Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble

The bubble debut for the NBA has been fantastic. Players are in shape, the games have an outstanding atmosphere, the intensity level is high, and no one has tested positive for COVID-19. The protocols and guidelines the league took months to set up are paying off, and we should commend the players for bringing their A game. A March Madness feel has overtaken the league, with high stakes games being played at all hours of the day. This has a chance, and with the uncertainty surrounding baseball and football, NBA playoffs in September and October may own the landscape. Here’s what was interesting during the first week back:

1.Houston’s size problem may have a Robert Covington solution. The 6’7” forward, always a defensive menace, has flexed his muscle around the rim. Five blocks in their first 2 games have given the Rockets a presence in the paint. He’s rejected 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Add in 6 steals, and the weak Houston defense at least has an active member causing havoc on the back end. Is it enough to change their trajectory? Time will tell if Covington’s body can withstand the pounding he’ll take, guarding bigger guys every night. Most bigs shy away from it. But for now, consider Covington the smallest rim protector in the league.

2. Once the trade from Houston to Oklahoma City occurred last summer, speculation began on who Chris Paul would suit up for this season. The Thunder wouldn’t keep the 35-year-old point guard due $123 million over the next three years in a rebuilding situation. OKC didn’t dump him, however, and now the Thunder may be the third best team in the West. Paul is a conductor, orchestrating the moves of teammates and opponents while dominating games without posting monster stats. His understanding of the game, bettered only by LeBron, is PhD worthy, and he’s been overlooked in the MVP conversation. What he’s done in OKC, after they traded away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off season, deserved MVP votes. Paul’s name will hit the rumor mill again, yet Oklahoma City may be wise to keep him. Young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All Star in the making. Learning from an all-time great point guard will only speed up his development.

3. Though he’s turned it around, Jayson Tatum’s start in the bubble was clunky. A 5 point, 2-18 shooting opener against Milwaukee, following a poor exhibition slate is troubling. 34 against Portland on Sunday may allow Celtic brass to sleep better, but is this the guy Boston is resting future title hopes on? We’ve seen flashes from him before, only to see Tatum revert to a passive entity, flowing in and out of games. He switches between attacking and hanging out behind the three point line. While Tatum has more talent, Jaylen Brown has more fire. Brown doesn’t take plays off. His shot selection is sometimes questionable, but his ability to guard 1-5 on defense gives Brad Stevens tons of flexibility. The push and pull between these two young players, and Boston’s hierarchy over the next few years, will remain engrossing.

4. Most counted Toronto out as defending champs as soon as Kawhi Leonard packed for L.A., yet the strong fit of the pieces collected by GM Masai Ujiri and the heart of Kyle Lowry is keeping them on the periphery of the title chase. A defensive masterpiece on Saturday night against the Lakers is forcing everyone to consider them a contender. Lowry, recovered from the PTSD of so many subpar performances against LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, has become a clutch, go to player in crunch time. Anyone Nick Nurse puts on the floor plays defense, and Pascal Siakam is edging toward superstardom. Ask NBA experts who the best coach in the league is, and a majority will answer Nurse. So why the lingering doubt over the Raptors? The defense is trustworthy, but can they count on Lowry and Siakam to get crunch time buckets with defenses designed to stop them? Kawhi garnered the attention last year. But if those two take another step, the Raptors may make the Finals for a second year in a row.

Defending LeBron/Davis pick and roll. Doesn’t get any better than this.

5. New Orleans wants to be careful with their lottery ticket, but is playing Zion Williamson only 18 minutes per game, and sitting him during crunch time, the best strategy? The fear of injury is overtaking sports. Pitchers can’t throw over 100 pitches per outing and prized NBA draft picks get babied mercilessly. How many players handled with kid gloves reach stardom? How many others flame out, or get hurt anyway? And if he’s on a minute restriction, why not save some of those minutes for the end of games? In a near must win in their opener against Utah, Zion sat for the last 7 minutes as his teammates coughed up a double digit lead. On a team NBA execs want in the playoffs, New Orleans’ bosses seem to have other ideas. Question is, when will they unleash the beast? At some point, Zion has to play NBA basketball, or his development will suffer. If he’s injury prone, we’ll find out soon enough.

