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The NBA Revolves Around Steph Again. Plus, Six Other Observations.

Julius Randle struggles to keep his All-NBA form, Kristaps Porzingis lives up to his post-up prowess, Grayson Allen adds a new dimension to the Bucks, and much more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including one answer to a question I pulled from my social media mailbag:

1. The Steph System

There are many reasons Steph Curry is the NBA MVP through one quarter of the season. We could get into how he’s having the best defensive campaign of his career, analyze the evolution of his 3-point shooting, or discuss his subtle playmaking progress.

Instead, here’s a stat from Second Spectrum that helps detail his effect on offense without even touching the ball: Curry sets 8.2 off-ball screens per game, which ranks as third most in the NBA for guards, and when those screens lead to a touch for a cutting teammate, the Warriors score 1.2 points per chance. The latter number is a career high for Steph. It’s higher than the early days of the Warriors’ run, when defenses didn’t know what was coming. Higher than his unanimous MVP season. Higher than any of the years he played with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.

Defenses go into a panic whenever Curry sets a screen because they’re so worried about him slipping into empty space. But this only makes room for someone else to cut to the basket for open layups and dunks:

Curry doesn’t get any credit in the box score for the plays above. Even the tracking data can go only so far in capturing how his screens create a positive effect elsewhere for the Warriors’ offense. A screen can serve as a distraction, or it can simply cause a defense to rotate over, thus opening a driving lane for the player currently possessing the ball.

Curry’s “gravity” enables the Warriors to use constant motion with their bodies and the ball. And his mere presence on the court is a reason the Warriors take the fifth-highest share of shots at the rim in the league, largely off cuts to the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. During their run of five consecutive Finals, the Warriors never ranked higher than 14th.

Things just seem to be working better than ever for the Warriors, who improved to a league-best 18-2 on Sunday. And Steph keeps proving what a singular talent he is, even in comparison to other guards with deep-shooting ability. Damian Lillard logs 2.4 off-ball screens per game. Trae Young sets only 1.3.

The Warriors are championship favorites, and Curry is the MVP favorite so far, even with Thompson yet to return. But no matter who’s in the lineup, Curry is the system.


2. What’s Wrong With Julius Randle?

Randle isn’t exactly pulling a Huell Babineaux and laying on a bed of $100 bills during games, but after signing a $117 million extension this summer, he is back to his bad habits. He’s lazing around the court, dragging his feet on defense, shooting inefficiently, and looking more like the guy Knicks fans dreaded watching during his first season in New York rather than the player who made All-NBA last season.

Randle is one of the primary reasons the Knicks are only 11-9 and on the play-in tournament bubble. Perhaps, following his flaccid performance in the 2021 playoffs, he could just be conserving energy so he can go full throttle in the 2022 playoffs. But the Knicks need him to step up now.

Defensive lapses by Randle are especially notable when juxtaposed against Obi Toppin, who flies around on defense and makes decisive decisions on offense. Toppin isn’t close to the offensive presence that Randle is, but he also doesn’t hold on to the ball before taking action. Toppin keeps it moving. Randle slows it down.

New York’s bench has outscored teams by 28 points per 100 possessions, but the starters have been outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions this season. The starters’ poor numbers are not all Randle’s fault; he’s still rebounding and getting buckets. Kemba Walker’s bad knees are already causing him to miss games; he will never be the same player that he was in Charlotte. Evan Fournier is a fine starter but not a game-changer. RJ Barrett is stepping up on defense, but his offense has significantly regressed. There’s still plenty of time for the Knicks to fix themselves. But right now, Randle looks like a one-hit wonder.

3. Kristaps Porzingis Is Posting Up More Now

When I visited Dallas before the 2019-20 season for a story on the Mavericks, I spoke with Kristaps Porzingis ahead of his return from a yearlong hiatus and following an ugly breakup with the Knicks that provided enough material for a one-hour version of “All Too Well.” I asked Porzingis about his shoddy post game because in New York, defenses would put shorter players on him, and despite his height of 7-foot-3, he was never able to take advantage. In three seasons with the Knicks, he scored only 0.9 points per post-up, according to Second Spectrum—a number not worthy of any post touches.

