Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including a look at the Kristaps Porzingis revival in Washington, Myles Turner’s trade value skyrocketing in Indy, and more.
1. Kristaps Porzingis Dominates on Defense Again
The Wizards haven’t finished with a top-10 defense in eight seasons. But this year, they’ve jumped out to a surprising 10-7 start thanks to the seventh-best defensive rating in the league, which has been anchored by a prime-looking Porzingis roaming the paint.
Opponents are shooting only 49.3 percent against Porzingis within 6 feet of the rim this season, which is 12.6 percent worse than the average shooting percentage from that area. Years of injuries seemed to sap KP of the fluidity that once made him a terrifying shot blocker, but he looks healthy now. The 7-foot-3 Porzingis is flying around as a help defender, and even moving laterally with enough quickness to contain opposing attackers.
The Wizards allow only 0.78 points per pick-and-roll defended by Porzingis. That’s the best mark in the NBA among the 25 players who have defended the most pick-and-rolls this season, according to Second Spectrum. Porzingis is supported by stout wing defenders like Kyle Kuzma and Deni Avdija, but he’s the piece that makes the Wizards’ defense click.
Porzingis hasn’t looked this good on defense since his first full season with the Mavs in 2020. He suffered a torn meniscus during the first round of the playoffs that year and, other than some occasional glimmers, he hasn’t been the same since. And maybe a glimmer is all this is right now. But as long as he stays healthy, the Wizards should continue to have a far more formidable defense than they’ve had in years.
2. Giannis’s Shooting Struggles Are Back
After training this offseason with celebrity shooting coach Chris Matthews, a.k.a. “Lethal Shooter” on social media, there was hope that Giannis would return to the Bucks with the best shooting stroke of his career.
Instead, he’s putting up more bricks than ever. This season, Antetokounmpo is making just 57.5 percent of his free throws (a career low), 29 percent of midrange shots (the worst since his rookie season), and 22 percent of his 3s (the worst since his second season). It seems like every time Giannis takes a step forward with his jumper, which he did last season after working with Bucks assistant Josh Oppenheimer, he then takes two giant Euro-steps back.
It’s clear that Giannis is bothered by his struggles. After going 4-for-15 from the line against the Sixers on Friday, he came back to the court after the game to get some shots in … until Montrezl Harrell stole his ball … and then a ladder was placed in front of the rim, blocking him from practicing. Giannis was so angry that he tossed the ladder out of the way, creating quite the scene. But he has good reason to be putting in the extra time—his issues are real.
Giannis is back to lollygagging at the free throw line, taking a full practice stroke in his pre-shot routine, and getting into his own head before releasing the ball. His footwork and release point appear inconsistent on his jumpers. And he’s missing all over the place, not just short or long.
“I cannot have everything in life,” Giannis joked in a video that recently went viral. “Cannot be handsome, beautiful kids, beautiful wife, great family, great teammates, great coaching staff, handsome, athletic. I cannot make 3s, too. God had to keep me humble. God said, basically, ‘You cannot make 3s. Can’t shoot.’”
Maybe nothing will ever change, no matter who Giannis works with, and the shot will always be something that plagues him. But even if last season ends up being an outlier year for him given his career-best midrange success, it’s important for the Bucks that Giannis at least return to prior norms: someone who shoots well enough from the line they can’t be hacked, and can at least cause defenses to sweat a little bit when he’s outside of the paint. Giannis would be dominant even if he never shoots another jump shot in his career, but at this present level, his shooting flaws could prove lethal in the postseason.
3. Is Myles Turner Playing His Way Out of a Trade?
The Pacers are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises at 10-6 on the season. Tyrese Haliburton looks like a potential All-Star, while Bennedict Mathurin is a legit candidate for both Sixth Man and Rookie of the Year. I interviewed the two Pacers guards earlier this month, and asked them whether Turner making the case for why the Lakers should trade for him became a thing in the locker room.
“Nah, nah. Not at all. That is something we talked about as a group,” Haliburton said. “Myles addressed it with us. We just move on. … Whatever happens, decision-makers are decision-makers. We just hoop.”
At the time of our conversation, Turner had played just three games after missing the start of the season with an ankle injury. Since then, the Pacers have hooped indeed, with Turner playing the best basketball of his life.
Here are Turner’s basic scoring numbers over his first seven seasons:
- 12.7 points per game
- 53.9 percent from 2
- 34.9 percent from 3
- 76.8 percent from the line
And here are his numbers through 11 games this season:
- 17.5 points per game
- 59.8 percent from 2
- 36.4 percent from 3
- 84.1 percent from the line
Volume and efficiency are at career highs across the board, and though it remains to be seen whether these averages are sustainable, the Pacers are clearly utilizing Turner differently than they have before.
