The NBA news cycle moves faster than Zion Williamson’s second jump. 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.
What’s Wrong With the Clippers?
Kawhi Leonard rarely shows his emotions publicly. So the rare occasions when it’s clear he’s having fun or is frustrated stand out. We grab on to those moments and turn them into memes or, as was the case on Saturday when Leonard was visibly upset with Landry Shamet, we take a video and look for greater meaning. His scarcity of expression makes any emotional outburst feel like a sign of something bigger.
First time seeing Kawhi like this pic.twitter.com/HKzzlTVknq— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) February 22, 2020
It’s easy to see why Kawhi is frustrated: The Clippers have lost a season-high three games in a row and are 5-5 over their past 10. Paul George has been nursing a hamstring injury while Kawhi himself continues to sit out back-to-backs. Continuity does not exist in Clipperland. Their defense has remained a top-10 unit over those past 10 games, but their offense (19th over that stretch) has displayed plenty of dysfunction. George’s production has dropped and now he’s hurt again, which forces Kawhi to play the role of superhero on most nights. The offense, which flowed at the beginning of the season, now feels disjointed, with many possessions ending with Kawhi trying to will in a basket. The Lou Will–Montrezl Harrell combination hasn’t been as deadly this season, and the Clippers are putting a lot of pressure on Shamet in his second season, too. Marcus Morris theoretically adds another shooter, but he’s struggled lately, and his tendency to be a ball stopper doesn’t bode well for an offense looking for more fluidity.
The Clippers also picked up Reggie Jackson on the buyout market last week, and while he started in Saturday’s loss to the Kings, the addition seemed more like a chess move to keep him out of the Lakers’ hands than an expression of confidence that he will help the team. Both he and Morris aren’t exactly the types of guys who easily blend into a locker room, and both have had their issues with teammates in the past.
This team was always built for the postseason, when Kawhi will surely turn it all the way up. That might be enough to fix the team’s woes, but with the end of the season on the horizon, it appears that any hope the Clippers had of getting into a consistent rhythm with this roster before the playoffs may be out of the question. Now, they’ll simply hope the summation of talent is enough.
Will the Wizards Back Their Way Into the No. 8 Seed?
OK, first, let’s get something out of the way: The bottom of the East is rotten. It’s terrible and depressing, and not exactly inspiring confidence in exciting playoff basketball. If the Pelicans win 40 games and miss the playoffs while the no. 8 seed in the East gets in with far less than that, I will riot and expect conferences to be abolished next season. Let Zion in. All that being said, the battle for the no. 8 seed in the East is actually turning into a legitimate race down the stretch. The Magic are holding on to that spot by only 3.5 games heading into Monday’s action because out of nowhere, the Washington Wizards have been … less terrible than they used to be?
Folks, I don’t want to paint a beautiful picture of perseverance and an overachieving underdog, because this isn’t it; the Wizards are 20-35. But the fact that they’re not 10-45, or worse, and have a shot at actually making the playoffs is a damn miracle. That miracle has a protagonist, too, and his name is Bradley “I Didn’t Make the All-Star Game” Beal. As his fiancée will surely tell you, Beal is averaging nearly 30 points per game and quite literally carrying the Wiz to something I can refer to only as loosely relevant mediocrity?
The Wizards, as an organization, have done a good job of hitting the reset button without fully going into the tank this year by finding diamonds in the rough like Davis Bertans. While John Wall’s return (as well as his gaudy contract) looms in the background, Beal has become a star and also expressed his frustration with the losing. Whether the Wizards make the playoffs could influence how Beal sees his future in D.C. If so, the Wiz better hope the Magic stumble or the Kyrie Irving–less Nets somehow implode.
Which Morris Twin Will Make a Bigger Impact in L.A.?
The Lakers-Clippers rivalry didn’t need any more juice. It was doing just fine, thriving on the heels of the Kawhi Leonard decision, thinly veiled branding shots, the load management debate, two supremely competitive games so far, and the allure of a playoff series on the horizon. But no, now it’s personal—like, literally personal, thanks to the Morris twins, who are always here to provide some extra drama. After the Clippers traded for Marcus at the deadline, Markieff became available in the buyout market last week and almost immediately signed with the Lakers.
