Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Did anyone expect LeBron James to lose a playoff series to James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Their Western Conference Semifinal isn’t over, yet the path it will take is clear. The Rockets are better behind the superstars and play a scheme that will overtake basketball soon. But playoff basketball is different, and LeBron is, well, King. He makes everyone on the floor with him 10-15% better with his vision, intelligence, and leadership. James knows what his team needs. In the first quarter of Game 2, following a poor Anthony Davis performance, LeBron fed AD, dishing three assists and getting him 11 early points. He knows he needs a confident Davis to win this series, and the title. In the fourth, after Houston flipped a 16 point deficit into a 2 point lead, LeBron took over, scoring 8 and locking down on defense (2 blocks and 2 steals). LeBron James is one of the three best in history because he knows the game better than everyone on, and off, the court.

Coach LeBron

2. L.A.’s biggest hole in the bubble had been a ball handler and creator to take some ball distribution off LeBron’s plate. Enter Rajon Rondo. It was easy to dismiss Rondo’s need for the Lakers; his minutes have been a debacle most of the season. But he’s played in tense games and won a title. An old head was the elixir L.A. needed. 18 assists and 6 steals in Laker wins in Games 2 and 3 gives James someone to turn the offense over to when required. Though older, his defense is important too. He’s long and smart, and gives Frank Vogel someone to put on opposing ball handlers. They’re thin on wing defenders, and while Rondo is slower now and more apt to fall asleep, when locked in, he can disrupt offenses. The Lakers need less help because of LeBron. If Rondo continues playing this way, their title hopes soar.

3. James Harden is eviscerating the Laker defense. No one can stay in front of him. When not facing double teams, he gets to the basket with ease, either drawing help for an open 3, or getting layups or foul shots. But when he sits, blah. Russell Westbrook scored 30 Tuesday night, but remains….. off. He can reach the bucket at will, but settles for too many 15 footers that ricochet off the basket, taking out family members in the audience. Whether his bout with COVID-19 or the quad injury lingers is anyone’s guess. Harden attacks more and creates better shots for his teammates. The Rockets have another victory in this series in them, maybe two. Their scheme gives the Lakers fits and has caused Vogel to lessen his JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard minutes (smart). But LeBron is smarter than them, and they know it.

4. The obituary on the pathetic performance of the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble has been written. Now tough decisions by their front office are due. Will Mike Budenholzer be back? When offered the super max extension this off-season, will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign it? The second question is most important, but the first affects their title chances for next year more. Coach Bud is exceptional, yet lacks the flexibility to make the moves postseason basketball demands. He’s style is comparable to Dusty Baker. While both have had great success in the regular season, neither bends when it matters most. It’ll likely cost both titles. But if he’s fired, who gets hired? Ty Lue, Billy Donovan, Nate McMillan, and Kenny Atkinson are a few free agent coaches available, but are any good enough to push this roster into the Finals? Hard to say, but Jon Horst better make sure Giannis is on board with any decision he makes.

5. Antetokounmpo will be a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and 4 time All NBAer at the end of this season. Any hopes of the Bucks ever winning another NBA title rest with him. Does he want to stay in Milwaukee? While other superstars have jumped to other organizations when failing with their current one, Giannis may be different. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.” Doesn’t sound like someone ready to team up with Steph Curry or Luka Doncic. Here’s hoping he stays put. It would be refreshing to see a star fight for the franchise and city that drafted him and refuse the easier path. It would also make a title even more special to him.

