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 Lakers Need More From Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is the author of many great clutch moments, and also some of the most frustrating plays. In the Lakers’ Christmas loss to the Nets, Westbrook shot 4-for-20 from the field and missed a dunk attempt in the closing moments, which had a wide-open LeBron James and every Lakers fan holding their hands up in disbelief. But his biggest sin was his aloof defense on a scorching-hot Patty Mills a few possessions prior:
Westbrook signals for a switch with 10 seconds on the shot clock to pick up Mills. But as the play transpires, Russ keeps his eyes locked on the ball and loses track of Mills, who shifts to the corner. There, Mills drains his eighth 3-pointer to reach 34 points and increase the Nets’ lead to five.
Losing Mills is the type of inexcusable mistake that Westbrook has committed time and time again, even in the playoffs. It can’t happen in general, but it’s especially damaging for a Lakers team that is now two games under .500 and facing one of the league’s toughest schedules while without Anthony Davis for a few weeks. But even if the Lakers claw their way back into a top-four seed, the Warriors, Suns, and Jazz are well-oiled machines that limit their own errors and feast on the mistakes of others. Defeating them will require playing with comparable discipline. Westbrook will need to lock in on defense more than he ever has in his career.
On offense, Westbrook is one of the least efficient shooters in basketball history. But this season, he’s taking fewer shots per game than he has since his second season. Half of his attempts have come at the rim, where he’s still usually a productive finisher, his night to forget against Brooklyn notwithstanding.
The Lakers had the right idea adding Westbrook. He can alleviate LeBron’s workload and give him time to rest before a possible playoff run. Westbrook should be a transition track star, run pick-and-rolls and isolations when he’s hot or has a good matchup, and certainly must run the show when LeBron is off the floor. But when sharing the floor with LeBron, Westbrook should embrace a supercharged version of the role Bruce Brown does for the Nets, or Gary Payton II has for the Warriors.
Brown and Payton constantly grind on defense, and on offense they shoot corner 3s, drive to the rim, cut, and screen. Imagine Russ committing to doing the little things. With his athleticism? With his energy? With his size? He would flourish.
Westbrook has made 43.6 percent of his corner 3s going back to last season, though it’s only on 55 attempts, and in previous seasons he made under 33 percent. But from his position in the corner, Westbrook could also find cutting opportunities inside or attack a closeout off the catch against a scrambled defense to do what he does best: finish inside or locate a wide-open teammate.
In October against the Grizzlies, the Lakers had Westbrook screening for LeBron more than in any other game this season, and it led to some quality chances with Russ passing out of the short roll. Usually defenses just switch the screen since their two best perimeter defenders would often be on Russ and LeBron anyway. But a switch can still lead to a more advantageous matchup or pull a defense out of alignment.
What Brown and Payton offer their respective teams should not be diminished because of a lack of name recognition or ascribed status. They play critical roles for two of the best teams in the NBA. The Lakers need someone who can scrap, score, and playmake to fill what was lost by the departure of Alex Caruso. Westbrook can absorb role player responsibilities, and still serve as an offensive energizer.
Unless Russ shows signs of changing, the Lakers need to at least consider moving him. Not that there’d be much interest. Few teams need a point guard, never mind a past-his-prime 33-year-old making $44 million with a player option for $47 million next season.
Westbrook to Houston (again) for John Wall (again) makes the most sense. It would be a major risk to flip Westbrook, who despite his flaws is still a good and more durable player, for Wall, who has played only 40 games in the past three calendar years. But Wall is a Klutch client. Rich Paul, LeBron, and company would know more than anyone what Wall’s condition is and his willingness to do what it takes to win with the Lakers.
Wall is a far better spot-up shooter than Westbrook. Going back to 2017-18, he’s made 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA Advanced Stats. Westbrook has made only 32.1 percent. Wall has long had his own shot-selection issues as an inefficient midrange shooter, but before the Wizards first flipped him in a trade for Westbrook, he expressed a desire to take a backseat role to Bradley Beal, who had emerged as a 30-point-per-game scorer.
