Welcome to the Hype/Concern Index, a semiregular post capturing the NBA news and events to get hyped on or concerned about.
Concern: Kevin Durant’s Mojo
Over the course of the past week, Durant’s issues have separated themselves from the Warriors’ issues. Without Steph Curry or Draymond Green on the court, the question has turned to what’s wrong with Durant rather than what’s wrong with Golden State. It’s long felt like KD is the odd man out in Golden State, despite winning Finals MVP in each of the team’s past two title runs. Overall, joining the Warriors has been a nightmarish trek for Durant’s public image — he’s a convicted ring chaser in the eyes of fans and other players around the league. Last Monday, Durant was called a fair-weather teammate once again; this time, the call was coming from inside the house.
There might not be a connection between Draymond Green questioning KD’s loyalty and the latter’s recent play, which has resulted in a three-game losing streak for Golden State. But it certainly doesn’t help that Durant is faltering without Curry or Green on the court. (Curry is out with a groin injury, and Green has missed five of the past seven games because of a toe injury and a suspension.)
Just about everything coming from Durant’s historically great scoring hands is off the mark. Over the past four games, KD shot 39.1 percent from the field, hitting just one of his 17 3-pointers in that time.
Of course, any concern about Durant and the Warriors has to be put in context with the expectations for this team. Maybe the elite, untouchable group with two former MVPs has fallen to [gasp] merely a great team with two former MVPs. Durant, despite his slump, could drop 30 points on any given night on muscle memory alone. The concern lies in the team’s future together, and how addressing it now is affecting Durant’s present.
Hype: The Blur Called Fox
The game is the speediest it’s ever been, and De’Aaron Fox just lapped this sentence. His sophomore growth has felt like a hyperlapse, as Sacramento is finally giving him the chance to run free and run often. The Kings are playing at the second-fastest pace in the league (last season, they finished slowest). It’s his proficiency with that motor that’s so remarkable—Fox is finding his teammates, turning the ball over less on drives than fellow lane-lover James Harden, and is converting 70.9 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim. (That’s better than Andre Drummond, though on far fewer attempts.)
Hype and Concern: Lakers LeBron, Meet Late-Season LeBron
LeBron expands as he shrinks: He’s playing fewer minutes than he ever has, yet is scoring more points per game than he has in nine years. This Lakers team demanded it—LeBron kicked off what could be the final chapter of his career with a handful of losses placing L.A. near the bottom of the West. The Lakers have suddenly won five of their past six games, during which LeBron has averaged just over two points fewer (32) than minutes on the court (34.1).
LeBron is constantly adjusting his regular-season play to conserve himself while preserving his team’s postseason positioning. (This is often referred to as Regular-Season LeBron, who typically protects himself by not playing much defense.) Last year, in 82 full games totaling more minutes than anyone else in the league, he rested on the court; this season, LeBron’s minutes could be their most dense. It’s early for him to “flip the switch,” and although that slides the Lakers from a team to be concerned about to one worth hyping, it’s also unsettling to think about what this workload could mean for his energy in the postseason.
Hype: 10 (always 10)
Hype: Nikola Vucevic
The case for Vucevic being an All-Star—you read that right—benefits from a couple of different trends: Yet another superstar left the Eastern Conference this offseason, there’s less defense being played across the league this season and, as a result, more possessions on the other end. For a skilled scorer like Vucevic with a poor defensive reputation, the time to leap to All-Star status has never been better.
Yet Vuc is averaging 10.8 rebounds and has the fourth-best defensive rating on the Magic—ask Joel Embiid, who he bettered on both ends in a recent win over the Sixers. Granted, the team allows 107.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but that’s more average than it is abominable this season. His defense won’t make or break an All-Star bid, but it’s contributing to a more relevant part of an All-Star application, Orlando’s record. Vucevic deserves a great deal of credit for the Magic’s 9-8 record; his playmaking from the center position has been crucial in the team’s effort to move the ball more. The Magic assist by committee—D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier average less than 10 dimes between them, while Vucevic averages the third-most at 3.6 per game.
Meanwhile, the offense Vucevic is known for is at top strength: He’s shooting a career-high 45.2 percent from deep, and over the past three games (wins over Philadelphia, L.A., and New York), he’s made half of his 14 shots from beyond the arc, averaged 31.3 points, and shot 61.4 percent from the field.