One of the NBA’s Biggest Voids has been Filled
The dominance that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have exhibited over the past three seasons led to dramatic changes across the NBA this past summer. If teams wanted to compete, they had to build rosters that could match up talent wise with the league’s best. That meant that all-stars were on the move and teaming up like never before. Chris Paul joined James Harden in Houston. The Thunder traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, giving league MVP Russell Westbrook some much needed help. Jimmy Butler reunited with former coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Timberwolves team already had two of the league’s brightest young stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to play alongside Nikola Jokic. The Celtics brought in both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, completely revamping a team that had reached the Eastern Conference finals just months prior. This sudden movement of big names meant that the NBA would be more anticipated than ever before. It also marked the potential absence of one of the NBA’s most fun occurrences.
In 2016-17, almost everyone knew that the Cavs and the Warriors were going to meet in the finals. There was rarely a time throughout the season where this was not the case. However, the season season remained interesting and fans remained captivated. This was primarily due to two men: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They were both completely carrying their teams; putting up insane numbers while keeping their teams well above .500. Although Harden seemed to be the MVP frontrunner for much of the year, Westbrook managed to maintain his ridiculous triple-double average for the season and clinched the award, even though Houston won 55 games to Oklahoma City’s 47. If you were to take the worst of their numbers, they would have averaged 29.1/8.1/10.4. They both put up some of the gaudiest numbers in NBA history.
With both of them now teaming up with all-stars, I feared that the one man show on a good team phenomenon may not exist this year. Of course Westbrook and Harden, along with guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant would put up impressive numbers, but none of them would be doing it by themselves.
Well, for two weeks, at least, that void has been filled. Giannis Antetokounmpo first five games has been so great that he already being touted as not only an MVP frontrunner but the likely heir to LeBron’s throne as the best player on the planet. The Greek Freak is currently putting up 35.0 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on over 60% shooting for the 3-2 Bucks, and already has an iconic moment this season, when he made amends for two missed free throws with a steal-dunk-block sequence to clinch a one point win over the Portland Trail Blazers. It was a combination of plays that very few other players in the league can replicate.
It is unreasonable to expect Giannis to maintain these numbers, especially the astronomical scoring and efficiency rates, but if he can keep up his rebound and assist numbers and score over 30 per game, he will automatically be in the MVP discussion. Watching the Greek Freak play is an unbelievable experience. Only 18.4% of his shot attempts have taken place outside of the paint, and he has made just three three pointers thus far. Defenders try to sag off him, but he uses the head of steam that he create with the extra space to effortlessly drive through opposing defenses. No player other than LeBron can get to the rim with as much ease as Giannis has this season. His length permits him to step around defenders, and he can finish from almost any angle. Antetokounmpo’s physical gifts allow him to make plays that others can’t. In the aforementioned sequence against Portland, Giannis stripped the ball from C.J. McCollum, and then made it to the rim from about half court in one dribble before throwing it down. The Greek Freak was also blessed with tremendous vision and is an excellent decision maker when attacking the basket.
Defensively, Milwaukee’s entire system relies heavily on length and switchability. The Greek Freak is of course the poster boy of both these traits. He can guard all five positions, and he is averaging 1.2 blocks and twice as many steals per game, both good for top 30 in the league. Even though shooting remains a crutch, the Greek Freak can do almost anything else he wants to on a basketball court. Everything the Bucks do on both sides of the court runs through him and he will once again have a chance to lead them in every major statistical category. He should join the usual suspects and be one of the leading contenders for MVP this season. It seems as if only the Bucks’ record could hamper his candidacy.
Just like Westbrook and Harden last year, Antetokounmpo will be a marvel to watch each time he sets foot on the floor and his game to game performance and out of this world numbers will add an extra layer of intrigue to an already special NBA season.
Fun Players on bad Teams are Fun
Another effect of the crazy off-season that yielded so many talent-laden squads was essentially its opposite. Teams that lost superstars who fled for greener pastures were left without hope for the near future. For the most part, these teams had a star that didn’t have enough help and therefore left to have a better chance at winning. This means that the teams that they abandoned are left without any players who have any experience, or are actually capable of, leading an NBA team. There are four NBA teams, all in the Eastern Conference–which somehow got significantly worse this summer–that are depending almost entirely on complementary guards to carry the load on offense.
The Indiana Pacers ended the Paul George era, which had seen some success, but had faltered in recent seasons, after a first round sweep at the hands of a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team just four seasons after pushing another LeBron-led squad to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. They flipped George for what seems like two cents on dollar, bringing in only Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
The offense was supposed to rely around the solid but far from spectacular Oladipo and up-and-coming versatile big Myles Turner, but the third-year center suffered a relatively serious concussion in the season opener and has yet to return. So, the Pacers, who are 2-3 and have scored over 130 points twice, have leaned very heavily on Oladipo to produce on offense. So, far, he has scored at a high clip, averaging 26 points per game at an efficient 50% from the field. He is taking a career-high 17.2 shots per game, more than guys like Demar DeRozan, Andrew Wiggins, and Kemba Walker. The Pacers offense, nothing more than a collection of career secondary or role players, has looked very good, and that’s mainly thanks to Oladipo.
Last season, Oladipo was in a very tough spot. He would often stand around and watch Russell Westbrook run the show entirely by himself. Then, every once in awhile, when Westbrook was tired, he would throw the ball to Oladipo and expect him to create on his own. Oladipo never settled into a rhythm in Oklahoma City and it was good for both sides to end the relationship after one season. Oladipo is thriving in Indiana’s offense, where he has a far more balanced mix of being the ball-handler and playing off the ball in Darren Collison pick and rolls. It will be fun to watch Oladipo and the rest of the Pacers fight for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs all year.
