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Ontari-oh, No: The Raptors Are Hurt, and the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week

Searching for silver linings in Toronto and showing some love for Spencer Dinwiddie’s takeover, Nikola Jokic’s turnaround, and a three-headed monster wreaking havoc in Oklahoma City

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the run-up to the NBA’s annual Christmas Day slate—the unofficial welcome for fans who are down to watch some hoop, but aren’t necessarily stoked about breathlessly following every dribble and stop of an eight-month season—we tend to spend a lot of time focusing on the best teams and the brightest lights. I thought it might be nice to ease into the holiday with a look at something that wasn’t specifically about MVP candidates or marquee teams scientifically proven to draw attention and grab eyeballs. (That sound you hear is my editor groaning.)

In an effort to keep up with the rest of what’s going on around the league, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the NBA (to me!) this week, starting with a run through a new round of woes in “The Six” ...

Toronto Raptors

Wednesday’s win over the Pistons was a costly one, as the Raptors announced Thursday that three starters—Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell—had all suffered injuries that will shelve them indefinitely. For Gasol, it’s a strained left hamstring that had him immediately calling for a sub in the first quarter. For Siakam, it’s a “stretched groin,” the result of a gnarly landing after a dunk attempt that Andre Drummond blocked midway through the fourth. And for Powell, it’s a subluxation of his left shoulder, which he picked up late trying to fight through a Blake Griffin screen:

My nuanced, measured take: This suuuuuuuuucks.

Siakam’s been the heart of the Raptors offense all season. He leads the Raptors in usage rate, finishing 29.4 percent of Toronto’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover. He’s one of just five players in the NBA this season averaging at least 25 points, eight rebounds, and three assists per game, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Losing a player like that—one who also plays a vital and versatile role in Toronto’s excellent team defense—is a massive blow. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor this season, and have been outscored by 4.9 points-per-100 when he sits, according to NBA.com’s lineup data.

As Siakam has assumed a more central role in Toronto’s offense since Kawhi Leonard’s departure, Gasol has migrated to its fringes. The 34-year-old is posting by far the lowest usage rate of his career, attempting just 4.0 2-point shots per 36 minutes of floor time and making only 37.6 percent of them—just the seventh time in league history that a big man has shot so infrequently and so poorly inside the arc. Yet Gasol still logs 28.2 minutes per game and ranks just behind Siakam for the team lead in plus-minus; few players in the league make as big an impact without scoring. Gasol remains a cerebral complementary facilitator who knows how to pry open passing windows; it’s always great when he nods a teammate into an off-ball cut and rewards them with a perfect delivery. He also rarely makes mistakes; among centers, only Al Horford owns a better assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s become a legit stretch 5—36.1 percent from 3 on nearly four attempts per game over the past four seasons—whom defenses have to honor outside, giving teammates like Siakam the gift of clean driving lanes and easier reads.

And though he’s now seven seasons removed from his Defensive Player of the Year award, Gasol still orchestrates a defense at an elite level. Toronto fouls less and forces way more turnovers, allows fewer attempts at the rim and from the corners, and concedes 6.8 fewer points-per-100 when the Spaniard’s in the middle. He’s a major reason the Raptors own the NBA’s no. 3 defense … and now, he’ll be out for “a period of weeks.” The quartet of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet (still working his way back from a right knee bruise, but potentially back soon), Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby seems like it should be stout enough defensively to keep Toronto afloat, though it’s been outscored by 29 points in 62 minutes sans-Gasol over the past two seasons. That’s a vanishingly small sample, but it tracks with Toronto getting outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the court and Gasol off of it this season, according to pbpstats.com.

