“Is this real?” I’ve been asking myself that question a lot during the first month of the season. We’ve got Giannis Antetokounmpo shooting the lights out, Markelle Fultz looking competent, and Aron Baynes leading a playoff team. But will any of it continue over the full 82-game slate?
I went looking for answers to the biggest question on each NBA team using my super-scientific grading system, which was described in Part 1 of this three-part series. This is Part 2. Scores of zero to 10 will be awarded to each question. High scores mean you should believe what you see. Lower scores mean you shouldn’t. Now you know the rules. This is the NBA Reality Check.
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Shooting Real?
Antetokounmpo’s shooting form still looks like Gary Busey, but at least it’s finally working. This season, the reigning MVP is shooting 37.2 percent on 3s off the dribble, a terrifying development for opposing defenses and a game-changer for the Bucks. Small sample? Of course. But the Greek Freak has actually shot well for nearly a year. Santa Claus must have put shooting touch in Giannis’s stocking last Christmas, because since then he’s shooting 34.7 percent on dribble-jumper 3s and 27.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. Until then, Giannis had shot 22.4 percent and 29.1 percent, respectively. Upon closer inspection, Antetokounmpo’s shooting progress reveals a notable trend regarding his potency off a single dribble:
Giannis 3-Point Attempt Percentage Splits
|Since Christmas 2018
|Rest of Career
The numbers suggest Giannis has improved significantly at one-dribble 3-point jumpers (on a sample of 91 attempts). But he remains subpar on 3s taken after two or more dribbles and struggles just as much on spot-up 3s. Giannis isn’t comfortable shooting from a standstill position—he’s shooting a career-worst 61.2 percent from the free throw line—so why do it?
Giannis is trying slightly fewer spot-up 3s than in past years, but more than two additional 3s off the bounce per game. Even if Giannis is wide open, he’ll take one hard dribble with his left hand before shooting, like he does in the clip above. It takes longer to release his shots, but giving opponents time to defend his shot is what the Bucks want. Giannis is deadly on the drive:
Serge Ibaka overcommitted to closing out on Giannis in the clip above, and he got cooked. The best solution is to dare Giannis to shoot, but the choice has become harder. It doesn’t matter how the shot looks, or whether he’s become reliant on a single dribble. The bottom line is Giannis’s 3-pointer is another threat to worry defenses when they already had enough to deal with.
Antetokounmpo’s reality check score: 6.5/10
Is Paul George More Important Than We Think?
The Clippers are Kawhi Leonard’s team. He’s the two-time champion, the team’s best defender, the team’s best scorer, and, so far this season, the team’s best playmaker. Lately, though, Kawhi has been sitting for more than just load management: He’s actually hurt. A knee injury, on the same right leg that he had his mysterious quadriceps injury, sidelined him for three straight games. After an absurd first five games to the season, Leonard’s scoring efficiency has plummeted over his past five, from a 59.5 true shooting percentage in his first five to 46.7 percent over his past five. Maybe it’s just a regression to the mean. Maybe it’s just a cold streak. Maybe it’s the injury. Leonard is a human, after all. No matter what the problem is, I can’t help but think about how George might be more important than I expected.
On Wednesday, George and Leonard excelled in their first game together—a thrilling 107-104 overtime win over the Celtics. Leonard’s poster of Daniel Theis served as a highlight of the night, and he sealed the game with a block of Kemba Walker, but George helped get the Clippers to overtime by leading the team in touches, passes, and assists. Toward the end of the fourth quarter and into overtime, he was lasering the ball to teammates to dig the Clippers out of a hole and eventually to a win.
I thought Leonard would serve as the primary playmaker, just like he did to open the season, making George a Robin to Kawhi’s Batman. And maybe that’ll be the case in the postseason, when the Clippers hope that Leonard will be 100 percent healthy. But George looks ready to take on a significant cut of those touches, as he’s benefiting from better floor spacing than he’s ever had in Indiana or Oklahoma City. Leonard might be dealing with an injury that’ll nag at him all season, but it may not matter if George is playing at this MVP level.
