Here are six thoughts and observations from around the NBA, plus one answer to a question I pulled from my social-media mailbag:
1. Tyrese Maxey’s Deeper Importance
Philadelphia has something in Tyrese Maxey. With Joel Embiid sidelined due to health and safety protocols and Ben Simmons still away from the team amid his trade standoff, Maxey has been handed the keys to offense. Over the past seven games without Embiid and Simmons, Maxey is averaging 24.3 points on 17.6 shots per game, up from 14.2 points on 10.8 shots in his previous 10 games. Only 21 years old and in his second season, Maxey looks like the pick-and-roll shot-creator the Sixers hoped they’d get when they drafted Markelle Fultz.
Maxey gets to the basket with ease. He’s a slippery scorer inside who uses tricky layups and wrong-foot finishes to keep defenders guessing. Interior finishing has long been his best skill despite standing 6-foot-2, and this season he’s making a remarkable 67.1 percent of shots in the restricted area. The difference this season is his progress on pull-up jumpers. He can launch if defenders go under screens, and he’s comfortable getting to his stepback against slower-footed defenders.
Sustaining his high numbers will be challenging; Maxey is hitting 42.1 percent of his 3s. But even with some slight regression, I’m buying his progress. Going back to high school, Maxey has had a soft touch inside the arc and from the free throw line. Even as a rookie he shot 49 percent on 2-point shots taken off the dribble away from the rim. This season, he merely has taken that shooting success and extended it out past the 3-point line. Maxey is making 40 percent of 3s off the catch and 44.4 percent off the dribble. In recent games, Maxey is increasing his output of jump shots taken after dribbling to about six per game. Philly should feed him even more to find out what it can get out of him.
Simmons and his agency, Klutch Sports, should be watching closely. Maxey, a fellow Klutch client, has taken the opportunity sparked by Simmons’s absence and flourished, looking like a player who could be the final piece of Philly’s championship puzzle. When the Sixers drafted Fultz, their plan was to then turn Simmons into a supercharged version of Draymond Green, making plays in the open floor and being used as a screener in the half court. Nowadays, even guys like Bruce Brown and Gary Payton II can do that when surrounded by shooters. It’s the way you optimize a nonshooter.
Simmons is better than anyone who’s been offered for him in a trade. And the more Maxey excels, the easier it will be to fit him back into the lineup. If Simmons cares about winning, the Sixers have championship contender written all over them.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns Needs to Take More Shots
Towns is one of the game’s most talented bigs, a 23/12/3 guy who shoots 40 percent from 3. He can make plays off the dribble from outside and inside, pass a little bit, and finish above the rim. Towns can do it all, but he doesn’t do enough. This season, Towns is averaging only 23.1 points on 16 shots a game. That’s 38th in attempts per game. And yet, of the 43 players taking at least 15 shots, he’s third in true shooting percentage, according to Basketball-Reference, behind two MVP candidates in Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. Towns has elite skills and elite efficiency. Where the hell is his elite usage?
Wolves fans are feeling good, with the team riding a three-game win streak against the Kings, Spurs, and Grizzlies. But Minnesota needs a jolt of offense to complement its improving defense, which is consistently getting stops whenever Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt are in the starting five with Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell. The Timberwolves score only 106.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 20th in the league. Edwards and Russell are the leading shot-takers on the team. Towns needs to take more shots, and they should come from deep.
Towns might be 6-foot-11 but he should be viewed as a big wing who can run through screens and handoffs. He can shoot 3s, or even attack off the dribble. Since 2019-20, Towns averages 6.9 shots from 3 per game, which leads all bigs his size but trails players with his skills. This season, Buddy Hield averages 10.6 shots from 3. Duncan Robinson gets 8.9. Lu Dort gets seven. It’s unreasonable to expect a center to have a usage like Hield, but Towns should at least shoot more 3s per game than a defensive specialist like Dort.
KAT has had four coaches in seven seasons, and not one has unlocked a higher-usage version of him. Towns could be his own biggest obstacle. He goes through stretches in which he fades into the background. He doesn’t consistently fight hard for positioning. Sometimes he sulks. A coach and a role can make all the difference, though. The last time Towns logged at least 18 shots per game was his second season, his first under Tom Thibodeau. Chris Finch, who took over as head coach midway through last season, should get him back to that range. Solutions don’t always come from new acquisitions. Sometimes you just need to utilize your best players more.
3. The Russell Westbrook Problem Isn’t Going Away
Last Friday, I took the night off from watching the NBA to go see the movie Last Night in Soho. This is the first tweet I saw after walking out of the theater:
This is an actual television chyron that ran tonight in Boston after former Lakers guard Dennis Schroder had 21 pts, 6 reb and 6 ast and was a +12 in a win while Russell Westbrook had 12 pts, 6 ast, 4 reb and was -12 in a loss pic.twitter.com/4lIzF3J972— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) November 20, 2021
The Lakers lost by 22 to the Celtics while Westbrook had the worst game of his nightmare start in Los Angeles: 12 points on 5-for-13 shooting, six assists, and four rebounds. The team is 9-9, with the 23rd-ranked offense and 20th-ranked defense, and fans are losing their collective shit.
