Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 11/18

 

The New Coach Effect is Real

 

The Phoenix Suns’ start to the 2017-18 season is likely one of the worst three game stretches to begin a campaign in NBA history. The team lost all three games by an average of 30.7 points, losing two of them by more than 40, and giving up at least 124 points in all three games.

That slow start prompted the Suns to fire head coach Earl Watson, and led star guard Eric Bledsoe–one of the team’s two best players–to tweet out “I don’t wanna be here”. Watson was replaced by former Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano, and Bledsoe was benched and eventually traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Greg Monroe, a protected first round draft pick, and a future second rounder. In other words, the season could hardly have gotten off to a worst start.

This is a franchise that has whiffed on multiple personnel moves in recent years, whether it be the failed Bledsoe-Isaiah Thomas-Goran Dragic three-headed point guard experiment or the Alex Len draft pick in 2013. It was a team that was already seemingly headed for a trying season that would end in a seventh consecutive lottery pick. They finished last season at 24-58, and were now in absolute shambles, and the team’s former franchise player was not playing. It was not hard to consider Phoenix the worst team in basketball.

This roster is too void of talent to truly compete for anything but the first pick in next summer’s draft, but the changes under the new coach have so far yielded positive results. Triano won four of his first five games in charge to get the team back to .500, and overall the team has put together a 6-8 record under his leadership. That is by no means a great record, and it is obviously impossible to tell how much of an impact Triano has had, but there have been some encouraging signs through these 14 games.

Devin Booker, one of the league’s most promising young scorers and now unquestionably Phoenix’s best player, got off to a slow start under Watson, struggling to find his shot and averaging only 16.6 points per game through three. Of course, that is an extremely small sample size, but Triano has completely handed the reigns of the offense to the University of Kentucky alum. Booker has put up 24.9 points per game over the last 14, including dropping in 33 or more in three of the the team’s last four games.

Other young players have seen an uptick in productivity since Triano took over. Dragan Bender continues to struggle, but he has had a handful of games recently where he has looked like a competent NBA player. TJ Warren, who is still only 24 years, and who scored in single digits in two of the first three games, is all of a sudden averaging over 18 points for the season. This number is aided by a 40 point outburst against the Wizards, but Warren has now hit double figures in eight consecutive games. Even more young players, like rookie Josh Jackson and second-year player Marquese Chriss, are still trying to find their footing in the pros, but perhaps Triano will be able to coax more production out of these two guys, too.

What this all means is that teams need the proper motivation in order to succeed. It is tough to tell what exactly Triano has changed except for being a new voice, and giving players a new chance to prove themselves.

This has been a recurring theme in this NBA season. Teams need to be challenged in order to find success. The most obvious example are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who got off to slow start and have only recently showed signs of turning it around. A team full of veterans that for the most part have been there and done that, it’s occasionally hard to find the proper motivation. Early in the season, Cleveland would get up against teams that were supposed to challenge them in the Eastern Conference, as they went 4-0 against the Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards. More recently, it appears as if LeBron James has made it his personal mission to prove to the league that he–and his team–still have it. The Cavaliers battle against boredom might be their biggest roadblock as they look for a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference title.

On the flip side, when the Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward for the season, and then dropped their first two games, they were mostly written off as challengers to Cleveland’s crown. Led by two young players trying to make a name for themselves (Tatum and Brown), one of the league’s most underrated all-around players (Al Horford), and a star trying to prove that he can lead a team on his own (Kyrie Irving), all the Celtics have done since the 0-2 start is rip off 14 consecutive wins, most recently taking down the defending champion Warriors, coming back from 17 down to capture a 92-88 slugfest.

Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards, a team that thrived on their underdog status last season en route to 49 wins and a spot in the conference semifinals, has gotten off to a slow start now that they have crept into the national discussion and are getting the respect that the team always felt they deserved. Even if their 9-6 record looks respectable, the team has thus far had an easy schedule and has dropped a handful of very winnable games.

James Harden, who has been the MVP runner-up in two of the past three seasons and had a legitimate argument for winning them both, has come out this season with all guns blazing. He leads the league in both scoring and assists for the highly impressive Rockets. So far, he looks well on his way to the MVP trophy. Being motivated and having something to prove have always been important to success in sports, and this NBA season has provided multiple examples to support this idea.