Here’s how Porzingis responded: “Earlier in my career, smaller guys like Marcus Smart would get me off balance. But now I feel comfortable playing against a smaller guy. A lot of times what works is a quick move with one bump or just turn into his face and shoot over him. I’ve gotten a lot better at reading those situations. It’s a lot of film study, but also just playing, knowing how to play against a smaller guy instead of a bigger guy.”

Year 1 in Dallas was no better, though. Porzingis scored 0.9 points per post up again. Small guys continued to pester him, and then-Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle limited his touches. Year 2, Porzingis made some progress, scoring 1.01 points per post up, but that’s still an average number. Now under Jason Kidd, KP is finally backing up his words.

Porzingis is scoring 1.25 points per chance on the post, by far a career high and one of the best marks in basketball this season, according to Second Spectrum.

Putting the numbers aside, KP simply looks more comfortable than ever before.

KP is playing to his size, establishing deeper post positioning by burying tiny guys underneath the rim and backing them down before taking hook shots close to the basket instead of settling for turnaround or face-up jumpers.

There’s an element of deception to his play, too. Porzingis uses ball fakes and head fakes to get his opponent leaning a certain way, and follows up with decisive moves to get into his shots. He’s even doing a better job as a passer, finding open teammates when pressured.

Luka Doncic will always be the primary source of offense for the Mavericks, but Porzingis’s post-ups give them anoth​​er tool in the half court, another wrinkle that defenses need to think about. Before, there was no concern about switching a small dude onto the tall guy. The longer he keeps this up, the more defenses will have to think about how to game plan.

Fast starts that fizzle have defined past seasons for Porzingis, as wear and tear accumulates month by month, so sustaining success will be a challenge. And sometimes he posts when he shouldn’t during Luka pick-and-rolls, which ends up getting in the way and clogging the paint. But that can be improved as chemistry builds.

I have been highly critical of Porzingis and questioned his ability to be Luka’s costar. But his performance this season is a reminder of why his potential was so tantalizing when the Knicks drafted him many years ago, why his departure was so bittersweet for New York, and why Dallas invested so much in him in the first place.

4. What Makes Grayson Allen Different

Shooting comes at a premium price in the NBA, yet the Bucks have Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo on the payroll for less combined money ($14.1 million) than what Joe Harris ($17.4 million) and Duncan Robinson ($15.6 million) make individually for this season.

Allen in particular has been excellent in his first season in Milwaukee after being acquired for pennies from Memphis this summer. With DiVincenzo still recovering from ankle surgery, Allen is taking full advantage of opportunities, and it’d be a surprise if he loses his spot in the starting five when DiVincenzo returns.

Through 21 games, Allen is making 42.4 percent of his 7.5 attempts per game from 3. But unlike shooting specialists such as Robinson and Harris, the Bucks don’t have Allen fly around screens or sprint through handoffs then stop on a dime to launch 3-pointers. Instead, he gets open with subtle repositioning on the court to create massive passing windows. Or, he’ll set on-ball screens for Giannis Antetokounmpo and pop to a vacant space on the floor.

Allen does more than shoot spot-up 3s, though. In a pinch, Allen can handle the ball in the pick-and-roll and either pull up off the dribble from 3 or deliver a crisp pocket pass to a rolling Giannis. As the clock winds down, he can make a play if needed:

Things are coming full circle for Allen. He hit 3s, drove to the rim, and made hustle plays in his breakout game for Duke in the 2015 national title game against the Badgers and became a villain in Wisconsin. Now those same skills are why Bucks fans love him.

5. John Collins Keeps Improving

When the Hawks drafted Collins in 2017, he could leap into orbit, score inside, and rebound. Everything else was questionable. But he quickly became a reliable shooter in Atlanta. Now 24 years old and in his fifth season, he’s showing that he isn’t done improving.

