Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA as the postseason inches closer, including two questions from my reader mailbag:
1. Bing Bong! Let the Kids Play, Thibs
When I tuned in to Knicks-Clippers on Sunday night, I was preparing to write something about how Tom Thibodeau is repeating old habits by leaning way too much on his veterans—or about how he was secretly tanking. On Friday against the Suns, he pulled an on-fire Cam Reddish for Evan Fournier, who can’t stay in front of anyone on defense and is frustratingly streaky on offense. It was a total head-scratcher that made no sense. But then came a decisive win over the Clippers, with Thibodeau playing all his youngsters big minutes.
Absences opened the door. Taj Gibson was sidelined with an illness, Nerlens Noel is suffering from plantar fasciitis, and Obi Toppin has a strained hamstring. With so many minutes available, Reddish played 25, while second-round picks Jericho Sims and Miles “Deuce” McBride logged 20 and 18, respectively. To start the second quarter, Thibodeau deployed a lineup of McBride (21 years old), Reddish (22), Sims (23), Immanuel Quickley (22), and RJ Barrett (21). Watch their energy on the first play:
McBride is pressuring Reggie Jackson. Quickley is flying through screens to stick to Luke Kennard before switching on to Robert Covington to tightly contest his shot. Sims put a punctuation mark on the possession by grabbing the rebound, something he did 11 times on Sunday. And up the floor on offense, Barrett rewards the big man with a lob.
Sims is a high-flier. He has some DeAndre Jordan in him as a lob threat with a nose for the boards. Any time he gets minutes, he competes. Sims will switch on the perimeter, something he showed in college at Texas, but he’ll also battle in the post. Sims was drafted 58th and he still needs to curtail his fouling problems, but he’s shown enough promise to deserve some extended run down the stretch.
Throughout the game, different combinations of young Knicks lineups helped maintain their double-digit lead with constant hustle and energy. It felt like last season, when the Knicks were often a feel-good story and not a source of frustration.
We may see Thibs go back to his old habits by overplaying his veterans, which will probably lead to more losses. When the Clippers cut it to 10 on Sunday, Knicks fans had to be nervous. The Knicks blew a 14-point lead against the Suns. And they also lost a 28-point lead to the starless Nets and allowed the Sixers to come back from down 16.
At 26-38, New York is now 5.5 games out of the play-in tournament. The Knicks have the ninth highest lottery odds, which comes with a 20.3 percent chance of landing a top-4 pick and a 4.5 percent chance at no. 1. Realistically, the Knicks could lose their way to the sixth-worst record, which has, respectively, a 37.2 percent and a 9 percent chance. The better New York’s pick, the better the chance of drafting a great prospect to turn things around or trading for an established player like Damian Lillard. There’s no guarantee either will happen, but New York needs to put itself in position to turn things around next season.
Winning games won’t help their draft positioning, but you can’t complain when the next generation is leading the way. This season has been a disappointment following last season’s success and the highs of BING BONG on opening night. But the next generation’s development—and flashes like Sunday night—provide some hope for the future.
2. The Shoe Fits in Dallas
Q: What do you think of [Davis] Bertans and [Spencer] Dinwiddie in Dallas so far? —@ridethesparrow
The Mavs are 6-1 since Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans made their debuts after the deadline. Dinwiddie has been excellent, averaging 17.6 points, 5.1 assists, and only 1.4 turnovers. Bertans is still finding his shot, but is hitting 34.2 percent of his triples in Dallas, up from 31.9 percent in Washington earlier this year. If the career 39.9 percent shooter is able to return to those levels, he’ll become a lethal 3-point shooter for Luka Doncic and Dinwiddie to target with kickout passes. The trade already looks like a major win for a franchise that proved to be a clunky fit for Kristaps Porzingis.
Dinwiddie and Doncic together bring a rhythm to the court. They operate with a flow even in actions that might otherwise lead to a stagnant offense. In the clip below, Luka screens for Dinwiddie and the Lakers defenders switch. Often, that would mean Doncic gets dumped the ball in the post and is just forced to make it work. But after his touch the ball moves six more times.
