Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. We’ll be looking at the overlooked story line for each team, division by division, over the next few weeks. Let’s start in the Pacific:
Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton is skipping simple
Phoenix’s rise to respectability has been one of the more encouraging subplots of the season. Ricky Rubio provided stability at the point, and the much-maligned draft day decisions of acquiring veteran big man Aron Baynes and trading back to select then-23-year-old Cameron Johnson have raised the team’s floor significantly. Head coach Monty Williams has the Suns in perpetual motion, and the ball is zipping around the court—the Suns are first in the NBA in assists per game and third in points per game generated by cuts. Jumping from 28th in offensive efficiency last season to 16th this season is a massive leap, and Devin Booker has done more with less—a shot across the bows of critics who suggest he only puts up big numbers because his team stinks.
By locking in a supporting cast of players who project to be little more than role players, Phoenix is banking on Ayton joining Booker as one of the league’s preeminent offensive forces. The early returns, though, have been a little surprising. Ayton hasn’t been the deer in the headlights most young big men are defensively, but his offense hasn’t been what you’d expect from a big man with his athletic gifts.
Maybe it’s the quarantine effect of watching every paint bucket in The Last Dance come with a side of felony assault, but Ayton has been almost too deep in his bag early on in his career. The floaters, the spins, the quick-trigger turnaround jumpers—they’re all nice, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The brutal simplicity of a shoulder dropped into a defender’s chest is missing from Ayton’s game right now, and his level of finesse is only increasing the level of difficulty on his non-dunk attempts. Frank Kaminsky shouldn’t be getting to the free throw line more than Ayton, and it’s all a little baffling because Ayton isn’t exactly DeAndre Jordan from the free throw line (he shoots 75 percent from the stripe). In the words of Liz Lemon, he should want to go to there.
A decade ago, we’d be shouting Ayton’s praises from the rooftop for the raw numbers—19 points and 12 boards as a 21-year-old!—but we know too much now. We’ve seen a stat-stuffer like Andre Drummond get dumped to Cleveland for a second-round pick at the deadline. Ayton will evolve, but the role he’s occupying will shape that. There are two clear paths to success in Williams’s offense: become a more patient and effective playmaker at the elbow à la Nikola Jokic/Bam Adebayo, or take the path of the bigs of yore and try to bulldoze through defenders and dunk everything. Ayton’s current style of play limits a ceiling that should be the roof. Rasheed Wallace is the only big man to reach an All-Star Game with an assist rate and free throw rate lower than Ayton’s career averages (10 percent, .200). You can’t shoot this much, create this little, and not get to the foul line and become a superstar center. It doesn’t happen.
There’s so much time for everyone involved to figure it out. Booker is signed for another four seasons. Ayton would be a college junior. Everything is moving in the right direction for Phoenix—Ayton just needs to find his.
Sacramento Kings: A new brand of buddy ball
It’s the tale of two Kings teams: the run-and-gun squad led by De’Aaron Fox that went on the milk carton for the first half of the season without him, and the methodical off-ball-screening team that took over with Buddy Hield. Sacramento’s front office thought it had the next superteam by pairing Fox and Hield (and the next Steph Curry, apparently), and hired former Warriors coach Luke Walton to bring that dream at least a little closer to reality. It hasn’t happened. Hield is now coming off the bench, and he might be a little pissed about it.
But, in spite of … [gestures at everything] the Kings started winning. Hield morphed into the best sixth man in the league before everything shuttered up, as Sacramento went 13-7 in the games he came off the bench. Lighter without the dead weight of checked-out veterans Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon, the Kings picked up the pace with the starters and struck a happy medium. Well, maybe happy for everyone except Hield.
You would hope that the holy trinity of sixth men—Lou Williams, Manu Ginobili, and Jamal Crawford—would find a way to get in Hield’s ear about embracing the role. Hield got paid like a starter by signing a four-year, $94 million extension before the season began, so he’s not punting on future paychecks by coming off the pine. The sample size is small, but the shift appears to make his team better, and Hield himself has been nails in the role, putting up 19 points a game on a blistering 64.1 true shooting percentage with a higher usage rate than he enjoyed as a starter.
It’s a man in the mirror moment for Hield, who at 27 years old should be nearing his peak as a player, but isn’t a good enough ball handler or playmaker to have the offense cater to him. Coming off the bench might be best for everyone involved, but can Hield live with the reputation of being a reserve on a lottery team?
Things can change quickly—especially in Sacramento. Hield may not be glued to this role for long, especially if the Kings don’t match what’s likely to be a substantial offer in restricted free agency for his replacement in the starting lineup in Bogdan Bogdanovic. But for capped-out contenders in win-now mode looking for more shooting next season (maybe the Lakers were sniffing around the wrong Kings shooting guard at the deadline?), it might benefit Hield to bite his tongue, bide his time, and hope someone comes calling while he keeps lighting up second-unit defenders.
