By the end of July 2016, the worst-kept secret in Atlanta basketball was how different the Hawks’ defense would look down the middle. Franchise cornerstone Al Horford was gone to Boston, replaced at the center position by hometown product Dwight Howard. The two couldn’t have been more different stylistically; Horford the savvy, undersized-but-mobile defensive fulcrum and Howard the glass-eating, shot-blocking interior pillar.
Centers are the most important defensive players in the NBA on balance, and Horford’s skills in particular made him indispensable to Atlanta’s approach. The Hawks didn’t have that traditional rim protector in the paint, but they made up for it and then some by leveraging the mobility of Horford and Paul Millsap into a harassing defense that applied pressure in the right places, making it hard work for offenses to ever find their way to the rim (or their other preferred spots) in the first place.
The Hawks with Horford trapped a ton, snuck hands into unexpected passing lanes and used a sky-high collective team IQ to move as one cohesive unit and beat the ball to the spots teams wanted it in.
It worked: Under Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta never finished a season lower than seventh for rate of opponent turnovers. They consistently forced shots late in the clock as teams found their primary options snuffed out and had to search for secondary stuff. The Hawks forced the fourth-longest average possession length in the NBA last season, per inpredictable.com, and have been in the league’s top third here every year Bud’s been in town. The result was three straight above average defenses, including second overall last year and seventh the previous season.
With Howard in town, some of the changes have been predictable. The Hawks were never bad rim protectors collectively, falling roughly around league average here the last few years. Now they’re among the league’s elite, per SportVU data, buoyed by a sub-45-percent-allowed figure from Howard that ranks among the league’s 10 best volume rim defenders. The effect has trickled down even when he’s off the floor.
“I think that we understand the importance of making sure teams only get one shot, and protecting the basket,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Budenholzer] has put the onus on me to start it, and get everybody going. And everybody else has stepped up and done a great job – I think Paul [Millsap], Muscy [Mike Muscala], all our bigs are really trying to protect the basket.”
You’d expect an improvement on the glass moving from the smaller Horford to one of the league’s premier rebounders in Howard, and you’d be right in a big way. The Hawks have been a bottom-five rebounding team by percentage each of Budenholzer’s three years in town; they’re in the NBA’s top 10 this year.
They’re collecting nearly 30 percent of their own misses with Howard on the floor, a number that would rank second in the league among teams, and their defensive rebounding has maintained even when Dwight leaves the floor – another testament to the culture he’s quickly helped instill.
“Both defensively and offensively, he really brings that presence, that physicality,” Budenholzer said of Howard. “Our rebounding is just significantly better.”
This is the part where things start to get a bit weird, though.
Along with the improvements Howard has brought with him to Atlanta, everything we know about NBA basketball would cause us to expect a regression in some of the areas Horford excelled in – namely the harassing, high-turnover defensive style he helped make possible for the Hawks.
Those regressions have not happened. The Hawks are forcing an almost exactly identical rate of opponent turnovers, a mark that remains in the league’s top five for the season. They’re generating 18 points a night off these turnovers, another top-five figure, and they’re still holding teams to longer than average possessions.
“I think the guys have a lot of confidence with Dwight behind them,” Budenholzer said. “I would say we’re never the ‘gambling’ type – we’re not really getting out of what I would call fundamental, sound defensive-type things to create turnovers. It’s mostly just happening out of activity, and hopefully just good, solid defense.”
With Howard on board, none of the gambling Bud wants to avoid is necessary in the first place. Those were good bets in the long run with Horford, but they probably aren’t with Dwight’s skill set. Horford has maybe the quickest hands in the league for a center, and his ability to clog lanes helped make the aggressive style a winning proposition; Howard can accomplish similar things by standing in the paint and being scary. Watch how he creates turnovers simply by positioning himself in the right ways:
The rest of the team hasn’t forgotten how to fly around and mess things up for the offense since Dwight joined up, and those skills are fusing with Howard’s interior protection to create a whole new beast. They’re forcing more cough-ups when he sits, understandable with guys like Millsap and Muscala playing center in a more aggressive style, but not by much.
“I think guys understand that I’m going to be behind them to protect them, so they can be more aggressive,” Howard said. “And that’s the way we want to play defense: Be aggressive, force turnovers and get blocked shots.”
The Hawks are fouling less often, though Budenholzer stops short of crediting Howard’s presence here specifically. They’ve long been among the best teams in the league at limiting opponent three-point percentage, and Dwight’s presence hasn’t changed things here either – they’re still allowing some of the fewest open threes in the league and the opposition’s percentage remains low.
Put it all together, and it seems no defensive adjustment period was needed: The Hawks are the top defensive team in the league through just under a quarter of the season.
To this point, the issues have been on the other side of the floor. Howard and the rest of the starters have struggled to mesh offensively, and the bench is actually doing the heavy lifting far too often. Howard and Dennis Schroder, fresh into his first year as the starting point guard in a detailed offensive scheme, are struggling to find their groove.
This isn’t entirely unexpected, though. Chemistry between point guard and center can be a delicate balance, especially when both guys are in a new situation. Sometimes things just click into place over time, and that’s the patient approach the Hawks are taking.
“It definitely does [take time], especially with a guy who came off the bench and now you’re asking him to start,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “And then he has to really learn me, and then he has to learn to be that starting point guard, facilitate the offense, stuff like that. You’ve gotta be patient, you know. You’re going to have those games where it seems like it may not work, it seems like it’s never gonna get better. And then you have the games where it’s just, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re looking for.’”
How quickly Bud can reorganize the troops and find some scoring juice could determine this group’s ceiling. It’s still early, but Atlanta’s defense looks every bit like a group that’s been together for years.
Make no mistake, the rest of this Hawks roster deserves real credit for the early defensive success. They’re performing extremely well when Howard sits, even if their superior per-possession defense with him off the floor is a complete mirage (it is – he’s playing much tougher levels of competition, as evidenced by a still-strong figure in defensive RPM, which accounts for team and opponent context).
Leave some praises for the big guy himself, though. Howard has brought a new skill set to a defense that already had a great thing going, and the transition has been seamless.
More than just the skills, he’s brought a culture. Even units without him on the floor are exhibiting subtle signs of a shift. This is what impact veterans do, and Howard is out to prove this is a group to which he still belongs – and even leads.
“Dwight, man…. He commands a lot of respect from a lot of teams, a lot of opponents in the league. Just his presence out there alone changes the dynamic,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been good for us.”
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.