Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including my All-Star ballot ahead of Thursday’s starters announcement:
1. Does Another Westbrook-for-Wall Trade Make Sense?
All signs point to Frank Vogel eventually being fired by the Lakers. There are legitimate gripes about him as a coach, such as his rotation decisions (like featuring Avery Bradley over Austin Reaves) and his game-planning (using Carmelo Anthony, not LeBron James, as a defender recently against Domantas Sabonis).
David Fizdale, the next coach down on the Lakers’ bench, could inject some energy into this group in an interim role, but a new coach won’t change the fact that Rob Pelinka built a roster with holes that were caused by depleting the depth chart to get Russell Westbrook.
Sloppy decisions, inefficient shooting, and aloof defense have been occasional themes throughout Westbrook’s career, but the good usually outweighed the bad. To make the most of playing with LeBron James, Westbrook needs to realize he’s not Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade and be more like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love by making sacrifices, trying to fit in, and tweaking his game.
“The challenge is how to be the version of myself for this team, that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Westbrook told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday morning. “I want to get better as the season goes on, and I’ve got to take responsibility for the things I’m doing and how I’m making those around me better. We have a legitimate chance to be able to win it all, and to do that, I’ll have to be better—and I know that I will be.”
Hours after ESPN published Woj’s story on Westbrook, Marc Stein reported on his Substack that the Rockets would be open to trading John Wall to the Lakers for Westbrook and their 2027 first-round pick. An all-time great NFL divisional weekend helped overshadow Stein’s report, but it’s noteworthy that there’s one team interested in acquiring Russ if the Lakers decide to hit the emergency evacuation button. Wall and Westbrook were swapped for each other last season. Another Wall-for-Westbrook trade would be objectively hilarious, but it would also be an extreme idea for Los Angeles considering that Wall has barely played in two years. Westbrook is better today because he’s also available. No one knows how effective or healthy Wall would be.
Having said that, the Lakers, who are sitting at 23-24 and in eighth place in the West, need to shake up this roster. They’re calling teams offering a future first, Kendrick Nunn, and Talen Horton-Tucker, who has underwhelmed this season, and no one is biting yet. Stein says they offered that package to Detroit for Jerami Grant. The Lakers’ problem is THT just isn’t valued highly enough by teams and that 2027 pick is a long time from conveying. Even if the reported Westbrook-for-Wall trade doesn’t happen, it does at least indicate that Houston has interest in exploring a potential trade.
The Lakers should also have reliable intel about Wall’s condition, considering their relationship with Klutch Sports, the agency that represents Wall and the team’s two biggest stars: LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Klutch and the Lakers have an aligned interest: Put LeBron in the best position to win. And Klutch must put Wall in the best situation to resurrect his career. In theory, Rich Paul and Pelinka can be totally honest with each other about Wall’s fit with the Lakers.
One interesting hypothetical: What if the deal was instead Westbrook, Horton-Tucker, and a future first for Wall and Eric Gordon? The Lakers don’t have many other ways of sweetening the deal if Houston needed more. As discussed in the next section, Gordon should have lots of suitors as the most undervalued player currently on the trade market. He could provide the Lakers with perimeter scoring and strong point-of-attack defense. Gordon is a better overall fit on the Lakers than Westbrook. So is Wall, if healthy, because of his more attentive defense and his superior spot-up shooting. It’s something worth considering if the Rockets can’t find anything better for Gordon, and if the Lakers can’t find anything better with their pick and THT.
For now, the Lakers need Westbrook to practice what he preached to Woj by taking on a new role to see whether he can make it work. Russ is capable of change because every person can change. All of us can develop new habits and adapt to make the most of new circumstances. And Westbrook has started to reel it back a bit, averaging his fewest field goal attempts since his second year in the league.
Meanwhile, LeBron is attempting 20.9 shots per game, his most since the 2007-08 season. He’s becoming the scorer the Lakers need while Westbrook shoots less. But less might not be enough. Vogel will likely be the first scapegoat, but Westbrook is the next problem that needs to be fixed.
2. Eric Gordon Is the NBA Trade Deadline Name to Watch
Gordon is 33 years old and in the 14th season of his career, so he’s older and doesn’t have the same shine as others on the trade market. But being a known commodity with a history of postseason success is precisely why contenders should be all over him.
