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In the Loopus with Canis Hoopus: The In-Season Tourney Journey

This week, we’re talking In-Season Tournament tweaks, the importance of Keegan Murray, the Orlando Magic’s scouting, and the need for G League expansion.

This week in sports, Shohei Ohtani got $700 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He then posted the team’s logo like he was a two-star recruit out of Louisiana who just committed to Coastal Carolina in the 2010 Instagram climate. I was so tempted to make him my hero of the week because, honestly, I need to care a little bit less about some of the idiocy and performative-ness of Instagram.

But alas, this is about basketball, not baseball so I will instead use this opportunity to highlight my favorite ever NBA Instagram post:

That man just won the first ever In-Season Tournament MVP, an award that we can all anticipate will be named the “LeBron James In-Season Tournament Most Valuable Player, sponsored by T-Mobile.”

In the meantime, let’s talk about Boogie Men. Certain nightmares never end. I’ve promised my Detroit based friend who reads this regularly that I will stop being negative about the Pistons until the start of the New Year. Hopefully by then, they’ll have one more game. Let’s talk about everyone else for the time-being.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Keegan Murray is Making the Most of Missed Shots

Keegan Murray was drafted as the prototypical 3-and-D wing. He fit that bill by setting the record for most made 3-pointers as a rookie. That record means far less than it once did, of the top-10 of the category, all but two have happened since 2010 (shout out to 2008-09 Rudy Fernandez) and seven of those 10 have happened since 2017. However, it did set a good precedent for the player Murray could be in this Sacramento Kings system alongside the inside outside duo of Domantas Sabonis and DeAaron Fox.

And then the playoffs hit. And it became abundantly clear that the Kings would need more, a lot more, from Keegan Murray to escape the label of “regular season team.”

So, in his sophomore year, he responded by dropping his 3-point percentage by a solid 12 percentage points. And you know what, he’s better than he was last year. Keegan Murray is defending, he is rebounding, and a shooting slump shouldn’t cover up those changes.

To start with the obvious scoring struggle, Murray’s 29.8% from deep is not close to his mark last season at 41.1 and, most damningly, includes a December where he made only 17/65 attempts from deep. However, his free throw percentage is up to 85% and his assist percentage and rebound rate are both up, too. What that tells me is that even with the decreased gravity from the scouting report now reading “cold streak,” Murray is still making it work on offense. The increased scoring load of Malik Monk has mitigated Murray’s slump as has the Kings’ obvious systematic offensive explosion.

But whereas on offense the Kings are picking up Murray slack, on defense, Murray is one of very few error mitigators. He has grown into being the perimeter stopper for this team and even a solid help rim protector. His steals percentage being down is another indication of stats not telling the full story.

What may on paper look like a step back is actually a weathering of the storm. Murray has seen his primary skill slowly turn to dust to start this year and instead of joining it, he has made it past that. The Kings at fifth in the West despite missing Fox for stretches, and a large part of that is Murray changing from a specialist to a reliable connective piece. If the jumper returns to form, which I believe it will, the Kings will have their third option for years to come, and their top-three fits together perfectly.

Overlooked, დავიწყებული and Vermisst: Bidatze and Wagner

For those interested, the title translates to overlooked (duh), forgotten (in Georgian) and missing (in German). That’s the story of so many draft picks in today’s NBA. We’ll take about a solution later, but before that, we need to talk about how it looks. This is the image I think of every time I think of draft prospects who don’t get the attention they should:

Goga Bidatze struggled to find any playing time as a backup big behind Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The Georgian big averaged under 12 minutes a game during his time with the Indiana Pacers. From the minute he joined the Orlando Magic, however, he has averaged more than 15 minutes per game and per-game career-highs in blocks and rebounds, as well as field goal percentage.

Mo Wagner was universally celebrated by Los Angeles Lakers fans only when he was dumped with Isaac Bonga to pursue Kawhi Leonard and, eventually, Danny Green. He played about a year and a half wallowing with the Washington Wizards where both he and Thomas Bryant were given the consistency of gas station sushi while Ian Mahinmi sat on the bench. He was given nine games as a member of the Boston Celtics, a period more helpful for crossover grid players than for Moritz himself.