6. Anthony Davis dominated the Jazz Monday night with a performance the Lakers will need replicated for the next two-and-a-half months. 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals, plus multiple wow plays on defense carried L.A. while LeBron ramps up in the bubble. Watching Laker games, the lack of talent behind their top two is glaring, however. Could Dion Waiters be their best bench play? Can they count on Kyle Kuzma as the 3rd option? Davis cannot have games like Saturday night against the Raptors, when he took 2 shots in the first half, and only 7 total in the game. The Lakers may be the favorite, but their margins are razor thin. Davis cannot afford to be passive, especially against smaller teams like the Rockets and Clippers. When he has a mismatch, he must dominate. With no other reliable ball handlers, Frank Vogel will tax LeBron with that duty throughout. AD has to carry the scoring load on offense to allow LeBron to set up their less reliable teammates.

7. Jrue Holiday’s defense gets overlooked. Strong enough to battle bigs in the paint and quick enough to stick on guards, Holiday schooled Rookie of the Year in waiting Ja Morant on Monday in a game the Pelicans had to have. Drawing the rookie on most possessions in the first half, Holiday used his size to push Morant around, forcing him into 3-11 shooting, 0-6 from 3. Morant ended drives off balance, unable to finish at the rim because of Holiday’s presence, while Jrue’s quickness didn’t allow Ja any separation on his jumper. Though New Orleans’ defense has been abominable all season, and may keep him off All Defense teams, Holiday, at minimum, provides an example for the young Pelicans on that end if they are to become a contender in the West. His 1.7 steals per game ranked 7th in the league. His ability to switch gives their defense flexibility. When the Pelicans become a problem, Zion will be their star, but Jrue Holiday will be their backbone.

8. Put Doris Burke on the main broadcast team with Mike Breen, ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy complain too much; do they even like NBA basketball? Burke’s understanding of the game is unmatched. She sees all and explains it with an intelligence and charisma that is a joy to listen to. She’s funny, and her love of the game shines. Add that to Breen’s exceptional play-by-play skills and knowledge, and you’ve created the perfect tandem. Van Gundy and Jackson are stale. If they aren’t complaining about referees or players, they’re over-hyping mediocre coaches. Putting Breen and Burke together makes too much sense.

9. Dame Time has arrived in Orlando, and teams out west have a fresh fear. At the controls of Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard has made the Blazers the early favorites for the 8 seed on averages of nearly 27 points and 11 assists per. A lock for an All-NBA spot, Lillard has made his case as the best point guard in the league. With Jusuf Nurkic’s return from a horrible leg injury and Zach Collins back from an early season dislocated shoulder, the Lakers should fear Dame and C. J. McCollum driving the bus. While New Orleans may have been the fans’ pick for the 8 seed, they would pose little resistance to L.A. Not so with the Blazers. A team that reached the West Finals last year, they’re healthy, have added a decent Carmelo Anthony, and possess the best backcourt in the league. LeBron’s path to title four gets tougher if Portland squeezes in.

10. Michael Porter Jr. posted back-to-back 30 point games this week and is the punch Denver’s offense needs in the playoffs. With three starters injured, the Nuggets have relied on Porter during the restart, something coach Mike Malone has hesitated to do. While he makes gobs of rookie mistakes, Denver needs to lean on the talented first-year player more if they hope to advance in the West. Everyone assumes the L.A. teams will meet in the West Finals. If Porter grew up over the layoff, and Malone will trust him, the Nuggets may force their way into the conversation. At worst, the rookie will gain valuable experience for future playoff runs in Denver.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Andre Drummond? Sure

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

Andre Drummond will not change the fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should they have made the deal? Absolutely. Drummond is a two time former All-Star, the league leader in rebounding, and an upgrade at the center position. The second-round pick used to acquire him will fall at the end of the 2023 draft. The money the Cavs will pay him this year and next, if he picks up his $28 million dollar option (almost a guarantee), is of no use to the organization this summer. Drummond’s contract will be of the expiring variety in 2021 and will be an asset at next year’s deadline to swap short term money for longer contracts if cap strapped teams are looking to clean their books ahead of summer 2021 and a stout free agent class. A year and a half look at one of the top five centers in the game is worth the price Koby Altman paid for an organization in the early stages of a deep rebuild. Still, don’t expect Drummond to turn this ship around.

