And we’re back!
Let’s bounce around the league for the first time this season.
10 things I like and don’t like
1. I, for one, welcome our new Giannis overlord
Holy god. What are you even supposed to do with this guy? Play off of him, and he uses the open space as a runway. If Giannis Antetokounmpo is barreling at a flat-footed defender in the paint, it’s over. Your natural instinct — the only thing you can do, really — is to backpedal, and most defenders open their hips in one direction as they do. That gives Antetokounmpo a straight line to paydirt.
Somehow hold your ground, and Antetokounmpo buries his head in your chest, tips you off-balance, reaches up, and lays the ball in over your head.
Press him, and he zips around you. He doesn’t even need to blow past you; if he just gets side-by-side, he reaches his arm to a spot you can’t, and flicks the ball up.
The only answer is to send help, and that is old hat for Antetokounmpo now. He sees every possible pass, and with arms that long, almost every pass is possible. When Thon Maker is at center and the Bucks slot four shooters around Antetokounmpo, they will get a high-value shot every single time.
He’s getting better at everything. His passing advanced last season. So did his rim protection. He has a soft little floater now, and a Dirk-ish slide-back jumper for post-ups late in the shot clock.
He knows how much defenses fear him. He is mastering little tricks that play on that fear — subtle acts of cruel puppetry. Watch how he spooks the entire Portland defense into gearing up for a drive, only to pivot into a handoff that gets Tony Snell a wide-open triple:
Antetokounmpo is thinking one and two steps ahead.
LeBron’s place as the league’s best player should remain unquestioned until he can’t reach peak levels in May and June. But Giannis is coming.
2. The sluggish Nuggets
It’s too early to panic about The Curse of the Exiled Powder Blue infecting Denver’s offense, but something is amiss. Denver ranks 23rd in points per possession after bumrushing the league last season once they belatedly started Nikola Jokic. The inversion of their shot selection profile from last season to this one suggests a team that has time-traveled back 15 years.
Some of this was inevitable, and will turn as Denver adjusts to new challenges. Teams plan for Jokic’s backdoor passing now. Paul Millsap spends more time inside than Danilo Gallinari, his predecessor at power forward, meaning those cutting lanes to the basket are a little more cluttered.
But the early issues go deeper; after all, the Nuggets scored like bonkers when Jokic shared the floor with Kenneth Faried. It looks like the entire team contracted mononucleosis from Juancho Hernangomez. Last year’s gleeful creativity is gone.
Denver is crawling at the league’s sixth-slowest pace after humming at the seventh-fastest a year ago. Possessions die after one or two actions, and Denver doesn’t have the scoring or passing oomph along the perimeter to make do with isolations and impromptu pick-and-rolls. Gary Harris pulls up one dribble early. Emmanuel Mudiay can’t shoot from anywhere, or defend anyone. Jamal Murray‘s 3-pointer remains theoretical. On one stagnant trip against Charlotte Wednesday, Mason Plumlee attempted a post move. It went badly.
The whole team is barfing up turnovers. Start calling Phoenix-area hair salons!
3. Oklahoma City, splitting you
The Thunder have had predictable hiccups integrating three stars on offense. For everyone but the Warriors, this is a real problem.
A tap from George is enough; Westbrook explodes to top speed so fast, he needs only the teensiest crease to rampage to the rim. He has long had dormant potential as a lethal cutter.
Smart teams will switch the Westbrook-George dance, but George is ready:
He sniffs out the switch, and slips to the rim before Minnesota can toggle assignments. George has been a savvy off-ball mover since he arrived in the NBA.
Oklahoma City is too talented to scuffle for long. They are feeling out the Westbrook-George and Westbrook-Carmelo Anthony pick-and-roll combinations — how defenses will respond, and the best counters to those responses.
The Thunder’s real issue: finding the fifth guy to play alongside their core four. No defender is ever going to be in Andre Roberson‘s ZIP code; dude is air-balling free throws. His minutes are down. There will be no place to hide Alex Abrines on defense against good teams. Jerami Grant has played zero seconds alongside the Westbrook-George-Anthony-Steven Adams quartet, and Billy Donovan may consider any lineup with George as the nominal shooting guard a little too big. I’d try it — with Grant or Patrick Patterson. Raymond Felton is … Raymond Felton.
Oklahoma City needs another rotation guy — badly.
4. The random veering of Nerlens Noel
Noel is the only big man who regularly apparates out of position:
That almost looks like a jump cut. Kosta Koufos doesn’t even mean to bait Noel with that bogus handoff, but Noel rushes at the ball like a cat chasing the laser pointer.
