As we put the first 10% of the season in the books, here are 10 things to check out:
1. We need to talk about Nikola
Nikola Jokic has probably racked up more “likes” in this space than any other player. And so it is with a heavy heart that I note: Jokic does not look right, and the issues appear to go beyond his early-season, umm, conditioning.
His shots, free throws and assists are down. Jokic is recording only 8.8 post touches per 100 possessions, down from 12 last season, per Second Spectrum, and that’s a problem considering he is a devastating scorer and passer on the block. Things are just … weird.
Against Orlando on Saturday, Jokic did not even look to post up for the entire first half. The coaches must have gotten on him at halftime. On Denver’s first possession of the third quarter, Jokic jacked a contested above-the-break triple as soon as he touched the ball. He did it again two possessions later. Those shots seemed like messages: Oh, you want me to shoot? How about this?
He is pouting more even by his mopey standards: waving his arms in frustration at inaccurate passes, and slapping opponents to stop play after what he considers bad calls.
We haven’t even addressed defense. Jokic has never exactly been agile, but he makes up for it to some degree with canny positioning, quick meat-hook hands, and voracious rebounding. Awkward appearances aside, the Nuggets have always been stingier with Jokic on the floor.
They still are, per NBA.com. But Jokic is barely moving. He paws at bodies as they fly around him, like a toddler reaching for bubbles.
Jokic is contesting only 3.9 shots per game around the basket, per NBA.com, a remarkably low number for a starting center logging 30 minutes per game. Some players contesting at least that many close shots: Bruce Brown, James Harden, Lonzo Ball, Darius Garland, and Mason Plumlee — Jokic’s backup. (Jokic contested six such shots per game last season.)
It’s easy to laugh this off — oh, that Jokic! — and assume all will be well by the postseason. It is a great sign that Denver is 5-2 despite unremarkable starts from everyone other than Will Barton. Their starting five has mauled opponents by 38 points in 98 minutes.
But winning a title is really hard. It takes full engagement from everyone on the roster. Franchise players set the tone. Fissures openly easily in the NBA.
The super-deep Nuggets will probably be fine. Jokic is still having a solid season. But this bears watching.
2. The arrhythmic greatness of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
There just aren’t many humans this shifty:
A lot of players toggle between two gears: fast and slow, or (in the case of guys like Kyle Anderson) slow and a little less slow. Gilgeous-Alexander operates along almost the entire speedometer, and he’s so limby, with such arrhythmic patterns, it sometimes looks as if different parts of his body are moving at different rates.
That’s just filthy. Utter filth. That hesitation dribble followed by a one-handed lefty gather? Come on.
Gilgeous-Alexander is mostly deliberate, but he can explode in straight lines when he needs to — and finish over and through bigger defenders.
His growth in Year 2 has been incredible. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 22 points and shooting 40% from deep. He has already canned six pull-up 3s after hitting just seven all of last season. He’s a menace on defense, good for a steal and a block per game. His arms are everywhere.
He has functioned well on and off the ball in Oklahoma City’s triple point guard lineup, with Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder; Oklahoma City is plus-28 in the 47 minutes those three have played together. Hopefully Gilgeous-Alexander gets more solo point duty later in the season.
Regardless, this guy looks like a future All-Star.
3. Luka Doncic, faking you out of your shoes
Hypothesis: Doncic has the nastiest, most convincing up-and-under move on Earth.
Most players go into an up-and-under having made up their mind to shoot. They have no Plan B. Doncic digests so much visual information in real time — and is so smart anticipating where every player is about to be — he can pivot (literally) into Plans B, C or D:
Numbers alone tell you Doncic is off to a crazy start: 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists per game on 47% shooting, including a scorching 58% on 2s. He has almost excised long 2s in favor of shots at the rim and 3s.
The eye test tells you even more. Doncic is thinking two steps ahead of everyone. His trademark pass as a rookie was probably the LeBron-style crosscourt laser to corner shooters. Already this season, he has shown mastery of other tricky dishes that reveal themselves — only for a flash, and only to the very best passers — in the run of play.
He is putting exactly the right touch, speed, and height on lobs to Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber:
That is a really hard pass — the straight-on, long-distance lob. The timing is just a little bit different than is typical. Genius lives in those differences. Doncic picks up his dribble abruptly, before Avery Bradley is ready for it, and releases the ball almost while leaning backward. A lot of his lobs are like this. They come a beat earlier or later than you would expect. Doncic might already be the league’s best lob passer.
