With six weeks and just about a quarter of the regular season remaining, we’re now entering the final stretch. Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA at the postseason inches closer:
1. The Pelicans Are Ready for Zion
During Mardi Gras in New Orleans last week, a float featured a crude depiction of Zion Williamson that poked fun at his weight. The jersey had “1-Ton” written on it, and a speech bubble next to him read, “I’m hungry.” It speaks to the shaky state of the fan base’s relationship with Zion, who recently suffered a “setback” with his surgically repaired right foot and remains out indefinitely. The 2019 no. 1 pick also, now infamously, didn’t reach out to CJ McCollum when he was traded to the team at the deadline. Things have grown so uneasy that the Pelicans didn’t even mention Zion in an email soliciting season-ticket holders for next season. Fans are clearly fed up. But all the drama doesn’t mean that Zion’s situation in New Orleans has to end up resembling what happened with Ben Simmons or James Harden.
The relationship between player and team is undoubtedly scarred. There is a lack of trust on both sides. People in Zion’s camp are unhappy with how the team messaged news of his foot injury. He responded by being distant from the team both “literally and figuratively,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported last week. Fueling New Orleans’s paranoia is the fear that it’ll lose yet another star, not long after Anthony Davis pushed his way out to join LeBron James on the Lakers. Things are weird and it could end ugly.
But winning cures everything. That’s what the Pelicans are hoping, at least. That’s why they traded for McCollum. They want Zion to return and be part of the solution to get the Pelicans back into the playoffs. All it’d take is a healthy, in-shape, and invested Zion. Getting Williamson to stay on the court is a whole different challenge, but if he can return and stay healthy, the Pelicans now have a supporting cast that can complement and enhance him.
Imagine this starting five: Zion, McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, and Herb Jones. All five players can create their own shot from different areas of the court. There’s size, length, and versatility. Last season, Zion averaged 27 points while sharing the floor for more than half his minutes with a traditional interior big man in Steven Adams.
Though Adams is a good center for a downhill-attacking point guard like Russell Westbrook or Ja Morant, his inability to score from the perimeter (he’s made one 3-pointer in nine seasons) is a less-than-ideal fit for an interior force like Williamson. Now, Zion gets to share the court with Valanciunas, who’s making 38 percent of his 3s. Valanciunas can spot up, pick and pop, or feast inside off rolls, cuts, and post-ups.
While Zion continues to heal, Valanciunas is already getting in a rhythm with McCollum in the pick-and-roll. McCollum is a score-first player, but that doesn’t mean he’s a poor passer. CJ has always been a willing mover of the ball.
For the Pelicans, that’s all they’ll need with certain lineup combos when all five players on the court can create a shot. McCollum is a proven scorer in the playoffs, and he’s flourishing with the Pelicans, scoring more than 30 points in four of his first six games.
Ingram gets his own buckets, too. This season, he’s been better than ever because he’s playmaking with more seasoning and defending with greater effort. Scoring is still his best skill, but he is becoming more well-rounded. He looks like someone ready to win.
Jones is just a rookie, but he’s primed to contribute to a winning team, too. He entered the NBA as a ready-made role player with a shaky jump shot. But after working with assistant coach Fred Vinson, a.k.a. Broken Jumper Jesus, he’s turned into a knockdown free throw shooter (85.7 percent) and a reliable target from 3 (35.2 percent).
On defense, Jones is already one of the game’s best individual defenders. He’s a ball of energy with elastic arms who can swat shots and intercept passes. He’s the type of player who will make big plays on a championship stage if he’s ever fortunate enough to be in that position.
But for now, the Pelicans can’t even get their best player on the floor.
The rest of the roster has now come into focus. Everyone off the bench brings something different. Jaxson Hayes has energy and athleticism at center. Devonte’ Graham brings perimeter playmaking in the backcourt. Tony Snell is a solid shooting wing, and Larry Nance Jr. is a do-it-all big man. The Pelicans have a really competitive roster. All that’s missing is their centerpiece.
Jones fractures like the one Zion suffered are complicated. Ben Simmons missed his entire rookie season with the same injury. He was healthy enough to return toward the end, but the Sixers were tanking. Not every recovery is as smooth, though. Kevin Durant once needed three surgeries in six months to repair his fracture.