6. Can the Miami Heat make the Finals? The Milwaukee match-up was tailormade for them. Jimmy Butler’s toughness, Bam Adebayo’s swiss army knifeness, and the 3 point shooting they can surround them with makes for an arduous opponent. Goran Dragic has averaged 21 per during the playoffs, giving the Heat an efficient, 3 level scorer, something Butler, for as great as he’s been, can’t provide. But will their defense hold up against either Boston or Toronto? They could build a wall and keep Giannis out of the paint, grinding Milwaukee’s offense to a halt because of his meager shooting touch. But their next opponent will have more weapons capable of attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Erik Spoelstra may need to shuffle his lineups. He’ll face tough offense vs. defense decisions in crunch time. Andre Iguodala or Duncan Robinson? How much to play Kendrick Nunn? Who will Kelly Olynyk guard if it’s Boston, and will they rather have Derrick Jones Jr.’s athleticism on the floor? He’ll need Jae Crowder to continue shooting well from deep. A 34% shooter from 3 during the regular season, Crowder is hitting 40% of his 3’s in the playoffs. His shooting allows Miami to have a plus defender in late without sacrificing floor spacing on offense. Spolestra is clever enough to find the answers, but the Heat will face more match-up questions in the Eastern Conference Finals than they did against the Bucks, making them the underdog.

7. Give it all to the Toronto Raptors. They aren’t as talented as the Celtics, but damn, their balls are steel. In eking out a victory in a for-the-ages Game 6 against Boston, the Raptors showed their hearts. Norman Powell hit two 3’s in the overtimes. Pascal Siakam struggled all game (and isn’t a number one option), yet drilled a huge jumper in the second overtime. And Kyle Lowry. Gone are the days in which Lowry fails in the playoffs. Lowry willed the Raps to the win on defense, frustrating bigger Celtics into turnovers late before swishing the de facto game winner over Kemba Walker in the second overtime. Toronto works for every ounce they get and showed again why they’re champions. A deserved winner of an exquisite playoff game.

8. Boston cannot lose this series. They’re the better team on both ends of the floor, yet are flunky when it gets tight. Their two main ball handlers in crunch time, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, are struggling in those moments. Tatum’s stat line last night is nice (29 points, 14 rebounds, career high 9 assists), but he turned the ball over late and was indecisive with the smaller Lowry on him on multiple occasions. Kemba was awful (5 points on 2-11 shooting). He created a few easy buckets on lobs to Daniel Theis but otherwise couldn’t find himself. And the Raptors are going at him on D. He’s Boston’s weak link on that end and will continue to be Toronto’s target. Walker has never played in NBA games with these stakes. The Celtics need him in Game 7.

9. Did Marcus Smart ever show? He was Boston’s best player in Game 6, cool amongst the chaos. Smart’s 6 threes interpolated his stellar triple double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). He and Jaylen Brown were the only Celtics ready for the moment. The C’s need better execution in crunch time, and if Kemba isn’t up to the task, put the ball in Smart’s hands. He’s maddening, unorthodox, and a winner. If his 3 ball is off, Toronto may go under screens against him, allowing them to work less on defense. But Smart finds a way. Brad Stevens is likely reticent to trust his playoff future to Smart, but he may have no other choice.

10. Clippers-Nuggets feels preordained because of Kawhi Leonard. He gets to wherever he wants on offense and takes whatever he wants of defense. His mid-range game is automatic (he’s shooting 69% on shots less than 10 feet from the rim). He’ll lead L.A. into the next round. The Clips don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who may get them another victory in the series, but Kawhi, Paul George, and (mostly) Patrick Beverley have frustrated Jamal Murray. They’re too big and strong, and too good defensively for the 6’4” guard to shake. His eruption in the prior series guaranteed Doc Rivers would have a game plan designed to stop him. Gary Harris has been a bright spot for Denver’s future in this series, having a Fred VanVleet like resurgence following his return from injury. He’s shot 46% from 3 against L.A., up from 33% during the regular season, along with playing outstanding lock down defense on the Clipper wings. The Clippers are still sleep walking, however, coasting when possible and only motivated in near must win games. That won’t do against the Lakers. LeBron won’t allow them to cruise through any Conference Final games, and if they try, he’ll punish them. The time is now for the most talented team in the league to prove they can win the title.


NBA Re-Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, Zion

Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?


Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?

Los Angeles Lakers


Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.


But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.

Look at the options off this pick and roll. Davis dunk or Green 3?

Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?

Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.

Los Angeles Clippers


Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.

Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.

Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.

Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.

Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.

The Rest


Houston Rockets

What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.

Houston’s starting lineup

Toronto Raptors

The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?

