We’re only one month into the 2019-20 NBA season, and yet it feels like we’ve already seen a lifetime’s worth of stuff happen. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo both somehow got better. Luka Doncic went from “fantastic talent we all enjoy” to “must-watch monster who inspires concerning podcast titles.” Carmelo Anthony came back to NBA life, at least for the moment; the Warriors, on the other hand, died, and just keep dying, like this is a new season of Russian Doll with a much-larger-than-anticipated number of scenes featuring Ky Bowman.
In an effort to keep up with all that’s transpiring, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the NBA (to me!) this week, starting with the Clippers ...
The world premiere of the Kawhi Leonard–Paul George pairing didn’t go off without a hitch. The two superstars combined to shoot 15-of-38 from the field and 7-of-21 from 3-point range. The team, clearly feeling its way through the new normal of possessions with both of its matinee idols on the court, committed a season-high 23 turnovers, which led to 23 points for a very good Boston squad. The visiting Celtics gave the Clips everything they could handle, riding Jayson Tatum’s hot hand and a tenacious defensive effort to a late-fourth-quarter lead. But the Clippers overcame their sloppy play in the closing minutes, persevered through overtime, and came away with a 107-104 win.
As is often the case in the first performance of a new production, the revamped Clippers have a few things to work on before the next time the curtain opens. There was also an awful lot to get excited about.
When they’re firing on all cylinders, the Clippers will be able to start possessions with one MVP-caliber wing initiating from the top of the floor, then run another off an off-ball screen to take a pass and flow right into a pick-and-roll. When the defense tries to ramp up the pressure to force the ball elsewhere, they will be able to trust that second elite perimeter creator to beat traps by passing over the top to a rolling big man, creating an open 3 for an exceedingly overqualified catch-and-shoot release valve:
They will also be able to reverse those roles and get an equally good result:
They’ll be able to run offense through two elite perimeter playmakers who aren’t even their point guards. After watching Kawhi begin the season by taking a significant step forward as a facilitator, George has come off the injured list looking like a souped-up version of the all-around world-beater who dished a career-high-tying 4.1 dimes per game last season in Oklahoma City. Like Leonard, PG already appears to be enjoying the benefits of playing alongside excellent roll men flanked by shooters. Through four games, he has assisted on 32.7 percent of his teammates’ baskets when he’s on the floor, blowing away his previous best of 20.3 percent during the 2015-16 campaign in Indiana, and has made a handful of other dynamite feeds that resulted in either clean looks that clanked or trips to the foul line:
Kawhi and PG will be able to hunt advantageous mismatches inside and out, since both have the post games to punish smaller defenders and the quickness and off-the-bounce chops to blow past larger ones. With Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley on the court, they’ll be able to check just about every perimeter grouping straight up. In addition to being elite on-ball defenders, all three are also smart enough off the ball to read the play and sink into help positions should the primary defender get beat, and they’re forever disrupting possessions with fast hands and timely swipes. That trio inhaled Kemba Walker on Wednesday, holding the All-Star point guard to 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting with six turnovers and just two assists. Leonard, George, and Beverley have all spent the bulk of their careers as their team’s lone elite stopper. What kind of havoc can they wreak together?
Head coach Doc Rivers can try to maximize the Clippers’ embarrassment of riches by staggering his stars. He ran George with four reserves late in the first quarter, then brought Kawhi back to lead a bench unit to end the first and start the second, and returned to those alignments throughout the game, mixing and matching to give each periodic breathers and an opportunity to soak up more of the spotlight in the other’s absence. Doc can also rely on arguably the NBA’s deepest bench to stay afloat with both resting. Beverley, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell scored 21 of the Clippers’ final 28 points on Wednesday, sparking a comeback and icing the game in OT. Defenses loading up on the new stars will open even more doors for last season’s best second unit; the surrounding firepower of the Clippers reserves will make life easier on Kawhi and George. Few teams have the benefit of such balance.
What we saw Wednesday wasn’t the complete picture we all began envisioning when Leonard and George pulled off their stunning team-up in the wee hours back in early July. It was more like the thumbnail sketch of what’s possible … and it was still good enough to beat the team with the best record in the NBA. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when that picture fully takes shape.
