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Five Takeaways From the NBA’s Opening Week

Denver’s figuring out how to build a defense around its Serbian superstar, Brooklyn might have the next unexpected star in the making, and teams around the league are working an interesting offensive wrinkle into their sets

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Rajon Rondo–Chris Paul scuffle stole headlines this weekend, but the B in NBA stands for basketball, not boxing. Here are five takeaways from opening week.

Nikola Jokic, Making It Work on Defense

Nikola Jokic is the NBA’s second-most talented offensive big man behind only Anthony Davis, and he showed it Saturday night by pitching a perfect game with 35 points on 11-for-11 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, 11 assists, four steals, and one block. The Serbian center is frequently compared with Marc Gasol, but Jokic, now in his fourth NBA season at only 23, is younger than Gasol was when the Spaniard first entered the league, and more productive offensively than Gasol has ever been.

Jokic is a clairvoyant passer, an elite rebounder, and a versatile scorer. The question has always been defense. But times are changing. The season is not yet one week old, and through three games the Nuggets have the NBA’s no. 1 defense—with victories over the Clippers, Suns, and Warriors. They’ve revised their pick-and-roll defense, and Jokic is flourishing.

In past seasons, the Nuggets had Jokic “drop” into the paint when defending pick-and-rolls, much like how the Grizzlies used to deploy Gasol in the play. It was a means of covering for Jokic’s athletic deficiencies. But he’s not a prolific shot blocker, and sagging into the paint often forced his teammates to help since perimeter players could zoom by him or score over him. Here are three clips of Jokic defending pick-and-rolls from last season:

This season, the Nuggets are taking a more aggressive approach by having Jokic hedge pick-and-rolls. In basketball parlance, hedging means meeting the screener at the point of attack, then moving laterally with the ball handler before returning to the rolling or popping big man. Here’s Jokic on the second defensive possession of the season, hedging and forcing a pass:

It’s a mode of defense that requires team communication and cooperation. Notice how Jamal Murray has to rotate over to Jokic’s man, Marcin Gortat, to help before recovering to his own assignment. The downside of this style of coverage is it puts weakside defenders in a tough spot; it tends to leave someone open. Fundamentally sound players across the positional spectrum who can pass and shoot (like Al Horford or Chris Paul) are exactly the types of weapons who can take advantage of the compromises the Nuggets have to make on defense.

But the upside of hedging is that its pressure can inherently force the ball out of the ball handler’s possession.

Jokic has quick hands on defense, and forces the turnover above while preventing Devin Booker from turning the corner. Hedging can make the ball handler into a playmaker instead of a scorer since it stops him from charging the basket.

The benefits have outweighed the negatives through three games—especially Sunday, when the Nuggets beat the Warriors 100-98 on the second night of a back-to-back. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant had their moments burning Denver’s defense. But Denver’s combative defensive scheme also forced the Warriors into some sloppy turnovers.

On the third play in the clip above, the Nuggets influenced Curry to dump the ball to Andre Iguodala, who short-rolled toward the rim and promptly turned the ball over looking for a player out on the perimeter who wasn’t there. That is the endgame the Nuggets will hope to achieve on every defensive possession. Against a team as deadly as the Warriors, though, it’s important to stay flexible. Sunday, Denver mixed up its pick-and-roll defense with some drops—especially when Durant handled the ball—and switches. Defensive diversity is a necessity to have a chance at toppling the Warriors, and the Nuggets showed just enough in their third game of the season.

With 40 seconds left, and the Nuggets up one, Curry got mismatched onto Jokic. Curry crossed over, juked left, right, then stepped back, and Jokic used his 7-foot-3 wingspan to strongly contest Curry’s shot.

All you can really do is pray Curry’s shots don’t go in, but Jokic made it hard on him in a moment you’d expect a defender with his reputation to get roasted. Denver’s defense is excelling, and Jokic’s progress is a big reason. “This is the defense I’ve dreamed of,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said after the game. Malone must be a pretty big dreamer.

More Flares Than J.J. Abrams

The Raptors ran an attractive half-court action to get Kawhi Leonard moving downhill against the Celtics defense in their 113-101 win Friday night:

Jonas Valanciunas slips an on-ball screen for Fred VanVleet then sprints straight into a flare screen for Leonard, who attacks for the bucket. It’s a simple play that’s trending early this season. Multiple teams have run it to either get players moving toward the rim or shooting open 3s:

With so many teams switching on-ball and off-ball screens, two assistant coaches told me this play is designed to knock the players guarding the ball screen off-balance, so that the shooter is open on the flare screen—like Doug McDermott is in the clip above. It’s on the big man defender to recognize the action unfolding; otherwise the player defending the eventual shooter risks getting caught on a screen with no help coming.

