The great thing about covering general NBA observations on a weekly basis is that half of what I said last week is completely obsolete while the other half has not changed at all.
That puts me in a unique situation of either either being wrong or needing more data. I’m calling that unplanned obsolescence and that’s what the first few weeks are going to be about: what’s going on and how long will it last?
In the case of the New Orleans Pelicans take I ended last week with, well, Jordan Hawkins just went absolutely ballistic for 31 points, seven three-pointers, and seven rebounds in his seventh career game. On the same side of things, every single Houston Rockets starter is averaging over 14 points per game and they’re eighth in the West. It’s too early to be right and too late to not be wrong. This is what makes it so fun.
We Will All Be Ground to Dust in the End: Grind City Struggles
The Memphis Grizzlies finally won a game. Jaren Jackson Jr. is averaging 21 points per game on the year to go along with eight rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Desmond Bane just scored 30 in back-to-back games. Slowly but surely, things are turning around for Memphis.
Except, well, that one win came against the Portland Trail Blazers and required a ridiculous 20-or-so point run in the fourth quarter alone, along with 57 points combined from Trip-J and Bane. That is not a sustainable way to win. The Marcus Smart acquisition has disappointed; there is no Tyus Jones factor to fill the Ja Morant void; and half the roster is on the injury report. I’m talking injury report on the notes app levels of hurt. To add to the problems of personnel, Jackson Jr. is the only other rotation-level big available (recently signed Bismack Biyombo is playing more than 20 minutes per game already), and there is next to no playmaking on the roster outside of Smart and Bane. That lack of playmaking may be the larger problem, as it renders last season’s spot-up 3-point shooting percentage leader Luke Kennard impotent and has left the Grizzlies bench at 25th in scoring at a miserable 17.4 points a game.
Those issues just lead us to the root of the problem. In any rebuild, you need to key in on which players you must keep and which players will be out of your price range. The Grizzlies let Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson, both of whom are contributing nicely to other Western Conference teams, for absolutely nothing in free agency. The Grizzlies traded two of the better backup point guards, a position they are desperately in need of, for very little returned value. Jones resulted in Smart. DeAnthony Melton resulted in David Roddy. These are not bad moves in a vacuum (OK, the Melton one is awful), but they’ve left the roster devoid of much-needed talent without Ja Morant. So it may not be getting any better for the Grizzlies any time soon, as they’ve got (checks notes) 17 games left to play before Morant returns.
So let’s talk about fixes. I don’t have many. I started writing this before Robert Williams III’s injury. I would’ve proposed some moves based around Steven Adams’ contract, one of those incomplete developmental projects, and a second for Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon. But, the landscape for finding the skillsets the Grizzlies are lacking is not friendly. Memphis is stuck waiting. It’s 17 more games for Morant. Those are going to be a rough 17 games. What’s worse is that no one knows how long it’ll take for the paragraph-long injury report to dissipate. The Grizzlies may be in line for a retool, or, more likely, they’ll have to scramble to fix things when Ja returns.
Lauri Markkanen, Will Hardy, and the Jazz Improv Track
Last year’s pre-season favorite for Tankathon is now regressing to what was expected of them last year, sitting at a less-than-good 2-6, but I’m more interested in what we’ve already seen from second-year coach Will Hardy and how he has turned Lauri Markkanen, stretch 4 and Chicago Bulls burnout, into Lauri Markkanen, 2023 Most Improved Player and Utah Jazz franchise player making only about $15 million annually.
Hardy’s most impressive change last year was immediately pinpointing Markkanen as a shot-creating, play-initiating small forward instead of the floor spacer he was used as in Chicago and Cleveland. What’s most fascinating is that he didn’t snatch this idea out of nowhere. Due to injuries and personnel, Lauri spent a large portion of his time in Cleveland at the 3. And it was an abject disaster for the role he was brought in for. That season is still Markkanen’s second-lowest 3-point percentage in his career, which is ironic considering Cleveland saw him as a spacer alongside Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, a role they have continued to search for with Georges Niang and Max Strus. What that season did bring, however, was a career-high assist-to-turnover ratio.