It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Collin Sexton: Changing the Narrative

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, NBA

The unfair pressure on Collin Sexton started the moment his name was announced 8th during the 2018 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ franchise was about to lose LeBron James for the second time; another long rebuild awaited. The pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, the one Koby Altman refused to swap to add one more piece for a chance to dethrone the Warriors, was used on a 19-year-old from Alabama. Sexton was the new savior.

The adversity has washed over Sexton’s career. One upheaval of the system, or his role in it, after another. The vets grew tired of his style before Thanksgiving last year. A coaching change from Ty Lue to Larry Drew. A Rising Stars snub. The drafting of another small guard. A coaching change to John Beilein. Division among fans over his long-term role. More head butting with vets (Kevin Love). A coaching change to J. B. Bickerstaff. Criticisms of his game, his lack of defense or passing, and his eventual fit in the league are fair. The tide is shifting on Collin Sexton, however.

A week in which he averaged 31 per and 2 team wins has furthered the narrative change. Instability and indecisiveness among the front office and coaching staff stunted his development; unfair expectations were unreachable. The comparison I made to Russell Westbrook is on point in this respect. Both players play hard and fast, and fans have chastised them far more for what they can’t do than credited them for the havoc they cause opposing defenses.

Since the Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson on December 23 and the coaching staff gave Sexton more scoring responsibility, he’s averaging almost 22 per game. Sexton is quick; his speed and hesitation moves allow him to get his shot against any defender. Only 20 players in the league net more per game. Sexton’s ability to get consistent buckets cannot be dismissed. The 76ers, for instance, will probably fall short of expectations, in part because of a lack of a ‘me first’ scorer late in games.

He uses Love’s screen perfectly here. The hesitation dribble, then burst of speed gets him to the bucket with ease.

And he’s taking better shots. Last year, 35% of Sexton’s shots were mid-range jumpers; that number is 22% in ‘19-20. His eFG% is 51.4% this season, up from 48% a year ago. He’s become pickier about where he fires from and has gotten smarter at using screens to get to his spots. Whatever criticisms fans and media members have of his game, Sexton isn’t a chucker.

But can he pass? Will he ever develop into a playmaker? These improvements have been more incremental. Sexton seems to want to get his teammates involved, yet struggles to see the nuances in the passing game. He fails to make the correct reads. On a break against the Celtics, Kevin Porter (33.5% from 3) was on his right behind the line; Matthew Dellavedova (21%) on his left; both wide open. He dished to Delly, and the shot took out a fan. Sexton’s bull mentality serves him well as a scorer, yet curbs his development when getting his teammates involved.

There are signs of improvement, however. He’s averaged 4.3 assists since the All-Star break. On two straight possessions against San Antonio he made passes he wouldn’t have seen even a month ago. The progression is obvious.

Sexton doesn’t have to lead the league in assists. He’s beginning to reap the benefits of his improved vision, however. It opens driving lanes when defenders have to wait that extra tick before helping against him. His enhanced passing led to his scoring outburst last week. The Cavs have others who can initiate offense. Sexton just has to do it enough to remain unpredictable.

The NBA creates this early conclusion jumping by placing 18-19-year-old kids in losing situations. Fan bases expect greatness from players who aren’t physically or emotionally mature enough to deliver it. Cleveland’s franchise thought it grew into a contending outfit after 4 years of employing one of the greatest of all-time and expected to stay there. It doesn’t work that way. Teams gutted because of cap hell and exiting stars, especially those in less desirable markets, don’t recover from those losses. Sexton isn’t a perfect player, few are. He fights, plays hard, and has never missed an NBA game despite his size, qualities that should play well in Cleveland. His scoring ability is rare and will only improve. Instead of judging Collin Sexton against what he can’t do, focus on the talents he brings to the organization. He won’t carry a franchise, but that isn’t his job. Allow Sexton to be his own player; it’s Koby Altman’s job to fit the correct pieces around him.

