Plenty of NBA coverage focuses on the ebbs and flows of the league’s best and brightest—the teams riding high at what Kevin Durant once called “the top of things.” But I felt like zagging a bit this week and taking a closer look at a few teams toiling further down the standings, because losing more than you win doesn’t necessarily mean you’re boring. (Right? Please tell me that is true.)
Let’s take a look at the five most interesting sub-.500 teams (to me!) this week, starting with a new, post–Grit and Grind lease on life …
For my money, the 16-22 Grizz have been the most entertaining team under .500 all season, and it hasn’t been particularly close. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about Ja Morant before, and it sure doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop giving me reasons to anytime soon: The Rookie of the Year favorite continues to deliver swoon-inducing highlights damn near every night, playing with a veteran’s pace and a ravenous hunger for opponents’ ankles.
Watching the Grizzlies come back against and then close out the Timberwolves on Tuesday behind a steady of diet of pick-and-rolls with Jaren Jackson Jr. screening for Morant—two 20-year-olds reading, contorting, dictating, and decimating the (admittedly hapless) Minnesota defense—felt like looking through a keyhole into an awfully exciting future:
The precocious Grizzlies are 11-9 since December 1, with the NBA’s no. 9 offense in that span. Jackson has been even more aggressive when looking for his shot beyond the arc, firing 7.6 3-point attempts in 29.5 minutes per game and drilling them at a 41.1 percent clip. More importantly, he might also finally be starting to cut down on the hacking that’s mitigated his two-way impact. After committing 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes as a rookie and 5.6-per-36 through mid-December, Jackson’s down to a more manageable 4.4-per-36 over the last 10 games, which has helped first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins keep the talented sophomore on the floor rather than having to send him to the bench.
Not that going to the bench is a bad idea for these Grizzlies: Memphis’s second unit has been one of the best in the league during this recent run. Before the season, I mentioned De’Anthony Melton, imported from Phoenix over the summer in a deal headlined by former top-five pick Josh Jackson, as a player who might carve out a niche as an active, aggressive perimeter stopper in a city where Tony Allen became a superhero in such a role. But even his most ardent supporters couldn’t have envisioned he’d pop like this: The Grizzlies have outscored opponents by 129 points in 400 minutes with Melton on the floor since December 1—the seventh-best plus-minus mark in the league during that stretch, behind only four members of the league-leading Bucks, Joe Ingles of the red-hot Jazz, and LeBron Raymone James.
The 21-year-old routinely makes positive contributions as a complementary ball handler, slash-and-kick attacker, off-ball cutter, 3-point shooter (41.7 percent on catch-and-shoot triples during this span), and surprise board crasher; Melton is 6-foot-2, and no player that size has ever posted a higher rebounding rate than he’s managing right now. And, as he was at USC and at times in Phoenix, Melton’s been a wrecking ball on defense, ranking third in the league in steal percentage and using his 6-foot-8 wingspan, athleticism, and instincts to disrupt offenses all over the court:
Reserve lineups featuring Melton alongside steady-as-he-goes point guard Tyus Jones and almost-unbelievably-efficient rookie big man Brandon Clarke have been flying up the floor, averaging just under 106 possessions per 48 minutes, way ahead of the league’s fastest pace. They’re also absolutely pasting people, outscoring the opposition by a staggering 29.3 points per 100 possessions—fifth best of any trio in the league that’s shared the court for at least 100 minutes. Between those go-go bench units and a starting five (Morant, Jackson, Jonas Valanciunas, Jae Crowder, and Dillon Brooks) who have been lights-out offensively for more than a month, Memphis is finding balance and winning games while continuing to foster the development of the young pieces charged with leading the franchise into the future. One of the most fun and best development stories in the league.
Speaking of cool stories ...
Shouts out to Orlando for winning three of four after losing Jonathan Isaac, one of my favorite players to watch and a legit All-Defensive candidate this season, to a left knee injury. In his stead, coach Steve Clifford has relied on what’s worked in the past—team defense, rebounding, limiting turnovers, running the offense through Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier—and introduced some new wrinkles to help keep the Magic afloat (Mo Bamba and Khem Birch together in the frontcourt? Go off, king!) and at 18-20, seventh in the East.
That’s not the story I’m talking about, though.