Then, they joined Orlando. With Wendell Carter Jr. missing time, they have not just found themselves, or even the best version of themselves, they’ve found the version of themselves that will keep them in the NBA for enough time to find that version.

That’s what it all comes down to. I wrote last week about the Magic’s ethical rebuild, and these two missed out on explicit mentions because I wanted to focus on it alone. The Magic have one of the best rotations of bigs in the NBA while only allocating a total of around 50 million to the rotation of Jonathan Isaac, Carter Jr, Paolo Banchero, Wagner, and Bidatze. Even if we factor in Banchero’s contract situation as a rookie first overall pick, the other four are all on second contracts either as trade acquisitions or free agency finds. Bidatze is on a minimum!

There’s no more space to talk about Isaac’s all defensive team level of play whenever he’s healthy — which I will admit, is rare — or how good Carter has been since being a part of the return for Nikola Vučević. The Magic’s rebuild has done such a good job of building players up, and their I Spy style eye for identifying backup bigs is emblematic of that.

2023 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

G League Explosion Shows Need for Expansion

Both of the Rockets’ first-round picks have spent points in the past week in the G-League. Fourth overall pick Amen Thompson just had a 29-point, 16-rebound, 11-assist, three-steal, two-block 2K MyPlayer style performance. Draft steal Cam Whitmore had 44 points, with 22 coming in the fourth quarter alone.

This is also not just a Houston problem. Ryan Rupert has been excellent for the Rip City Remix (who have some of the best merch in the game). Collin Gillespie is dominating for Denver’s affiliate. More than half of the first 30 picks of this past year’s draft have spent time in the G League. Of the past six draft classes, over a quarter of all lottery picks and more than 60% of all first round picks have spent time in the G.

While there are reasons for young players to be left in the proverbial minor leagues, especially for someone like Cam Whitmore — who needs to grow and do more than just score with the ball in his hands — the overuse of the G League has made it quite clear that the NBA needs to expand.

Good teams struggle to devote time and roster spots to young players. Bad teams have acquired so many picks that even early picks can’t all get the time they need to grow into the players they want to be. The teams in the middle can’t do either. It’s become so difficult for good players to get real minutes unless they have the pedigree to go with it as well. When the NBA expanded in 1988, we got a cool storyline of Dell Curry in Charlotte (among other things). 1995 eventually gave us Vinsanity and Mike Bibby in Vancouver. 2004 gave us another cool storyline of Gerald Henderson in Charlotte.

Expansion seems to be on the mind of the NBA, as every news outlet seems to think the goal is to add two teams in Seattle and Vegas in the next couple years. Opportunities become harder and harder to come by as talent increases, so artificially increasing the amount of opportunities available may give us more Dell Currys and Gerald Hendersons, and, if we’re lucky, another Vinsanity.

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers: Championship - 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tweaks for the Tourney

Last time I spoke about the In-Season Tournament was during the group stage. At the time I was a fan, but thought it needed some tweaks. Since then, we’ve gotten a real playoff atmosphere, a deep run from an overachiever with a young superstar, yet another masterclass from LeBron James, and a lot of heel turns. And you know what, the NBA Cup still needs some tweaks.

The first thing that needs to change is that advancing is actively a competitive disadvantage. The Minnesota Timberwolves lost only one game in the group stage, missed the playoffs, and were rewarded with easy matchups against the Charlotte Hornets and San Antonio Spurs. The Milwaukee Bucks lost against the eventual Eastern representative in the Pacers and will now have two extra matchups with the Pacers and New York Knicks, two playoff teams. Rewarding teams for losing, in this case trading one loss for two easy matchups, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but the scheduling adds some difficulty to that.

Next, the reward doesn’t incentivize winning beyond bragging rights. I would love for the conference representative from either side to guarantee a top four playoff spot. We just saw the Pacers make a run as a young team; it would be incredible to watch a young team be able to get playoff experience after getting hot at the right time in December. If playoff seeding is to decisive to risk on a set of eight games, then giving the winner of the tournament an extra free agent exception could also be helpful and be the extra push to get teams to play hard.

