The most wonderful time of the year is here! I took a break last week to enjoy time with the family (and eat… A LOT!) but i’m back with my Friday Five’s plus Five as there has been a lot that’s caught my eye since the Friday before Black Friday. We’ve reached the quarter mark of the season, and with that comes context to trends (good or bad), direct decisions from GM’s regarding the state of their current rosters, and it’s officially rumor season! A date circled on many fans’ calendars is December 15th, the day which all players signed over the summer are eligible for trade. Essentially, the 15th commences trade season. I will be posting an article soon (sometime between now and the 15th) regarding trade rumors and my own trade ideas. The league is in a great place and there is solid competition across the board, with that let’s take a look at what all has caught my eye since the Friday before last.
1.) An Ascending Tandem in Boston
The driving force behind the Celtics and their 15-5 spot, good for a tie in 2nd in the East, is the tandem play of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Here are the former’s averages on the season averaging a career-high 19.9 ppg while having his typical impact on defense and shooting a sizzling 38% from the corners.
Here are the latter’s numbers on the season so far. Tatum has improved by leaps and bounds on the less glamorous end of the floor, sporting a plus in the box score +/- on defense as well as 1.5 steals per game and nearly a block a game as well.
Take a second and notice what you see from both of their bodies of work in comparison to their prior seasons.
Aside from the obvious being their sizeable jumps in scoring, both have increased their all-around efforts in playmaking as well as rebounding. They have a synergy in their dynamic when they share the floor. Here are Bostons five best line-ups, notice a correlation in two of the five pictured line-ups.
Even deeper, of their 10 best line-ups, six incorporate both Brown and Tatum. All of this to say, for the Celtics to reach their realistic aspirations of making yet another NBA Finals appearance they’ll need continued growth from their two coveted pieces. They locked up Jaylen Brown for the foreseeable future earlier this season with a four-year, $115 million contract extension. Tatum is undoubtedly next in line. Celtics GM Danny Ainge was persistent in his efforts to not include either of the two in any trades for the likes of Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis over the past few seasons and his loyalty has merit. Both are ascending. Brown has had notable training sessions with an idol of his and a legend who he’s shaped his game after in Tracy McGrady, while Tatum has trained with Kobe Bryant for the same reasons. It would not be fair to expect either to have careers as illustrious as either of their two idols, but if they can scratch the surface of the foundation their predecessors laid (which they have began to), the Celtics can book a championship or two in the next decade. Analytics have favored teams with dynamic wing presences to win championships throughout the history of the league. Even more, if you look at the rosters of the last 10 champions you will see names like Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Manu Ginobli, Dwyane Wade, and Klay Thompson who were memorably impactful entities of their respective teams feats in their championship seasons. The Celtics have their young core intact, and they will soon see returns on their investments. Pay close attention to their growth as games grow more meaningful.
2.) Scrappy Play from the North
The Toronto Raptors are exceeding expectations with notable wins against Philly, the Lakers, and the Jazz all while they themselves have been undermanned has been a sight to see. I previously spoke about the growth of Brown and Tatum in Boston, which would typically have one of them sitting at the top of the Most Improved Player race. Their growth almost pales in comparison to last years MIP, Pascal Siakam. The 6’9 F has upped his efforts and become the number one option for Head Coach Nick Nurse.
Look at his uptick in points, rebounds, assists, fg% on volume, 3-pt% on volume, and free throw %. I think his growth can be attributed to his hunger, but also the leadership of Kawhi Leonard. Not seen as a vocal leader in many regards, Kawhi surely leads by action. Siakam had a front row seat to just that all last season, especially in the playoffs. Siakam saw all the hard work and attention to detail that goes into being a top flight player in the game aside from God-given talents. It is obvious he has applied all he has learned, to the benefit of the Raptors. They have been without the services of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka who have played nine and ten games respectively, and have barely felt their losses. That can be attributed not only to Siakam, but also Fred Van Vleet (who has stepped into the starting line up and has seen a 10.3 mpg uptick in playing time from just last season!), OG Anunoby (shooting the 3 ball at a 45.6% clip on 3.6 attempts which are all career-highs), and Norman Powell remaining ever-steady. Coach Nurse has been doing a great job as well with his line-ups and play calling. They sit in a tie with the Celtics for second place at 15-5. Expect for them to only sustain this level of play as their steady elder-statesmen reintegrate themselves and lighten the load on their young players.
