The injury bug is beginning to resurface in the form of its nagging version, affecting the likes of Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward, Khris Middleton and a handful of others. Aside from that, there has been plenty of great basketball being played, and questions of sustainability and staying power are being answered as well. Here’s what caught my attention this week.
1.) Doncic Domination
It’s Luka’s world, and we are just living in it. The 20 year old point guard (at his 6’7 stature he’s essentially positionless though) made his mark on the NBA early in his rookie campaign last season. In his second season, there is no sign of the proverbial “sophomore slump,” as he has thrust himself into the MVP campaign with the likes of Giannis, Harden, and LeBron. The 2nd year stud has had a statistical jump in each relevant stat across the board.
He is currently amidst a ten game stretch averaging a 30-point triple-double (30.1 ppg, 10 apg, 10.7 rpg on efficient shooting numbers as well), a feat that only the likes of LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, and Russell Westbrook can claim. Mind you, again, he is only 20 years old!!! To do the things he does at such an efficient rate speaks to how special he is. He is so far ahead of the learning curve that we grade most 20 year old NBA players on that it is downright scary, truly unfathomable. His next step in ascension will be for these ridiculous stat lines to translate in the high stakes games, and for him to compile wins to push the Mavericks back into contender relevancy. Something I will also be watching closely with Doncic is for him to take another step in leadership, and involving his presumed partner crime Kristaps Porzingis more consistently. Porzingis has been struggling out of the game (which could viably be understood due to the amount of time he sat out) but the Mavericks cannot achieve even their slightest of dreams with this seemingly uncomfortable version of KP. As Luka goes, so will the Mavs, but both Luka and the Mavericks will need KP to make the necessary adjustments to thrust that duo to prominence. Doncic has thrusted himself into every MVP conversation for this season, and he has brought a national spotlight to Dallas. Many in the Mavericks organization feel he could be the best foreign born NBA player in NBA history, potentially usurping their historical franchise face in Dirk Nowitzki. Time will tell on that end, but in the meantime Luka has the Mavericks trajectory leaning towards ascension. The Mavs currently sit in fifth place of the Western Conference at 9-5.
2.) Fresh Air
Over the last week, the Boston Celtics saw their 10-game win streak come to an end in an 100-99 in Sacramento on Sunday. What has become obvious is that the Celtics seem to be enjoying themselves more on the court. Coach Stevens fingerprint seems more ever-present in their style of play, the ball is zipping around the court, and it is resulting in wins. Although the Celtics did lose more than just Kyrie Irving this summer (Al Horford signed with Philadelphia, Baynes was traded draft night to Phoenix), the changing of not necessarily the style of play of the primary ball handler, but rather a change in the specific person, has paid dividends already. The dynamics and differences between Kyrie Irving versus Kemba Walker, at face value, do not differ much… if at all. Both are the elite of the elite in the ball handling department. Both are above average playmakers. Both shoot the 3-ball at an above average clip. Both are score first. Both are liabilities for stretches defensively. Both are also liable to erupt offensively for 30, 40, or 50 points at any moment. Both are also similar in stature. The differences come when examining the intangibles of the two. Irving is the player who has been thirsty for something to call his own. He is the player who forced his way out of a seemingly ideal situation in Cleveland alongside LeBron James (where he won a championship!!!) for a situation where he would be considered the leader. He is also the same player who guaranteed to an arena full of Celtics faithful that he was resigning and that there was nowhere else he wanted to play, only to come under fire in regards to his chemistry and leadership throughout the season and then leave the Celtics for the Nets this past summer. Kemba on the other hand, is sprinkled with sentiments from former teammates and anyone who has spent a viable amount of time around him. Walker spent his first eight seasons in Charlotte. He could have left after his previous contract was up, but he stayed which speaks to his loyalty. Walker is also not the night to night question mark that Kyrie has seemed to be durability-wise. In six of Kemba’s first eight seasons, he’s played at least 70 games. A feat Irving can claim only three times in his first eight seasons. Team fit-wise and stylistically, Kemba has brought a fresh air feeling to the Celtics franchise. Kemba has also allowed for the ascension of both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to commence, and for it to happen both seamlessly and without adversity. Just Wednesday night, Tatum sunk a 3-pt shot after shaking loose of Paul George to send the game into overtime. Had Irving or the presence of Irving played a role in that scenario, Tatum likely doesn’t have that opportunity, or it would have been of the catch and shoot variety rather than him doing what he does best to make that shot. The Celtics currently sit in second place of the East at 11-3 with a game against the Denver Nuggets ahead of them tonight. There is plenty history in this brewing rivalry. Amidst a career-high 48 point game against the Celtics, Nuggets G Jamal Murray continued to put up 3-pt attempts while the game was out of reach, which Kyrie Irving did not like.
After all that transpired, even without Kyrie as much of the nucleus (Tatum, Smart, Brown) still remains, this should make for a very fun game.
