The All-Star break lasts eight or nine days for most teams, but feels like an eternity during the busy NBA season. It seems like just yesterday we were ducking the Boogie Cousins Woj bombs, but it’s already been two weeks since the deadline. New faces in new places are carving out roles, while others are still figuring out where they belong.
Here’s a progress report on the newest additions across the NBA:
P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka on the Raptors
The Raptors could’ve imploded after losing Kyle Lowry for four to five weeks due to wrist surgery, but they’re 4–2 since the deadline and the 2-seed is still within reach. Masai Ujiri’s acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker are primary reasons. When Ibaka and Tucker share the floor, the Raptors have a 100.6 defensive rating, which is comparable to the league-best Spurs, per NBA.com. Ibaka and Tucker are versatile defenders, enabling the Raptors to switch all screens. Here’s Ibaka containing one of the speediest guards in basketball, Isaiah Thomas:
Here’s Tucker doing the same:
These plays are significant. The Raptors could end up facing the Celtics in a second-round playoff series. Ibaka and Tucker have already caused headaches for Boston’s best scorer. It’s not easy for scorers to attack when a defense can switch. That’s why Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has always been reluctant to play Jonas Valanciunas in fourth quarters. The behemoth center doesn’t defend the perimeter well or space the floor offensively. They may miss Valanciunas’s screening, rebounding, and pure interior size on defense. But now Casey has a legitimate excuse to go small. Units with Ibaka and Tucker are scorching opponents.
In 50 minutes, the Raptors have a 135.9 offensive rating and 96.8 defensive rating when Ibaka plays small-ball 5 and Tucker is in the game, per NBA.com. The increased floor spacing has enabled DeMar DeRozan to attack the rim with greater ease: He’s drawing 0.74 free throws for every shot attempt and has a 63 effective field goal percentage. This versatile unit could maintain its potency once Lowry returns. It should be the lineup Casey turns to in end-of-game situations in the playoffs.
DeMarcus Cousins on the Pelicans
Grade: F, so far; has the possibility to be an A, though!
Here’s what Anthony Davis’s shot chart looks like when he doesn’t share the floor with DeMarcus Cousins:
That’s what you’d expect from a superstar. Here’s what Davis’s shot chart looks like when he shares the floor with Cousins:
That looks like the Red Wedding. Davis is shooting 21.6 percent worse from the paint when he’s playing with Cousins, and thus, the Pelicans have been significantly worse as a team.
When Davis is on the court without Cousins, the Pelicans are outscoring teams by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Bring on Boogie, and that number plummets to minus-7.9. When Cousins is on without Brow, his performance has been relatively unchanged, but the Pelicans are even worse, at minus-17.4, per NBA.com.
We’re working with small sample sizes here, and there are other variables playing a factor, like game situation and opponent lineup units, but it’s noteworthy that, in a league where two-big lineups are vanishing in favor of small-ball units, a twin towers pairing is not working even with two of the league’s best big men sharing the floor.
The trade for Cousins was supposed to thrust the Pelicans into the playoffs, but it’s instead pushed them further down the standings. They’ll get a pass if they’re unable to click as a unit this season, since it’s not easy to integrate a central piece midseason. But Boogie and Brow need to become a dominant duo at some point, or else New Orleans will be right back to where it started prior to Cousins’s arrival.
Buddy Hield on the Kings
Grade: B+ (A+, in the eyes of Vivek)
After stranding DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans, the Kings have taken the training wheels off of new arrival Buddy Hield and fellow rookie Skal Labissiere. With the Kings, Hield’s game has blossomed from spot-up shooter to all-around threat, with Sacramento coach Dave Joerger deploying him in isolations, pick-and-rolls, and dribble-handoffs. It’s not always pretty:
Hield’s handle is still too loose, and that move probably isn’t working against a plus defender. But sometimes Hield looks smooth:
These are the flashes you want to see from a rookie. At some point, you hope it becomes the norm. From a process standpoint, Hield still has clunky moments, but the progress has been tremendous: Since the trade, he is scoring 13.2 points per game with a 64.2 effective field goal percentage. Hield has developed solid pick-and-roll chemistry with Labissiere, who has already played more minutes (88) than he did during the Boogie era (52).
