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The Lakers and … Suns Are Cooking, and the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week

Plus: Dame Lillard gets the green light, Cleveland looks to the future, and the Kemba-led Celtics start to figure it out

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I often find myself overwhelmed in the early stages of a new NBA season: all those new players to learn about, all those familiar faces clad in strange new uniforms, all those coach’s challenges to evaluate, and hey, wait, a second, there are fuckin’ coach’s challenges now? It’s enough to leave my head spinning like somebody forced, against their wishes and God’s will, to guard Trae Young in space.

Once I get into the rhythm of checking out a few games a night, though, things start to level out and I’m able to get back to the business of doing what’s most important: identifying which teams are most interesting to me in a given week and writing about why. So let’s do just that, starting with a long-awaited Hollywood blockbuster:

Los Angeles Lakers

Here’s one that’s sure to get me on The Hottest Take: Pairing LeBron James and Anthony Davis was a good idea, and it is working out very well. (Also, something about, I don’t know, cookies actually being bullshit? Sorry. I’m still workshopping it. I’m not very good at takes.)

The Lakers are annihilating opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with LeBron and AD on the floor, the second-best net rating in the league among tandems who have played at least 171 minutes together. James is off to a roaring start, slinging pinpoint passes all over the place en route to a league-leading 11.1 assists per game, a career-best assist percentage that could rank as the eighth-highest single-season mark of all time if he is somehow able to keep it up, and a run of early-season triple-doubles that have him clapping back at his doubters with fervor. (Nobody seriously suggested LeBron was “washed,” but rather wondered whether a 34-year-old with a historic minutes load who’d just suffered his first major injury had entered a different phase of his career—but that’s beside the point, I suppose.)

While James tops the team (and is second in the NBA) in touches, Davis has, as promised, worked as L.A.’s offensive focal point, leading the Lakers—by thin margins, but still—in points, shot attempts, and usage rate. And LeBron sure seems to enjoy life alongside the most versatile and punishing finisher he’s ever played with; more than a quarter of his dimes this season have set up AD buckets, according to pbpstats.com.

Davis is playing a central role on the other side of the court, too: Opponents are shooting a microscopic 23.1 percent at the rim when he is defending, according to Second Spectrum’s player tracking data. And even when he’s not directly involved in the play, his presence looms large. Opponents are shooting 56.1 percent at the rim against the Lakers when Davis is on the floor, compared to 63.8 percent up close when he’s sitting; that’s equivalent to the difference between the league’s third-best mark and 19th place. As a legendary Laker big man once said, “If you want the big dog to guard the big yard, you’ve got to give the big dog something to do.” Well, AD’s had plenty to do so far, and the Lakers are stomping fools; their ownership of the NBA’s stingiest half-court defense, according to Cleaning the Glass, has fueled their 6-1 start.

With James and Davis acting as L.A.’s organizing principles—and with LeBron notably showing some hustle on defense in the early going—the rest of the Lakers get to operate in comfortable complementary roles. Dwight Howard has looked like a game-changing bargain, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s been trending up after a brutally meme-worthy start to the season, Kyle Kuzma’s back from injury and starting to find his footing ... and there’s room to grow, too.

Consider: The Lakers have the NBA’s best record and fourth-best non-garbage-time point differential despite their offense ranking in the middle of the pack. L.A. ranks in the bottom third of the league in 3-point makes, attempts, and percentage; on open and wide-open 3s; and on catch-and-shoot triples. Expected floor spacers Troy Daniels, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, and Caldwell-Pope have combined to shoot 30.5 percent from beyond the arc. Considering the sorts of looks the rest of the team is going to get with LeBron and AD demanding so much attention, those numbers seem like they’ll have to rise. How scary might this team look when they do?

Phoenix Suns

Shit, guys: We blew it. We have to redo Unicorn Week. We forgot about Aron Baynes.

It’s not shocking that Baynes can step out on the floor and hit a 3; just ask fans of the 76ers who watched the 6-foot-10 Aussie bruiser bust Philly’s defense in the second round of the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals by going 7-for-16 from deep in Boston’s five-game series victory. What he’s doing thus far this season in Phoenix, though … well, you’re within your rights to find that just as surprising as the Suns’ 5-2 start.

Through 481 career NBA games, Baynes had attempted 119 3-pointers—about a quarter of a triple try per contest over the course of seven seasons. Through the first seven games of the 2019-20 campaign, including six as a starter in place of the suspended Deandre Ayton, Baynes has already fired 31—4.4 per game—which ranks seventh most among players standing 6-foot-10 or taller. He’s also already drilled 15 of them, only six shy of the previous career high he set last season and good for a sterling 48.4 percent clip that ranks third best among centers with at least 15 attempts.