3.) Malice in the Palace
Tuesday marked the 15 year anniversary of the event that serves as the darkest cloud in the NBA’s history (alongside the Donald Sterling saga). An event that saw player to player physical confrontation, player to coach confrontation, and player to fan confrontation, this is an event that changed how all professional sports climates protect their players. The situation arose from a hotly contested Eastern Conference Finals between the Pacers and Pistons. There were feelings that lingered on from that series, and it showed more so from the side of the Pacers, who lost that series in the playoffs prior to that nights occurrences. Stephen Jackson, via he and Matt Barnes’ podcast titled “All the Smoke” spoke at length about the situations entirety. One notable quote from Jackson was “I would not take back what I did. I regret the money I lost, but i do not regret what I did.” Jackson was in the role of peacemaker more than anything but was dubbed as a trouble-maker and saw repercussions from a false labeling for the rest of his career. Pacers coach at the time, Rick Carlisle, to this day declines to speak on the situation but acknowledges it for its importance in context to the history of the league. It indeed brought a spotlight to player-fan interaction and how leagues protect their players in today’s competitive climates.
4.) Coaches Challenges
Over the four weeks of the NBA season, we’ve now seen 138 coaches challenges. Of those challenges, we’ve seen 52 overturned as Rachel Nichols of ESPN’s The Jump explained . Although this is indeed the preliminary stages of this newly implemented entity to the game, one thing we can all agree on is that work needs to be done. There are many grey areas combined with the already existing “not seeing eye to eye” between coaches/players and the referees. One thing that has been good with the challenges so far is the time that it has taken for the initial review of a play in question, and the result of said review. The duration is not dragging on and, often-times, a conclusion is made rather swiftly. When the kinks are ironed out, and the relationship between referees and players/coaches is more at ease, I feel the coaches challenge entity will ascend in it’s growth. However, being far from that goal at the moment, the true test still lies ahead. I’ve been of the mindset that issues will be easily forgotten until the high stakes games at the end for the season where seeding and situations are contingent upon each other, as well as playoff games will be the true test of the challenge. Until then, the confusion and questioning of this new option will only go so far. As of now, I am a supporter of this entity. Sub-optimally, the league shows that they are aware the referees do in fact miss calls (in a way that the “last 2 minute” reports don’t, as a huge gripe was that those missed calls highlighted after a game do not allow for a replaying of those scenarios, so this gives entity gives a live reaction and assessment). Let’s see how it goes moving forward.
5.) The 2018-2019 Rockets… I mean the 2019-2020 Blazers
Portland has a problem. Their problem has been eerily reminiscent of the problem the Rockets had last season. Coming off of a season in which they made the Western Conference Finals, and lost to the Warriors (just like the Rockets), the Blazers are struggling out of the gate. Their struggles are profound! This past summer, they did not bring back the likes of forwards Al-Farouq Aminu (signed with the Magic) and Mo Harkless (signed with the Clippers). These two players are not the first two names that come to mind when thinking of the ’18-’19 Blazers, but those two were huge to the team’s identity, effectiveness, and successes. Looking at the Rockets before last season, they lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute who were crucial to their most successful rendition. For the Blazers, they “replaced” their loss with Kent Bazemore who has not been bad. He has not been the issue but he also hasn’t helped with a solution either. The very same was said for the 2018-2019 Rockets when they brought in James Ennis to fill the void on the wing and mitigate that issue. It was to no avail. To make matters worse, both teams also signed Carmel Anthony to a small deal in hopes that he could be of assistance. As a big-time fan of Carmelo, I disliked the idea that the Rockets management and front office seemingly scapegoated him as the issue. It was even worse knowing that there was context to that claim. I hope for his legacies sake that this situation with the Blazers does not go down the same path and that the situation is rather fruitful for him. Back to the Blazers this season, they are dealing with injuries to F/C Zach Collins, C Jusuf Nurkic, and now star G Damian Lillard, but even with both Lillard and Collins in rotation for the majority of this season, their struggles have been ever-present. They are currently 5-11 in 14th in the West, and have played the most back to backs of any team in the league thus far (4 of their 12 on the season have come in the first month). For this team, one that has had a ton of money put into it and has enjoyed six consecutive successful seasons, it is indeed a championship or bust season. Owners do not spend this much money for a team to just be competitive. They may need to make a change or two to get to that point, but expect them to get extremely creative with becoming better. They are essentially stripped of assets on their current roster, so it may take a more drastic scenario like seeing what return they could net for maybe CJ McCollum or Nurkic upon return. Regardless, they have to be the most underwhelming team in the league at the moment. They’ve shown no sign of changing that anytime soon either and while I had them as a team that would finish in the latter half of the Conference, I did not have them missing the playoffs completely. I don’t think anyone did for that matter. Expect for Coach Stotts in tandem with Lillard and McCollum to right the ship and make things make sense in Portland again sometime in the not to distant future. Having a relevant presence from the likes of Hassan Whiteside would help in their improvement efforts as well.