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NBA Reality Check, Part 3: A Whole New Russ, Mega Siakam, and More

What’s real and what’s not one month into the 2019-20 season? We’re assessing one question per team. Here’s the third and last batch of 10.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Is this real?” I’ve been asking myself that question a lot during the first month of the season. We’ve got Pascal Siakam filling Kawhi Leonard’s shoes, Bam Adebayo emerging into a two-way star, and Richaun Holmes digging the Kings out of a ditch. 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. Part 2 was published Thursday. This is Part 3. 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 Russell Westbrook a New Man?

Westbrook hasn’t changed all that much with the Rockets. He’s taking about the same number of deep midrange jumpers as he did last season. He’s not attacking the rim any more frequently out of isolations, despite having more floor spacing in Houston. He still can’t shoot 3s well. His defense is still fine at best, though he’s trying harder. He still makes some dreadful decisions but balances it all out with spectacular plays that make you realize why you love basketball.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Mike D’Antoni told me months ago that he wouldn’t try to make Westbrook change. “I’m not going to make him into something he isn’t because he’s pretty dagum good,” D’Antoni said in September. I thought we’d witness an evolution in Houston. Or maybe I’ve been looking at it the wrong way?

For so many years, Westbrook has been criticized for a long list of reasons. But the most important one was his unwillingness to defer to Kevin Durant. That hasn’t been the case with James Harden. Russ isn’t hogging the ball; he’s helped Harden in the ways he can—by standing in the corner, pushing the pace in transition, and putting more effort into his defense. Harden is having another historic offensive season and Westbrook has gotten out of the way. That’s commendable. “I think that a lot of people like to normalize greatness when you see it over and over again, but it’s not normal because there’s nobody else that can do it,” Westbrook said of Harden earlier this week. “He’s put himself in position to be one of the best offensive scorers of all time because of the way that he’s able to score the ball at a high level in a variety of ways.”

It’s possible we’ve seen Westbrook reach his ceiling as a 3-point shooter and as a decision-maker when it comes to his shot selection. But he’s showing that he can do more as a teammate by watching Harden shine with the rest of us.

Westbrook’s reality check score: 5.3/10

Is Pascal Siakam a Legit No. 1 Option?

Siakam popped during the first week of the season for the Raptors: He averaged 27.5 points, a huge leap from 16.9 last season. The numbers remain high one month in, at 25.1 points to go along with 8.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Even with Kyle Lowry out nursing a fractured left thumb, the Raptors keep winning, thanks in large part to Siakam.

Siakam is one of four players averaging more than 20 shots and 36 minutes. James Harden, Bradley Beal, and CJ McCollum are the others. And not many of Siakam’s shots come easy; he’s usually battling in the post or attacking the rim. Stylistically, Siakam is a totally different player than he was last season. Spot-up 3s and cuts have declined, while isolations and pick-and-rolls have increased.

Pascal Siakam Play Type Frequency Changes

Synergy Play Type 2018-19 Frequency 2019-20 Frequency Difference
Synergy Play Type 2018-19 Frequency 2019-20 Frequency Difference
Isolation 15% 25% 10%
P&R Ball Handler 8% 15% 7%
Post-Up 19% 22% 3%
Handoff 4% 5% 1%
Off Screen 2% 2% 0%
P&R Roll Man 11% 8% -3%
Cut 9% 4% -5%
Spot-Up 32% 20% -12%
Half-court possession data via Synergy Sports. Offensive rebounds excluded. This is an updated version of a chart from an October 30 article.

The Raptors are utilizing Siakam like a star, and he’s producing. He has also improved as a ball handler and extended his shooting range to above the break. Siakam has had his share of growing pains, though. He’s had issues generating offense against lengthy defenders, such as Magic forward Jonathan Isaac. Siakam’s worst game of the season came last week against the versatile Mavericks. At times, he’s looked exhausted—which is no surprise given his immense workload. There will be more games in which he’s fatigued or overwhelmed by so much defensive attention, so the next step will be improving his playmaking and drawing fouls.

As I recently said on The Ringer NBA Show, Siakam has evolved from a Charmander to a Charizard. But there’s another level for a Charizard to reach in the Pokemon world: Mega Charizard. As great as he’s been, there’s still a Mega Siakam to come.

