, it’s incredibly rare for old players to be elite. Sunday against the Pistons, the Lakers started a lineup that was entirely older than the league average. 33-year-old Westbrook, 36-year-old LeBron, and 28-year-old AD along with 31-year-old Avery Bradley and 33-year-old DeAndre Jordan. They barely held off the now 4-17 Pistons. One takeaway: Bradley (zero points in 18 minutes) and Jordan (nine points and six boards in 21 minutes) are past the point of being starters on great teams.
Which means the Lakers will either get their young guys in gear over the next few months, or they will fall far permanently behind the West’s elite. All the arguments about Westbrook’s role or LeBron’s health won’t matter if they can’t do what the Warriors did, and figure out how to get young role players to perform night in and night out.
5. Jonas Valanciunas is a perfect Zion teammate
Brandon Ingram looked like a superstar scorer in the first half on Monday at the Clippers. Then Jonas Valanciunas turned it up, finishing with a career-high 39 points to help pull off an upset win. Before the game I mentioned on BRING IT IN that he’d command an excellent return by trade, but the way he’s playing, the Pelicans would be crazy to move him. They saw in free agency what I see now as well. As a (very) big man who can shoot from deep (54 percent from 3) and score inside, he is the perfect partner when Zion plays point. Valanciunas can space out to 3 when Zion needs room, or punish teams inside when he’s in the dunk spot and Zion’s drives draw help.
The Pelicans may be 25th on defense and 28th on offense right now, but they should see a huge, perhaps playoff-worthy leap when Zion returns. He’s that rare “force multiplier” who not only routinely performs magical feats, but also makes everyone better by getting guys to believe anything is possible.Teammates of LeBron and Steph have said similar things after big games when their superstar turns a game around.
As good as Zion was last season next to Steven Adams, he should be significantly better playing with Valanciunas. If you are looking for second half of the season teams who can do what the 2016-17 Miami Heat team did—going 11-30 in the first half of the season, 30-11 in the second half—this is the team.
6. The Sixers’ defense is missing more than Ben Simmons.
The Sixers miss Ben Simmons on defense, obviously. Best in the league last year, Philly ranks 16th now on defense, up two spots after a spirited defensive effort in Boston. But it’s not all about who isn’t playing. It’s as much a story of who isn’t playing hard. Tyrese Maxey is much better on offense than he was last season, and is likely too young/inexperienced to play well on both ends. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry don't have that excuse. They, and their teammates, too often don’t defend with urgency, often merely running to a rotation spot instead of racing or not being physical enough around the rim on drive or loose balls. Maybe the drama is sapping energy from that end of the court. Or perhaps the vets are just waiting for the spring, or Simmons’ return, or a trade. I think this team can win the East without resolving the Simmons situation. I didn’t think that a month ago. But finding a defensive identity takes time, and without Simmons, a lot more effort. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until April.
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