There are plenty of reasons Miami is off to a roaring 10-3 start, the third-best record in the East. There’s the arrival of hard-charging hard-ass Jimmy Butler, who’s been running the show in South Beach like an East Coast Kawhi. There’s the smooth adjustment of Goran Dragic to life as a second-unit initiator and Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and the emergence of several youngsters (rookie Tyler Herro, the undrafted duo of Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson) who have turned a Heat team that many expected to lack perimeter firepower into one of the league’s most potent wing collectives. (It’s funny: It wasn’t long ago that we were lamenting how the Heat were trapped in Nowheresville. What a difference nailing a couple of late lottery picks and undrafted free agent signings makes, huh?)
Backstopping it all, though, has been Bam Adebayo—a third-year center making the most of his first chance as a full-time starter.
The giant four-team summertime sign-and-trade that shipped Josh Richardson to Philadelphia and landed Butler and Meyers Leonard (shooting a scorching 61.9 percent from 3 for Erik Spoelstra!) in Miami brought about another major change for the Heat. Moving Hassan Whiteside to Portland opened up a starting spot for Adebayo, a 22-year-old out of Kentucky who’d opened eyes with his strength, athleticism, and defensive potential through his first two pro seasons.
Adebayo’s individual rim-protection numbers don’t look all that stellar; opponents are shooting 66.7 percent at the basket on shots he’s defending, 51st out of 63 players who have defended at least 50 up-close attempts. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of his impact on that end with his ability to guard in space, switch assignments, and dissuade drivers in the lane. He’s been dynamic and versatile before the ball gets to the tin, holding opponents to three points on 1-for-8 shooting in 11 post-up tries and 15 points on 4-for-18 shooting in 23 isolation possessions defended, according to Synergy Sports. He’s been key in providing the pressure that has allowed Miami to rank second in the NBA in opponent turnover percentage; he’s got 40 combined steals and blocks, trailing only Jonathan Isaac, Andre Drummond, Giannis, Anthony Davis, and Brook Lopez. Miami’s been winning on the strength of its defense, which ranks second in the league in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Heat have also been 2.2 points-per-100 stingier with Bam on the floor than when he’s off it.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than the defensive work, though, is how Adebayo has blossomed as a secondary playmaker in a larger role within Miami’s equal opportunity offense. He can work as a hub for dribble handoffs at the elbows, make slick high-low feeds from the high post, kick the ball out to 3-point shooters from the low block and in the short roll, thread bounce passes through traffic, and even run the break:
Adebayo is averaging 4.5 dimes per game, fourth most on the Heat behind Butler, Dragic, and Justise Winslow, and notching the assist on 20.6 percent of his teammates’ buckets. The only center ahead of him in both categories is Nikola Jokic. Add that to the defensive bona fides and an advancing touch away from the front of the basket, and you’ve got one hell of a player—and one who’ll likely wind up on more than a few Most Improved Player ballots come season’s end.
After a surprisingly strong start to the new season for the reigning—but now Kawhi-less—NBA champions, the Raptors lost both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to injury in the same game. Up to that point, head coach Nick Nurse had relied almost exclusively on seven players—eight, if you count two appearances by the oft-injured Patrick McCaw—all of whom played on last year’s title team. That snare-drum-tight rotation prominently featured Ibaka and Lowry, who was averaging a team-high 39 minutes per game.
Given Nurse’s reluctance to trust his deep bench early on, it seemed like the injuries would leave Toronto in dire straits; as he told reporters after Lowry and Ibaka got hurt, “I’m going to have to start liking a few more guys pretty quickly.” Good thing for him, then, that the Raptors’ reserves have given him a lot to like.
Former Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has provided a spark on the wing with his defensive activity and relentlessness on the boards, averaging 10.7 points and 6.7 rebounds (nearly half of which have come on the offensive glass) in 23.7 minutes per game in six outings since Lowry and Ibaka went down. Former Iowa State and Spanish league sniper Matt Thomas has offered designated-hitter floor-spacing, going 7-for-13 from long distance when Nurse has called his number.
