After handing out awards to the NBA’s best and most notable performers during the season’s second quarter, we now turn our attention to the second half. While some teams try to figure out whether they’re buyers or sellers ahead of the trade deadline, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 14, starting with a long-awaited unveiling by the Bay …
Golden State Warriors
OK, now you can get pissed off at the Warriors for fielding a full-fledged All-Star team.
After a summer signing that shocked the NBA and a patient approach to rehabilitation from the Achilles tendon tear that ended his tenure in New Orleans, DeMarcus Cousins is expected to make his season debut against the Clippers on Friday. (Boogie reportedly wanted to come back sooner, but discretion is the better part of valor.) His new head coach will not waste any time in getting him on the court.
“He’ll start,” Steve Kerr told reporters last week. “I’ll start him. After that, everything’s on the table.”
That’s the beauty of a move that left so many of us so apoplectic in July: Anything could happen.
After an early season marked by injury, slumps, stumbles, and bouts of turbulence, Golden State has spent most of the past three weeks pulverizing opponents. The Warriors are 8-2 since Christmas, with both losses coming at home, in overtime, and by a single point. They have scored 124.8 points per 100 possessions in that span, which is both no. 1 in the league and so astronomically far above typical elite offensive efficiency that it is basically an imaginary number.
Klay Thompson’s hand has returned; he’s shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range since Christmas. Stephen Curry isn’t far behind, shooting 46 percent on a downright Hardenian 13.9 triple tries per contest on his way to 32.7 points a night. With his backcourt wreathed in flames, Kevin Durant no longer needs to be a one-man offense and has begun to resemble the all-around monster he was during the 2017 NBA Finals. (Both Curry and Durant have looked even more lethal since Kerr moved away from staggering his two former MVPs. Before the Warriors’ January 11 game against the Bulls, they’d averaged about seven minutes of separation per game; starting with that game, they’ve been apart for only about two minutes per game, and Golden State has had three of its five highest-scoring performances of the season.)
With a healthy and in-shape Draymond Green also playing in form, the Warriors annihilated the then-West-leading Nuggets on Tuesday, scoring an NBA-record 51 points in the first quarter on the way to a 142-111 pasting that very loudly reinstalled Golden State atop the conference. One night later, it erased a 17-point deficit against the Pelicans on its way to a 147-140 victory led by 71 combined points from Curry and Durant. While the Warriors are thin in the middle outside of Kevon Looney due to Damian Jones’s season-ending torn pectoral muscle and Jordan Bell’s sophomore stall-out, it’s clear that they don’t really need Cousins right now—which makes his integration all the more interesting.
Fifty-one weeks after perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer, Boogie should probably be expected to struggle, at least initially. At a minimum, though, his arrival could give Golden State the kind of interior distributor it has missed since David West’s retirement, which could help shore up the non-multi-star lineups that have labored at times this season.
Cousins dropped dimes on 13.7 percent of his touches at the elbows last season—a staple of D-West–led second units—and on 8.3 percent of his post-ups, strong marks for a high-usage post player. Factor in the increased scoring threat of him bulldozing his way to the basket from the low block, or popping back beyond the 3-point arc after a handoff, or pirouetting his way from the top of the circle to the rim like a goddamn Transformer, and he could provide supplementary dimensions to make an already awe-inspiring offense even more dangerous.
Provided, of course, he can still do all of those things; NBA history isn’t exactly littered with examples of 6-foot-11, 270-pound behemoths going from Achilles tears right back to star status. (The San Antonio resurgence of former Kings teammate Rudy Gay after the same injury might offer some hope.) Or that his introduction doesn’t stall the rhythm that Golden State has built. Or further compromise a defense that has already sunk to a pedestrian 16th in the league.
“We haven’t had a player like him before, so it will be new,” Kerr told reporters. “It won’t be a simple ‘plug him in and he’ll fit right in.’ We’ll play through him some, so there will be a period where we have to adapt.”
Besides, signing Cousins was never about January. Golden State wants an off-speed pitch it can throw in a postseason series against a team with an interior mauler, or an opponent like Houston that downsizes, spaces, and switches enough to throw a wrench into the Warriors’ whirling machine. In theory, Cousins provides a paint-dominating parry to whatever thrust isn’t already neutralized by the presence of Curry, Durant, Green, and Thompson. Now, after six long months, we finally get a look at how that will actually play out.
Draymond, for his part, seems pretty excited about it.
