Some parts of the NBA are universal in their appeal. The greatness of a generational talent like LeBron James. The dynastic dominance of the Golden State Warriors. The natural and effortless laugh of New Balance’s newest pitchman, Kawhi Leonard. Those things are fun for all ages and would grade out well on the basketball equivalent of the Rotten Tomatoes freshness index.
Other elements of the greater leaguewide experience are less ubiquitous in terms of acclaim and enjoyment. Not everyone gets off on Evan Turner’s Instagram—that dude loves Christmas, even when a truck crashes into his swimming pool—or does an I-told-you-he-could-play end zone celebration when Nerlens Noel puts up an early-season double-double against the tanking Phoenix Suns. Some things are acquired tastes—like the way Sixers fans lose their shit whenever team totem T.J. McConnell checks into a game, or how Kyrie Irving embraced his inner asshole and fired Jamal Murray’s memento into the stands. I tend to dig that kind of stuff. The NBA favors smart decisions and the pursuit of optimal efficiency, but there’s still plenty of room for personal predilections. Here are some of the other guilty pleasures that have delighted me to date.
10. Sacramento Kings
The earnest among us will wail that the Kings don’t deserve to be lumped into a list of this sort because they are good now, or at least better than they have been in a long while. That’s fair. The Kings are 11-11. They have quality wins over the Thunder, Grizzlies, and Spurs, and they nearly squeezed past the (admittedly injury-depleted) Warriors last week. Buddy Hield has blossomed. De’Aaron Fox has played so well in his sophomore season that he’s already winning totally real and not made-up awards. And Marvin Bagley III is … still not Luka Doncic. But, hey, that’s a damn fine start for a franchise with an otherwise unspectacular recent history.
Times are good for the Kings, and all is well—or at least it should be. What I love about this Sacramento season has less to do with the team getting better on the court and more to do with them getting way more dramatic off it. What can I say? I’m a sucker for internecine skirmishes. A recent Yahoo story cited sources that said “the franchise is growing frustrated” with how head coach Dave Joerger was “distributing minutes and assigning roles to the team’s young prospects.” That prompted general manager Vlade Divac to issue a statement denying there was any discord between the front office and the head coach.
Then, last week, The Athletic reported that the Joerger situation is “getting more uncomfortable by the day” and revealed that the head coach asked that assistant general manager Brandon Williams “not be present for the team’s shootaround in advance of the Kings’ home game against the Clippers.” Put another way, the head coach kicked the assistant GM out of practice. That’s Wizards-level madness.
The Athletic cited its own sources saying that Joerger believed Williams was behind the Yahoo story and included this juicy bit: “What’s more, a source with knowledge of Joerger’s thinking said the choice to ask Williams to leave shootaround was a one-time-only move that was intended to send a message to his players about their team’s unity and the need to fight for yourself in this NBA business.”
To connect the dots, it is being alleged that Williams leaked to Yahoo, which pissed off Joerger, which then led to Joerger leaking to The Athletic about how leaking is bad. That inspired yet another Vlade statement, which was even better than the first.
Kings GM Vlade Divac issues a statement re: our story...— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 29, 2018
"I have advised my front office and coaching staff to not focus on drama and rumors, but instead to focus on continuing to develop our young and exciting team. And that's what we're going to do." https://t.co/pC7NlRS4Q1
I’m setting up Kings push notifications so I don’t miss anything.
9. Zach LaVine Giving Zero Fs
We’re big fans of irrational confidence at The Ringer. (We have merch to prove it and everything.) But even by our standards, Zach LaVine is doing some excellent work in Chicago. After a recent loss to the Timberwolves, he was frustrated. “We have stretches and do things out there that make you turn your head like, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” LaVine said. “I wish we didn’t do that.”
How unwittingly meta. In the game after the T-Wolves clash, with the Bulls facing off against the Spurs, LaVine produced one of the great “what the hell are we doing?” moments of the season. Down one in the closing seconds, he waved off a screen designed to get him to the rim and instead hoisted a step-back 3. It did not go in. The Bulls lost.
The decision so thoroughly vexed Bulls color analyst Stacey King that he couldn’t help but exclaim, “That’s a terrible shot,” which is not the kind of in-game evaluation you generally get from team broadcasters. It was delightful. Here’s hoping that new head coach Jim Boylen will let LaVine’s heat checks continue.
8. Knicks Rotations
The Knicks are not trying to win this year, and they’re doing a pretty good job accomplishing that goal. But even if they were in danger of winning, head coach David Fizdale has made sure to juggle his lineups often enough to prevent that from happening. Through 24 games, the Knicks had tried all sorts of combinations, but none of the five-man units topped more than 100 minutes together. As of Monday, only one player—Tim Hardaway Jr.—was averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Enes Kanter was second at just under 28 minutes per game. After that, 10 other players averaged between 15 and 27 MPG.
