Shortly after I set out to identify the five most interesting NBA teams in a given week, a reader expressed skepticism: Are there really a handful of things worth writing about each and every week? With the exception of a few unplanned absences and holiday-vacation breaks, so far, so good … I think. But if I’m being honest, I haven’t necessarily found all 30 teams fascinating.
I’m willing to accept this as a “me” problem, but for whatever reason, there are a few squads that I just never really locked into this season. I do still believe that there’s something worth highlighting on every team in the league, though, so as we head into the 2018-19 campaign’s final four weeks, let’s take a look at the most interesting thing about the five least interesting teams (to me) in the NBA this season, starting in Odell’s new home ...
I wouldn’t blame you if it’s been a few months since you checked out a Cavs game, but you might be surprised to learn that the team with the NBA’s third-worst record is one game under .500 since the All-Star break. In a related story: That’s when Kevin Love got back to playing real minutes after nearly four months on the shelf with a left toe injury that required surgery.
I’m not going to say that Love is all the way back to All-Star status, or that “Minnesota Kevin Love” is well and truly here again. I will just say that dude’s looked pretty good since his return:
The five-time All-Star has averaged 19.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 28 minutes per game since the break, shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point land on about seven attempts per game over his past nine outings. Love isn’t playing in back-to-backs, as the Cavs manage his workload to keep him healthy heading into the summer, but he’s been precisely the stabilizing offensive force Cleveland had hoped for when re-signing him to a $120 million extension this summer. A shuffled-up starting lineup featuring Love alongside NBA sophomores Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic up front with Brandon Knight and Collin Sexton in the backcourt has been Cleveland’s best unit since the break. Love and Sexton, in particular, look to be developing some chemistry; the 2018 lottery pick has been Love’s most frequent passing target since returning, going 15-for-33 off Love’s feeds, and has returned the favor by dropping a dime on 13 of Love’s 48 made field goals.
As noted by Mike Zavagno of Fear the Sword, coach Larry Drew has positioned Love as both a release valve and a moving target, feeding him looks coming off screens and as a catch-and-shoot target away from a play’s initial action. The 30-year-old has feasted on both, ranking in the 88th percentile in points produced per spot-up possession and the 81st percentile in points generated on shots off screens, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s play-type data; perhaps most interesting, he’s firing off those flares and pindowns on nearly as large a share of his offensive plays as backcourt marksmen like Landry Shamet and Wayne Ellington. A 6-foot-10 251-pounder capable of splashing quick-release jumpers off the catch and putting the ball on the deck to drive to the rim, finish inside, or draw fouls is an awfully tough cover and a rising tide that can lift an offense; the Cavs have scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions in Love’s post-All-Star minutes, compared to just 101.4 points-per-100 when he’s been off the floor.
Any chance the Cavaliers had of making a serious bid for playoff contention went up in smoke when Love hit the injured list. But a strong finish that shows what he can do when healthy—combined with continued development by the likes of Sexton, Osman, and Zizic, and another high lottery pick coming this June—at least suggests the possibility of a brighter future in Cleveland.
“I knew that coming in[to this season] we were going to have to grow something anyway,” Love recently told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. “So in a good way, it’s almost like missing that time [to injury], obviously it fucking sucks. But maybe there’s a silver lining.”
There are three All-NBA teams, which means there are six All-NBA spots reserved for guards. James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving are all but certain to take four of them. Russell Westbrook seems like a sound bet for the fifth—he is on pace to average a triple-double for the third straight season while leading the league in assists, and has quietly relocated his jumper over the past month.
That last slot, though, could be a tough call. Ben Simmons was listed as a forward on last year’s ballot; even if he’s available at guard this time around, will voters still think of him that way too much to give him the nod? Will they opt for someone like Klay Thompson, Eric Bledsoe, or Kyle Lowry, very good guards who are secondary or tertiary contributors on very good teams? Or will they be willing to consider difference-makers from lower-wattage clubs … like, say, the last man standing after a catastrophic season in the nation’s capital?
The Wizards have been without John Wall since December 26, and in the absence of an All-Star playmaking centerpiece, another emerged. Bradley Beal has been sensational as Washington’s unquestioned focal point in the 33 games since Wall went down, averaging 28.2 points (fourth in the NBA over that span) on 47/35/85 shooting splits to go with 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in 38.7 minutes per game. For the full season, he’s one of three guards averaging 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game, joining Harden and Curry. That’s pretty rare air for a backcourt player: Beal would be only the 12th guard in NBA history to hit those marks, joining a group composed exclusively of current and future Hall of Famers.
