After a blockbuster trade added even more All-Star firepower to an increasingly ferocious Eastern Conference and a late-game dispute led to some “intense” intrigue with the defending champs, it feels like the NBA is ready to dispense with the preamble and start getting into the good stuff. Let’s do the same, and take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 5 of the 2018-19 season. But first, a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Los Angeles Clippers: 8-5, out here working overtime to knock off the ascendant Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, as a nation falls in love with Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 8-5, making that unsightly 0-4 start into ancient history, with the league’s fourth-best efficiency differential since some dope wondered how they’d survive life without Russell Westbrook. (The answer, mostly: by playing elite defense.)
Memphis Grizzlies: 7-5, still bobbing and weaving with a top-five defense and an approach that seems to wrong-foot just about every opponent. Losing wing Dillon Brooks for six to eight weeks in the midst of a tough schedule really hurts; getting Mike Conley (averaging 28 points on 48-39-85 shooting splits in his past two games) back to his old self after a frigid shooting start would really help.
Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with a messy bit of business in the Bay …
Golden State Warriors (12-3)
If you’d asked me two weeks ago what could derail a Warriors team that seemed ready to unleash Ragnarok on a trembling NBA, “Stephen Curry gets injured” would have been my first answer. I’m not sure what would’ve come in second, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been, “Draymond Green gets suspended for repeatedly calling Kevin Durant a bitch.” And yet!
ESPN reported Tuesday that several Warriors “loudly confronted” Green for choosing to try to take the ball the length of the court himself rather than pass to Durant on the final possession of regulation against the Clippers. You will surely be stunned to learn that Draymond was “forceful” in arguing for a decision that didn’t put the ball in the hands of perhaps the greatest pure scorer in NBA history. (To be fair, defending is Draymond’s thing.)
According to The Athletic, what made this different from the in-the-huddle squabbles we’ve seen before—well, beyond the language—is that Green spun the disagreement into a discussion of Durant’s impending free agency, “the most sensitive subject currently looming over the franchise.” (Recall, if you will, all those awkward, passive-aggressive pseudo-jokes about KD’s next contract at the Warriors’ championship parade back in June. Durant reupped with the champs less than a month later, but for only one year plus an option year.) Green reportedly kept at it to the point that the team decided to sit him for Tuesday’s home game against the Atlanta Hawks—a punishment that costs Green a crisp $120,480. What’ll be fascinating to watch, though, is whether it winds up costing the Warriors a lot more than that.
Kevin Durant and Draymond Green get into an argument at the end of regulation against the Clippers last night. pic.twitter.com/wG7ILKYWou— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) November 13, 2018
Maybe the takeaway from Tuesday’s suspension is as simple as, “You really can’t just call someone a bitch over and over again without getting in trouble,” which seems like a pretty good rule. But it also reads as the Warriors backing Durant over Green—i.e., siding with the high-scoring name-brand superstar who can hit unrestricted free agency again this summer over the hard-charging grinder who’s signed through 2020.
In one sense, it’s hard to argue with that. Durant is better than Green, likely to be this good or near it for a long time, and the kind of signature attraction that you might like to have under contract if you’re, say, about to open a new $1 billion arena in San Francisco that will grant you “access to a cash flow that few other teams in the NBA, or North American sports, have ever had.” In another, though, you wonder whether the decision might be a tough sell to someone who laid down the track that made the Warriors what they are now while Durant was still living in Oklahoma.
Durant may be the best Warrior outside of Curry. But Green, even shooting and scoring less frequently than he has since his rookie season, remains the most important Warrior outside of Curry. How they move on from this very public schism, and how the team handles it, might wind up being the biggest test Golden State faces this season.
Philadelphia 76ers (9-6)
I know, I know: We have already discussed the Jimmy Butler trade a fair amount. It’s just that when a team that won 52 games and made the conference semifinals last season adds an All-NBA player who just spent nearly two months forcing his way off a team he’d stopped believing in, the acquiring team seems a bit more compelling than, say, the Magic. (Who might have been in the mix for this list had they taken care of business against the Wizards on Monday, but whose recent run of success has been too tilted toward beating up bad teams to draw much interest. Alas!)