Los Angeles Lakers: Swinging the pendulum with size
Modern-day team-building is less about addressing your weaknesses and more about doubling down on your strengths. The Lakers are the bizarro Warriors in that sense, playing a very different brand of basketball but punishing opponents for trotting out mismatched personnel all the same.
It’s been a refreshing palate cleanser from those Warriors teams. Pace-and-space will always produce a more aesthetically pleasing product, but it’s been fun to marvel at LeBron James bullying a whole new generation of stars brave enough to stand in his way. The Lakers lead the league in both made field goals and field goal percentage at the rim, and there isn’t a night in which they feel physically inferior to anyone.
The Lakers can survive bad shooting nights because of that, and when they shoot above league average from behind the arc (35.7 percent), the Jell-O starts jiggling. The Lakers are 25-3 when they hit that 3-point percentage, with two of those three losses being one-possession games. Imagine fighting with LeBron and AD all night only to watch Rajon Rondo barf up a 3 that extends the lead to double digits. That’s demoralizing as hell.
The pendulum was due to swing for a while now—the Warriors just had to move out of the way for a bit. Bully ball is back if you have the right bullies, and the Lakers and Bucks certainly do. There have been 43 teams since 2004 that have won at least 70 percent of their games, yet only three of those teams have shot below a 35.7 percent clip from 3: the 2018-19 Bucks, the 2019-20 Bucks, and the 2019-20 Lakers.
The Lakers caught a lot of flak (yours truly not excluded) for filling out their roster with the likes of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee (and Boogie Cousins) and not focusing more on floor spacing, but doubling down on size and strength has proved to be a strategy most opponents can’t handle.
Golden State Warriors: The ace in the hole
Have you ever played low-stakes poker with an obnoxiously rich person? Sure, they still want to win. They like money! They like taking your money! But nothing really gets played close to the vest. They’ll try to win with 2-7 offsuit just for the hell of it. See some action, throw anything at the wall, and see what sticks. They still get to go home rich either way.
That’s basically how Steve Kerr coached the Warriors this season. Golden State’s most-used lineup registered just 123 minutes—Detroit was the only team with a top lineup that played fewer minutes. Three of the players in that most commonly used lineup for the Warriors (D’Angelo Russell, Glenn Robinson III, and Willie Cauley-Stein) are no longer with the team. Eighteen different players started games. The stakes for Kerr, a made man nearly out of fingers to fit championship rings, couldn’t have possibly been lower. The primary objective was to find one or two guys who can stick around once Steph Curry and Klay Thompson return, as Kerr did with Steph’s brother-in-law, Damion Lee, and Save-a-Sun reclamation project Marquese Chriss. Everything else was pretty inconsequential.
There was only one thing really worth guarding. Despite the shifting lineup and rampant experimentation, Kerr limited the exposure of what’s long been his ace in the hole: Draymond Green playing the 5.
Part of that could have been to save Draymond from an unnecessary workload only P.J. Tucker could love; regardless, Kerr sparingly played Green at the 5. Naturally, it was gangbusters when he did: The Warriors, a 15-50 team, were a whopping plus-32.5 in the 50 minutes Green played center this season. It just serves as a tiny reminder that the Warriors dynasty might be on pause rather than over altogether.
Los Angeles Clippers: Dance with the one who brought you?
Doc Rivers has an affinity for lightning-bug bench scorers and years of experience utilizing them. From Eddie House to Jamal Crawford, Rivers has coached some talented reserve scorers, but Lou Williams is far and away his best. Rivers actually had to talk Williams out of retirement when the Clippers acquired him in the trade that sent Chris Paul to Houston, extending his career and helping Williams pull down two straight Sixth Man of the Year awards in the process.
No one doubts Sweet Lou’s offensive prowess, but the Lakers are confident they found the Clippers’ taped-up belly button during their March 8 victory: duck Kawhi Leonard and Paul George altogether, and wait for Williams to get stuck guarding any kind of ball screen. It’s not a novel concept, but it’s one the Clippers had no real answer for down the stretch. Williams is one of the league’s premier fourth-quarter scorers, and someone who has closed out countless opponents with his unstoppable fading daggers. When he’s hot, there are few better options than to put the ball in his hands and get everyone else out of the way.
Williams provides a clear offense/defense trade-off, one that will only be magnified in the postseason, but not every team will be as comfortable sniffing out those isolation mismatches as the Lakers were. The sample size is small, but it’s worth noting that the lineup of Williams, Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Montrezl Harrell does have a stifling defensive rating of 84.4 in 56 minutes played together this season, despite Williams’s defensive deficiencies.
It’s still something to monitor, as Rivers almost has too many options off the bench for his own good. The Clippers are plus-19.3 and 17-5 when Ivica Zubac plays more than 20 minutes a game, for example, but there are veterans that need to eat, especially after the trade deadline acquisitions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson.
The Clippers know what to prepare for. Rivers has been down this road plenty of times before. Frank Vogel made the first move. We’ll see what happens when Doc gets the chance to counter—whenever that may be.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.