Notice how Zaza Pachulia ices the screen set by Robin Lopez for Ryan Arcidiacono, who slowly begins his penetration. But Arcidiacono has no intention of driving to the rim, and Lopez doesn’t pop or roll; he screens to spring Justin Holiday open for a 3. As teams search for new wrinkles to beat defenses, watch out for the slip-flare screen from an offense near you.

Caris LeVert, an Early Oladipo All-Star

The Nets weren’t willing to include Caris LeVert in trade offers for Jimmy Butler this past month, as I previously reported on The Bill Simmons Podcast, and it’s become easy to see why. The 24-year-old wing is averaging 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and four assists through three games. Though he won’t maintain his current rate of efficiency (75.1 true shooting percentage), it appears his skills have taken a leap.

LeVert has always been a herky-jerky ball handler who can create space for a midrange pull-up or a floater. Buckets like this were not unusual during his years at Michigan:

And it’s not exactly the biggest surprise he’s extended his range to 3:

But now he’s getting buckets against All-NBA defenders like Victor Oladipo after improving his footwork and developing a more consistent, balanced shot release. LeVert showed flashes last season, and after a summer in the gym, he’s returned with an even tightener handle and an enhanced feel for manipulating defenders with hesitations, speed shifts, and stop-and-go moves.

LeVert’s skills were rarely in dispute during his first two seasons in the league, but his build was often cause for concern. LeVert’s thin frame and below-the-rim athleticism made finishing among the trees problematic. In past years, LeVert often avoided contact entirely, instead preferring to glide around his defenders. His slippery style has value, like it does here for LeVert as he zooms by Thaddeus Young then slips around Myles Turner’s shot block attempt:

But the next step for LeVert was always to learn how to handle contact in order to get free points at the line. It’s a tiny sample, but LeVert has drawn 16 fouls in three games. LeVert drew six or more fouls in a game only five times over his first two seasons. Now in his third season, he’s done it twice in three games. The odds are he won’t maintain this pace (he tallied only nine drawn fouls over four preseason games), but it’s clear his confidence as a primary option is growing. He’s already come through once in the clutch.

His impressive early showing is a welcome return to a former trajectory. LeVert would’ve been a lottery pick had he not finished his final two seasons at Michigan in a walking boot. There was never a question about LeVert’s talent, but his troubling injury history pushed him down draft boards; he had three surgeries on his left foot, including for fractures in 2014 and 2015. At some point he was worth taking the risk, though, and when he fell to the no. 20 pick in the 2016 draft, the Nets swooped in and traded for him, sending Thaddeus Young to the Pacers. LeVert’s third surgery was performed by Nets team doctor Martin O’Malley, so perhaps Brooklyn had extra confidence in his health when it made the decision to trade for him. Regardless, LeVert was the type of gamble the Nets had to take to dig themselves out of basketball hell. It’s a gamble that’s paying off now.

It’d be stunning if LeVert keeps averaging 25-5-5, but even in the likely event that he doesn’t, his development has already spoken volumes about the Nets as a viable destination for upcoming free agents. LeVert is honing his go-to scoring talent, and he’s already a savvy passer and a smart off-ball player who can cut and hit spot-up 3s. LeVert’s versatility will allow him to adapt with anyone. The Nets took a risk keeping him off the table in discussions for Butler, but the decision looks sound so far.

The Sixers, Frozen in Time

Here’s what it looks like when LaMarcus Aldridge posts up:

And here’s Al Horford:

Let’s take a look at the one-week MVP, Anthony Davis:

The trend in the three videos above is movement. Jrue Holiday found himself completely unguarded under the basket after back-screening for Nikola Mirotic and taking advantage of Houston’s utter confusion. We could go from player to player and team to team, and find countless examples of players cutting, screening, and moving when a big man is posting up.

But not the Sixers. Here’s what a typical Joel Embiid post-up looks like:

Embiid receives the ball, then action shuts down. JJ Redick spreads the floor from outer space. Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons hovers in the dunker’s spot near the paint. A lonely shooter stands in the corner. Dario Saric often digs his heels into the court waiting to crash the glass once Embiid shoots.

But the 76ers know how to move. They led the NBA in passes per game in each of the past two seasons, and they were second in cuts last season behind only the Warriors (and ranked eighth the season prior). This is a new problem. Their passing totals are down. They’re unusually stagnant.

Embiid can score one-on-five, but his effectiveness in the post isn’t a reason to stand still. The Sixers would benefit from creating passing lanes by screening and cutting; it may even unlock the passing ability Embiid’s flashed ever since his freshman season at Kansas. Embiid and the Sixers are already very good, but moving is a way to be better.