Users on the Fanspo Trade Machine have made Gordon the 18th-most-dealt player on the app, behind Goran Dragic and Dennis Schröder, which speaks to how much of an afterthought he is. The lack of hype is a bit puzzling considering the amount of playoff contenders—Lakers, Mavs, Wolves, Cavs, and others—that could use a bucket-getting guard who can drain 3s off the catch and play strong defense.
Despite the losing in Houston, Gordon has defended with playoff intensity, as if he’s showcasing his abilities for winning teams:
Gordon is a plus defender, especially at pressuring opposing ball handlers. At 6-foot-3, his length and strength gives him some versatility for a switching defense. This season, he’s matched up with larger players like Jimmy Butler, and in past postseasons he defended the likes of LeBron and Kawhi Leonard.
Teams know what they’ll get from Gordon on offense. Downhill drives, a dash of playmaking, and shooting. The same player we’ve seen contributing for years. This season Gordon is shooting a career-high 45.2 percent from 3, and even if that number regresses some, he’s still made 37.2 percent for his career. A playoff team or even a contender should give up a first-round pick for Gordon. It’s just a matter of who.
3. Bismack Biyombo Is Just What the Suns Needed
Depth behind Deandre Ayton was a clear hole for the Suns last season, but it became impossible to ignore when Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Frank Kaminsky was the only utilized option behind Ayton, and the Bucks outscored the Suns by 23 points in only 63 minutes when Ayton wasn’t in the game during that series. With Ayton on the floor, though, the Suns bested the Bucks by nine points over 225 minutes. So the Suns went out to make changes last offseason by signing veteran JaVale McGee, who has made the most of Ayton’s absences.
After Ayton, McGee, and Jae Crowder were placed in health-and-safety protocols last month, the Suns faced a familiar frontcourt dilemma. This time they brought in another veteran in Bismack Biyombo, who quickly turned his 10-day hardship exemption into a deal for the rest of the season. In his past three games, Biyombo is averaging 15.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists while playing solid defense over 27.4 minutes. He has already set 81 screens for Chris Paul this season and the Suns are scoring 1.25 points per play on those sets, according to Second Spectrum. Small sample or not, it’s just another case of CP3 making the most of his center.
Fit is everything in the NBA. With the Suns, Biyombo is simply asked to screen and roll hard, run the floor, cut, rebound, and hustle. It’s the same role that Ayton and McGee play, which highlights all of their strengths while muting their flaws. Paul handles the majority of the playmaking, delivering his bigs easy chances because he always finds the open man.
Biyombo alone isn’t winning the Suns a championship (though it’s awesome to picture Adam Silver handing him the Finals MVP trophy). He’s shown he can be an important piece of the center rotation, though. McGee is a bouncy interior presence. If Saric returns in April, nine months after his ACL surgery, he’ll bring shooting and perimeter skill. Biyombo is somewhere in the middle, with an interior role on offense but more defensive ability outside the paint than McGee, making him a stronger option to defend someone like Giannis in the postseason. The Suns would have three different types of bigs to use in their non-Ayton minutes even before factoring in Kaminsky or Jalen Smith further down the bench.
The Suns are 14-3 without Ayton this season because of their collective play. Even Smith, whose third-year option the Suns declined, excelled during his six-game stretch receiving heavy minutes. The Suns lost to the Bucks last year in part because of their lack of depth behind Ayton. James Jones has filled the roster with ample options for Monty Williams this time around. With Paul making the most of them out on the floor, the Suns feel complete.
4. The Raptors Continue Their Pascal Siakam Experiment
In 14 games since returning from COVID protocols on December 28, Pascal Siakam is logging 86.3 touches per game, which is up from 60.1 touches per game previously this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is empowering Siakam with more pick-and-rolls and handoffs.
A lot of the time, the Raptors will have Siakam bring the ball up the floor and dribble straight into a handoff to someone like Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. Siakam is logging 11 pick-and-rolls per game over this stretch, up from 6.2 prior, according to Second Spectrum. With those reps, he showcases an improved ability to read coverages, which follows a trend of improvements in his career.