George’s reality check score: 6.2/10
Is Julius Randle Falling Back to Earth?
Randle’s numbers have plummeted following his breakout season with the Pelicans. With the Knicks, he’s averaging 4.9 fewer points on the same amount of shots with significantly worse scoring efficiency. A big reason for his struggles is the way New York head coach David Fizdale is using him.
Julius Randle Play Type Frequency Changes
|Synergy Play Type
|Synergy Play Type
|P&R Ball Handler
|P&R Roll Man
Off-ball cutting isn’t part of the Knicks offense; they ranked 30th last season and they’re 30th again so far this season. Randle is an excellent cutter, but he has done it 8.2 percent less on half-court possessions with the Knicks. Here are two examples from last season of what he can do when given the opportunity:
Randle isn’t just a bulldozer; he’s intuitive with his timing. Last season, he’d trail drives to the rim to finish players. This season, Fizdale has him stay behind the arc, which often turns into isolations or spot-up attempts; defenses aren’t afraid of a career 29.8 percent 3-point shooter. Randle’s own limitations have been put on display under Fizdale because he’s not being positioned to highlight his greatest strengths.
Randle’s reality check score: 3.8/10
Is Kevin Love Worth Trading For?
Love and Tristan Thompson would like to play for a contender, sources close to both players told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon. But no deal is close to happening. Neither has asked for a trade, Vardon added. And Cavs general manager Koby Altman said earlier this month that he has no interest in trading Love. Rival team executives say Altman is just posturing, but finding a new home for Love would be tough. Love is in the first year of a four-year contract worth $120.4 million. He’s 31 and has undergone more procedures than Cavity Sam from Operation. Even if Love were to go full Jimmy Butler at a Cavaliers practice to demand a trade, few teams want Love and even fewer teams need Love. Only four teams come to my mind as theoretical fits:
- Kings: Sacramento is eager to make the playoffs, so even though Love is old and expensive, he’d be a sweet frontcourt fit next to Marvin Bagley III.
- Spurs: Love’s shooting and passing could make him a better fit for San Antonio’s system than LaMarcus Aldridge.
- Heat: Miami is a borderline contender that could choose to use its near-expiring deals for trades to bolster its odds now rather than retain future cap flexibility for potential free agents.
- Blazers: Portland is desperate (they just signed Carmelo Anthony), and dealing Hassan Whiteside’s expiring albatross contract is a no-brainer; Love would undoubtedly help.
Love is coming off a season in which he played just 22 games thanks to toe surgery, but he’s shown this past month he can still play winning basketball. Love is averaging the most assists and rebounds since he was in Minnesota, and he remains a versatile scoring weapon from the post, in the pick-and-pop, and off of screens. My favorite? Love-Thompson pick-and-rolls:
I am obsessed with the idea of Love suiting up with the Blazers. Love would allow Portland to retain five-out floor spacing and keep a rebounder on the floor, and big Love–Jusuf Nurkic frontcourts could be critical in a playoff series against a jumbo-sized team like the Lakers.
Before the season, I felt Love wasn’t a player worth trading for because of his salary, injury history, and signs of decline last season. Love’s health remains a concern, but he looks like himself on the court. Is there a team ready to up their risk profile?
Love’s reality check score: 6.5/10
Is Carmelo Anthony the Player the Blazers Need?
Portland signed Carmelo because he’s an automatic upgrade over Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver, who have been playing heavy minutes at power forward because of injuries to Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. And one thing is clear from his debut on Wednesday: If he improves his shot selection and defense, he could end up being a pretty good role player. Too bad that has never happened in his entire career, and it probably isn’t going to happen now with his 35-year-old legs.
Melo tried in his debut. He really did. You have to give him that. He just doesn’t have it athletically. Pelicans guard Frank Jackson beat him off the dribble. So did Kenrich Williams. What happens against Lou Williams and Kawhi Leonard? Against Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap? Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic? It won’t get easier for Melo. It’ll get harder.
