The other day, I found myself writing, as one does, about Ersan Ilyasova. He is an elite charge-taker. What this means is that he’s elite at anticipating and positioning. He’s also probably a little quicker than someone his size has any right to be. These skills add up to make Ilyasova a really good team defender.
Recently, Zach Lowe had Zach LaVine on his podcast, and the conversation inevitably turned to defense. LaVine is a gifted athlete, but he does not (yet?) possess any of the attributes I listed above in describing Ersan Ilyasova. LaVine is actually a little less quick than you’d think he’d be, at least on the defensive end. He’s usually a step behind the action. He’s often in the wrong spot. Lowe asked LaVine if this is the kind of thing that a player can fix by just working harder, and LaVine talked about needing to trust his teammates more. The truth, I’m guessing, is that he isn’t sure.
Present day NBA basketball requires an incredible amount of strategy and communication on defense. Offenses are skilled at running their opponents through endless screens and ball-reversals, and defenders need to be able to switch assignments seamlessly while pulling one another out of bad matchups. Watch a good defense, and you’ll notice nearly constant talking and processing. Go play a pickup game sometime and you’ll immediately realize how exhausting this shit is. It wears you out.
Teams are so ready for switches and strategic ploys that they often let offenses dictate unfavorable terms. A team like the Rockets is so fundamentally ready to defend against mismatches that they often seem to invite them, baiting opposing big men into post-ups and out of more effective offensive sets. James Harden—ostensibly a guard—defends so many post-ups that he’s actually started to get more credit for his defense, even though his weaknesses on defense were the exact thing that caused the Rockets to defend the way they do.
Still, there must be a place for good, old-fashioned, on-ball defense, right? Last night, the Celtics totally flummoxed the Bucks in the 2nd half, turning a 19-point 1st half deficit into a big win. At the heart of this effort, beyond some hot shooting, was the defense of Semi Ojeleye, who over and over again simply stayed in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo. There was no real mystery to it. Just quick feet and good instincts. Semi seemed to be perfectly squared up on Giannis on every possession.
Those little moments bloomed into a big deal. Late in the game, the Bucks were frustrated. Their vaunted ball movement and their fast-paced drive-and-kick game were stuck in mud. Khris Middleton kept them in it with some incredible shot-making, but eventually that stuff ran out of steam.
How does one assess the value of a player like Semi Ojeleye, who, as Brian Scalabrine put it during the C’s telecast last night, has probably spent as much time thinking about guarding Giannis as anyone in the league (see: 2018 NBA Playoffs, Round 1)? I’m not sure, but I’m glad he’s on the team I root for. Sometimes, you just need guys who can stay in front of the great ones, because defense, finally, is just about being there a little early, profoundly in the way.
On Sunday evening, the Nets lost 134–133 in overtime on the road in Memphis. The Memphis Grizzlies, as you might be aware, are a team full of promising young players. They aren’t good yet, so this is a tough loss for a Nets team that has designs on the playoffs. Perhaps Kyrie had some thoughts after the game! Let’s check in.
Let’s take a deeper look at a few of these quotes.
It will become more cerebral out there on the floor.
What will become “more cerebral,” exactly? I think it’s fair to assume he is saying that the Nets, over the course of the coming weeks, will transcend the newness and unfamiliarity of their roster and begin to find mutual coherence in ways that are organic and initially unpredictable.
Welcome to the big stage, you know?
The subtext here is just glorious. Why is this the big stage? What stage were they playing on before? In what possible way could a meaningless, early-season road game against the Grizzlies be “the big stage”? The answer, of course, is that Kyrie Irving (and sure, yes, Kevin Durant too) is on this team now. His teammates can’t be used to the scrutiny that comes with playing with Kyrie Irving. Kyrie though? Kyrie is used to the big stage. He knows what it is like, you see.
Guys that don’t normally make plays—they were making plays tonight.
This one is so subtle you could almost miss it. See, what he’s saying is that guys on the opposing team were playing better than they normally play. Why might that be? It’s because his Nets teammates don’t have the experience, the fight, the je ne sais quoi, to step up when it really matters. Like, for example, on the big stage. Which, you know, is an October game against what is likely to be the worst team in the Western Conference this season.