The Cavs’ biggest weaknesses are youth, transition defense, half-court defense, rim protection, ball movement, and turnovers. Drummond has been in the league eight years and may provide strong leadership to the young guys, but he helps little in the other deficient categories. While he averages 1.7 blocks per game, Drummond allows opponents to shoot 65% against him in the restricted area (NBA.com), ranking him in the bottom half of the league. His overall defensive rating is 110.9, worst of his career. He does, however, rank third in the league in steals (2 per game). While his size is an asset, he isn’t a stout defender and won’t improve the Cavs on that end of the floor.

On offense, Drummond leads the league in offensive rebounding. He positions himself well and can use his size and athletic ability to clean up after his teammates. The Cavs now have the 1st and 3rd ranked offensive rebounders in the league (Tristan Thompson). He’s a good pick and roll screener (14th in screen assists, 17th in screen assist points) and will clear space for Sexton and Garland in the half court. He’s improved his passing, and he and Love can have success off each other in high-low actions. After that, it gets murky. He shoots less that 40% outside 3 feet, ranks 466th in the league with a 15.7% turnover percentage, and shoots 58% from the line.

This is the stuff Drummond will do for the offense. Can the guards can get him the ball?

Drummond will have some gaudy stat lines; expect a few 20/20 games. But will his skill set produce victories? From Detroit’s perspective, he wasn’t leading their team to wins and makes a pile of cash. They thought it best to cut bait now for nothing in fear of him picking up his $28 million player option next season. They preferred cap space over Drummond.

Is he an upgrade over Tristan Thompson? This trade signals the franchise’s desire, or Thompson’s, to separate after the season. They pay Drummond 10 million more per, but their skill sets are the same. Thompson has been a hard worker throughout his career, stepping into a leadership role after the departure of LeBron James. Will Drummond do the same?

The tough reality for NBA old schoolers to accept is that one-dimensional centers in an era of pace and space are obsolete. The Cavs played Drummond off the floor in 2016 during their first round match-up in the playoffs. Drummond couldn’t guard anyone in the James/Irving/Love/Smith/Jefferson closing lineup and wasn’t good enough offensively to justify court time down in fourth quarters. With so many teams forsaking offensive rebounding for transition defense, they procure rebounds in other ways, without a behemoth inside. Still, with Drummond’s obvious flaws, it was a price worth paying for Cleveland. Maybe Drummond can add to his game and become a winning player. Maybe his leadership skills will develop and he’ll be a positive influence on the young guards. Maybe he’ll develop a friendship with Kevin Love and settle Love’s frequent outbursts. Doubtful, but in the position the franchise is in, this was a chance worth taking. (Just don’t sign him to a multi-year extension. Yikes.)

What’s What Around the League

1.The sight of Houston’s small ball lineup on the floor shocks the system. With no one on the roster over 6’7” slated to get meaningful minutes, this experiment, executed by Daryl Morey, was the next logical step in the Rockets’ push to the edges of analytics. Will it work? Clint Capela didn’t make them a Finals contender; this risk is more a Hail Mary than another significant shift in the way teams play the game. They will get destroyed on defense, the size mismatches they’ll face in the Western Conference are significant. The Lakers, Nuggets, and Jazz will feast in the paint, wearing out the likes of P. J. Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, and Robert Covington over a 7 game series. But wow, do they get the looks on offense. Surrounded by mismatches at every position, Houston gets open corner 3s and layups off isolations with ease. The spacing is ridiculous, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the perfect duo to take advantage. Listen, the Rockets aren’t making the Western Conference Finals, and were never going to. But their quirky new take on team building is something to gawk at.

2. My do the Andrew Wiggins takes change when a respected NBA franchise trades for him. The shock of the Warriors trading for an inefficient scorer and subpar defender still hasn’t worn off. Since Bob Myers has gained clout around the league for building champions, however, he receives the benefit of the doubt. This is the best he could have gotten out of D’Angelo Russell? The positional fit is better, but Russell is a more talented basketball player. Russell isn’t perfect, but has more worth around the league than Wiggins. Why not keep Russell until next season’s trade deadline, testing his fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson after they get healthy? Minnesota has been salivating over Russell since the summer; this trade wasn’t going anywhere. Hell, the T-Wolves would’ve gotten more desperate to make this move as the losses mounted and Karl-Anthony Towns’ frustrations grew. Is it possible Wiggins blooms under a competent NBA franchise? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