“Now, with the level Brad is playing, I don’t need to be a ball-dominant guy. To be honest, I wish it was like that for a long time,” Wall told me in 2020 for a story on the Wizards. “Having a guy like Brad is going to make things easier. Now, I don’t need to take some bad shots. I can spot up or cut backdoor, or if Brad gets the ball in transition, I can run the floor.”
On paper, Wall is the steadier player. Westbrook brings higher highs and lower lows. A deal involving both of them is at least something Klutch and LeBron should consider pushing Rob Pelinka to do as one of the moves the Lakers will need to make to improve this roster.
Russ is rightfully a member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. He’s damn right he has nothing more to prove as a person. But as a competitor, there’s always more.
2. BI Is Playing His Best Basketball
Pelicans fans let me hear it when I called bullshit on Brandon Ingram winning Most Improved Player after the 2019-20 season. Ingram didn’t make the top three on my ballot. I’ve always loved Ingram’s game, and even ranked him ahead of Ben Simmons in the 2016 draft. But despite a much improved 3-pointer and a higher volume of shots, he was way worse on defense in New Orleans than he was in his final two seasons in Los Angeles. Why reward a player who declined on defense?
Together, Ingram and Zion Williamson have headlined two of the worst defenses in basketball. New Orleans isn’t all that sharp this season with brand new personnel and Zion sidelined by injury. But Ingram is better. Before exiting Sunday’s game with a sore left Achilles, he has recently looked like a player taking a major leap on offense and defense.
Ingram is finally defending with purpose again. He’s hustling for blocks, staying more attentive away from the ball, and playing energetically on the ball. By no means is he one of the league’s best defenders. Ingram isn’t even the best defender on his team—hello, Herb Jones! But Ingram is solid; he no longer sets a bad example.
Most impressive is the fact that his improved defensive effort comes while shouldering a greater overall workload. Over his past 11 games before Sunday, Ingram logged 37.3 minutes per game and averaged 27.6 points on 20.1 shots, plus 6.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists to only 2.0 turnovers.
At no point in Ingram’s career has he ever been better than he is now, scoring from all levels of the floor at a high volume while maintaining efficiency and limiting turnovers. At 6-foot-8, he’s one of the best tall playmakers in basketball.
Ingram had a comparable stretch at the end of the 2018-19 season, his final one with Los Angeles, before a blood clot in his arm ended his year. The severity of his Achilles injury is unknown as of Monday morning, but if Ingram is able to sustain his performance over this past month for the rest of the season, it will be more impressive than the leap he took to win MIP in 2019-20. What we saw during the Pelicans’ recent four-game win streak before Sunday’s loss is a 24-year-old All-Star ready to be tested in his first postseason. All Ingram needs is Zion to return so they can push for the playoffs and take their first step as a young team on a long journey.
3. A New Year’s Resolution for Luka
I wonder whether Luka Doncic realizes how special of a talent he is. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that Doncic arrived at Mavericks training camp for two consecutive seasons weighing more than 260 pounds, at least 30 pounds heavier than his listed weight. Even if the extra pounds aren’t significantly affecting his production, they do increase injury risk. Multiple years of being unfit can add wear and tear that could affect him down the line. This season, Doncic has suffered a sprained left knee and now has a lingering sore left ankle that Dallas hopes heals while he’s currently sidelined in health-and-safety protocols.
“I know I gotta do better,” Doncic told reporters. “I had the Olympics, took three weeks off, and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much. I’ve just got to get back on track.”
Doncic is a magnificent talent, a no-doubt top-10 player who could not improve a lick from today and still make the Hall of Fame. Luka is a generational talent. But he’s not a generational worker.
Doncic hasn’t improved physically since he was a 19-year-old rookie, and his game has not come far since his second season, when he was fourth in MVP voting. Luka remains an inconsistent 3-point shooter. He hasn’t cut down on turnovers. He’s one of the most inactive players without the ball in his hands. At one point, he advanced on defense, but he’s been worse this season. In a league full of players investing millions of dollars and countless unseen hours into their bodies and skills, does Luka do everything he can?
Over the summer, the internet joked about photos of Luka drinking at the Olympics, and called him “Hookah Doncic” because of videos of him smoking. Luka turns only 23 years old in February, so he has his whole career in front of him to develop discipline.