Labissiere plunged in the 2016 NBA draft after a disappointing freshman campaign at Kentucky. Vlade Divac called him “the steal of the draft.” (This is true.) Vivek Ranadivé called him “the next Tim Duncan.” (This is not true.) But Labissiere, who was the second-ranked high school recruit (behind Ben Simmons), chose to look at it as a blessing in disguise. Maybe it was. As the 28th pick, Labissiere entered the NBA free of expectations. He needs years to add weight to his lean frame and develop his raw game. He barely played for the first few months of his career, but worked behind the scenes to improve. “Skal actually has been one of our better players in practice, believe it or not,” Kings guard Darren Collison said recently. “I see that kid work after the games, in the gym by himself, before practice, after practice … so it’s good to see that work finally paying off for him. He’s a workaholic.”
Labissiere is showing signs of what made him a top high school recruit. He’s playing well alongside center Willie Cauley-Stein. If the Pelicans keep stinking, Sacramento might end up with two top-10 picks. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, Kings fans.
Nerlens Noel on the Mavericks
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle has a thing for rim-running centers who leap over buildings in a single bound, force defenses to collapse, and open the floor for shooters. Carlisle coached Ben Wallace in Detroit, then won a title in Dallas with Tyson Chandler. Since then, the Mavericks have had a revolving-door policy on bouncy bigs, with Brandan Wright, JaVale McGee, and Salah Mejri all putting in time in the Dallas paint. None of them can defend near a Defensive Player of the Year–level like Wallace or Chandler could.
Noel is the closest thing Carlisle has had to those two big men in recent years. “He can protect the rim, but he can also switch out and guard 3-point shooters on the perimeter,” Carlisle said in February. “There are just not many guys like that around.”
The Mavericks were already a solid defensive team prior to the Noel trade, ranking in the top 10 in defensive rating from mid-December until the deadline. But now they have a legitimate enforcer who can make point-saving plays like this:
Noel is so quick it looks like he’s teleporting. The Mavericks beat the Grizzlies by just four points. Those blocked shots matter. Noel is already making an impact that could grow as he becomes accustomed to Carlisle’s system. And don’t look now, but the Mavericks are knocking on the postseason door.
Lou Williams on the Rockets
Williams was terrific in his first three games as a Rocket, showcasing the same old dynamic playmaking pick-and-roll skills we’ve grown accustomed to since he was a young pup on the Sixers. However, his volume scoring has fallen off. This was to be expected: Williams played 58 games with the Lakers and scored fewer than 10 points only three times, but has done so in three consecutive games for the Rockets. Williams seems OK with that. “I smile more, I feel better,” Williams said, per ESPN. “I’m on a team where I can truly play my role and be the sixth man and just bring energy and play as hard as I can.”
Williams has played over one-third (53) of his 140 total minutes with both James Harden and Eric Gordon. These three-guard lineups have superb upside offensively, posting a 111.7 offensive rating, per NBA.com, but have been shredded defensively, allowing 121.5 points per 100 possessions.
With Williams off the floor, the Gordon-Harden lineup has been more balanced (posting a 108.4 defensive rating). But don’t read too much into these numbers. It’s an early return on a lineup that could be a fixture of their playoff rotations. Mike D’Antoni might want to place a defensive enforcer like Clint Capela on the floor with the trio, but hopefully the guards will develop enough chemistry together that they’ll just outscore everyone.
Bojan Bogdanovic on the Wizards
Bogdanovic was plucked off the Nets’ scrap heap by the Wizards and he’s already dropped 27 points in a game twice — two Wizards victories — while offering 16 points in a Washington win over Golden State.