That has made for some interesting evenings. We’ve been treated to an Allonzo Trier game, a Trey Burke game, a Kevin Knox game, and a Damyean Dotson game. We even got an Emmanuel Mudiay game. Two, actually. That most recent Mudiay performance also featured Mario Hezonja dunking on and then stepping over Giannis Antetokounmpo. (The names in that last sentence appear in the proper order and were not accidentally switched.)
Hezonja really disrespected Giannis like that pic.twitter.com/nfSvXIPsh6— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 1, 2018
The Knicks are impossible to figure out. Mitchell Robinson went destination: G League in October, to Fizdale committing to him as a starter in early November, to crediting his head coach for his confidence shortly thereafter, to being bounced from the starting unit in late November. And all that despite Robinson being a block monster on a historic pace.
Meanwhile, last year’s first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina, has been alternately bad and invisible. As of Monday, Frankie Smokes was averaging 5.9 points, 2.7 assists, and 1.9 rebounds over 23 minutes per game. He had a 5.7 PER and a 42.2 TS percentage. Those are not typos. Not surprisingly, there have been rumors that the Knicks might be looking to move poor Franklin Nicotine—possibly to Phoenix. I do not want that. I always enjoy when the Knicks make things more painful than they need to be. And besides, Ntilikina to the Suns would mess with ...
7. Point Booker
Here’s hoping that the apparent hamstring injury Devin Booker suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Lakers isn’t serious. Because when Booker has been out there running the show—or, rather, being the show—it’s been mesmerizing. The semi-emergence of Elie Okobo has lately threatened to spoil this, but I’m hopeful that Suns coach Igor Kokoskov will stagger their minutes and just let Booker cook moving forward. Booker’s numbers ballooned when he was cast as the poor man’s James Harden to Kokoskov’s imitation Mike D’Antoni. (Who needs Isaiah Canaan, anyway?) His efficiency might suffer in that role, but his counting stats in the box score end up being a lot more interesting. His game log has been enough to make fantasy basketball nerds (raises hand) drool. Sure, a lot of those stats amount to empty calories in losses, but sometimes junk food hits the spot.
I’m not sure that Booker will ever form a superteam, and I’m pretty sure if he does, it won’t come to him. But that’s OK. With apologies to whatever Deandre Ayton will become, I like Booker being the main man on the marquee for now. Put the spotlight on him, and let’s see if he’s really the star he believes he is.
6. Freelance Melo
First-team All-Empty Gym. It’s like a basketball lava lamp. I could watch that all day.
5. Victor Oladipo the Artist >>> Victor Oladipo the Athlete
I have long been an avid supporter of basketball players turned musicians/singers/rappers. Allen Iverson. Shaq. Dame. I’m here for all of it. Now we can add Victor Oladipo to the list. Last week the Pacers guard dropped his debut album, V.O.
Among other topics, Oladipo explores the complications of love (on tracks like “Just in You” and “Funny Thing About Love”). He also croons quite a bit about sex, like in “Lights On” when he promises to “make it rain on that pussy.” My favorite lyrics probably come from “Forward,” though.
Your clothes were made in another place
But were meant to be on my floor
Baby like a midnight limousine
I could fuck you all night long
4. Bizarro Spurs
The Spurs have been one of the best and most stable organizations in the NBA for close to two decades. But the worse they play this season, the more they capture my attention. I can’t help but rubberneck the scene while they continue to crash.
Despite beating the Blazers on Sunday, the Spurs have won only four of their past 10 games. They are 11-12, which puts them closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than the top. They’ve given up 135 points four times already—something that happened only twice before during the entire time Gregg Popovich has been head coach. They haven’t had a record this bad this late into a season since 1996-97—which, coincidentally, is the last time the Spurs had a losing record.
After LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs get awfully thin awfully fast. As Patty Mills said after the Spurs got blown out by the Rockets last week, the Spurs are “embarrassed and deflated.” Mills mentioned what it represents to pull on a San Antonio jersey and how they should all take some pride in it. That used to be a given. Now it’s something that has to be restated. It’s just wild to see how quickly everything cratered. It’s almost like replacing Kawhi Leonard with DeRozan (despite how well DeRozan has played) and relying on a midrange-heavy offense wasn’t enough to keep them from crumbling. And yet, remarkably, they’ve been better offensively (10th in offensive rating) than defensively (29th in defensive rating). It’s hard to bet against Pop, but this might be the first time in more than two decades that his formula will ultimately fail.
