Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including one answer to a pair of questions I pulled from my social media mailbag:
1. The Jazz Need More … Defense?
Blame is often placed on Rudy Gobert anytime things don’t go well for the Jazz. When you’ve won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards but your team has failed annually in the playoffs, that criticism is bound to come.
On Saturday against the Warriors, Gobert was criticized again because Utah couldn’t stop Golden State from doing whatever it wanted.
Steph Curry is Steph Curry, so that means Gobert has to defend higher in pick-and-rolls, which can open up rolls to the rim for a screener. When a defense is connected, backside rotations will be there in the paint ready to meet the roller and then rotate back to their own assignments spotting up for corner 3s. It gives Gobert time to also hurry back to the rolling big. But as the clips above show, Steph found Kevon Looney and the Jazz offered little support.
Guys like Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, and Bojan Bogdanovic offer plenty on offense but little on defense. It’s not fair to put it all on Gobert, or much of any of it, for that matter. Royce O’Neale is the team’s best perimeter defender but he’s undersized to defend some bigger wings. Everyone else offers papier-mâché resistance at the point of attack.
Rudy Gay allows the Jazz to experiment with some small-ball lineups. But he isn’t an adequate defender to lead the unit. In the clip above, Andrew Wiggins looked like Maple Jordan driving by him with ease.
The Jazz are used to having Gobert on the backline to clean up blow-bys and mistakes. When he needs to step up on the perimeter to contain someone as potent as Steph, there’s no one on the roster skilled or big enough to help in the paint. And whether Gobert is in the game or not, no one on this team is a stopper against guards and wings.
The Jazz have too many rotation players who can’t get stops on the ball. But they are also important cogs on offense. Knockdown shooters who can also handle bring constant value and aren’t easy to find. Together, they’ve helped the Jazz have the NBA’s top-ranked offensive rating. But Utah needs to find some help on defense.
To increase their odds of defeating Golden State or any team with the ability to space the floor in a playoff series, the Jazz would be wise to at least explore the trade market for defensive stoppers.
Players such as Jerami Grant stand out (more on him later). Thad Young wants out of San Antonio, but how much does he move the needle? Perhaps overspending on a player like Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate is worth looking into. Tate isn’t readily available, but Houston stinks and his versatile defense can help a contender. For that matter, why not call the Thunder for Lu Dort? You can get as creative as you want with potential Jazz trade targets because Danny Ainge will do the same.
Ainge was recently hired to run the Jazz, and he has never been afraid to take risks—the types of swings that could vault the Jazz forward in the playoffs. Whether it was the deals that did work out, like turning Markelle Fultz into Jayson Tatum, or the ones that didn’t, like trading Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green, Ainge has operated with an aggressive mindset.
Everyone on the Jazz should be tradable except for Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley if it means it makes the team better. Ainge should take a chance on a player who can help Gobert get the stops they need to win a championship.
2. Brunson Should Keep Starting With Luka
During Luka Doncic’s three-week, 10-game absence due to an ankle injury and health-and-safety protocols, Jalen Brunson started and kept Dallas afloat with a 5-5 record. Brunson is one of the game’s best reserves and he was able to excel as a starter without Doncic, averaging 21 points on 59.1 percent true shooting with 7.4 assists to only 2.1 turnovers. Though these aren’t All-Star numbers, it’s consistent with his past production as a starter. Any time Brunson gets a chance, he’s a midrange savage.
Brunson has stop-on-a-dime pull-ups, and he can glide forward on leaning jumpers and floaters. Going back to last season, he’s making 50 percent of his dribble-jumper 2s and 50.4 percent of his floaters, both of which are decimal points better than Luka but on a lower volume.
He can also score with craft around the rim and has shot a respectable 36.7 percent from 3 in his career. Brunson is smooth—like Andre Miller, Derek Fisher, or Kyle Lowry.
Brunson can pass the ball too. Though he can’t manipulate the defense with his playmaking, he limits mistakes and completes tough passes.
At only 25 years old and in his fourth season, Brunson could keep getting better. Extending his range off the dribble to 3 and improving as a spot-up 3-point shooter are the next steps. The draft is silly sometimes: Brunson fell to the 33rd pick in 2018 because he was old for a rookie, and at only 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he’s often overmatched on defense even if he’s fighting and in the right position. There are limits to his potential, but in any redraft, he’s going in the top 20 and trending up.