The Blazers still need to find a player who isn’t a defensive liability on the trade market. Until then, they’ll have to deal with Melo getting burned one-on-one. Anthony’s off-ball defense isn’t any better; he routinely gets caught in no-man’s-land (like when on multiple occasions he left his assignment open for 3s), or is a beat late on rotations (like when Brandon Ingram drove to the rim and Melo was forced to foul), or gets caught on a screen like a moth to a flame:
Before getting roasted by Jrue Holiday in the clip above, Melo jacked up a turnaround midrange jumper. Vintage stuff. Anthony’s old, rusty, and adjusting to new teammates in a new system, so it might be too early to overreact after one game. But is it really too soon when one game told the same exact story as his entire career?
Anthony’s reality check score: 2.3/10
Is Malcolm Brogdon a Potential All-Star?
Brogdon was nicknamed “the President” while attending Virginia, and it’s stuck in the NBA from Milwaukee to Indiana. “People heard the way I spoke, they saw the way I looked, and thought it resembled President Obama,” Brogdon told Pacers.com. “I love the nickname.” It makes sense, too: Off the court, Brogdon has a master’s degree in leadership and public policy, and he aspires to someday start a nonprofit organization to help the poor and hungry abroad. And earlier this year, he was named a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association. And on the court, his nickname has never made more sense than it does right now.
Brogdon is orchestrating the Pacers offense and posting 8.2 assists per game on career highs in usage and touches. Look how beautiful Brogdon’s two most recent assists in the half court are:
Pretty nifty, Mr. President. Brogdon loves to drive deep into the paint then whip a pass to a cutter or shooter with either hand. It’s nothing new, either. Brogdon was making passes like this with Virginia and Milwaukee. The difference now is opportunity.
Over Brogdon’s first three seasons, he logged 6.3 assists per 36 minutes when Giannis wasn’t on the floor and 3.9 with Giannis; with the Pacers, it’s now 9.5 assists per 36 minutes. Indiana needs Brogdon to carry the load while Victor Oladipo recovers from knee surgery. Once Oladipo returns to full strength, he’ll be able to fall into more of a complementary role. But now we know that when Brogdon needs to do it, he can step up and be the commander in chief.
Brogdon’s reality check score: 8.5/10
Is Markelle Fultz Back?
I am filled with joy watching Fultz play basketball. I missed his dazzling drives to the rim, his feel for navigating the pick-and-roll, his creative playmaking, and his instinctual defense. Fultz looks more like the prospect who was picked first in 2017, as he’s averaging 10.5 points on a 55.5 true shooting percentage with 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 23.5 minutes a game with the Magic. At just 21, Fultz looks the part of a primary playmaker.
Before the draft, Fultz was praised for his scoring upside, but his passing was his best trait. It still is. That’s partially because his perimeter shooting is the one thing that hasn’t returned.
Fultz is shooting 21.4 percent from 3 with a funky push-shot form defenders can easily contest, causing frequent air balls and clankers off the side of the rim. He looks more comfortable pulling up from midrange, but 36.4 percent on pull-up 2s still isn’t good. At least his production from the free throw line (82.1 percent) is encouraging.
Scoring wasn’t the only skill that mattered when Fultz was a prospect, but it is what separated him from the pack. Will there come a point when Fultz turns from a cute comeback story to a liability because of his lack of a jumper? Perhaps. But players without a reliable shot like Andre Miller, Shaun Livingston, and Rajon Rondo can serve as models for success.
Fultz’s reality check score: 7.3/10
Is Aron Baynes Really a Sharpshooter?
Baynes has already scored at least 20 points four times this season—the same number he has during the rest of his career combined. He’s averaging 14.5 points when his career average before this season was 5.7, 44.2 percent from 3 when his career average before this season was 28.1 percent. Let’s be real here: Baynes won’t keep up the shooting. Right? Well, maybe.
Baynes won’t keep up the scoring volume, but the shooting efficiency is another story. Baynes has always been a knockdown free throw shooter (80.3 percent career) and midrange shooter on 2s deeper than 16 feet (43.2 percent). It was only last season with the Celtics that he began regularly shooting 3s. What if his potency from midrange has merely translated now that he’s taking those shots from a few feet back?
