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Does James Harden Need a New Move? Plus, Six Other Observations From Around the NBA.

Desmond Bane has added a new dimension to the Grizzlies offense, Domantas Sabonis has fallen out of favor in Indiana, 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. Should James Harden Unlock the Midrange?

On Friday, Harden hit two midrange jump shots against the Timberwolves. The last time he made a pair of 2-point jumpers off the dribble in a single game was over two years ago, on March 13, 2019, against the Warriors.

Much has been made about Harden’s inconsistent start to this season. Is it because of his conditioning? A lingering hamstring injury? The NBA’s new rules putting an end to his grifting? It’s a little bit of all of that. As he adjusts to his new normal, perhaps it’s time to unlock the midrange.

Harden has long been allergic to deep 2s. Even before he was the engine of Houston’s analytics-driven system, only 17.3 percent of his shots came from 2-point range outside the paint in his first seven seasons. No other player who averaged more than 14 field goals per game took a lower rate of those shots during that span. It’s been rare to see him shoot from deep midrange for his entire career, but it’s an effective shot for him. Over the past five seasons, Harden shot 43.1 percent on dribble-jumper 2s, according to Synergy Sports.

Harden can use the same stepbacks and side steps he deploys to create space for 3s to open up shots from midrange. Defenders oft​​en anticipate that he’ll take stepback 3s, drive all the way to the rim, or shoot in floater range, which is also where he has drawn many of his fouls. Using the midrange more often could be his curveball as he adjusts to his diminished explosiveness at age 32. Of course, Harden should not become a midrange fiend like his teammate Kevin Durant or his former backcourt partner Chris Paul. Those two shoot it closer to 50 percent, making it a significantly more efficient shot. But on nights when Harden isn’t feeling it from 3 or he’s not getting the whistle near the paint, it would be a valuable tool.

2. Desmond Bane Is a Complete Player

Just 91 games into his young career, Bane is already one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters, drilling 42.1 percent of his shots from long range. He can make every shot in the book because he does all the little things.

Bane’s pristine footwork allows him to launch shots in milliseconds coming off handoffs and screens. When sprinting on the break, he’s able to smoothly gather his feet to slow his momentum before elevating. He also has a smart floor sense, relocating to create passing lanes and open shot opportunities.

Bane also loves to pump fake. Defenders fly at him when he catches the ball at the 3-point line and he knows he can make them leave their feet just with a subtle move:

The most versatile shooters have this shot in their bag, from stars like Zach LaVine to specialists like Buddy Hield. It’s simple, but it’s one of the skills that separates great shooters from the rest of the pack.

Bane improved his ability to shoot off the dribble and now Memphis uses him more in the pick-and-roll, especially with Ja Morant sidelined. Though he’s primarily a shooting threat in the Grizzlies offense, he also can make plays off the bounce. Memphis took Bane with the 30th pick in the 2020 draft and he’s already proved to be the steal of his class.

3. Does Rick Carlisle Hate Domantas Sabonis?

Nate McMillan was replaced by the disastrous Nate Bjorkgren, who got dumped for a future Hall of Fame head coach in Rick Carlisle, and yet the results remain blah and boring for the Pacers a third season in a row.

Most curious of all is Carlisle’s handling of Sabonis, a 25-year-old two-time All-Star who has seen his role dwindle this season. Sabonis was previously a playmaking hub on the elbow and post, logging 14.6 touches per game under McMillan to 14.3 under Bjorkgren, but that number has plummeted under Carlisle to only 8.7, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Allowing Sabonis to facilitate from the elbows optimized his offensive value because it empowered him to attack the basket or pick apart the defense with the pass. Now he’s been neutered by being asked to be a stationary player spotting up from 3. The problem is that he’s a minor threat from distance, at only 31.6 percent from 3 in his career and only 28.4 percent this season.

Carlisle doesn’t like post-ups. In Dallas, he removed Kristaps Porzingis’s post touches in favor of 3s. The difference is Porzingis is a knockdown shooter for his size and in previous seasons was a feeble post presence. Sabonis isn’t a dominant post threat like Joel Embiid or a telepathic playmaker from the elbows like Nikola Jokic. But he’s good. It’s what he does best.

If Carlisle’s vision for Sabonis doesn’t align with his ideal role, it poses a question about Sabonis’s future with the team. The idea of dealing him is understandably met with a split opinion among Pacers fans. You could point to his success and year-to-year improvement, but you could also have concerns about his fit and his shortcomings on defense; Sabonis has made subtle yet insignificant improvements there over the years, and he’s still average at best.

The trade market is as dry as a Pacers game. If Indiana openly shopped Sabonis, he would immediately become the best player available. What he offers may not work for Indiana, but his playmaking could be of great value to another team with contending hopes—or a team desperate to push for a playoff spot. In turn, the Pacers could fill their no. 1 need of a playmaking guard or wing who can generate an open shot at the end of the shot clock. It might cost them their most accomplished player, but at least it’d get them moving in the right direction.

4. Deni Avdija Is Suddenly an Elite Defender

As a rookie, Avdija often got shredded defending on-ball, to the point that then–Wizards head coach Scott Brooks would pull him off the floor. Now in year two, his new coach, Wes Unseld Jr., brings him off the bench and assigns him to the opponent’s best player.

Avdija, the no. 9 pick in 2020, is flourishing while defending players of all sizes and styles, from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant to Jaylen Brown and Jimmy Butler.

Team defense was Avdija’s best strength while playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. He played hard, stayed focused, and, despite being a teenager, rotated like a veteran to alter shots around the rim. But he lacked the lateral quickness to contain speedy players on-ball. Now he’s stronger, quicker, and plays with better discipline. It’s helping him get stops on-ball against forwards plus some small guards, and off-ball he has already blocked more shots (18) than he did all of last season (15) in half as many games.