Siakam’s reality check score: 8.3/10

Is Zach LaVine Chicago’s Face of the Franchise?

The Bulls are filled with red flags, and not because red is their primary color. The most glaring ones are with Chicago’s purported best player, Zach LaVine. You can see these red flags with every rushed shot, every inaccurate pass, every record-scratched possession, every blown rotation, and every lackadaisical defensive effort.

LaVine is J.R. Smith with Jamario Moon’s otherworldly athleticism. He’s not a bad player, because he can shoot and score, but he’s not a winning player. LaVine’s central flaws—the poor decision-making on offense and the eyesore off-ball defense—continue to hold him back.

LaVine said in October that he’s “tired of people talking shit about my defense.” But LaVine hasn’t yet given a reason for the shit-talking to stop:

Searching for LaVine? Look in no-man’s land. LaVine finds himself out of position at an alarming rate, like in the clip above when he leaves his assignment—Quinn Cook, a 41.1 percent career 3-point shooter—wide open during a tight game in the fourth quarter. Ever since his freshman year at UCLA, LaVine has seemed either dazed or disinterested on defense, and a lot of times both. LaVine puts better effort into his man-to-man defense now than he did in college, but he remains as clueless off the ball as Lloyd and Harry were when they didn’t board the bikini tour bus at the end of Dumb and Dumber.

The Bulls have a 109.4 defensive rating with LaVine on the floor compared with 93.6 when he’s off the floor. One of the worst defensive moments you’ll see all season came with 30 seconds left in another winnable game against the Cavs.

Defense this bad is inexcusable—especially six seasons into his career and in crucial moments of close games. It’s at the point where you wonder if he will ever change. Wendell Carter Jr., who gets dunked on in the clip above, has the potential to be an excellent rim protector. But he can’t thrive on a team with a turnstile like LaVine. And on offense, Carter and his frontcourt partner Lauri Markkanen could use a guard who can create easier shot attempts for them, not struggle to initiate an offensive possession and then pound the air out of the ball only to jack up a wild shot.

LaVine’s possession-stopping isolations aren’t all his fault. He’s yet to develop the two-man chemistry with Carter or Markkanen that he had last season with Robin Lopez, who used to feed LaVine with handoffs. But the ball movement has been better—with UCLA and Minnesota, and now with Chicago—when LaVine is off the floor.

LaVine’s best role is as a sixth man, like Smith. The Bulls don’t treat LaVine like a sixth man, though. He’s their featured player and, ostensibly, the face of their franchise. I would explore trading him and investing more in the young players like Carter, Markkanen, and rookie Coby White. His contract is affordable—$19.5 million annually through the 2021-22 season. A team might be willing to give quality assets for a 24-year-old who’s shown flashes of being a major scorer. Until a change is made—either to LaVine’s flaws or to the jersey he wears—the Bulls will keep losing.

LaVine’s reality check score: 2.3/10

Is Ben Simmons Still Afraid to Shoot a 3?

Not anymore.

Congratulations to Simmons for hitting his first career regular-season 3-pointer. But the Sixers offense still hasn’t met expectations, partially due to Simmons’s poor start. The Sixers score 108.8 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor, which ranks 12th in the NBA. Until Wednesday against the Knicks, Simmons stayed inside the arc nearly the entire time that he didn’t have the ball, limiting driving lanes for his teammates.

Simmons himself also hasn’t had much room to operate; he’s scoring on just 24 percent of his drives to the rim compared with 53 percent last season, the former of which would rank last among players to log at least eight drives per game, per Second Spectrum. Spacing and shooting ability is an issue for the entire team, so Simmons needs to find a way to make an impact in the half court. Hopefully, that’ll include more corner 3s. The question now is how many of them he can make using his off-hand.

Simmons’s reality check score: 0/10

Is Isaiah Thomas Good Again?

Thank goodness Isaiah is back and looking good. He isn’t the same guy that he was with the Celtics, but he’s much better than he was in his stops with the Cavaliers, Lakers, and Nuggets. During a return to Boston, he scored 18 points—his most since March 2018.

Thomas was pulling up from 3 out of the pick-and-roll and scoring off screens using nifty floaters just like the old days. Overall, he’s averaging 13.1 points with a 53 effective field goal percentage. Per 36 minutes, he’s scoring 19.2 points, which is comparable to his production over three seasons with the Kings (19 points per 36).