In the pick-and-roll, Turner has long loved popping for midrange jumpers or 3-pointers. In his career, he’s set an on-ball screen then rolled to the rim 54.4 percent of the time—right around the league average. But this season, Second Spectrum says he’s rolling to the basket 78.2 percent of the time.
Turner is throwing his 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame around in the paint, and his guards are rewarding him with more easy shot opportunities. As a result, a career-high 45 percent of Turner’s shots are coming at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s early in the season, but Turner is playing with a level of aggression and decisiveness that could earn him a large payday in unrestricted free agency this summer, and before then, make him an even more appealing trade target for a team with playoff or championship hopes.
Turner has been involved in trade discussions for years, but if the past can be forgotten it would seem obvious right now for him to be a part of Indiana’s future. He’s only 26, and though the Pacers have other talented young bigs on the roster like Isaiah Jackson and Jalen Smith, none of them possess a skills package as deep as Turner’s. The Pacers have some big decisions to make. In the meantime, their young stars will keep hooping.
4. Why Grant Williams Bet on Himself
The Celtics’ burly power forward is averaging 10.3 points per game and leading the NBA in true shooting percentage, making 75 percent of shots from 2-point range and 47.6 percent of 3-pointers. But his greatest contribution to the NBA’s best team comes beyond the box score.
This season, Williams is displaying some of the playmaking skill that he flashed late in college. Tennessee ran its offense through him in the post, whereas now Boston utilizes him as a connector on the perimeter. Williams will cut or set screens then short roll to the middle of the floor so he can laser passes around the floor.
In the Celtics’ drive-and-kick scheme, he’ll often use the threat of his knockdown jumper to draw defenders, and then swing it to an even-more-open shooter or attack the closeout to fire a pass to the opposite side of the court.
He’s averaging only 1.6 assists, but the sudden reads he makes, and the accuracy of his passes, have helped keep the Celtics offense crisp no matter who he shares the floor with.
Even when Williams doesn’t touch the ball, he’s making an impact as one of the game’s best screeners. One good example came last week against the Hawks, when the Celtics were setting a double screen for Sam Hauser to slingshot around for an open 3-pointer. Trae Young read the play and shot the gap, but Williams reacted quickly enough to get in Trae’s way, freeing Hauser for an open triple.
Williams receives no credit in the traditional box score for a screen like the one above. But Second Spectrum tracking data recognizes his impact: The Celtics are scoring 1.34 points per off-ball screen set by Williams, which leads all players to set at least 100 of them this season, just ahead of another one of the game’s best screeners: Draymond Green.
Though Williams isn’t a high-usage playmaker like Green, he’s capable of more than what the Celtics need from him given the excess of shot creators on the team. Virtually everyone on the team can facilitate. The fact that Williams can be used at the top of the 3-point line, on the short roll, or from the elbows, gives the Celtics immense flexibility given his place on the hierarchy of the roster.
Factor in his versatile defense against players of all shapes, sizes, and skills, and it’s clear that Williams has turned himself into one of the NBA’s premier role players.
Before the season, HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto reported that Williams was offered a four-year contract extension worth no more than $50 million guaranteed. It was declined. Williams can test free agency this coming summer, and this season he’s earning himself a massive bag.
5. Are the Suns Targeting the Right Trades?
Reports last week suggested the Suns came close to acquiring veteran guard Eric Gordon from the Rockets in a three-way deal that would’ve sent Jae Crowder to the Bucks. But that trade still hasn’t happened, and The Athletic’s Shams Charania is reporting that Phoenix has also expressed interest in trading for Atlanta’s John Collins, Washington’s Kyle Kuzma, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, and Houston’s KJ Martin.
Charania is no doubt correct that the Suns have checked in on the availability of these players. But it’s a bit of an odd list:
• Martin is only 21 years old and has been one of the bright spots on a young Rockets roster, but he is largely unproven compared to the other names Phoenix is targeting in return for Crowder.
• The Kings are trying to make the playoffs and Barnes has been an integral part of those efforts, despite his slow start shooting 3s. It would be unusual if Sacramento decided to move off of him now.
• Unless the Wizards believe Kuzma is a flight risk (he has a $13 million player option next summer) it seems unlikely they’d move him now considering how well he fits and that the team is winning games.
• Charania said in his piece the Suns “appear uninclined to take on the long-term money of Collins.” And putting finances aside, Collins wouldn’t replace Crowder’s wing defense.
