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The Rise of the NBA’s Third Estate

The league is in good shape — the best it’s been in a long time. There are still clear-cut elites, but the talent infusion across all teams over the past few years has done wonders for the game’s level of competition.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“A city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars,” Aristotle wrote in Politics on the state of the NBA in 2016. Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors revived the doomsday idea of a preordained champion, which had been shattered by Cleveland’s 3–1 Finals comeback against a dominant Golden State team. Only catastrophe can derail Warriors-Cavaliers: The Trilogy as the likely end result, but there’s a difference between likely and inevitable. Talking heads said the season was “ruined,” but so far, this season has felt like a leaguewide attempt to rebuke inevitability as the dominant narrative of the league. We’re coming off a week when the Cavs lost three straight games, the Magic beat the Spurs, the Nets beat the Clippers, and the Warriors lost a game to Houston in which the style of play arguably should’ve favored them.

“We’re never going to have NFL-style parity in this league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during the Finals, and he’s right. Standard deviation of both team record and net rating throughout the league show that the NBA’s “competitive balance” in 2016 is not significantly different than it has been over the last 10 seasons. But through December 4, there were 21 teams with a net rating between plus-five and minus-five, compared to an average of 17.6 teams over the last five seasons through that date. The league still has its handful of clear contenders, but every tier beneath the elites has improved, and most teams are still admirably fighting for legitimacy. The league feels healthier than it has in a long time, and it’s largely due to how robust the NBA’s middle class has become.

For some, a championship-or-bust mentality can never be shaken. But the NBA season is not a destination, but a journey with a series of destinations. Championships are the most important goal, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. It’s never been easier to appreciate the league; there’s a deeper level of this game that goes beyond wins and losses. Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double. Kawhi Leonard’s Tim Duncan–like influence over the Spurs as both a statistical beast and a leader has reached a new level. The Lakers messiah has arrived, and his name is Luke Walton. The big-man boom is happening, and the Sixers have the embodiment of the Process in Joel Embiid. If only George R.R. Martin could write The Winds of Winter at the same rate that the NBA churns out vibrant, interesting stories.

With a 10–8 record and a plus-2.2 net rating, the Bucks appear ordinary, but Giannis Antetokounmpo makes them extraordinary. He represents hope for a bright future; each time Giannis slams down a dunk and mean-mugs, the Bucks reach a new stepping stone. They might not be title contenders, but the flashes show how much they’re growing individually and as a collective. This was more apparent than ever when Antetokounmpo posted 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five steals, and two blocks against King James’s Cavs in a 118–101 Bucks win last Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo is doing things few near-7-footers have done before. Since 1973, only Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James have finished a season averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, per Basketball-Reference; Antetokounmpo could soon join that list while tacking on 2.2 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Various future Hall of Famers retired this summer and others like Dirk Nowitzki are near the end, but young stars like Antetokounmpo are surging, making their case as the next faces of the NBA.

Some teams lack a blossoming superstar like Antetokounmpo, but they’ve made themselves into pseudo-contenders behind rosters where “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” The Celtics’ path from 25 wins and a minus-5.5 net rating in 2013 to 48 wins and a plus-3 net rating last season should serve as an example of hope for other fan bases across the league. Boston is clearly still a notch below the elite squads, but the team has developed its youth while building a competitive roster through suave transactions.

The Celtics traded scraps for Isaiah Thomas, and Jae Crowder was a throw-in as part of the Rajon Rondo blockbuster; at the time, no one knew Crowder would become a high-end 3-and-D role player, or that Thomas would have the potential to be the best “little guy” the league has ever had outside of Allen Iverson. Their progression set up the Celtics for a meeting with Durant and the signing of Al Horford, who has taken the Celtics to an even higher level this season. Boston is 7–3 with a plus-9.6 net rating anytime Horford is on the floor. The Thomas-Horford pick-and-roll combo has been lethal due to those players’ ability to score from anywhere on the court and make plays for teammates.

Only 11 players have been used for 300 or more possessions as pick-and-roll ball handlers, according to Synergy Sports, and Thomas leads them all by scoring and assisting an average of 1.09 points per possession. One of his favorite targets is Horford, who scores 1.19 points per possession as the pick-and-roll screener.

The Celtics now have All-Star talent, but the foundation was laid in 2013 when they hired a wonderboy head coach in Brad Stevens, who installed his system and maximized the talents of misfits and outcasts like Jordan Crawford and Evan Turner. Stevens has been as integral to their success as any player, if not more so. Luke Walton is doing the same thing for the Lakers with his motion-based offense, which has elevated the youth and made Nick Young a usable NBA player. The Lakers’ first-round pick in the upcoming draft will likely be heading to Philadelphia, since it’s only top-three-protected. If the Lakers were still deploying a retrograde system, maybe there would be more of a reason to ensure that the team maintains the pick. But the draft process is fickle, and the Lakers have enough talent to find their answers from within rather than from ping-pong balls.

