This week's 10 Things highlights a gamble in Los Angeles, some rugged unsung guards, an awful season in Chicago, and the meaning of a high-five.
The day after the trade deadline -- after upgrading the roster, but not finding that coveted "traditional" point guard -- Lawrence Frank, the Clippers' president of basketball operations, described the point guard the Clippers wanted. The player would defend, and operate in an ecosystem in which Paul George and Kawhi Leonard would have the ball "60% of the time" -- meaning, one would assume, the point guard in question would be a good shooter.
Now they've signed Westbrook, and Tyronn Lue, the Clippers coach, is talking about putting the ball in Westbrook's hands -- even with Leonard and George on the floor -- way more than the fictional scenario Frank described. Gulp.
The Clippers have someneed for Westbrook's theoretical strengths. They are 20th in drives, and tied for 23rd in shots at the rim. They haven't generated as many catch-and-shoot 3s as in past seasons. They have more shooting around Westbrook than the laser-less Lakers did.
But I'm not sure those needs are so glaring; that Westbrook's strengths are what they were two or three seasons ago; or that this remodeled roster is built for an easy Westbrook fit.
The Clippers are closer to average in rim attacks and drives than they are to the basement. Their offense -- including their ability to generate good 3s -- has been elite with George and Leonard together, and Leonard looks more like his peak self every game. They are 12th in free throw rate.
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Westbrook is a good passer and gets downhill -- things the Clippers need, but at what cost? Westbrook is a turnover machine. He's shooting 58% at the rim -- well below-average -- and his flying misses there almost double as turnovers; Westbrook soars out of bounds, and leaves his team defending 4-on-5. George and Leonard have limitations as playmakers, but should you shift some of their possessions to Westbrook -- a guy the Lakers could not wait to trade?
When George and Leonard have the ball, what will Westbrook do? No one guards him on the perimeter. His defenders will sit at the nail, barricading the paint. If you think Westbrook will finally buy into setting screens, I admire your faith in humanity. Westbrook (barely) set career highs in ball screens with the Lakers -- topping out at a whopping two per 100 possessions this season. If there is one coach who might coax it out of him, it's probably Lue -- and in a situation in which Westbrook, coming off a buyout, is fighting for his place in the league.
Westbrook thrived with the Houston Rockets after they dispatched centers and opened the floor for him. The Clippers have a good starting center in Ivica Zubac, and just traded for a good backup in Mason Plumlee. Are they reversing course, and recommitting to five-out lineups?
There is a lot to figure out, and great irony in the team that has almost mocked the entire concept of the regular-season for four years now feeling urgency to maximize these last 21 games.
It feels like a giant gamble -- one I wouldn't have made. The charitable interpretation is that the Clippers (unlike the Lakers) don't need it to work -- that they can bench Westbrook if he flounders, and return to their established style. But does a gamble this big signal they don't have belief in that style anymore -- with Kevin Durant in Phoenix, and the West coming together?
If you are guarding either of these guys when a shot goes up, box them the hell out because they are coming for the ball.
As Suggs searches for his jumper and some defining role, he has contributed to the Orlando Magic -- 20-15 in their last 35 games -- as something of a chaos engine. He throws himself into rebounding frays, rushes up the floor in transition, and defends hard at both guard positions.
Keep an eye on Suggs. He is perhaps Orlando's biggest swing factor in the next few seasons.
Okogie, meanwhile...holy hell. This dude is 6-4, and he's snatching 10.9% of Phoenix misses. That's 17th in the league -- ahead of Anthony Davis, Deandre Ayton, and Domantas Sabonis. Okogie is on pace to be the first player in 33 seasons listed at 6-4 or shorter to crack 10% in offensive rebounding rate.
Okogie is shooting 35% from deep on a career-high attempt rate. Defenses don't care yet, and they shouldn't. Okogie's shooting has been all over the place. He hit 15 combined 3s in Phoenix's last four games -- after going 0-of-8 in the four games before that.
The Suns have 80% of a championship closing five in Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Durant, and Ayton. Those four are so good, and fit so well, it may not matter if they find the ideal fifth guy. Incorporating Durant will be easy; he is the most malleable superstar in league history.
