One week into the NBA season, here are seven early takeaways:
The Blazers’ New D Is Still Getting Skewered
After years of playing in Terry Stotts’s conservative drop defense, the Trail Blazers have switched to a more aggressive scheme under new coach Chauncey Billups. Against the pick-and-roll, the Blazers are now asking the defender guarding the screen to move toward the 3-point line, rather than sag into the paint or even attempt to trap the opposing ball handler. This brand of defense can cause turnovers or simply force the ball out of a player’s hands. When it works, it looks like this:
But when it doesn’t work, it leads to open corner 3s or penetration to the basket:
So far this season, Portland is blitzing or showing on pick-and-rolls on 27 percent of its defensive plays, compared to just 9.2 percent last season, according to Second Spectrum. It can take time to learn a new scheme, but Portland’s issues are largely due to personnel.
Starting center Jusuf Nurkic was an energetic bruiser before suffering a major leg injury in 2019. Now he moves like he’s lost. Whether he’s out of breath, physically limited, or unfamiliar with the scheme, Nurkic is not the same rim protector. Teams readily attack him, and he’s been outplayed by bigs like Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein. Unless he can become that guy again, he should no longer be known as the Bosnian Beast.
All of the blame can’t fall on Nurkic, though. The Blazers also don’t have a stopper for one of the many star scoring guards or wings in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum aren’t exactly lockdown guys, and though acquiring Robert Covington in 2020 gave Portland an off-ball ace, he’s merely an average on-ball defender. Flipping Gary Trent Jr. last season for a superior defender in Norman Powell helps, but Powell’s not a game-changer on that end. Billups is utilizing this scheme because it puts the onus on the collective rather than the individual, but there are still holes.
More aggression and on-ball switching could also mean playing more often without a center. Acquiring Larry Nance Jr. this offseason gave the Blazers a versatile frontcourt player to pair with Covington. With third-year forward Nassir Little carving out a rotation spot as a hard-nosed defender, Portland can employ versatile lineups without sacrificing strength.
Portland is under pressure. Dame is committed for now, but the team needs to start winning games, which means being competent on defense. The Blazers displayed what they can be in a win against the Suns, but a 30-point loss to the Clippers fits the pattern over the past few years: one great game followed by one awful game. Scheme alone might not make up the difference.
Joel Embiid’s Big Break
Without Ben Simmons, life is a bit different for Joel Embiid this season. The extra attention may wear him down, like it did Tuesday in a blowout loss to the Knicks. But it has also given Embiid more freedom to do what he wants following a defensive rebound. Rather than locating Simmons or another guard with a pass, Embiid is more frequently bringing the ball up the floor himself. This season, he’s the player handling the ball crossing half court 3.5 times per game, up from 1.3 last year and 0.6 the year before, according to Second Spectrum. And he’s using that head of steam to score or make plays:
Embiid told me in 2017 that he’s serious about his potential as a point guard. While he hasn’t been deemed the primary ball handler in the open floor without Simmons, he’s an undeniable threat, with the skill and dexterity to handle when he chooses to.
Overall, he’s averaging a career high in assists and a career low in turnovers by playing with more pace and feel than ever. Embiid could be in line for a monster season. Or, if nights like Tuesday begin to pile up and questions start mounting about the injury-prone center’s viability over an 82-game season, maybe the Sixers’ need for another All-Star talent is accelerated. Either way, something big is in store.
Wolf Pack Mentality
Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards are fun players to watch. KAT is arguably the most talented shooting big man in basketball history, while Edwards’s skills are catching up to his 99th percentile athleticism. In their second season together, the young duo has started to form chemistry.
They’ve frequently been the recipients of each other’s passes or simple actions, whether it’s Towns facilitating from the high post and finding Edwards cutting to the rim, or it’s Edwards cutting to draw the defense and letting Towns take the shot himself. The Timberwolves would love to make the playoffs, but what’s most important is the progress of their youth. The Towns-Edwards connection may not translate to many wins, but something good is brewing.
Beam Me Up, Scottie
Scottie Barnes entered the NBA with a pro-ready body, and through the first week of the season, he’s already producing like a veteran.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse already trusts his rookie enough to put him in decision-making positions, such as bringing it up the floor, running dribble handoffs, or finishing plays. It’s a multidimensional role typically reserved for more proven players, like Draymond Green or Bam Adebayo, but Barnes has the passing creativity, vision, and intelligence to do it now. Limiting turnovers and understanding when (and when not) to make difficult passes will be the next steps for Barnes, but learning through failure will still help his overall growth.
As a scorer, Barnes has both size (6-foot-7, 225 pounds) and a fluid handle that allows him to get to the rim with ease, though he’s also displaying a smoother midrange jumper than he did at Florida State.
Barnes became a lottery pick because of his defense, though. With an enormous 7-foot-3 wingspan and swift lateral movement, the Raptors haven’t hesitated to stick him on opposing primary ball handlers.
Barnes is a disruptor. He can use his quickness against DeMar DeRozan or Bradley Beal, and his strength to handle Jayson Tatum or Luka Doncic. Few rookies have ever entered the league with defensive ability as strong as his, and he’s one of the key reasons the Raptors have an elite defense to start the season. Forget about Rookie of the Year; Barnes may be one of the few rookies in history to earn a spot on the All-Defensive team.
Ja Is Making the Leap
Ja Morant is the early scoring leader, averaging 35 points over the first week. Just as he has since his rookie season, Morant is penetrating to the paint with ease and scoring acrobatically at the rim. But the most encouraging development for the third-year pro is his 3-pointer, as he’s made five of his 11 attempts off the dribble. Three games is a tiny sample, but he looks more fluid than ever.
A more consistent 3-point shot would force the defense to respect Morant more from outside, making his basket attacks all the more devastating. It may also be enough to propel him into the All-NBA discussion. Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, and a few other young players are all growing together, and the Grizzlies are on the rise because of it.
Cleveland Has Big Ideas
Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have the potential to become the best defensive frontcourt in basketball.
Allen has been one of the league’s better rim protectors for years. Over time, he has become better at moving on the perimeter to contain guards and wings.
Mobley is the Swiss army knife who can be used anywhere on the court, against any type of player. His flashes are absurd:
The Cavaliers are testing Mobley. The rookie is being asked to help and recover on shooters, defensive actions normally left to wings. Sometimes he’s not in the right position, but he’s an intelligent player who should learn over time. With mobility and the dexterity to block or alter shots using either hand, he’s already a devastating help defender in the paint. Once those skills translate to the perimeter, he may become a rare five-position defender.
The Cavs are utilizing a jumbo-sized starting five with Lauri Markkanen at small forward. On paper, the lineup is unorthodox but the experimentation is worth it. Mobley is the type of player who can allow a team to be different.
RJ’s Defense Doesn’t Rest
RJ Barrett says his goal this season is to make the All-Defensive first team, and he’s off to a good start. On opening night, he put the clamps on Jayson Tatum down the stretch.
A scorer as advanced as Tatum can be a handful to defend. On several occasions, Barrett attempted to steer Tatum toward the baseline, but the Celtics All-Star went the other way. Still, Barrett was able to recover and bother him.
Off-ball defense was Barrett’s weakness in the past. He’d lose focus, miss assignments, or take poor routes to fight through screens. He hasn’t been perfect this season, but he’s become reliable by improving his positioning and attentiveness.