Each L.A. team now has a Morris, and each Morris has a shot at a title. Markieff’s numbers may not be as impressive as Marcus’s with the Knicks, but he could be more important to the Lakers than his brother will be to the Clippers. The Lakers needed more reliable wings; Markieff is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game and has the size to be a two-way wing or a stretch 4 that could prove more reliable than Kyle Kuzma. Playing next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis—by far the best teammates he’s ever had—should unlock the best version of Markieff, as he’ll have plenty of open looks without taking any away from or getting in the way of the Lakers’ superstar duo.
Marcus has had the better season, at least statistically: Before arriving in L.A., he was averaging a career-high 19.6 points and a career-best 43.9 percent from 3. His versatility as a stretch 4 was appealing enough for the Clippers to give up assets to get him. They clearly see him as the final piece to their title puzzle. So far, the fit hasn’t been as seamless as it was on paper. Morris is struggling to find his shot and footing, while his new team continues to look out of sync despite its overwhelming talent. It still seems like both he and the Clippers will come around once the games start to really matter. Either way, I can’t wait for the inevitable Morris-on-Morris scuffle.
How Long Until Victor Oladipo Returns to Form?
Oladipo’s return to the court following his year-plus absence because of knee surgery has been underwhelming to say the least. In eight games so far, he’s averaging 10.8 points on 25 minutes a game, shooting 33 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3. There is always an reacclimation process for players who have been away from the game for so long, but it was assumed that Oladipo was returning because he was ready to have a positive impact on a team that’s been doing pretty well without him. I, for one, thought he could be the piece that gave them a shot against, if not Milwaukee, at least the second tier of East contenders.
That may still happen, of course, but from the looks of it, Oladipo needs more time and a longer runway to get fully healthy (he left the game against the Knicks with back spasms). It’s evident in little things like free throws. Oladipo has never been a free throw hound, but he is getting to the line only twice a game—his lowest mark ever. This entire process seems to have gunked up the flow of what the Pacers had going; they’re 3-7 in their past 10, including a heinous 46-point loss to the Raptors on Sunday, and have fallen to the no. 6 seed in the conference. That’s about where people expected them to be, but there have been times this season when the confluence of Domantas Sabonis’s leap, Malcolm Brogdon’s rise, and Nate McMillan’s coaching have made Indy look much better. Oladipo also affects the guard rotation of Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. McConnell, all of whom have been effective at points this season. Getting Oladipo back into the mix isn’t just about what he can do for the team, but also about how the rest of the Pacers, especially those whose minutes will be reduced, will adjust to the change. Indy, of course, is hoping Oladipo will eventually take them to an even higher level, but it appears that may take a little more time than expected.
How Much Can Joel Embiid Carry?
In early January, as Embiid was sidelined with a hand injury, the intrigue around the Sixers zeroed in on Ben Simmons and what he would be able to do without Embiid on the floor. Like the Sixers as a whole this season, the experience was a mixed bag. Now, the situation has flipped. Embiid has returned to the lineup, and now Simmons is expected to be out at least some time with a lower back injury (a far more worrying ailment than a hand). The Sixers are suddenly Embiid’s team to carry.
Embiid’s mercurial play is one of the reasons Philly hasn’t been able to find a consistent rhythm all season—case in point: He can put up 39 points and 16 rebounds in a win against the Nets, declare himself “the best player in the world,” and then stumble for only 17 points in a bad loss against the Bucks, who Philly will likely need to go through on their way to the Finals. Somehow, those are still the expectations even though few things from this Sixers season have been reliable. In fact, the most reliable figure on their roster, Al Horford, has been far from that, struggling and showing his age as he has tried to find a role on a team with a bunch of ill-fitting pieces. It makes sense: Horford is known for doing the little things, but how can he do those when the team as a whole doesn’t seem to have the big things figured out yet?
The Sixers are the most enigmatic team in basketball, but in some ways they are also the easiest to figure out. You can’t fully rely on talent if you don’t know how to use it, even if they have, at times, looked like the best team in basketball. Maybe they will put it all together come the playoffs, but right now, even as Embiid takes center stage, injuries and inconsistency are all we can expect.