Baynes’s 3-point rate rose last season with the Celtics, but he’s letting it fly at a whole new level this season; nearly half of his total shot attempts have come from beyond the arc. All of a sudden, the player who more closely resembles a Mad Max: Fury Road raider than a catch-and-shoot marksman has turned into, in the words of the estimable Sreekar Jasthi, “a jacked 7-foot Steve Nash.” Devin Booker seems to be having fun with it, doing stuff like inverting the offense to work out of the post and use Baynes as a release valve ...

… and leveraging the attention he draws to set screens that pop Baynes free:

A viable 3-point threat at center forces defenses to make an unenviable choice: either overcommit to keeping drivers like Booker and Ricky Rubio away from the rim and risk giving up a wide-open trail triple to Baynes, or stick close to the big outside and let Phoenix’s top ball handlers attack. So far, so good: The Suns are scoring an absurd 122.8 points per 100 possessions with Baynes on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Baynes still gets his teammates open; he’s tied for seventh in the league in screen assists. He still makes his mark on defense, playing a key role in limiting Ben Simmons in the Suns’ impressive win over the previously undefeated 76ers on Monday. And with his ramped-up gift for bombing away, he’s allowed new head coach Monty Williams to run a spread offense that gives Booker, Rubio, and active off-ball cutters like Kelly Oubre Jr. more room to work. Even pricing in some regression from Phoenix’s shooters, Baynes looks like one of the most valuable nonsuperstar additions of the offseason, helping the Suns find stability and success for the first time in ages.

Portland Trail Blazers

Good gravy, that Blazers frontcourt. With a torn left labrum putting starting power forward Zach Collins on the shelf alongside centers Jusuf Nurkic and Pau Gasol, Portland’s been forced to rely to an uncomfortable degree on Anthony Tolliver (a delight to interview, but a tad overtaxed here), Skal Labissière, and wings Mario Hezonja and Rodney Hood masquerading as small-ball 4s and 5s. You’d imagine Terry Stotts would rather his team’s fate rested a little less on the performance of trick-or-treat titan Hassan Whiteside, who giveth by averaging a double-double and finishing at an elite level inside and who taketh away with his block-hunting tendency to leave the paint unprotected. In a related story, Portland is 3-4, and ranks 21st in defensive efficiency.

While Blazers fans wait with bated breath to find out whether president of basketball operations Neil Olshey can swing a deal to add some stabilizing size, the team’s path to competing seems clear: score, score, score. Luckily, they’ve got a dude who’s pretty good at that. Amid the roiling injury uncertainty in the Pacific Northwest, Damian Lillard is fuckin’ balling right now.

After finishing fourth and sixth in MVP voting the past two seasons and establishing himself as one of the very best point guards in the league, Lillard appears to have jumped up another level to start the 2019-20 campaign. He’s averaging 31.1 points, 7.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game—all career highs—while flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits despite taking more than 21 field goal attempts (including nearly 10 3-pointers) per game.

In addition to his customary mastery in the pick-and-roll, where he leads all high-volume ball handlers in points scored per possession, Lillard has also been a monster this season on the interior. He’s put together the whole package: speed to blow past defenders, an array of hesitations and feints, strength to get into the bodies of would-be shot blockers and create the space to get the ball up, and touch to be able to finish from all angles. The result: Lillard is shooting 68.6 percent at the rim, which blows away his previous percentages and ranks sixth in the league among guards with at least 25 up-close attempts.

How do you deal with a Dame who can do this if you press up on the perimeter and challenge him at the rim …

… this if you take a half-step back to guard against the drive …

… and this just, I don’t know, whenever he feels like it?

Given how comfortable Dame has gotten with making the right pass when opponents bring two to the ball to trap him—his assist percentage is up from last year alongside a career-low turnover rate, by the way—I’m not sure there are many good answers besides “pray he misses.” The Blazers need Lillard at his very best, pouring in points in bunches, to stay afloat in a brutally competitive Western Conference playoff race. Good thing, then, that every time we think we know what his best looks like, he seems to find a way to bring even more to the table.

Cleveland Cavaliers

OK, OK, I hear you: “What, exactly, makes the 2-5 Cavs particularly interesting to you?” For starters: Kevin Love’s healthy, and looking pretty good. After toe surgery cost him nearly three-quarters of a 2018-19 season that was supposed to mark his return to superstar status, he’s seizing his second chance, averaging 18.9 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 33.7 minutes per game on strong 49/39/88 shooting splits.