Westbrook was supposed to be the guy who’d carry the offense when LeBron James was resting or out injured. But it’s not working as expected.
Westbrook has been at his best running pick-and-roll, just like he has his entire career. Though he and Anthony Davis don’t have great chemistry yet, the Lakers are scoring a productive 1.05 points per pick-and-roll run by them, according to Second Spectrum. The big issue is that when Russ doesn’t have the ball, defenses aren’t at all worried about him.
In the image above, LeBron is running a high pick-and-roll with Davis. Before James even dribbles, Suns wing Mikal Bridges is standing at the free throw line ready to clog the paint. James drove into him anyway and eventually turned the ball over. No one is defending Westbrook.
And in this clip, the Grizzlies were comfortable putting Steven Adams on Westbrook. When Westbrook was involved in the action, like he was here, Adams just sagged back and dared him to shoot.
These moments represent what the stats show: With Russ on the floor, the Lakers are scoring a pitiful 0.76 points per pick-and-roll run by LeBron with AD screening. There’s no room for them to get to the basket. But without Russ, they score 1.13 points per pick-and-roll. They have more spacing, and Westbrook’s backup Rajon Rondo is a superior spot-up shooter and cutter.
The Lakers are still figuring out how to play with Westbrook. Early in the season, we saw him doing some screening for LeBron. They should do more of it to get Westbrook rolling to the basket. Frank Vogel needs to use the regular season to experiment. With a player as stubborn as Westbrook, the coaching staff and the team deserve time to figure things out. Along the way, he’ll lead them to some victories like he did on Sunday against the Pistons following LeBron’s ejection and a scuffle involving Isaiah Stewart.
Russ isn’t the only issue. Rob Pelinka designed a goofy roster with a lack of point-of-attack defense at guard and wing. Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, and DeAndre Jordan don’t look like they belong in an NBA rotation, yet they all receive regular minutes. On offense, there’s a lack of flow. Davis hasn’t shot efficiently on jumpers since the bubble. Vogel looks lost with his rotations. And LeBron is closing in on his 37th birthday and has already missed 10 games.
But Westbrook is the poster boy of L.A.’s problems. LeBron should have seen this coming. This team is beginning to look more and more like the one from his last year in Cleveland. To make it back to the Finals, he may need to fix everything for the Lakers, too.
4. The Blazers Are Finally Embracing Larry Nance Jr.’s Many Skills
Disclaimer: I’m a big Larry Nance Jr. fan. Liked him with the Lakers because of his high-flying dunks. Loved him with the Cavs because of his playmaking and 3-point shooting. Got excited about his trade to the Trail Blazers because of his fit. Nance’s abilities as a screener who can pop for 3s, roll hard for lobs, or short roll and make plays off the dribble made him a perfect match for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
But to start the season, coach Chauncey Billups gave Nance a nonsensical role. Nance was averaging only 17.2 minutes over his first 11 games while primarily spotting up in the corner. He barely had any involvement in the offense, rarely logged quality touches, and set only 8.6 total picks per game, according to Second Spectrum. Nance barely even played with Dame.
At the time, I thought to myself: When Billups was doing TV, ESPN didn’t give much attention to the Cavs since LeBron was gone. And while he worked as an assistant for the Clippers last season, they played the Cavs twice but Nance was out injured for both games. Did Billups ever see Nance play before he coached him? There’s no other explanation.
But Nance is now up to 22.8 minutes over his past six games by eating into Cody Zeller’s time. (Zeller should be glued to the bench.) And he’s far more involved in the offense, setting nearly double the screens with 17.2 per game, and finding himself in significantly more situations in which he can be a playmaker.
In big games, Lillard and McCollum inevitably will be pressured with blitzes and traps like they are in the clips above. Nance can be an outlet. He can pass on the move, make quick reads, or dribble into his own shot. Portland needs to keep adding wrinkles and developing chemistry, but this is a start.
5. Silver Linings in New Orleans
Even without Zion Williamson, it’s disappointing that the Pelicans are this awful: 3-15 and already trailing the Wolves by five games for the final spot in the West play-in. Not much has gone well this season in New Orleans, but there is one silver lining: Herb Jones is a basketball defibrillator.
When the team flatlines, as it often does, Jones brings life to the game. He’s one of the more ferocious defenders in basketball. Despite only being a rookie, he also communicates. Put on a Pelicans game and I guarantee you’ll see him directing veterans around.
A 2021 second-round pick, Jones can pass, and his 3-point shot is looking even more fluid than it did in college at Alabama. The Pelicans need more guys like him.