What’s What Around the League

1.Jae Crowder can stop bricking threes whenever. Though his percentage is bad from behind the arc (32%), it’s the shots he misses that are most disturbing. 68% of his 3’s are wide open or come with no defender within 4 feet. Teams allow him to shoot from deep and he doesn’t punish them. Though the league seems to like Crowder, execs pass his contract around the league like the flu. With the plethora of young shooters eager to contribute off Miami’s bench, the Heat would be wise to leave Crowder in his warm-ups during the playoffs.

2. What’s going on in Brooklyn? A “mutual separation” with Kenny Atkinson last weekend should send off alarm bells to Nets fans. Atkinson was an integral part of turning the asset poor Nets into a desirable free agent destination for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With both missing essentially the entire season, Atkinson has taken a roster of 4s and 5s and guided them into the East playoffs. Considered by many as one of the best young coaches in the league, something stinks. Durant and Irving are mercurial; neither expressed confidence in Atkinson. Regardless, this isn’t a hopeful sign for the future in Brooklyn. Is there a coach alive that can placate these two? A franchise expecting to compete for a title in the coming years may be in for more turmoil than they’ve bargained for.

3. The Lonzo Ball bandwagon boards here. Lonzo is the engine that drives New Orleans. He’s a winning play maker, doing the things successful teams need to stack victories. Always pushing, Lonzo leads the breakneck New Orleans pace, and with weapons like Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday on the break, the Pels run opponents ragged. With his improved shooting (38% from 3, up from 31% in L.A.), aided by a change in his arm and elbow placement on release, excellent defense, and superb passing, Lonzo is the glue that will hold the Pelicans together for years to come. Though facing a steep challenge to make the playoffs (4 games back of Memphis with 18 to play), they’ll be staples in the Western Conference bracket soon. Ball will be an important, and overlooked, part of their success.

4. An aggressive Jamal Murray is special.

5. When NBA talking heads get bored, the drive to create a narrative kicks into overdrive. LeBron James’ and the Lakers’ big weekend has reopened the MVP race for some; those in need of something to talk about. Victories over the Bucks on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday have plenty jumping on the “James for MVP” bandwagon. LeBron is an all-timer; no discussion there. In fact, the Lakers are now the prohibitive favorites. With LeBron and Anthony Davis dominating, who their teammates are seems immaterial. Can one weekend reshape the MVP race, though?

6. The Bucks are three games better in the standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a top-five talent playing alongside him. Need numbers?

GiannisLeBron
Player Efficiency Rating31.725.9
Win Shares10.49.4
Box Plus Minus11.58.5
Offensive Rating116117
Defensive Rating96.3105
Value Over Replacement65.5
PPG, APG, RPG per 36 minutes34.5/6.7/1626.5/11/8.1

The per 36 numbers matter because Giannis averages 30 minutes per game. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last two, and Phoenix and Denver waxed them. LeBron deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. To do what he’s doing given his age and minutes played over his career is stupefying. There’s a better-than-average chance his experience and intelligence will take over in the playoffs, and he’ll win his 4th title. He isn’t the MVP, however.

7. Which brings us to Kawhi Leonard. He’s missed too many games, and the Clips coast through too many others for him to sniff the MVP race, but he’s made it clear his goal is to manage his body for the playoffs. The L.A. match-up seems inevitable; LeBron has Davis, while Kawhi has a deeper roster around him. Paul George will need to step up to offset the damage Davis will do to the Clippers interior, but the heavy lifting falls on Leonard. His run in last year’s playoffs was historic, yet he missed Kevin Durant and LeBron James. With the power of a title and a Finals MVP in his pocket last summer, he made moves befitting of the league’s alpha. Since 2012, only Kawhi has stood toe-to-toe with LeBron and vanquished him without a roster stacked with 4-5 Hall of Famers. If Leonard does it again this year, the league’s G.O.A.T. will be indisputable.

8. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future All-Star. Not sure what this is.

