Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we canvass the league for a few big themes from the week that was. We’re back from a brief holiday break – let’s get started!
This week’s column features an under-the-radar MVP candidate, one of the weirdest races for the eight-seed we’ve seen out West in decades, and a Play of the Week that helps illustrate a new defensive trend sweeping the league. All statistics are prior to Saturday’s games.
Kyle Lowry, Legit MVP Candidate
The MVP debate always starts out with a relatively wide net, typically led by a few frontrunners, before it narrows to include just those frontrunners plus a couple of fringe candidates. We’re roughly reaching that point this season: James Harden and Russell Westbrook appear to have distanced themselves in most conversations, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and perhaps a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard dotting the margins. If the vote was today, it’s likely we’d see Harden and Westbrook split the majority of first-place nods.
Based on all the past indicators of MVP success, though, we need to be adding another name to the list: Kyle Lowry.
It seemed to many (this pen included) as if Lowry had hit a bit of a plateau last year during his age-29 season. After all, he set career highs in virtually every major efficiency-related category while leading the Raptors to the most successful season in franchise history. However, there were hints of potential regression in his game.
So much for that. Lowry set his own career high in True Shooting percentage last year with a .578 mark, but he’s blasting that to smithereens so far this year – up to .642, the highest figure in the league for a guard (per basketball-reference.com). He’s finishing at the rim more effectively than ever before in his career, lighting nets on fire from floater range and sitting in the league’s top 10 for three-point shooting despite a ridiculous average level of difficulty.
In fact, Lowry’s shooting this season is eerily similar to the two-time defending MVP who has become synonymous with difficult shot-making. Lowry isn’t approaching Stephen Curry’s legendary 2015-16 campaign, of course – there’s a strong chance no one ever will – but take a quick gander at a comparison of their shooting metrics and you’ll see he’s right on par with Curry’s first MVP season:
Curry 2014-15: 48.7% FG, 44.3% 3P, .638 TS%, 42.0% on pull-up 3-pointers (per SportVU data)
Lowry 2016-17: 47.7% FG, 44.5% 3P, .642 TS%, 41.7% on pull-up 3-pointers
Curry’s 2014-15 numbers were on a bit more volume and perhaps a higher degree of difficulty, but those are nearly identical shooting figures.
Lowry currently sits fourth in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, trailing only Chris Paul, Antetokounmpo and James. The Raptors’ offense sputters and dies when he leaves the floor and his bench mobs that open the second and fourth quarters of most games are a big reason the Raptors still sit within shouting distance of the Cavs for the top overall seed out East. Lowry deserves to at least be on the margins of the MVP conversation and more of this over the next couple months could even get him up there with the main guys.
West 8-seed, Anyone? Going Once…
As of this writing, the Portland Trail Blazers – they of the glamorous 16-22 record, for a .421 winning percentage – sit in the eighth seed in the West. They’re jockeying with fellow sub-.500 teams for that final spot and a huge line of delineation seems to have been drawn between the eight-seed and the top seven teams in the conference.
Folks familiar with how dominant the West has been in recent years will recognize this as a rare occurrence, but perhaps won’t be aware of exactly how rare.
There have only been two teams in the last 20 years who have finished even directly at .500 and made the playoffs in the West: Houston last season and Minnesota during the lockout-shortened year in 1998-99. It was a full two decades ago that anyone got in at below .500 – three teams actually all did in the same year in 1996-97.
The West’s general dominance over the East hasn’t let up, by any means; the West is still 109-94 against the East on the year. But this is a rare gap in power structure we haven’t really seen since the current chasm between the conferences developed. With four teams in the West currently winning over 60 percent of their games (and the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies right on that line as of this writing), it’s looking like things have gotten even more top-heavy than usual – and the Warriors, driving that top-heaviness in large part, are in line for a historically weak first-round opponent if current standings hold.
Play of the Week
NBA offense and defense are in a constantly evolving chess game, only if just the top 30 grandmasters in the world played each other over and over and all 28 others sat and watched every game. Little tweaks that work make their way into other playbooks, sometimes immediately or sometimes over a few months or an offseason.
As the NBA’s rise in pick-and-roll play has spread, one of the counters that has eventually manifested has been switch-everything defenses to prevent damning rotations. For teams with multiple talented screener options, the next logical chess move has been to search for the best potential switching mismatch available, then go at that repeatedly while avoiding where the switch the defense “wants” to go to.
During set play moments at the end of big games, though, defenses have found a new counter. Many offenses are pretty transparent about their desire to run pick-and-roll during these moments and defenses who know it’s coming have started dictating some of their own action guarding screens.
The Warriors with Draymond Green in the 2016 playoffs were among the first teams to pull this trick out, though it’s possible someone else was the true innovator. In this example from the Oklahoma City Thunder late in an eventual loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, see if you can spot what Oklahoma City does. Pay special attention to Russell Westbrook, initially positioned at the top of the screen on the right.
As the play begins, note how Westbrook is mostly hanging a bit higher than usual in the middle area between his man on the baseline and ball-handler Kemba Walker (and note how Andre Roberson is doing the same on the other side of the court, in case the pick comes from there).
As the play develops, it turns out that Steven Adams’ man, Frank Kaminsky, is coming up to set the pick for Walker – not Westbrook’s man, Marco Belinelli. But that doesn’t matter to the Thunder. Their primary goal is making sure they have a guy who can switch the upcoming pick and take over on Walker without giving up a huge edge.
Westbrook executes the switch and the Thunder get what they want: Walker gets the ball out of his hands. He passes to Belinelli and while the Hornets do end up getting free-throws out of this, it still has to count for a process win for Oklahoma City. Belinelli isn’t a particularly creative dribbler, and while he’s certainly quicker than Adams, he’s a far better option than Kemba in that same situation. Also, by forcing the pass away from Walker and wasting a couple extra seconds, the Thunder have run the shot clock down below seven – they can give Adams solid help if he gets beat.
They didn’t execute it perfectly here, but a careful eye can see how useful this tactic can be. Teams can designate a “roll man defender” like they did with Westbrook here, knowing that they’ll have a good matchup on the primary ball-handler they’re honing in on. If the offense wants to exploit a mismatch, they’re forced to do so using a secondary playmaker who probably isn’t as talented or experienced going one-on-one in these big situations. Otherwise, they won’t be able to create any major creases in the defense.
Of course, know that the best offensive coaches are out there scheming the next counter here. Maybe teams fake a screen from one man and run it with another in a way that frees up an open rim run, or maybe they slip the pick more quickly and catch the switchers napping. If we see the next variation, we’ll update it here.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21
Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.
Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.
With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.
1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)
Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.
While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.
On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.
He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.
2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)
Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.
His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.
Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.
3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)
After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.
Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.
With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.
4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)
With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.
For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.
If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.
5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)
Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.
That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.
His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.
6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)
Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.
However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.
Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.
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.