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 NBA Is Turning to Postponements and Replacements to Prevent Cancelling Games
Over 70 NBA players, three coaches, and one general manager are currently in health and safety protocols and seven games have been postponed. Commissioner Adam Silver and the players’ union have thus far shown an unwillingness to halt the season, instead agreeing on a plan requiring teams to sign one replacement player when they have two positive COVID tests on the roster. For three positives, two signings will be required, and so on. Hours before Sunday’s agreement, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the “league remains determined to minimize postponements and avoid a pause.” But with just five days until Christmas Day, one of the marquee days on the NBA calendar, several of the biggest stars expected to play on the big stage are in protocol limbo—including Trae Young and Kevin Durant.
Around NBA front offices and locker rooms, there has been chatter about adopting the NFL’s revised protocols, which include stopping regularly testing vaccinated players. Unvaccinated players still undergo daily testing in the NFL, but a vaccinated player won’t need to unless the player is symptomatic, deemed a high-risk contact, or volunteers to be tested. In essence, responsibility has shifted from the league to the individual to monitor their own health.
The NFL says two-thirds of its positive cases are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. Players who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t have symptoms would likely be active on game days, and involved in team meetings and activities. Vaccinated people can still spread the virus, which means the NFL’s plan risks unknowingly spreading the virus in a locker room, or even among a player’s family.
The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov reported Friday that the NBA has thought about following the NFL’s lead, “but it is not ready yet to implement that.” For now, the league is hoping replacement players will help avoid cancellations. Even postponements are a challenge. Last season, the NBA waited to schedule the second half of its season. This season, all 82 games have been planned out, and home arenas already have booked other events. Shutting down the league would mean losing more games and revenue when attendance is already down.
Instead, to fill their rosters with a required amount of players, organizations are handing out 10-day contracts in the lead-up to Christmas. The health of the players and all of the league’s workers should be prioritized. Christmas Day might not have the same star power, but it could be something different: a day of good stories. Such as Isaiah Thomas receiving rotation minutes for the Lakers, another attempt at a return to the league that once couldn’t stop him with the Celtics. Thomas will have a chance to become The Little Guy on one of the league’s biggest stages.
2. KAT Is Finally Being Fed More
Four weeks ago, I argued in this space that a hyperefficient big guy with guard skills like Karl-Anthony Towns should get fed the ball more. He was averaging 23.1 points on 16.0 field goals and 4.6 free throws per game. Since then, he’s dropping 26.1 points per game on 18.3 shots and 7.4 free throws. That’s a noticeable increase in opportunities. But they haven’t come shooting more 3s, as I suggested; they’ve come posting up far more often and far more effectively.
Over his first 16 games, Towns posted up 5.6 times per game, passing on 50 percent of them and shooting only 20 percent of the time, according to Second Spectrum. Towns too often did a bad Nikola Jokic impression that led to reckless turnovers, not highlights.
But the Wolves have tweaked KAT’s usage, giving him more shots and post touches, and he has changed his habits. Over his past 13 games, Towns has posted up 7.2 times per game, shooting the ball on 41 percent of them and passing just 38 percent. Less passing. More shooting. Less record-scratching. More flowing in the rhythm of the offense.
Against the Lakers last Friday, KAT scored 28 points and had his most decisive game scoring from the post, catching the ball then instantly making a move. The performance echoed the feedback teammate Anthony Edwards had given him a few days earlier. “When you catch and go—boom!—they can’t guard you, bruh,” Edwards said. “I be telling him this every game, every practice. Like, ‘Bruh, nobody can guard you. You can shoot the ball. You quick. You can handle the ball. You got touch. You got everything. They can’t guard you, bruh.’”
Edwards is 100 percent right. KAT is better when he’s making quick decisions with the ball in his hands, not holding the ball out away from his body and looking to pass. An aggressive Towns, whether it’s from 3 or from the post, is a major positive development for a Timberwolves team looking to get back into the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons.
3. Franz Wagner and the Young Magic Are Headed in the Right Direction
The Magic are one of those bad but really fun teams: 6-25, good for second in the lottery standings. Many Magic fans root first for development from the youth, not wins. And their young players have all made positive progress. Most impressive has been Wagner. Though he isn’t the early Rookie of the Year favorite, Wagner at least belongs in the conversation.
Following a strong start over Wagner’s first 18 games, the Magic have been calling more plays for him to generate offense. Over the past 13 games, Wagner is averaging 17.5 points on a 54.6 true shooting percentage and 4.2 assists and only 1.7 turnovers. Plus, he’s a sound defender with the strength to contain larger players, the agility to move on the perimeter, and the awareness to make plays away from the ball.