Chris Boucher has shown flashes of what made him last season’s G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, chipping in 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in 18.6 minutes per game. Listed at 6-foot-9 and 200 pounds with a wingspan just shy of 7-foot-4, the whippet-thin Boucher marries crazy length, bounce, and a nasty streak around the rim, which can result in some eye-popping moments on both ends:
Chris Boucher went full extension pic.twitter.com/GESrGR4hSP— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 21, 2019
Boucher blocked a 2 handed Harrell slam attempt pic.twitter.com/jkejknPjtA— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 12, 2019
The real prize, though, might be Terence Davis. A second-team All-SEC selection as a senior at Ole Miss, Davis was projected by many to hear his name called in last June’s draft. (Ringer draftniks Jonathan Tjarks and Kevin O’Connor had him at 29th and 34th on their respective big boards in our 2019 Draft Guide.) Multiple teams were reportedly interested in taking the 22-year-old guard in the second round, but only if he’d agree to sign a two-way contract that would shuttle him back and forth between the NBA and the G League. That wasn’t what Davis wanted, though, so he turned those offers down and reported to Las Vegas summer league, intent on earning a job with his play. After one strong outing for the Nuggets’ summer league squad, the Raptors offered Davis a guaranteed deal. “Honestly, I just bet on myself,” Davis told James Herbert of CBS Sports. “Like Fred VanVleet’s saying.”
Lowry’s injury opened up a ton of backcourt minutes, so Nurse gave Davis a longer look. He’s responded with consistently efficient and effective play, averaging 11.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists in 21.3 minutes per game, shooting 55.6 percent from the floor, and 53.8 percent from 3-point range on 4.3 attempts a night. He’s a tough, physical defender with the size (6-foot-4 with a nearly 6-foot-9 wingspan) to defend multiple positions. He’s a great athlete, a former elite prep football prospect, with the burst to get to the rim and the hops to finish there. He shoots well enough to play off the ball, creates well enough to play on it, and has been making consistently positive contributions; Toronto has outscored the opposition by 67 points in Davis’s 128 minutes over the past six games, the best plus-minus on the team.
The new faces have all brought something to the table, helping Toronto not only survive without two of its most important pieces, but improve to 10-4 with a top-five point differential. It remains unclear how much longer Lowry will be out with his thumb injury; Ibaka could return from his ankle sprain as soon as Saturday. Whenever they do come back, they’ll surely slide right back into big minutes in the Raptors’ rotation … but maybe not quite as big as they were before. Nurse might have found enough guys to like to keep the ones he loves a little bit fresher.
San Antonio Spurs
That San Antonio remains one of the NBA’s most potent offenses despite a plan of attack that prioritizes shots most of the league is trying like hell to avoid remains one of the league’s premier curiosities. But no matter how many midrange jumpers DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge pour in, it hasn’t been enough to keep the Spurs on the sunny side of the street of late; Gregg Popovich’s team has dropped seven straight, the longest losing streak in the league, because it can’t get a goddamn stop to save its life.
Over their past seven games, the Spurs have conceded a mind-boggling 122.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, dead last in the league during that span. They gave up 138 points to the Wizards on Wednesday, and while it is no great shame to struggle to stop Washington right now—quiet as it’s kept, Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, Moe Wagner, and Co. have the NBA’s second-best offense thus far—there should probably be at least some shame associated with giving up 138 friggin’ points in a game that does not feature overtime.
San Antonio’s woes are similar to the ones plaguing the Nets. The Spurs generally do a good job of forcing offenses to take “the right kinds of shots” against them; only three teams are doing a better job preventing attempts at the rim, only four have been better at keeping opponents from firing 3-pointers, and nobody induces more midrange jumpers. The problem: They’re not really doing all that much to keep the opposition from, y’know, hitting those shots. Spurs opponents are shooting a whopping 67.9 percent at the rim, by far the highest mark in the league. San Antonio’s also not doing all that much to stop offenses before they can get a shot up, forcing turnovers on just 12.4 percent of opponents’ possessions—second worst in the league ahead of only, you guessed it, Brooklyn.