 

Who is the next Greg Monroe?

After a little more than two anonymous years in Milwaukee, Greg Monroe finally moved on when the team traded him to Phoenix as part of the package to acquire Eric Bledsoe. Monroe was a notable acquisition for Milwaukee in the summer of 2015, as the franchise is not used to enticing big name free agents, and they were facing stiff competition from teams in bigger cities, notably the New York Knicks who aggressively pursued Monroe when he was on the market.

After one year of productive play as the Bucks’ starting center, Jason Kidd realized that the Georgetown product did not quite fit into the team’s identity of length, speed, and switchability on defense, or their fast-paced offensive system, either. After trying hard to trade him, Kidd settled on moving him to the bench, handing him a sixth man role in which he eventually thrived.

However, Monroe’s minutes were dropping and with the possible emergence of Thon Maker–a young center who fits the Bucks’ system like a glove–as a backup five, Monroe was deemed to be dispensable. Before the trade, he was averaging about 15 minutes per game in five games played.

Monroe is clearly a skilled basketball player. He can score with his back to the basket or while facing up, he is a solid rebounder and a good passer for a center. His game just doesn’t fit in today’s NBA, and particularly not with the Bucks. His first start in Phoenix was a positive one as he finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Houston. Monroe can still find success in this league, likely as a sixth man, if he can find the right place for him.

There are two young players who are in similar situations, and might be part of a trade before February’s deadline. What is interesting about these two cases is that, even if they don’t really fit on their respective teams, both of these guys have games that contain elements that are perfectly suited to today’s NBA.

Nerlens Noel entered the NBA as a relatively hyped prospect, as likely only a pre-draft injury dropped him out of the top three picks. After sitting out what would have been his rookie year, Noel showed signs of what he could be in 2015-16, when he averaged just over 11 points and eight rebounds per game. However, Joel Embiid’s return from injury and subsequent emergence as a potential superstar in this league made Noel expendable.

He was shipped from Philadelphia to Dallas for what seemed like an underwhelming return, but Noel looked to be moving into a favorable situation with the Mavericks, another rebuilding team, and this one was without a quality center.

Instead of making a leap, Noel saw his playing time drop in Dallas, where he played just 22 minutes per game, putting up 8.5 points and about seven rebounds. Noel’s difficult season was followed by an even more tough offseason in which no team other than Dallas offered him a long-term contract. Given that Dallas had not shown much interest in his development, and the fact that Noel felt lowballed by their offer, the restricted free agent ended up signing the Mavericks’ 1-year qualifying offer in order to test the free agent market again in 2018.

Had Noel signed on for the long-term, perhaps Rick Carlisle would have felt the need to insert him into the starting lineup in order to justify the contract. However, with the center likely to leave at the end of this season, the team has opted to give him under 15 minutes of playing time per night. With Dirk Nowitzki now playing mostly the five, the Mavericks roster now rosters an incredible seven centers, although none of them are clearly better than Noel. Noel has fallen behind not only the legendary German, but also Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri in the league-worst Mavericks’ rotation. Carlisle’s moves somewhat make sense given that the team’s plus/minus numbers are significantly worse when Noel is on the court.

Although Dallas may now feel no need to develop Noel given their history, it seems strange that no other teams have tried to trade for him, especially given that his value is likely now next to nothing. If you read my post last week, you might remember the three qualities of a modern day NBA center. Noel, for all of his offensive deficiencies, is a solid rim-runner, and defensively he can both protect the rim and guard quicker players on the perimeter. He could serve as a low-level starter on a number of NBA teams.

I imagine Noel will be a part of trade rumors for the remainder of the season, and any team looking for help at the center position should consider bringing him aboard.

The other player’s lack of minutes is even more perplexing to me. Much like Noel, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Julius Randle was a top-10 pick who missed basically the totality of his rookie season due to injury. However, since his return, Randle has averaged double digit points and at least 6.7 rebounds in each of his two-plus pro campaigns.

