Welcome to The Big 3, where we convene to break down three notable stories, features or plays from the week that was in the NBA. This week’s edition features the Atlanta Hawks’ strange trajectory, a wide-open awards race and a Play of the Week to help illustrate the value of spacing in the NBA. Let’s get started!
- The Hawks, Inscrutable
When Atlanta sent Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers a couple weeks ago for a return package that was effectively just a future first-round pick, it appeared the writing was on the wall. The Hawks were in the midst of a disappointing year where they were merely fighting for a playoff spot rather than potentially locking up a home series in the first round like some had expected and Korver move was expected to be the first domino in a series of tear-down moves that dropped them fully out of contention and focused on the future.
Things were already changing at the time they made the move, though, and they’ve kept changing. The Hawks had won four straight before dealing Korver, a streak which would eventually reach seven straight and nine of 10 once he was gone. They now sit in that once-elusive home playoff seed – they’d be fourth in the East if the season ended today.
There are a few ways to look at this from the Hawks’ standpoint. This stretch of schedule looked pretty friendly for Atlanta for weeks leading up to it, so could these recent wins just be an expected part of the deal? Maybe, but recent rumors that star forward Paul Millsap was now off the trading block make it seem as though perhaps their decision-making changed somewhere along the line.
If that’s the case, the options are a little juicier. Is it possible the Hawks were originally planning a major fire sale, but pivoted quickly due to their strong run? Even juicier, is it possible that Korver’s absence suddenly made certain staffers realize the team might be better without him? It sounds a bit crazy, but Korver’s level has definitely slipped this year and the team was performing much better with him on the bench while he was in town.
Or maybe this was the plan all along. Maybe the Hawks saw the writing on the wall with Korver and figured the best way to get real value for him was to frame a trade as the first domino in a rebuild before pulling back on their other assets. It’s a savvy bit of maneuvering if so, and one that could set the Hawks up better for the future.
We’ll never know for sure, and it’s likely the answer is some combination of these theories. No matter what, tracking the Hawks for the rest of the year – and especially up to the trade deadline – will be interesting.
- Wide-Open Races
Joel Embiid has liquefied the Rookie of the Year race before it even got started and Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be running away with Most Improved Player. Still, there are several other big end-of-season award races which, as of just over halfway through the season, still feel close to wide-open.
The MVP race has felt like a two-man job for most of the year, but squint hard enough and there are some cracks in the cases of both Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Oklahoma City Thunder are beginning to slide a bit in the standings, now jostling with Memphis for the 6-seed and three full games back of Utah for anything higher than that – it’s historically nearly impossible to win the MVP on a team that’s not at least hosting a home playoff series in the first-round.
In Harden’s case, the Houston Rockets’ prolific success while their star is off the floor (a situation not duplicated by guys like Westbrook or LeBron James) has some whispering about “value” conversations despite his amazing production. Those two still lead the pack, to be sure. But with Kevin Durant putting up a ridiculously efficient season for the league-best Warriors, James still functioning as Cleveland’s only on-court hope at regularly winning basketball games and names like Leonard, Thomas and Lowry lurking in the wings, don’t count any chickens here yet.
Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green likely lead Defensive Player of the Year, but it’s neck-and-neck between the two and dark horses like Kawhi Leonard and DeAndre Jordan still loom if their teams have strong second halves defensively. Coach of the Year could go about 10 different ways – it would seem like Mike D’Antoni and Dave Fizdale are near the top of the heap for now, but guys like Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Dwane Casey, Ty Lue and Quin Snyder could all deserve the spot depending on who you ask.
For Sixth Man of the Year, it would appear Eric Gordon and Enes Kanter are among the favorites. But who can count out Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford at any point? Does anyone ever have any clue who’s winning Executive of the Year until it happens?
All of this is without even getting into various All-NBA teams, which could create as much noise as ever this year due to their potential attachment to Designated Player contracts in the newly-signed CBA. It’s going to be fun to track several of these races as we close in on April and May.
- Play of the Week
If you still think of the NBA’s shooting revolution as nothing but a lazy replacement for “purer” kinds of basketball, there are dozens of reasons why the game left you behind years ago. One of the strongest? Three-pointers directly influence dunks and layups, the more “traditional” great shots purists continually yell themselves hoarse about.
There’s no better team to illustrate this than the league’s three-point poster boys, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors launch a ton of triples, but they supplement their unparalleled shooting arsenal with smart plays designed to leverage that shooting into free points – and they do it using a bit of nitty-gritty Xs and Os.
The common tactics for defending Stephen Curry when he handles the ball in pick-and-roll have mostly been tried and tested down to two methods most opponents take: Either they blitz him with both his defender and the screener’s defender, forcing the ball out of his hands earlier, or they simply switch the screen and live with whatever damage Curry does to a bigger defender. The other main option – defending him conservatively and dropping the big man back into the paint like many teams do against most pick-and-rolls – is suicide, as it leaves Curry an open pull-up three anytime he wants.
For teams who choose to blitz or trap Curry with both pick-and-roll defenders, the Warriors have a wrinkle to get an even higher expected point value out of the play. They use a tactic called “shorting” the pick-and-roll – let’s see who can spot it on first viewing.
As Curry is rounding his pick set by JaVale McGee, it’s clear the Kings are looking to trap him with Kosta Koufos, who was guarding McGee. At the same time, note Draymond Green (left side of the screen) moving from a standard weak side dunker position over to the opposite, strong side:
The biggest obstacle in this play is honestly Curry getting the ball out over two defenders, and he generally does just fine given his craftiness. Here, by the time the ball is leaving his hands, look at the head start McGee has on Koufos:
Draymond catches the ball on the right block – there’s no effort from Rudy Gay, guarding Andre Iguodala in the strong side corner, to interrupt the pass to Green, which might have been Sacramento’s last actual chance at stopping this play. Instead, Green (one of the best taller passers in the league) and McGee are two-on-one with the helpless Anthony Tolliver:
The Warriors are smart and detail-oriented – note in the above still how Klay Thompson is the guy spacing the floor on the weak side, meaning his defender, Garrett Temple (17 in black), can’t sell out helping McGee, lest he risk a wide open three for Thompson. As a result, McGee gets the easy two points. Watch it again:
Before you rip on the three-pointer next time, remember that it’s all connected.
NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed
James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.
Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.
2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.
“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”
Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.
“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”
While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.
“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.
Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.
“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”
Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.
“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.
Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.
“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.
On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.
Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.
“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.
Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.
Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience
It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.
Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.
He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.
To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.
“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.
“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”
Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.
“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”
So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.
“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”
It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.
Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.
“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.
“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”
After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.
Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”
And it’s about time people are taking notice.
NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop
Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.
When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.
He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.
Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.
The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.
“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.
“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”
And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.
“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”
This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.
Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.
It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.
“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”
Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.
“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”
Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.
After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.