The starting lineup of Aldridge, DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Trey Lyles, and Bryn Forbes—San Antonio’s most frequently used grouping by nearly 100 minutes—has gotten blitzed to the tune of 110.2 points per 100 possessions. The return of Murray, an All-Defensive Team selection as a sophomore before tearing his ACL prior to his third season, has done precious little to mitigate the concerns created by playing two shaky defenders—the undersized Forbes and the only intermittently engaged DeRozan—honing a turnstile act that sends drivers right at Aldridge with a head of steam:
Hesitate. ⏸️— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) November 21, 2019
EXPLODE to the hoop! ️ pic.twitter.com/MwKhUPLNrh
While Aldridge is blocking shots at a career-high rate, he’d have to be swatting ’em like Manute Bol to keep the Spurs from getting buried under buckets after all those free drives. Things can get even dicier when opponents don’t just go right to the cup and challenge Aldridge or backup center Jakob Pöltl (who’s holding opponents to a very solid 51.3 percent shooting at the rim in his minutes, for what it’s worth). The bigs stepping up to contain the ball leave a man open, meaning one pass puts the Spurs in rotation, and with so few quality help defenders on the roster, that’s a bad place for them to be:
The persistent starting lineup issues led Popovich to shake things up on Wednesday, moving Lyles to the bench in favor of Patty Mills, but adding an undersized combo guard (albeit an energetic and tenacious one!) isn’t likely to change the Spurs’ defensive fate. Longer looks for San Antonio’s longer, quicker athletes could. Maybe Pöltl steps back in alongside Aldridge to fortify the interior. Maybe Pop trots out Murray and Derrick White together, a combo that would seem to be the team’s backcourt of the future, but that has strangely shared the court for just seven minutes this season. Maybe sophomore Lonnie Walker IV gets out of the doghouse and into the rotation. Maybe a trade alleviates some of the roster congestion, and opens up new possibilities.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but it sure doesn’t seem like it will come from what’s been going on over the past few weeks. With a defense this permissive, the Spurs threaten to be the kind of bad they haven’t been since the start of Bill Clinton’s second term. If Pop can’t find a way to plug up the leaks in the dam, the sport’s longest postseason streak is in serious jeopardy.
Los Angeles Lakers
I’m not sure I have anything to say about LeBron James that hasn’t already been written in scrolls or sung by choirs, but I’ve got to say something. What James is doing at the controls of the West-leading Lakers simply can’t go unremarked upon.
A month into his 17th NBA season, with his professional basketball odometer nearing 57,000 total minutes—a mark topped by only four players in league history—LeBron looks damn near as good as ever. I mean, just look at this shit:
Just an absurd pass from LeBron James. pic.twitter.com/0sEa8uJAOJ— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) November 18, 2019
He’s defending again, and he wants to make sure we know it. He’s sprinting out in transition, hunting the hammer-down exclamation points that turn quick runs into avalanches. He’s taking it upon himself to spoon-feed Anthony Davis—LeBron-to-AD is the league’s most frequent assist combination, and by a lot, according to pbpstats.com—and empower L.A.’s role players. He’s playing with a purpose, taking all the perceived slights from those of us with the temerity to wonder whether a man who has spent nearly half of his life in the NBA might be starting to slow down and turning them into fuel for his seemingly limitless gas tank. LeBron with a full offseason to rest, something to prove, and a rabbit to chase is a dangerous, dangerous man.
The oldest player ever to win the NBA’s MVP award is Karl Malone, who was 35 when he hoisted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in 1999. LeBron will turn 35 next month, and his production is right on par with what “The Mailman” managed 20 years ago—except for the part where he’s also leading the league in assists and snatching would-be rim protectors’ souls straight out of their chest cavities.
LeBron James sees your Kawhis and Hardens and Giannises and Lukas, and he raises you. He raises everyone. Maybe those other dudes are showing us what the future of the sport might hold. LeBron, though, is showing us what history looks like, live and in brilliant forum blue and gold. That we’ve been watching it for as long as we can remember shouldn’t jade us to the fact that it’s still absolutely breathtaking.