9. Lou Williams shoots the 3 at 36%, but how much better would he be if he just took the easy ones? Channeling J. R. Smith, Williams turns simple, wide open jumpers into something else by taking 1-2 dribbles and falling to his left instead of just catching and shooting. They look pretty when they drop, but hurt his team when they don’t. Twice against the Lakers Sunday, Williams went for style points instead of, you know, actual points. Include the fact that the Lakers hunted Lou on defense, and Sunday was a rough one for the perennial Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers will need more from Williams in the playoffs.

10. Utah against the Raptors Monday night at home:
Bojan Bogdanovic 5 points, 2 assists, 24 minutes, -23
Rudy Gobert 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 31 minutes, -22
Donovan Mitchell 11 points, 3 assists, 34 minutes, -30
The Jazz should have been considered a sleeper for a Finals appearance after acquiring Bogdanovic and Mike Conley in the off-season, but things have gone sideways. Conley, confusingly, doesn’t fit. Mitchell scores sporadically; Gobert’s defense has even fallen off a bit. Jordan Clarkson may be the most consistent player on the team, which says a mouthful. Even with a successful regular season, the questions concerning their playoff readiness would surround the organization. What seems more likely now, a Finals run or a first round loss to the Thunder?

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Collin Sexton is Russell Westbrook*

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton

Collin Sexton is a year and a half into his NBA career and the questions have plagued him since his first dribble. Who’s game does his most resemble? Can he become Player X or Player Y? The public compares no professional athletes to their counterparts like those in the NBA. Sexton’s game doesn’t allow for a straight one-to-one comparison, however. Still, he looks an awful lot like Russell Westbrook.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Sexton will never be Westbrook. He will not win an MVP, and he’ll never average a triple double. Chances are he won’t make even one All-Star game. Sexton’s lack of size compared to Russ prevents him from being as good a rebounder from the guard position. He doesn’t possess Westbrook’s abilities as a passer, either. For comparison’s sake, lets use Russ’ second year as a pro to compare to Sexton this year. That season, Russ averaged 8 assists. Sexton averages 2.3 to this point in the season. Westbrook played with Kevin Durant and Sexton has never shared the floor with anyone close to that talent level. Still, Sexton plays with blinders on. He has one goal, and that is to score.

So why make this comparison? Simple. Both are bulls on the floor. They’re players you want to go into battle with. Sexton is the hardest working player on the floor every night. He’s diving for loose balls. He goes hard at the rim, regardless of who is in his way, sometimes to his detriment. No one can accuse Sexton of not caring or not wanting to win. When he takes the floor, he believes he’s the best player on it. He backs down from no challenge; he’s unafraid to play the game his way. Sound familiar?

Sexton is one of, if not the quickest, players in the league, a title Westbrook owned for many years. It’s Sexton’s greatest strength. He’s lethal in the open floor and attacks if given space in the half court. If he sees daylight off a pick and roll, he’s at the rim. His speed frees him for most his shots. It’s his one elite level skill. While he doesn’t have the athleticism to unleash the rim rattling dunks Westbrook is known for, both end up at the rim because of their quickness with the ball in their hands.

Sexton and Westbrook also love the mid-range shot, a habit the Cavs have weaned Sexton from. The Rockets, a team that detests mid-range jumpers, only allow Russ these shots; he hoists most of his team’s unanalytic jumpers. In the first half of his rookie year, Sexton shot too often from mid-range before the Cavs organization steered him toward more advantageous spots on the floor. Last year, 21% of Sexton’s shots were from the 16 foot-3 point line range. This year that number is 6%. In Russ’ second year, 38% came from there; it’s the same percentage this year. While Westbrook got caught in the switch from mid-range jumpers to 3 pointers, Sexton’s push away from the basket came early in his career.

Both attack the rim. Sexton takes 32% of his shots at the rim; Westbrook took 39% his second season. The difference is their 3 point shooting. 9% of Westbrook’s shots were 3’s, making 22% of them. Sexton takes 3’s at a 21% clip, canning 32%. Neither is a great shooter; the NBA game calls for Sexton to take more shots from behind the arc. Shooters shoot, however. Sexton averages 16 attempts per game and shoots 45% from the field, Westbrook averaged 21 on 42% shooting. Both are inefficient scorers, though the Cavs and, to his credit, Sexton, work to get him shots either from 3 or at the rim.