He has great chemistry with Powell and Kleber. His partnership with Kristaps Porzingis is a work in progress. Opponents have outscored the Mavericks by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with both stars on the floor. Meanwhile, the Mavs are plus-28 in the 67 minutes Doncic has played without Porzingis — and a monster plus-25 in 44 minutes with both out.
Porzingis spends a lot time spotting up around the Doncic/Powell and Doncic/Kleber two-man games; Doncic and Porzingis have partnered for only about 19 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, compared to 40 for Powell and 31 for Kleber.
That spot-up role is valuable. Rick Carlisle has other sets to spring Porzingis. Doncic and Porzingis have complementary skill sets; they will discover their sweet spots, though to make this thing sing, Porzingis has to get better abusing smaller defenders when opponents switch the Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll. Fadeaways aren’t cutting it. He’s not Dirk.
4. What does DeAndre Jordan do here, exactly?
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant coercing the Nets into signing Jordan to a four-year, $40 million deal was an underrated free-agency side plot. Opponents have outscored the Nets by 13.4 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor, per NBA.com. That number flips to almost its photo negative — plus-12 — when Jarrett Allen replaces him.
As Dallas and New York witnessed last season, Jordan just doesn’t do anything on defense beyond being large and near the basket. He’s basically a boulder with arms. That has value! He munches rebounds. The Nets give up fewer shots at the rim with Jordan on the floor. That has been the case with every Jordan team since his rookie season. Some players see a tall person and stop in their tracks.
The ones who keep going? They’re shooting 12 percentage points higher on shots within the restricted area against Brooklyn with Jordan on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s challenging only 3.3 such shots per game, even fewer than Jokic. He’s a solid post defender, but the few good post-up centers left aren’t afraid of him; Domantas Sabonis punked Jordan for a dunk on the first Pacers possession of their win in Brooklyn last week, and ate Jordan’s lunch the rest of the game.
If the Nets had a basketball justification for signing Jordan, it was to defend bangers who overpower Allen. If he can’t do that, how much value does he have?
Jordan doesn’t catch as many lobs as he used to. He’s even off to an icy start at the line after remaking himself into a decent foul shooter.
Brooklyn needs much more from its other free-agent acquisition.
5. Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker, making music
One reason Phoenix is the happiest story in the league: Its starting backcourt has found some two-man synergy.
Good shooters always make good screeners; defenders are afraid to help off of Booker, and that fear gives Rubio driving lanes. Any unconventional pick-and-roll wrinkle — a strange guard-guard combination, a bit of pre-screen disguise — makes it harder for Rubio’s guy to scoot under picks.
One counter for defenses: switch! But that unlocks Booker’s underappreciated post game. He’s kind of rude down there!
Booker is playing the best all-around ball of his career. The Suns have scored 113 points per 100 possessions when he plays, and just 94.7 when he sits. They have outscored opponents by about 11 points per 100 possessions when he plays without Rubio. Right now, Booker is an All-Star.
Phoenix reminds me of last season’s 39-win Kings: I’m not sure the Suns can sustain this pace and make the playoffs, but they are solid. They are benefiting a little from bonky opponent shooting, but not to any outrageous degree. Other teams have been far luckier.
The Suns are busting it on defense, a credit to both Monty Williams and the players. Deandre Ayton’s return might complicate things — Aron Baynes is a winning player — but Ayton should and almost certainly will get the chance to start again.
6. PJ Washington’s hook shot
The Hornets aren’t as good as their record. Every win has been close. Every loss has been a blowout. They are 4-4 with a minus-61 point differential.
But they are fun, and the trio of Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges and rookie Washington — along with the coming lottery pick — provides reason for real optimism.
Washington’s not a star, but he already does most of what you want from a supporting frontcourt player. He defends multiple positions, and has even played some center.
He has hit 45% from deep, meaning he’s dangerous spotting up or picking-and-popping. When he rolls to the rim, he rolls hard. He rolls to inflict pain. Switch those plays, and Washington punishes smaller defenders. He already has one of the league’s sweetest, softest jump hooks:
Oh, baby. Washington sees Richaun Holmes coming, and lofts that thing into the rafters. Charlotte has scored 1.32 points per possession any time Washington shoots from the post or passes to a teammate who fires right away — a number that would have led all regular post-up threats last season, per Second Spectrum.
7. Holy smokes, Malcolm Brogdon
Brogdon is a perfect complement to Victor Oladipo. I thought he might be overtaxed until Oladipo’s return — one reason I was pessimistic about the Pacers.
Brogdon is averaging 22 points and 10 dimes on 47% shooting, but what stands out is how comfortable and under control he looks from all three levels on offense — even after a mini-slump from 3-point range. He calmly takes whatever the defense concedes. The form on his jumper is precise and unwavering.