(No one tell Shea about this.)
3. JaVale McGee
McGee is averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in a little more than 24 minutes per game. He’s also averaging 2.7 blocks; only Hassan Whiteside has been better. But even if McGee wasn’t overperforming expectations on the court, he’d still be worth every penny of the one-year, $2.39 million deal he signed with the Lakers.
His off-court work might lead the league. So far he’s doubled-down on his Twitter feud with Shaq, freestyled over Mexican food, and somehow simultaneously promoted “the yeezy fanny pack, some speakers, and a sous vide cooker.” (His unrepentant and undying love of fanny packs is maybe my favorite thing about him or anyone else in the NBA.) He also recently threw on a Bo Jackson jersey and labeled himself a “low-key Bo Jackson” because “Bo Jackson do everything.”
But dressing up as Bo wasn’t even his best costume to date. For Halloween, he went to the arena in a full, custom-made Grinch getup. Complete with a fanny pack, of course. He is 7 feet tall. That is a lot of fuzzy green fur. To really sell the bit, he also did his postgame interview in the outfit.
The man is a treasure.
2. Washington Wizards
They’re one of my favorite things about the league. I can’t get enough of their dysfunction. But even by their standards, this has been a hell of a run. They started the season by losing seven of their first eight games and dragging unnamed teammates. John Wall got fined for hitting Scott Brooks with an F-bomb during practice one day. And Ernie Grunfeld, who evidently has a Supreme Court–style lifetime appointment to run the franchise, put everyone on the trade block—including Wall and Bradley Beal.
Moving Beal would be easier than Wall, which is something Grunfeld must have realized by now. According to reports, the market for Wall is “nonexistent.” That’s hardly surprising given Wall’s contract. His new four-year, $169 million max kicks in next season. He’ll make $46.8 million in the final season, and if that’s not bad enough, the contract comes with a 15 percent trade kicker. Even Ian Mahinmi can’t believe Grunfeld did that deal.
The other night, after getting smacked in a 21-point loss to the Pelicans, Beal lamented their defense. “It’s kinda like we went to old habits tonight,” Beal said. If it wasn’t for old habits, the Wizards might not have any habits at all. I hope they stay together forever. I want to see Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. on a Big Three team one day.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
I love the Grizzlies, which isn’t a sentence I expected to write this season. They don’t check any of my usual boxes. They don’t play fast. They don’t give good quotes. They don’t knife each other in the back (anymore). The in-game League Pass entertainment and aesthetics, from the uniforms to the broadcast, falls somewhere between average and forgettable. And the closest they’ve come to anything approximating a dramatic story line is bringing in what’s left of Joakim Noah. And yet I’ve found myself watching nearly every Grizzlies game this season without being able to look away—including and especially their double-overtime win at Brooklyn. I watched every second of that game. On a Friday. I lead a full life.
Part of the reason for their success—and, by extension, my affection for them—is obvious: They’ve always been a solid professional basketball team when Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol are healthy and on the floor. Conley is averaging 21.1 points and 6.6 assists, both of which lead the team. And at 33 years old (he’ll be 34 in January), Gasol is having one of the best seasons: His 20.5 PER and 58.1 TS percentage would both be the second-best marks of his career. But one of the biggest differences this season from past Grizz iterations is addition Jaren Jackson Jr. When he isn’t in foul trouble—which happens more frequently than he or the Grizzlies would like—JJJ has already proved to be one of the most talented and versatile players in his draft class. He had a career-high 36 points against the Nets (along with eight rebounds, two assists, and three 3s while hitting all seven of his free throws).
In November, as he started to figure it out, Jackson averaged 14.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 1.1 3s. He’s also hit 52 percent from the field and 78.1 percent from the line this season. That combination of rim protection and shooting potential for someone 6-foot-11 is tantalizing. He’s only 19. The upside is massive. If it wasn’t for Luka getting so much attention, there might be a lot more chatter about Jackson.
But after Conley, Gasol, and Jackson, the rest of the team is … less impressive. Look at that roster. The starting lineup has most often been rounded out by Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson. Shelvin Mack has soaked up significant minutes off the bench. Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden are in the rotation. Despite the glaring lack of depth, Memphis is somehow 13-9 and in the Western Conference playoff mix. J.B. Bickerstaff’s bunch is fifth in defensive rating and dead last in pace, which makes them the perfect Grizzlies team for anyone who digs the Grit ’n’ Grind ethos. It used to bore me in the past, but now I can’t get enough. More people should get behind the Grizzlies. Until that happens, I’m happy to keep promoting them—even if one of my colleagues refuses to do the same.