I don’t know how many games you’ve watched over your lifetime. I know you’ve watched it a long time, but when you have the physicality and you have the mind, up here, from head up, you know your spots and you can play off instincts and your teammates can trust where you’re gonna be.
Listen, I don’t know when basketball was invented. I think it was around 2.7 billion years ago, when the first eukaryotic cells evolved: cells with nuclei and organelles working, for the first time, in harmony in and of themselves, in profound and gorgeous communication. That’s when I started watching. I don’t know about you. Physicality is actually mental. And the mind is actually physical. It’s right there, from the head up. I’m not sure I can explain it to you.
I’m covering J.A. J.A.’s like, “Thank you for having my back.” Of course! I’m supposed to!
Jarrett Allen absolutely did not fucking say, “Thank you for having my back” to Kyrie Irving. Nope. Find me evidence that he said this.
I can’t remember where I saw this line of reasoning first, but it goes like this: the difference between being Seth Curry and being Steph Curry is all the stuff beyond shooting. In fact, while Seth has made 44.1 percent of his 3s over the course of his career, Steph is at 43.7. Meanwhile, Seth has worked his ass off to become a good rotation guy, and Steph is a legend.
The point here is that if you can’t dribble and pass well enough, it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting the ball. This goes for all the parts of playing basketball. Teams draft hyper-athletic players—think Jerami Grant, who was a monster last night in the Nuggets’ win over the Suns—in the hopes of teaching those players the mundane stuff that will allow them to harness their athleticism. The reverse happens, too, of course—think of the Celtics’ experiments with Glen Davis and Jared Sullinger over the past decade or so.
Anyway, when the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in 2016, the idea was that he was a project. An athletic wing, smart as hell, capable of learning how to be great. In various ways, he’s been both more and less than that, but through three years, while he’d had great moments and exceeded expectations here and there, his feel seemed to be lacking.
I’m being vague, because it’s hard to describe specifics. I think it comes down to passing. If you’re Jaylen Brown, and you have enough ball-handling and shooting and strength to get to your spots on the floor, the only thing left to prevent you from being great is your ability to see the floor. It tends to be the last piece to develop. Even in his destruction of the league in last season’s playoffs, it was clear there was room for Kawhi Leonard to improve his passing. This season, through two games, it feels like Kawhi is seeing it all. Everything has slowed down.
When players get great at seeing the floor and passing, they are able to exert outsized influence over the game as it is happening. Think late-career Jason Kidd, moving around the top of the key and slinging lasers all over the place. It was like he was operating the game from a distant control center. He was basically washed up as an athlete, but if you are great enough at thinking the game, and capable of leveraging your mind by moving the ball around through the pass, you can help a team win games.
Part of it is patience. You need to let the game develop. Jaylen used to go to the basket like a dart; he was a straight-line driver; he was without syncopation; there was no nuance to it. That’s one way of doing it, and if you’re lucky enough to have great teammates, you’ll usually get the ball with half a step on your defender, so your straight-line driving is an asset. To be great, you need to be able to manufacture your own leverage. Jaylen could always get to his spots, but now it seems like he’s in control when he gets there. He knows his options. Defenders are reacting to him—not vice versa.
So, yeah, part of it is patience, but part of it is vision. Passing is the great connector. Anyone who has ever learned a rudimentary press-break knows that dribbling is death. Passing is how you get to the good shit: run outs on fast breaks, wide open 3s, easy buckets. Great passing is the tactic for which there can be no accounting, because nobody can possibly move that fast. Passing takes a small advantage and explodes it into a huge one.
As a Celtics fan, I was optimistic heading into this season, but my biggest concern was that Jaylen (and Jayson Tatum, too) has been slow to develop as a passer. How far can you go as a team if your best players don’t see the floor better than the average replacement-level schmuck? I don’t want to overstate this; Jaylen just had four assists last night. Still, it feels like something fundamental has changed. On a fast-break in the 4th, with the C’s down one, Jaylen whipped a long bounce pass to Gordon Hayward for a lay-up that made a weird, “ohhhhh” sound come out of my mouth.
Jaylen is in control out there. He sees the game happening, and he has some control over how it happens. I’ve been a huge fan of Jaylen’s since before the Celtics drafted him, but for the first time, I think he might be truly special.
