Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including one answer to a question I pulled from my social media mailbag:
1. Klay Is Back
I’ll always remember the roar of the crowd when Klay Thompson returned to the floor to shoot two free throws after tearing his ACL. It was deafening. The moment his head poked out of the tunnel, all of Oracle Arena went from saddened to overjoyed. Their lovable, selfless, amazing star had just hobbled off the floor with a leg injury in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, but he was back to finish the play.
It felt like Klay was about to have a Willis Reed moment. Or a Paul Pierce poop game return. Back on the court to lead his team to victory and a Game 7 in Toronto. But that wasn’t the case. The Warriors lost and Thompson was lost for 941 days, first to his torn ACL and then to a ruptured Achilles.
On Sunday, he came back for good. And the crowd—this time at the Chase Center, on the other side of the Bay—got loud again. Much has changed for the franchise since the last time Thompson played basketball, back in June 2019. But it looked like the same old Klay out there on the court running with the Warriors.
I jumped out of my seat when Klay dunked all over the Cavaliers in the second quarter. The slow crossover. The elevation. The mean mug. It was the kind of moment we’ve been waiting to see from him.
Thompson is one of the greatest shooters in history, but he’s always done more than just shoot 3s. His ability to attack weaker perimeter defenders, make smart passes, and defend was put on display against Cleveland.
Here's Klay Thompson's hot start to the third quarter— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 10, 2022
-Pick-and-pop action with Curry, baseline jumper fading left
-Created separation with right foot (same as Achilles tear) for jumper over Markkanen in iso setting
-Vintage transition 3 pic.twitter.com/zcxjIrDQie
Thompson went on a run to open the third quarter, scoring in a variety of ways. Thompson’s stop-on-a-dime transition 3s are the cleanest shot in the game; the one he reeled one off with about nine minutes left in the third deserves a chef’s kiss.
Athletically, Klay looks like himself. Even on defense, he moved well laterally considering how long it’s been since he played in a game. Klay jumped at a pump fake by Darius Garland and Lamar Stevens blew by him once, but he was solid.
On one play, Thompson switched on to Evan Mobley and battled to force the 7-footer into a tough hook shot. The shot went in, but the result didn’t matter. Seeing Thompson play so hard and drain shots on offense (he was 7-for-18 for 17 points) was all that mattered. It felt like he never left.
This was a good Klay night. We will see great Klay nights. Klay is back. There is a lot to cheer for again.
2. Steady Freddy Is Now Freddy All-Star
The Raptors have won six straight games, with five of them coming in their empty home arena. It’s fair to question whether they’re for real or not considering the circumstances, but it’s important to note that this is the first stretch of games in which Toronto’s eight best players have all been healthy or out of COVID protocols. And with their full roster to work with, they’ve chosen to do something different: playing a bunch of wings and forwards around one little guy, Fred VanVleet.
In his past six games, “Freddy All-Star” has posted these point totals: 31, 35, 33, 19, 37, and 32. That’s an average of 31.2 points He’s taking 22.3 shots per game during that span, including 13.2 tries from 3. These are bonkers numbers. And it’s not like he’s stopped doing the other stuff he’s known for: He’s still logging 6.7 assists and one turnover per game while playing tone-setting defense.
VanVleet always has done all the little things, and now he’s emerging as a star who can carry an offense. He’s making 44.3 percent of his 3s during this stretch, an uptick from his career average of 38.8 percent. He’s just shooting more.
What’s also changed is his finishing around the rim. VanVleet is shooting 57 percent in the restricted area, up from 51 percent in all prior seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass—a strong number for a 6-foot-1 guard.
VanVleet is playing the best basketball of his career as of late, but he’s been great this entire season. He has missed only three games. The Raptors are 20-14 when he plays and they outscore opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. For the full season, he’s averaging 22 points. 6.7 assists, and 5 rebounds while playing defense that will have him in consideration for one of the four guard spots on an All-Defense team. VanVleet should become a first-time All-Star.