It’s not that unusual for Bogdanovic to have high-volume scoring nights. The Croatian has tallied at least 27 points six times since he entered the league in 2014–15 — a better number than Kyle Korver, Dion Waiters, the son of Doc Rivers, and Bogdanovic’s new teammate Otto Porter Jr. He can pour it on, and that might become a more regular occurrence considering the talent of his teammates. John Wall makes sure his guys eat, and Bogdanovic is filling up after spending three years in Brooklyn on the basketball version of the tapeworm diet.
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks turned to a super-small-ball lineup over the final six minutes of Washington’s Sunday win over Orlando. Wall and Bradley Beal were at guard, with Markieff Morris at the 5 and Porter and Bogdanovic playing forward. On offense, that’s four knockdown shooters at their respective positions, surrounding an elite penetrating point guard. On defense, that’s an interchangeable set of stoppers that can switch screens with ease. The Wizards are only 3–3 since the trade, but unique lineups like that give them even more lineup flexibility and depth than they had prior to the deadline.
Jusuf Nurkic on the Blazers
The word “effort” was not part of Nurkic’s vocabulary during his time in Denver. But through six games with the Blazers, it seems he’s learned what it means. The 22-year-old center is playing with more vigor and determination than he ever has before in the NBA.
It’s showing up statistically, too. Through six games, the Blazers have a 99.9 defensive rating when Nurkic is on the floor, a number that would lead all teams this season. The Blazers have had a bottom-four defense this season, so it’s a staggering about-face for Nurkic, one of the laziest big men in basketball, to make such a difference.
Maybe this will just be a honeymoon for Nurkic and Portland. There may come a time when concentration turns to complacency, and energy turns to lethargy. Nurkic could be the key to the Blazers supplanting the Nuggets as the 8-seed, but he’ll need to sustain his effort level for that to happen.
Taj Gibson on the Thunder
Through six games since the deadline, the Thunder are being outscored by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when Gibson is on the floor, and they have a plus-7.5 net rating when he’s off, per NBA.com. This is noteworthy, considering the lineups in which Gibson is being used.
I had expected Gibson to be used as a small-ball 5 who allowed OKC to space the floor on offense and switch screens on defense. He was supposed to provide rim protection, something Steven Adams, Domantas Sabonis, and Enes Kanter don’t. So far, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan is using Gibson mostly in two-big lineups, and they’re not working. Per NBA.com, they’ve played only a single possession with Gibson as a small-ball 5. Here’s what it looked like:
Seriously! This is it! I’m not superstitious, but maybe this miracle 60-foot heave is a sign from the basketball gods that Gibson should play more 5.
Ersan Ilyasova on the Hawks
It was just two seasons ago the Hawks seemed like Spurs East. Now, only Paul Millsap remains from their supercharged starting five. DeMarre Carroll left in 2015, Jeff Teague was dealt and Al Horford walked in free agency in 2016, and Kyle Korver was traded in January. Since then, the Hawks have been blindfolded, throwing darts, hoping something lands.
No acquisition signifies the unfocused approach more than the addition of stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova, who has managed to play for five teams in the past two seasons. Ilyasova has actually been solid for the Hawks, hitting 44.4 percent of his 3s, and the team has its best offensive rating (111.5) when he’s on the floor. But the Hawks are 2–5 since the deadline and could quickly find themselves out of the playoffs if this decline continues.
Terrence Ross on the Magic
Terrence Ross was a solid contributor in his five years with the Raptors but was plagued by inconsistencies both as a scorer and as a defender. But was that lack of consistency due to his role as a third wheel on a team with ball-dominant stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan?
The Magic are trying to find out. They’ve played Ross for 34.5 minutes per game since his arrival, and Frank Vogel is expanding Ross’s palate by putting him through a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. It’s been an adjustment for Ross and so far, the results are mixed. Ross has already scored over 20 points twice, but he’s also had two games with fewer than seven. This is not dissimilar to his time in Toronto. It’ll take time for Ross to grow into his role, if he grows at all.
Stats current as of Tuesday morning.