1. Trae Young made a leap this summer. Look at this goddamned shot chart:
I’d like to draw your attention to the solid dot inside the fucking center court logo. This dude is pulling up from 40+ feet and splashing 3s. Given that he’s already one of the ten or so best passers in the league (probably that’s selling him short), his ability to stretch the floor this far is deadly. It’s also encouraging that he attempted 12 free-throws. If you’re rooting for the Hawks, this was about as well as a season-opener could have gone.
2. One of the more endlessly fascinating questions in the league this season—especially in terms of possible end-game scenarios for May & June—is which players, exactly, will end up constituting Milwaukee’s best five-man unit. The only locks are Giannis and Middleton. Everyone else has concerns. The Lopez boys lack some foot-speed. Eric Bledsoe sometimes disappears from the action to a degree approaching spectrality. Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver are washed, but Pat Connaughton and Sterling Brown might not be ready. D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo loom as even less ready, but nevertheless possible, answers.
Last night, Ersan Ilyasova reminded us that he might be an answer here too. He had 13 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes, yes; more importantly, he is a heady, intelligent defender. In trying to stay in front of screaming comets like Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Ilyasova has a great habit of getting into position and holding his ground. He’s so ready to take a charge that it has become an innate part of his defensive behavior—not in a shitty, flopping way, but in a predictive, intuitive way. Ultimately, in most playoff matchups, Ilyasova might end up being the best answer the Bucks have at the 5.
Interestingly, last night served as an important reminder of how good Brook Lopez is, too. He’s become so adept at stretching the floor as a shooter, it’s easy to forget that he’s a skilled post-up option as well. When Giannis fouled out down the stretch, the Bucks were able to play the Rockets even over the last five minutes by going to Lopez in the post and letting the offense swirl around him.
Losing Malcolm Brogdon this summer is certainly a problem for this Bucks team, but last night’s win over the Rockets was a good reminder that this team has solutions to all kinds of problems. As far as I’m concerned, they’re still the favorites in the East.
3. Steve Kerr on the Warriors’ blowout loss to the Clippers: “This is not a one-off, this is the reality.” I have some thoughts about this:
The Clippers are going to send a lot of teams into existential tailspins this season. Game one isn’t the worst time to be forced to think hard about your team.
The Warriors put up 122 in regulation in a game where Steph Curry was 2-for-11 on 3s. This team is going to score points.
The Warriors’ defense was an absolute disaster. One advantage to playing a bunch of guys who aren’t ready heavy minutes early in the season: they’re going to get better sooner. There were tons of mistakes out there last night, but that means there was tons of learning. They’ve got a good coach, and they’ve got a superstar defender in Draymond Green to teach them.
During the brief moment in the first half in which the Warriors got cooking, you could start to see the outlines of how this might work. Steph’s gravity is as omnipresent as ever. D’Angelo Russell is a really damn good passer. This team is going to have some great moments this year.
TL;DR: I’ve still got them in the playoffs in the West.
1. I can’t help but feel a sickening kind of glee over the fact that Kyrie Irving put up 50 points in a home loss to the Timberwolves last night. I know he’s a tremendous offensive basketball player, but would you look at this fucking picture? I mean really get a load of it.
I mean, what the fuck is this? I’m sorry, my dude, but you are not Atlas eternally hoisting the heavens. You just lost to the T-Wolves on your home floor on opening night in a game in which Andrew Wiggins played 36 minutes and was -26. On the final possession, with your team down one, you dribbled out the clock, fell over, somehow got up, and then missed a wide-open 15-footer. Congratulations on your 50 points, though.
2. Nikola Jokić is so awesome. After getting ruthlessly exposed for the first few minutes of the game by Hassan Whiteside of all people (& picking up three fouls in four minutes), Jokić sat the the rest of the first half. His teammates picked him up and staked the Nuggets to a small lead at the half, but when the going got tough down the stretch, the big guy showed up. He scored all 20 of his points in the 2nd half, including back-to-back 3s that pretty much sealed the deal. He picked the Blazers apart.