This kind of stuff drives cantankerous, old-school, stick-to-the-freaking-scheme coaches insane. Noel is a serial gambler. He wins more bets than any man his size should, and it looks incredible when he does.
But the bad beats outnumber the improbable steals. Noel might be a massively impactful defender if he learns to modulate the aggression.
Boy, do the miserable Mavs need it. Dallas ranks 28th in points allowed per possession, and they can’t rebound anything.
Their level of investment in Noel has wavered since he turned down their four-year, $70 million offer. He had barely logged any minutes alongside the Dirk Nowitzki–Harrison Barnes combo before Rick Carlisle started that trio in a home-and-home against Memphis. Noel played 12 minutes in Monday’s blowout loss against the Warriors. (Foul trouble resulting from his wayward, no-chance reaches hasn’t helped.)
Fitting the Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel trio is a challenge, but the Mavs need to try to make it work with Noel. It’s not as if they are teeming with young, mobile bigs.
5. Caris LeVert, contortionist
LeVert presents one classic young player dilemma: The process looks much better than results. LeVert maps the floor at a sophisticated level. He understands how defenses rotate, where open teammates should be, and how to manipulate all the chess pieces with his dribble. He moves with an arrhythmic, buffering stop-and-start that confounds defenders.
None of that matters much if you shoot 38 percent overall, and 14 percent from deep.
But his method of finding those shots — and generating them for teammates — is so intriguing, and so damned smart, that you wager on those shooting percentages catching up as LeVert gains experience.
He is especially clever in tight spaces — a whirling blur of fakes, spins, and semi-blind wraparound dishes.
LeVert can get a little too daring — almost arrogant. He tries impossible passes, and stops the ball now and then to launch off-the-bounce midrangers. Defenders are already ducking under picks against him, and ignoring him off the ball.
But the raw material of a solid starting wing is here.
6. The old West standbys, not going anywhere
We know the Spurs are never going away, but it is mildly surprising how easily they rolled three quality teams (and the Bulls) without Kawhi Leonard. Something lit a fire under LaMarcus Aldridge‘s ass; he’s shooting almost 60 percent on post-ups, and grinding on defense. Rudy Gay is providing solid minutes at both forward positions — and even some spot time at center in Miami on Wednesday. Dejounte Murray is a menace. Slow-Mo Anderson is tea-timing his way to buckets. Brandon Paul is a plus defender already.
You look at the roster, and it’s almost hard to figure out how in the hell the Spurs are doing this — again. Some of their greatness is hard to see. It exists in the absence of small mistakes other teams make a dozen times a night. The Spurs make a few, but the difference between a few and a dozen adds up to a handful of points — the difference between a win and a loss.
That DeMar DeRozan drive is a common method of attack against a fronted post; ball handlers use the post-up almost as a two-man screen, knowing they’ll have daylight behind it.
Quashing that gambit requires pinpoint synchronization. It has to be perfect. It has to be instant. Any gap results in an open shot. Some teams blow that. Ginobili and Mills, with so much shared knowledge between them, nail it.
The margin of error for the defense there is paper thin. One false step — one confused pause, one slight lean the wrong way — and Lowry is drilling an open triple, or watching DeRozan drop the hammer. The Spurs don’t flinch.
I remember debating the Pau Gasol signing with a Spurs official two summers ago. I was underwhelmed. He was astonished anyone could feel that way about even the creaky, aging version of Gasol. “He knows how to play,” the official said. He kept repeating that. He seemed confused that I didn’t find “knowing how to play” a super-compelling reason to sign someone.
But you get it when you see it in action — five guys who know how to play, working from the same script. They don’t foul. They leave the right shooters open, never the wrong ones. They move the ball to the right place, at the right time.
Maybe the Spurs err a little too far toward “knowing how to play” at the expense of athleticism and other talents. Maybe that places a ceiling on them in playoffs. But it also wins a gargantuan number of games, every damned year.
Meanwhile, Memphis is starting two fringe NBA players in Andrew Harrison and Jarell Martin. That is not an exaggeration; the Grizzlies told Martin they were going to cut him in camp! How many fans had heard of James Ennis III — another starter! — two years ago?
And yet here they are, 4-1, with wins over Golden State and Houston. They find hard-playing, tough guys who make you earn it every night. They’ve got something in Dillon Brooks on a weirdo bench unit. Chandler Parsons is moving more like a human, and less like a mummy. Tyreke Evans is bombing 3s. (This won’t last.)