An extended absence might be cruelest for Powell. The fifth-year swingman is in the midst of a breakthrough campaign, averaging 14.4 points in 28.9 minutes per game on a .617 true shooting percentage, all career highs. Nurse had tapped Powell to step in as the Raptors’ starting shooting guard with VanVleet sidelined; he’d done it with aplomb, averaging a tick under 20 points in five starts while shooting a blistering 57.8 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from 3-point range. He’d performed so well that Nurse acknowledged he was considering keeping Powell in the starting five and returning VanVleet to the reserve role he shined in over the past two seasons. Now, that option’s off the table, and Powell will have to rehabilitate the same injury that cost him 21 games last season—and hope that, when he finally does get back on the court, he’ll be able to quickly relocate his groove.

If there’s a silver lining to this bad news, it’s that the absences of Lowry and Ibaka earlier this season forced Nurse to reach into his bench, and he found some keepers there. Second-year shot-swatter Chris Boucher can eat some minutes as a frontcourt reserve. And Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who’s recently fallen a bit out of Nurse’s favor) can provide some of Siakam’s defensive steel and help out on the boards. Terence Davis and the recently returned Patrick McCaw should get longer looks in Powell’s stead. There are options.

None of them are as good as having your best player, your most important defender, and a starting-caliber swingman healthy, though. The Raptors’ upcoming schedule isn’t especially brutal, but their next 10 games will include meetings with the Mavericks (still pretty good even without Luka), Pacers, Thunder, Heat, and Nets, as well as a home-and-home with the Celtics. Right now, Toronto sits fourth in the East at 19-8; only one game separates second place from sixth. If the Raptors hit the skids after this latest round of injuries, Masai Ujiri will find himself staring at a decision many of us expected him to face before the start of the season. Does he stay the course, trust that Toronto will be able to make a big push once its wounded stalwarts return, and continue trying to defend its title? Or does one of the league’s most aggressive and opportunistic executives try to get ahead of what could be a quiet trade market and look toward the future, dangling veteran difference-makers—Gasol and Ibaka, two talented bigs on expiring contracts, or the just-extended Lowry—to see what sort of haul they might fetch?

The Raptors took the first step toward securing their future back in October when they inked Siakam to a max extension. Anunoby’s taken an impressive leap in his third season, and likely figures into Toronto’s long-term plans, whether through an extension once he’s eligible this summer or a new deal in restricted free agency in 2021. VanVleet could be one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents in a market light on stars, but I’d bet on Ujiri exhausting every option to keep him while still retaining enough financial flexibility to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo should he reach the market in 2021. Every decision Ujiri makes from here on out will be viewed through the lens of how it impacts the Raptors’ ability to go big-game hunting in two summers, and how it helps foster the growth of Toronto’s next title-contending team.

Brooklyn Nets

I don’t have $150,000 lying around, so it’s a moot point, ultimately. If I did, though … I might find myself wishing I could get in on that Spencer Dinwiddie Bitcoin contract action. That dude’s been fantastic over the past month, helping Brooklyn right the ship after a rocky start and solidify its standing as a likely postseason participant in the Eastern Conference. (FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference.com both give the Nets an about an 80 percent chance of making a second straight playoff appearance.)

After spending most of last season thriving as Brooklyn’s sixth man behind D’Angelo Russell and beginning this year coming off the bench behind Kyrie Irving, Dinwiddie has seized the spotlight since Irving went down in mid-November. The Nets were 4-7 with Irving. They’ve gone 11-6 since, thanks in large part to the 26-year-old Dinwiddie blossoming in a bigger role. He’s averaging 25.4 points and 7.7 assists in 33.5 minutes per game since Kyrie’s injury; over the past 10 seasons, the only players who have averaged scoring and facilitating numbers like that over a full campaign have been LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

Which is to say players who have made All-Star teams, something Dinwiddie’s making an awfully interesting case for right now:

Brooklyn’s overall offensive efficiency has dipped in Irving’s absence (108.5 points per 100 possessions in 11 games with him to 106.9 in the past 16 without him). The bulk of that drop-off, though, has come with Dinwiddie off the court: Brooklyn wheezes to a feckless 89.9 points-per-100, miles beneath the least efficient offenses in NBA history, when he’s been on the bench. When he’s out there, though? The Nets have been blitzing opponents to the tune of 112.6 points-per-100, equivalent to a top-four mark—and better than Kyrie’s on-court offensive rating. One big reason: The ball movement that made Brooklyn such an enticing watch last season has started to pick up again. The Nets averaged just 246.5 passes per game, third lowest in the league, in 11 games with Irving, but they’re up to 277.6 passes per game since then.