Siakam does a nice job of sensing double-teams and delivering accurate passes to teammates. At 6-foot-8, he can throw passes from high angles that smaller players can’t make. Siakam is averaging a career-high 4.9 assists this season, including 6.2 since the New Year. Over Toronto’s past 14 games, the Raptors have a plus-7 net rating in Siakam’s minutes with a 114.2 offensive rating, which collapses to minus-20.5 with a 98.4 offensive rating when he’s resting.
But as good as Siakam’s playmaking has been, his on-ball scoring still remains inefficient with a higher usage. Siakam is scoring 0.84 points per pick-and-roll when he shoots or draws a foul as the ball handler, which is one of the worst numbers in the game, according to Second Spectrum. Over the past two seasons, he’s also been one of the least efficient.
The Raptors have done lots of experimenting this season. OG Anunoby began the year seeing more touches than ever, but his usage has fallen closer to last season. Now it’s Siakam’s turn, and the Raptors are finding out that while he’s still scoring inefficiently with increased shot-creation chances, he can offer more as a playmaker.
Siakam has long embodied the qualities of a winning player who can shift shapes to absorb a role that maximizes what his team needs. We have seen him be a 3-and-D player for a title team, then morph into more of a scorer. Now, he’s passing the ball more than ever.
The Raptors have decisions to make in the coming years. As Scottie Barnes develops, his size and ability to facilitate as a lead ball handler, a screener, or hub near the elbows means his on-ball responsibilities will dramatically increase. But for now, the Raptors can try things out to learn what they have with everyone else.
5. Musical Chairs in Memphis Hasn’t Shaken the Grizz
Following the Grizzlies is like watching a reality show that always follows the same format and just funnels in different characters. Memphis has had 14 different starting lineups this season, yet still sits in third place in the West. It all started when Ja Morant went down with a scary injury in November, and the season seemed over for Memphis before it barely started. But then the Grizz started winning without him and the winning didn’t stop once Ja made his surprise return three weeks later. The Grizzlies got even better in his absence and have maintained their success despite a slew of other absences across the roster.
Despite all the time lost to injuries and players in the health-and-safety protocols, the Grizzlies have managed to benefit by finding hidden gems further down the bench. While no one could’ve expected Memphis to push for home court in the playoffs, it was always obvious the team had depth. But now at the halfway point, 15 Grizzlies players have averaged over 10 minutes in at least 20 games.
As of late, lanky rookie scoring wing Ziaire Williams and third-year, undrafted positionless dude John Konchar have been starting games for Memphis. Recently, they made this play together:
The Grizzlies also gave Williams, a 20-year-old, the responsibility of being Steph Curry’s primary defender in a showdown against the Warriors—and he excelled.
Williams has defended a ton of stars this season and more than held his own, and not just for a rookie. At 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he’s skinny for a forward but he’s long for a point guard. That’s why the Grizz have him defend stars like Curry, Donovan Mitchell, and Damian Lillard. If he’s able to grow into his frame while maintaining his quickness, he could become one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders.
On offense, he’s a work in progress like he was as a Stanford freshman, with a streaky jumper and a lack of strength on drives to the rim. But he’s a constant lob threat on the break, and he can handle the ball. He may not become a star, but he possesses go-to-scoring qualities.
The Grizzlies have to feel good about the 10th pick based on his early returns, and about the investment they made in Konchar three years ago.
The numbers don’t really explain the 6-foot-5 Konchar, but since his first start on December 26 he’s averaging 7.3 points and 7.5 rebounds over 26.2 minutes. He does a little bit of everything. He tracks rebounds with a spidey-sense, finds open teammates with a pass, and can kick-start a possession in transition.
Konchar has excelled all season and he’s looking like a rotation fixture now because of his propensity to get the little things done. He’s made over 40 percent of his 3s in his career, too. He plays a smart brand of basketball:
Williams and Konchar have helped define Memphis this season with their own play, just as Morant and Desmond Bane have. It’s a deep roster, top to bottom, that has helped the Grizzlies compete regardless of which five players they are putting on the floor.
And teams around the league see it too. Morant, Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr. get the majority of the love for their performances. But having a player who flashes upside like Williams could help Memphis in potential big trades this season or beyond. And Konchar has the qualities of a keeper but he could make someone else expendable if the team reshuffles the roster.