3.) Bam Adebayo
My preseason pick for Most Improved Player, Bam Adebayo had been a top tier center through the first quarter of the season. As the starting center after the Heat moved on from Hassan Whiteside. Bam has transitioned extremely well into a featured center roll, and he has the perfect skill set as well as play style for a more modern NBA system like the one Coach Spo has this rendition of the Heat running. Adebayo is setting great screens then growing as the roll or shallow pop man after that initial action, showing great feel making secondary passes from both the post and in the middle of the floor, ever-present on the boards, and showing great touch finishing in the paint as well. The 3rd year centers career trajectory continues to trend upward, as his numbers have made yet another jump from the season prior. He is now producing to the tune of 13.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.0 apg (!!!!!!), 1.4 spg, and 1.2 bpg. That is one helluva stat line. He is still growing into his newfound role, but his infectious energy that made him who he is has not wavered in any way with his uptick in minutes. A great sign for Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. He will be key for the Heat to continue to outperform expectations and potentially take down one of the East’s heavyweights.
4.) Streaking Lakers
The Lakers are off to one of the franchises best starts in franchise history. Sitting at the top of the West at 19-3, the Lakers have pieced it together far more quickly than most predicted they would, especially on the defensive end. Anchored by their 3 headed center rotation, the Lakers are going away from the small ball trend. Anthony Davis, Javale McGee, and Dwight Howard are all nightly bruisers on the glass and in rim protection. Even more, when you add LeBron into that mix of bodies, that makes for a fearsome foursome that no other team in the league can contend with. As they have their injured players continue to return to the fold, we will see their true form continue to surface. In the meantime, they are undoubtedly the most complete team in the NBA at the moment. Everyone donning the purple and gold is having fun and they are dominating each opponent in front of them. This week they’ve went on the road and handily bested the likes of Denver and Utah. Portland is on the schedule for them tonight which should make for an interesting match up of personnel and styles. That game will be tonight on ESPN at 10:30 ET.
5.) LaMelo Ball
Last week, LaMelo Ball accomplished a feat that has never before been done in the NBL. He put together consecutive triple-doubles in a game where his team did lose. However, he continues to wow scouts with his impressive individual growth. Many have him at the top of next year’s NBA Draft, and his stock continues to rise seemingly by the week. The 18 year old his also showing scouts that despite the feeling that his family last name gives off (in large part due to his father and brother, LiAngelo), he is a much more mild mannered and respectful young man. All signs point to LaMelo being one of the lottery picks in this upcoming NBA Draft.
Western Conference Player of the Week Carmelo Anthony is getting it done! That is a nostalgic yet refreshing sentence to type. Melo, in eight games with his newfound home in Portland, is averaging 16.9ppg with a shooting slash of 44.8/38.7/86.4. His effectiveness is there and has been instrumental in rejuvenating the seemingly lifeless Blazers. The team seemed dead in the waters at the bottom of the Western Conference upon acquiring the 10x all-star two weeks ago. Since then, the Blazers are 4-4 but again, their energy has changed. Carmelo feels wanted by the organization, and the Blazers two franchise cornerstones had clammored for acquiring him for quite some time. Now that it has come to fruition, they have looked to Melo for his on the court play but also embraced him for his intangibles. He’s embraced the “big brother” leadership role and it’s been a positive. Aside from Markelle Fultz playing well, this has to be the feel good story of the league so far. Melo’s tender contract was also upgraded to fully guaranteed throughout the rest of the season earlier this week, as reported by Woj. The honeymoon phase of this process has now come to an end, and they will be looked at for their results on a nightly basis moving forward. They have an uphill battle to climb out of the gutter though, sitting in 9th place at 9-13 in the West.
7.) Referee Miscues
This week, we have seen a few inexcusable blunders from the much maligned referees. First, we saw a missed travel… carry… everything, on LeBron in a game vs the Jazz. This play happened in the middle of the court with absolutely no traffic for any of the officials to see through on the court.
Then, we had the even more publicized miscalling of a James Harden breakaway dunk in a double OT thriller vs the Spurs. Here, the officials claimed to have not seen the ball go completely through the basket, when in fact the ball surely did. An understandable mistake given their point of view as well as the way the ball went through the net. However, where they went wrong was denying Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni a chance to exercise his right to challenge the play two times. Instances like this are what I foreshadowed a few weeks ago with the coaches challenge option. These are the kinks that have to be worked out in a trial by error style over the course of this seasons entirety… including the playoffs. It will take these instances to form more concrete guidelines and a level of understanding from coaches, players, officials, and fans alike.
In all, the referees have had a tough start to the season and while these mistakes are laughable, let’s hope they are not a hint as to what may be coming in the future as high-stakes games are sure to come.