"All hell about to break loose." pic.twitter.com/dL08e0m2ZM— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 17, 2019
The Most Trade-Deadline-Relevant Team of the Week: Memphis Grizzlies
The best version of Marc Gasol is still awesome. The problem: We haven’t seen that version much since Gasol sprained his left ankle late in a November 27 loss to the Raptors. Since that game, and since playing 47 minutes on the sprained ankle three days later, he’s averaging just 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in 32.7 minutes per game, shooting just 40.4 percent from the floor and 31 percent from deep. Add that to a sharp post-sprain decline in his defensive effectiveness—Memphis is giving up an ugly 10.7 more points per 100 possessions when the former Defensive Player of the Year plays than when he sits—and you’ve got a player whose on-court value seems pretty shaky.
On top of that, Marc Stein is reporting that Gasol might be leaning toward opting out of his $25.6 million deal for next season so he can hit the unrestricted free-agent market. Now you’re talking about finding a team eager to give up something good to take on a plodding, high-priced 7-footer two weeks shy of his 34th birthday, who can’t make shots or stop anybody right now, and whose declining play is a big reason why things got so bad so quickly in Memphis. Gentlemen, please: one offer at a time! Not all at once!
Comb the league for suitors, and the list gets short fast. Teams that will be bad anyway or that already have an entrenched starting center make for poor partners, as do teams that thrive when pushing the pace. (That’s the one major sticking point on trying to route Gasol to Sacramento, which a couple of would-be matchmakers have floated.) There’s no perfect fit, no team so desperate to rent a diminished Gasol that it’s likely to offer the Grizz something more valuable than the cap space they’d clear by just letting him walk this summer. The “whispers” might continue. Just don’t expect them to get too much louder before February 7.
After what felt like a never-ending string of bad news to start the season, the Rockets face a new challenge: trying to find a way to cover the 6-foot-10-inch, 240-pound hole in the middle of their lineup. Judging by the last couple of games, it seems like they think their best option to compensate for the loss of Clint Capela is to rip an equally large hole in the other team’s.
Nene’s muscle can still make an impact in limited minutes. As a starter, though, he’s a poor fit for a Rockets attack that works best with a rim-running 5 who can lurk as an ever-present menace in the dunker spot, make plays in space on the short roll, and go up and get lob passes. The threat of allowing the highest-percentage shot in the game makes defenses have to think, which gives Harden more options as he cannonballs his way to the basket:
This assist by James Harden leading to the 3 for Danuel House Jr. was sick.— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) January 13, 2019
Watch how Harden, while in mid-air, slightly turns his head to the rolling Capela... which draws in Terrence Ross to help, and leaves House wide open in the corner. #Rockets pic.twitter.com/54ccbI8Qgs
Nene, for all his fine qualities, can’t do that. Marquese Chriss could, in theory, but he has yet to show he can execute his responsibilities consistently enough to earn minutes. Rookie Isaiah Hartenstein didn’t fare much better against the Grizzlies, leading coach Mike D’Antoni to keep him on ice in Wednesday’s loss to Brooklyn in favor of—quelle surprise!—going smaller. Without Capela, Houston’s leaning on P.J. Tucker (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) to step in at center, while Gerald Green (6-foot-7, 205 pounds), rookie Gary Clark (6-foot-8, 225 pounds), and 10-day-contract signee James Nunnally (6-foot-7, 208 pounds) soak up more minutes in the frontcourt. (Nunnally steps in for two-way-player-turned-starter Danuel House Jr., who headed back to the G League after he and the Rockets couldn’t agree to terms on a deal that would keep him with the big club.)
Tucker-at-5 groups—so-called “Tuckwagon” lineups—were a huge net positive for Houston last season, outscoring opponents by a whopping 32.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those lineups have had a tougher go of it this season, being outscored by 1.4 points-per-100. But the bulk of those minutes came with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, which played a big role in the Rockets defense getting carved up early in the season. That led D’Antoni to decide to dial back Houston’s switch-everything scheme in hopes of better stalling dribble penetration and protecting the rim.
But Houston’s Melo era is now a distant memory—and perhaps something we collectively hallucinated?—and the Rockets evidently feel pretty comfortable tripling down on their We’ll Go Small and James Harden Will Outscore You strategy. Maybe they will get aggressive before the February 7 trade deadline, taking swings for bigs like Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic or Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon; they could also reach down to the G League for some fresh legs in the short term. More likely, though, the plan that D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey have cooked up for replacing Capela is to not try to replace him at all.