That ratio was not league-leading or even above average, nestled at 1.5 which is just below what is expected of non-initiators, but that seems to have given Hardy an idea: empower your players, find what they’re good at, and invest in those skills. So now we have near seven-foot Markkanen running off pindowns.
Will Hardy’s actions are incredible. That was a post up split action that ended in a pindown from baseline with Markkanen popping for a three— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) March 8, 2023
This is all an old story for most, but what we’re missing is that, despite the bad record, the Jazz are getting a return to form from John Collins, another once undervalued power forward. They’re getting a continuance of what they got last year from Markkanen and Walker Kessler. They’re getting all of that from a coach who knows what he’s doing despite a less-than-stellar record. Coaches don’t get credit unless they’re winning or over-performing. Hardy is doing neither right now but deserves credit nonetheless
Trae Young is Defending and Playing Off Ball, Thanks to Jalen Johnson
Is the title hyperbolic? Absolutely. But few things have stood out for the Atlanta Hawks recently more than Trae Young’s increased effort on the defensive end and the way that Jalen Johnson’s playmaking is being leveraged. Let’s start on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s definitely not a high bar, but Young is having his best year on the non-scoring side of the ball by an extreme margin. There’s a schematic element to it — Young is blitzing ball handlers when they try to get him on a switch to force them to pick up the ball — but the change is largely in effort. Trae is 6-foot-1 and no more than 170 pounds. I, personally, am taller and weigh more than him. With his frame, he will likely never even be a good defender, but the Hawks have tried to flank him with capable defenders when it would’ve been easier for him to just try. Now he’s doing that. And it’s huge.
Trae Young's defensive effort and communication popped off the screen against the Pelicans recording:— Hawks Film Room (@atlhawksfilm) November 5, 2023
and the Pels shot just 40% on jumpers he contested.
A look into how Trae's rotations and closeouts culminated in his best defensive game yet... https://t.co/lwa1kIOvo7 pic.twitter.com/1CXQes1z9V
Offense, on the other hand, has never really been a problem for Young and the Hawks, but the Quin Snyder motion system is changing things now as well. That is thanks to Johnson, who I only got to mention briefly last time. Here’s what it comes down to: Dejounte Murray was not the facilitator the Hawks thought he would be next to Trae Young last year; Johnson is. Young is having his best year off-ball as well. The shooting splits won’t show it but the tape will. The Hawks are hovering at 4-3, but I expect them to climb the standings heavily once Young’s percentages progress back up to his career means.
The worry is that Young’s defensive habits come back before his shooting can, but if the defensive effort is real, and the offensive shot diet is genuinely changing to a more team-oriented style, this Hawks team could quickly become something dangerous in the East.
Early Returns on the In-Season Tournament
In a sentence, it’s not good. The courts are hideous. The scheduling is confusing. The stakes are still near zero. Let’s start there. It’s easy to stress the negatives because they are numerous, but I’ve got something to say:
I like the idea of the in-season tournament.
I loved getting to see Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Halliburton, who has not yet made the playoffs, play in his first theoretically important game. I loved seeing Playoff Steph explode against the Oklahoma City Thunder and seeing Draymond Green nearly invalidate a game-winner. I loved seeing the advertising for what I thought would be happening.
The issue with the in-season tournament is not the tournament format. It’s the fact that it isn’t a tournament. It’s four games that have been reappropriated to reward a sudden winning streak that we’re calling a bracket. It’s a terrible execution.
Here’s how to fix it.
First off, why is the in-season tournament happening in week two of the season? Move it back to March or April, when the regular season loses its charm and needs excitement. Next, let’s make it a real bracket. If you win, you move on. If you don’t you go to a losers bracket. If every team participates, we can find four games for each team. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but when the Summer League Tournament makes more sense than whatever you’re doing, it’s a real problem.
I want to see exciting matchups with more at stake than a win-loss column in the regular season. Still, beyond the visuals, the same problems remain that were present when the idea was proposed: how do you make it fit in the regular season and how do you get players to embrace it? The NBA has answered neither and until they do, the in-season tournament will continue to be maligned as it would be in other forms of media. This is a failed beta launch disguised as a triple-A title. It’s disappointing.