Markelle Fultz carried the Magic down the stretch on Monday, scoring 12 points in the final seven minutes to turn a tie game into a 12-point win. He finished with a career-high 25 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals in 30 minutes of work. The Orlando faithful serenaded him with MVP chants, which—sure, that’s a bit much. Given how far the still-just-21-year-old has come from the nadir of his time in Philadelphia, though ... why not?
Fultz is averaging 11.3 points, 4.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 26.6 minutes per game, starting at point for a team with its sights set on the playoffs. He’s become Orlando’s engine, averaging 11.8 drives to the basket per game. He’s got the strength and physicality to finish through contact inside, shooting a career-best 62.9 percent inside the restricted area, and the vision and passing acumen to take advantage of the defensive attention he draws. He’s still missing three-quarters of his 3-point attempts, but he’s taking them twice as often as he did last season, which is encouraging—as is the improvement in his free-throw stroke: He’s shooting a perfectly respectable 74.4 percent from the stripe.
His persistent brickishness and preference for taking it to the hole don’t seem to be submarining the Magic offense; they score 6.6 more points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him on the floor than off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s got the second-best plus-minus on the team, behind only Vucevic. Multiple all-in-one advanced metrics, like ESPN’s real plus-minus, player impact plus-minus, and value over replacement player, mark him as a net positive player in Orlando.
Some others don’t—box plus-minus isn’t a fan—but that it’s even up for discussion would’ve been hard to fathom this time last year. Hell, it was kind of hard to believe three months ago. But here we are. And if we’re here now, it’s fun to think: Where might we be in three more months? Or this time next year?
“I’m still the no. 1 pick,” Fultz recently told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “That will never change. But I took care of the injury. I can play freely. I can do what I want. I can do what I love most. Every game I’m improving. Every game I’m feeling better.”
It’s not all fixed. The air balls and wounded ducks still fly; the 1-for-7 and 3-for-9 nights still come once or twice a week; the release doesn’t look like it did at Washington, and maybe it never will again. But as we near the midpoint of his third NBA season—a season in which he’s already played more games than he did during his haunted first two campaigns combined—Fultz has moved past being a medical and mental mystery to become something we weren’t sure he would: an actual NBA player. And a pretty good one, too.
San Antonio Spurs
That the Spurs have bounced back from an eight-game November skid to get into playoff position for a 23rd consecutive season—which would give Pop and Co. the longest string of postseason appearances in NBA history—is less notable than how the team has done it. The San Antonio offense has been absolutely scorching of late, roasting opponents to the tune of 121.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions over the past eight games, the top offensive efficiency mark in the league during that span.
What’s behind the Spurs’ recent hot spell? Well, for one thing, LaMarcus Aldridge appears to have decided, after four years spent mostly declining to take an extra step back, that he’s cool with shooting 3-pointers again.
Back in 2014-15, his final season in Portland, Aldridge attempted 105 3-pointers—nearly as many as he’d fired in his first eight seasons combined—and hit a respectable 35.2 percent. Since joining the Spurs, he’s mostly migrated back to the interior rather than explore life as a stretch 4 or 5; just as well, since Gregg Popovich has long hated 3s and all.
Just before Christmas, though, something changed. Through 28 games, Aldridge had attempted 44 triples; over the past eight, he’s launched 35, and knocked down 21. (Pop’s explanation for the sudden shift in shot profile, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: “He’s a smart guy. He’s also figured out you’re allowed to beat the shit out of each other on the block.” Seems like as good a reason as any!)
He’s pick-and-popping teams who play drop coverage, relocating to the corner after kicking the ball out from the post, stepping into trail 3s in transition—even sometimes stealing a glance down as he backpedals, making sure he’s getting behind the line before letting it fly.
One cool thing about injecting a 60 percent-shooting big man into your offense (well, besides the obvious one)? Opposing defenses have to pay close attention to him, which creates more space for everybody else. If teams keep their power forward or center on Aldridge, his drift to the arc forces them a step or two farther out of the paint, opening driving lanes and creating chances to attack an unprotected rim. If they decide to switch ball screens, keeping a smaller defender on Aldridge to prevent him from getting a clean release for a pick-and-pop 3, then the ball handler gets to go one-on-one against a retreating center.
Either way, the Spurs have a better chance of getting something good, and they’ve been taking advantage—DeMar DeRozan, especially.
With the lane more frequently vacant, DeRozan’s been making a beeline to the basket (22.4 drives per game over the past eight, about three more than his full-season average) and cashing in once he arrives; he’s shooting 80.5 percent on attempts inside the restricted area during this stretch. Him not shooting 3s is much less of a problem so long as someone’s shooting 3s, and right now, with Aldridge leading the charge, the Spurs on the whole are firing about four more triples per game, nailing 43.5 percent of them.