There are four guaranteed spots for guards on each conference’s All-Star roster, and up to six total due to the two wild-card positions. In the East, Trae Young and Zach LaVine are locks. DeMar DeRozan is too since he’s listed as a guard instead of a forward. James Harden will probably make it as well. Jaylen Brown is also listed as a guard. That’s five names. VanVleet could end up making it as a wild card, which coaches vote for, but his performance so far this season is arguably worthy of a starting spot, determined by fans and media, next to DeRozan.
Young doesn’t play a lick of defense. Harden has underwhelmed. Brown has not been as good as VanVleet. LaVine is a deserving starter, but VanVleet’s playmaking load and defense could give him the edge once ballots are due.
Eight of Toronto’s next 11 games are on the road. The schedule will be a true test for a team pushing the limits of lineup versatility and could serve to solidify VanVleet’s place as an All-Star.
3. Why LeBron at Center Is Working
On Sunday, the Grizzlies slaughtered the Lakers. It was only L.A.’s second loss since Christmas—both to Memphis—yet the five wins over that span have come against underwhelming opponents. The absence of Anthony Davis has caused the Lakers to primarily use LeBron James at center, and those lineups hemorrhage points to quality opponents like Memphis.
But as much as they’re struggling to get stops playing small ball, the lineup gives the Lakers an interesting wrinkle to throw at opponents in spurts once Davis returns from his MCL sprain. In lineups with LeBron at center, the Lakers are outscoring teams by 3.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s worked because LeBron is pulverizing defenses with downhill attacks: 41 percent of his shots come at the rim, up from only 31 percent in all other lineups, according to PBP Stats. And his scoring is way up at the 5: 32.9 points per 36 minutes compared to only 25.5 points per 36 when he plays with one or more bigs.
In recent weeks, James has become the scorer the Lakers have needed. Russell Westbrook is also getting better quality shots; with LeBron at the 5, Russ attempts 67.8 percent of his shots inside of the restricted area, and his effective field goal percentage leaps from 42 percent to 52 percent. What the Lakers sacrifice in defensive size with James at center they make up in shooting. LeBron’s gravity also opens driving lanes for teammates like Russ and even Talen Horton-Tucker, and those attacks on the basket create kickout passes to knockdown shooters Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk.
Since Christmas, Monk is averaging 20 points while making 48.2 percent of his 3s. He’s starting games and should continue to. Monk has filled the role the Lakers once envisioned for Buddy Hield: coming off screens, handoffs, and relocations to launch 3s. But unlike Hield, Monk is also an explosive at-rim finisher who can attack off the catch or throw down lobs.
Monk has set 32 screens for Center LeBron this season, which has led to some sequences like the one above, with Monk and James doing a two-man dance near the sideline to give Monk space to launch a 3.
The absence of Davis and others has forced the Lakers to get creative with lineup choices and with replacement players. Whether it’s roster players like Horton-Tucker and Monk or new signings like Stanley Johnson, the Lakers are finding some new stuff that works. What’s missing is a healthy and energized Davis. Based on the initial timeline, Davis is expected to be reevaluated by the end of the week. If Davis plays like himself whenever he returns, the Lakers could have the lineup flexibility to go with LeBron and AD as the starting frontcourt, and then utilize occasional two-big lineups or LeBron at center.
Los Angeles looks like a team that’s starting to fit. And that all starts with LeBron becoming what his team needs him to be to win once again. At age 37, in Year 19, LeBron is showing a new layer as a center.
4. The Hawks Shouldn’t Trade Cam Reddish
Cam Reddish’s name has been caught up in the trade rumor mill this season. In just the past week, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said there’s belief the Hawks aren’t committed to giving Reddish the type of contract he’s looking for; and at The Athletic, Sam Amick reported Reddish is one of the two “most likely candidates” to be dealt by Atlanta.
Veteran forward Danilo Gallinari is the other, according to Amick. Gallo is 33, and makes over $20 million but plays barely over 20 minutes a night. It makes sense to want to trade him. But Reddish? I fail to understand why the Hawks would trade him unless the return is overwhelming.