We know the questions. How will Butler mesh, both on the court and in the locker room, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? With Robert Covington (Philly’s most accurate 3-point shooter this season) and Dario Saric (a 39.3 percent marksman from downtown last season) now in the Twin Cities, do the Sixers have enough long-range shooting to lift an offense that ranks a middling 17th in non-garbage-time efficiency and 15th in points per half-court play, according to Cleaning the Glass? If Brett Brown moves Markelle Fultz to the bench, as he’s widely expected to do, will 2017’s no. 1 draft pick continue to get developmental opportunities as he battles his year-long shooting woes? Or will the Sixers’ sprint to keep pace in the East wind up leaving a struggling Fultz behind? (General manager Elton Brand pumped the brakes on that score Tuesday, telling reporters at Butler’s introductory press conference that he still thinks Philadelphia is “the best place for [Fultz] to develop because we love him and we care.”)
Butler kicked off his Sixers tenure at Tuesday’s presser by saying all the right things about fitting into the team dynamic—he proclaimed himself “an incredible human being [and] teammate,” in case you were wondering—and about his excitement at lining up with Philly’s two talented young stars.
“I like the sound of it,” Butler said when asked about the Sixers’ new Big Three. He added that his goal in Philly is “obviously [to] win a championship. That’s why we play, why they play.”
It sounds great. And if it sounds familiar, it might be because he said something very similar in Minneapolis in June 2017. The journey to find out whether things end differently this time starts Wednesday against … hey, what do you know? The Magic!
Minnesota Timberwolves (5-9)
As the Sixers prepare for Butler’s unveiling in Orlando, the Wolves have already started life after Jimmy. Admittedly, it’s tough to take too much from a win over a Nets team that started the 6-foot-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center, and that lost its best player to a thankfully-not-as-horrific-as-it-looked injury three seconds before halftime. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s better for Karl-Anthony Towns to have put up 25 points on 9-for-11 shooting to go with 21 rebounds than to have not done so, I suppose:
Save for an unsightly 10 turnovers, the performance tracked with a season-long trend of Towns’s per-possession production skyrocketing whenever Butler was off the floor. But that’s too facile an explanation for KAT’s successes and struggles this season. (Lest we forget, he managed to hang 39 and 19 on Sacramento in Butler’s final game as a Wolf.)
Discussions about Towns’s offensive usage, especially during the Butler era, have often centered on the reduction of his touches, and on how coach Tom Thibodeau was committing malpractice by letting Butler, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose control the offense over Towns. Thibodeau could stand to be more creative in virtually everything he does in Minnesota; the post-Butler roster seems well-suited to expand his horizons. (Or not. Rose and Teague took 32 combined shots to Towns’s 11 on Monday.)
But players, especially would-be stars, bear some responsibility for forcing the issue too. Towns has to refuse to get pushed off his spot on the block and establish better post position to catch entry passes if he wants his guards to make them more often. He has to bully switches rather than settle for fadeaways. He has to make the extra defensive effort (or, for that matter, the first one) and make better defensive decisions (even if the scheme’s about a half-decade past its expiration date).
At the risk of sounding numbingly obvious and like a guy Towns would probably prefer not to hear from, he has to play harder more often. It was true before Thibodeau and Butler got to Minnesota, it’s true now that Butler’s gone, and it’ll be true if (when?) Thibs gets sent packing in April. A big man as skilled as Towns should have no ceiling in today’s NBA. The Butler trade removed one of the biggest on- and off-court reasons he’s been bumping his head.
Houston Rockets (6-7)
Well, it took 13 games, but the Rockets look like they’ve finally shown up. (Perhaps due to who’s no longer showing up with them.)
Houston has now won five of its past seven games, but more importantly, the Rockets have consecutive wins over actual good teams for the first time this season, after beating Indiana at home Sunday and the Nuggets on the road Tuesday. In those two wins, they scored a blistering 122.4 points per 100 possessions, with 128 of their 145 field goal attempts (88.3 percent) coming either at the rim or from behind the 3-point line.