These are the types of plays that lacked crispness with Porzingis. Dinwiddie adds another ball handler who can regularly make reads like the one above, keeping the rock and finding an open teammate. By trading Porzingis for Dinwiddie and Bertans, the Mavs gave up the best defender in the deal, and perhaps the best player in a vacuum. But they acquired better fits for Luka, and straight-up more efficient players on offense.
Take, for instance, Saturday’s win against the Kings. Dinwiddie dropped 36 points starting in place of Doncic, continuing an impressive run in which he looks fully recovered from his torn ACL. In his last 32 games with the Wizards this season, he averaged just 11 points on 35 percent shooting from the field. But with the Mavs, Dinwiddie has regained some of his pre-ACL burst and suddenly looks back all the way.
Porzingis had plenty of big games for Dallas, with and without Doncic. But a Dinwiddie pick-and-roll or isolation is a more efficient play than a post-up by KP. Same goes for a Bertans 3-pointer, in theory.
Before this season, Bertans was a consistent sniper from the perimeter. He shot 40.7 percent from 3 on five attempts per game over his first 331 games. Bertans was draining 3s off the bounce and spotting up from near the logo. Look at this play of him running through a screen away from the basket, doing an about-face as he catches the ball, then taking the 3:
Mavs fans always wished Porzingis could have hit shots like these. Bertans is a good bet to get back on track as a shooter, plus he is a more savvy cutter than Porzingis and has better passing instincts. Though he is 6-foot-10, Bertans isn’t a reliable interior scorer. And he doesn’t offer near the same defensive resistance as Porzingis. But if Bertans fixes his shot, he will become a major weapon in Jason Kidd’s scheme.
3. Jarrett Allen’s Injury Comes at the Worst Time
Cavaliers All-Star center Jarrett Allen will be sidelined indefinitely with a fractured finger, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported late Sunday. The Allen news is a tough blow for an already reeling Cleveland team that has lost six of its past eight games.
Without Allen for some time, it’ll be interesting to see how the Cavs try to fill the void he leaves. Could they start Kevin Love? The veteran is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Or will another wing slide into the starting five, pushing Evan Mobley to center on a more frequent basis?
More responsibility will be on Mobley’s shoulders no matter what J.B. Bickerstaff tries to do without Allen. In a way, this is Mobley’s chance to clinch Rookie of the Year. Cleveland is going to need him to play his best basketball because the defense that fueled the team’s early season run has collapsed.
Over the past eight games, the Cavs are allowing 115.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank no. 29 in the league—far below their third-ranked defense before this stretch.
Cavs players have spoken recently about the need to rediscover their defensive identity. Even Bickerstaff said he thinks the team has gotten too comfortable. Sunday’s win over Toronto was a nice performance to get back on track, but it wasn’t just the team’s defense that came up big.
Lately, Mobley hasn’t been the same guy. Running around screens all season on the perimeter has probably worn the Cavs’ young star out, and his offensive efficiency has dipped, too. He seems tired. But he found the energy to be an absolute force against Toronto, finishing with 20 points and 17 rebounds:
More performances like this and Mobley should win Rookie of the Year and the Cavs should hold on to the 6-seed. Allen’s injury could lead to a bit of a slide, but they currently hold a three-game lead over the Raptors and the tiebreaker. That should be enough of a cushion to keep Cleveland in the playoffs. Allen’s injury is a disappointment, but a postseason trip, regardless of outcome, would be an accomplishment.
4. Reason to Watch the Rockets?
Q: Are you finding the Rockets at all fun to watch? — @sports3333333
I’ve watched a good amount of them this past month. All three of Houston’s first-round rookies are a delight. If I was writing for The Ringer Guide to Streaming in March, I would have chosen Houston. On Sunday, I tuned in and saw the Rockets snap a 12-game losing streak by defeating the Grizzlies. Jalen Green put on a show.