One underrated part of Jokić’s game: his relentlessness. He reminds me a little of Steve Nash in the way he probes and picks at a defense. He’s willing to shoot, but not too early in the shot clock—not when there might be something better out there. Last night, his relentlessness was on full display; he could have packed it in early after a rough start, but instead he owned the second half against a good team on the road. After struggling a ton against Whiteside early, Jokić figured him out and got him back late. Not a bad start for an MVP campaign.
There’s a whole essay to write about what is going on with the Lakers, and the profound insanity of playing LeBron and AD at the 3 and the 4 instead of the 4 and the 5. I’m interested in why the players insist on it. I’m interested in why the coaches are willing to let it happen. On its face, it makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s going to cost them games like the one it cost them last night against the Clippers. Psychologically, it’s interesting to me, but I’m not going to write about it, because I’m going to write about Lou & Trez.
The idea of the 6th Man is, at this point, a timeless basketball archetype. John Havlicek, Bobby Jones, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Cliff Robinson, Ben Gordon, Manu Ginobili, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams: these players constitute a lineage of singular bucket-getters and rhythm-alterers who sacrificed the dumb glory of starting for the true glory of kicking ass.
What feels unique about Lou & Trez is kinda simple: there are two of them; they are together. Also, they play, like, the whole fucking game. These dudes played 37 and 38 minutes last night—most of anyone on either team, just slightly more than LeBron and AD. Basically, once they checked in, they didn’t come out.
Lou & Trez are a rich combination of stylistic strangeness and harmony. Lou is a technician, all staccato jabs and slices. He’s a genius at taking what you give him. You drop back, he pulls up. You lurch forward, he knifes by you. He’s a master at the extra dribble; he’s a master at the wrong foot. Trez is a goddamned bulldozer, but he’s light on his feet. He’s relentless, but he’s got touch. He’s the kind of player about whom you find yourself pontificating, “Ah, yes, you see: energy is a skill.” Together, they make screens sing. To Lou Williams, a defender is just a traffic cone in a river, and he is the water itself. To Montrezl Harrell, a defender is a statue of sand in a storm.
The Clippers! What a great team! They get to be so many things. They’ve got the standard issue basketball team: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet or Mo Harkless depending on how you want to play, Kawhi, PG, Ivica Zubac or JaMychal Green. Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder filling in gaps. Mfiondu Kabengele and Jerome Robinson waiting in the wings. You can do really competent, regular basketball shit with those guys. Fuck: that team might be a title contender already. How wonderful to also have Lou & Trez, a joyous cyclone of smarts and fun, an offensive system in and of itself.
Often, when we talk about great players, we talk about how they make their teammates better. Last night, I started thinking of Lou & Trez as their own kind of great player unit. Together, they create a hub that lets everyone else just play basketball. Alongside them, Green gets open 3s, Harkless sneaks and cuts, Shamet comes off screens shooting or attacking closeouts. It just works, and in a moment in basketball in which we seem to be veering towards various forms of stylistic hegemony, it’s nice to see this kind of searing, enlightened madness rising off the bench for the Clips.
About a decade ago, I spent a bunch of years writing articles for ESPN.com about fantasy basketball. Here’s my memory of how I got this job: I got drunk at a party and started spouting opinions about basketball. A guy I was talking to turned out to be freelancing for ESPN in fantasy football, baseball, and NASCAR. He said they were looking for basketball people, and he suggested I write a piece as a sample. I wrote the piece, sent it in, and heard back that they didn’t need anyone. About a year later, they got back in touch and said they did.
I’m selling myself short a little when I say I was just “spouting opinions.” Actually, when I’m in a crowd, at a party for example, talking about basketball is one of the only things that brings me peace. The problem is I spend so much time thinking about basketball that most opinions drive me totally fucking insane. I am a contrarian by nature and a lover of history, which means I like talking about, like, how cool the Doug Moe Denver Nuggets were more than I like talking about, like the Giannis vs. Harden MVP race.
By some cosmic magic, my encyclopedic knowledge of basketball had gotten me a pretty sweet freelance gig. I was in grad school, and definitely needed a little extra money if I was going to avoid taking out more loans. They paid me $100 per article, and I was obsessed with fantasy basketball already, so it was barely any extra work beyond what I was already doing for free. I got excited about advanced stats (I spent a lot of time on the wonderful 82games.com) and rattled off articles full of advice about which players were going to help you win your fantasy league. For a little while, it was cool.
