Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA, including the James Harden–for–Ben Simmons blockbuster, Boston’s turnaround, and the upcoming buyout market.
1. The Greatest Show on Hardwood?
Watching Matthew Stafford funnel the ball to Cooper Kupp in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl had me thinking about the Sixers’ acquisition of James Harden. Los Angeles acquired Stafford last offseason because a good quarterback was the final piece of its championship puzzle. Kupp didn’t just become an All-Pro with Stafford throwing the ball all season; he’s the first player since 2005 to lead the league in touchdowns, receptions, and receiving yards. With a depleted receiving corps on Sunday, Stafford knew he had to get Kupp the ball to fuel a comeback, and the Bengals knew it too. The Rams got it done anyway.
Philadelphia acquired Harden to be its quarterback with the hopes of winning the title. For years, the Sixers have sputtered in fourth quarters because of the lack of a perimeter shot creator. Markelle Fultz busted. Jimmy Butler isn’t a shooter and he left for Miami. The player closest to Harden is Tyrese Maxey, who’s now making the leap from nice rookie to nearly a 20-point-per-game player.
Maxey has been seeing more stout defenders on a nightly basis, with opposing teams starting to game-plan against the rising youngster. But Harden’s presence could mean that Maxey, and even Tobias Harris, will end up with more regular easy matchups.
Harden will also alleviate Joel Embiid’s workload on offense. Since December 16, Embiid is averaging 33.5 points on 21.4 shots and 11.9 free throws per game. He’s ultimately doing what his team needs to win, which is why he belongs front and center in the MVP conversation. But his significant responsibilities have affected his defense.
Embiid has still been good but hasn’t been at an All-Defensive-team level in recent weeks. That’s to be expected considering the Herculean effort he’s putting in on offense. But he can relax a little more with Harden now on the roster, helping run the offense and create even easier shots.
Harden has excelled running pick-and-rolls with everyone from Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson to Nic Claxton and old Blake Griffin; he’ll be able to figure it out with Embiid, who is unlike anyone Harden has ever played with in terms of both style and talent. And their skills are perfectly complementary, with Harden occupying the perimeter to shoot or drive into the paint and Embiid usually pummeling teams inside. Their greatest similarity is their prolific abilities to get to the line.
Like any superstar pairing, chemistry will have to build over time. But much like Stafford and Kupp, sometimes it can happen quickly.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer to get our first look at Embiid and Harden: The Sixers announced on Monday that their new star will be out through the All-Star break as he rehabs his left hamstring. But once Harden returns, all eyes will be on Philly. The NFL season is finally over. It’s time for the NBA to take over.
2. Unpacking the Mavs’ Stunning Trade
The Mavericks’ decision to trade Kristaps Porzingis to the Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans came as somewhat of a shock around the NBA. Porzingis is a former All-Star, and still a critical part of a stout Dallas defense. Without his rim protection, the Mavericks will suffer. However, the reasons for making this deal are all about finding a better costar for Luka Doncic.
The Mavs gambled by trading for KP in 2019 and it just didn’t work out; they hoped he could level up the team while Doncic was still on his rookie contract. Giving up on him now is essentially a bet that he will never become the player they need. Porzingis has shown no indication he can be relied on to stay on the court. And despite starting the season strong from the post, his production has dramatically slipped to the point that a KP post-up was becoming a wasteful possession.
Porzingis can make $69.9 million over the next two seasons. Dinwiddie and Bertans can also make $69.9 million, but Bertans has a player option worth $16 million for an additional year. So on paper, Dallas isn’t saving by dumping Porzingis. But having two players on smaller, more movable contracts gives new Mavs GM Nico Harrison the ability to be fluid with personnel changes. Harrison’s long history with Nike means he has a close relationship with players around the NBA, so he’ll be going big-game hunting in the upcoming years to find Luka a running mate.
The big problem in Dallas today is no one other than Luka and Jalen Brunson can reliably and efficiently create their own shots. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an inconsistent microwave scorer. Dinwiddie hasn’t been the same since returning from a torn ACL, but over the duration of his deal the franchise hopes he will reclaim his prior form. Right now, though, it’s Luka, and mostly a bunch of stationary players.
In one sense, this heliocentric approach works thanks to Luka’s dominance. But generating offense while sustaining energy to play competent defense will be a challenge. After dropping 96 points in two games against the Clippers after Thursday’s deadline, Doncic was asked about carrying such a heavy load on offense. He said, “It gets me in better shape too. More cardio.” That works for now, but in the months and years to come, it’s on the Mavs to make things easier on Luka by supporting him with better talent. Or someday, they’ll be looking for his replacement too.
3. Big Rob Is Proving to Be a Force
The Celtics have the NBA’s best defensive rating since January 1, and Robert Williams is one of the central reasons.