The 2017 draft class is loaded with potential stars that will further increase the league’s talent pool, but there aren’t any teams that have resigned themselves to being awful, which diminishes the need to tank this early. The Sixers were 1–19 and the Lakers were 3–16 on December 5 last season; eight teams had a winning percentage below 30 at this time in 2014, compared to only three this year. Lottery reform was a prominent debate just two seasons ago, but owners failed to pass a proposed alteration, and now the controversy feels like it’s in the rearview. A team may someday replicate Sam Hinkie’s aggressive tanking approach, but for now, teams aren’t racing to the bottom for a singular talent like Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis because team outlooks just aren’t as dire as they appeared only three years ago.

This speaks to how quickly the league’s young talent have revealed themselves as important figures. Andrew Wiggins and Towns in Minnesota and Justise Winslow in Miami are centerpieces that might inspire their organizations to focus on developing in a winning situation, rather than starting early slides. Even the four-win Mavs aren’t thinking about tanking until game 70 or 75, according to owner Mark Cuban. Despite an Achilles injury that’s sidelined Nowitzki for 14 games, it feels like the Mavs can rally once Dirk is healthy, much like the Pelicans have with Jrue Holiday. Maybe that’s nothing more than false hope, but with such a large middle class, it takes only a short winning streak to jump onto the playoff bubble. Teams will still tank eventually, but it’s not imperative yet — not when most teams are finding that the talent they already have on hand is as exciting as the young talent they’ll soon have in the future.

Now that tanking has been deemphasized, the league lacks a negative “second conversation” that would override all the good. There’s much optimism that there will be a new collective bargaining agreement by December 15, so the NBA likely won’t have a labor dispute, never mind its own Deflategate. Sure, Draymond Green still thinks he’s Bruce Lee, League Pass hasn’t gotten any better, and Hack-a-Shaq is still a thing, but these aren’t pressing issues.

The NBA is composed, to the degree that it can be, of equals and similars. The league is more than just the Warriors and Cavaliers. There are new story lines being written and new destinations being reached every day. There’s a new era of basketball, and it’s happening now.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

Reggie Jackson Turns the Pistons Into Sleepers

With starting point guard Reggie Jackson sidelined through the first 21 games, the Pistons stayed afloat behind a stellar defense that led them to an 11–10 record and the NBA’s 10th-best net rating. Jackson returned Sunday night as a starter, logging 18 points and four assists in a loss to the Magic, but his replacements — Ish Smith and Beno Udrih — deserve credit for the serviceable job taking on his responsibilities.

Neither Smith nor Udrih offer the same kind of dynamic playmaking that Jackson brings, but Stan Van Gundy didn’t significantly diminish the point guard’s function in the Pistons offense, no matter who was at the helm. Last season, Jackson possessed the ball for 24.8 percent of the minutes he was on the floor, nearly the same rate as James Harden and Russell Westbrook this season. Entering Sunday’s loss to Orlando, Smith had the ball in his hands 22.3 percent of time he played, while Udrih had it for 24 percent of his. These are exceptionally high possession numbers for any player, never mind backup-level point guards. Only 14 players in the NBA possess the ball over 20 percent of the time they’re on the floor, and most of them are household names like Westbrook, Harden, and Damian Lillard.

With an injury to a team’s All-Star caliber point guard, some offenses might initiate more sets with a forward or wing, but the Pistons aren’t built for that. Van Gundy smartly opted to keep their system intact, likely as a means of maintaining continuity once Jackson returned. That time came last night. The Pistons scored 6.4 more points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor last season, and once he shakes off the rust he’ll need a similar influence over the offense this season for Detroit to make the leap as a team.

(The Worst) ATO of the Week: Time’s Running Out on Elfrid Payton

Last Thursday, down one point to the Grizzlies with 12.2 seconds remaining, the Magic came out of a time out and executed a play as if their late-game lineup included Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas.

This disaster of a play is an unfortunate microcosm of Elfrid Payton’s game. The Grizzlies were happy to give Payton space to shoot because he scores a dismal 0.66 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy. Why bother defending an 18.6 percent 3-point shooter? The Grizzlies took this to the extreme: Andrew Harrison helped off Payton, let Payton roam free, pressured Evan Fournier, and then closed out short on Payton to deter a drive.

Payton is like a Rajon Rondo replica: Sometimes he makes spectacular passes that almost convince you he has eyes in the back of his head, but too often the ball sticks as he aimlessly pounds his dribble before making a play. Sometimes he just plain misses open teammates like he did here with Nikola Vucevic waving his hands like he’s calling for a cab. Payton should’ve given Vucevic a Lyft; he should have whipped the ball to the big man, especially after Serge Ibaka swung it inside. Sure, Vucevic is an average shooting threat (career: 38.7 percent from 20-plus feet, per NBA Savant, and 31.7 percent from 3) but late-game situations are all about making the smartest decisions within the constraints of the situation. Instead of doing that, Payton started to drive into a paint that was already occupied by Fournier planted on his ass.

