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.

 

Splitting up the Cavs’ Dueling Banjos

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, NBA

Point guard is the most important position in the league. Good floor generals control every aspect of an NBA game; they define winners and losers each night. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested in lead guards over the past two drafts, but does either fit the position? They have to score, find teammates, and defend opposing ball handlers every night. No playoff team is deficient at the position. Have the Cavs found their leader?

Darius Garland’s game shows signs. The process has been slow; the rust he accumulated from not playing basketball for a year was clear over the first two months of the season. Unsure of himself and inefficient, Garland too often has been passive with the ball and hesitant to shoot open jumpers. He’s played an apologetic style, wanting only to stay out of the way to his teammates happy. The uneasiness is wearing away, however, buoyed by a growing confidence in his shot. Before Thanksgiving, Garland shot 34% from 3 on 4 attempts per game. Since then he’s at 39% on 5.5 shots from behind the arc. Garland’s NBA ready skill was shooting; Cavs operatives marveled at the pre-draft clinic he put on in Los Angeles from deep. His form is more consistent, and he’s getting shots on the rim quicker than earlier in the season.

His vision shows flashes. He’ll mix in a 5 or 6 assist game bunched around 1 or 2 dish contests. Garland will always shoot well; his playmaking will make or break him in this league. If he can hand out 7-8 assists per game he’ll become a potential All-Star. Against Charlotte last week, Garland had 8 assists and 1 turnover. The Cavs lost by 3, yet Garland was the only starter with a positive plus/minus at +17.

The ball fake, drive, and dish. Reads the defense perfectly. Superb by Garland

Garland sharing the floor with good defensive players has been beneficial for the Cavs. Though they’ve played only 14 minutes together, the Garland/Exum/Porter/Nance/Henson lineup has shown promise, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The Garland/Henson pairing is being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 130 minutes, the best net two man combination for the rookie. Not great, but it proves he’s better with a plus defender on the floor with him. The Cavs have two competent defenders in Dante Exum and John Henson. Allowing Garland to play minutes with those two will take pressure off defensively and give him more control on offense.

Though still early in both players’ careers, these numbers point to a need to stagger more of his and Collin Sexton’s minutes. Sexton is great in transition and has improved on defense. He’s a valuable NBA player. Sexton’s focus is on scoring. That’s fine; there’s a spot for him and his skill set on this team. Garland has a higher ceiling, however, and fits better with a broader range of players. In time, Sexton will be more valuable off the bench in the Jordan Clarkson role. The lead guard on a playoff team cannot be as one-dimensional offensively as Sexton. Too many Cavs’ possessions consist of Sexton dribbling the duration of the shot clock, the only player to touch the ball. He doesn’t purposely ignore his teammates, but he isn’t hunting them or identifying mismatches, either. The Kevin Love blow up from Saturday night resulted from Sexton being oblivious to Love’s mismatch in the post against Chris Paul. John Beilein took responsibility, but Sexton is the culprit here.

Garland’s skill set includes a wider range of talents. He sees the floor better and seeks his teammates. He’s a better shooter and is just as capable of getting to the rim in the half-court. Are they franchise changers? It’s too early, but both can grow into valuable pieces on a good team. This is the test for the higher ups in the franchise. Can they develop the talented young players they’ve drafted and set complementary pieces around them?

What’s What Around the League

1.The buzz for Michael Porter Jr. started over the summer, when reports from Denver raved about the Nuggets’ 2018 1st round draft pick. Back surgery caused him to miss the 2018-2019 season, but insiders claimed he would break out in 2019. Then nothing. He received 9 DNPs during Denver’s first 21 games and averaged 8 minutes per when he stepped on the floor. Something has changed over the past week, however. In the Nuggets’ last four games, Porter is averaging 20 minutes, 15.5 points, and is shooting 74% from the field, 50% from 3. A 25 point outburst in Indiana last Thursday on 11-12 from the floor has made the league take notice. Is this the Michael Porter we’ve been waiting for? If so, Denver is a title contender. Nikola Jokic has rounded into shape over the last month and looks like the Joker of old. They’ve won 17 of 24 and sit just 3 games below the Lakers in the West. If this Porter continues to show through May, the West becomes a three team race.