The Nets agreed to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract in order a land D’Angelo Russell, who in Brooklyn is being given the reigns to the offense in a way in which he never was in Los Angeles. Despite picking him second overall in the draft, it never seemed as if the Lakers fully trusted him as their guard for the future, especially once Magic Johnson joined the front office. As soon as they knew that they would have a chance to land either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the draft, they shipped D’Angelo off for Brook Lopez.
Now, instead of running their offense through Lopez, where the result is predictable and uninspiring, they are running through a third-year guard who wants to prove that the team that drafted him gave up on him too quickly. Through six games for the surprisingly competent Nets, Russell has taken his usage to new heights, averaging 21.6 points on 17 shots per game. He has hit some big shots late in games for Brooklyn. Both Russell and Oladipo were number two overall draft picks and quickly labelled as busts as they moved on from the teams that drafted them. Now, as the focal points on creative offenses for rebuilding teams, they both have a chance to change the narrative of their careers.
The Atlanta Hawks completely cleaned house, letting the final piece of the 2014-15, 60-win starting lineup walk, as well as moving on from the Dwight Howard experiment after just one season. Their roster may be the most unimpressive one in the league. All that means that they are counting on Dennis Schroder, who has just begun only his second year as an NBA starter, to be the primary offensive threat. In his first three seasons, when he served as Jeff Teague’s deputy, he never averaged more than 20 minutes or 11 points per game. Now, he is third in the NBA attempting 21.3 shots per game. Although he is not even fit to be the lead man on an NBA team, led alone the only man, Schroder has played admirably well this season, putting up 22.5 points and 6.5 assists with virtually no help. Taurean Prince is the team’s second leading scorer. Schroder has missed two games for the 1-5 Hawks, and they have lost both, scoring 93 and then 86 points. When the German point guard plays, the team averages 103 points per game. The lightning-quick guard has struggled with his outside shooting this season, but he showed glimpses of that ability in last year’s playoff series against the Wizards. If he can hit from the perimeter more consistently, he will see an uptick in his already solid scoring numbers.
The fourth guard from this category may be the most exciting, but he has also not appeared in a game this season. When Zach Lavine returns sometime in the upcoming months, he will become the Bulls’ best offensive player. Although they will surely bring him along slowly as he recovers from an ACL tear, and as the Bulls season will likely be a lost one by then, he will still be counted on to score in the minutes that he does play. Last season in Minnesota, he displayed a unique combination of outside shooting and explosive athleticism.
None of these four guards are franchise players, or even stars. They are all in reality the second, or even third, best player on a good NBA team. But, for this season, at least, I will enjoy watching these guys put up big scoring totals and trying to lead their teams to wins. In an objectively terrible Eastern Conference, watching these guys try to redefine their careers will be more interesting to follow than, say, the Toronto Raptors or the Detroit Pistons.
I’m Already Gearing up for the Western Conference Playoffs
The Western Conference is going to be great this season because, as a conference, it contains all the ingredients necessary for a terrific season. There is a clear favorite with a big target in its back in Golden State. There are great teams that believe that they have a legitimate shot to tackle the champions in Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Then, they have depth. A lot of it. The other four spots in the playoffs will be decided between seven teams that would all easily make the postseason in the East. Franchises in Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Memphis all could realistically expect to make a run to the playoffs. All have talented enough rosters to do so.
That means that the four conference juggernauts will each have to face an undesired matchup in the first round, whether it be uncomfortable because of youth (Timberwolves), defense (Jazz), star power (Blazers, Pelicans), grit (Grizzlies), or versatility (Clippers, Nuggets). All these teams present tricky matchups for one reason or another and will make for great playoff opponents. Each round will then on should theoretically, get better. So, in other words, it’s going to be one hell of a playoff season out west.
Last weekend, NBA fans were treated to what can only be called the Game of the Year thus far. And this game was a preview for how entertaining the Western Conference playoffs will be. The game was between two teams that will most likely be in the middle of the playoff pack by May, meaning that it is not wholly unlikely that they face off in the postseason. The game ended in a 115-113 win for the Timberwolves over Oklahoma City. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had 27 points apiece, and Westbrook led a furious fourth quarter rally to bring Oklahoma City back. He hit a three to tie it at 110, before Towns hit an impressive floater. Westbrook responded by feeding Carmelo Anthony for the go-ahead three. What followed was the first game-winning buzzer beater of the season, as Wiggins, with no timeouts, ran half the length of the floor and banked in a deep three to steal the win.
The game was of a high quality throughout, and it included a dramatic fightback and an even more dramatic conclusion. It was a sign of things to come for the Western Conference, which should see a number of good games this season and very few bad series come playoff time.
An Extra Thought
Now, as I wrote this post, I realized that a lot of the players I focused on, especially the young players, were international. Giannis, Schroeder, Wiggins, even Towns, who played for the Dominican Republic when he was 16 and maintains that he will continue to represent them. Then, as I thought more about the best young players, I realized that a lot of them, in fact, most of them, were international. Jokic, Embiid, Simmons, and Porzingis were probably the first four names I thought of. And none are American. In terms of international competition, this is no problem, both because these international players don’t play for the same countries, and also because there are still a bevy of players in their prime like Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall who will continue to play for team USA after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry no longer do. It’s the next generation after that one that doesn’t look quite as dominant. Of course, it’s still early, but try to think of who the best under 23 American player is right now. Is is Russell? Devin Booker? Jabari Parker? And where would these guys fit into a league wide ranking of the best young players. Just something to keep in mind as the NBA season begins to gain steam.