3. There is no better organization at finding and developing talent in the league than the Toronto Raptors, and it isn’t close. Winners of 15 straight, the Raps continue to plug 2nd round picks and undrafted players into the lineup, turning them into contributors.
Pascal Siakam– 27th overall pick
Norman Powell– late 2nd rounder
Fred VanVleet– undrafted
Terence Davis– undrafted
Chris Boucher– undrafted
All key cogs in Toronto’s excellent season; all virtual afterthoughts on draft day. With strong veteran leadership and championship pedigree, the Raptors have has good a chance as anyone in the East to upset Milwaukee. Siakam can bother Giannis defensively and no one on the roster fears the Bucks. Masai Ujiri has built a masterpiece in Toronto.

4. Though a huge disappointment in his career, seeing the Hornets buyout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was another lesson in the direction the league has taken. 15-20 years ago, a perimeter defender of Kidd-Gilchrist’s ilk was still useful; Bruce Bowen and Tony Allen had successful careers in the role. There just isn’t a spot on the floor for non-shooting wings anymore, regardless of how well they lock up their man on the other end. The spacing issues they create shrink the floor; throw in a poor shooting big man and your offense is toast. The speed and pace of the league is fun, though the amount of 3s being taken is reaching a tipping point. Here’s hoping lock down perimeter defenders don’t go the way of the center position.

5. Gordon Hayward seemed to be returning to All-Star form before an injury early in the season cost him a month. Though still playing well, his scoring, rebounding, and shooting numbers are all down since his return. The Celtics are in the mix for the 2 seed in the East along with Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia, and Indiana, but seem to lack that something needed to go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee in the playoffs. Kemba Walker has established himself as the leader, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both All-Star worthy after subpar years alongside Kyrie Irving last year. Still, Boston needs Hayward. His shooting and size on defense will be key in the playoffs; he must help Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter rebound against bigger squads. The Celtics are talented, and Kemba knows how to hit big shots in pressure moments. Still, they’ll need peak Gordon Hayward to advance.

6. Marcus Smart’s flopping will get him injured.

7. Memphis didn’t waste any time cutting Dion Waiters after acquiring him from Miami, and who could blame them? Waiters’ act would be toxic in that young locker room. Desperation in L.A. has earned him a workout with the Lakers, however. With zero path to improvement because of the assets given to trade for Anthony Davis, the buyout market is the only way for the Lakers to add talent. Still, Dion Waiters? No one loves the roller coaster ride Waiters provides more than I, and LeBron has a way of integrating troubled players into his orbit, but he failed with Waiters once already. When J. R. Smith got shipped to Cleveland, he knew it was his last chance and fell in line. Waiters still seems to think he’s the best player in the league, itching for a chance to prove how wronged he’s been. For the Lakers’ sake, they should stay away. For entertainment purposes, sign Dion up ASAP.

8. With All-Star Weekend on the horizon, let’s pay homage to the greatest dunk contest performance of all time.

9. What to make of Kristaps Porzingis? Luka has missed six straight, and Porzingis has averaged 27 in those games, though he’s missed 2 himself. The fit with Doncic hasn’t gelled as expected, however, and the Mavs have fallen to 7th in the West, losers of 5 of their last 8. Porzingis/Doncic lineups outscore opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, a ‘meh’ number considering both of their net overall ratings is 6.3. They are too young and have played too little together to make sweeping judgments on them as teammates, however. Injuries have cut into their time together on the court. The pick and roll between them should devastate in time. Let’s see how they fare when they get healthy in the playoffs.

10. Now just two games behind the Rockets and breathing down their necks for the 5th seed, the play of Oklahoma City this season defends Chris Paul’s career. Paul is one of the great point guards to play the game. He’s elevated so-so supporting casts throughout his career, getting rosters into the playoffs that otherwise would have languished deep in the lottery. He made those above average Rockets’ teams great; his injury likely cost the franchise a title in 2018. Paul’s failures in the postseason and lack of a title hurts his resume, but he never shared the floor with the same talent as his peers. This season’s Thunder squad puts last year’s, with Russell Westbrook and Paul George at the helm, to shame, all because of Paul’s brilliance. Give the man his due.