The Bucks Have Found Their Guiding Light

What if Mike Budenholzer is the Steve Kerr to Jason Kidd’s Mark Jackson? While the Warriors flashed potential under Jackson, like the Bucks did when coached by Kidd, it was Kerr’s changes to the Golden State system that promoted the individual growth of the roster that together created a revolution.

It’s still early for Bud and the Bucks, but at 2-0 to start this young season, their overhauled offense has been impressive. Budenholzer’s system features motion concepts that resemble his offenses with the Hawks, which were influenced by his nearly two decades with the Spurs. The Bucks don’t play stagnant basketball anymore. They move the ball from one side of the court to the other, which keeps the defense on its heels. And they’re moving fast by pushing the pace after turnovers, misses, and even makes. They’re playing with purpose in the half court, executing plays and improvising within sets. It’s a drastic departure from the team they were even six months ago.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finally has been blessed with a modern NBA offense, which becomes most apparent when viewing the Bucks’ shot selection as a whole.

Milwaukee Shot Distribution

Shot Type 2017-18 Bucks 2018-19 Bucks 2017-18 Rockets
Shot Type 2017-18 Bucks 2018-19 Bucks 2017-18 Rockets
Restricted Area 35% 35% 32%
Midrange 36% 20% 18%
3-Pointers 29% 45% 50%
Via Heaves excluded.

The Bucks have suddenly caught Houston’s analytical allergy to midrange shots. Following years of living from midrange, Milwaukee is taking a heavy dose of layups and 3s that mirrors Houston’s extreme shot distribution. In particular, the Bucks have cut deep midrange jumpers outside of 16 feet out of their diet; they’ve attempted only four this season. Somewhere, Daryl Morey is smiling. James Harden and Chris Paul run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll; suddenly, the Bucks do, too.

Like Houston, Milwaukee’s exploits in the two-man game are largely an effort to seek out mismatches in isolation—much like Giannis does in the clip above against Myles Turner. If Giannis drives and the defense doesn’t help, he can dunk with either hand over length. And if the defense does help, then he or Milwaukee’s crisp ball movement will eventually find an open man. Sometimes, they’ll simply drive without the pick-and-roll if the opportunity is there, like Eric Bledsoe does in the video against a sleeping Hornets defense.

The big difference between now and last season is the floor spacing. Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova are knockdown-shooting bigs, and even John Henson is taking 3s. There’s not a single player in the Bucks rotation who can’t shoot from outside, which means the paint is open for Giannis, Bledsoe, and all other perimeter attackers to feast.

Milwaukee incorporates Houston’s style of isos and its 3-point-shot happiness, but the Bucks actually don’t play anything like the Rockets. While Houston runs a fairly predictable (yet unstoppable) offense that doesn’t move the ball and rarely ever feeds the post, Budenholzer installed a balanced offense that incorporates frequent passing, off-ball actions, and motion concepts that create diversity within the offense.

The Bucks also heavily utilize the post, which the Rockets avoid like the plague. It’s a source of scoring and playmaking for Milwaukee. Both this preseason and through two games they’ve frequently fed Giannis inside by calling an assortment of plays designed to manufacture mismatches.

In the play above, rookie guard Donte DiVincenzo sets a cross-screen for Giannis, intended to force a switch. The switch doesn’t occur, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if it did. Giannis is too strong for rookie forward Miles Bridges. Also: notice the secondary action within the play happening at the top of the key. Henson and Tony Snell set screens for DiVincenzo, so had Giannis been covered, Malcolm Brogdon could’ve had DiVincenzo open for 3. There’s always something happening on the court within the Bucks offense; you’ll rarely find players standing around.

Minutes later to open the fourth quarter, the Hornets helped sooner, which forced Giannis to pass. The Bucks invite the double-team.

Charlotte’s entire defense shifts its focus to Giannis, which gives Ilyasova the space to back-cut toward the rim. While playing in the post traditionally leads to a huge chunk of midrange jumpers, the Bucks are effectively using it to get layups from the man posting up and cutters, or 3-pointers on kickouts.

Budenholzer is using Giannis all over the court, and the Bucks are thriving. It’s still early in the season, and their defense needs work: They are conceding deep 2s by dropping the big into the paint, which works against most teams, but Kemba Walker showed on opening night how All-Star-caliber players like him can exploit the scheme by pulling up from 3. But Budenholzer’s changes to the system have made the Bucks undeniably different. In the long run (and likely even sooner than that), they’ll be undeniably better, too.