Torrey Craig figures to get first crack at starting, and he's a bigger version of Okogie with a slightly better shooting track record. Expect some defenses to slot centers onto Craig and Okogie -- sticking wings on Ayton in an attempt (probably futile) to switch the Suns myriad pick-and-rolls. Ayton can punish mismatches.
Superior shooting options compromise the Suns' defense and shaky rebounding: Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Damion Lee and Terrence Ross. T.J. Warren may offer the best blend of skills.
All these guys are capable backups who can hang in the postseason. Teams this top-heavy can't be too choosy about reserves. Phoenix has enough to qualify as at least co-favorites in the West (alongside the Denver Nuggets), and probably slightfavorites to make the Finals.
Analysis of the landmark Tyrese Haliburton-Domantas Sabonis trade has focused on how it clarified roles for three franchise pillars -- the two principals, and De'Aaron Fox as the lead ball handler for the go-go Sacramento Kings. Turner has enjoyed the same trickle-down benefit, to considerably less fanfare.
The Indiana Pacers squeezed as much as they could from the awkward double-center pairing of Turner and Sabonis, but it had a shelf life -- and a low team ceiling. With Sabonis rampaging in Sacramento, the lane is uncluttered for Turner. He is setting 47 ball screens per 100 possessions, up from 30 last season and 18 in 2020-21, and rolling to the rim on about 75% of those pick-and-rolls -- easily a career-high, per Second Spectrum.
Alongside Sabonis, Turner was pigeon-holed as a spot-up threat and pick-and-pop gunner. He's a good shooter, but not good enough to work exclusively in that role. Hanging outside depressed Turner's rim shots, free throws, and offensive rebounds.
Turner has never been the most intuitive offensive player, but he's building chemistry with Haliburton -- one of the league's most creative and willing passers. Turner is working in delayed rolls -- stalling around the arc for an extra beat, and darting to the rim once the defense relaxes:
Turner's 3-point volume is down, but almost all the missing 3s have become layups and dunks. His free throws are up.
Turner doesn't turn 27 until next month. He's still evolving, and probably young enough to win on the timetables of Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin.
Paul Reed is in Embiid's spot here, but the same situation applies when all three of the Philadelphia 76ers best players are on the floor:
The Sixers can win lots of games walking the ball up and spamming the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll up top. Even with Harden having lost some explosiveness, those two guys are that good. Together, they have counters for every scheme. The Sixers have enough shooting around them.
But Philly will need more variety and pop to upend the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. Those teams are too good -- polished, tough, versatile enough on defense to throw a dozen different looks at the Harden-Embiid two-man game. They have trudged through the nerviest postseason moments -- moments where the Sixers have wilted. Feed Boston and Milwaukee the same patterns, and they will wear you down.
Using any prelude movement to catapult Harden and Embiid into their central action is always good. It nudges the defense off-balance, and gets Harden the ball with some advantage.
Harden can widen that advantage and draw a third defender by jetting toward Embiid's pick right away, at full speed. Kick it to Maxey early, and Philly's fastest ball handler has a diagonal alley to paydirt.
Maxey is too good to be a bystander to the Harden-Embiid show, chilling in the corners and waiting to pounce on fast-break chances. (The Sixers still play Harden, Maxey, and Embiid together plenty even with Maxey serving as sixth man.) Harden and Maxey developed their own guard-guard pick-and-roll chemistry last season; that has been largely absent this season. It's worth revisiting.
There hasn't been enough discussion of what the Sixers have riding on the next few months. They have not been to the conference finals in 22 years. They dodged the thorny sides of the bracket in each of the last two seasons, and still crumbled in the second round. Harden can enter free agency this summer. The Sixers (as of now) would not have cap space to replace him.
How might Embiid react to another early loss and the subsequent departure of Harden?
The Bulls expended a ton to build around three offense-first All-Stars, and are 24th in points per possession -- barely ahead of the Magic, who haven't cracked the top-20 in ten years and will likely snare Chicago's first-round pick for the second time in three seasons. These Bulls ranking 7th in defense and sitting at 26-33, 11th and sad, is shocking.
