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In the Loopus with Canis Hoopus: Thanks and Tanks

In this edition, we dive into the James Harden trade, the Rockets’ defense, the Magic’s fast start, and crown a beloved veteran as the hero of the week.

Houston Rockets v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

A late happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I cooked two turkeys (one was given to me), potatoes, dinner rolls with tomato and goat cheese, pecan pie, and apple crumble only to find out that this was only a meal for me and one other friend. That reminds me of Detroit Pistons General Manager Troy Weaver putting together a young core of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Ausar Thompson, Isaiah Livers, and all the other decent players on that roster only to see them go a whopping 4-37 in their last 41 games.

Leftovers are good though, and I’m glad I have those and not major questions about whether I should still be employed at my job as an executive in a multi-billion dollar business. Let’s get started with other questions.

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Batum’s Up: Fourth Quarter, He’s In

The James Harden trade was stupid. I think we can all admit that now. It wasn’t stupid in that it particularly hamstrung any one team or that it had disastrous long term effects (yet). It was stupid in the same way it was stupid to snort pop rocks in the cafeteria for 10 bucks. It just didn’t really do anything except for set the table for problems. It was dramatic without payoff or build up. It just kind of happened from a series of poor choices spanning back multiple years.

Except, well, Nicolas Batum has been a worthy centerpiece for the Sixers as a return for Harden. The obvious thing to point to in Philadelphia post-Beard is the empowerment of 2020 draftee Tyrese Maxey and his rapid ascent into All-Star guard territory, but it’s been Batum’s methodical, do-it-all play that has caught my eye.

Since the trade, Batum is averaging seven points and four rebounds on absurd 57/53/100 shooting splits. PJ Tucker, who the Sixers swapped one for one for Batum, is averaging a less impressive 1.3 points a contest while making only 28% of his total shots.

Batum’s connective play has been exactly what the Sixers have needed and tried to pigeon-hole Tobias Harris into being. The French forward is by no means a star, but his play has transformed this team. He is, quite clearly in fact, the third most vital player on this team only behind the reigning MVP and the likely MIP.

This is by no means Portland Trail Blazers Batum, who was so extremely under-appreciated that I feel the need to direct you all to his highlight reels, but this feels like the best version of Batum since then. Charlotte Hornets Batum was checked out on a terrible team with a huge contract. Early Los Angeles Clippers Batum showed signs but that tenure is remembered for a line in a song, not a play on the court.

I don’t believe the Sixers will win a championship, it feels hyperbolic to even suggest that for a team with the most chaos and uncertainty over the past few years, not to mention a gross lack of notable playoff wins. But, Batum’s development reminds me of another French forward who languished in Charlotte for years before being a real contributor to winning teams and eventually becoming a champion. Nicolas Batum is on track to become the next Boris Diaw. I hope he gets to do that.

Rockets on D: Defending in Space

When I made a video about David Kahn’s 2011 draft wheeling and dealing, I mentioned that the firing of Kurt Rambis was likely valid and highlighted this quadrant of the graph that I called the Rambis-Fitch Faultline.

Rambis went 32-132. Being 100 games below 500 in just 2 season is borderline impossible. Former Rockets coach Stephen Silas got one more season that Rambis, but his 59-177 record would be the equivalent of taking Rambis’ legendary failure and going 27-45 in the next 72 games.

That’s bad. Very bad.

If any coach came in and even just won 30 games in a season, it wouldn’t be a rousing success, but it would certainly prove what the Rockets had in Silas. It would also prove that the cornerstones of this rebuild are not with unfounded belief.

Instead, the Houston Rockets got Ime Udoka. And they paid a lot of money for Fred Van Vleet and Dillon Brooks. And it’s working.

The Rockets currently lead the NBA in defensive rating at 106.8. That number would be the best the entire NBA has seen in the past three years and the best the Rockets have mustered since they were contenders in 2018. Udoka has brought the same system used in Boston to Houston, with a focus on blitzing and switching. It’s a system that made Marcus Smart a defensive player of the year and took the Celtics to the Finals, as well as giving players like Robert Williams III and Al Horford absurd statistic profiles for a year, but the crux of it is going unnoticed. The Rockets are rebounding.

That’s the easy way that the Rockets are turning their best player in Alperun Şengün from a negative defensive player and rim protector into a great possession ender. Şengün is 18th in the NBA for rebounding, averaging 9.1 a game and it’s helping the Rockets to float all the way up to fifth in rebounds per game and third in rebounding rate.

What Silas failed to establish, and what Udoka and his vets have done a great job establishing, is discipline. It remains to be seen how long that lasts or if it even does, but when the bar was on the floor, the Rockets did more than just step over it. They launched.

Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Magic of the Magic

Among the world of the NBA, there are teams that have claimed a perfect rebuild. The Thunder have been listed as one, but face real questions of asset collection and allocation. The Pelicans have burnt through picks, using a trial by fire to establish one of the most talented rosters in the NBA (more on that later). But, building through kindness not competition, the Magic have created my favorite young roster in the entire association.

Part of it is Franz Wagner, who was a personal favorite in his draft, even if I was surprised to see him available at eighth overall. Part of it is his draft mate, Jalen Suggs, who I once got to interview about his high school football career before he was even drafted, who is now playing his best stretch of his career as an imposing point of attack defender and fantastic court manager. Part of it is Paolo Banchero, who just won NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week just months after winning a similar valued price: Thilo’s top player in the draft. Most of it, though, is how they value talent in the same way I do. The Magic have regularly targeted players who embody the saying “jack of all trades, master of at least one.”