But I also wonder whether the Mavericks realize how special Luka is. Dallas lacks any semblance of shooting at the wing position, ranking 25th in overall 3-point percentage. The paint is often clogged with Kristaps Porzingis posting up and Dwight Powell spotting up from 3 in the corner, limiting driving lanes for Luka to get to the basket. Doncic is taking shots in the restricted area at a career-low rate, according to Cleaning the Glass. Luka’s best teammate is Porzingis, who has never been able to stay healthy. Dallas needs to find a better supporting cast.
But no matter what happens to the roster around him, Luka can’t skirt on the extra stuff. Nikola Jokic tried to that for a while, but then he trimmed down and vaulted from an All-NBA fixture to an MVP. With Luka’s supermax contract due to kick in next season, and all the team-building challenges of having a massive salary on the books coming along with it, building better habits needs to start for him in 2022.
4. Devin Booker Is Mastering His One Missing Move
Becoming a deadly midrange shooter helped turn Booker into an All-Star and the Suns into a destination for Chris Paul. Booker and Paul have become the NBA’s most potent midrange scoring duo. But Booker had one missing skill during Phoenix’s run to the NBA Finals.
Throughout his first six seasons, Booker shot 31.7 percent on 3s taken off the dribble. Of the 22 players to take at least 1,000 off-the-dribble 3s during that time, he ranked 20th in percentage made, ahead of only Jordan Clarkson and Russell Westbrook. In his first postseason, Booker posted nearly the same number: 31 percent on dribble-jumper 3s (while dealing with a broken nose that he at times protected by wearing a mask). Booker is a midrange savant, but the NBA’s elite shoot 3s at 35 percent or closer to 40 percent on a higher volume.
This season, Booker is performing more like the league’s best. Through 25 games, he is making 41.3 percent of his three dribble-jumper 3s, the second-best percentage in the league behind only Mike Conley.
Booker doesn’t yet take them at a high volume like Steph, Dame, Harden, or Trae. Taking them with greater regularity and continuing to make them at a high percentage is his next step. But he’s off to a sensational start, and betting against him to progress even more would be foolish considering his track record.
Booker got a taste of life as an elite pull-up 3-point shooter in Game 6 of the Suns’ first-round series against the Lakers, when he scored 47 points on eight made 3s in a closeout win. And in Game 2 of the Finals against the Bucks, he had 31 points and hit seven from deep. But there were also nights like his Finals Game 6 goose egg on seven attempts.
Booker left the floor as confetti fell for his opponents, but he came back hungry for revenge and with one more championship skill.
5. Have the Heat Landed Another Steal in Max Strus?
There’s a new knockdown shooter in Miami. Meet Max Strus, an undrafted third-year pro out of DePaul who is averaging 11 points while shooting 40.4 percent on six attempts from 3.
Erik Spoelstra utilizes Strus much like Duncan Robinson, running him through screens and handoffs. Off the dribble, Strus has been efficient while pulling up for jumpers or driving all the way to the restricted area, where he’s making 71 percent of his shots. Meanwhile, Robinson is off to a streaky start, making just 33.7 percent of his 8.4 tries from 3 per game and only 56 percent of his shots in the restricted area—down from 40.8 percent and 79 percent, respectively, last season.
Over the past five games, Strus has eclipsed Robinson in total minutes and 3-pointers. He hit the go-ahead 3 last Thursday against Detroit. All season, he’s been the better player. Strus is making $1.7 million to $15.6 million for Robinson (in the first year of his five-year, $89.9 million contract). Defensive concerns aside, teams can never have enough shooting. It will be a luxury to have both of them, though Robinson does need to find his shot again.
Strus needs to prove he can continue shooting flames from 3. He shot only 35 percent in college and 36.6 percent in all NBA-affiliated competition before this season. This season is a positive outlier for Strus in the same way it is a negative outlier for Robinson, who has shot over 40 percent from 3 since high school. With the Heat ravaged by injuries and health-and-safety protocols, we’re going to get plenty more time to find out what kind of sharpshooter Strus really is.