Terrence Ross said Wagner is like a bigger Gordon Hayward, which is a solid comparison. Already, Wagner looks like a 6-foot-10 playmaking forward who could spend 10-plus years contributing for winning teams. A popular comparison for Wagner ahead of the draft was Lamar Odom, which makes even more sense now. Odom had a skill set tailormade for today’s positionless game, and he won two championships. Wagner could someday be a player who can accomplish the same.
The Magic are one of the worst teams in basketball but the vibes are good. The players on the team tend to rally around each other.
“We take the highs for what they are,” Magic rookie point guard Jalen Suggs told me on Spotify Greenroom last week. “You gotta go through those lumps, rebuild and restore what you had. We’re going through that right now. What keeps me up is the people we have around. The staff in the locker room. We got a lot of young guys who are hungry to get better. We work really hard together and really push each other. We’re not taking losing as a loss but as part of the process, something you can learn from.”
From Mo Bamba looking like a contributor to Cole Anthony’s scoring surges, the Magic are experiencing some positive development. This team is too young to expect to win. The priority is to get better. And so far they are, with Wagner leading the way.
(The full conversation with Suggs will be available to listen to at the end of Wednesday’s podcast episode of The Void, which you can find on The Mismatch feed.)
4. The Spurs Are Only Missing a Superstar
After starting the season with a 4-13 record, the Spurs have won six of their past 11 games, including victories over the Jazz, Nuggets, and Warriors. They’re occupants of 12th place in the West, one game back from the final play-in tournament spot.
San Antonio’s youth is driving its improvement toward .500. Dejounte Murray is the headliner as a nightly triple-double threat, averaging 17.9 points, 8.5 assists, and 8.3 rebounds. Murray has long been a bouncy, slippery playmaker on drives downhill, and over his past 13 games, he’s making 37 percent of his 3s. Finding consistency from range would be a game-changing skill that’d further open driving lanes for him to ravage defenses. The Spurs are also finding out what happens when Keldon Johnson, 22, is hitting his 3s at a higher percentage than ever, and Lonnie Walker IV, 23, is playing with a burning desire to get buckets.
However, despite moving up the standings, San Antonio still isn’t far from the bottom. The Spurs are one and a half games up from the Thunder for the worst record in the West. With records so condensed, a bump in the road will knock them right back down—and could that be for the best, considering the strong top of the 2022 draft?
Murray, Johnson, Walker, Devin Vassell, and Josh Primo are all 25 and under and worth keeping around. But San Antonio isn’t going anywhere without a superstar. And as good as Murray looks, he’ll need to become a more reliable shooter to be more than a secondary option. Moving older contributors to get a little worse now could help the Spurs become better later.
Teams around the league will undoubtedly explore trades for 33-year-old forward Thad Young after he told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that he wants to play for a contender. But 27-year-old guard Derrick White and 26-year-old center Jakob Poeltl also make sense as targets. As I wrote earlier this season, Poeltl is a fundamentally sound force on defense and a guy who fills the gaps on offense as a screener, passer, and cutter. He’s an integral part of San Antonio’s success today, but Zach Collins is due to return sometime in early 2022 and will also deserve minutes, considering the three-year, $22 million contract he signed over the offseason.
White has turned up his scoring output to provide better backcourt support to Murray’s playmaking. He’s averaging 13.0 shots a game in December, up from 10.6 earlier this season—all without improving his jump shot. White has a crafty at-rim bag with off-foot and wrong-hand finishes, leaning floaters, ambidexterity, and the ability to score through contact. If he can become a better 3-point shooter, his game could really take off. Until he improves from range, his current skill set could be more valuable elsewhere, and the Spurs could use more shooters and defenders with size.
San Antonio has looked like a far more seasoned group over this recent stretch, a team that’s too talented for fans to hope for a tank job right now, a team that isn’t far away from being good again.
5. What Happened to Joel Embiid’s Jumper?
One of the key reasons Embiid played himself into the MVP race last season was his improved go-to scoring ability. Not only was he a dominant post force, but he also became a reliable shooter off the dribble.
Embiid hit 43 percent of his 2-pointers from outside of 10 feet last season, way up from 34.4 percent over his first four seasons. With that kind of midrange shooting in addition to his improved 3-ball and passing ability, there was no stopping Embiid. But this season, his midrange shot isn’t falling the same way. Embiid has dropped down to 35.6 percent on shots from that range.