If Williamson were to remain sidelined and the Pelicans were to miss the play-in tournament (at 25-36, they have a 53 percent chance of making it, according to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine), it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But they’ll keep their first-round pick only if it lands in the top four. Missing the playoffs could mean they’d add another star prospect. But if the pick lands from 5 to 14, it would go to Portland. If it’s in 15 to 30, it goes to Charlotte. New Orleans could land a lottery pick elsewhere: If the Lakers end up with a top-10 pick, it’s owed to the Pelicans via the Davis trade.
The Pelicans aren’t finished depending on ping-pong balls, but with the roster David Griffin has assembled, this team should be thinking playoffs. The front office has built an impressive supporting cast—now it’s just missing its star. New Orleans appears to be in good shape. But you wouldn’t know it considering all the drama surrounding their missing and injured star.
2. First Impressions of Harden and Embiid
James Harden looked more explosive in his Sixers debut than he has looked in years. There was a suddenness to his game that he’s lacked since he was trying to get out of Houston. Maybe it’s the new Philly jerseys, or his new number (1), but he even looks thinner. Did it only take a few weeks off for Harden to get in shape for the stretch run?
Following the blockbuster trade, there was rightfully a lot of talk about how Harden would fit next to his new superstar teammate, Joel Embiid. As I’ve covered, I find the concerns to be way overblown. Embiid has never played with a perimeter creator like Harden. And Harden has never played with a big like Embiid. They occupy different areas of the floor and use different play types to succeed. There’s no redundancy. The Sixers will be able to lean on whichever is the more advantageous matchup on a night-to-night basis with two of the best scorers in the game.
With so much focus on Harden and Embiid, the one Sixer who is now getting overlooked is Tyrese Maxey. Maxey was averaging 17 points on 41 percent shooting from 3 plus five assists over his last 25 games before the Harden trade. In their first two games together, it became obvious just how much Maxey will benefit from sharing the backcourt with the former MVP. On Friday against the Timberwolves, Maxey scored 28 points on 16 shots. Against New York on Sunday, he had 21 points on 14 shots. Maxey has been a critical on-ball presence for Philadelphia all season, a role he maintains. But now playing next to Harden, he’s able to feast against weaker defenders and get open shots off cuts and relocations.
Tyrese Maxey with 28 points on 12/16 shots tonight. I love what he did playing off James Harden. Maxey was constantly attacking a rotating defense and we saw Harden screen for him. A lot of focus has rightfully been on how Harden fits with Joel Embiid but Maxey will also benefit. pic.twitter.com/yWtLTWa6nP— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) February 26, 2022
Harden’s past star backcourt partners were all more talented than Maxey is in a vacuum. Kyrie Irving. John Wall. Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul. But none of them were as active off the ball. Harden has looked quicker with Philadelphia, but Maxey runs at full speed at all times. There’s a decisiveness to his game, whether it’s attacking the basket as soon as he catches the ball or cutting to the rim when he sees an opening.
Harden should help everyone. Matisse Thybulle will get more open looks. So will everyone from Georges Niang to Tobias Harris. Losing Seth Curry hurts, but replacing him with Harden, especially with what looks like a suddenly in-shape and engaged Harden, is an obvious boost to the team’s chances of making a deep postseason run. I picked the Sixers to represent the East in the NBA Finals as soon as the trade became official on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Having seen Embiid, Harden, and Maxey play two games, I am feeling even more confident about their odds—and they’re only getting started.
3. The Suns Could Learn From CP3’s Absence
“The Suns offense won’t be as good without Chris Paul” is kind of a no-duh statement. But during the next seven-ish weeks as Paul recovers from a thumb fracture, it will be fascinating to see how Monty Williams adapts and experiments with his offense. Without Paul, the Suns can’t run the pick-and-roll, a staple of their offense, as prolifically. Deandre Ayton sets a screen for Paul 24 times per game, according to Second Spectrum. That’s more than any other duo across the league for the second season in a row. Not having Paul will open up a lot of chances for other Suns players to handle the ball.
So far, Devin Booker is carrying the load. He was Point Book against the Thunder last Thursday, logging 12 assists and whipping the ball cross-court to shooters. That is to be expected. Booker will flourish.
Aside from Book, Aaron Holiday has been receiving more touches than expected since he was acquired. When he returns from injury, Cam Payne should dig into some of those chances and absorb Elfrid Payton’s minutes. But how else will the Suns stray from their norms?