We’re seeing a lot of Collins screening for Trae Young, then making a play out of the short roll as a passer:

Since Collins is such a devastating scorer on the roll, whether it’s from a pass to him over the top or using his own dribble, defenses must rotate hard to stop him from getting to the basket. But all that does is open lobs to Clint Capela, and kickouts to one of the team’s many shooters. Collins is having the best playmaking season of his life and is showing a better recognition for finding an open teammate and improved accuracy on the pass itself.

The Hawks score 1.14 points per pick-and-roll when Collins screens for Young, which leads the 47 combos to log at least 150 pick-and-rolls, according to Second Spectrum. Incremental improvements by Collins are adding up, and it’s helping the Hawks maintain an elite offense that is keeping them afloat in the East as the team figures out its defense.

6. Alperen Sengun Is Wonderfully Weird

Sengun is a bit of an oddball player. He does his own thing, tries some silly moves, and generally is just a bundle of joy to watch play.

Per 36 minutes, Sengun is averaging 17.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 4.9 assists while making 40.9 percent of his 3s. But he’s playing only 18.3 minutes per game off Houston’s bench, and as a result, he won’t sniff any Rookie of the Year ballots despite his great per-minute production.

With the Rockets focusing on developing young players, rival executives wonder how long it’ll be until Houston moves veterans, paving the way for Sengun to play more.

There is an expectation around the NBA that Christian Wood, who’s in the second season of a three-year contract, will receive significant trade interest and that Houston will entertain offers. Wood is only 26, so Houston could keep him, but he’s no sure thing to stay come 2023; one of the reasons he signed with the Rockets over other interested teams was to play with James Harden, and Harden is long gone. Wood can offer a lot more to a team with playoff hopes than he can to the Rockets.

Starting center Daniel Theis will also receive mild trade interest from teams in need of a steady veteran backup. Sengun is better than Theis right now, but he’s an imperfect frontcourt fit with Wood because both are lean bigs.

Houston should shuffle some pieces around and figure out the John Wall situation. The Rockets front office needs to clean up their mess so Sengun can start really messing around on the court.

7. Mailbag: Is Cade’s Start a Concern?

Q: Any reason to be worried about Cade? —James on Instagram

I received a handful of concerned questions about Cade Cunningham, which is fair considering the no. 1 pick is averaging 13 points and shooting only 43.1 percent from 2 and 24.5 percent from 3. Cunningham hasn’t shown the bounce and wiggle most superstars use to generate space, and as a result, has a habit of settling for contested pull-ups, even when switched against slower-footed bigs.

One of the lowlights of his young career came when Anthony Davis swatted him twice on the same play:

Let’s relax, though. Cunningham isn’t Evan Turner all over again. He’s a 20-year-old who missed most of training camp, all of preseason, and his first four games with an ankle injury. It’s hard enough for any player to return from an injury, never mind a rookie.

Cunningham has also created shots for himself in clutch moments, a trademark of his going back to high school. There’s an offbeat shiftiness to his game that made him tough to contain at lower levels. He’s already showing flashes of translating his scoring to the NBA, and even if he isn’t as smooth as some stars, he can still get it done.

Besides, Cunningham wasn’t the no. 1 pick just because of his scoring potential. His ability to manipulate defenders to open passing windows for his teammates is one of his best skills:

Defensively, Cunningham needs to learn some of the intricacies of positioning when rotating, but that’s true for almost every young player. He’s been solid defending on the ball against players of different skills and sizes, while also making an impact in the passing lanes away from the ball.

Maybe Cunningham lacks the explosiveness of a potential MVP or an annual first team All-NBA player. Plenty of executives and scouts around the league felt that way even before the draft. But he has enough scoring skills and all-around goods to become a star in this league.

To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, email me at nbamailbag@gmail.com. I’ll answer some there and one of them will make it into next week’s article. To read last week’s article with seven more thoughts, click here.