He still gets a lot of what he wants, too — namely bulldozing drives to the rim. Brogdon isn’t explosive, but he has a sneaky first step. He’s so strong, he doesn’t need to blow by most opposing point guards. He buries his inside shoulder into the chest of his defender, turns that victim sideways, and ambles in for a layup. Sometimes, he just plows right through smaller guys:
Even amid blah spacing and a much more burdensome role than he enjoyed in Milwaukee, Brogdon is still getting 42% of his attempts within the restricted area — massive for a guard. The Pacers cannot score when he rests, though injuries to basically every other member of their guard rotation have impacted that.
His versatility on defense — he can guard every perimeter position — has come in handy as the Pacers mix and match around him.
It’s early, but Brogdon is on track to be a deserving first-time All-Star. Sabonis has a shot, too. They have kept Indiana afloat.
8. Gordon Hayward’s Boston promise, fulfilled?
The promise of Hayward in Boston, so much talent around him, was of Hayward finding his perfect place within the team hierarchy. He wouldn’t be the No. 1 option. Boston’s motion offense would get him the ball in the flow, with a head start. He could average 20 points without forcing anything, dish dimes on the move, and focus his energy on defense. He would be a classic No. 2 option — a sort of floating star.
Hayward’s leg injury in the opener two seasons ago obliterated that vision. It is a sneaky “what if” moment in recent league history given everything that happened in its wake: the fast rise of Boston’s young players; the resulting tension between some of them and Kyrie Irving; Irving’s departure; the death of Boston’s Anthony Davis dreams.
And yet after all that, Boston has found a good team — and Hayward has found that version of himself. He’s third on the team in usage rate — behind Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, and a whisker ahead of Jaylen Brown — but he’s scoring 20 points per game on 56% shooting. He’s second in assists at 4.6 per game, trailing only Marcus Smart (4.7). (Interestingly, Walker is third at four per game. Boston has an unusually democratic distribution of assists. Both Williamses coming off the bench can sling it.)
Very few of his buckets emerge out of static situations. Most look like this:
Ditto for his assists:
Hayward looks steadier on his feet. He’s moving more fluidly, and defending with a renewed stoutness. He has been a part of almost every good Boston lineup.
9. Orlando’s wretched offense
Orlando’s offense is a merry-go-round to nowhere. It looks pleasing. Passes are made. Screens are set. The ball is on one side of the floor, and then it is on the other. The Magic actually get into the paint — only Miami averages more paint touches — but you never get the sense they have punctured the defense.
I suspect they brush the fringes of the paint a lot, and enter and exit it without doing anything dangerous.
Orlando is dead last in points per possession by a laughable margin. That is a little fluky. The Magic are shooting 27% from deep; they will make more shots.
But some of this impotence appears endemic. The Magic ranked 22nd in points per possession last season. They struggle to generate shots at the rim; they rank about average this season, a huge step up. Only two teams attempt fewer corner 3s. And (stop me if you’ve heard this for, like, the past seven seasons) they rarely get to the foul line.
They have too many power forwards, and not enough shooters and playmakers. Aaron Gordon has no defined role. D.J. Augustin has predictably regressed after an outlier season. Nikola Vucevic settles for flip shots.
Markelle Fultz still can’t shoot; defenders go under every Fultz-Vucevic pick-and-roll, meaning Vucevic’s man can stay home — neutering his pick-and-pop looks.
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I’m not even sure what the solution is. More fast breaks would help, especially with Fultz starting. (His promotion over Augustin felt a little premature.) That has not been their style, and they don’t force many turnovers. Maybe they could run more basic spread pick-and-roll, and give both Gordon and Jonathan Isaac chances to work as rim-runners while Vucevic spaces the floor. They should avoid playing Al-Farouq Aminu, Isaac and Mo Bamba together.
They don’t really have the personnel to play smaller. They could try more minutes with three of Augustin/Fultz/Evan Fournier/Terrence Ross on the floor, but that isn’t moving the needle. Maybe they could lean even more on Vucevic post-ups against some opponents?
I dunno. But this is a one-way team, and one-way teams can’t win big.
10. Take fouls gone wrong
The NBA needs to legislate out these fast-break-stopping clotheslines and hugs already — they have done so in the G League; I don’t get why this is so hard — but in the meantime, I’ll settle for occasional schadenfreude:
Nice work, Cedi Osman — wrapping up a 90% career free throw shooter (Brogdon) with Indiana in the bonus! This is the basketball gods exacting revenge upon players seeking to exploit dumb loopholes.