The Nets have also tightened up on the other end with Irving in street clothes, posting a top-10 defensive rating. Removing Irving, who stands 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan, and slotting Dinwiddie alongside Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, and Garrett Temple (starting due to the ongoing absence of Caris LeVert) in front of Jarrett Allen gives Brooklyn a lineup in which everybody’s at least 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, removing easy targets for opposing offenses and giving coach Kenny Atkinson more flexibility with how he dials up coverages. That revamped starting five has played nearly five times as much as any other Nets lineup since Irving’s injury, allowing 107.3 points-per-100 (not a top-10 mark, but above average) and outscoring opponents by a healthy 7.5 points-per-100 in the Kyrie-less span.

Dinwiddie’s shooting numbers don’t leap off the page—he’s shooting 30.7 percent from 3, dead last among all qualifying NBA players taking at least six attempts a night. But he’s in total command of Brooklyn’s offense right now; everything about the Nets’ attack works off of his poise and productivity in the pick-and-roll. Dinwiddie’s logging 11.8 such plays per game this season, by far the highest number of his career, and he’s forcing defenses to make tough decisions.

Drop back toward the basket, and he’ll take the runway and drive right to the rim. Step up to stall his dribble, and watch him loft a lob pass to a rolling Allen or DeAndre Jordan for an alley-oop dunk. Try to blitz him early, and he’ll read the pressure, get off the ball, and set his teammates up to attack four-on-three. Bring help off the wing later, and he’ll use his size and vision to whip a pass to an open shooter in Atkinson’s well-spaced offense. And if you give him a path to the rim, he might just deliver a very loud surprise:

When he’s got it all going, he can be a handful for even smart and stout defenses. Witness the way he torched the (admittedly Joel Embiid–less) 76ers last Sunday in a blowout win, taking advantage of their preference for drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. After the game, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown called Dinwiddie “a runaway train playing downhill.” The big question for Brooklyn now is where that train eventually stops.

The Nets remain mum on when Irving and LeVert might be coming back, but they’ll return at some point. When they do, do they both return to their starting spots and bump Dinwiddie back to the bench? (“We will cross that bridge when we get there,” Atkinson recently told reporters.) What sort of defensive prognosis would the Nets have if they started Irving and Dinwiddie together in the backcourt? If the early-season stagnation returns once Irving resumes control of the offense, might things get a little awkward at Barclays Center?

Those are tomorrow’s problems. For now, the Nets are winning, and Dinwiddie is proving that he’s a difference-maker whether he starts or comes off the bench. After Sunday’s win over Philly, I asked Temple—a well-traveled veteran who’s seen stars rise and fall in his 10 years in the league—what it’s like to watch something like what’s been happening with Dinwiddie over the past month.

“Honestly, with Spencer … we know that,” Temple said. “We know that that’s his role. It’s not like he was somebody that wasn’t leading the second unit, so we’ve seen him do it. With more minutes, he’s just gonna produce more.”

Speaking of dudes you knew were going to produce ...

Denver Nuggets

Don’t look now, but Nikola Jokic might be back, you guys.

A sluggish start by Jokic’s All-NBA standards—14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game through the season’s first six weeks, shooting 45.1 percent from the field and just 22.2 percent from 3-point range—had head coach Michael Malone calling bullshit on his team’s title chances, and observers across the basketball-watching world wondering how it could be that Jokic looked so out of shape after playing big minutes into mid-May and then spending his summer suiting up for the Serbian national team. Jokic responded by putting all the amateur armchair analysis of his diet and exercise out of his mind (“I don’t read anything anymore. I stopped” is a level of hater disassociation I think we can all admire) and aiming to rediscover the form that made him one of the most dominant players in the 2019 postseason. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s sure seemed like he’s found it.