Chicago's offense has no juice, no continuity, no organizing principle -- no life. No team takes fewer 3s. Zach LaVine is the only consistently willing 3-point shooter in the starting five. Patrick Williams has doubled his attempt rate, but he and Ayo Dosunmu average six combined attempts from deep. Even Nikola Vucevic goes through bashful stretches.
Suns-Bucks, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Lakers-Mavs, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Timberwolves-Warriors, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Clippers-Nuggets, 10 p.m. (ESPN)
Cavaliers-Celtics, 7:30 p.m.
Pelicans-Trail Blazers, 10 p.m.
*All times Eastern
The Bulls can't bend the math back in their favor. They don't get to the line. They're 28th in offensive rebounding, in part because Vucevic prefers popping to the arc. They get to the rim at an average rate. They're 17th in fast-break points. The Bulls just randomly exchange the ball until someone jacks a 20-footer. They don't seem to have Plan B or C after the first action.
Lonzo Ball would connect these disparate pieces and point Chicago toward an identity. He fills the gaps: passing, transition chances, high-volume 3-point shooting. But Ball is not the difference between this sub-.500 mediocrity and a 50-win team with ambitions of winning one or two playoff series. And don't let any retroactive spin fool you: that is the kind of team Chicago aspired to be. It is the onlyreasonable aspiration when you trade so much to acquire high-priced veterans.
The Bulls are minus-4 with LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Vucevic on the floor. They were minus-7 in such minutes last season. The supporting cast hasn't been what Chicago envisioned, but All-Stars are All-Stars because they make it work under imperfect circumstances.
The Bulls are running out of time. Their next four games are against the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and Detroit Pistons. Toronto and Washington hold the last two play-in spots, barely ahead of Chicago. The results will be telling.
I've highlighted Reid's nifty face-up game before, but now he's branching out into smooth coast-to-coast takes:
A big who can do that is super valuable. Reid is even improvising the occasional inverted pick-and-roll!
The Wolves have scored 1.1 points per possession directly out of Reid's drives -- 53rd among 232 ball handlers with at least 100 drives, per Second Spectrum. That's pretty snazzy for a backup big! Reid's 3-point accuracy has slipped, but he's shooting 65% on 2s and rebounding at career-best levels.
Reid is a really good backup center. Minnesota was smart to keep him at the trade deadline, and bank on working out a new contract this summer.
Minnesota might be the league's most interesting team right now. They are clinging to a play-in spot at 31-30, with a tough-ish schedule; 13 of their final 21 games are on the road, where they are 11-17. They owe their unprotected first-round pick to the Utah Jazz. They have hovered around .500 with Karl-Anthony Towns out, and will at some point reintegrate him into a team that belongs firmly to Anthony Edwards.
There are stand-still shooters, movement shooters, and the very rare shooters who can transition from a full-on sprint into a clean jumper in one (or zero!) dribbles. That last type constitutes an offense-within-an-offense, warping the geometry of half the court. Space opens in their wake. They are almost the photo-negative of the lockdown NFL cornerbacks who shut off half the field.
Beasley is that kind of shooter, and he should feast alongside LeBron James. The new-look, still-far-behind Lakers have three locked-in starters: D'Angelo Russell, LeBron, and Anthony Davis. There is a strong argument for Beasley to snag one spot, likely over Dennis Schroder, with one of Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Troy Brown Jr. rounding out the lineup. (The Lakers have chosen Beasley and Vanderbilt in their last two games -- both wins they needed to preserve their season.)
Beasley's instinct is to shoot whenever he sees a sliver of space, and that's smart; Beasley has hit 38% of his career 3s, and he's usually in the 40% neighborhood on catch-and-shoot looks. He has a turbo release. Only four players have jacked more than 11 3s per 36 minutes this season: Damian Lillard, the Splash Brothers, and Beasley.
Beasley has also quietly become a pretty good passer against rotating defenses. He should engage that part of his game more with better talent around him -- especially on actions that pair him with Davis:
With no other Laker on the left side, Jonas Valanciunas is on an island defending Beasley and Davis -- a brutal predicament.