The Suns could allow fourth-year wing Mikal Bridges to initiate the pick-and-roll, something he rarely gets to do. Bridges has run only 98 of them so far this season. Without Paul, it’s a good time to get Bridges more reps to find out what he’s capable of with more regular opportunities.
I’d also love to see the Suns let Ayton shoot more 3s. He hit one from the top of the arc against the Pelicans on Friday and another versus the Jazz on Sunday. In the first instance, Jonas Valanciunas was daring him to shoot. Now that he lacks the option of resetting with a late-clock isolation by Paul, Ayton should take that dare when he’s left open. And the Suns should let him pick and pop more—again, just to see what happens when he gets regular chances to do something he ordinarily won’t once Paul returns.
Unless, that is, Bridges or Ayton or someone else shows something that’s worth using in the playoffs. Adding a new layer to their stellar offense could make last year’s Finals runner-up and the West’s current no. 1 seed even harder to stop. Paul’s absence could end up being a blessing in disguise.
4. Isaiah Jackson Is Thriving
With Myles Turner out for at least a few more weeks, rookie Isaiah Jackson has become Indiana’s starting center. Jackson had previously been either buried on the bench or hampered by knee and ankle injuries this season. When he plays, he almost always finds himself in foul trouble. But for the minutes that he’s been able to stay on the floor, the no. 22 pick has looked like one of the biggest steals of the draft:
Jackson was viewed as a lottery prospect by some draft analysts because he’s a rocket ship who can launch up for blocks and dunks. He’s also flashed handles as a creator and his jumper is starting to come into form. That’s a pretty rare combination for a big. We’re seeing him do all of that now at a high level.
Jackson slipped late into the first round because of concerns over his lean frame, undisciplined defense, and inconsistent shot. He still needs to be better at avoiding careless fouls, but he’s getting stronger and looking far more comfortable shooting 3s. I had Jackson ranked 29th on my 2021 Big Board. Already, I know that was too low. If he’s able to cure his fouling woes, he’ll someday be seen as a lottery in re-drafts.
Staying on the floor will be key to his development. He played well during a five-game stretch in January, but averaged five fouls in just 17 minutes per game. On January 31 against the Clippers, he showed what he can do when he does avoid whistles. He finished with zero fouls in 29 minutes while racking up 26 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks. But the next game, he hurt his ankle just 22 seconds in and didn’t return. In his first game back in February, he played only 12 minutes before being sidelined again, but he totaled 11 points and three steals. Over Indiana’s two games since the break, Jackson is averaging 14 points, five rebounds, and four blocks.
It’s noteworthy that Jackson is starting ahead of Goga Bitadze, Indiana’s 2019 first-round pick, who has shown some promise, and Jalen Smith, who was acquired from Phoenix at the deadline. The Pacers aren’t hesitating to throw their promising rookie out there ahead of players with more experience.
By trading Domantas Sabonis for Tyrese Haliburton, the Pacers changed the complexion of their roster. Jackson is filling Turner’s shoes for the time being, but he’s looking like another big man worthy of sharing touches. With so many ball handlers on the team, Turner could also flourish and seize the spotlight once he returns. In the meantime, though, the Pacers will find out what they have in Jackson.
5. Give Gary Trent Jr. the Rock
Here’s a weird stat I stumbled upon when researching the Raptors: So far this season, 71 NBA players have tried to score out of an isolation play at least 100 times, according to Second Spectrum. OG Anunoby ranks last in efficiency. Fred VanVleet ranks second-to-last. And they’re at the bottom by a wide margin. They’re the only two players scoring under 0.7 points per isolation, according to Second Spectrum. That’s disappointing for Toronto. At the top of the list, you’ll find the usual suspects. Nikola Jokic and DeMar DeRozan rank first and second. Steph Curry and James Harden rank fourth and fifth. But the third-place scorer? Gary Trent Jr.
Context matters, obviously. Trent isn’t facing the same caliber of defenders that those All-Stars demand on a nightly basis. But he’s also been pretty beastly regardless of the defender, scoring against dudes like Jarred Vanderbilt, Wes Matthews, P.J. Tucker, Miles Bridges, and Nic Claxton. He can get into the paint or pull up and shoot from anywhere.
The Raptors are coming off two blowout losses to the Hornets and Hawks, teams behind them in the standings. Maintaining their playoff seeding may not be preferable to keeping their top-14-protected lottery pick. But if Toronto does choose to fully pursue the postseason, feeding Trent more touches could help. It could also make them look like the obvious winner of the Trent–Norman Powell trade. Powell isn’t even with the Blazers anymore. Trent is 23 years old and averaging 18.2 points per game. Statistically, he’s one of the NBA’s best isolation scorers. The Raptors should hand him the keys more often.