In his past seven games—three tough losses on the road in Boston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, followed by four straight wins back home—Jokic has averaged 22.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.0 assists in 32.8 minutes per game. He’s relocated that sweet touch from all over the floor, converting 71 percent (22-for-31) of his looks at the rim, 62.5 percent (20-for-32) of his attempts from floater range, and nearly half of his midrange tries (10-for-21). He’s even hitting 3s again, too, knocking in 13 of his past 35 triples, and he seems to be having fun doing it.

Or, at least, enough fun to blithely toss up one-footed stepback 3s like he’s Steve Nash dicking around before practice, only it’s in live games with the shot clock winding down:

The willingness to take those shots matters a lot for Jokic. (Well, maybe not those shots, but you get what I’m saying.) When he’s struggling with his shot and his confidence, he gives defenders a license to play off of him, allowing them to take away some of the high-low actions and backdoor cuts through which Jokic built his reputation as one of the greatest big-man passers the NBA has ever seen. But when he’s firing away more freely, and when he starts making them more often, he forces those defenders to press up on him beyond the arc, which opens up all manner of passing lanes underneath for the sort of off-ball activity that made Denver a top-seven offense in each of the past three seasons.

“I don’t think it’s a big part of my game, but it is,” Jokic recently told Nick Kosmider of The Athletic. “It’s a part of my game just because I can stretch the floor and give our guards room to play. It’s not just for me that I’m making shots. I think it’s good for the group.”

Before this recent Jokic run, the Nuggets were averaging 107.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 18th in the league. Over the past seven games, they’re up to 110.2 points-per-100—which, over the full season, would put Denver in the top-seven range. To this point, a disciplined, tenacious, and opportunistic defense has kept the Nuggets afloat. Despite their occasional fumbles and Jokic’s slow start, they still sit at 18-8, in third place in the West behind the Lakers and Clippers.

Denver has a friendly slate ahead in which 10 of its next 15 games will come against sub-.500 competition. If they can stay connected on defense, and keep this recent offensive regression to the mean rolling, this Nuggets team could go from scuffling along to maybe pushing the L.A. teams for the top seed. What a difference a few weeks and a few open shots can make.

Milwaukee Bucks

He finished with only five points on 2-for-7 shooting in Milwaukee’s victory over the Lakers, but I came away from Thursday’s statement win even more impressed with Donte DiVincenzo. I mean, check out the set on the youngster:

LeBron James has been a superstar nearly as long as DiVincenzo has been alive, and yet there’s the second-year guard out of Villanova, trying to catch the King napping in pursuit of an extra possession in a game his team leads by 21 points.

He doesn’t get the whistle—not going to happen against LeBron, dude, even at home—but it kind of doesn’t matter. He saw the play and went for it; the anticipatory instinct and the mischievous smirk speak loudly. So does this:

Breaking up a lob pass for Anthony Davis ain’t easy. Doing it when he’s got a six-inch height advantage and inside position is graduate-level quantum physics homework. But there DiVincenzo was—reading the play before it developed, sprinting toward the paint as Davis begins rolling to the rim, meeting one of the sport’s most fearsome aerial artists at the summit, and, somehow, making the play.

DiVincenzo’s numbers this season don’t jump off the page—8.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.6 steals in 21.7 minutes per game, shooting just 42.9 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from long distance. But he’s become an important piece of Mike Budenholzer’s rotation filling in for the injured Eric Bledsoe because, pretty much every time he gets on the floor, he’s doing something like this. (It’s worth noting that he added six rebounds, six assists, and two steals with just one turnover in 27 minutes in the win over L.A.)