6. Tyrese Haliburton Looks Like the Man in Sacramento
With De’Aaron Fox missing four games while stuck in the health-and-safety protocols, the Kings saw what life is like with Haliburton at the controls of the offense.
Before Fox’s absence, Haliburton logged 66.2 touches and four minutes of possession time per game, both of which ranked second on the team behind Fox, per NBA Advanced Stats. In four games without Fox, Haliburton was first in the whole league, logging 113.5 touches and 10.1 minutes of possession. He averaged 23.5 points and 11.3 assists in what was the most potent stretch of his career. Haliburton started the season as effectively the same player he was as a rookie, if not slightly worse. But this new opportunity has allowed him to progress beyond a plateau
The question now is can Haliburton perform like this while sharing the floor with Fox. On Sunday, Fox returned and Haliburton logged only 72 touches and 12 shots—and Sacramento got slaughtered for its seventh loss in nine games. No matter who’s running the show, the Kings keep on losing.
Interim head coach Alvin Gentry should continue to have Haliburton lead the team. Even including games before this stretch, Haliburton was the more effective pick-and-roll shot creator. Sacramento’s most effective ball-handler-and-screener duos include Haliburton, not Fox.
Haliburton Is Running the Show
|Points Per Pick-and-Roll
|Points Per Pick-and-Roll
The Kings score 0.99 points per pick-and-roll run by Haliburton (86th percentile leaguewide) to only 0.88 points with Fox (36th percentile).
Haliburton still has a lot to prove in only his second season. But he’s been Sacramento’s best guard and one of the league’s best over this recent stretch. If he keeps thriving, Fox should become more expendable for a wing or center who can better complement and enhance Haliburton.
7. There’s a New Potential No. 1 Prospect in 2022
Q: Does Jabari Smith have a chance to go first in the draft? —Aaron from Georgia (email)
Yes. Duke big man Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren received the majority of hype as potential no. 1 picks in the 2022 draft entering the college season. But Auburn freshman forward Jabari Smith Jr. has entered the conversation, and even surpassed them in the eyes of many scouts and executives around the league.
Through 12 games, Smith is averaging 16.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.8 steals. At 6-foot-10, he has a fluid handle to create his own shot.
Smith is making 45.2 percent of his 3s, with many of them coming off the dribble like in the clips above. He can also pull up from midrange, hit turnaround shots from the post, or drive all the way to the basket.
Blending skill with size is becoming increasingly common as bigs continue to migrate from the interior to the perimeter. But few possess Smith’s shooting upside, which derives from an unblockable jumper plus the ability to go coast-to-coast with the ball in his hands.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl calls Smith the best player he’s ever coached, and the playmaking responsibilities he gives his freshman support his claim.
The Tigers run offense through Smith around the elbows and wings, allowing him to use dribble handoffs, pass to cutters inside, or take matters into his own hands. Against Syracuse, he stood in the middle of the zone and broke it with four assists and many other quality passes. On out-of-bounds plays, he’s often the inbounder.
Smith isn’t an all-world shot creator with the fluidity to contort his body in the paint, or an elite distributor with the vision to pick apart defenses with bullseye passes. He’s actually a bit stiff in the upper body, sorta like Michael Porter Jr., which limits his ability to slither to the rim. But I’m picking nits. Smith doesn’t turn 19 until May, making him more than one year younger than Holmgren and six months younger than Banchero.
Smith also has NBA bloodlines. His father, Jabari Smith, played 108 games in the NBA over four seasons in the early 2000s before finishing his career overseas. The younger Smith learned strong habits and discipline. People from NBA teams say he’s a mature 18-year-old who loves basketball and the work that goes into it.
Smith has highs and lows on defense, with most of his lows coming away from the ball because of his positioning and unaware rotations. But energy is never a question. He’s a competitor who flies around the floor, competes, and communicates. Few players his size can move as quickly laterally as he can, giving him on-ball stopper potential against a range of players.
Banchero is a bruising scorer resembling Chris Webber with modern perimeter versatility. Holmgren is a 7-foot rim protector with shooting range and playmaking skills. They’re both top prospects who could still go first. But not if Smith keeps getting better.
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.