Payton is in only his third year. He doesn’t turn 23 until late February. Learning under four head coaches in not even three full seasons can’t be easy for a point guard coming from a small mid-major college. But Payton’s time as Orlando’s point guard of the future could be running out, just like it did against the Grizzlies.

Must-Scout College Game: Duke vs. Florida, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET

Duke has five healthy prospects to watch in this game, including projected lottery pick Jayson Tatum, who made his season debut Saturday after missing eight games with a foot injury. Florida has the eighth-ranked defense, according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, so this is your best chance at evaluating Duke against a high-level defense until New Year’s Eve, when conference play begins against Virginia Tech.

The excitement starts with Tatum, one of the Blue Devils’ crown-jewel recruits. He won’t wow you with his athleticism, but he plays basketball like Clarence Clemons did saxophone — smooth. Tatum has a crafty handle and no issues creating space for himself; the area to watch is his shooting range. He’ll also likely spend some minutes matched up against Florida forward Devin Robinson, who has NBA size and length, making hims a nice early-season barometer test for Tatum. Grayson Allen is a gunslinger, unafraid to shoot from anywhere, but has shown limitations with his handle and defense. Luke Kennard plays smart basketball and has a smooth lefty stroke, but his average athleticism limits his upside as an NBA wing. Frank Jackson is a score-first point guard with a knack for making big plays. Marques Bolden is a bouncy big man with defensive versatility valued in today’s NBA.

Pascal Siakam’s Hustle Translating From College to Pros

“He’s able to just contest a shot and go,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said of rookie power forward Pascal Siakam after Saturday’s 128–84 demolition of the Hawks. “His energy level is amazing.” Playing north of the border as a late first-round draft pick, Siakam hasn’t received much notoriety leaguewide, but you’ll notice him immediately anytime your favorite team is facing Toronto.

Lowry compared Siakam to Amir Johnson because of plays like this. That’s quite the compliment; in Johnson’s six seasons with the Raptors, all but one of his teams had a positive net rating when he was on the court (the only year he didn’t was in 2010, a year in which the Raptors won just 22 games and Lowry was still in Houston). Good things happened for the Raptors when Johnson was on the floor, just like they do now with Siakam.

The energy and mobility with which he plays with are contagious. What makes it more special is the 27th pick in the draft is contributing so much as a starter on the Raptors, who boast the league’s third-best net rating and fifth-best record. Siakam won’t win Rookie of the Year (Embiid likely will), but he deserves to be in the conversation.

Dario Saric Pours One Out for Jonas Jerebko

On Saturday, Dario Saric tied his career-high with 21 points and tied Jonas Jerebko’s shoelaces together.

Oh, Jonas. Look on the bright side: You still rank fifth in the NBA in 3-point percentage so far this season.

This was just one moment from Saric’s best overall scoring game of his career. All 21 of his points came from different levels of the floor: He had a nifty post move late in the game, hit a few jumpers off the dribble, and spotted up to drain three triples. But the Sixers can and should demand more out of Saric, whose best skill is his passing, not his scoring. Saric has finished only four total possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll or in transition, per Synergy, which comes as a surprise after he was the definition of a point forward in Europe. It was a common sight to see Saric taking the ball coast to coast and picking apart the defense with a slick bounce pass, but he’s not being asked to play such a role in the Sixers offense.

Maybe Brett Brown will expand the playbook once Ben Simmons returns. The Sixers can experiment, and it would benefit the team to have Saric and Simmons running pick-and-roll together, with either player serving as the ball handler, or with one of the team’s plethora of bigs. For now, we’ll have to settle for the ankle-breaking moments from Saric, hopefully a sign of things to come.

Otto Porter Jr. Is Developing Into an Important Contributor

Otto Porter Jr. isn’t the kind of go-to scorer Wizards fans would hope a no. 3 overall draft pick to be, but he is growing into a superstar within his role. John Wall and Bradley Beal need teammates to fill complementary roles, and Porter has shined when cutting, driving on closeouts, and simply spotting up. The forward has an effective field goal percentage of 55.4 on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy, which has opened lanes for him to attack.

Porter scores 1.16 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy, which ranks near the top of the NBA (of the players to attempt at least 100 shots, the top five are George Hill, Terrence Ross, Porter, Nick Young, and Kevin Durant). The Wizards would be a lot better than 6–12 if Porter were scoring at an equally high level in a feature role, but the contributions they’ve received still bode well for their core moving forward.