Milwaukee’s offensive rebounding rate skyrockets when he’s on the court, thanks in part to his sense of when to crash rather than retreat in transition. The Bucks force turnovers on 16.7 percent of opponents’ possessions with him in the game, according to Cleaning the Glass—a rate that would be second best in the NBA—and play much more frequently and effectively in transition in his minutes. Look how he fights through screens and helps from the weak side to break up plays, and to kick-start the fast break:

The Bucks’ already elite defense becomes even more monstrous when DiVincenzo checks in, conceding 6.7 fewer points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions—a microscopic 98.7 defensive rating. And while he, like everyone else in Milwaukee, benefits from playing alongside the reigning MVP, he’s also been part of the solution for a second unit that ranks among the league’s best; Milwaukee has outscored opponents by 12 points-per-100 in 179 minutes when DiVincenzo plays without Giannis, according to pbpstats.com.

Earlier this week, I was trying to think of a stylistic comparable for DiVincenzo. I settled, in the moment, on a right-handed Delonte West, which felt about right to me—both combo guards with size; both complementary ball handlers you wouldn’t really want to be your top table-setter but who can definitely distribute the ball; both capable of defending either guard spot; both with a spark of chaos in their games. But then somebody came up with one I like even more: Marcus Smart. It’s not perfect—Smart’s a more functional point guard and a legit All-Defensive candidate, and DiVincenzo’s not there yet—but it’s a better one than you might think.

A Winning Plays machine who fits seamlessly alongside Giannis and Khris Middleton in the starting lineup and can make an impact coming off the bench seems like a pretty valuable piece to have in the postseason. Or, potentially, one to be able to include in trade talks as the Bucks weigh their options for bolstering the roster amid a title push. I’m not sure what the future’s going to hold for DiVincenzo. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy watching it, though.

Oklahoma City Thunder

I get why, after moving Russell Westbrook and Paul George this summer, the Thunder should be doing everything they can to trade everything that’s not nailed down or under the age of 25. But while this season might not matter in the way building a title contender matters, I have to believe there is still a place in the world for watching good basketball players do cool stuff, even if it’s just a placeholder for what comes next.

That’s what’s been happening in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder—13-14, good for seventh in the West, with a positive point differential—have been rolling out a three-point-guard lineup that feels like something out of March Madness, but has been mollywhopping fools with regularity.

The Thunder have annihilated opponents by 96 points in the 156 minutes when Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder have shared the court this season. That shakes out to plus-26 points per 100 possessions, the second-best net rating in the league of any trio to play at least 150 minutes together. They’re pushing the pace, shooting lights out, and scoring like gangbusters. They’re forcing a bunch of turnovers without fouling and sending drivers into either anthropomorphic concrete slab Steven Adams or spring-loaded tarantula Nerlens Noel at the rim, choking offenses out to fuel their transition game.

The three guards have found a rhythm together, sharing the ball and playing off one another, stretching out defenses and puncturing them with speed and slashing. Few teams have three dudes capable of staying in front of a craftsman like CP3, a change-of-pace back like SGA, or a lightning bolt like Schröder. It just works, and it’s given Billy Donovan’s team a new look, a fresh identity, and a shot at the playoffs—FiveThirtyEight gives them a 54 percent chance, and Basketball-Reference.com’s has them all the way up at 73.5 percent—in what was supposed to be a consolidation/gap year.

None of that is a reason not to get out of the $85.6 million owed to Paul over the next two seasons should the opportunity present itself, or to turn down the chance to flip Schröder (a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate) to a would-be contender for even more draft assets. I’m just saying that maybe Sam Presti shouldn’t be burning the midnight oil looking for any deal he can find. Gilgeous-Alexander’s growth isn’t being stunted, the team’s legitimately enjoyable, and you can always revisit the roster construction issues next summer. It’s OK to enjoy a fun thing while it lasts, even—and maybe especially—when everybody knows it’s not going to last forever.