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Another week in the NBA books means a new set of storylines, stats and highlights to review.
We’ve got conventionally juicy angles, like the Los Angeles Lakers getting off to a start only the most optimistic fans would have envisioned. But this past week also gave us some unexpected talking points, such as performance-enhancing drugs and a surprisingly early load management debate.
As usual, seven days of League Pass hopping and stat-searching produced plenty of visual and historical nuggets worth noting.
As a tease, any time you wind up digging through some of Andrei Kirilenko’s best games to contextualize something Jonathan Isaac did, it’s been a pretty interesting week.
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Winners of six straight, the Los Angeles Lakers sit atop the Western Conference.
Defense has been the key to L.A.’s success, which isn’t something we’ve been able to say about LeBron James’ teams over the past few seasons. It wasn’t so long ago (2017-18, to be exact) that his Cleveland Cavaliers ranked 29th in defensive efficiency. That team made the Finals anyway. Because LeBron.
This year’s Lakers are getting plenty of vintage production from James, who became the oldest player in league history to record three straight triple-doubles. His high activity level on D contrasts starkly with the half-hearted closeouts and general disengagement he offered last season.
Anthony Davis will be a Defensive Player of the Year short-lister as long as this keeps up, and Dwight Howard probably wishes Comeback Player of the Year was still an award. He’s moved his feet on D, abandoned (or been forced to abandon) posting up and has yet to rankle teammates with ill-timed locker-room goofs.
The Lakers have benefitted from opponents shooting poorly from deep, but they force a ton of mid-rangers and wall off the rim effectively. Those are two sustainable traits that bode well for the defense’s staying power.
It’s still early, but the Lakers are playing at or above even the most unreasonably high preseason expectations.
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The Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins joined Deandre Ayton and Wilson Chandler in the Banned Substance Suspension club, incurring a 25-game ban after testing positive for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide-2 (GHRP-2).
The NBA suspended Joakim Noah in 2017 for a positive test, and Jodie Meeks was the only violator caught in 2018. We’re dealing in very small numbers, but three players getting tagged this early in the year suggests something’s up.
Maybe testing is more rigorous now. Maybe players are getting reckless. Maybe, and this seems unlikely, we’re just dealing with an anomaly.
Whatever it is, we’ve now got three players serving suspensions, two of whom have pretty high profiles (apologies to Chandler). If we get a fourth any time soon, this will go from a trending topic to a defining feature of the season.
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The dialogue that arose in the wake of Kawhi Leonard missing Wednesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t so much a debate about load management as a reminder that every generation thinks the next one is soft.
It seems like the old-schoolers lamenting Leonard’s approach (which was integral to him winning a title with the Toronto Raptors last year) are trying to have it both ways. The crowd that hates to see a star player miss a game in November is usually the same one that withholds ultimate praise until that player proves his mettle in the postseason.
So do these November games matter or not? Which is it?
Even if the science surrounding load management is somewhat uncertain, doesn’t it seem logical that strategic rest early in the year could preserve freshness and lead to peak performance in the playoffs? And if we’re going to judge players largely by how they perform in those playoffs, shouldn’t we want them to be at their best for that evaluation?
And let’s talk about “old school” for a second, since so much of the toughness talk centering around Leonard’s load management comes from pundits who wear the term like a badge of honor. Do you know what they taught in old schools? A whole lot of bad ideas that eventually got disproved.
Getting smarter isn’t the same thing as getting softer.
This issue isn’t going away. Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers have another back-to-back set next week, with the front end being a nationally televised date against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 13.
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13, 10, 6, 5, 4, 1
Jonathan Isaac is one of the few good things about an Orlando Magic team otherwise defined by its league-worst offense and disappointing 2-6 record. His stat line in Wednesday’s 107-106 loss to the Dallas Mavericks—13 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, four steals and one three-pointer—made history.
Isaac didn’t quite make the vaunted five-by-five club, but no one had ever amassed those figures in the same game until the 22-year-old defensive havoc-wreaker did so. And he needed just under 32 minutes of court time, no less.
The Magic made an offseason bet on continuity by retaining Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, but it seems increasingly likely that the best future version of this team will be built around Isaac’s versatile defense. Another few pounds of bulk and the 6’11” forward could become a true five-position-defending center with no exploitable weaknesses.
Isaac’s offensive game remains a work in progress, but we’re seeing the next evolutionary phase of an Andrei Kirilenko-caliber stopper. Prime AK-47, who logged three career five-by-five stat lines, was the same kind of court-roving, ball-hawking menace Isaac has been so far this year.