General Western Conference Overview
We started with the Grizzlies today. Their 1-6 record leaves them at the bottom of the conference. The also aforementioned Jazz follow them at 2-6. The Sacramento Kings will have to depend on Davion Mitchell and second-year wing Keegan Murray to claw themselves out of a 2-4 hole. After spending all of last season with an almost empty injury report, they will now be without DeAaron Fox (ankle sprain) for the foreseeable future. Above them, the first and third picks from the 2023 draft both sit at 3-4, although the San Antonio Spurs' outlook seems significantly brighter than that of the Trail Blazers.
Entering the playoff race, the Los Angeles Lakers also sit at 3-4 after a long day of Twitter rants from LeBron James about reffing did not give LA an extra win over the Miami Heat. The Phoenix Suns join the Lakers at 3-4 and have only seen Bradley Beal on court once all year. The same could be said about Devin Booker. All in all, the Suns have flanked Kevin Durant, who I will remind you all is 35, with Grayson Allen and Jusuf Nurkić. The Suns being close to .500 seems like a win, when they were supposed to be a championship favorite. The Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers both sit at 3-3, although the Clippers hope that new acquisition James Harden can lift the ceiling of a roster on its last legs.
The top six in the West is a fun mix of young teams exploring the upper tiers of the conference and old teams who are unsurprised to be there. The Denver Nuggets, after taking their first loss of the season to the Minnesota Timberwolves, still sit at the top of the West at 7-1. The Dallas Mavericks have continued their hot stark at 6-1. I have so many thoughts on Dallas’ roster construction but will wait until after their difficult schedule to share them. The rebirth of Grant Williams has been incredibly enjoyable. He is playing like Ray Allen in the body of Shawn Marion. It is an absurd combination, and one deserving of Most Improved Player talk.
Following the Mavs are the ever-present Golden State Warriors who continue to chug along. In the fourth seed, we have the Timberwolves, who toppled the last two undefeated teams this past week, beating the Nuggets 110-89 and stunning the Boston Celtics in overtime 114-109. The 5th and 6th spot are filled by the Pelicans, who are already hitting injury turbulence, and the Thunder, who are enjoying a fantastic start from rookie Chet Holmgren.
It's time to start Marcus Sasser over Killian Hayes — The rookie out of Houston has not missed a three so far this year. His shooting would be huge to a starting lineup that is depending on Isaiah Stewart to continue his near 45% clip from deep until Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks return from injury.
Evan Mobley has not grown — Evan Mobley has not improved offensively in what feels like ages. Mobley has seemingly stagnated on that side of the ball. It’s not like the Cavs need him to become a creator, with Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland doing what they do best, but it’s less than encouraging from a development perspective.
OKC and the SLOB wizard — The Thunder have arguably the best young core in the NBA with four players drafted recently capable of making an all-star game. Chet Holmgren has been incredible for this team. SGA has continued doing what he does. Jalen Williams puts a terrifying amount of pressure on the rim. Josh Giddey has been branded with the wildest nickname I’ve ever seen thanks to John Hollinger.
Scottie Barnes Reincarnation — Toronto Raptors wing Scottie Barnes went through the seven circles of offensive development hell last year. This year, he’s putting together his weird little bag of tricks and is slowly becoming a scoring threat that he needs to be to get the most out of his positionally excellent playmaking.
The Heat are in a cocoon — They’re not good right now, but they probably will be. Is hibernation a better term?
Adrien Griffin is already setting the Bucks up for failure — Griffin coming into the Milwaukee Bucks organization and seeing Brook Lopez on the roster, only to then turn around and asking him to not play drop, the defensive system that just got him close to a Defensive Player of the Year trophy is one thing. Going back to drop after five games, admitting your failure as a coach, and then downplaying the importance of your input and ability to perform your job is something else entirely.
Davion Mitchell and Keegan Murray without Fox — This will be exciting for those of us who liked both prospects in the draft, but the question comes down to this: can either of these two continue to leverage the Kings’ run and gun style without the pace of Fox creating changes? I don’t think so, which leads me to ask how head coach Mike Brown can create situations that set both players up for success.
Tyrese Halliburton is giving another opportunity to flex having him third overall in prospect rankings — Halliburton is generating over 80 points per game. That is an absurd level of usage and creation that does not seem sustainable. Halliburton is leading the NBA in assists per game at 11.7.