“Spread the floor probably more,” D’Antoni told reporters when asked how he’d make up for the loss of Capela. “Not have a lob threat as much. Put shooters around. Maybe we take more 3s without Clint. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The Rockets were averaging 43.2 3-pointers per game when Capela went down. In two games without him, they’ve shot 118, including an NBA-record 70 on Wednesday against Brooklyn. I submit that D’Antoni has, in fact, seen.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have been a brutal hang for most of this season; this is, as we have discussed before, at least partly by design. But even as they’ve stacked losses and sent fans drifting deeper into their dreams of a Kristaps Porzingis–Kevin Durant–Zion Williamson frontcourt, the Knicks have managed to produce one bright spot: rookie forward Kevin Knox.
Heading into Thursday’s 2-for-11 dud of a performance in London, Knox had averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 34.4 minutes per game over his last 20 outings. Since the beginning of December, Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, and Trae Young are the only rookies scoring more than Knox. The no. 9 overall pick has put up 20 or more points seven times, capped by a career-high 31 in New York’s three-point loss to the 76ers on Sunday:
With veterans Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter out of the lineup against Philly, Knox responded with his most aggressive game of the season. He made decisive moves off the dribble, using his 6-foot-9, 215-pound frame to truck through backpedaling defenders on his way to the rim. He confidently stepped into 3-pointers off the catch, ran the floor hard, and patiently attacked closeouts. Eighteen of his 31 points came after intermission, a change from earlier this season, when his fast starts would fizzle down the stretch.
Knox still has a long way to go. Opponents often exploit his lack of strength and experience on the defensive end. He’s not yet using his length and athleticism to help on the glass, grabbing just 8.1 percent of available rebounds this season, tied for the 10th-lowest rate among forwards, according to Basketball-Reference. He’s got more turnovers than assists, and he neither gets to the rim nor finishes there often enough; he’s far from a finished product.
But Knox is also making clear strides. He’s slowing down a bit, using hesitations and feints to create space rather than just trying to go, as he told Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic, “100 miles per hour in the first half of the season.” He’s shooting 34.8 percent from 3-point land over the past 20 games. He is looking more comfortable handling the ball in the pick-and-roll and has developed a floater as a go-to shot against dropping big men. That increased comfort with getting to his spots has helped him get to the line a bit more, averaging 3.7 free throw attempts over his last 10 games.
On a team with nothing to play for but the future, Knox is getting every opportunity to grow up fast. The maturity he’s already showing in his game will give Knicks fans a reason to stick around for the rest of this season, and to hope that better things lie ahead.
The Most Finally-Out-of-NBA-Purgatory Team of the Week: Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn celebrated winning my prestigious Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the NBA Season’s Second Quarter by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Houston to keep the good times rolling. I’m honored, guys. Truly.
The Nets are now 23-23, their first .500 record in the second half of a season since 2014. Only the Bucks have more wins in their past 20 games than the 15-5 Nets, who have risen all the way up into a tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives them a 67 percent chance of making the postseason; the picture’s even rosier at Basketball-Reference, whose simulations land Brooklyn in the playoffs nearly 82 percent of the time.
As cool as Brooklyn’s rise has been, it’s not without its complications. Chief among them: what to do at the point.
The Nets have committed to Spencer Dinwiddie, who had slumped a bit recently after playing the best basketball of his career in December. He shook off the cobwebs with 33 points, 10 assists, and plenty of late-game heroics in Houston. They didn’t commit to D’Angelo Russell before the season, declining to offer him an extension of his rookie deal. The 22-year-old seems intent on making it tough for them to let him walk in restricted free agency this summer, averaging 19 points and seven assists per game on 45/36/90 shooting splits since the start of December.
Russell’s a more natural playmaker and clever ball handler, more likely to thread the needle with a pretty feed in the pick-and-roll, and his streaky shooting makes him a threat to catch fire at a moment’s notice. Dinwiddie’s bigger, stronger, a more credible defender, and better at both getting to the basket (34 percent of his shots this season have come at the rim, compared to 17 percent for Russell, according to Cleaning the Glass) and finishing there (67 percent to 52 percent). Lineups featuring the two of them together have been whomped by 7.3 points per 100 possessions this season, after getting crushed by 9.6 points-per-100 last season; there might not be room for both in Brooklyn’s backcourt of the future. (Especially once Caris LeVert, who had emerged as the Nets’ best player earlier this season, returns after dislocating his right foot.) Come season’s end, general manager Sean Marks could have a tough call to make.
But that’s tomorrow’s problem. For now, Dinwiddie and Russell are helping carry the offensive load for a team that’s on a hell of a roll, pushing the Nets toward a playoff berth that would feel like the dawn of a new era. It’s been a long, long climb out of the depths that Danny Ainge plunged them into, but Marks, head coach Kenny Atkinson, and their young roster of cast-offs, reclamation projects, and draft scores can finally see daylight.