James Harden’s jumper remains busted. He’s hitting just 27.0 percent of a whopping 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Nonetheless, he’s leading the league in scoring at 36.5 points per game, a figure that also tops the 36.1 he averaged last season. Perhaps most remarkably, Harden is playing fewer minutes and averaging fewer field-goal attempts than he did in 2018-19.
He’s shoring up his otherwise inefficient scoring with a mountain of free throws.
At 15.8 attempts per game, Harden is on pace to be at the stripe more often than anyone since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 17.0 foul shots in 1961-62. For reference, that was the year Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points while attempting a mind-numbing 39.5 field goals per game. To say the league was different in those days is to say computers were different before the internet.
Harden’s resourcefulness and skill development (it’s absolutely a skill to sucker defenders so consistently) are incredible, but let’s not pretend a parade to the foul line is any fun.
You’d think Harden’s constant presence at the stripe, which is the main reason Houston leads the NBA in foul shots per game, would produce better defensive performances. Free throws allow the shooting team to set its defense better than live-ball misses, and Harden (90.5 percent) makes such a high percentage that Rockets opponents are always taking the ball out of the net before initiating their offense.
Yet there Houston is, 28th in defensive efficiency.
We already hit LeBron and the improved Lakers defense, but there’s another factor driving their strong start: incredible close-range accuracy.
The Lakers lead the league with a 72.9 percent conversion rate at the rim, a figure that outstrips the figure posted by last season’s Golden State Warriors, who topped everyone with a 68.2 percent hit rate at the rim. Cleaning the Glass’ database goes back to 2003-04, and no other team has even cracked 70.0 percent in that span.
This probably means the Lakers are due for regression. Dwight Howard, for example, seems unlikely to keep shooting 78.6 percent from the field and 85.7 percent inside three feet. Then again, when you’ve got dunk machines like Howard, JaVale McGee and Anthony Davis getting regular spoon-feeding from LeBron, maybe a new record is inevitable.
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Malcolm Brogdon’s Inside-Hand Layups
It feels like the element of surprise is an increasingly important weapon in guards’ arsenals this year, as illustrated last week by Ricky Rubio’s slick one-handed scoop-fest. This week, we’ve got Malcolm Brogdon’s tricky inside-hand finishes to celebrate.
Against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, he exposed the ball to Cody Zeller, finishing with a lefty layup on the right side of the bucket. Later in the same game, Brogdon switched it up, quick-shotting PJ Washington with a right-handed scoop from the left side.
It’s a brash approach, one that practically depends on the defender thinking to himself, “There’s no way he’ll actually try this!”
Brogdon has always had some deception in his around-the-basket game. We’re just seeing it more now that he’s excelling in a primary ball-handling role for the Indiana Pacers.
Eric Paschall’s Trey-Fest
Golden State Warriors rookie Eric Paschall barged into the Rookie of the Year conversation with 78 points spread over three games this past week. His 34-point explosion against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday featured four made threes in six attempts. He’d previously been 0-of-8 on the year, but he still came out gunning like a Splash Brother.
Paschall, who Golden State selected at No. 41 overall, is already an obvious draft steal, and that’d be true if he weren’t showing surprising confidence from deep. His strength, energy and bounce allow him to overpower vets at the rim, and there’s immense defensive potential in that 6’6″ frame. He’s happy to let you know how powerful he is.
Head coach Steve Kerr invoked a PJ Tucker comparison, which probably sets the bar too high defensively but may actually sell Paschall’s offensive potential short.
Since this is an aesthetics section, we have to discuss Paschall’s shooting form, which doesn’t seem likely to produce reliably high three-point percentages.
Paschall shoots at almost a 45-degree angle, which results in his elbow pointing toward the target (that’s good) but also creates some right-to-left drift when the ball is in the air (that’s bad). The bigger issue may be his habit of jumping exceptionally high on perimeter shots. That makes timing a release tricky, and we’ve already seen him miss badly when he waits too long and shoots on the way down.
Blake Griffin mostly got over that hiccup, so there’s hope.
Words and Deeds
Devin Booker has shown better defensive effort than ever this season. The bar wasn’t high, of course, but the fifth-year guard is clearly making it a point to focus, work around screens and muster consistent energy. It’s no coincidence the Phoenix Suns are surprising everyone to start the season.
Watch him refuse to get picked off by an Al Horford screen during Monday’s massive 114-109 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s saying something when Booker scores 40 to hand Philly its first loss of the year and we pick out a defensive highlight to commemorate the game. Something is different about the former one-way player.
Booker told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears that new head coach Monty Williams gave him a piece of advice before the season.
“Everything you want is on the other side of hard,” the guard relayed. “When he says that, it’s not a basketball statement. It’s a mental statement. A hard work statement. It locks me in every time.”
Williams’ words are getting the right kind of action from his best player.