Eventually, it wasn’t. After writing those articles for years, it was a huge relief when my editor at ESPN told me they didn’t need me anymore. I hated writing those stupid articles, and I hated the people who read them. The fantasy basketball perspective started to feel totally deranged to me. It felt a million miles away from what was really happening in the NBA, somehow. When I thought I was going to love the job in the early days, I was wrong about two things. First, I thought stats had the answer to pretty much all my questions. Second, I thought predictions mattered.
First: stats. Stats, of course, are great, but they are only capable of measuring what can be measured. Our stats are only as good as our questions, and no amount of wrenching them around is going to make your fantasy team work the way a real basketball team works. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself overvaluing some terrible player because that player blocks a ton of shots. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself ignoring Chuck Hayes even though Chuck Hayes absolutely rules.
Second: predictions. This is more complicated. Predictions are fun. A good way to get a sense of how somebody feels about basketball is to ask them what they think is going to happen. Last season, I put some money on the Denver Nuggets to win the Northwest Division. I thought their combination of youth and veteran leadership would create an ecosystem in which Nikola Jokic would thrive. They seemed more talented to me than the Trail Blazers or the Jazz. I was right! It felt pretty sweet. I also had money on Giannis for MVP. My basketball calibrators were right on.
Except, no. I also had money on the Celtics to win the title. I had money on the Hornets to win the Southeast at 13–1, which was a great bet right up until the moment it wasn’t. For the season, I broke even. It turns out, knowing and loving basketball doesn’t really mean you’re going to get your predictions right. It might mean you’re going to spend a ton of time focusing on what you get right and ignoring what you get wrong. Worse, it might mean you are problematically loyal to your predictions. Worse, it might mean your predictions have poisoned your mind.
And you know what? Here, we are talking about basketball, and I think basketball matters a lot, but it doesn’t really matter. You know where this shit matters? It matters in politics. For example, right now there are a lot of people spouting a whole lot of hot air about what it is going to take to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. They’re spouting this stuff despite the fact that they were dead wrong about this exact thing back in 2016, despite the fact that they know next to nothing about politics or about voters in states in which they don’t, at this moment, even reside. And it matters, because they are going to use their incredibly wrong and bogus predictions about what it’s going to take to defeat Trump to decide which candidate they’re going to support in the primary. They’re going to use their predictions to make this decision instead of—and this is truly fucking insane if you really start thinking about it—the things they actually care about as a voter.
What I’m suggesting is that basketball might be a place where we could practice some open-mindedness. Just maybe, we could use this beautiful game to try being more clear-headed and honest versions of ourselves before we destroy ourselves. Maybe we could make predictions with our hearts, purely for the fun of it, and we could be honest about the fact that we won’t really hold ourselves to them. We could insist on observing the world sweetly and dispassionately. We could try holding on more loosely to our hypotheses in the interest of trying to shed a little vanity before it fucking kills us.
With that, here are my predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Awards:
Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson, F, Pelicans. Yes, he’s starting the season injured, but I saw all I needed to see during the preseason. This dude is a whole new thing, and when he gets going, it’s going to take the league a while to come up with answers to the questions he’s asking. If Zion just misses the six–to–eight weeks he’s expected to miss right now, he’s my pick. If he’s out longer, it’s Ja Morant, who is the most exciting passer I’ve seen in years.
6th Man of the Year: Jerami Grant, F, Nuggets. First, the Nuggets are going to have the best record in the West. Second, Jerami Grant is going to play a lot—he’s going to see minutes at both forward spots and center. Third, this team has a trade to make, and my guess is that Mason Plumlee ends up in that trade, leaving Grant as the lone option at backup center. Grant is going to be a perfect fit on this team, and he’s going to put up big numbers and play during crunchtime. It’s a perfect recipe to win this award—Grant would be the first forward to win the award since Lamar Odom nine years ago.
Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo, C, Heat. I like this one, because Bam is about to go from playing 23 minutes per game to playing over 30. Even if he doesn’t improve his game at all, he’s going to end up averaging around 15 points and 10 rebounds, over a block and a steal, and be the defensive hub of a playoff team. The thing is, I think he’s going to improve a lot. He’s getting better as a passer, and I’m expecting his assist rate to continue climbing this year; meanwhile, he turned the ball over way too much last year, and I’m expecting him to start cleaning that up. He’s got an outside shot at being an All-Star if the Heat get rolling early this season.
Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Narratively, it feels like recently he’s getting more credit, and somehow, even though everyone agrees he’s great, he’s never won this award. I think this is one of the four best teams in the East, and if that’s the case—if this team blows away its over/under number of 43—Spo is going to get a ton of credit for that.
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart, Celtics. This is my longest shot of these picks. Rudy Gobert is a heavy favorite, and guards never win this thing. That said, the Celtics lost Al Horford and Aron Baynes and everyone thinks they’re going to be a trash fire on defense this year. If they finish with a top-10 defense, which is totally in the realm of possibility, people are going to find someone to give credit to. It’s probably going to be this dude, because he was first-team all-defense last season, and because he’s the heart and soul of this team, and because he’s going to worm his way into the starting lineup eventually, just like he did last season.
MVP: Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets. Tangential, related, and reasonable predictions that get us here:
Warriors win fewer than 50 games.
Harden and Westbrook split votes, and Rockets are not a top-2 seed.
Lakers underwhelm and either miss the playoffs or make it just barely.
Kawhi and PG get load-managed out of the race. (Embiid, too.)
Milwaukee wins fewer games than last season, and Giannis suffers from voter fatigue.
Guard: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
Wing: Will Barton
Big: Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić
Predicted Record: 58–24 | 1st in NBA | 1st in West
Full disclosure: I love this team. This is a roster full of singular players; somehow, it is also a roster that coheres in exciting ways. You’ve got key players who are still incredibly young—Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, and Gary Harris will be 22, 24, and 25 this season, respectively—and veterans like Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee who tie the young guys together. Everybody is a really good passer, everybody can make plays for themselves or for their teammates, and everything in this paragraph makes this a really good team that should improve over what they did last season.
On just what I’ve already written, you could argue that the Nuggets will be the best regular season team in the league this season. I’m suggesting here, though, that they will be more than that. I think this team is about to be great, and the reason for that is Nikola Jokić.
On a team of singular players, Jokić is a fucking singularity. He warps and curves the space on the floor in astonishing ways. Yes, he’s lumbering and plodding, but his physical form belies the effect he has on the game. You don’t need to be fast if you can alter space and time. You don’t need to move from point A to point B if you can fold those points together. It’s such a cliché to suggest that great players make their teammates better, but in the case of Jokić, his capacity for making his teammates better is his greatness. How to you quantify the effect it has on players to play with someone like that?
Here’s something so obvious you might miss it: it turns out it is valuable to have the best rebounder on your team be an all-time great passer. When Jokić gets a defensive rebound, his teammates can fly; they know if they’re open on the wing, down the floor, anywhere, the ball will magically fall into their hands. Jokić’s unique skill set fuels what would otherwise be a mediocre offense. The Nuggets were 6th in offensive rating last season despite finishing 27th in free throw rate, 15th in 3-point rate, and 15th in effective field goal percentage. You know why? They were 2nd in offensive rebound rate and second in assists. In a league that is figuring out the value of quick-hitting kick-out passes, Jokić came along fully equipped to deliver them more often than anybody. Philosophically, this becomes a way of building a team—Millsap and Plumlee are great in these areas too.
It’s fair to critique Jokić for his defense, but his effort and intelligence puts him ahead of plenty of players on that end too. It’s fair to wonder if there will be playoff matchups in which Jokić just can’t check anybody. On the other hand, he creates matchup problems too. The best playoff teams find things that work and pick them apart. Jokić is able to process that information in real time. You don’t have to call a timeout. He brings up the ball, he bulldozes his way into the post, and the offense swirls around him like a hurricane. My bet is that he can survive on defense. The great ones have a tendency to survive.