Avdija’s rapid defensive progress is encouraging. Things still aren’t clicking on offense. The 6-foot-9 forward was projected as a sweet-shooting wing who could make plays off the bounce. But so far, he has had a minimal role with the ball and he’s making only 31.3 percent of his 3s. Still, he’s only 20, and he’s already proved he can turn his weaknesses into strengths. It could be only a matter of time until his offense begins to shine.

5. Who’s Calling the Shots in Portland?

Portland’s year of change continued on Friday when the franchise fired longtime general manager Neil Olshey following an investigation into his workplace behavior. This comes one month after Trail Blazers CEO Chris McGowan resigned​​ and six months after Chauncey Billups replaced Terry Stotts as head coach. Three years after the death of team owner Paul Allen, the Trail Blazers franchise is in disarray.

On Saturday, with Damian Lillard out nursing an abdomen injury, Portland gave up 145 points at home to Boston. Lillard was visibly furious at the final buzzer. Billups questioned the team’s heart and effort.

Joe Cronin, the interim general manager, was in the arena watching it all. Seated by Cronin’s side were team owner Jody Allen, who inherited the team from her brother, and Bert Kolde, the team’s vice chairman and Paul’s college roommate and right-hand man. They watched their team fall to 11-13 following a summer in which Lillard flirted with requesting a trade.

Kolde has held various roles through the years on the business side of the Blazers and Seahawks, as well as Vulcan, the company overseeing all of Paul Allen’s affairs. Now, Kolde is the highest-ranking person in the organization under Jody Allen, and he is her most trusted voice.

The Seahawks, Allen’s other sports franchise, aren’t doing so hot either. They’re currently 4-8 and have their own disgruntled star pondering a trade in Russell Wilson. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo said Sunday that Allen is “very involved” and “not happy” with the state of the Seahawks.

The decisions that Allen and the new regime make for the Blazers will have ripple effects around the league. The core of the team has remained untouched for years. But given recent events, change is inevitable.

6. How Does Davion Mitchell Fit Into the Kings’ Plan?

Kings fans get a dramatically different experience every night watching Davion Mitchell. One game, the ninth pick in 2021 will look like Sacramento’s next great draft bust, following in the footsteps of Nik Stauskas and Georgios Papagiannis. The n​​ext game, he’ll look like the league’s next great small point guard, hitting pull-up 3s and playing gritty full-court pressure defense.

Like many rookies, Mitchell lacks consistency. The 6-footer is a below-the-rim finisher, yet his shot isn’t falling either, at only 28.1 percent from 3 and 65.4 percent from the line. Mitchell’s free throw percentage is similar to his college average (65.7 percent) through three seasons. And his 3-point percentage resembles his first two years (31.2 percent) before he made a leap as a junior up to 45 percent. Could his junior season at Baylor have been an outlier? If so, that’s bad news for a small guard.

The Kings are at a crossroads yet again, with a new interim head coach, a relatively new GM, and a lot of players with uncertain futures. GM Monte McNair drafted two guards in consecutive drafts (Mitchell and Tyrese Haliburton) despite having De’Aaron Fox on the payroll, which suggests to executives around the league that Fox will be his main piece for a big move. But Fox is still Sacramento’s primary source of shot creation. Mitchell hasn’t proved he can run the show. Haliburton seems more like a secondary guy given his athletic limitations.

It’s still early. Mitchell’s defense, despite his size, is already still good enough to give him regular opportunities. But for McNair and the Kings to make trades to change the construction of this team, the roster needs to start showing something on a nightly basis.

7. Mailbag: The Cavs Are Bigger and Better

Q: The weirdo lineup of three bigs in Cleveland seems to be working. Evan Mobley is versatile, Lauri Markkanen’s shot is coming around, and Jarrett Allen is having a career year. Is this sustainable in the modern NBA, or an early-season gimmick that will be forgotten by the All-Star break? —Matt in Cleveland (via email)

The Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with the funky frontcourt of Allen, Mobley, and Markkanen. Going from the 30th-ranked defense in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and 25th ranked in 2020-21 to third this season might seem unsustainable, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests it’s not a fluke. A lot of it has to do with how special Mobley is.

Versatility is the most important skill in the NBA, and Mobley can block shots at the rim, like he did in the closing minute Sunday against the Jazz, and also slide his feet on the perimeter to contain go-to scorers.

This season, the Cavs allow only 0.71 points per chance when Mobley defends an isolation. That ranks third of the 47 players to defend at least 60 isos, according to Second Spectrum (behind PJ Tucker and Jaren Jackson Jr.). Oftentimes, scorers don’t even attempt to challenge him like they would other bigs because he’s so quick, so long, and so good positionally.

Mobley allows Cleveland to shapeshift and use different defensive schemes, with or without both Markkanen and Allen on the court. The Cavs primarily use a drop pick-and-roll coverage in which the player defending the screener stays back toward the paint, but they frequently use switches. When Cleveland switches an on-ball screen, it allows only 0.79 points per chance, best in the NBA, according to Second Spectrum.

Size has its benefits. Allen is a traditional rim protector having an excellent season, and Markkanen is huge for a small forward. If Mobley or any perimeter defender gets beat, length is waiting inside:

Offensively, Allen and Mobley give point guard Darius Garland two options as screeners and lob threats, Mobley can do everything, from short roll playmaking to pick-and-pops for 3s. Though Sunday’s loss to Utah didn’t end the way Garland or Cavs fans hoped for, their competitiveness to come back against one of the NBA’s most consistently great teams is just another sign that they are for real.

To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, email me at nbamailbag@gmail.com or contact me on social media @KevinOConnorNBA. 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.