Usually, when players’ usage rates increase, their scoring efficiency declines. But Beal has been better with an increased workload during this Wall-less stretch: Of the 25 guards to use at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive possessions, Beal is tied for third in effective field goal percentage and sixth in true shooting percentage. He’s not Harden, but if you squint a little (and imagine a few years’ worth of undisturbed facial hair growth), he doesn’t look too far off.
Since losing Wall, Washington has had the East’s eighth-best record, seventh-best net rating, and third-best offense, and has retained a faint glimmer of hope for the playoffs; as of Friday, the Wizards are 3.5 games back of the eighth-place Heat. And if voters see fit to reward Beal for keeping the Wiz alive, things could get awfully interesting in Washington this summer.
An All-NBA appearance would make Beal eligible for a Designated Player Veteran Extension, allowing him to make up to 35 percent of the salary cap for four additional years after his current deal ends in two years. When Wall became eligible for the same extension in the summer of 2017, Washington paid up. Now the Wizards will pay Wall $37.8 million next season as he rehabilitates from a ruptured Achilles tendon, arguably the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer.
Will the worst-possible-case-scenario outcome for Wall’s deal make the Wizards wary of putting the same sort of offer on the table for Beal? If so, will Beal’s thinking start to shift from trying to recruit fellow All-Stars to D.C. to considering where his next stop might be? If not, then how in the world will evidently immortal team president Ernie Grunfeld field a team with two players combining to make more than $80 million in 2021-22? It seems downright cruel that Beal’s emergence, perhaps the best thing to happen to the franchise in recent years, might also create a massive financial problem; then again, it’d also be a pretty Wizards way for this thing to play out.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Bulls were on the verge of full-scale mutiny. But Chicago has shown some serious signs of life lately. Trade-deadline acquisition Otto Porter Jr. has been a force multiplier. Sweet-shooting stretch 4 Lauri Markkanen has continued to grow. And Zach LaVine has transformed into a beastly scorer who might just have the goods to become The Guy in the Windy City (or, at least, share that crown with his Finnish running buddy):
LaVine’s dunk contest exploits have long since marked him as one of the NBA’s true athletic marvels. But the just-turned-24-year-old has emerged as one of the most improved players this season, developing into the kind of player who can score at the rim, from the free throw line, and from beyond the 3-point arc—one capable of putting up crooked numbers even against defenses homed in on limiting him.
He has also shown signs of advancing as a playmaker, displaying patience in the pick-and-roll and taking advantage of the spacing provided by Porter and Markkanen to drive and kick his way to 5.2 assists per game (albeit against 3.1 turnovers) over his past 15 appearances. Since the start of February, Chicago ranks seventh in the league in points scored per 100 possessions, with LaVine and Markkanen acting as the primary creators and finishers. The Bulls have scored 118.5 points-per-100 when they’ve sharing the court during that run, going 7-8 with impressive wins over the Nets, Celtics, and 76ers.
LaVine, Markkanen, Porter, and injured rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison give the Bulls a productive and intriguing young core. (The jury’s still out on point guard Kris Dunn, but it’s drawing closer to a verdict. He might not like it.) How optimistic you are about their chances of a great leap forward might depend on your views on Jim Boylen. The no-nonsense head coach who took over for Fred Hoiberg has the backing of Chicago’s front office and a contract that extends through the end of next season. While the salary guarantee is reportedly small enough that it wouldn’t be too onerous for the Bulls to swallow if they end up wanting to move in a different direction, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicated in a video released Thursday that Boylen’s work as a culture setter has earned him the shot to keep the job next season, and perhaps beyond. Whichever coach winds up leading these rebooted Baby Bulls will have plenty of talent to work with—and, in LaVine, exactly the kind of slashing, creating, 3-point-bombing, and floor-distorting wing that everybody’s trying to find.