That is, as long as he keeps handling the ball and shooting about 15 times per game. On Sunday in Luka’s return, Brunson remained in the starting lineup, ahead of the streaky Tim Hardaway Jr. Brunson’s ability to run a pick-and-roll and pass should continue to give him the edge as the team’s second-leading shot taker.
But empowering Brunson as a ball handler with the first unit would mean occasionally taking the ball out of Doncic’s hands. That’s a tough thing to do considering Doncic’s dominance, even if Brunson has been really productive lately. Luka would need to make it worth it by tapping into his old self from his early years with Real Madrid.
Doncic should ask himself: Do I want to be more like James Harden or Steph Curry with my off-ball activity? Getting in shape is the first priority, but an alleviated role could provide him more energy for bouncy cuts to the rim, harder screens, and more effort on defense.
Brunson can help Doncic expand his game. Putting Dennis Smith Jr. next to Doncic as a secondary ball handler didn’t work because Smith wasn’t good. Feeding Kristaps Porzingis on the post has been statistically potent, but sometimes it feels like he’s in the way of Luka’s drives to the rim. Brunson may not be the final answer. Maybe he instead becomes their best trade piece ahead of his unrestricted free agency this offseason. But the Mavericks should keep pushing for more out of Brunson. Doing so will help see what Brunson can become, and also give Doncic an opportunity to be a star in new ways.
3. Detroit Should Trade Jerami Grant
Grant is out of the picture with a thumb injury, and Saddiq Bey has seen his offensive role skyrocket as a result. Through his past eight games, Bey is scoring 23.9 points on 17 shots per game taken from all over the floor, with an uptick as a pick-and-roll ball handler and a weapon running off screens.
Bey lacks the fluidity and tight handle of a primary shot creator, but that’s what Detroit wants Cade Cunningham to become. As a thick 6-foot-7 with a solid handle, Bey presents matchup issues as a secondary presence who can support a star. He’s comfortable shooting 3s off screens, or he can drive in a straight line toward the rim. Even in isolation, he can get a bucket in advantageous situations or find an open teammate.
(Also, Bey started rocking a headband. That’s the real secret to his success. I’m pro-headband.)
Grant will be sidelined about three more weeks, which puts his return close to the trade deadline. Detroit should move him and continue investing in its youth. Not only is Bey excelling, but Cunningham is in a better rhythm without Grant’s ball-stopping habits and even Hamidou Diallo is having some monstrous games with the new opportunities.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported weeks ago that the Lakers want Grant. But about all they can give up is Talen Horton-Tucker and one distant future first. The Pistons should be able to do much better. As Charania noted, “dozens of teams” reach out to Detroit about Grant. And why wouldn’t they? Grant has proved he can score off the dribble, and in a contending situation he could bring back the 3-and-D elements that made him such an important role player for the Nuggets.
Just a few theoretical ideas: Maybe the Mavericks could try to flip Tim Hardaway Jr. and picks. Or could the Jazz go for Grant considering their need for lockdown perimeter defenders? Perhaps the Kings could flip picks with Buddy Hield, or Marvin Bagley III and Moe Harkless.
Grant will have appeal to a lot of teams, whether they’re in title contention or simply trying to get into the playoffs. With Grant’s free agency coming in 2023, now is a good time for Detroit to maximize a return and invest in its youth.
4. Point Embiid
With Ben Simmons away from the Sixers, Joel Embiid has had more freedom to handle the ball himself. Embiid dribbles the ball up the floor to start a play on offense 6.9 times per game, according to Second Spectrum. That’s nearly double his 3.5 times per game last season and more than four times as often as previous years.
Coast-to-coast possessions can be a bumpy adventure for Embiid, but defenses still have had a hard time containing him. The Sixers score a highly efficient 1.12 points per instance when Embiid brings up the ball.
Basketball is a cool sport in part because of its positionless nature. It’s not often a 280-pound, 7-foot player rumbles from end to end. I’d love to see the Sixers actually give him more chances to do it—not just after turnovers and defensive rebounds, but even after an inbound. The number of times he brings the ball up pales in comparison to that of bigger guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. Though Embiid isn’t a ferocious finisher like Giannis or a cerebral playmaker like Jokic, he is a star in his own way. This sputtering Sixers offense could use a jolt.
5. Thank Goodness Jalen Green Is Back
Jalen Green was trending up before a hamstring injury sidelined him in late November, but he’s been better than ever since returning just before Christmas. Through his past four games, Green is averaging 22.3 points while making 51.5 percent of his 8.3 attempts from 3. Sustaining that high percentage is unrealistic, but during this streak, he is showcasing his range of scoring prowess.