6. Another Thunder Rookie Shows Flashes
I really love what Oklahoma City is building. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already a borderline All-Star talent. At 19 years old, Josh Giddey is one of the NBA’s best playmakers and he’s a no-doubt choice for All-Rookie First Team. Aleksej Pokusevski still intrigues me; he’s been consistently good for a couple of weeks now, shooting 41 percent from 3 in 24 minutes per game. Give Poku some time. Almost every player the Thunder target has size. Those three could allow them to have length without compromising skill. With guys like Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, and Kenrich Williams also in the mix, this team is full of talent.
It’s no wonder that LeBron likes what Sam Presti has done by assembling this group of players. To be competitive, all they need is to gain experience and have one of their players become a true star. Or OKC will need to acquire one. SGA and Giddey are the best bets to be stars. But their play has overshadowed another Thunder rookie, Tre Mann, a 6-foot-3 guard drafted 12 spots behind Giddey.
Mann is a bucket-getter who has struggled to score efficiently during his first pro season. In February, though, he’s shown more consistency and some impressive flashes, starting with 29 points on 14 shots against the Mavs on February 2. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 21.8 points. I thought his 22-point performance against the Pacers was the best overall game of his young career.
Tre Mann with 22 points and 5 assists with no turnovers last night for OKC. Dude was a bucket. A streaky scoring season for him as a rookie but in a good rhythm this past month playing heavier minutes. Mann and Josh Giddey are something to watch closely over the final stretch. pic.twitter.com/Mb1vdgtmaB— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) February 26, 2022
In the clips above, Mann shows off his whole bag of moves, with crossovers into stepback jumpers and leaning floaters.
Mann probably won’t a team’s centerpiece, but anytime a player can create off the dribble like he can they belong in the discussion. At 21, Mann is still growing into his body. He grew 2 inches and gained 15 pounds after his freshman season at Florida. The additional size helped him blossom as a sophomore, but excelling against NBA physicality is the next step. His progress has been encouraging, with more consistent production recently.
The Thunder may not be winning many games, but this team is showing promise. They have a bunch of funky players on offense, and already they have the NBA’s ninth-ranked defensive rating. And the Thunder compete. They are loaded with hungry young talent and they have more future draft picks than any other team. Oklahoma City could be building something special.
7. Jaylen Brown Is Spreading the Love
Brown became an All-Star for the first time last season, but coaches and Adam Silver didn’t select him as a reserve or a replacement this year. Most notably, Brown’s 3-point percentage has dipped, and he’s not scoring as efficiently or consistently as he did last season. And until the New Year, the Celtics didn’t look as sharp either. First impressions and a lot of strong candidates prevented Brown from becoming an All-Star again, but aside from his 3-point shooting, the rest of his game is looking better.
Since taking over, Celtics coach Ime Udoka has asked Brown and Jayson Tatum to become better playmakers, and both have responded accordingly. Brown has logged more than five assists in eight games this season, nearly as many instances (nine) as he had in the first five years of his career.
By no means is Brown becoming a pass-first player. The Celtics use Brown all over the court and his primary task is to score. Often, he’s utilizing off-ball screens set by a big like Al Horford or even one of his guards.
This season, Brown is running through an off-ball screen about 12 times per game, according to Second Spectrum. That’s one of the highest averages in the league. Brown is scoring 1.3 points per chance when he receives the ball and attempts to score. That’s by far the best efficiency of his career and one of the NBA’s best numbers.
Brown’s improved scoring efficiency in this play type is directly tied to his progress as a passer. He’s more choosy about when he shoots and he’s not turning the ball over as often. The Celtics now just need him to find his jumper like Tatum has lately.
Boston got off to a horrific start this season but has surged into a top-six seed in the East. The acquisition of Derrick White gave them a two-way guard to assist their lockdown defense, which has been anchored by Robert Williams III. Udoka has landed on a tight eight-man rotation full of players who can pass and play hard on defense. Any further progress by Brown will only make the Celtics more of a threat.
Next Monday, I’m bringing back the mailbag. To submit a question, tweet me @KevinOConnorNBA. I answer tweets periodically throughout the week too. At least one of them will make it into next week’s article.