Reddish is 22. He’s a nuisance of a defender with the versatility to contain quicker and longer players—exactly the type of player you want to put around Trae Young. On offense, he provides spacing as a spot-up shooter for Young but has also shown three-level scoring flashes out of the pick-and-roll. At the end of December, he scored 33 points and 34 points in games in the span of five days. He helps now, and he offers upside later.
But I have also heard what Windhorst and Amick reported. It’s one of those topics executives are talking about a lot. Especially after Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk effectively said that he needs to consolidate the pieces on this team to fix what’s wrong. “Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to bring everybody back. That’s on me,” Schlenk said on 92.9 The Game. “It’s my responsibility to put a product on the floor that can win. Right now I’m questioning whether or not I have done that.”
Clearly not. The Hawks have the league’s fourth-worst defensive rating. An offense powered by Trae’s heroics has carried them to a 17-22 record. Atlanta needs two things: one more primary ball handler who can run the offense, and more help on defense. What Atlanta has is a bunch of dudes who can handle the ball but not run the point. Reddish definitely isn’t a floor general. Delon Wright, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter aren’t either. Lou Williams, even with all of his age and wisdom, is still a score-first bucket-getter, not someone looking to get others involved.
The Hawks would be better off trading Huerter or Bogdanovic. Reddish brings something different with his defense and scoring upside, whereas Huerter and Bogdanovic have redundant skills as shooters who occasionally handle the ball. Bogdanovic is 29 and has two seasons remaining. Huerter is 23 and his four-year rookie extension hasn’t even kicked in, which means any team dealing for him would be subjected to a punitive trade kicker known as a “poison pill.”
Moving Reddish only makes sense if the return includes a player who can help the defense and fulfill this major need on offense. Like, say, Ben Simmons? Last week, Marc Stein wrote in his newsletter: “It was suggested to me this week by one league source to keep an eye on Atlanta as an emerging suitor for Philadelphia’s Simmons.”
Anything short of a player of Simmons’s caliber should not be considered for Reddish, no matter what money he might demand more than a year from now. Many other teams want him because he could be worth it.
5. It’s Time for the Blazers to Reset
Depending on how you want to look at it, the Trail Blazers are either tied for the NBA’s eighth-worst record or the eighth-best draft odds. Damian Lillard is limited by an abdominal injury and the team’s defense is an abomination. Chauncey Billups hasn’t yet proved to be a positive change at head coach from Terry Stotts. It’s been a shitty season, but at 15-24, Portland is tied in record with San Antonio for the final play-in tournament spot. The 10-seed shouldn’t be all that appealing, though, when this roster has no chance of making much noise in the playoffs.
Front office executives and agents have been gossiping recently about whether the Blazers could become sellers ahead of the February 10 deadline. CJ McCollum could bring value to a ton of teams with his scoring ability, just as Jusuf Nurkic can as a bruising center and Robert Covington could with his help defense. Those players’ flaws make it tough to form an appropriate support system around Lillard, but they could help a lot of teams in need of their specific skills.
As first noted by Marc Stein in his Substack, Portland’s handling of Lillard’s injury could play into its trade deadline approach. The more time Dame misses, the further the Blazers will fall from playoff contention.
Everything else can change except Dame and the other good stuff: Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little. Simons, 22, will be in the league a long time, and his recent 43-point game showed what he can become as a fiery guard. Little, 21, is an impressive wing defender who brings energy and explosive scoring potential. The Blazers should keep them for now. Portland’s youth is its silver lining.
Shuffling the rest of the deck could better set up the Blazers around Lillard for next season, and in the meantime, make the team worse to help get higher draft odds. It’s a year in which there are currently three potential first picks: forward Jabari Smith Jr. from Auburn and two northwest players in Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero, who was raised in Seattle and plays forward at Duke. All three could complement Lillard with modern skills that he’s never had around him before. The Blazers could either keep the selection or they could use it to trade for a star, rejuvenating their championship hopes.