8.) Harden 24-24
Lost in the madness of the aforementioned game in San Antonio for the Rockets and Harden was his perfect 24 for 24 shooting from the freethrow line. Although this 50-point outing was accomplished with the worst field goal percentage of anyone who has scored 50, his free throw shooting set a new NBA regular season record. This is worth noting because, although the likes of Redick, Curry, Nash are seen as the all-time great free throw shooters on percentage, none of those guys shoot the volume of free throws Harden does. The last six seasons now (including this one) Harden is averaging double digits in free throw attempts per game. Scoff at this as much as you want, because I am partly there with you, not only does he earn his way to the stripe through the harm, he also cashes in on said opportunities with great frequency. He has mastered the art of getting to the stripe, a skill all of the league’s greatest scorers have done. This 24-24 record is a feat that should not go unnoticed.
9.) Westbrooks shooting percentages… or lack there of..
If I told you there was a starter in the NBA shooting 39.9% from the field, i’m sure most would say that is unacceptable. If I told you said player was doing so while still taking 20 shots a game, you would probably make a face of confusion. If I then told you this player was a primary ball handler on of that, it would take things to another level. If I then told you that this same player is shooting 5 3-pointers a game while shooting 21.6%, you would probably question why this player is still starting. Lastly, if I told you this player was playing for Houston Rockets you would probably call me a liar because they are known for solid percentage shooters even on a higher than normal volume, and would tell me that because of that… said player would not fit. Well, these are the shooting numbers of Russell Westbrook through a quarter of the season. An issue most critics face is that because of the name attached to the stats, players are given a pass. He has earned that respect, to a point. However this is to the point where he’s taking his team out of rhythm at times and it is not conducive to winning. There is no sign of things looking up anytime soon either. His triple-doubles have become ultra respected but so much to the point where people turn a blind eye to every other aspect of his game. The only way it would become a highlighted level of concern is if it was coming in losing efforts, but the brilliance of his backcourt mate James Harden is what is keeping the team afloat at the moment. I do not believe he will continue to shoot this bad, but I do not believe he will shoot that much better at any point either. In the postseason, this will surely handicap the Rockets in a way that was not an issue with the guy they had at point guard the last few seasons. Nonetheless, only time will tell but I will be keeping an eye on this.
10.) A Woj Bomb of unique sorts..
Proposed changes could surface come the leagues 75th season, 2020-2021 and after. The proposed changes consist of a shortened schedule, a play-in tournament of sorts between the 7th-10th seed of each conference, a mid-season tournament similar to one leagues overseas have incorporated, and potential reseeding of the teams that would advance to the conference finals. Seemingly a direct response to the reported drop in ratings over the last two seasons for the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver is doing all that he can to recapture the attention of audiences. The typical target age group of 18-34 has evolved in their viewing of games as more and more fans are watching via handheld devices more than they are with the remote in their hands. At the same time, the older audiences are more staunch and disgruntled with the style of play. Regardless, there is an evident disconnect between the NBA and the masses it used to reach. These are ways to potentially intrigue fans. This proposal will be up for voting that will require two-thirds approval when the board of governors meet in April on the matter. Almost like a state of the union address.
This is a lot to digest all at once, and the reactionary state of the country we live in will likely be up in arms automatically at the thought of change. Change, however, is inevitable. A big reason as to why Adam Silver became the Commissioner was because of his fearless approach to change and his optimism to new ideas. This is just the first instance of him looking to reshape the league.
After taking time to think about each entity in this new proposal, I feel that the changes would indeed be good for viewership and fan engagement.
My questions come into play are how players will be compensated or incentivised to take these new dynamics seriously. Will there be a trophy for the winners of the midseason tournament? Will that trophy ever have half of the prestige that the Larry O’Brien trophy has? What will happen if players are traded in the midst of this tournament?
Regarding the reseeding of the conference finals, I cannot see the Eastern Conference executives agreeing to this, which would stifle any transition into these changes. I also cannot see the executives agreeing to only knocking off four games from the original 82 game season. The teams lose money, and the players who are on teams that play in the mid-season tournament would play more than the typical 82 on top of that.
There are many grey areas that are sure to be addressed with updated Woj Bombs leading up to the aforementioned April meeting. Again, I am all for change but there has to be a balance of catering in all three phases of the decisions (monetary, players, and fans). There is a happy medium to be found in these decisions, and I do not know exactly where or how it can be done fairly. Thankfully, I am not being paid to find this middle ground. However, as a fan of the game, I am thinking logically and from the perspective of all existing parties. I look forward to more regarding this news.