Chris Paul, ailing elbow and all, is hitting shots again and helping Nikola Jokic make himself look silly. Clint Capela is screening, diving, lurking, menacing, and dunking everything he can get his hands on. And James Harden is cooking:
Harden bounced back from a slow start Tuesday to score or assist on 34 of the Rockets’ 55 second-half points. He went on a personal 11-2 run in the fourth quarter to turn a two-possession game into a 15-point blowout, in fewer than three minutes. He finished with 22 points and 11 assists—comparatively pedestrian numbers, by his standards—but he absolutely grabbed the game by the throat and didn’t let go, leaving a Nuggets team that’s looked like one of the West’s best flat on its back and staring up at the lights. This is who the Rockets were last season: a beast that switched and swarmed, that stretched opponents out and sliced them up, that forced mismatches and mauled them, again and again. It’s cool to see that they can still be that team.
How long they can keep this up as presently constituted, though, remains to be seen. With several would-be reserves (Nene, Gerald Green, Brandon Knight) injured and a few others (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Marquese Chriss) ignored for at least the time being, head coach Mike D’Antoni is effectively going just eight deep: the starting lineup of Harden, Paul, Capela, P.J. Tucker, and James Ennis III, plus sixth man Eric Gordon and a pair of rookies in defensive forward Gary Clark and center Isaiah Hartenstein. Mid-November seems a little early to be paring down to a playoff rotation, but after a brutal start marked by injuries, suspensions, and best-laid plans gone awry, the Rockets had to act as though they had no tomorrow.
Sacramento Kings (8-6)
One of the cool things about the Kings’ hot start to the season was that they raced out of the gates without Bogdan Bogdanovic, who missed their first 10 games while rehabbing after a pair of offseason knee surgeries. Sacramento’s newfound commitment to pushing the pace, spacing the floor, and bombing away seemed like a perfect fit for the Serbian shooting guard, a savvy playmaker who shot 39.2 percent from deep as a rookie and was arguably Sacramento’s best player last season.
After a couple of up-and-down return performances in losses to the Raptors and Lakers, Bogdanovic broke through Monday against the Spurs, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes off the bench and offering an early indication of how good the Kings might look with another solid wing capable of putting pressure on opposing defenses:
Coach Dave Joerger already has a starting lineup that’s playing lights-out; only three big-minute five-man units have posted a better net rating than De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Iman Shumpert, Nemanja Bjelica, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Things get trickier when Joerger goes to the bench, though. At a minimum, Bogdanovic, who started 53 games last season, can offer stability and balance to Sacramento’s up-and-down second unit.
Bogdanovic can share ballhandling responsibilities with Frank Mason III, run pick-and-roll, and find easy looks for young bigs Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. He’s a threat to pull up from deep off a high screen, or launch as a catch-and-shoot option spotting up away from the initial action. He’s an NBA sophomore, but he’s a seasoned pro who came to the U.S. only after earning All-EuroLeague First Team honors in 2017; the 26-year-old knows how to play, which is a valuable asset for a young team in the midst of its first stretch of sustained success.
For now, Bogdanovic will continue to come off the bench and play under a minutes restriction. If performances like the one he put up against San Antonio become the norm, though, it’ll be interesting to see how Joerger handles his rotation. Would he slide Shumpert to the bench in favor of Bogdanovic in order to get his best players more minutes together? Or would he err on the side of keeping a good thing going in the starting five, and keeping Bogdanovic’s shot creation and scoring in a reserve corps that needs it?
As natural as it seems to stagger the minutes of Bogdanovic and Hield—who aren’t precisely like-for-like players, but who both slot most comfortably at the 2—I wonder whether Joerger might take a look at pairing them up a bit. They shared the floor for more than 800 minutes last season, and the results weren’t positive; lineups featuring the two shooters got outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 2017-18. But most Kings lineups got drilled last season, this iteration of the team bears little resemblance to the old model, and I kind of like the idea of seeing whether two guys who move so well and so often without the ball, who can make plays off the catch and pull up from anywhere, can wreak havoc on an opponent for a few minutes at a time. They might give it all back on the defensive end, but as Bogdanovic gets his legs back under him, it might be a cool wrinkle to explore for a team that’s already having a lot more fun than most of us expected it would this season.