The In-Season Tourney was a joy once we made it out of the group stage. Even then, there’s some changes that can take it to the next level.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Story Pups

Duncan Robinson is adding a wrinkle - Last year, 95.7% of Duncan Robinson’s 3-pointers were assisted. 88% of all his shots were assisted. Both of those are absurd numbers, even for shooting specialists.

This season, those numbers are down by about 15-20% respectively. Robinson has not become a good shot creator, but he has become one. The Miami Heat missed out on both Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday this offseason despite looking for shot creation. Honestly, they’ve been looking for shot creation of any kind for years next to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. There have jersey swaps of any player under the sun as a Heat. Somehow, they haven’t gotten one, and their belief in internal improvement, while well founded and completely realistic, may be a reason.

Duncan Robinson being able to make a shot after two dribbles changes very few things for the Heat in the grand scheme of things. But it does make them think that this will keep growing. You can say something about teaching a man how to fish, but eventually that man will think he can catch enough fish to feed a village. Confidence can cause problems, even when it’s not false confidence, and the Heat are facing that right now. Bandaid solutions are not inherently evil.

Antoine Walker and the Ghosts of Power Forward Past - I loved Antoine Walker growing up sheerly for the amount he did not care. He was a good player who had moments of absolute excellence but decided to do it his own way. His own way wasn’t really helpful to his career, but it made him genuine in a way that I loved as a young kid.

Well, as an adult, that transition has been decidedly more sad. The Zion Williamson situation is being misconstrued as one of conditioning in dieting, but what lower body injuries have done to Zion is one of the saddest things I’ve seen in basketball. Zion is definitely doing things his own way, and it’s clear that his own way isn’t helping him. It’s still genuine, but in a more true crime kind of way. I’m not having fun. I hope it turns around, and I hope we stop making jokes about it. I’ve made my fair share, but this is clearly not just a story of self-destruction.

Ausar Thompson Got Taken Out - I know, I know, I said no Detroit Pistons talk. That’s why this is here and not its own section. A lot of justified complaints have been made about Jaden Ivey’s role, as the second year guard has been banished to 11th man territory, but Ausar Thompson has been just as bad as a change. Before being benched, Thompson was at the top of the second tier of rookies (behind the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chet Holmgren and San Antonio’s Victor Wembenyama) and was impacting every game as a modern day shooting-guard-who-can’t-shoot Dennis Rodman. Since being benched, Thompson has inexplicably been used as a three point specialist, the one skill he is demonstrably below average in.

Here are the numbers from Ku Khalil from the Locked On Pistons pod:

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Hero of the Week: Gorgui “Hero of the Masses” Dieng

I’m not setting a precedent by giving a retired player this week’s crown. But, there was a really amazing element of Gorgui Dieng’s career that deserves all the attention in the world. I know Canis’ own Charlie Walton and Leo Sun have put it into better words here, but I’d like to throw my hat into the ring very briefly.

People call the NFL the “Not For Long” because things can change so quickly. From injuries to freak plays to failing schemes, everything falls apart within seconds. It’s why guaranteed money is such a vital part of contract negotiations and why I’ll never fault a player for wanting more money. For most players, they get about five, best case ten years to make a career while sacrificing their body and long term earning potential. The NBA has a much more player friendly way of handling guarantees, but players are still one freak accident away from having their careers ended. Superstars get long recovery period and margin for error. Stars get their time to return. Role players? They’re just a part of the churn.

So, in a league where he had ten years to maximize his earning potential, knowing every game could be the last one before he needed to step away, Gorgui Dieng spent all his earning making Senegal a safer and better place. The overlap between social justice and sports is what I got my degree in, and while I can wax poetic about the activism of the Harlem Rens and Globetrotters, of Bill Russell, and of Walt Clyde Frazier, I cannot claim I have done anything important beyond trying to do what I thought was right. Gorgui took everything he had and used it to make the world better. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.