The Russell-Beasley duo is a glaring target on defense, and the Lakers probably need all three of LeBron, Davis, and Vanderbilt on the floor to cover for them. That will shrink their spacing.
But the Lakers need to string wins together before worrying about matchup problems.
Bogdanovic's job is scoring. He's one of the best shooters in the world, with an old-school back-to-the-basket game against mismatches. But shooting is the super-skill that elevates every skill beneath it -- including passing. Being a great shooter means defenders press you everywhere, leaving them vulnerable to blow-bys.
Great movement shooters draw two defenders whenever they use a screen. Act fast on the catch, and juicy passes are there.
On a terrible team bereft of shot-making around him, Bogdanovic is having the best passing season of his career. He's dishing three dimes per 36 minutes, easily a career high. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a decent number for a scoring wing passing to below-average shooters.
He slings that one-handed bad boy to Saddiq Bey with Bey's defender -- P.J. Washington -- still in help position, leaning away from Bey. Take one more dribble, and the defense will start its rotation back home. That one dribble is the difference between an open shot and a contested one -- or maybe no shot at all.
The rubble of a failed superteam has left Brooklyn with 13 players deserving of minutes. A lot of them are wings. Good players will get lost in the shuffle.
Even with Brooklyn holding tight to a playoff spot, the stakes are lower now. The Nets should remain invested in seeing what Thomas might be on a real team. Thomas is a chucker with some truly audacious shot selection. He's a defensive liability.
But you don't score 40 points in three straight NBA games by accident. All those games were competitive. In those games Thomas shot 56% and got to the line 40 times. He can score from anywhere, out of any play type.
There was something almost carnivalesque about those three games. Thomas had carte blanche with Kyrie Irving gone, Durant hurt, and Ben Simmons a wandering shade. That is not a replicable environment.
But there is a real player in here. Thomas throws some nifty passes when defenses double him, and he remembers passing is legal. He's averaging 3.4 assists per 36 minutes -- normal-ish for a shoot-first wing.
On a good team -- even on this revamped Brooklyn team -- Thomas won't have the ball as much as he did in that Linsanity-esque scoring binge. The next step is functioning off the ball. Thomas looks unsure of himself in catch-and-go situations. He defaults to dancing with the ball, allowing the defense to reset itself before attacking one-on-one.
Whatever advantage Brooklyn has built up vanishes when Thomas pauses. Thomas has the goods to win some of those one-on-one matchups, but it saps the offense of momentum -- and often leads to Thomas lofting a contested mid-ranger instead of zipping into the lane for something better.
Did you catch this little exchange between Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma?
I love those small moments. A decade ago, Henry Abbott -- then of ESPN, now of TrueHoop -- spoke with experts about how high-fives were a sign of healthy team culture and could even contribute to winning. (Steve Nash was the high-five king.) I'm not sure about any cause-and-effect link to winning, but I perk up when I see things like that Beal-Kuzma hand slap.
Most high-fives come outside the action -- during free throws, or when teammates jog back on defense. Here, Beal pauses with the ballto acknowledge Kuzma -- who had just hit a monster triple to cap a huge comeback. That's awesome.
The Wizards might be kinda good? They're 17-10 since bottoming out at 11-20. Various iterations of their starting five have been solid all season; the Wiz have outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions with Beal, Kuzma, and Kristaps Porzingis on the floor.
Kuzma and Porzingis have gotten a lot of credit for holding Washington together amid injuries (including to Beal) and roster turmoil. Porzingis is a nice bounce-back story. Kuzma is having a career season, though he's been a little shot-happy.
Don't sleep on Beal. He's averaging 23 points and 5 dimes, and blowing away his career shooting numbers: 52% overall, 58% on 2s, 73% at the rim. He is one of the league's sleekest scorers -- an all-court craftsman. Even in jostling through tight spaces -- including dribbling under the rim, Nash-style -- Beal seems to glide.
The Wiz have played six more road than home games. Projection systems have them a borderline lock to make the play-in. Eight of their next 11 games are against the Pistons, Bulls, Raptors, and Hawks -- three play-in rivals, and one bottom-feeder.
This may not lead anywhere meaningful, but the Wiz have locked into a fun identity.
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