Green has a diverse scoring skill set with strengths rooted in his explosiveness, handle, and shooting touch. The Rockets utilize Green by using screens and handoffs to get him opportunities to shoot off the catch, and he can attack off the dribble. Going back to his lone G League season, Green has increasingly used change-of-pace maneuvers to generate room inside, where he can finish fluidly from awkward angles. When he’s scoring like he has as of late, it’s obvious why Houston drafted him second.
Rookie production often wildly fluctuates, and Green, who turns 20 next month, will undoubtedly experience some more lows this season—especially if Houston general manager Rafael Stone doesn’t clean up the mess.
On Saturday, assistant coach John Lucas called out the team at halftime for their effort, singling out Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood. Porter reportedly threw a fit and then left the arena. Wood refused to play in the second half. Incidents like this are why the Cavaliers gave up Porter, and though Wood has turned his career around, he doesn’t have the best track record. Porter is replaceable. Wood is tradable. John Wall is still in limbo, looming over the franchise.
No matter what moves are made to help the culture in Houston, building structure around Green is of the utmost importance.
6. What Kind of Trade Would Entice the Pacers?
Q: What do the Pacers want for Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis? —Josh from Indiana
Rick Carlisle didn’t sign up for a rebuild and Pacers owner Herb Simon has never allowed his team to bottom out. Indiana wants to retool, not rebuild: just like when they took Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo for a disgruntled Paul George instead of trade packages based around draft picks.
“Why would we want to go through a rebuild when we can build on the go?” Simon recently told local reporters. “We’re not a franchise that’s going to dump to get a better pick. We’re going to try to win every game. Sometimes, we’ll develop rookies who may cost us a game, but we’ll never go into a game to lose while I’m an owner. I don’t believe in that. Some teams do, but I don’t believe in that.”
That’s too bad for Pacers fans rooting for a tank ahead of a top-heavy 2022 draft class. Indiana will listen to offers with a lot of draft picks, but the team’s preference is to receive players who can help them regain playoff status, according to league sources. Think about theoretical targets such as De’Aaron Fox, Ben Simmons, and Pascal Siakam—guys who are of near-equal value to Sabonis and Turner, or even upgrades.
What will be interesting is whether the Pacers choose to deal Turner, who’s been involved in trade talks for at least two seasons, or Sabonis, a newcomer to trade discussions. Moving Sabonis, a two-time All-Star, would net a greater return. But Turner, a defensive anchor who can shoot 3s, could be an easier fit for many teams.
Turner has openly expressed his displeasure with his role, telling The Athletic’s Jared Weiss that he wants more offensive responsibility than he has in Indiana as a “glorified role player.” Turner’s honesty is admirable, but any team acquiring him probably won’t use him all that differently. Since 2017-18, he has made 36 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Second Spectrum. That’s good for a center but not for all positions. Off the dribble, he can make simple post moves off duck-ins but hasn’t shown the ability to drive from the perimeter and score with any consistency. Buying into being a glorified role player can make him hundreds of millions.
It remains to be seen whether the Pacers will receive players who can help them now or get surprised with an offer centered on picks. But Indiana is looking to reshuffle.
7. Early All-Rookie Teams
Q: Would you put Ayo Dosunmu on an All-Rookie Team? —Joe Tabares
We’ve already seen Dosunmu use his 6-foot-10 wingspan to bother the likes of Trae Young and Bradley Beal this season, picking them up full court and disrupting their every movement in the half court.
With Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball having missed time of late, Dosunmu’s contributions have been vital to Chicago’s sustained success on defense.
Dosunmu does his job offensively too, making 38.6 percent of his mostly spot-up 3s as well as cutting and running the floor. As the 38th pick, the Bulls couldn’t ask for much more. So, yes, he’d be on my second-team All-Rookie squad as of now.
But Dosunmu is on the bubble. Keep in mind there are only two rookie teams and 10 total spots.
I’d argue the first eight players are locks at the moment. The first three players on the first team are likely consensus choices. Giddey and Cunningham get the nod for now over Green, who falls to the second team. Duarte is a bucket-getter and Jones is a defensive stopper.
After that, Davion Mitchell or Jalen Suggs could play themselves into it. Sengun, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Dosunmu, among others, are in consideration for the final two spots.
Dosunmu would get the edge right now for the final spot on my list. There’s a long way to go, but Dosunmu’s defense will keep him in consideration.