A Westbrookian possession

A frustrating part of Sexton’s game continues to be possessions in which he dribbles, dribbles, and dribbles before hoisting an 18 footer. Think back to the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden on the floor at once. How many times in close games would Westbrook grab a rebound, dribble up the floor, probe, probe, probe the defense, wave off a screen, beat his man off the dribble, then pull up for a foul line jumper? Frustration from fans and media never deterred Westbrook, however, proving his strength and self-confidence.

These possessions I could do without

Again, Sexton does not play with the same talent as a young Westbrook, but the complaints are the same. Too often, Sexton takes control of the offense, leaning on his own talent instead of attempting to include his teammates. If he scores, great. If he misses, he’s selfish and unable to read the situation and involve his teammates. Sexton’s self-confidence can hold him back.

The confidence, hustle, and self-belief in both Collin Sexton and Russell Westbrook make for a good comparison. Each leaves every ounce they have on the floor, using devastating speed and hard work to their advantage. They need their confidence and ability to handle criticism to withstand the noise directed toward their unorthodox games. Both are frustrating, yet marvelous players to watch. Sexton will never reach the All-Star, MVP level of Westbrook, but he’ll continue to fight his way through the league. A poor man’s Brodie.

What’s What Around the League

1. The Ballad of Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota took an upbeat turn at the start of this season, yet the old tune has returned in 2020. A fun start, he’s regressed to the mean. His shooting percentages are now lower than his career averages and the T-Wolves are back to their old, haphazard ways. A thwarted comeback in Indiana showed his shortfalls. Wiggins helped lead the squad back from a 10 point 4th quarter deficit, attacking the basket for layups and drawn fouls. In the last two minutes, however, he missed 2 shots at the rim and stepped out of bounds, turning the ball over in a crucial spot. While some players step up during crunch time, Wiggins retreats.

2. No matter who Milwaukee runs onto the floor, Mike Budenholzer’s squad doesn’t miss a beat. A hodge podge of youngish players mixed with seasoned vets have coalesced around Giannis Antetokounmpo, complementing the MVP perfectly. George Hill leads the league in 3 point shooting at 53%. The Lopez twins play outstanding interior defense, masking the deficiencies of their teammates. But at the center, Giannis dominates, sucking the air out of opponents. While Miami is feisty, Philly talented, and Boston and Toronto lurking, the Bucks have no excuse but to cruise to the Finals. Can they win it? The pressure then will fall onto Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Miscast as 2nd and 3rd options on a contender, each would be better off a rung lower on the hierarchy. Will they step up in the playoffs, giving Giannis the smidge of help he’ll need for Milwaukee to hoist the trophy?

3. This is nothing more than a Ja Morant stan account at this point.

4. Though his teammate owns the award, here’s a vote for Montrezl Harrell for sixth man of the year. He averages 19 and 7 for the Clips, giving them a presence inside on an otherwise perimeter heavy team. While Ivica Zubac starts, it’s Harrell who plays the important minutes. He forms an unstoppable pick and roll combo with Lou Williams; his mixture of quickness, strength, and touch around the rim makes him unguardable for most bigs in the league. While Williams can gyrate from scorching to ice cold, Harrell is a rock. Doc Rivers knows what he’s getting when Trez steps on the floor. Will his defense hold up in the playoffs, however? Match-ups with Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic await. L.A. will count on Harrell to guard these All-Star bigs in crunch time. How he performs on that end will determine the Clippers’ fate.

5. The Grizzlies are on fire, having won 7 in a row and 9 of 11, taking over the 8th seed in the West. Ja Morant leads the charge, but don’t overlook the success of his backcourt mate Dillon Brooks. The Griz have just one loss when he scores at least 20, and during the winning streak he’s averaging 21 on 46% shooting, 48% from 3. Brooks makes a perfect safety valve for Morant, a spot up shooter he can find when other avenues close. The most help he gives the rookie, however, is on defense. Ja is just 6’3” and a wiry 175 pounds. At 6’7”, 200, Brooks possesses the size to guard bigger, stronger wings Morant struggles with. The Grizzles have the look of a franchise that will contend for the next decade. Configuring the correct pieces around Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will decide how much of a force Memphis will be. Brooks is a free agent after the season, and a must re-sign for the Grizzles front office. He’ll get a large raise from the 1.6 million he’s making this year, but with just 57 million on the books for 2020-21, the time for Memphis to pay up is now, before Morant and Jackson Jr. are due.

