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In the Loopus with Canis Hoopus: Ja’s Back, Simons’ Dominance, and Phoenix’s Dilemma

This week, we’re covering the Grizzlies returning closer to full strength, a breakout in Portland, Draymond Green, Scottie Barnes and a whole lot more.

Some of you may notice that this week’s In the Loopus is a little late. Part of that is my attempt at malicious scheduling to plan the timing of next iteration going up during the lull between Christmas and New Years. Another part of that is it being the end of the college term this week and, as such, the start of “you’re back in town? let’s hang out” season. The largest part of this postponement, however, is the simple fact that I wanted to talk about Ja Morant’s return.

And return he did last night. And played exceptionally. And we’re going to get to that. But first, I’d like to invite everyone to congratulate the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards on ending their losing streaks. What has been a rough stretch for both teams will hopefully not occur again this season, and both rebuilding squads can focus on maintaining any type of positive reputation by losing at a less heinous rate.

In other, other news, the Detroit Pistons — I’ll just leave this here instead of breaking my deal with my Detroit based friend, and instead toss some Gil Scott-Heron on the Spotify queue and go from there. Enjoy.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

From One Long Road to Another: Can Ja & Memphis Catch Up?

The Memphis Grizzlies are twelve games under 500. That is a long, long distance to travel even after Memphis earned just their seventh win of the year. They started off well though, defeating the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night. The Pelicans themselves were in line for their own closer look with the offensive maelstrom that is the gravity of (an admittedly athletically depreciated) Zion Williamson and the satellites of Jordan Hawkins, Dyson Daniels, CJ McCollum, and personal favorite and recently returned Trey Murphy III before this home loss to the Grizzlies.

The issue with the Grizzlies as presently constructed — and we’ve gone over this a few times — is the lack of playmaking and the lack of gravity. I don’t mean gravity exclusively as a basketball concept, as the attention given to threat of a players actions, I mean it literally as an astronomical concept as well. The Grizzlies, and I mean this kindly, had no planets for their players to orbit.

Desmond Bane is a nice player, but he is by definition a complementary player who will not be able to carry an offense to even league average. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and, yet, still has little offensive support beyond floor spacing and the occasional floater off the left block or pick and roll finish. While he did drop 40 points in back-to-back games, he sandwiched those with 21 and 22-point pieces of bread, and has scored in single digits three times this season. Marcus Smart, the team’s headlining acquisition this past offseason, has been hurt since November 14, when he played eight minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers. The rest of the roster is filled to the brim with high floor, low ceiling role players and low ceiling, lower floor reclamation projects and youngsters.

Enter Ja Morant, who cannot save the careers of draft crush Ziaire Williams or Jake LaRavia and definitely cannot adjust the injury luck of needed wing shooter Luke Kennard or the aforementioned Smart. But he can certainly score 34 points, including a game-winner off of an iso with three defenders committed to him, and in his first game back provide eight assists — a tally that any Grizzlies player has only reached in seven games all year.

The issue comes with the hole Memphis is in. They are 7-19. The roster is not good beyond the top five when fully healthy. There have been silver linings for sure (I mentioned Jacob Gilyard in week two when he took over for Smart, and he’s been positive in a larger role), but the fate of the 2023 is almost entirely on Ja.

Let’s end it here. To reach 500, the Grizzlies would have to go 34-22 for the rest of the year. That is about a 60% winning percentage. At this point in the season, only ten teams — four in the East, six in the West — have achieved that percentage over the first 25 games. The Grizzlies, to simply break even on their yearlong win/loss record, would have to play as a top-10 team for the rest of the year. If Morant can take a team tied for second-worst in the conference to the level of a top-10 team, then he would deserve to make an All-NBA team again if not for the minimum games requirement. But that is a tough, tough ask for a player who missed over a quarter of the year.

(Editor’s Note: Morant cannot make All-NBA this season, as this is the first season that requires a player to play in at least 65 games to be considered for any of the season-long awards or All-NBA/All-Rookie Teams.)
Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Portland is Blazing Trails and Ant Simons is on Fire

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Phoenix Suns last night. And yes, it was the Suns without Bradley Beal (unsurprising). And yes, Devin Booker shot 11/25 and made only one three. And yes, the Suns played only nine players and showed off their rotational crunch that has gotten even worse ever since the entirety of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2018 draft class hit the injury report.

But, the Blazers still won. They haven’t been winning quite a lot but this is a start. A lot can be said about the young core of Shaedon Sharpe, Scoot Henderson, and, of course, Toumani Camara, but even more can be said about the players just too old to be called part of the young core, but just too young to be given the credit they deserve. So let’s give them that credit.

Anfernee Simons is by far this team’s best player, and the people that treated him as a contract filler during trade conversations about the third overall pick should be seeing the error in their ways. The really funny fact of the numbers is that Simons has scored over 20 points in all but one game this year, and over 30 in three of his eight so far. Despite that, the Blazers are 1-7 since his return, but this is not an empty stats situation. As a shooter, Simons has been the ultimate on-ball, off-ball glue of an offense that lacks much reliable spacing. As a driver, Simons has continued leveraging his athleticism to attack, although he fails to get all the way to the rim at times.