Not every big playmaker will work out. Not every uber-athletic point guard can start. Not every highlight will reveal a good player. But the Magic have done something great in finding players who build off each other but also don’t need each other to succeed. Paolo and Franz play off each other as the two cornerstones but have also flashed with each other off the court. The admitted crowded guard rotation of Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, and Anthony Black have all shown some ability to be on the court in any combination despite the fact that only one, maybe two, of them is a plus shooter.

There’s a lot to be said here. The Magic have won seven straight and hold a top-three defense (between the Celtics and Timberwolves, this keeps bouncing around). Mo Wagner, brother of Franz, just had an extremely unexpected 20-point-game. There’s so much to be said that I don’t have the words, or rather I have too many.

But, the main focus is this: the perfect rebuild is not one where a team hits on a lot of picks. We have seen plenty of those and often that doesn’t get you all the way to top four finish. The Magic have nailed second contracts, trade returns, AND draft picks. That’s the perfect rebuild. And with the second most cap space this summer, they can add even more to that, although I have no clue what they would still need.

Minnesota Timberwolves v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Western Conference Check-In

Not much time has passed since last week so not much has changed in the standings. While the East has seen a ton of shifts, the West really hasn’t. The TLDR is this: The San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Blazers are all bad. The Golden State Warriors and Clippers are old teams that have fallen off recently and may be washed. The New Orleans Pelicans, Rockets, and Sacramento Kings are all young rosters that play with the energy and fire that their coaches preach (some better than others). The Dallas Mavericks have started to hit the downside of their easy schedule, while the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Oklahoma City Thunder sit at the top of the conference. Some of you may have noticed that the Los Angeles Lakers were left out of all this. That’s because I have no clue what to say about them. They’re 10-7 and the seventh seed which feels simultaneously to high and too low.

The longer explanation is that the Wolves lead the West, riding their 7-1 home record to a 12-4 aggregate. Behind them, the Thunder and Nuggets have 11 and 12 wins, respectively. Also coming in at 11 wins are the Suns, who have been riding the return of starting point guard Devin Booker to an impressive seven game win-streak. The top eight playoff spots are filled out with the Mavs, Kings, Rockets and Lakers, while the last two play in teams are the Pelicans, who have been rising, and the Warriors, who have been falling. The Clippers are the only “maybe” playoff team on the outside looking in while the Jazz, Blazers, and Spurs are simply not up to the same levels. The Grizzlies, currently 3-13, remain the wild card once Ja Morant returns in nine games time, but many will enjoy dancing on Memphis’s proverbial grave until then.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Story Pups

Opposite Tales of JJJ — On one side of the misery spectrum, Jaren Jackson Jr. has returned to his mean and is no longer making four threes a game while averaging 25. Too much offensive load is being placed on the former defensive player of the year, but it’s just all bad for the Grizzlies.

On the other side of things, rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. is finally getting real offensive usage. Maybe he’s not ready yet, but a big step that young players need to learn to be used as primary or secondary ball-handlers is the manipulation of pace. JJJ has that in spades. Jaquez has been great during this Heat stretch that saw them, predictably, catching up to the rest of the East after a slow start.

Peli-Pology: Yes They Peli-can — In the first week of In the Loopus, I sat here and blamed the Pelicans for ruining prospect after prospect by creating positional log jams and setting players up to fail by locking them in spots with no chance to play. I stand by that for the majority of players. That being said, what Jordan Hawkins and Dyson Daniels are doing for New Orleans is miraculous and a welcome change of pace from the past few years.

I called Daniels a supercharged prime Patrick Beverley pre-draft. After a year being stuck in Pelican Purgatory, he’s been great since CJ McCollum went down and should continue starting. Hawkins is tied with Victor Wembanyama for most 25+ point games by a rookie this season and his spacing alongside a returning Trey Murphy III is a strength, not a redundancy.

Brook Lopez I can now say that every center should try to be more like Brook Lopez without it sounding insane. He has yet to hit a wall despite being old. He has yet to stop developing despite being old. He has returned to borderline DPOY stats despite being old. This man played for the New Jersey Nets for godsakes. He was around when Marshon Brooks was his co-star and headlines for future of the team. Be like Brook.

Tank Bowl Supreme This probably won’t go up before it, but I am more excited for Wizards vs Pistons than I am for the NFL draft, and considering I’m a Giants fan, that is a high line to beat.

Jurassic Park: Back from the Dead Pascal Siakam has been playing incredibly well and, surprisingly, new head coach Darko Rajaković may be the best hire of last summer. Next week we’ll get into the good (Scottie Barnes), the bad (PG rotation), and the ugly (Gradey Dick’s shot has been massacred by coaches and I will not stay quiet).

Hero of the Week: Joe Ingles

I mentioned this new bit last week, when we highlighted Bismack Biyombo as my personal hero for his perseverance (second chance points and second chance careers) and his strong will and leadership in the toughest of times. This week is not much different in career point, but is on the opposite side of team success.

Cole Anthony called the Magic “Joe Ingles’ Grandkids” this week and that was enough. He’s averaging just four points a game in 18 minutes a contest, but his leadership has been the guiding force behind the Magic’s aforementioned ascension. His headshot also has the goofiest smile and I just want to give Joe all the credit he should get.

Shout out Joe Ingles, man. The Jingler is still tossing bells in time for the holidays.