The NBA news cycle moves faster than Zion Williamson’s acclimation process. 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 fast-approaching trade deadline, Damian Lillard’s newfound dominance, and larger impact of Bradley Beal’s All-Star snubbing, and more. Let’s get to it.
Will We Get a Quiet Trade Deadline?
The league largely came to a standstill last Sunday following the news of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. But as gameplay resumes, so too does the NBA calendar. We’re now entering trade deadline week, and it’s unclear whether any big-name players will move—or whether there will be many deals at all. The Kevin Love rumors have subsided, the interest for Andre Drummond seems to have waned. But the league’s top contenders will still be of major focus as they try to tweak and upgrade their roster ahead of the postseason.
The Lakers need a secondary playmaker. The Clippers need size, possibly a stretch-4, and maybe yet another wing. Andre Iguodala could be a trade candidate, given that the Grizzlies refuse to buy him out, but who knows whether Memphis can get a contender to play ball. Will Darren Collison land on one of the L.A. teams that he’s rumored to be interested in? The Lakers need him more, even though the Clippers don’t really have a true point guard. Can any move the Sixers make give them the stability they’ve been searching for all season? Probably not. Will the Bucks stand pat or will they make a move to try and ensure that the playoffs aren’t their kryptonite again? [Checks notes.] Yep, they are still on pace for 70 wins.
One big issue is that there aren’t many teams that are obvious sellers. Or rather, it’s unclear who the real sellers are beyond the Knicks, Cavs, Hawks, and Warriors. Even Jrue Holiday, who could have been the biggest name to move, has reportedly said he is content with staying in New Orleans at least through the rest of the season. It feels like most of the deals this year will be done on the fringes. Now, what could have been the deadline that featured a Bradley Beal trade (before he signed an extension this fall—more on him in a bit) is turning into one where the biggest name to be moved could be … Derrick Rose.
Can Damian Lillard Carry the Blazers to the Playoffs?
With Steph Curry sidelined this season and James Harden grinding his way to high-scoring games, Lillard has taken up the mantle of incandescent scorer who demands your attention. In his last six games, Lillard is averaging more than 48 points and 10 assists and is shooting an absurd 57 percent from 3 on 86 attempts. On Saturday night, he dropped 50-plus points for the third time in six games and became the first player in NBA history to make six or more 3s in six consecutive games. As NBCSports’ Tom Haberstroh pointed out, Lillard has also hit 13 of his 21 3s from 30 to 40 feet. This is how defenses break. It’s also how the injury-ridden Blazers stay in the fight for the no. 8 seed in the West.
I like to imagine that Lillard is a professional darts player who happens to be playing basketball. Tell him the location to shoot from and he’ll pull up and hit bull’s-eye on almost every shot these days. Off-balance from the right wing? Sure. From the logo? You bet. No space is off limits to him because he actually practices these shots in the offseason.
Lillard is doing this through a combination of a hot hand and years of work that have made him the kind of player who can make a run like this. Since he entered the league in 2012, his improvement has been linear, with every year being somehow more impressive than the last. After hitting the series-ending 3-pointer over Paul George in the playoffs last season, it felt like Dame had reached his peak. But this season has taught us there’s still more room for growth. After suffering a slew of injuries all season, Portland has more or less demanded this type of supernatural performance out of its star. And by Dame’s sheer will alone, the team is one and a half games out of a playoff spot.
Lillard is an iron man. He hasn’t played fewer than 73 games in a season his whole career and has played 80 or more four different times. He’s on pace for 79 as we speak, and the Blazers will need every one of them.
Has Bradley Beal Set a Bad Precedent or Highlighted a Real Problem?
I would like to first thank Beal, Beal’s agent, and Beal’s fiancée Kamiah Adams for blessing us with some much-needed levity on Thursday night. The campaign to complain about Beal missing the All-Star Game dialed up to full throttle. In case you missed it, Beal called the snubbing “disrespectful” and said he was “pissed off” about it in a TV interview after Thursday’s game. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, went on the record to complain about the selection process, and Adams went on the Wizards’ pregame show and, well, read it for yourself:
Kamiah Adams, Bradley Beal’s finacee, went on the Wizards postgame show with Glenn Consor to talk Beal not making All-Star.— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) January 31, 2020
"It’s politics and it’s a joke,” she said. "The NBA is becoming laughable in my honest opinion." pic.twitter.com/UiG0LyZw3L
Beal was only the first player to make his displeasure public. Devin Booker expressed his frustration with not making the team by calling for an overhaul of the positional requirements. Matisse Thybulle’s exclusion from the Rising Stars Game (OK, he should have definitely made it, but this is the Rising Stars Game we’re talking about, people) led his agent to release a public statement, too.
Back to Beal—it’s interesting to note how quickly the narrative around him was formed. Bartelstein couldn’t have been more overt about it:
Had to catch up with transcribing but here are Bartelstein's final thoughts on coaches not voting for Beal:— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) January 31, 2020
"The coaches are sending a message: 'If you want to be an all-star in the NBA, don't stay the course on a team that's going to go through some trying times....'"
Beal signed an extension this fall that made him untradeable, but between this and reports about his overall unhappiness with the franchise, I can’t help but feel like the table is starting to be set for him to make a move out of D.C. To Bartelstein’s point, though, it’s fair to ask: If being on a rebuilding team precludes you from being an All-Star—or even more importantly, from making an All-NBA team (which ties into players’ contracts)—how do star players not use whatever player empowerment they have to leave? While this situation could be a moment we use to discuss that, at the end of the day, other players who are on bad teams (see: Trae Young) made the All-Star Game and deserved it. It’s easy to argue that Beal should have made it, but given his lack of defensive effort as of late and his good-but-not-otherworldly scoring, it’s not the most egregious thing in the world. Besides, as Paul George said about his exclusion from the game, he will take his three extra vacation days with a smile and go to a beach. Maybe Beal should too.
Will the All-Star Game’s New Format Spoil the Festivities?
Two steps forward, one step back. After making a successful tweak to the game last season by televising the player draft, the league has decided to upend the format of the All-Star game altogether. According to an AP report, the game’s score will reset at the end of each period. The fourth quarter, which will be untimed, will have a target score, and the first team to reach it wins. That score will be “determined by the total points the team in the lead scored in the first three quarters combined—plus 24, the obvious nod to Bryant.” I’m sorry, NBA, but you’re doing way too much.
This feels like a half-hearted attempt at juicing the game with more drama and pace. And when I say half-hearted, I mean wonky and definitely not going to work. Instead of giving the game more meaning or giving players more incentive to try, the league has turned it into an arcade game that will be confusing to everyone tuning in. I’m all for experimentation, and the league clearly seems open to trying things—and they should be—but this seems more like a desperate attempt to throw something at the board and hope it sticks. There are better ways to honor Kobe, and the league is actually doing one of them: One team will wear his no. 24 and the other will wear Gianna’s no. 2. But this scoring gimmick could overshadow any chance at remembering a player who was a staple of the game for two decades.
Thankfully, this week will bring us one of the good things the All-Star game has kept: LeBron and Giannis drafting teams on TV. I doubt there will be much drama in the picks. LeBron will take Anthony Davis first, and Giannis will probably take Kawhi Leonard. But I’m hoping that Giannis passes on Kawhi for Luka and that LeBron will be forced to either take or pass on the guy who spurned him this summer.