It’s no surprise that Kevin Love is posting monster numbers and leading the Cavaliers. Assuming health, Love would hoard rebounds and points this season on a young team with few established NBA veterans. The true revelation after six games, however, the heart and soul of this young squad, is Tristan Thompson. Though he’s spent his entire career as a hustler and one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, he’s taken a backseat to bigger stars since being drafted. The fourth pick in 2011, he played second chair to the number one selection, Kyrie Irving. Just when Cavs’ coaches began running parts of the offense through him, LeBron James and Kevin Love entered. A key cog in four years’ worth of Finals runs and the championship, we still saw Thompson as expendable.
Now a true leader, Thompson joins Love as the only leftovers, with Matthew Dellavedova, who own a ring. The improvements he’s made to his game have been stark. Considered a great rebounder but limited offensively, he’s showing parts of his game not seen before. Averaging 16.5 points and 2.5 assists, these offensive numbers are significant leaps from his career averages of 9.3 and 0.9. Long and quick for his size, Tristan could always hold his own when switched onto guards. His defense on Steph Curry during the 2016 Finals was essential. Now, however, he’s added shot blocking to his repertoire. A slow jumper, it’s caused him to get his shot blocked and kept him from becoming a good rim protector, until now. His 1.7 blocks per game this year have given the starting unit protection on the back end of the defense.
The advanced stats spell out his importance. Per 100 possessions, the Cavs are 14 points better offensively and 8.6 points better defensively when he’s on the floor vs. the bench. Skewed by the poor bench units of the Cavaliers, those numbers are still impressive. Love’s numbers are 6.8 on offense and 6.2 on defense.
No part of his game is more important than hustle, however. A fighter who never gives up on possessions, he’ll be remembered as one of the better offensive rebounders in the game’s history. Now he’s leading this young group, along with Kevin Love. Their experience and knowledge of the NBA is invaluable. They have the jewelry to reinforce their words. More feisty than expected to this point, these two along with John Beilein deserve the credit for making Cleveland fun.
Before the season, I wondered if the Cavs would, or should, extend a contract to Thompson after this season, his last on the five year, 82 million deal signed in 2015. If his play keeps up, it’s an easy decision. The leadership and experience he brings to the team will hasten the rebuild. Winning is a tough, and he and Love have been through the battles. A 5 year, 100 million dollar contract, if he wants to be in Cleveland, should get done before free agency.
The two rookies seeing time on the floor, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter, have struggled more than not. Only six games into their NBA careers, both are unsure of themselves, thinking too much on the floor. Both seem eager to impress their coaches and teammates. They’re passing too much, giving up open shots in favor of ball movement. Both need to be more selfish.
Garland only played five games last year at Vanderbilt, so some rust was expected. His three-point shot isn’t falling yet, only shooting 29% from three. An NBA shooter, Garland’s 3’s will drop sooner than later. His passing has shown signs, however. A question mark coming into the league, he sees the floor and is running the team well. Once he learns where and when his teammates like the ball, his assists will rise from the 3.7 he’s averaging.
Porter is all over the place. Against the Bulls, he passed up a dunk and an open shot at the end of a quarter in favor of worse shots for teammates. He then stepped up in the 4th, drilling a three, blocking a shot, and finishing with a dunk at the rim. On Friday in Indiana, he had three turnovers, was the worst player on the floor, and looked lost. He rebounded on Sunday, scoring 8 against Dallas and dishing 2 assists. Porter Jr. then received a one game suspension for bumping a referee at the end of the third quarter. This seems to be nitpicking, though. His reputation was a bigger factor here than the inadvertent bump.
Consistency will come for the rookies. Both talented, they’ll find themselves once they get 30 games under their belts. After the All-Star break, we’ll learn more about these two.
What’s What Around the League
1. Does it get better than a Joel Embiid-Karl Anthony Towns brouhaha? Short on punches yet long on drama, the altercation between the two is peak NBA pettiness. Embiid has never shied away from confrontation, on or off the floor, while Towns is trying to re-establish himself as the best young big in the league. The Timberwolves’ 4-1 start is promising, and KAT’s 27 and 11 averages are encouraging. Minny must show sustained success and maturity to contend in the West, however. In the meantime, circle March 24th on your calendar for Philly’s visit to Minnesota. It will not disappoint.
2. Golden State, woo-boy. First Kevin Durant, then Klay Thompson. Now Steph Curry has a broken hand and will miss three months. D’Angelo Russell will average 30 in Curry’s absence and the Dubs will still lose by 25. When Glenn Robinson III is your second best scorer, dark days are ahead. Not how Warriors’ brass envisioned opening a new arena, the NBA is an abyss for championship squads when the title window closes. The four straight Cavs-Warriors Finals seem so long ago.
