The NBA news cycle moves faster than Kevin Love’s frustration passes. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.
Below, we’ll touch on the mess that is the Sixers, Zion Williamson’s anticipated return, Michael Porter Jr.’s hot start, and more. Let’s get to it.
Is the Sixers’ Dysfunction a Feature or a Bug?
Every team experiences losing streaks, but few go through them as loudly and troublingly as the Sixers have during their current four-game slump. Losses to Orlando, Indiana, Miami, and Houston have Philly sitting in the no. 5 position in the East, a whole nine games behind the no. 1 seed Bucks. But forget the numbers for a minute and let Joel Embiid tell you how bad things really feel:
Joel Embiid after the Sixers’ fourth straight loss: “It’s taking a toll on me. All I care about is winning. It sucks. We’ve got to find a way.” pic.twitter.com/jPE22Fgd56— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) January 4, 2020
Embiid has been plenty critical of his own play during the team’s rough stretch, and he hasn’t been calling any of his teammates out by name to share the blame. But it’s not difficult to decipher some of the not-so-subtle messages in his latest quips:
Lot of talk at the practice facility today about accountability and so forth. Mostly good stuff.— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) January 2, 2020
Here's Joel Embiid on the offensive struggles — doesn't seem that hard to read between the lines: pic.twitter.com/KXHRckuJFH
I’m sorry, but I have to do this:
Saying you’re going to be fine over and over definitely doesn’t inspire confidence. And I wonder who Embiid could be talking about when he mentions shooting when open, or doing things for the benefit of the team instead of the individual? Hmmm.
Philly is in a mind-warping, chicken-or-the-egg situation. Do some of Brett Brown’s lineup choices inspire criticism? Yes. But he also has a roster full of square pegs he is trying to fit into round holes. Who is the Sixers’ point guard? It probably shouldn’t be Ben Simmons, who is more of a power forward. Plus, Simmons’s refusal to shoot 3s seems to be creating a perception issue among his teammates, regardless of whether it’s actually beneficial for him to take those shots. (Then again, the Sixers’ 3-point shooting also isn’t helped by the fact that Furkan Korkmaz is probably their best catch-and-shoot guy.)
Look, the Sixers could win their next six in a row, and all this turmoil may get brushed to the side. That’s how grossly talented they are. But good teams are marked by their consistency (especially against bad opponents) in the regular season, and Philly certainly isn’t fitting that bill right now. Are the Sixers’ issues just growing pains or signs of larger dysfunction that can be solved only by choosing between Embiid and Simmons for the long term?
What Will Zion’s Return Mean for the Second Half of the Season?
You could feel it in the air Friday night at Staples Center as Zion Williamson took the court in warm-ups. The fans were there for Lakers-Pelicans, but as they watched Zion take off for a handful of rim-shaking dunks, they got what amounted to a free Costco sample before the main course. Williamson has missed the first three months of the season after undergoing knee surgery, but reports indicate that he’s almost ready to return. And the rest of the NBA is ready for that, too.
Barring any setbacks, it appears that the first month of this new decade will deliver our first sight of Zion in a real NBA game. It’s fair to wonder, though, what the no. 1 pick’s game will look like when he does take the court. After that pregame routine on Friday, a sweating, smiling Zion talked to Jahlil Okafor in the locker room about the struggles he was experiencing with his rhythm. “I never miss those!” he told Okafor about catching passes on his way to the rim. Okafor stressed that he should cherish the process of getting his game back.
Even if it takes a while for us to see Peak Zion, the Pelicans can use whatever contributions he’s able to give. The team has bounced back slightly after a rough start (New Orleans is somehow only three games out of the no. 8 seed) and it would be ideal if his return coincided with the team’s continued ascent.
Following Friday’s game, Zion lurked around the locker room while his teammates answered postgame questions. He inched closer to reporters in Lonzo Ball’s scrum and joked that Lonzo should speak up so Zion could hear him. Then Williamson went over to Brandon Ingram’s locker, but given Ingram’s soft-spoken nature, Zion just turned around, shook his head, and didn’t even try. People laughed. Without touching the ball, he was putting on a show. Zion may say he doesn’t want to be the center of attention (he joked Friday that the Pelicans PR won’t let his scrums get as big as Lonzo’s was), but it’s too late to rein the hype in. His personality and play are going to be immutable lightning rods, and I think I speak for all of us when I say: I can’t wait.
How Much Can Michael Porter Jr. Boost the Nuggets?
Back in June, in a Denver high-rise apartment, I watched Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt return from a Nuggets summer league practice unable to contain their excitement. Anticipation coursed through the Nuggets organization and eventually made its way to the public as the team raved about the skills of the former no. 14 pick. But Porter, who didn’t play last year due to back surgery, suffered another setback ahead of summer league (this time a knee sprain) and more patience was required. Now, though, it appears we’re finally getting a taste of what had everyone so excited. Porter Jr. has arrived.