2. Zach LaVine is an NBA scorer. He averages 23 a game and has improved his 3-point shot throughout his career, from 34% as a rookie to 39% this year on 8 attempts per. But…… man, he just isn’t a smart, winning player. Down two against Utah with 30 seconds left and a full shot clock, LaVine buried his head and attacked the basket, only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him at the rim. Next possession, down 4, LaVine takes an abhorrent step back 3. No chance, game over. LaVine is polarizing. His scoring and increased efficiency give some hope, yet he isn’t improving on defense. The Bulls are 9 points better on that end when he sits. Add it up and you have a losing player who the Bulls owe 39 million to in 2021 and 2022.

Attacking Gobert at the rim is a fool’s errand

3. Ja Morant puts asses in seats.

4. A win Thursday at home against Memphis snapped an 8 game losing streak for Sacramento. The Kings are the latest example why it’s foolhardy to trust poor ownership, no matter the talent level. While De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have missed extended time because of injury, dysfunction in the Kings’ organization remains the primary culprit of their continued losing. Dewayne Dedmon, a nice free agent pickup over the summer, has fallen out of Luke Walton’s rotation and requested a trade through the media, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Buddy Hield complained last week about trust issues creating problems in the locker room. This coincided with a horrid 7 game stretch for Hield in which he shot 26% from 3. The Kings have the most talent on their roster since the Chris Webber days. If Fox can stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to make a run at the last playoff spot in the West, but the sniping and losing culture in Sacramento seems too strong to overcome.

5. It’s a make or miss league, and no one epitomizes that more than Mike Scott. The 76er bench is more beholden to Scott to score than it should be, and they’re vulnerable to the unpredictability of his 3-point shot. He’s shooting 35% on the season from deep, a respectable number, yet isn’t reliable game to game. In 12 contests he’s made zero threes; in 12 others, he’s shot 50% or better from behind the arc. Philly’s offense can’t get consistency from anywhere. A steady Scott would be a huge boost in the playoffs but, like everyone else on this roster, he’s impossible to predict.

6. The Rockets are fascinating to watch. Their energy and effort level leaves Mike D’Antoni wanting many nights, then James Harden starts cooking, and the show begins. A step-back 3 over an excellent defender in Al Horford, net. Guarded one-on-one by possible All-Defensive selection Ben Simmons, an easy blow by and layup. Jason Richardson’s up next, a long, quick, capable defender in his own right. Another layup. And another step-back dagger. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, and he carved an outstanding defensive team in Philly with ease on his way to 44. The Rockets aren’t always fun to watch, but sitting back and enjoying a dialed-in Harden is.

7. It’s a minute detail, but why is getting someone to in-bound the basketball after a made basket such a chore? If the point guard is the first one to the ball, forget about it. He’ll motion for a teammate to do the task instead of throwing the ball in play and calling for it back. Big men are busy trying to get back on offense. Wing guys are sprinting to position themselves in the corners. Good transition teams seem to have a better plan of action for this overlooked play, realizing they can take advantage of a sleepy opponent 3-4 times a game. Have a plan to start the offense as quickly as possible is all.

8. There isn’t a number that can define how important Marcus Smart is to winning. His shooting numbers are bad: 37% overall, 32% from 3. 11.5 points a game is fine, as are his 4.7 assists. His on/off numbers are even bad; Boston is 5.4 points better offensively and 1.1 better defensively when he’s on the bench. If there’s a loose ball, however, Smart gets it. Need a big stop on defense? Smart is there with a steal or a drawn charge. He’ll clang ill-advised 3’s off the back of the rim most of the night until he drains one with less than a minute left. The little things are an abstract measurement meant to describe the indescribable, and Smart is a little things poster child. Here, the numbers lie. You need Marcus Smart on your team.

9. What in Sam Hell is this guy doing?

10. Steven Adams is a bull, a one man road grader. Dig into the hustle stats; his name litters the leaderboards. He’s ninth in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. Fourth in screens set, fifth in screen assists. He gums up opposing offenses, sitting fifth in contested twos per game (NBA.com). Oklahoma City has surprised this year and sits 7th in the West, comfortably in playoff position. Would they consider trading Adams, however? His contract is huge (25 mil this year, 27 mil next), and his timeline doesn’t match with the franchises’. A salary match makes a trade difficult, but if OKC moves him, watch Boston. Thin on the front line, playoff match-ups with Giannis, Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Bam Adebayo loom. The Celtics are close, a threat to make the Finals, but size is lacking. A wall of a screen setter and elite rebounder could be the piece they need to push them deep into the playoffs.