He could possibly finish the season shooting around 40 percent from 3. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter even whether he slips to his career rate: Baynes doesn’t need to get buckets to matter. The spacing he provides as a big who can shoot 3s opens the floor for Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio. And it’s the little things like screening, rebounding, and defensive communication that make Baynes critical to Phoenix’s success. The scoring is just a cherry on top.
What happens to Baynes when Deandre Ayton returns is the big question. Ayton likely bumps Baynes from the starting lineup when he returns from a 25-game suspension by sheer dint of being the no. 1 pick just a year ago. Though Ayton still has his flaws, he’s improved every month since being drafted. But Baynes is helping the Suns win games now by shooting 3s and doing the dirty work. Ayton has shot only four 3s in his career and isn’t the same caliber of defender yet. Baynes puts the pressure on Ayton to start blowing away expectations sooner rather than later.
Baynes’s reality check score: 6/10
Is Nikola Jokic’s Conditioning a Problem?
Jokic weighed 250 pounds when he was scooped up by the Nuggets in the second round of the 2014 draft, and over the years, he got in the best shape of his life. Last season, Jokic weighed 275 pounds, but he was in great condition, with muscles hiding under a layer of body fat. After a summer of hooping for the Serbian national team, Jokic weighed in at 284 pounds to start this season. This time, the extra weight isn’t muscle.
Jokic looks thicker and sluggish on the court. He lacks the same mobility on defense that he finished with last season, and he’s shooting just 24.6 percent from 3 and 75 percent from the line, both career lows. Sometimes it looks like Jokic doesn’t even care. It wouldn’t be the first time; he’s gone on cruise control for stretches since he played in the Serbian league.
The spurts of poor effort have always been part of the deal with Jokic, so I’m not overly worried about what’s happening to start this season. The Nuggets are 10-3, and Jokic has had moments when he flips the switch and turns into the same player who finished fourth in MVP voting last season. The best example so far: Jokic’s epic two-way performance in a fourth-quarter comeback against the Sixers on November 8, which included 16 points and the game-winner.
There will come a time in the postseason when he’ll be fully engaged, just like he was in Denver’s win over Houston on Wednesday. The most important part is that he sheds some pounds to get back to his weight from last season. Until the playoffs, think of his coasting as his own form of load management.
Jokic’s reality check score: 3.8
Is Andre Drummond Really a Max Player?
The Pistons have won an average of 30.8 games this decade and took a massive risk in dealing for a player as injury prone and as expensive as Blake Griffin. Even with Griffin, Drummond, and an improving Luke Kennard, the Pistons are still below average. They’re 4-10 this season, and the Drummond-Griffin frontcourt fit has never felt weirder.
Drummond and Griffin sharing the floor creates spacing limitations. Griffin is an average 3-point shooter; Drummond isn’t a threat at all. Griffin is also a dramatically better ball handler and passer than Drummond, which minimizes the need for Drummond’s own playmaking. Next to Griffin, Drummond becomes the billionaire’s Reggie Evans.
The two Pistons big men should be broken up at some point, or maybe both should be moved and Detroit should start anew. Decision time is coming soon for Drummond, who has a player option for next season. If he opts out, the market might be limited due to a lack of money available around the league and a lack of teams that need a big like Drummond. Pistons owner Tom Gores said it’s a top priority to re-sign Drummond, but that might not be for the best. As likable as Drummond is, he’s an inconsistent defender with obvious limitations on offense. About the only thing he does consistently is rebound at an all-time-great level. Signing him to a big deal over the next half-decade seems like just another long-term commitment to mediocrity.
Drummond’s reality check score: 2.8/10
On Friday, we’ll finish off the Reality Check with analysis of Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, and others.
Statistics through Tuesday’s games.
An earlier version of this piece proposed a trade involving Eric Gordon that can’t work because his recent extension prevents him from being dealt before the 2020 trade deadline.