After appearing in just 12 of the Nuggets’ first 21 games this season and getting only 10-plus minutes of playing time in three of the 12 games he did appear in, Denver is finally letting Porter loose—and it’s paying off. In the last five games, he’s averaging over 18 minutes a contest and has responded with more than just momentary flashes. His 25 points off the bench against the Pacers last week led the team and helped the Nuggets steal a close win against one of the better teams in the league. It felt like the successful soft opening for a restaurant that could be getting rave reviews in the next few months.
Watching Porter, it doesn’t take very long to see why the Nuggets were so excited to get him in the mix. He’s nimble, long, athletic, fast, and has an unteachable knack for scoring off the dribble. Denver has brought him along slowly, but it’s clear it can’t keep him off the court now.
Will he be enough to get them over the hump? Before this recent spark, there was talk that the Nuggets could be in the market to make a win-now trade (they were rumored to be interested in Jrue Holiday). I wonder if Porter’s play changes that. They may decide instead to bet on Porter and try to make moves on the fringes to improve this existing group. MPJ is still only a rookie, and he can’t be counted on for sustained production, especially in the playoffs. But for the Nuggets, who boast a youthful core, this only brightens their future. Anything they get from Porter this season is a bonus—and it seems like they might be getting plenty.
Which Team Philosophy Will Prove to Be the Best?
What was marketed this summer as a season of parity has turned into one defined by team philosophies. The conference higher-ups have gotten to their respective positions in very different ways, and now, with the calendar turning to 2020 and more than half the season in the books, we’re coming closer to finding out which strategy will pan out in the long run.
The Bucks and Lakers are still holding on to each conference’s top seeds, and they’re doing it by playing their best players all the time. Giannis has missed just three games this season and is averaging about 30 minutes per contest. LeBron, meanwhile, has missed only a single game and is averaging 35 minutes. For the Lakers specifically, it will be interesting to see when Anthony Davis starts taking on a consistent leadership role to help ease LeBron’s workload. Davis went off for 46 points and 13 rebounds in Friday’s win over the Pelicans, but LeBron still played 37 minutes. It was a reminder that though Davis is basically having an MVP season (he’s averaging 27.7 points and 9.5 rebounds), he may still need LeBron on the floor with him to thrive. But if the Lakers can add a second ball handler or reliable point guard (like, say, Darren Collison), it could do wonders for this team. LeBron seems hell-bent on going all out, but you have to imagine the Lakers will manage his minutes as the stretch run continues. Getting the no. 1 seed appears to be a goal for both the Lakers and the Bucks, but at what cost?
Opposite those teams are ones like the Clippers. They’ve chosen to pace their players—like Kawhi Leonard, who has yet to play in a back-to-back—and sacrifice some regular-season wins to do so. But when chemistry is taking a backseat to health, sometimes you let up 140 to the Grizzlies and barely edge out the Knicks. Of course, this will all be worth it come playoff time if the Clippers are both healthy and refreshed. At full strength, it’s hard to see anyone keeping up with them. But will their lack of regular-season cohesion end up costing them?
How Long Until Kevin Love Is Out of Cleveland?
Well, that escalated quickly. Just a few weeks ago, reports surfaced that some Cavs players (cough, cough, Kevin Love), were frustrated with rookie head coach John Beilein’s methods. Soon after, rumors popped up that Kevin Love was on the trading block. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots, and it signaled the beginning of trade season in Cleveland. The Cavs soon sent Jordan Clarkson to Utah, but Love remains, and it appears he is done masking his displeasure with his current situation.
Kevin Love appeared to be visibly frustrated with Collin Sexton. pic.twitter.com/NKA02hBOt4— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 5, 2020
Before Love went off on Collin Sexton for dribbling and not passing the ball Saturday night, he reportedly had an emotional outburst toward general manager Koby Altman about the direction the Cavs are heading. I would venture to guess that any direction that isn’t “trade Love” is upsetting to the veteran, who signed a four-year, $120 million deal in July 2018.
Love was fined $1,000 by the team, and it was then reported that he would also sit out Sunday night’s game against the Wolves. Sure, it was the second night of a back-to-back, but maybe my guy just wanted to watch the Golden Globes in peace. This is how he reacted to the fine on Instagram:
Part of what is probably keeping the Cavs from dealing Love is his gaudy contract. There are teams that make sense as a destination for Love, but when you factor in the money, the Cavs’ asking price (reportedly a first-round pick), and the fact that Love wants to be on a contender, well, the task gets tougher for Altman and Co. Then again, you don’t want to be in the news for a player yelling at you. This may quickly turn into a situation where shipping Love out of Cleveland becomes the best move for all parties involved.