 

Is Kevin Porter the Cavs' Future?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., LeBron James

As the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season trudges along, Kevin Porter Jr. is beginning to look like the future of the organization. A top pick in the 2020 draft could change that, but of the guys on the roster, Porter has the highest ceiling and best chance at stardom. He can shoot. He’s become more decisive on his drives to the bucket. His jerky style confuses defenses and spectators. It’s hard to discern if he’s unsure of himself or probing the defense, looking for a crack to exploit (a little of both). His defense has improved. With his length and quickness he can be a good defender. His instincts are good, averaging a steal per game. Only 20, will Porter mature into a player the franchise can build around?

Darius Garland is improving in fits and starts. His trigger finger is getting quicker; he’s shooting 2 more threes a game over the last 10 contests. The questions entering the year centered on Collin Sexton and Garland and how they would play off each other. Now it seems more important to play Garland and Porter together. While it’s still early, Sexton’s future role is scorer off the bench, a la Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams. Sexton is adept at what he does, getting downhill with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket. His defense and 3 point shooting need to improve. He doesn’t see the floor or his teammates well. Sexton can still get better, but to expect more from him is a stretch.

John Beilein began playing Garland and Porter minutes together this week. While Garland starts, he’s being replaced five minutes in with Matthew Dellavedova. He’s re-entering with the second unit, and that lineup has flourished. Garland, Clarkson, Porter, Larry Nance, and John Henson closed a 9 point deficit in Milwaukee Saturday night to one in 6 minutes together before the starters returned and the lead ballooned. It’s a small sample size, just 42 minutes together, but the group is plus 8.8 per 100 possessions. Henson is far and away the team’s best defender; his length adds a dimension the team lacks. Nance is a Swiss army knife, Clarkson is a scorer. Watch this lineup over the next few weeks.

Porter’s overall numbers are poor. His shooting percentages and defensive on/offs show a horrid NBA player. The eyes are the key metric with him, however. He looked lost the first month and a half of the season, but is improving. The constant pump fakes behind the 3 point line are becoming catch and shoots. He’s attacking the rim off the dribble instead of bouncing the ball with no purpose. He recorded 3 steals in his first nine games, total. He’s averaging 1.3 per game since. Porter is immature and played little college ball. His game fits in the NBA, however. If John Beilein can mold Porter Jr. into an All-Star level player, the franchise will consider his work a success.

Porter was indecisive here early in the year. Now it’s a catch and shoot

Cavs Quick Hits

Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson dribble too much. Their handles are subpar; in the NBA that leads to turnovers. Both are fine when shooting off cuts or post ups. Osman is a better 3 ball shooter off catch and shoots. When they put the ball on the floor, they become turnover machines. Neither’s handles are even average, and on a better team they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dribble. Beilein needs to get the ball out of their hands.

Collin Sexton shot 40% from 3 last year, a shock to most who thought he lacked a jumper. He’s regressed this year, however, shooting only 29% from behind the line. Which shooter is the real Sexton? If he is to be a useful NBA player, it can’t be this year’s version. His quickness level is elite; he’s one of, if not the fastest, players in the league. His transition game devastates opponents, but he can struggle in the half court. Defenses are keeping him out of the lane by giving him the 3, hurting the team’s spacing. If he can’t keep defenses honest by canning triples, he’ll continue to struggle and hurt the offense.

What’s What Around the League

1.I hate 2 for 1s. There, I said it. While the math is the math, and 2 possessions at the end of a quarter should be advantageous, the execution is lacking. The result is two bad shots; a rushed heave or out-of-control drive to the rim followed by the same after getting the ball back from your opponent, who ran their normal offense and got a quality shot. Coaches seem to feel the same way. While I have no numbers to back it up, the 2 for 1s seem down this year. Again, no numbers, but running offense and getting one quality shot instead of forcing two for the sake of getting the ball on the rim leads to more points. Quantity isn’t better than quality.