There’s a lot of peripheral stuff to be excited about in Denver. Jerami Grant is an awesome fit on this roster. Jokić didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last season and still was one of the best players in the league. The Nuggets are incredibly deep, and they are one of the few contenders with the contracts to swing a big trade at some point. If Jamal Murray can find some consistency in his best performances, this team is going to be a juggernaut. Whatever. The main attraction here is Jokić. He’s the thing that takes them from very good to anything’s possible.
It has become conventional wisdom that regular season success and playoff success are fundamentally different in basketball. It’s true, of course. Over the course of a series, it is much harder to get away with giving minutes to players with weaknesses the other team is capable of easily exploiting. We’re deep into an era in which players with the athletic profile of Nikola Jokić get played off the court against teams that can go small in the playoffs.
And yet, one quick look at the history of, well, anything will tell you that whenever we start thinking we know something, we should start considering the idea that we’re probably wrong. Jokić isn’t just some stiff. If you accept the premise that his greatness as a passer is evidence of a kind of genius when it comes to processing the game in real time, you can probably imagine that he’s capable of figuring out how to avoid getting roasted in the playoffs. The dude is 24 years old, and he’s already some kind of howling vortex at the center of a star, but he’s still becoming. He’s not what he’s going to be. Not yet; not even close.
As our basketball data gets better and better, there’s a risk in placing too much importance on what can be measured. Consider the way the 2014 Spurs were able to pass the ball until the Heat’s defense stretched and broke. Intuition—that holy basketball skill we refer to as feel: it is hard to value it properly. It requires a little bit of faith. The Nuggets are up to their elbows in it, and their center is a gravitational force, closing all distances, knitting everyone together. That’s why I think the Nuggets are going to win the 2019-20 NBA title.
Predicted Record: 56–26 | 2nd in NBA | 1st in East
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods – And now We hunt the Doe –
764 | Emily Dickinson
It is my opinion that Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world. I believe that. Nevertheless, as I’ve been sitting here stewing about the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks, I’ve found myself struck by one all-powerful fact: Giannis Antetokounmpo is not even 25 years old yet. His trajectory is still pointing upward. Kawhi is in the thick of his prime—he already did the work of becoming a perfect defender, a knock-down shooter, a better passer, etc. Giannis still has so much room to improve.
For example, last season, Giannis set career highs in percentage of field goal attempts at the rim AND field goal percentage at the rim. He set career highs in assist rate and both offensive and defensive rebound rate. He also posted the highest usage rate of his career. On the other hand, he turned the ball over too often. He’s still not making enough of his free-throws. He has endless room to become more confident and dangerous as a shooter. He is still getting smarter about positioning as a defender. He’s only played in Coach Bud’s system for one season. The ceiling isn’t even in sight yet.
On the other hand, the Bucks’ insistence on ducking the luxury tax looms over all of this. You can’t ignore the fact that they could have kept Malcolm Brogdon this summer and chose not to because of money. They are seemingly locked into a universe in which everything comes down to Eric Bledsoe, a player who has epically shit the bed in two consecutive playoff runs. He’s just good enough that you don’t want to give up a bunch of assets to clear him off your books; he’s just terrible enough to absolutely destroy your team when it matters most.
Maybe Giannis is good enough that it doesn’t matter. George Hill is a good fit on this team as a caretaker point guard who plays defense and makes open shots. If three of their wings (a group consisting of Wes Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Kyle Korver, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo) pop and they get something out of D.J. Wilson in the frontcourt, this team will be plenty deep enough when it matters. Still, if Bledsoe could manage to duplicate his regular season performance in the playoffs, they’re capable of going to another level.
Regardless, this Bucks team should coast to the best record in the league. The West is stacked—full of teams that are going to eat each other alive. The East is terrible; the only real competition is Philly, and that team has a ton of questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball. Milwaukee isn’t sneaking up on anybody anymore, but the system of Giannis + shooters on offense and no lay-ups or free-throws on defense is likely to carry them into the high 50s in wins easily. Coasting to the number one seed is nice, but if you do it too many times without playoff success it can start to leave a bad taste in the mouth of your superstar.
