The Milwaukee Bucks are undefeated, the Cleveland Cavaliers are winless (and sort of coachless) and we’re still waiting for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets to get their respective acts together. Oh, and LeBron James is still preaching patience … for now. There, now you’re caught up on the major stories in the NBA.
If you want to go a little deeper, though, stay with me as I touch on five storylines around the league, starting with the Golden State Warriors’ brigade of bigs.
A different kind of Big 3
Hours before the season opened, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told CBS Sports’ Reid Forgrave that his No. 1 concern was having young players anchor their defense. With the departure of veterans Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee, Kerr would have to lean on Damian Jones, who played only 25 games combined in his first two seasons; Jordan Bell, who was in and out of the rotation as a rookie last year; and Kevon Looney, who is somehow still 22 years old.
A couple of weeks into the season, Kerr is less worried. Jones, the starter, is shooting 77.8 percent and his teammates love throwing him lob passes the way they did with McGee. Looney has been reliable to the point where Kerr pulled him aside after a practice to tell him he’d “have a good 10- or 12-year run in this league,” per the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau. Bell might have the most upside of the three, and while he is averaging the fewest minutes, he’s the only one Kerr turned to during the fourth quarter of a close-ish game in Brooklyn on Sunday.
“They’re doing great,” Kerr said. “I’m thrilled with Loon, D.J. and Jordan. Loon is like a 10-year vet. He’s so smart. He’s in the right place every time. He makes really important plays for us. And Jordan and D.J. are both so athletic and so fast, and so the trick with them is continuing to corral that talent, understand where they can make an impact on the game. But I’m really excited about all three of them.”
Ideally, all three will get enough regular-season reps to be trusted in the playoffs and give the front office a better idea about how the position will be filled in future years. In this way, DeMarcus Cousins’ continued rehabilitation from his ruptured Achilles isn’t such a bad thing. Looney said Cousins has been coaching from the sideline, too, providing pointers on how to score on the block and seal a defender in transition.
You might think Jones, Looney and Bell have it easy because they’re surrounded by stars, but that doesn’t account for the fact they have to be the back line of defense. Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams has privately tutored all of them, challenging them to know their personnel, call out coverages and be the loudest of anyone on the court. They have also had no choice but to get comfortable moving their feet on the perimeter.
“It’s so much harder on us,” Bell said. “Like, if a small guy gets caught on a big, we just double in the paint, we’re not going to leave ’em alone. If we get switched on a guard or wing, f—, we gotta do it.”
Watching the Warriors over the course of their 7-1 start, they have had an undeniably different vibe than last season. “I think we’re a little looser,” Kerr said, and he drew a straight line from the integration of the young guys to their lighter atmosphere: When you have players who are trying to make their mark in the league, veterans feel a sense of responsibility to bring them along.
The younger players, in turn, understand their responsibility to the vets. According to Looney, their job is “bring energy and bring the fire,” especially on those random nights on the road in the winter when it feels like the regular season will never end. They also know that, while they may be fighting for minutes, they can’t splinter.
“It’s a lot of camaraderie,” Looney said. “We all play our role. We all have different roles. Some nights, it’s going to be another guy’s night. We all cheer each other on. We know we’re in it together. Steve always played center by committee since I’ve been here, so we know we’re all going to have a chance, an opportunity to play. We don’t really look at it as a competition.”
That is easier to say now than it will be when Cousins is in the mix and Draymond Green is getting extended of minutes at center in the playoffs. If this perceived weakness continues to look like a strength, finding time for everyone will be yet another one of Kerr’s good problems.
“It won’t be easy,” Kerr said.”We have a lot of guys who are deserving of being on the floor. But, you know, we’re going to play whoever we think is best-suited to win the game. That’s kind of our job as a coaching staff: to communicate on the days off in between and get guys to understand what’s happening and why. And it’s their job to be selfless and to try to help us win a championship.”
Switching, through the lens of Wizards’ woeful defense
After the internal bickering that followed the Washington Wizards’ 116-112 loss to the Sacramento Kings last Friday, former Wizards video coordinator Bryan Oringher put together a film session for Bullets Forever. In it, he highlighted the difference between what he called a “contact” switch and a “point” switch. The former is aggressive and has a purpose; the latter is lazy and does not.
One highlight: After a particularly embarrassing possession, Oringher says, with a mix of disgust and dejection, “This is like rec-league basketball. This is unacceptable.”
Two days later, presumably after watching all the same clips, Washington visited the Los Angeles Clippers. Did the players show renewed effort, better communication and a desire to prove that they aren’t a joke? No: Please watch Austin Rivers’ lament their “horrendous” defense and lack of personal pride after their 136-104 loss on Sunday.
It makes sense that Rivers is angry. He knows that people are laughing at the Wizards. He believes in the talent on the team. As Oringher said, they are making mistakes that simply shouldn’t be acceptable. The Clippers knew Washington would switch liberally, but not necessarily aggressively, and they took advantage, creating way-too-comfortable scoring opportunities like these:
Here’s some of the worst transition defense you’ll see:
And here’s John Wall doubling Montrezl Harrell 15 feet from the basket, leading to an open, in-rhythm 3-pointer:
Finally, this felt relevant even though it’s not a defensive possession:
The Wizards are not depressing simply because of their 1-5 start. They are depressing because they should be much better and it’s the same old story. Is it Scott Brooks’ coaching? Are players slacking because the group feels stale? I don’t know, but there’s no excuse for their lack of urgency and it’s not clear if they believe in the game plan they’re (kind of) executing.