Someday Jalen Green is gonna be doing this on a nightly basis. Averaging 20.4 points in his last seven games, and over 17 points with good efficiency for over one month now at 56% from 2 and 38% from 3. Passing the ball well, playing with pace. Green is starting to figure it out. https://t.co/OcR8IBW8dy pic.twitter.com/bMSFAqxXmK— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) March 7, 2022
Over the past month, Ja Morant has captured a lot of eyes with athletic plays that look similar to the ones Green makes above. Morant was there to see it firsthand Sunday, with Green scoring 24 points. The clip I posted on Twitter doesn’t even include the clutch jumper Green hit in the corner or his hesitation into a crossover against Brandon Clarke.
The type of stuff Green did against Ja and Memphis on Sunday has been a more regular occurrence of late. As Rockets play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman noted on the broadcast “the light has come on” for Green since February 1. He’s averaging 18.1 points and 3.1 assists over that span while looking more comfortable on the floor than ever.
Green is changing speeds, blowing by defenders, and scoring acrobatically in the paint. He’s pulling up to shoot with fluidity. He’s clicking turbo on the break to get in space and throw down huge dunks. And though he’s not a Rookie of the Year, it would be foolish to discount Green as a candidate to become the best player in his class. No one is as fast and explosive as he is; if his skill keeps catching up he can be a cornerstone.
Then there’s Alperen Sengun, who simply dazzles you with his post play.
Sengun was a personal favorite of mine before the draft because of his unpredictable movements and audacious passes. He was built in the same mold as Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis. Both of those players had to improve as scorers to maximize their playmaking skill, which is now the next step for Sengun.
Sengun flashed 3-point shooting upside in Turkey but it hasn’t quite clicked for him in the NBA; he is shooting 25 percent from 3 and 25 percent on 2s outside of the paint. There are never guarantees. Sometimes flashes are all they ever are. But if Sengun’s perimeter scoring develops, he has the potential to be like Sabonis with even more pizzazz.
Josh Christopher is the forgotten rookie in Houston with Green and Sengun getting all the love. It’s been an up-and-down season for him as he struggles to score with any efficiency. But he has some herky-jerky movements that showcase the scoring ability he had at Arizona State.
There’s a trend with the players Houston is betting on. Christopher, Green, and Kevin Porter Jr. are all raw scorers with the type of talents that are hard to develop. They have a combination of athleticism and handling that at least gives them the chance to become go-to scorers. Even Sengun, in a different type of way as an interior player, is a similar upside bet.
Houston isn’t in the business of drafting for certainty. It still has a long, long way to go. But the Rockets have plenty of entertaining players looking to make names for themselves. They might have the West’s worst record, but they’re a lot of fun to watch, too.
5. Let Top Seeds Pick Their Opponents
Many executives around the NBA think the top seeds in each conference should be able to choose their first-round playoff opponent. Home-court advantage is a nice financial bonus for the organization, but the difference it makes on the court has waned due to the rise of 3-point shooting. By allowing the no. 1 and 2 seeds to choose their first-round matchups (from the nos. 7-10 seeds), the best teams would be incentivized to win games throughout the season, rather than the current arrangement where a lower seed is sometimes more advantageous due to unusual circumstances.
For example, the 3-seed is the true 1-seed in the Eastern Conference this season. Unless the Nets go on a dominant run to secure a top-6 seed or implode to miss the playoffs entirely, they will be in the play-in tournament. If they advance, the East’s 1-seed or 2-seed could face them in the first round of the playoffs.
The Nets are currently seeded in the play-in tournament as a 9-seed, 5.5 games back from Cavaliers, who are guaranteed a playoff spot as the 6-seed, and only two games up on the Wizards, who would miss the postseason as the 11-seed. By allowing the top teams to choose their opponents, we’d be watching a true race down the stretch of the season rather than teams posturing to avoid a potential first-round nightmare.
The play-in is creating additional drama during the final weeks of the regular season, with high-profile teams like the Lakers and Nets still competing just to get in. I’ve never loved watching the NBA more in March and April than I did last season, and the 2022 close is shaping up to be even better. The tournament works because it offers incentives. The Cavs want to hold on to the 6-seed to avoid the play-in and keep a guaranteed spot. The Pelicans have reason to fight for the 10-seed to have a chance to get into the playoffs. It makes sense because there’s a reward. At the bottom of the league, teams have a slight incentive to be worse for better lottery odds. Shouldn’t the NBA’s best teams have a reason to be the best?