In their past five games the Grizzlies are 2-3, but the stretch includes wins over the Bulls and Nuggets. The team obviously needs to get healthy to reach its full potential, but the Grizzlies have learned they have a lot of players they can trust.
Memphis is uniquely positioned in the NBA landscape. The team has financial flexibility, lots of quality young talent, all of its future firsts, and a winning culture led by a star who makes his teammates better. The Grizzlies are positioned for contention soon and they’re one of the most entertaining shows to watch.
6. A Silver Lining for the Orange and Blue
This Knicks’ season has been a disaster considering expectations. One of the lone bright spots has been Quentin Grimes, the rookie wing selected with the 25th pick.
Here’s a clip of Grimes reacting to a highlight on TikTok that sums up his game:
Quentin Grimes on TikTok: pic.twitter.com/8oDI9ScgHC— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSkool) January 16, 2022
I’ve watched this video too many times. “It’s Grime Time” just gets me. Grime Time is all about stops on defense and 3s. He makes 39 percent of his 3s and he plays with insatiable hunger on the other end.
Grimes projects as the type of important role player who could get minutes for a contender. The Knicks aren’t even close to being that type of team, though. It could be argued that they should trade away some veterans and take a step back so a player like Grimes can show what he can do playing 30 minutes rather than closer to 20. But Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks aren’t thinking long term—they want to win now.
From Julius Randle to Evan Fournier, New York needs its investments to improve to get back over .500, but freeing up minutes and cap room before the deadline wouldn’t be the worst idea. Grimes seems like a keeper.
7. My All-Star Starters Ballot
It’s my fifth season with an official All-Star ballot to select starters, which requires three frontcourt and two backcourt players. Votes were due on Saturday night. Here’s my ballot:
Giannis, Embiid, KD, DeMar, Jokic, LeBron, and Steph should be unanimous selections. The final frontcourt and backcourt spots in the West and the second backcourt spot in the East are the tough ones. Frankly, it’s a toss-up. You can make compelling arguments for a lot of players. I’m just not all that interested in the debate. I feel the most conflicted for not having Chris Paul or Devin Booker as a starter considering they are both stellar and Phoenix has the NBA’s best record. But years from now, will anyone really remember whether they started or came off the bench? The Suns have much bigger goals, and both Paul and Booker should be All-Star locks.
As angry as Suns fans might get at voters for not selecting Phoenix’s stars as starters, I’d suggest instead directing their frustration toward the NBA for still using positions on its ballots. Gobert was my third frontcourt choice—over Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Karl-Anthony Towns. But Paul, Booker, and other backcourt candidates would have gotten the starting nod if I had been able to fill a ballot without any positions, or even choose two frontcourt players, two backcourt players, and one wild card.
The NBA should change it so voters—fans, players, and media—can vote on a ballot that reflects the positionless nature of the modern game. There are two wild-card positions in each conference for bench spots, which gives coaches the flexibility to choose the most deserving players regardless of position. But the NBA needs to consider removing positions for All-Star for good to assure all of the game’s best players are rewarded.
I bring all this up now because the position debate will really matter in April, when it’s time to vote for All-NBA teams, a process which can have short-term financial implications for players and long-term historical implications across the league. The NBA lists players at multiple positions for the voting. For example, LeBron was listed as a guard and forward last season. This season, will he also be a center? LeBron has played 43 percent of his minutes without a big on the floor. Last season, Embiid and Jokic were listed as centers and forwards. But if we’re really being honest about traditional positions, Embiid has played only nine of 1,117 total minutes with another big. Shouldn’t he be listed only as a center? And how about Jokic? Doesn’t he run point for Denver? What exactly makes him a forward? Do positions really matter anymore other than serving as a way to categorize players in casual conversation?
The answer is no. Positions are arbitrary. The NBA is evolving to the point that players are given roles based primarily on their skills, not their size. This is even happening at youth levels, which is why 7-footers are migrating from the interior to the perimeter as shooters and playmakers. And smaller players are used in a role where a big would historically be used as a screener or cutter. Basketball is evolving. The NBA’s voting processes should do the same.