All of this was glaring in contrast to the Clippers, who play hard as hell and appear to be having a blast. In a cruel twist, Washington fans had to endure Doc Rivers telling reporters that Brooks approached him to say he could feel how well Los Angeles’ players get along.
The main takeaway here is that the Wizards are a mess, but I’m interested in the bigger-picture implications of what Oringher talked about, too. When the Warriors started switching all over the place, it was subversive. It is now closer to orthodoxy, with last year’s Houston Rockets taking the practice to a new extreme.
It is notable, though, that the Rockets had to convince the old-school Trevor Ariza — the man teammate Ryan Anderson said has the best understanding of defense of anyone he’s played with — to accept the strategy. They had to sell him on the fact that, when done right, it can be a way to attack an offense, not a capitulation. You need the proper personnel and commitment to do it right, though, and after some early-season struggles, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni considered moving away from it before deciding that the scheme wasn’t the problem. This will be worth monitoring.
An attacking Fox
The Sacramento Kings are 4-3 and have won three straight, so I don’t care that I looked at Willie Cauley-Stein in last week’s column — De’Aaron Fox deserves some attention, too. The second-year point guard is averaging 18 points, 7.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds, getting to the line seven times a game and finishing extremely well. He is showing off a more mature pick-and-roll game, keeping the defense honest with midrange jumpers and, of course, setting the pace for the league’s third-fastest team.
Fox still commits frustrating turnovers and must improve his shooting — he’s making 65.3 percent of his free throws and 23.5 percent of his 3s — but he has made real strides when it comes to running the team and changing his speeds. “I feel like I’m an entirely different player now,” he told reporters after the win against Washington, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him when he goes downhill:
Sacramento is scoring 1.298 points per possession in transition this season, per Synergy Sports, and that ranks third in the league. Part of that is because, when Fox runs, he can pull off stuff like this:
Kings coach Dave Joerger raised some eyebrows when he called the 20-year-old their “franchise guy” on media day. Now, his teammates are referring to him as their leader. Even if you’re skeptical about Fox or Sacramento in general, you must acknowledge he has had a promising start.
Also, I still don’t understand how he got to the basket here:
Spurred to action
Here’s a weird fact: The San Antonio Spurs, the pioneers of player rest, employ the league’s two highest-minutes players: DeMar DeRozan (38.8 minutes per game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (37.2 minutes per game).
Some of this is a result of San Antonio’s two overtime games, but that’s not the whole story. When they played 38 and 42 minutes, respectively, in their season opener, it was a sign that coach Gregg Popovich would need to lean on his stars heavily, at least early in the season.
Historically, the Spurs’ strength has been their system and their ability to perform regardless of who is on the floor. This is an indication that they aren’t as deep as usual, especially with guards Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker all hurt. Normal caveats about small sample size apply, but San Antonio has been outperformed by 8.7 points per 100 possessions with DeRozan on the bench and 3.1 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the bench, per NBA.com.
The Bucks’ stops, here
All the raving about Milwaukee’s offense is warranted, but its defensive transformation is just as striking. Before Mike Budenholzer (BMB, I guess), Bucks were 17th in defensive rating last season, and they had been driving their analytics-inclined fans crazy for a couple of years. Patient teams learned how to use their pressure against them, generating open corner 3s and layups.
Now, not only is Milwaukee second in defensive rating, it is doing everything completely differently. I find it hilarious that the Bucks are now 29th in opponent turnover percentage, hardly ever getting any steals and instead sticking to a more conservative, solid scheme. They rebound well, protect the rim without fouling, force a ton of midrange shots and prevent corner 3s — all the basic stuff that Milwaukee’s nerdiest supporters wanted the team to do BMB.
One mark against the Bucks, however: Opponents are shooting a league-worst 31.5 percent on wide-open shots and second-worst 30.2 percent on wide-open 3s, per NBA.com. Even if you’re generous and assuming that some of that is because they aren’t allowing offenses to find rhythm, at least some of it has to be luck.
10 more stray thoughts: Klay Thompson had the least surprising record-breaking night in NBA history … “Not a rebuild at all,” Tyronn Lue said at media day … Zach LaVine tried to tell you … The Nets must have Enes Kanter-related nightmares … There has been a frankly overwhelming amount of Lance Stephenson stuff happening lately, so you might have missed this … Close wins have masked the fact that San Antonio is 23rd in defensive rating and 28th in opposing effective field-goal percentage … Everything looks so dang complicated for the Sixers, but hey, they started 14-18 last season … Free Jakob Poeltl! … Alfonzo McKinnie could be the Warriors’ latest diamond in the rough; if you don’t know his story, read up … Haven’t heard much from the anti-Luka Doncic crowd lately.
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