It’s here that I’d also like to mention Matisse Thybulle, who is somehow, inexplicably shooting 40% from distance this season. It’s pretty funny to think what he could’ve been if he had ended up in Dallas instead of back in Portland after his contract was matched, but I’d still expect him to be moved at the deadline for a much higher price than expected.

The Blazers are still not close to being good, but in a league that has seen three different teams not manage to step over the low bar of losing 15 games straight, the Blazers keep winning at least every once in a while. And anyone can tell you that a team is way more fun to watch when a win is at least possible.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

From Brad to Worse

When do we start talking about the Suns? Is it after Bradley Beal plays 20 games? 30? 40 even? Is it after the first full season? Is it after the regular season? Is it when the trio of the Valley plays more games than the trio in Brooklyn did?

No, for me, it’s now. I have one more question to add here: would the Suns be better off with Chris Paul instead of Beal? This is not an indictment of point Booker, as Devin Booker has been a willing and positionally excellent playmaker and lead decision maker this year. It’s a question of “how much better could Bradley Beal really be at this point?”

Beal became an oft sighted story in the NBA when he signed his unwarranted goliath extension while in DC: an overpaid, underrated max player. Before Beal, it was Khris Middleton. Before Middleton, it was Gordon Hayward. They’ve always existed, players who can provide excellent skill sets but were overpaid due to some combination of team desperation, unfortunate injury luck, and flat out bad choices. But, Bradley Beal, unlike the other two who have or will play out their contracts, forced his way out to a team with title aspirations.

So I’ll ask again, how much better could the Suns be? I’m not going to belabor the depth question of it all, and instead ask about Chris Paul. The old man that is currently helping the Warriors as much as a bench guard can has played in a remarkable 24 games so far, while Beal has played in only six. Paul provides the playmaking the Suns need to add dimension to their offense, while Beal doubles down on what they have.

The Suns have, for all intents and purposes, been a disappointment so far this year. This is their window for the franchise’s first title, as it was for the Nets before them, and it all feels like Kevin Durant is experiencing the Deja Vu of the injury report kiss of death.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Story Pups

Draymond Green Light, Red Light, 1, 2, 3 — Suspended, again. Draymond can’t seem to help this team in reputation or on court ability. Draymond has always been a provocateur but it seems more and more like he’s going the way of certain other pests: loud, obnoxious, and petty screamers who throw tantrums and try to get out of punishment by developing a victim complex about their reputation.

This is far removed from the Draymond Green of the 2022 playoff run who, while still definitely being a gnat with a podcast, was functional irreplaceable for the Warriors as they went all the way. That was just two seasons ago and at some point, we have to look at his extension as a bad choice, at his late career as a talker and a teammate repellent, and at his history as a dirty player instead of what I’d like to do. I’d like to remember Draymond as someone who changed defense forever, who changed perception around what body types and measurables could work in the NBA, and who was the most credible example of “stats don’t tell the whole story” that I could think of. But, I can’t. And no one can anymore with Green suspended indefinitely.

Come On Down to Cleveland Town Everyone! — Darius Garland is out for a non-insignificant amount of time. Same with Evan Mobley. Donovan Mitchell is out tonight and may be out at the deadline. The vibes are rancid. We’ll get to the worst of it later but let me just say this. Teams rarely sell high on players.

There is no “get what you can before the wheels break off” in the NBA when really there should be. The Cleveland Cavaliers could get a lot for spare parts of their roster right now. They could kick off a retool around Garland and Mobley after getting both some much needed playoff experience before coming back with a more sustainable supporting cast. But, teams don’t think that way. Teams will only see a plateau when they’ve been stuck walking on one for miles. The Cavs won’t shake up their roster, but they really should.

Scottie Barnie the Dinosaur — There are so few reasons to watch the Toronto Raptors. There are, however, many reasons to read about them.

I said this last week and I meant it. Louis is one of the most enjoyable reads there is, and while he also covers the Bucks, I wanted to focus on his pieces on the Raptors here.

Because oh my god, we need to talk about Scottie Barnes. Barnes is finally taking shots. More impressively though, he’s generating them for himself and others. Anyone watching last year’s version of Barnes would’ve seen a timid borderline Ben Simmons clone. The way he has turned it around this year, with a lot more on his plate with the departure of Fred Van Vleet, has been amazing.

The sad news is that Gradey Dick has been languishing, largely due to a change in his shooting motion which still makes no sense.

The Raptors will be getting a deeper dive next week, but you should be watching until then.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Weekly Hero: If this is it... Ricky Rubio

You gotta give the people what they want but this is not a pity vote. If this is it for Ricky Rubio, I will be sad to see him go. Not as a 23-year-old who experienced him at the height of my childhood fandom, not as a Timberwolves fan, and definitely not as a Jeff Teague hater. I will be sad to see him go as someone who wishes they could be more optimistic and as someone who wants to — strives to — smile more.

The Canis Hoopus team has a fantasy basketball league together. I have no clue how it works. I have made trades, waiver claims, and team names and logos without knowing what’s going on. What I’m getting at here is that the current league first seed is named after everyone’s favorite Ricky moment. So, for what may be the last time, let’s remember to “change that face.” Let’s remember to “be happy.”