I’ve heard from people around the league that one of the concerns is that such a system could lead to an acrimonious relationship between players and teams over who picks who for a playoff series. But we’re all adults. Do you think Rob Pelinka is gonna toilet-paper Zach Kleiman’s home if the Grizz pick the Lakers?
At every step of every season there is incentive for teams. Allowing the top teams to choose their first-round opponent would provide even more intrigue, while also laying a foundation for organic rivalries to form, something the NBA has desperately missed in recent years.
When seeding matters, the competition matters. When the competition matters, the quality is better for fans. When the quality is better, it leads to more revenue. More interest in watching basketball. More kids playing basketball at the park with their friends. More everything. Innovation has contributed to the NBA growing into what it is. Now it’s on the league to keep it going.
6. Should Bulls Fans Panic?
I believe there are currently six teams in the Eastern Conference that have a chance to win the NBA Finals. The two favorites are the Sixers and Bucks. The Nets would join them if they had a full-time Kyrie Irving and a healthy Ben Simmons. The Heat and Celtics are both threats, but one level down from the others. Then there’s the Bulls, who started off the season with both a top-five offense and defense but have since fizzled. I am on the verge of moving them off my list, but I’m not there yet.
Since December 7, they still own the sixth-best offensive rating, but their defensive rating ranks 26th. Overall, they rank 18th in differential. They’ve been around average for three months.
Injuries to Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball ravaged a roster already missing its best big wing in Patrick Williams. Ayo Dosunmu has done his best on defense to make up for his absence, but DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine have mostly saved energy on that end. With so much penetration going to the basket, Nikola Vucevic isn’t the shot-blocking presence the team needs to erase its mistakes inside.
The Bulls allow more shots at the rim than any other team in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. With a defense that hemorrhages points, the Bulls are 3-10 on the season against my other five East contenders. Chicago is actually winless against Miami, Philly, and Milwaukee—which have the three best records in the East—and winless against the three best in the West, Phoenix, Memphis, and Golden State. That can’t bode well for the postseason, so there is plenty of reason for Bulls fans to worry.
I’m keeping the Bulls on the list for now because, on paper, they still do have a title-winning recipe. DeRozan turning into an MVP candidate has saved them in countless fourth quarters; both DeRozan and LaVine can provide necessary go-to scoring in the playoffs. If Ball and Caruso return, they’ll regain one of the best defensive duos in basketball. Plus, they’ll be able to help alleviate some of the workload for DeRozan and LaVine so those guys can put forth better effort on defense again. If Williams gets back, he’ll bring size and versatility. The Bulls still do have a chance but it’s growing slimmer by the day.
7. A Brief Sixers Thought
Last week, the Sixers signed DeAndre Jordan, who was waived by the Lakers, to address their hole at backup center. It speaks to the state of Philadelphia’s shallow bench that DJ is the best option following his swift decline. This tweet by a Sixers fan about the DJ acquisition made me laugh:
Prime Jordan highlights remind me how he used to launch with the force of a Falcon 9. But that DJ doesn’t exist anymore. Doc Rivers must feel he can get more out of the former All-Star than the Lakers did, positioning him for success on offense and motivating him to be his best on defense as a backup behind Joel Embiid.
A fun (and familiar) fact for Sixers fans: Did you know that DeAndre Jordan shoots with the wrong hand? In the highlight video above, every single dunk and block is made with his right hand. All of them. You can pull up any highlight video of DJ and over 80 percent of his dunks will be with his right hand, not the left hand that led him to a career free throw percentage of 47.4.
I first thought about DJ shooting with the wrong hand because of JJ Redick, who said this back in 2016 while they were teammates on the Clippers: “I’ve tried for the last two years to convince him to shoot free throws right-handed. I really have. He jumps off his left foot, which is how most right-handed people jump. Their left foot is their dominant foot. He shoots every single jump hook, and tonight, running hook, with his right hand. He finishes around the basket with his right hand.”
Jordan isn’t much of a needle-mover anymore, but having a backup who shoots with the wrong hand sure beats having a starter who shoots with the wrong hand.