Since Crowder’s trade request became public in September I’ve consistently heard the Suns want to find a wing to replace him. But the other factor Phoenix needs to consider is the health of Chris Paul. Though his return seems near, his heel injury is tricky and has severely limited his play early in the season.
Devin Booker and Cam Payne have stepped up but the Suns could use one more player who can handle the ball as insurance for the 37-year-old Paul if he gets hurt again or can’t match his past production.
On last week’s episode of The Mismatch I reported that Hawks wing Bogdan Bogdanovic is another target for the Suns.
League sources say Bogdanovic remains on Phoenix’s radar; he checks a lot of boxes as a shooter, ball handler, and rock-solid defender. But he hasn’t played yet this season while recovering from offseason knee surgery.
It’s important to remember that the Suns could potentially package Crowder’s $10.2 million deal with Landry Shamet ($9.5M), Dario Saric ($9.2M), and Torrey Craig ($5.1M), plus add draft picks as sweeteners. The Suns can get pretty creative to find an ideal return in multiteam trade scenarios involving a wide number of organizations that’ll be active in the coming months.
There’s no reason to rush, though. Crowder is long gone. The Suns should wait to see what they have in Paul once he returns before making a big decision that could determine their place in the championship race.
6. Russell Westbrook Has … Changed?
The last time Russell Westbrook was in the starting lineup, he took one of the most egregious shots of the season in the closing minute of the game: a pull-up 2-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and anyone with a rooting interest in the Lakers screamed “NO.”
Ever since that moment, Westbrook has played his best basketball of the season by accepting a bench role and earnestly changing his habits. He’s taken just one midrange pull-up with over 10 seconds on the shot clock since then, and on the season he’s taking a career-low 4 percent of his shots from deep midrange, per Cleaning the Glass. Instead, he’s taking a career-high portion of his attempts from behind the arc (28 percent) and is near his high-water mark at the rim (48 percent). Westbrook has almost entirely eliminated the midrange pull-up, while accepting a smaller on-ball role in the half court.
Westbrook still isn’t a perfect fit, particularly once LeBron James returns. Though his shooting has improved of late, he still hasn’t earned the respect of defenses when he’s on the perimeter. Driving lanes are still clogged. He isn’t screening or cutting all that often, either. But he’s doing everything else on offense and playing with much greater effort on defense.
The Lakers roster would be upgraded if he were flipped for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, or some other combination of players. But Russ is doing the things he needs to do to extend his career, whether that’s with the Lakers or with someone else.
7. The Ripple Effects of Cade Cunningham’s Absence
Cunningham will be sidelined for an extended period of time because of a shin problem. As first reported by Marc Stein, he is considering surgery that could knock him out for the rest of the season.
No matter the length of his absence, Cade’s injury influences teams across the league.
The Pistons will be so bad without their point guard that they’ll likely be locked into one of the NBA’s three worst records, and thus have a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in the 2023 draft.
Teams are monitoring the availability of veteran forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who is a versatile scoring weapon with a knockdown jumper and solid defensive abilities. Detroit acquired him from Utah for pennies on the dollar prior to the season—even though the Lakers offered more—and then signed him to a partially guaranteed extension that could lock him up until the 2025 offseason. With a thin trade market, Bogdanovic could be in high demand and the Pistons will not be in a rush to move him. At 33 years old, he doesn’t fit the timeline of this young team so Detroit will at least listen to offers. Dwane Casey loves having Bogdanovic around, which is no surprise considering his high usage on the team, and the front office views him as an important developmental piece for the roster’s young guards.
Though Cunningham’s injury puts a damper on the Pistons’ season, the silver lining is increased reps for rookie Jaden Ivey and third-year guard Killian Hayes. Ivey has already shown he can use his combination of explosive athleticism and intelligence to make positive passing reads, get into the paint with ease, and kick the ball out to shooters. However, with Cade’s absence, he’ll need to learn how to minimize sloppy turnovers and make progress on defense.
The opposite is the case for Hayes, who already is a reliable playmaker and strong defender who just needs to find some scoring consistency. Hayes has played his best basketball over his last seven games, averaging 11.4 points while shooting 42.3 percent from 3. No one is happier about that than me, except for maybe Troy Weaver and Killian’s family.
Ivey and Hayes will get opportunities to prove themselves as fixtures of Detroit’s future alongside Cunningham. The question is which teammates will be by their side for the remainder of the season. But no matter what the Pistons do, they’ll be in contention for the worst record in the league and thus a transformational prospect in Victor Wembanyama.