6. The definition of a bad NBA shot.

Wide open 3, two dribbles into a contested 18 footer

7. Zion awaits, and the NBA world is atwitter with excitement for his debut. The Pelicans have warmed the seat for him, winning 10 out of their last 15 to pull closer in the race for the West’s final playoff slot. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are playing well, so how will the rookie fit? Williamson is unlike any player to enter the league. His size and explosiveness allow him to get whatever he wants on the floor offensively and defensively; his 71% shooting from the field during the preseason attests to that. Still, entering the lineup for a hot team in the middle of the season with roles already defined will be a challenge. As great as Zion is and will be, his first few weeks may be more difficult than some expect.

NBA fans on Zion debut day

8. Why is Milwaukee so good? The hustle and ball movement on this play highlights the great cohesiveness Mike Budenholzer has instilled.

9. Whenever Kyrie Irving opens his mouth, controversy follows. This week’s media uproar surrounding Irving involves him mentioning after a loss to the Sixers that the Nets were “1 or 2” players short, inferring that Brooklyn wouldn’t be title contenders until Kevin Durant returns. Is he wrong? Kyrie mentioned a few of his teammates’ names as good NBA players, but left others out. I doubt he meant to disparage anyone, however. Irving has crossed a threshold; everything he says -or doesn’t say- causes a stir. Yes, media members are important. Yes, players talking to them adds interest in the league. But does everything have to be something?

10. Kyrie doesn’t spit out typical player speak. Everyone claims to love candid interviews until they hear one. Like him or not, Kyrie speaks about how he feels at that moment. The backlash he receives will change how he interviews at some point, however. A person can only take so much criticism. If you respect the player’s right to his opinions, don’t chastise him for it when he expresses them or nitpick a name put on or left off a list given in a post-game interview. Though Twitter would disagree, you don’t have to voice an opinion on everything.

 

NBA Meets Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation, NBA

Christmas is all about traditions. The decorating of the tree, the unwrapping of gifts, Cousin Eddie, the NBA on T.V. The pillars of the holiday are Clark W. Griswold and the chance to overindulge on basketball. Though two months old, most consider Christmas Day to be the unofficial start of the NBA season. The league takes full advantage of its ownership of the day by showcasing the best players and rivalries to viewers who may be tuning in for the first time. So whether you’re trying to catch up on the happenings in the league over the first quarter of the season, or looking for something witty to say to your family while the games play in the background during the unwrapping of gifts, here’s a preview of the Christmas Day games and an abundance of Christmas Vacation GIFs to help describe them.

Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors


The day kicks off with the defending champs playing host to the Celtics, two Eastern Conference teams on the periphery of the title conversation. Boston’s young, talented forward duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, after disappointing seasons a year ago, are thriving once again. Both are in the conversation for All-Star game spots. Gordon Hayward has returned to All-Star form as well despite missing time with injuries. The biggest change, however, has been the switch from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker at point guard. Irving is enigmatic and aloof. He clashed with his young teammates and struggled in a leadership role. Enter Walker, a more affable leader only looking to win after many disappointing years in Charlotte. The fighting and backstabbing has ended in Boston and the Celtics have the toughness to compete in the playoffs with Eastern Conference behemoths Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Kyrie hate lingers in Boston, however, and is holding them back. They need it off their chests once and for all.

After winning the title, then losing Kawhi Leonard, most expected the Raptors to free-fall, even enter tank mode. Strong leadership from Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, combined with Fred VanVleet’s ability to carry over his success in last year’s Finals has kept Toronto in the Eastern Conference mix. The reason for the Raptors’ early season success, however, is Pascal Siakam. He’s replaced Leonard as a legit MVP candidate, averaging 25 a game and playing elite defense. Siakam is torching the league.

Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers


Presumptive Eastern Conference finalists before the season, the Bucks have buzz sawed through the league. At 26-4 they’ve blazed out of the gate, owning the best record in the league without the help of a non-caloric silicon based kitchen lubricant.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominant. The obvious MVP choice to this point, he’s added the 3 ball to his game, shooting it at 34% on the season. He hit a career high 5 to defeat the Lakers last week. Bucks fans shouldn’t take him for granted.

The Sixers defense is smothering, as expected. Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Ben Simmons, and rookie Matisse Thybulle are all above average defenders. Philly’s offense, however, is, uh, clogged.

Embiid is the league’s most dominant smack talker, despite promising in the off-season to curtail his trash talking. After clashing early in the season with rival Karl Anthony-Towns, leading to a semi-wrestling match, it’s clear Embiid is a dog with a bone.

Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors


After Klay Thompson’s ACL injury in the Finals, losing Kevin Durant in free agency, and trading Andre Iguodala, Steph Curry broke his hand early in the season and will miss at least two more months. The Warriors are a shell of themselves, a team gassed and torched after five straight Finals appearances.

Draymond Green is the only healthy reminder of what the Warriors were, and he’s slogging through the season, watching DeAngelo Russell jack up shots and a slew of journeymen and rookies desperate to find a home in the league. With the worst record in the NBA, it won’t get any better for Golden State.

The Harden-Westbrook marriage in Houston is proceeding as expected. Westbrook has taken a backseat to James Harden, allowing him to control games with his over dribbling, foul drawing, step back three taking style. It works, however, as Harden leads the league in scoring, posting an eye-popping 38.8 points a game. Viewers hate watching the Rockets, yet Houston doesn’t care what the rest of the league has to say about their style.

Problems will arise in the playoffs, however, if Westbrook can’t improve his 3 point shooting (23.7%). Playing off the ball, Russ will have to hit open jumpers behind the line to keep defenses from packing the lane.

L.A. Clippers-L.A. Lakers


Christmas’ marquee match-up, the two L.A. teams have hoarded top end talent and, along with Milwaukee, are the three teams most likely to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. A duel of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George vs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best the league has to offer.

They’ll battle throughout the year. The Clippers, with Leonard and George, along with Patrick Beverley, have three of the best individual wing defenders in the league, and can shut down anyone defensively. Leonard proved his chops in last years’ playoffs and, despite some load management criticism, may still be the best player in the league come June. LeBron took offense to his torch being passed to Kawhi last off-season, however, and has teamed with Anthony Davis to form one of the best duos in the league’s history. If LeBron stays locked in and AD continues his MVP-type season, the Lakers are title favorites regardless of their so-so supporting cast. The rest of the league would love to rid themselves of these two juggernauts.

New Orleans Pelicans-Denver Nuggets


An attempt to showcase rookie phenom Zion Williamson by the league backfired as Zion’s knee injury lingers. The Pelicans, expected by many to push for a playoff spot, have floundered without the first overall pick. Many thought the rest of the roster would tread water until his return, but other than Brandon Ingram (averaging 25 a game) New Orleans has disappointed.

At first expected back by mid-December, the wait for Zion’s debut continues. Some reports have him returning after the All-Star break; others say he’ll miss the entire season. Fans’ frustration continues to mount, eagerly anticipating the debut of the best talent to enter the league in a decade.

While most of Denver’s roster worked out during the off-season in hopes of a run to the Finals, their MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic, took on all comers at the dinner table.

Jokic has been working his way into shape over the first two months of the season while his teammates have kept the Nuggets afloat, currently 3rd in the West. Denver is young and talented, but the road in front of them is steep. Without more from Jokic, rookie Michael Porter Jr., or a significant trade, a match-up against either L.A. team in the playoffs won’t end well.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

Here’s hoping everyone has a joyous Christmas season. Happy Holidays and much success for all in 2020!