New York Knicks
There’s been no shortage of off-court intrigue surrounding the Knicks this season. On the hardwood, though, the product has been tough to recommend … except for the often-heart-stopping play of rookie center Mitchell Robinson:
A Mitchell Robinson Block Party pic.twitter.com/Yx2ViToxsu— Always Hoops (@Always_Hoops) March 11, 2019
The Knicks used the 36th pick in the 2018 draft on Robinson, a mammoth 20-year-old coming off a year away from competitive hoops, with the belief that they could turn an aggressive giant squid who could pivot into a bona fide NBA center. The early returns have been very promising: Robinson is leading the league in both field goal percentage and blocked shots since returning from groin and ankle injuries in mid-January.
Seventeen of Robinson’s blocks this season have come on 3-point shots, which leads the NBA, even though the Knicks rookie has logged more than 1,300 fewer minutes than Ben Simmons and Jrue Holiday, who rank second and third. This is the kind of thing a 7-foot-1 240-pounder just isn’t supposed to do. And yet, there Robinson is, snuffing out James Harden’s stepback, and recovering from the paint to take clean looks away from D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant. This gift has helped turn him into something of an NBA nerd folk hero.
But there’s also a twitchier, more alchemic sort of energy about the rookie; he looks like a young DeAndre Jordan, but he feels like something more spasmodic, more special. Robinson is the stuff of weird comic book characters—Nightcrawler bamfing his way through obstacles, Cloak wholesale swallowing would-be scorers. And his style is starting to grab the attention of the broader populace, too; when Knicks owner Jim Dolan located his “who are the young players on my team again?” cheat sheet during an ill-advised interview on a New York radio station, the name he most clearly identified as worthy of praise was Robinson’s.
I don’t think that Robinson, at this stage in his development, is a better basketball player than some of his more polished peers—like, say, Deandre Ayton, who was chosen 35 picks before Robinson last June. (Though, per Kevin Pelton’s numbers, Robinson trails only Luka Doncic and Trae Young in wins above replacement player among rookies.) I do think that the kind of player Robinson is—a terrifying vertical spacer in the screen-and-roll game, a menacing rim protector, and an agile and versatile defender in space—might have a more clearly defined and valuable role on a championship-level team than someone with Ayton’s résumé as an iffy-defending low-post scorer. We’ve got plenty of time to find out whether that take holds water. In the meantime, Knicks fans will have to make their peace with getting to root for an absolutely monstrous big man who seems to be growing by leaps and bounds in each and every game.
The Hornets might still make the playoffs; they enter Friday two games behind Miami for the East’s no. 8 spot, with a 14 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections. But whether the next few weeks lead to the moderate thrill of being annihilated by Giannis and the Bucks in the first round, or the substantially less thrilling reward of a third straight lottery trip, the biggest question facing Charlotte looms after the season ends: What will the Hornets do about Kemba Walker?
He is the team’s best player, one of the most dynamic scoring and playmaking point guards in the league, the face of the franchise. He is also about to hit unrestricted free agency, where he’s due a massive raise over the four-year, $48 million contract he inked in 2014. If Walker makes one of the three All-NBA teams, he’ll be eligible for a supermax deal that could pay him more than $220 million over five years. If the three-time All-Star falls short of an All-NBA berth, he’ll still be able to make $190 million over five years from the Hornets, and an estimated $140.6 million from another team interested in his services. (Walker has made it clear, both before and during the season, that his preference is to stay with the Hornets and try to figure out how to make it all work.)
Teams should be interested in Walker’s wares. Always a dynamic scorer, he has developed into an elite (though not quite Steph) 3-point-shooting point guard, now drilling a perfectly average 35.9 percent of his triples on a career-high 9.1 attempts per game. Few ball handlers can boast the suddenness of his change of direction and crossover dribble, or his ability to make something out of nothing in the pick-and-roll. But Walker’s commitment to hard work and repeated effort has also led to a genial insistence that the Hornets are pointed in the right direction … even if we’re not positive the front office can effectively steer.
But he’s got to at least look elsewhere to play the balance of his prime, right? And if Walker does decide to seriously consider a new home, then the league’s other teams would have to decide how much they’d be willing to pay for one of the sport’s very best pull-up 3-point bombers and hesitation-drivers into the paint.
It feels like The Kemba Question comes back to two primary questions: You can’t just let him go, can you? And, if not, how comfortable do you feel spending as much as the rules allow to lock up the ages 29 through 34 seasons of a 6-foot-1 point guard who will be a defensive liability the second a playoff series starts? The short answer is, “I don’t know.” How Walker, the Hornets, and other teams around the league go about solving it, though, ought to be a major element of intrigue.