2. Ja is special.

3. Devonte’ Graham is a revelation. A breakout star for a feisty Charlotte team, one many expected to be the worst in the league, Graham is the Hornet offense. Shifty and quick, with a split second release, Graham’s game is Iversony, a smallish bulldog who can score at will. His 40 in Brooklyn, capped off by a dagger 3, highlighted his importance in Charlotte. With his team struggling to find offense, Graham rained 3’s, creating space with speed and cagey dribbling. After bouncing between the G-League and the big team last year, Graham no longer spends time in Greensboro, and, while he isn’t there yet, deserves to be in the All-Star conversation. 19.9 points and 7.6 assists on 42% from 3 are take notice numbers, but can he sustain them? On a team with few offensive weapons, Graham’s next challenge will be to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan.

4. Though Ja Morant receives high praise in Memphis, the Grizzlies other rookie can turn heads too. Brandon Clarke is a springy big. His athleticism draws the eye, though the rest of his game demands attention. His post game is strong; good footwork and a quick first step are allowing him to shoot a tick below 70% three feet from the rim and 66% within 10 feet. Though he only takes 1 per game, he’s canning 50% of his threes, showing potential behind the arc. Grizzly fans must hardly be able to contain their excitement. Morant is a superstar in the making. Jaren Jackson Jr. dropped 43 against Milwaukee last week, and Clarke seems a perfect fit next to them. Memphis is a juggernaut in waiting.

5. How good can this Laker team be? The ancillary parts are what they are, but a locked in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unlike any duo the league has seen. James has coasted since the title in ‘16, turning up only in the playoffs, a right he’s earned. Whether because of Davis’ arrival or the off-season passing of the best player torch in the media to Kawhi Leonard, scorched earth LeBron has returned. His defense, gone since his Miami days, is back, and he’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis provides him with the most devastating weapon he’s ever possessed. His athleticism and defense provide cover for LeBron to do what he does best. He’s free to roam on defense, hunting steals and blocks. No longer the singular focus of defenses, LeBron has room to probe and survey on offense, a death sentence for the opposition.

6. James’ vision and passing acumen improve his teammates; they furnish Davis with a path to the MVP. LeBron moves defenses at will, giving AD space he never knew existed for lobs, one-on-one post ups, and open 3’s, which he’s canning at a career best 34%. The Lakers are unguardable, regardless of the 3 other players sharing the floor with these two. We know Kawhi will turn it up for the playoffs. James Harden has ghosts he needs to abolish, and Luka Doncic wants a seat at the table. LeBron and AD are just different, however. The title runs through them.

7. The Luka Doncic injury, he sprained his right ankle Saturday night, will give us more info on the Mavericks’ roster. Full of guys playing above their heads, can they continue winning, or is this a Doncic driven improvement? Kristaps Porzingis needs to become more involved, and Tim Hardaway Jr will have to carry more of the offense. A road win in Milwaukee Monday night suggests Dallas’ bench mob is for real. Check in on the Mavs in a few weeks.

8. The 76ers desperately need a point guard who can handle the rock and shoot the three at the end of games. Would the Bulls be interested in trading them Tomas Satoransky? He’s an excellent point guard on a good contract. The Bulls signed him to as a free agent this off-season, but have a promising young point guard in Coby White and adequate backups in Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono. There are protections involved, but the Sixers have their 2021 and 2022 first round picks available. With a chance to win the title, would Elton Brand consider a 37% 3 point shooter who’s averaging over 5 assists per game worth one of those 1sts? He’d take pressure off Ben Simmons.

9. Markelle Fultz is slick. There’s a good player here. Can the Magic unlock him?

10. We know as good as Kawhi Leonard is now, he’ll jump another level in the playoffs. The Clippers’ title chances, therefore, rest on Paul George. The Lakers’ duo looks unstoppable. For the Clips to beat their cross-hallway rival, George will be key. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron years ago during those Heat-Pacers series, but slumped in May with the Thunder. Injuries were a cause, as was Russell Westbrook. The Clippers will need either George or Leonard guarding LeBron at all times, a luxury for sure, but also a necessity, to beat the Lakers. If James controls playoff games in his normal fashion, the purple and gold LA squad are the champs. The Clippers All-Pro defenders must make him work for positioning on the floor. They will have to make it difficult for him to get the ball. With no answer on the roster for Anthony Davis, slowing 23 is their only hope.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

How good is Tristan Thompson?

Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA

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.


No longer.


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.

Dude slings from deep

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.