Through the first two months of the season, San Antonio had gotten crushed by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan-Aldridge minutes; this, in part, was why some fans had begun advocating for San Antonio to trade the former All-Stars and begin a long-delayed rebuild. Over these past eight games, though? The Spurs are stomping the opposition by a titanic 19.1 points-per-100 with the two vets on the court. Maybe the fire sale can wait.
The glass-half-empty side: Based on where its shots are coming from, San Antonio during this stretch has drastically outperformed its expected effective field goal percentage. Regression is coming, and when the shooting cools off, it remains to be seen whether the Spurs offense will remain potent enough to overcome the defensive deficiencies that have plagued them throughout the season. If it’s not, then holding off the horde of teams also gunning for that no. 8 seed for another three months could prove too tall a task. From a process perspective, though, leveraging Aldridge’s feathery touch to invert the offense makes sense for a team whose path back to the playoffs, and to finding a way to make a run once it gets there, will likely rely on maximizing its firepower however it can.
There’s been no shortage of doom and gloom in Detroit in the past week, thanks to Andre Drummond trade rumors and the announcement that Blake Griffin needs left knee surgery that’s expected to end his season. The Pistons are only 3.5 games out of eighth place in the East, but it seems the time has come to look to the future; owner Tom Gores recently told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press that the team will “probably have to take some chances with some of the young guys.”
So: Who’s at Dwane Casey’s disposal to take some chances with?
Pistons fans will probably be rending garments for a while about the Stan Van Gundy regime drafting Luke Kennard rather than Donovan Mitchell back in 2017. But before he went down with bilateral knee tendinitis, Kennard was having a career year, averaging 15.8 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game, and shooting 39.9 percent from 3-point range. With Griffin and Reggie Jackson in and out of the lineup, the 6-foot-5 guard had to take on a larger role in the Pistons offense, especially as a pick-and-roll facilitator. Nearly 28 percent of his offensive possessions used this season have come as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy—almost double the share he used as a rookie—and he’s getting more efficient at generating offense in the two-man game, ranking in the 78th percentile in points produced per pick-and-roll possession. These kinds of plays help erase skepticism about whether Kennard could be more than a spot-up threat at the next level, and support those evaluators—like Ringer draftnik Kevin O’Connor and some NBA scouts—that said the Duke standout is “not just catch-and-shoot”:
Kennard isn’t the only Detroit wing who has stretched the contours of his game. As a rookie, Bruce Brown’s job was pretty much just to defend multiple positions on defense and stay out of the way on offense. (Only five players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season used a smaller share of their teams’ possessions than Brown.) But necessity was the mother of invention this season; before the 6-foot-4 swingman knew what hit him, he was the Pistons’ starting point guard, and he actually had to, like, do stuff with the ball. There have been fits and starts, but those reps have helped round out the Miami product’s game, spurring him to deploy his toughness, athleticism, and physicality as a rim-attacking slasher with an improving 3-point shot who can initiate the offense, set up teammates, and still defend all three perimeter positions:
Christian Wood landed in Detroit after brief cups of coffee with Philadelphia, Charlotte, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, spliced with a few trips to the G League. It seemed wild that Wood, at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, the ability to score inside and out, and a knack for swatting shots, hadn’t stuck in one of those previous stops; as Wood himself told James L. Edwards III of The Athletic last month, though, he struggled to catch on because “I thought I was more talented than everybody. It wasn’t that. I had to get the work aspect down. It wasn’t just about talent all of the time.”
The 24-year-old has been putting in plenty of work since making Detroit’s roster out of training camp, earning a spot in Casey’s rotation with his consistent production. Wood’s not a featured player; with veterans Griffin, Drummond, and Markieff Morris ahead of him in the pecking order, he’s logged just 16.5 minutes per game off the bench. When he’s gotten the call, though, he’s been the proverbial “star in his role,” averaging 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes of floor time, shooting 65.7 percent inside the arc and 35.7 percent from beyond it, and producing more points per possession as a roll man than anybody except Knicks monster Mitchell Robinson. He’s also earning a spot in Pistons fans’ hearts with every pulse-quickening highlight he authors:
Christian Wood dunks over two Spurs defenders! pic.twitter.com/JSOCEawFNB— Martin (@ImMartinHi) December 1, 2019
Speaking of pulse-quickening highlights: I’m not sure how many rookies have introduced themselves with as emphatic a statement as Sekou Doumbouya did this week. But I’m going to guess you can count them on one hand. A hand that is dunking a basketball through the chest cavity of Tristan Thompson, and burying it deep within the cockles of his immortal soul:
If you were concerned that confidence would be an issue for Doumbouya, the 15th pick in the 2019 draft and the youngest player in the NBA (he turned 19 right before Christmas), that dunk should allay your concerns. Ditto for the fact that the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward from Guinea put up double-doubles in his first two NBA starts. And despite spending his first week as a starter defending a veritable All-Star team—he saw time on Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis—he didn’t blink.