Lately, he’s been defending non-bigs so he can occasionally cheat off them and roam near the rim as a shot blocker. This defensive tactic came up big in Boston’s recent win over Denver:
Williams is defending Aaron Gordon, a subpar 3-point shooter, rather than Nikola Jokic. Jaylen Brown starts the possession on Jokic, then the newly acquired Derrick White switches onto him. This is Boston’s switching scheme in action. Jokic gets the ball, then the Celtics swarm with Jayson Tatum coming from the other end of the court. Brown gets back cut, but since Williams doesn’t have the responsibility of defending Jokic he’s able to rotate inside and block a layup to help maintain Boston’s lead.
Celtics head coach Ime Udoka uses Williams, who is 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, everywhere. Sometimes, he might defend in a traditional sense by dropping to the paint or battling on the post. But he’s also one of the NBA’s most frequently switched bigs in the league, according to Second Spectrum.
Versatility is key in today’s league, both for individual players and collective units. What Boston has now is a rotation of versatile players. White joining Marcus Smart gives the Celtics one of the best—if not the best—defensive backcourts in the league, and their wings and bigs can all defend across multiple positions.
The Celtics are figuring some stuff out. Defense is fueling their recent success; at 16-6, they are tied for the NBA’s third-best record in 2022. If the offense can begin clicking on all cylinders behind Tatum, Brown, and a cooler and calmer version of Smart at point guard, Boston could go from looking like a catastrophe to a contender. Some good things just take time.
4. Ayo Dosunmu Could Be the Steal of the Draft
Injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have thrust second-round rookie Ayo Dosunmu from a key role off the bench into a starting spot.
Dosunmu is flourishing in the first five, averaging 11.8 points on 42.1 percent 3-point shooting with 7.1 assists and only 1.8 turnovers in 16 starts while playing stellar defense. Over a month ago, I raved about Dosunmu’s defense, spot-up shooting, and passing for this column and said that he could grab one of the last spots on my second team All-Rookie. But at this point, he is a lock and could push for a spot on the first team if his scoring opportunities continue to increase now that Zach LaVine is also sidelined by a left knee injury.
No team wants any of its players to get hurt. But absences have opened the door for Dosunmu to receive opportunities he otherwise wouldn’t have seen this early in his career. Generating buckets out of pick-and-rolls and isolations against the superior defenders that typically match up against LaVine will be a hurdle, but the Bulls have given him the freedom to do more with the ball and he has so far excelled.
Dosunmu is only 22 years old but plays with a veteran’s poise, so Bulls head coach Billy Donovan uses him in a primary playmaking role. He can reliably facilitate in the pick-and-roll and limit turnovers—a rarity for a rookie!
But it’s not the simple pocket passes to a rolling big or a kick out to a shooter that make highlight reels. It’s drives for dunks like this one:
In the first clip above, Dosunmu yams it on the Pacers in the final minute to ice the game. He has a habit of driving straight by flat-footed or unfocused defenders to get all the way to the basket but he can also pull up to shoot.
Dosunmu is making over half of his dribble jumpers, though nearly all of them come from the midrange. In the years to come, extending his range off the bounce to behind the arc could propel him from the high-level role player he already is to a star.
In the meantime, the Bulls have quite clearly landed one of the steals of the draft and their investment into Dosunmu now could lead to greater rewards in the playoffs.
5. The Nuggets Find Gold
Potential is tricky. When Zeke Nnaji was a draft prospect, the concerns about his game revolved around his 3-point shooting and defense. Now in his second season with the Nuggets, those are the 6-foot-9 forward’s greatest strengths.
As an Arizona freshman, Nnaji made only five of his 17 attempts from 3. But he displayed enough touch from midrange and the free throw line to inspire some confidence from NBA teams that he could someday become a reliable shooter from deep. However, that’s the case for many young prospects, yet so many aren’t able to extend their range, and even fewer eventually develop into one of the NBA’s most efficient shooters. Especially in just two years.
Nnaji is hitting 48.7 percent of his 3s, which ranks first in the NBA among players with at least 75 attempts. Yes, it’s a cherry-picked minimum for shots but he also made over 40 percent of his 3s as a rookie. This is real. Nnaji also converted over 40 percent of his deep 2s in college. Now he’s just comfortable taking shots from deeper.
Nnaji didn’t need to change his form. His shot looks the same as it did when he was with the Wildcats. But extending range takes countless hours in the gym, developing new habits and strengthening the body to shoot consistently from further.
Working hard has never been an issue for Nnaji. But a lot of good people who put hours into their skills and hustle on the court still don’t pan out. But Nnaji has surpassed all expectations. Not just on offense, either. Besides Aaron Gordon, he’s Denver’s best perimeter defender.
In one of the three clips above, Nnaji gets scored on. But in every play, watch how active his hands are, notice how he’s seated in his stance, dug in and ready to mirror the ball handler as best he can. Nnaji brings it, play after play. And since the Nuggets drafted him, it’s apparent he’s improved his lateral quickness.
Nnaji was a slightly undersized rim protector who didn’t block a lot of shots in college, but now he’s turned into a guy whom the Nuggets are asking to defend multiple perimeter positions and often switch screens. With guys like Gordon and Nnaji, and even Michael Porter Jr. and Jeff Green, Denver has done a good job of surrounding Jokic with length. Nnaji makes his share of mistakes as a young player, but at only 21 years old he’s a remarkably good and reliable defender.