That, finally, is the shadow that darkens everything the Bucks do, now and into the uncertain future. They pulled off an incredible magic trick in getting Giannis on their roster with a middling first round pick and developing him into an MVP. Now they need to figure out a way to keep him. Like a shark, a team needs to keep moving, keep eating. You’re either getting better or you’re dying. Giannis might still be improving, but this team’s time is now. Given the stakes, you’d think they’d be all-in. When the playoffs roll around, it’s not hard to imagine they’ll wish they’d kept Malcolm Brogdon around.
Additions: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson, Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann.
Guard: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet
Wing: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
Big: Ivica Zubac
Predicted Record: 56–26 | 3rd in NBA | 2nd in West
Finally, we have reached the Los Angeles Clippers. Once a talented roster screwed over by the managerial incompetence of their coach, “Cool story, Glenn” Rivers, the Clippers spent the past two years nailing every decision (including retaining Glenn), fleshing out an incredibly deep and seasoned roster, and creating an ecosystem that could attract the kind of star who can win the whole damn thing. This summer, they got that star. Kawhi Leonard decided he wanted to play for the Clippers. It took trading everything that wasn’t nailed down in order to pry Paul George from the Thunder, but it worked. If this roster is totally healthy heading into the playoffs, it’s the best roster in the league for sure.
If I was trying to explain the glorious possibilities inherent in basketball to someone who had never seen or heard of sports before, I think I’d make them watch Kawhi Leonard. He is somehow both machine-like and fluid. Like The Borg, he seems to be both cybernetic and organic; like an Olympic gymnast, he moves with unimaginable balance and strength. Hands like magnets; hands like vice-grips. Kawhi is like if wind was a dude; he’s like if a rock briefly became water, took the shape of a man, and then became rock again while maintaining all of water’s physical attributes.
Somehow, Kawhi Leonard made the Toronto Raptors win the title last season. Friends, winning titles basically is impossible. It almost never happens. The people who do it tend to do it over and over, and the rest of the people don’t get to do it. The exceptions you are muttering to yourself right now just prove the rule. In order to win a title—and here I mean: in order to be the meaning-making force at the center of a championship team—you need to be one of the all-time greats. This dude, playing hurt, played 39 minutes per game in the playoffs, and he averaged 30 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. And he led the league in times a player made me yelp and howl and make sounds I don’t even know how to make.
It’s kind of insane that you can just, like, sign a guy like that to a contract. The Clippers, it became clear as the days passed by in the first week of July, were willing to do whatever it took to do just that. Who could blame them? If you could hire the best person in the world for a particular job to do that job, wouldn’t you try to do that?
For my part, I’ve been having all these thoughts over the past few years about what it means to root for a team, and how that meaning survives or doesn’t in the context of a sport in which players don’t generally spend very long in one place. This summer, for example, I actually did not want my beloved Celtics to try to acquire Anthony Davis. I know Davis would have made them better, but even if I thought they could have kept him, I wasn’t interested. I’m not giving up Marcus Smart to get Anthony Davis. I love watching Marcus Smart. It’s the best. It can’t just be about getting the best players, right? At some point, love has to matter.
Kawhi, though. Sheesh. This guy exists outside of all of that nonsense. He comes with the love baked right in. Everything he does is this optimized, perfect action. Do I love watching him play basketball? I don’t know, does the fucking basketball love being a basketball? With Kawhi, it doesn’t make sense to talk about things like fandom and love. He is—or rather, he seems to me to be—basketball itself.
This Clippers team is perfect for him. They’d be decent without him. Like last season’s Raptors, they are a team with an identity already. You’ve got Lou and Trez running screen-and-roll, and the rest of the roster fits in around that, multipositional, tough, good on both ends of the floor. When Kawhi’s out there, they will wrap around him like a cozy blanket.
I’m not saying the Clippers are going to win the title. I think Denver and Milwaukee will win more regular season games. I think the Clippers are the most likely team to win the title, but it’s not a sure thing. Kawhi, for everything I wrote above, is enigmatic, challenging, breakable. He averaged 30 in the playoffs, sure, but he also hobbled around like an old man trying to get out of bed late on a Sunday morning. Frankly, I’m not sure how he did it. He carefully managed himself all season, and barely had anything left in the tank when it was over. Paul George is currently injured. This is not a sure thing.
What is a sure thing is this: when he’s right, Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world right now. Any other worlds? I’d like to see them try.