Spike Eskin, cohost of a popular Sixers
cult podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, calls it “the empty gym mirage.” With crowdless arenas and fewer distractions for much of last season, it may have been easier for some players to hit jumpers. Perhaps, but other factors are at play, such as Embiid’s nagging injuries and his extended absence in health and safety protocols.
Regardless of the root causes, the Sixers need Embiid to step up. Philadelphia has the NBA’s 18th-ranked offense after ranking 13th last season and 14th the season prior. Average isn’t enough. Finding a player or multiple players who can jolt the offense in return for Ben Simmons is a priority. But that won’t fix everything. Embiid must find the MVP within.
6. Jonathan Kuminga Is a Major X Factor
With the Warriors choosing to not send six nightly rotation players to Canada to face the Raptors on Saturday, Kuminga made his first start. Golden State unsurprisingly lost, but the rookie had his first big game. Over 36 minutes, the rookie dropped 26 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
Kuminga reminded me of a young Jaylen Brown, except taller and stronger. Even though Kuminga is only 19, the third-youngest player in the NBA, he has the strength and frame of an older player, which he uses to get into the paint with burly downhill attacks. He floats when he elevates for dunks. And like Brown, Kuminga must develop a consistent 3-point shot. But against Toronto he hit four triples, showing his full potential as a versatile scorer.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers appeared on The Ryen Russillo Podcast last week and discussed the team’s decision to draft Kuminga with the seventh pick. “The teams that win or are great, it’s your best players that differentiate you. You can’t ever win with a bunch of role players. Our belief is you have to take swings on guys that can become stars at the top,” Myers told Russillo. “What we saw in Kuminga was great upside. And on our team, he’s not gonna get the same run, but it’s coming.”
Kuminga also had six sloppy turnovers against the Raptors, dribbling into traffic, forcing wild passes, or having the ball just slip off his fingertips. There’s work to do on his fundamentals before he can become a regular in the rotation.
There’s some logic to the Warriors deciding to package some young guys together in a trade for an available veteran. Going totally all in by pursuing Domantas Sabonis, Bradley Beal, or whoever your heart desires makes complete sense when Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are about to join forces on the floor again. But having a contributor on a cheaper rookie deal also could be beneficial short-term and long-term.
Why would the Warriors not bet on themselves? They’re on a recent streak of optimizing their talent. Jordan Poole has come along offensively. Andrew Wiggins has altered the perception of his talents. Gary Payton II is becoming a highly effective NBA player. Kuminga looks like he’s next.
7. Mailbag: Can the Lakers Get AD Back on Track?
Q: Are we sure Anthony Davis is untradable? His lackadaisical play is driving me insane.—Josh from California
You can’t be totally sure of almost anything in the NBA. The no. 1 rule is to expect the unexpected. But it would be shocking if the Lakers decided it was time to dump him when LeBron James wanted Davis, a fellow client of Klutch Sports. Would AD want out of L.A.? Would Klutch want AD out?
I just don’t see it. In a few years? Sure, why not. Who knows what will happen as LeBron approaches age 40. AD has already said he’d “definitely consider” playing for his hometown Bulls if the opportunity presented itself. Totally speculating here, but maybe in a future hypothetical sign-and-trade, AD-to-Chicago would be Lonzo Ball’s path back to Los Angeles.
What matters now for the Lakers is getting Davis back to being the AD of old. Davis is out at least four weeks with a sprained MCL, but Lakers fans hope to see more consistency down the stretch and into the playoffs. Davis especially needs to find himself as a shooter. He may never match what he did in the bubble, but he needs to at least get back to his career averages of 31.2 percent from 3. So far this season, he’s making only 17.9 percent. That won’t cut it.
But the Lakers also need to make life easier on Davis. AD’s workload was massive before the injury. He has bulked up, and is undoubtedly heavier than in past seasons, likely in anticipation of playing more center. He chases perimeter players on defense and runs the floor back on offense. He takes a ton of shots, handles the ball, and tries to anchor a defense that lacks the perimeter stoppers it’s had in past years.
Davis needs to erase more mistakes than he has since he was back in New Orleans. And he’s averaging more minutes per game (35.4) than he has since his last normal season with the Pelicans (36.4 in 2017-18). The Lakers need more from him because they’re not getting it from the rest of the roster. But it’s not all on AD to get better. It’s also on the Lakers to make positive changes to better position Davis for success.
To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, tweet me @KevinOConnorNBA. I’ll answer some questions 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.