The Nuggets have had bad injury luck in recent years. But the franchise has proved it can find talent from all corners of the draft. Nnaji, whom they took at no. 22 in 2020, is only their latest hit. And he should continue to get better.
6. Let Devin Vassell Cook
San Antonio’s trade deadline movement pushed the second-year Vassell back into the starting lineup as a wing, a spot he should hold for the remainder of the season. I hope the Spurs experiment by featuring him more on offense, too. Have him shoot 20 times! It’s time to see what happens. Even as a secondary player, Vassell has shown dramatic improvement since his time at Florida State.
The video above shows Vassell making the following plays: three kickout passes for 3s, a slick pass to a cutter at the rim, three spot-up 3s, a baseline pull-up 2 going to his left, and a DeRozan-like fadeaway jumper off a cut.
In college, Vassell was primarily a 3-and-D guy. He still is. But now, at 21, he’s a more complete offensive player who shows flashes of go-to scoring ability. The Spurs should feed him the ball to close out the season.
7. Buyout Matchmaker
Let’s play matchmaker between playoff teams and potential buyout candidates. First, here are my five favorite players that could become available:
Goran Dragic, Spurs: Woj said San Antonio will likely buy out Dragic, listing the Bucks, Bulls, Clippers, Lakers, Nets, and Warriors as teams that will be “in aggressive pursuit.” Dragic, 35, lacks the burst he had during Miami’s 2020 Finals when he tore the plantar fascia in his left foot. But he’s still a talented guard who brings pick-and-roll playmaking, spot-up shooting, and scoring. Dragic could help any of the interested teams, especially the Lakers on nights Russell Westbrook is struggling and Nets on nights Kyrie Irving is inactive.
Gary Harris, Orlando: Harris is the closest thing to a playoff-impact wing that could hit the market between today and the end of the season, though at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds he lacks size. This season, for the first time in years, Harris looks more like the prime Denver version of himself as a defender and shooter, hitting 38 percent from 3.
John Wall, Rockets: Rafael Stone said point guard Dennis Schröder will have a role with Houston after being acquired from Boston at the deadline. If that wasn’t true, then he’d belong on this list. But since it apparently is, it probably means there’s a zero percent chance Wall will return. Coming off the bench could restore some of his value. But then again, what good would that do? If the Lakers didn’t trade for Wall, who would want his $47 million salary for next season? A buyout is possible only if he gives up some of his salary for next season. It’s a matter of how much.
Derrick Favors, Thunder: At 30 years old, Favors isn’t the same bruising interior big that he was in his prime for the Jazz. But he still brings physicality and rebounding, which is of value to teams in need of it for a stretch of minutes against Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic in a playoff series.
Robin Lopez, Magic: The same goes for Lopez, but he also has a knockdown hook shot in his arsenal. As a Disney fanatic, the real question is whether Lopez wants to leave Orlando.
And here are the top five contenders (according to odds listed from FanDuel sportsbook), plus a player or two that I’d target if I were them.
Golden State Warriors (+460): Sure, a center like Lopez or Favors could fill a need if James Wiseman is unable to play or not up to the task in the playoffs. But the absence of Draymond Green has shown how badly the Warriors need a playmaker besides Green and Steph Curry. Dragic should be their top target, but a veteran big would also be nice.
Phoenix Suns (+460): Unless it’s Harris (because who couldn’t use him?), I’d pass on the buyout market and keep the team as is. Bismack Biyombo was effectively the Suns’ buyout signing.
Milwaukee Bucks (+550): Harris should be the top target, especially following the news that Pat Connaughton will be out for an extended period due to hand surgery. DeAndre’ Bembry, waived by the Nets to complete the Harden-for-Simmons deal, would be a nice backup plan. Bembry is a solid passer who boasts a smart, disciplined game. He understands his role; he rarely takes jump shots and instead focuses on scoring in the paint or passing the ball. A big like Lopez or Favors would also make sense considering the uncertainty of Robin’s brother Brook and his back issue.
Brooklyn Nets (+600): Dragic should be viewed as a must-get because no one knows what Irving’s playing status will be come April. New York governor Kathy Hochul lifted the statewide mask mandate, but New York mayor Eric Adams said he’d “err on the side of caution” to drop it in his city. Realistically, he’ll be cautious with the city’s vaccine mandate, too. In other words, the Nets need to plan for life without Irving. If not Dragic, why not Wall in a backup role?
Philadelphia 76ers (+650): Finding a backup center should be prioritized. The Lopez fit makes a ton of sense for their system because of the drop defensive coverage he can provide. Plus, he’s a massive screener and a strong interior finisher. If not him, a deeper option on the market could be a journeyman like Tristan Thompson or Cody Zeller. It’s also still unknown if the Sixers will keep Paul Millsap, who was acquired in the Harden deal.
To submit a question for next week’s mailbag, tweet me at @KevinOConnorNBA. One of them will make it into next week’s article.