Jonas Valanciunas has been a bruiser (and he’s shooting 3s) and Josh Hart has been steady, but disappointment abounds across this roster. Brandon Ingram is still an All-Star shot-creator, yet hasn’t gotten notably better since winning Most Improved Player in 2019-20. There’s still areas of his game with untapped potential, especially on defense. Recent first-rounders Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Kira Lewis are still all off to shaky starts in their careers. Trey Murphy, this year’s no. 17 pick, showed promise in summer league but has struggled to start his rookie season.
There is no fix for New Orleans this season other than a healthy Zion. But in the big picture, the upside to such a dreadful season is it may provide the Pelicans a chance at acquiring another star to pair with Williamson. In an ideal world, the Pelicans draft, they don’t trade for, the third member of their Big Three. Financially, New Orleans needs flexibility to build a full roster. With Ingram getting paid big bucks already and Williamson’s next deal around the corner (hopefully), the third star being on a rookie deal is a necessity.
Fortunately for the Pelicans, and anyone else near the top of the lottery standings, the 2022 draft features multiple potential stars: Paolo Banchero from Duke, Chet Holmgren from Gonzaga, and Jaden Hardy from the G League Ignite, among others, will headline the class. Banchero is currently my top-ranked prospect. He’s a versatile scorer who’s also nearly 7 feet tall. He can post up one night and feast on lobs and cuts. Other games, he can dominate outside. With size, strength, passing vision, and the potential to be a versatile defender, he has a high floor and a high ceiling.
Flattened lottery odds have given teams little incentive to tank. After all, in 2019, New Orleans had the seventh-best odds and moved up to first to pick Zion. And with the play-in tournament, there’s more hope for teams to stay competitive deep into the season. The Pelicans can compete to close the season, show promise for the future, and still end up with a solid chance at a franchise-changer. Looking for answers through the draft can lead to much disappointment given the randomness of the lottery. But Pelicans fans don’t have many alternatives.
6. The Bright-Now Suns Are Still Here
News flash: The Suns are on a 12-game win streak. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are building on last season, and chemistry across the roster is at max level.
Young guys are getting better too. Deandre Ayton hasn’t experienced any slippage following frustrating contract negotiations. Mikal Bridges did get paid, and he’s taking big steps forward in his game. Here’s an incredible stat from Evan Sidery, a Suns beat writer:
Only two starters in the NBA (min. 30 minutes per game) are carrying a +60 TS% and sub-40 DFG%:— Evan Sidery (@esidery) November 20, 2021
I don’t care how small the sample is; this puts into perspective just how dominant Bridges has been. To score with such elite efficiency and cause players to miss that many shots is remarkable. Opponents just can’t get by Bridges when he’s defending them. He’s too long, too smart, too prepared. He stretches his arms out and becomes a wall. There’s no question Bridges is firmly a first-team All-Defensive player so far.
The Suns are following up a Finals appearance by improving, and dominating to start their season. It’s time for everyone to take notice.
7. Mailbag: The New-and-Improved DeMar DeRozan
Q: It seems like DeMar DeRozan has changed from a floor-raising player on the Raptors to a ceiling-raiser on the Bulls. How has that happened? How can other players or teams learn from this? —Rahim Noormohamed on Twitter
DeRozan is better now than he was when he got traded by the Raptors to the Spurs as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal. DeRozan is no longer an inefficient volume scorer; he’s averaging 26.8 points on 59 percent true shooting. In his age-32 season, he’s become an assassin who takes advantage of empty space in the midrange with pull-ups, turnarounds, and floaters. And he can also kill you with the pass.
In his final season in Toronto five years ago, DeRozan made progress as a playmaker. Then, in his three seasons in San Antonio, he ran the point. It made him a better pick-and-roll creator, and, as a result, helped him become one of the best players in the league at generating offense out of isolations.
The Spurs scored 1.09 points per isolation by DeRozan over three seasons, which ranked right behind James Harden and ahead of Steph Curry and a whole bunch of other All-Stars. Through 17 games with the Bulls, he’s near the top of the league again, logging 1.08 points per isolation, according to Second Spectrum.
There’s a lesson here: Don’t assume progress is over once a player reaches a certain age. There are many variables that influence development, including coaching, role, and fit with teammates. The game has also changed, and now defenses often relinquish shots from the midrange, where DeRozan thrives.
But DeRozan has also shown a willingness to change, including getting better at the little things. He will set screens. He’s an even more active cutter. And he’s more competitive on defense. All of that has led to this point, when he’s a ceiling-raiser in Chicago. DeRozan became this guy with the Spurs. Now we’re seeing it in the spotlight on a team with something at stake.
To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, direct message me @KevinOConnorNBA on Instagram. I’ll answer some there and one of them will make it into next week’s article.