There are some big differences between now and then, though. First, the bad news: Thomas isn’t getting to the free throw line anymore. In 10 games, Thomas has attempted only 10 free throws, and he’s attempting shots near the rim at a career-low rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Thomas became an MVP candidate because of his ability to penetrate the defense, leap, and draw contact. He’s not that player anymore. But he knows that, which leads us to the good news: Thomas is passing more frequently.

Isaiah has replaced ferocious drives to the rim with kick-outs to shooters and dump-offs to cutters. It shows in the numbers: Thomas is averaging 8.8 assists per 36 minutes, by far a career high. He will likely never be an MVP candidate again, but he’s become a positive offensive player by redefining his game.

Thomas’s reality check score: 8.3/10

Is Bam Adebayo Miami’s Draymond Green?

I recently wrote that Adebayo is a Defensive Player of the Year in the making. Today, let’s discuss his offense. Adebayo is averaging a surprising 4.5 assists per game, and he’s developing a knack for making flashy plays.

Adebayo blocks Kevin Love in one clip above and grabs a rebound in the other, and, in both, he races up the floor to create buckets out of nifty passes on the break. The Heat trust Adebayo to bring the ball up the floor, and they use him as a playmaker in the half court.

Watch a Heat game and it won’t take long to notice a player dumping the ball to Adebayo in the high post. Then you’ll see players cutting and screening off-ball as Adebayo surveys the floor as if he’s the sun in their solar system. When someone gets open, Adebayo will find them:

Miami doesn’t have a traditional point guard. Jimmy Butler is the primary ball handler, but he’s a score-first player. So is Goran Dragic. Justise Winslow has long fit the Draymond mold of a big, switchable defender who can also be a playmaker; now Adebayo does, too.

The Heat spread touches amongst their playmakers, and they’re the only team in the NBA that has four qualifying players averaging over four assists. Miami’s depth and versatility has it 10-3 with the league’s third-best net rating. The Heat are still one piece away from being serious NBA Finals contenders, but Adebayo’s growth this season brings them closer to that distinction. If Miami makes a deep run, it won’t be long before Adebayo is a household name.

Adebayo’s reality check score: 8.3/10

Is Dejounte Murray a Blossoming Star?

Murray is a thrill. He’s become one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and he’s a blur in the open floor. But he remains a gruesomely inefficient half-court player. Murray scores 0.7 points per possession in the half court this season, which ranks 163rd of 170 players with at least 100 possessions. It’s unfortunately the same story as his previous three full seasons.

Dejounte Murray Half-Court Scoring Efficiency

Season PPP eFG%
Season PPP eFG%
2015-16 0.76 41.7%
2016-17 0.76 46.8%
2017-18 0.77 43.5%
2019-20 0.73 40.7%
Data via Synergy Sports. Murray’s 2015-16 season was as a freshman at Washington. He missed the 2018-19 season the San Antonio due to a torn ACL.

Gross, man. I was hoping Murray would come back from a torn ACL shooting a ton of jumpers with better form, but he’s connecting on only 28 percent of shots deeper than 14 feet (including 3-for-14 from 3). Perimeter players can’t be true stars without a jumper in today’s league. It’s concerning that Murray hasn’t gotten notably better despite working four years with the NBA’s most respected shooting coach, Chip Engelland.

I’m encouraged by Murray’s improved defense, at-rim finishing, and shot selection. Murray has become a difference-maker. But San Antonio’s next star? Not yet.

Murray’s reality check score: 3.5/10

Is Jarrett Allen Plateauing?

Allen was a rookie when I first interviewed him in 2017 for a feature on the rebuilding Nets. We talked about basketball. We talked about Timofey Mozgov. We talked about Dragon Ball Z. Since then, Allen has grown a lot: His afro is bigger, he weighs more, and he’s a better player. He’s become a more active and aware defender after learning the intricacies of defensive rotations and fundamentals in the NBA. His screening has improved dramatically, too, which helps make him one of the league’s best finishers around the rim. He can flush lob dunks, or make touch layups using either hand. Brooklyn should be ecstatic with Allen’s progress.