But while Love’s turning in the most efficient shooting season of his career, he’s also using a smaller share of Cleveland’s offensive possessions than he has since that often awkward “FIT-OUT/FIT-IN” first season alongside LeBron and Kyrie Irving. And so far, the Cav taking greatest advantage of new head coach John Beilein’s more egalitarian scheme is … wait, it says here “Tristan Thompson.” That can’t be right. Can that be right?

It can! Thompson’s averaging 16.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 33.7 minutes per game, all career highs. Despite posting the highest usage and assist rates of his career, Thompson has turned the ball over just three times in 236 minutes. While he’s getting most of his buckets in familiar fashion—diving hard to the rim in the pick-and-roll, laying in wait in the dunker spot for dump-offs, crashing the offensive glass—he’s showing a bit more touch and flash with the ball, too. And watch your back, Aron Baynes:

Here’s where the strings come in: Thompson, 28, will hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and while Love’s still got three years and a mighty steep $91.5 million left on the extension he signed in the summer of 2018, he also might be the best player that a would-be contender could get in a trade this season. Both would seem to be strong trade chips for a Cavaliers team very clearly in the early stages of its rebuild around Collin Sexton, rookie Darius Garland, and just-extended Cedi Osman. But the Love-Thompson-Osman-Sexland lineup has outscored the opposition by 10.2 points per 100 possessions this season, the 10th-best net rating of any group to log at least 50 minutes, even with Garland off to a ghastly shooting start to his pro career and with Sexton, who was drafted as a point guard, posting the same assist-to-usage ratio as all-dunks-no-passes Knicks center Mitchell Robinson. Which is to say that having grown-ups who can play—who can pick and pop, screen and roll, create offensive space, and erase defensive mistakes—can be really important for young guards trying to find their way.

Cleveland doesn’t really need to clear cap space. Even after working out extensions for Larry Nance Jr., Love, and Osman—all of which decline in size as they go on, to maximize future flexibility—general manager Koby Altman (newly extended himself!) can create more than $30 million in financial flexibility this summer if he wants to, say, target a young restricted free agent. If no suitor’s going to pony up a godfather offer for Love or offer significant value for Thompson, maybe Altman lets it ride, keeping his title-winning veteran frontcourt intact to aid the development of the Cavs’ next generation. That might help make the experience of watching basketball in Cleveland much more tolerable—and perhaps even something verging on fun—for a while.

Boston Celtics

Kemba Walker’s career in Kelly green got off to a rocky start, as the ginormous 76ers flustered him into a dismal 4-for-18 debut. (That the man he replaced in Boston, Kyrie Irving, opened his tenure in Brooklyn with an eye-popping 50-ball only made matters worse.) But the Celtics have bounced back from that opening-night disappointment, ripping off five straight wins, and Walker—who on Thursday makes his return to Charlotte—has been a major part of that uptick.

Since struggling against Philly, Walker has rung up 144 points on just 96 field goal attempts, efficiently pacing the Celtics’ attack with a combination of pull-up bombs and trips to the charity stripe. He’s shooting 42.6 percent on nine 3-point attempts per game, and 91.1 percent on 7.5 free throw attempts a night, both career highs. He’s scoring 1.19 points per possession as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, the fourth-best mark among players who have finished at least 25 such plays, and his highest rate of PNR scoring efficiency in the five seasons for which NBA.com has tracking data. Walker’s been just what the doctor ordered for a Celtics team that needed to replace both the offensive firepower it lost when Irving left for Brooklyn and the calming veteran presence that left the locker room when Al Horford headed to Philly.

For years, Walker had to shoulder the shot-creation workload on Bobcats and Hornets teams featuring little top-flight offensive talent. (Save, of course, for 2013-14 Al Jefferson, who was The Shit.) Now, he’s running with Gordon Hayward (who is coming off a monster game in Cleveland and looking as good as he has since his injury) and Jayson Tatum (shooting a blistering 42.9 percent from 3 on nearly twice as many attempts per game as last season), as well as complementary creators like Marcus Smart (who leads the team in assists) and Jaylen Brown, which means he doesn’t have to do quite as much of the heavy lifting. Walker’s usage rate is down slightly from last season, and his true shooting is up slightly. He’s getting fewer touches per game than he did last season, but he’s averaging more points per touch than he did in Charlotte. He’s driving to the basket less frequently, but cashing in on those drives more effectively.

Walker’s strong scoring start aligns with our general understanding of the inverse relationship between usage and efficiency—the lighter your burden, the better you’ll bear it. Through six games that have landed his Celtics atop the Eastern Conference, it seems like he’s bearing it pretty damn well.