3. Davis Bertans, now that Curry and Thompson are sidelined, is the best 3 point weapon in the league. At 6’10”, his launches from well beyond the arc are impossible for big men to cover. Shooting 55% from deep on 7 attempts per game, his 68.1% effective field goal percentage ranks sixth in the league, according to teamrankings.com. Sneaky good in San Antonio for three years, the Spurs traded him to Washington in the off-season to clear cap room to sign DeMarre Carroll. With the Spurs off to a surprising 4-1 start, they may regret losing Bertans’ shooting, considering the 2 points per game Carroll is averaging. While being wasted on a bad Washington team, Bertans and Bradley Beal provide a reason to check in on Wizards’ games.
4. My God, Ja Morant is fun to watch. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. What is his game missing? He’s shooting 50% from 3 and gets to the bucket with ease. Thin and silky smooth, he slices double teams with precision. Already possessing a smooth floater, he can get his shot off over big bodies on the rare occasion he doesn’t get to the rim. With his expert level court vision and exact passing, a superstar is in the making. He controls the game when he’s on the floor. If the Grizzlies can keep Jaren Jackson Jr. healthy, they will be a Western Conference powerhouse soon.
5. If Kyrie Irving can continue distributing the ball to his Nets teammates, Brooklyn will rebound from their early 3-4 start and ascend the Eastern Conference standings. Ten assists in each game of a weekend back-to-back against Houston and Detroit, Irving’s growing trust of the young talent around him is promising. Caris LeVert is a future All-Star and Spencer Dinwiddie proved himself last year capable of hitting big shots and running a team, whether starting or off the bench. Joe Harris is a perfect safety valve for Kyrie, shooting 57% from 3. The rub for Irving will continue to be his mercurial nature. Reports from Brooklyn already are questioning his aloof nature, noting his propensity to shut off communication with those around him. The Nets must let Kyrie be Kyrie; they knew what they were getting by signing him. All superstars aren’t equal. Instead of chastising him for what he isn’t, embrace him for what he is and create an environment for him to thrive.
6. The biggest surprise in the West is Phoenix. An off-season touted as aimless by many, GM James Jones assembled a veteran unit. The professionalism in Phoenix has risen from years’ past; Ricky Rubio provides stable playmaking from the point guard position while Tyler Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr, and Dario Saric provide spacing for Devin Booker to cook on offense. The crux of their turnaround, however, is Aron Baynes. Averaging 15 and 5, he’s shooting 46% from 3. He’s fifth in the league in efield goal percentage (68.5% according to teamrankings.com) and 7th in the league in offensive win shares via basketball-reference.com. Considered a useful if unnecessary piece in Boston, the head scratching move by the Suns to acquire Baynes and Ty Jerome for a 2020 1st rounder seems savvy now. Though the Suns 5-2 start may be a mirage, the team’s plan to surround its young core of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton with experience is paying dividends early.
7. Eric Bledsoe has to be better for the Bucks to be a serious title contender. Perhaps hungover from his embarrassing Eastern Conference Finals performance, Bledsoe’s points per game, shooting percentages, steal percentage, and offensive and defensive win share numbers are cratering. The NBA is a tough league, especially for someone who signed a huge contract before being benched in the biggest series of his career. Giannis’ greatness will allow Bledsoe a chance to rebound, but he has to figure himself out or George Hill will play crunch time point guard minutes in Milwaukee.
8. The Pacers’ offense has struggled, but head coach Nate McMillan provides hope they’ll figure it out. Plodding along against the Cavs Friday night, Indy was hoisting bad transition shots early in the shot clock, leading to a dreadful, 19 point 1st quarter. McMillan’s team steadied themselves, getting to a Malcolm Brogdon/Domantas Sabonis pick and roll, leading to more efficient offense. An expected playoff team laboring early, the Pacers will be better served slowing down and grinding teams defensively, at least until Victor Oladipo returns.
9. Ranked 20th in defensive rating, the Mavericks will need to improve on that end if they hope to continue their hot start. One problem in no need of fixing, however, is rim protection. Kristaps Porzingis is second in the league in blocks behind Anthony Davis at 2.7 and cleans up his teammates’ messes at the rim. For all of Luka Doncic’s wizardry, his defense and the height challenged back court of Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson are putting a lot of pressure on the back end. Porzingis will be busy all year.
10. Houston was down by 59-18 on Sunday night in Miami. 41 down in the second quarter. South Beach on Saturday night is undefeated.