“What do they say in the Baptist church when you get baptized? ‘Hallelujah,’” Casey told reporters. “OK, so go ahead, put him in the water.”
The young Pistons are all in the water now. (Well, all except Kennard; there’s no timetable yet for his return from tendinitis.) With the exception of what happens with Drummond—and Derrick Rose, and the rest of the Detroit vets who probably should be on the market—the most consequential and intriguing aspect of what remains of this Pistons season will be seeing how the youngsters respond to even more minutes and responsibility, and whether they can cement themselves as definitive pieces to include in the blueprint for the next competitive Detroit team.
Portland Trail Blazers
It’s been hard to find much to stay stoked about in Portland this season. The Blazers have struggled to string together wins after a rash of injuries left them without three starters (Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood) and a pressed-into-duty reserve who’d been a pleasant surprise (Skal Labissiere). For every action (say, winning five of six to get within sniffing distance of .500), there has been an equal, opposite, and negative reaction (like a five-game losing streak capped by an ignominious New Year’s Day loss to the Knicks in which nobody in a Portland uniform could seem to figure out that when Frank Ntilikina turned the corner around the screen, he was going to lob the ball to Mitchell Robinson for a dunk).
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have done their level best, but just about everything else that could go wrong has gone wrong for these Blazers. Well, except for one thing—the one thing, ironically, that so many of us expected to go wrong. I believe it is time to apologize to Melo 5. (Or, I guess, Mel00.)
It’s been nearly two months, and Carmelo Anthony has done exactly what the Blazers hoped he would when they signed him. He has provided legitimate NBA-caliber minutes to staunch the bleeding in their decimated frontcourt. He has given Terry Stotts an option to reduce the creative burden on Lillard and McCollum by creating, taking, and making shots; after more than a year on the shelf, Anthony’s averaging 16.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game, shooting 39.8 percent from 3-point range and posting a better true shooting percentage than he managed during his lone season in Oklahoma City and his brief stint in Houston.
After reorienting his game with the Thunder and Rockets to function primarily as a floor-spacing catch-and-shoot target, Melo has worked to complement the Blazers’ backcourt by getting back inside; nearly 73 percent of his field goal attempts have come inside the 3-point arc, his highest share in four years. It’s reasonable to suggest that this is not the healthiest possible outcome for Portland’s offense. Melo being less effective in isolation (0.79 points per possession, per Synergy) and out of the post (0.89) than spotting up (1.17) but still skewing his shot diet toward the first two is a familiar tale—the Ballad of Olympic Melo.
Even in spite of the nostalgic reversion to bullyball, though, Anthony’s been a boon to the Blazers; since his arrival, they’ve (slightly) outscored the opposition with him on the floor, and been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with him off of it. Interestingly, the boost has come more on the defensive end: The Blazers have been closer to “bottom-10” bad on that end (109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, which would rank 19th) in his minutes, and “bottom-five” bad (112.7 per-100, which would sit 27th) without him.
I will stipulate: That’s still not great! But the Blazers were in an “any port in the storm” kind of situation two months ago, and while Anthony might not be all that different a player than he was during his unsuccessful runs in Oklahoma and Texas, he has proved that the player he is can still be stabilizing and productive enough to help a team—even if only one that was in dire straits—stay afloat.
Maybe that won’t mean much come the playoffs, should Portland get there. If the team is still within hailing distance by springtime, though, it’ll be at least in part because when the Blazers needed an injection of offense to prevent opponents from giving Dame the box-and-one/double-at-half-court treatment, Melo was there to act as a release valve, and to offer a reminder—not so much of what he once was, but of what he still is. In a season that’s been hard to get excited about in Portland, that’s been pretty rad to watch.