But Allen looks pretty much the same as he did last season. The Nets tried to develop his corner 3, but it’s not happening. And he still needs to improve as a passer on the short roll, a critical skill for all centers; it’s how centers like Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell have developed into more than just rollers. Capela and Harrell can read the defense, pause, and quickly target an open teammate for a cut or an open 3. Allen, still only 21 years old, isn’t there yet.

Too often he’ll toss up a floater or awkwardly deliver an inaccurate pass to a teammate, like in the clip above. He can’t calculate decisions on the floor quickly or deliver the ball with precision. But he needs to do both for Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll attack, led by Kyrie Irving, to be as potent as it can be once Kevin Durant returns next season.

Allen could use more developmental minutes, too. It’s silly that he plays only four more minutes per game than DeAndre Jordan, who remains a sloth on defense. Unless conditioning is an issue for Allen, he should be on the court for at least 30 minutes per game. But doing so may come at a price: If Kyrie were unhappy about his friend DeAndre getting even fewer minutes, then the Nets would have much bigger problems.

Allen’s reality check score: 6.8/10

Is Something Wrong With Steven Adams?

A few months back, I got criticized by a few Thunder fans for referring to Adams as an “aging” player. I get it—Adams is only 26! But I don’t care what his birth certificate says; Adams plays like he’s 36. Adams has been beaten and bruised while playing through countless injuries over the years. He’s a freaking monster, and I respect him for it. But the pounding started to wear him down during the second half of last season, and it’s carried into this season.

Adams’s mobility on defense has slipped, and he’s been less active grabbing contested rebounds (even though his numbers are up because Russell Westbrook isn’t hogging all of them). Most concerning: Adams is shooting just 50.6 percent, the worst mark since his rookie season. He isn’t finishing with the same power around the rim and lacks explosiveness, even on layups.

I saw Oklahoma City play in Los Angeles on Monday night. When Adams wasn’t in the game, he’d ride a stationary bike to stay loose. It wasn’t helping on the court. Why is he even playing when the Thunder have said he has a knee injury? It’s in their best interest to lose games, and Nerlens Noel has been solid when Adams hits the bench. Is this about pride? Adams needs to think about his future and the type of contract offers he could receive when he hits unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2021.

Is Richaun Holmes a Long-Term Starter?

Following a dreadful 0-5 start, the Kings are back in the playoff hunt. They trail the Suns by just a half-game for the no. 8 seed in the West after winning six of their past eight games. Somehow they’ve gone on this run with both De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III sidelined due to injury. Luckily for Sacramento, Bagley’s replacement, Richaun Holmes, has been a revelation.

Holmes fits exactly what Kings head coach Luke Walton’s system needs in a center. Holmes hustles for rebounds on defense and has a knack for protecting the rim; he’s a better defensive player than Bagley, who’s still figuring out some of the basics. On offense, Holmes is happy screening, rolling, and doing the dirty work inside. Bagley was the second pick in 2018, but he’s not as good as Holmes is today. The Kings want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006, so how will they balance fighting for the playoffs with developing young players once Bagley returns? Does Holmes shift to the bench despite his success? Or does Bagley go back to the reserve role he occupied most of his rookie season? Regardless, there’s a more pressing question: How does Bagley even fit in Walton’s system?

The Kings are playing at a snail’s pace. They rank 25th in possession time after ranking second last season, per Inpredictable. But to quote Ricky Bobby: Bagley wants to go fast. Last year’s head coach, Dave Joerger, empowered Bagley to take the ball up the floor on the break. That’ll change now with Sacramento settling into more half-court possessions to get the ball to Fox, Buddy Hield, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. “I’m always looking to have the team push. But that doesn’t mean we want a quick shot. That means we want to get into what we’re looking for early,” Walton said earlier this month when I asked whether their new tempo was by design. “You have to execute in the half court in end-of-game situations if you want to win consistently.”

The Kings know they want to be a defense-first team that plays at a deliberate offensive pace. Holmes fits. Bagley’s role isn’t settled. Ask any Kings fan, and they’ll be hesitant about minimizing Holmes’s role. Isn’t it weird that this is even a conversation? A second pick in his second year arguably shouldn’t start over a journeyman center. What a league.

Holmes’s reality check score: 6.8/10