There’s still plenty to figure out over the next four months, but at this point, the NBA season is what it is. Our NBA staff picked out the new realities that have set in thus far, and how we grapple with them moving forward.
DeMarcus Cousins Is (Kind of) a Stabilizing Force
Jonathan Tjarks: The question was always whether Cousins was hurting the Kings or whether the Kings were hurting him. How could the most talented center in the NBA have never made the playoffs? Now we have an answer. Cousins has been a stabilizing force for the Pelicans this season, keeping them in the top eight in the West while Anthony Davis has battled injuries. The Kings, on the other hand, are once again one of the worst teams in the NBA, and their playoff drought doesn't look like it will end anytime soon. Cousins is still a hothead who almost fought Kevin Durant after they were both ejected from a game this season, but he can be on a winning team. He’s going to be one of the most coveted free agents in the NBA this offseason. Teams are going to be lining up to sign him, which is a long way from where he was a few years ago.
The Unicorn Is No Longer Mythical
Kevin O’Connor: When a child thinks of a unicorn, he or she pictures something like this:
When an NBA fan thinks of a unicorn, he or she pictures something like this:
But the mythical creature isn’t all that tough to find on a basketball court anymore. In the East, there’s Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. And in the West, there’s Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Nikola Jokic might belong on the list, too. You could use the term to describe Thon Maker and Myles Turner. Even Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and DeMarcus Cousins technically fit the mold. We’ll have even more soon, with Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, and Mo Bamba all likely to enter next year’s draft.
At what point does a unicorn become so common that the word loses its intended meaning? Maybe the definition needs to become more strict. Or maybe the “new normal” in the NBA is a land of unicorns.
Lonzo’s Continued Disrespect of Rap Legend Nas
John Gonzalez: On the list of new realities that we must grapple with, the Ball family should rightly occupy most of the top slots. LaVar has been such an unending pain in everyone’s ass that the Lakers started enforcing an old rule to presumably keep him from holding court with media after games and reportedly had a secret sit-down to urge him to ease up.
But for all of Papa Ball’s transgressions, at least he never disrespected a rap legend—twice. On the first episode of the Ball family’s web series, Ball in the Family, Lonzo expressed his love for Migos and Future. Which was totally fine! But that was in the context of him insisting “don’t nobody listen to Nas anymore.” Which was totally not fine! Even less fine: Lonzo made his first-ever MSG entrance this week while wearing a regrettable fashion choice.
It was bad enough that Lonzo superimposed his face on the Illmatic album cover, but the craftsmanship was shoddy. It looked like he had the sweatshirt made at one of those airbrush shops on Venice Beach. Not surprisingly, retired NBA veterans and rookies alike dragged him for it. And good for them. That said, if we get a new “Ether” out of this, it was all worth it.
Russ Is the New Kobe
Justin Verrier: The mob of exclamation-wielding Twitter users that helped push Russell Westbrook’s revenge tour into the history books has officially turned on him. Almost six months since winning the NBA’s highest individual honor based on the case that his 47-win team couldn’t reach even that low bar without his historic production, it is now widely assumed that Westbrook is holding back his new superteam. But it’s more than that. While Westbrook’s destructive brand of basketball split camps last season, each game the Thunder point guard plays has become something of a battleground for basketball existentialism. The reigning MVP has become a pariah. In NBA terms, he has become the new Kobe.
Bryant had over a decade of myth-building before math came calling for him. Injuries certainly had a hand in sullying the back end of his two-decade-long career, but as deeper numbers and information and viewpoints became more accessible to the casual fan, the perspective on Kobe’s heroics pulled back to reveal the wide-open, begrudging teammates around him. (Even Lakers fans started to sour on Bryant in those final years.) Perhaps in part because of Kobe’s painfully slow fade into the night, the hero’s welcome for Westbrook, one of the league’s few loyalists, was cut off after only a few games of looking off an open Paul George around the 3-point arc.
We’ve seen this before. And it doesn’t get less divisive from here.
Kris Dunn Is Now a Decent Shooter
Haley O’Shaughnessy: At first glance, Dunn’s stat line doesn’t seem all that impressive. The defensive-minded Bulls guard is now shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line and 44.1 percent on 2-point attempts this season.
But that’s a miracle-level improvement from his rookie season in Minnesota. Dunn was rarely given heavy playing time under Tom Thibodeau last year. He averaged 17.1 minutes per game, and was often yanked the second after he made a mistake (a turnover, a poor shot selection, a shoddy pass).
In that environment, he made 28.8 percent of his attempts from deep and 37.7 overall. In Chicago, he’s been able to work out the kinks in his shot by playing over 10 more minutes per game than last season and taking triple the amount of shots. That’s also a credit to head coach Fred Hoiberg, who acts as the team’s shot doctor. Being on a young team without many expectations helps, too.
An All-Star Point Guard Apparently Doesn’t Need a Shot
Paolo Uggetti: There’s nothing conventional about Sixers “point guard” Ben Simmons, whether it be his size or his inability to shoot. But that hasn’t stopped the 6-foot-10, 230-pound rookie from becoming one of the 15 best players this season.
The Sixers rookie is averaging 17.5 points (on 50.4 percent field goal shooting), 8.9 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. For any player, that’s impressive. For a rookie, that’s ridiculous. He’s doing this all by shooting only 4 percent of all his field goals outside of 16 feet. Seventy-four percent of Simmons’s shots are coming within 10 feet, and he’s shooting 73 percent on shots near the rim. He’s taken only eight 3s and missed all of them. It hasn’t mattered.
In our Warriors-centric, Moreyball-obsessed basketball world, shooting—especially 3-point shooting—has become almost a requirement. And while Simmons’s next evolution will likely involve extending his range, he’s already proving that he can be an All-Star without having to drain or even take a shot beyond the paint.