This season, though, Randle has seen his minutes drop from 29 to 20 per game, even though his per 36 stats are way up almost across the board. The continued growth of Larry Nance, and the surprise emergence of Kyle Kuzma, two versatile, athletic fours, have limited Randle’s ability to see the court. Randle has yet to start a game this season. Although his playing time seems to be turning the tide recently, as he played a season high 29 minutes on Wednesday against the Sixers, his minutes may decrease again whenever Nance returns from a broken hand.

Randle’s game does have some holes, for example, he is neither big enough to guard centers nor quick enough to guard today’s quicker power forwards, he has consistently proven that he is a useful player in this league. He is a rebounding machine, especially for his size, and offensively he can shoot from midrange, handle the ball, pass, and is an absolute load to deal with on the low block.

Randle’s game reminds me of a modern evolution of Zach Randolph, an undersized, relatively unathletic left handed four with good footwork and a soft touch around the rim, as well as from mid range. Randle, however, adds a passing and ball handling ability that Randolph never had. Both of these skills make him a more logical fit in the modern game. Like Noel, Randle has the chance to develop into a very useful player. Perhaps not a star, but definitely a starter and an important complementary piece. Maybe all they need is a change of scenery.

 

The Future is Here, and it is Bright

The future of the league arrived in a big way last Wednesday night at the Staples Center. Joel Embiid, in only his 43rd NBA game–roughly the equivalent of half of a season–transformed all of his tantalizing potential into a complete performance, one of seemingly many to come.

Already coming off a 32-point, 16-rebound performance two nights prior on the same court against the Clippers, Embiid exploded for 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and seven blocks, numbers that have before been put up in a single NBA game. The Cameroonian center hit 14 of 20 shots from the field, including two for three from downtown, and 16 of 19 free throws. Late in a close game, the Sixers force fed Embiid the ball down low again and again against Julius Randle, and he either scored or got to the line time and time again.

He scored on turnaround jumpers, face-up midranges, catch-and-shoot threes, baseline spin moves and one incredibly picturesque, Olajuwon-like dream shake that made Randle look foolish. He contested or altered almost every Laker attempt at the rim. He absorbed double teams and consistently found the right pass to get of out them. Perhaps most importantly, he played over 35 minutes for the second time in three nights after never having previously done so in his NBA career. It was probably the most dominant performance I have seen for a player with so little professional experience.

Think what you will about the so-called ‘process’, after all, it has taken the Sixers five years to field a competitive squad, but one thing is becoming more and more clear: For all of their struggles, Philadelphia now has likely the two best young prospects in the league.

Embiid, to me, has demonstrated the most superstar ability of any player with three or fewer years of experience, and his performance in LA was only the icing on the cake. Lost in Embiid’s dominant performance was another high quality performance from Simmons, who on top of all his other positive traits, has shown an impressive maturity early in his NBA career. It is rare to see a player settle into NBA basketball as seamlessly as the Australian rookie has.

He rarely makes a bad decision, and he can almost do it all on the court. Although an outside shot would be nice, as long as he can master the midrange, he can be a devastating offensive force. He has an unnaturally good handle for his size, and couples it with tremendous vision and an ability to finish in the paint in a variety of ways with both hands. He is currently putting up approximately 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists per game on better than 50% shooting. He doesn’t have many ups or downs, as his game to game numbers hover near those averages. He is already a triple double threat every time on the court, and he should only improve as he continues to get experience at this level.

The next night, another up-and-coming star had a coming out party on national TV, as Celtics sophomore Jaylen Brown put up 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks all while bothering Kevin Durant throughout the contest. Brown figured to be among the league’s best defensive players, but his rise to that status has come incredibly quickly for a guy who didn’t know how many minutes he would play this season. He has also continued to display an impressive aggressiveness on offense, and even Boston must be surprised that he is already averaging 15 points per game. Combined with Jayson Tatum, the Celtics young duo will hope to compete with the Sixers’ and Timberwolves’ young cores in upcoming years, although they are still a step behind those two.

Perhaps the only team that has had such a grouping of high draft picks that is falling behind the competition, is the Lakers, who haven’t yet nailed any of their three consecutive second overall picks. The team has already moved on from the D’Angelo Russell pick, and neither Lonzo Ball nor Brandon Ingram has developed as the Lakers hoped. Regardless of how they progress from now on, other young players have shown that the league is in good hands.

 

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