A retooling period offers far more upside than pushing for maybe an exciting play-in tournament victory or two and then a first-round spanking at the hands of one of the top two seeds in the West. A team with Dame might miss the playoffs, but a team with Dame could land a top pick. No matter how you look at it, a new chapter is beginning.
6. Where Did Corey Kispert’s Shot Go?
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep Corey Kispert off the court,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told me before the season. “Just watching him, how mature his game is, how easy he hits shots. And he’s bigger than you think.”
This was Washington’s expectation for Kispert, a Gonzaga senior who made 41 percent of his college 3s. But in the NBA, Kispert is making just 28.6 percent of his 3s and playing only 16.9 minutes per game. Kispert was supposed to be one of the solutions to the Wizards’ shooting woes, but instead he’s been a contributor: They rank 27th in 3-point percentage and 28th in attempts per game.
Over Kispert’s past eight games, he’s averaging 28 minutes and getting more shots but they still aren’t falling. Kispert could quicken his release time but there’s nothing dramatically wrong with his form. He’s clanking plenty of wide-open shots. Maybe it’s the feel of the ball or the added distance of the NBA 3-point line. No matter the cause, his results need to improve.
Kispert does the basic stuff on offense—cutting, attacking closeouts, and passing—at a high level as a rookie. Even on defense, he’s been solid positionally and looked serviceable in man-to-man situations. Lateral movement was a concern for him out of college but he has surpassed expectations. He could be a longtime pro—but only if he starts hitting shots.
7. Do the Grizzlies Have the Backcourt of the Future?
Q: Is there a better backcourt in the NBA right now that Ja Morant and Desmond Bane?—Matt from Twitter
Based on this season alone, I’d say Morant and Bane have been the NBA’s third-best backcourt duo. Chris Paul and Devin Booker have been better, and if you want to call DeMar DeRozan a backcourt player, then so have DeRozan and Zach LaVine.
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson can surpass them; so could James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But Morant and Bane have individually and collectively taken their games to a different stratosphere.
JA MORANT— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 10, 2022
ONE OF THE MOST ATHLETIC BLOCKS YOU’LL EVER SEE. pic.twitter.com/mSBEajPDtK
Morant does stuff like the block above on a nightly basis. He’s a godly at-rim finisher, and now he’s a reliable shooter from 3. Morant is a complete point guard and he’s perfectly complemented by his backcourt partner.
Bane has been so good this season that we made a video breakdown about him in November and published a blurb about him in my article on December 6. At the time, Bane was averaging 15.9 points on 12.9 shots a game and shooting 40.1 percent from 3. Good stuff from a second-year pro.
Since then, he’s up to 19.9 points and 16 shots a game, and shooting 45.7 percent from 3. Those numbers are all inching even higher in recent weeks, above 22 points per game on over 17 shots. The more Memphis feeds Bane, the better he gets.
Morant is already one of the NBA’s great point guards. Bane is becoming one of the great 2-guards. He has the versatility to score when he starts on or off the ball. He’s slippery. Despite being only 23, he plays with veteran savvy, using pump fakes and pivots to generate space, whether it’s using a screen to get open for a 3 or with the ball in his hands. Bane is just smooth at everything he does on the court, a reliable guy who can go off any night for 30 just from scoring within the rhythm of the offense.
Bane is a good pick-and-roll shot-creator who can score from any spot on the floor and make plays for his teammates. But he doesn’t get many chances to isolate and play one-on-one like Morant does. It’s the next area of his game that Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins should explore this season. The early returns on Bane’s isolations are impressive.
Most recently, Bane hit a pull-up 3 in Kevin Durant’s face. Earlier this season, he zoomed by LeBron to score at the rim. But he’s shot only 11 times out of isolations on the season, and made six of them, according to Synergy. There could be more go-to scoring ability in him waiting to be unlocked with a higher usage rate.
The Grizzlies are currently in fourth place in the West, with a five-game cushion separating them from the Mavs in fifth. And they’re only 3.5 games back from first place. Memphis can afford to experiment with Morant and Bane to find out what it really has. The upside is limitless.