More than anything, they lean on the low-wattage, high-IQ brilliance of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, entering decade No. 2 of their dribble handoff tap-dance duet. They take care of the ball — Memphis has sported one of the league’s 10 lowest turnover rates for five seasons running — and wring something from every possession. They are calm and precise amid the hothouse of crunch time.
Gasol is defending and rebounding at a high level again. He looks like a cast member from “300.”
7. Atlanta, maybe overdoing it?
The Hawks have dialed back the trapping frenzy those Al Horford-Millsap teams deployed to swarm ball handlers, snare turnovers, and (in theory) run open shooters off the 3-point arc.
They should dial it back even more.
Like, what is the point of trapping a Spencer Dinwiddie–Trevor Booker pick-and-roll 25 feet from the hoop? It’s not Stephen Curry and Draymond Green! If Dinwiddie or Booker wants to launch, just let him! That’s a way better outcome than harassing Dinwiddie, and unlocking an easy corner 3 for Joe Harris — an actual good shooter — two basic passes away.
Opponents have jacked 35 triples per game against the Hawks, the second-highest mark in the league. The Hawks have yielded 10 corner 3s per game, second most overall.
This is not a new problem. About 35 percent of enemy shots came from deep last season — the fourth-highest such share. No team allowed more triples during that magical 60-win campaign in 2014-15.
This style amounts to chasing defensive perfection. Softer schemes concede open midrange jumpers. This mania, if executed cleanly, can take away everything.
That can (sometimes) work when you have the collective wingspan of Milwaukee’s starting five. It can work with Horford and Millsap, two of the league’s fastest and handsiest bigs — and a smart cast of veterans flying around behind him.
Atlanta has long understood the risks. “We did not like giving up all those 3s,” Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta’s coach, told me two seasons ago. “It’s a constant battle: You can’t put pressure on the ball like we do without exposing yourselves a bit.”
8. Golden State, revisiting something good
Psst … Golden State is back to opening most second and fourth quarters with a lineup of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Durant and David West. It is unfair to run that group out against opposing second units. It is huge and switchable on defense, with two legit offensive superstars and four guys who can post up mismatches.
That lineup is plus-4 in 35 minutes so far. It blitzed opponents by more than 13 points per 100 possessions in 167 minutes last season before Steve Kerr went away from it in mid-January
The Warriors are smart to give it another look.
9. Domantas Sabonis, being mean
Would you look at what happens when a large human with some skill does more than stand around the arc delivering dribble handoffs and trembling in fear of missing any shot off a pass from Russell Westbrook!
Sabonis has rediscovered the paint, and he’s cramming all over fools. He dunked 15 times all last season; he’s up to four after just five games in Indy. Sabonis has effectively played center next to Thaddeus Young and T.J. Leaf while Myles Turner recovers, and those guys cede the lane to him. He’s slinking into open space on the pick-and-roll, and making plays — short jumpers, and mean-spirited drives to the rim. He’s shooting 58 percent!
Hanging around the rim has reawakened Sabonis’ offensive rebounding; at this rate, he’ll grab more before Thanksgiving than he did all of last season.
There are downsides, of course. Almost any lineup with Sabonis at center will struggle on defense; the Pacers rank 29th in points allowed per possession. He has played only five minutes alongside Turner — all in the ludicrous speed opener against Brooklyn — and it’s unclear how those two fit. They each shoot well enough to make it work on offense, but juggling assignments on the other end might be tricky.
Still: Indy has to be thrilled with the early-season play of the Paul George return.
10. CJ Kilometres
Oh, Matt Devlin, you clever, coiffed wordsmith. I am 100 percent in favor of this metric system nickname for Toronto’s new bench gunner, flinging up 13.5 triples per 36 minutes — an audacious, giddy number no rotation player has even approached over a full season. Kilometres doesn’t even care if he’s facing the basket when he catches the ball; he’ll twirl around — in mid-air, mind you — and heave that sucker up.
What in the hell has gotten into the staid Raptors? The Drakes are pulling 36 triples per game after averaging only 24 attempts from deep last season. The corresponding decrease has come almost entirely from the midrange area; the Raptors haven’t (so far) sacrificed shots at the rim or free throws transforming themselves into the Rockets of Canada.
This is part personnel, and part Dwane Casey coaching outside of his comfort zone to reinvent an offense that craps the bed every postseason. Kilometres is at the center of it, bombing away as part of a delightful five-man bench mob.