Passing the Torch: 8 NBA Teams with New Alpha Dogs
More torches are being passed inside NBA locker rooms and pecking orders now than in recent memory.
Rebuilding teams always feature players jostling for importance, so we're used to a certain level of status turnover. But there are extra transitions taking place within the league's middle class.
Free-agency exits and arrivals forced some squads to swivel by default. Regressions from perceived cornerstones have opened the door for less-established talents who have taken a leap. Midseason roster and rotation changes have allowed up-and-coming studs to finally assume their place atop the food chain.
These seismic shifts don't always yield a new best player. Some teams are too early in the rebuilding process and have doled out roles that belie a player's value.
In searching for the Association's newest alphas, we're not saying these fresh leaders are their team's most talented players. They are in most cases, but the ones who aren't have been handed the keys to a new era, as a billboard for the redirect currently taking place.
Paul Millsap was the Atlanta Hawks' most important player before Al Horford and Jeff Teague left, and that hasn't changed. At 32, with free agency on the horizon (player option), he'll have to pass the torch to someone soon, just not now.
The Dallas Mavericks are in a weird spot.
Dirk Nowitzki is the alpha in spirit but not always practice. Harrison Barnes has the highest usage rate of everyday players, but he's not being peddled as the face of the future. Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell and Nerlens Noel are all possibilities-in-training, but that does nothing for us now.
Basically, long live Dirk.
Golden State Warriors
I just said to him, "Don't worry about me. I said, "Just play your game. I'll figure it out. I'll figure it out around you. You're the engine of this team, and I know that. I'm not trying to come over and feel like everything just revolves around me. Just do you, man. I'm going to play around you. I've played this game long enough. I know how to score. I know how to find the ball. Just go out there and play your game." And that's what he's been doing.
Curry still paces the Warriors in shot attempts and usage. Durant averages more points, but the Warriors encounter a larger statistical plunge when Curry takes a seat. This team is still at its best when he's a freewheeling attacker reinventing the relationship between volume and efficiency.
If you want to claim Curry and Durant are sharing alpha-dog duties, kids-in-the-sandbox style, that's cool, too. Just know Durant has not left his new running mate behind.
New York Knicks
Kristaps Porzingis is the New York Knicks' most important player. So, naturally, they've surrounded him with two me-first talents, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, and allowed his role within the offense to fluctuate.
Oh, and they paid the injured Joakim Noah $72.6 million to play the 21-year-old's best position.
Plopping Porzingis next to one of Anthony or Rose would have been fine. The 7'3" high-rise played quite well next to Anthony last season; the two even developed a promising rapport. But his development has plateaued, if devolved, amid the Knicks' obsession with chasing wins by assembling a roster that can't win.
In a vacuum, Porzingis is already the team's best player. He just needs the Knicks to catch on, which they will...eventually...we think.
The Orlando Magic don't have a definitive top dog. And that suits them, because they don't have a discernible direction.
Victor Oladipo, a potential alpha, was traded for Serge Ibaka, another possible option, who was eventually sent to Toronto. Aaron Gordon started playing his natural position again (power forward), so maybe it's him. Or is it Evan Fournier? What about Jeff Green Nikola Vucevic?
Orlando has owned a top-five pick in three of the last four drafts yet doesn't have a detectable franchise face. This seems less than ideal.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic should've entered 2016-17 with the Denver Nuggets' alpha-dog crown in hand. He was their best player, as a rookie, in 2015-16, even with Danilo Gallinari producing like a fringe All-Star.
That didn't compute with Denver at the start of this season—not right away, at least. Head coach Mike Malone tried making Jokic coexist in the frontcourt, as a power forward, with Jusuf Nurkic to disastrous consequences. Opponents outscored the pairing by 15.4 points per 100 possessions through the team's first eight contests, prompting Jokic to ask for a role off the bench.
Sixteen games later, the Nuggets re-inserted Jokic into the starting five, as the sole big, and never looked back.
In his 35 outings since the permanent swap, Jokic is averaging 19.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He's shooting 60.3 percent overall and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. No one on the Nuggets has a higher assist rate during this time, and his usage rate comfortably outstrips fellow ball-dominant playmakers Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Gallinari.
Everything runs through Jokic now, and Denver is intent on keeping it that way. Nurkic got shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee, someone with a better chance of working beside the Serbian superhero, and Mudiay was quietly placed on the chopping block ahead of the trade deadline, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
It's tough to fault the Nuggets' logic. They are 22-19 since committing to Jokic at the 5, with an NBA-best offensive rating. Their greatest misstep is not getting here sooner.
Detroit Pistons: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn't doing the Detroit Pistons any favors by doing them all the favors.
Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson is supposed to be the team's best player. They're making the big bucks. They have the higher usage rates.
It's Caldwell-Pope, though, who is way more valuable to Detroit's cause than them or anyone else, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added. He's assuming the toughest defensive assignments, shooting 37.3 percent from three-point range and orchestrating more pick-and-rolls than any non-point guard on the roster—all while leading the Pistons in total minutes.
"Well, he's our best three-point shooter, our best energy defender, our best energy guy," head coach Stan Van Gundy told TNT, sarcastically, when Caldwell-Pope suffered a shoulder injury against the Warriors on Jan. 12 (via the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis). "We won't miss a lot."
Detroit shopped its combo wing in advance of the trade deadline, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, but that was more about salary-cap politics. Caldwell-Pope, a restricted free agent, has become a max-contract formality. Van Gundy will have to shed other deals over the summer to keep him without dipping into the luxury tax.
Even after Caldwell-Pope gets his max deal, he won't ever be the Pistons' No. 1 option. But he doesn't need to be. That's part of his functional charm. He's at a point where he can play on or off the ball; he's putting down 38.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples and shooting 45-plus percent on drives.
Stick him inside any lineup, with whatever role, and Caldwell-Pope will make it work on offense while grinding his butt off on defense—which is more than we can say for the Pistons' other cornerstones.
Los Angeles Lakers: D'Angelo Russell
Kobe Bryant's high-volume swan song last season prevented one of the Los Angeles Lakers' kiddies from dominating the pecking order. Lou Williams' explosive offense did the same for much of this year, before he was traded to the Houston Rockets.
Free from those developmental constraints, D'Angelo Russell has emerged as lifeline numero uno.
He isn't yet the Lakers' best player beyond debate. Larry Nance Jr. has spent most of this season making his case. Brandon Ingram should stake his claim to this argument in the years to come as well. In the meantime, it's perfectly clear this is Russell's team.
Since the trade deadline, a span covering seven games, Russell is averaging 21.9 points, 5.1 assists and 2.3 steals. His usage rate has jumped to 28.2, up from 27.1 beforehand, and yet his effective field-goal percentage has climbed from 46.9 to 55.5.
Small sample sizes aren't always harbingers of a new normal. Russell needs to play less like a score-first guard if he's going to be the Lakers' primary distributor, and they still get pummeled whenever he's on the court. The latter, though, is true of everyone in the starting five.
These transitions are a process. More than one-and-a-half seasons into his career, Russell is only now just beginning his. And unless the Lakers add a superstar via trade, he won't be asked to defer this opportunity anytime soon.
Miami Heat: Goran Dragic
Dwyane Wade never impeded the Miami Heat's hierarchy to the extent Bryant thwarted the Lakers' chain of command. If he did, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson felt the effects more than anyone.
Still, Goran Dragic labored through the 2015-16 season, ceding touches to Wade and status to Hassan Whiteside. He existed in an even weirder space this season, somewhere between unnecessary and expendable. Miami was rebuilding, and at 30, his window ran counter to its timeline.
Then Dragic blew up.
And then the Heat followed suit.
No one else is clearing 20 points per game while shooting 40 percent from deep and assisting on at least 30 percent of his team's made buckets when on the court. Only two other players, in fact, have hit those benchmarks in the last 20 years: Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
Dragic has been even better over the Heat's last 25 games, through which they are an NBA-best 21-4. His scoring and assist numbers are basically the same, but he's shooting a quadrillion 52.3 percent from the floor overall and a trillion 45.4 percent from beyond the arc. Miami's net rating dips slightly with him in the fold (plus-8.8), but it is the second-highest among starting bodies and would still place third in the league for this stretch.
There are a number of reasons why the Heat's timeline has shifted in less than two months. From Dion Waiters blossoming into a more efficient gunner to James Johnson going Draymond Green-light on the rest of the Association, there are too many to list off in one breath. But Dragic playing like the unequivocal alpha is the strongest driving force of all.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
Some will argue that Russell Westbrook was already the Oklahoma City Thunder's torch-carrier—that he eclipsed Kevin Durant for good during the 2014-15 crusade, when he was essentially playing as the lone wolf. That's just not true.
Even in absence, Durant was always the Thunder's most important player, the more superior player. History cannot be rewritten now, when it's more convenient, just because he left and Westbrook didn't.
This isn't a knock on Westbrook. He was the second-best player on a team with two top-five stars. And now, as his squad's lone superhuman, he's using one of the best individual seasons in league history to drag Oklahoma City toward a playoff berth.
Westbrook is going to average a triple-double. That's going to happen. There's a chunk of season left to play, but he's at 31.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game through 80 percent of the schedule. It's insulting to predict failure now.
And while we're busy making housekeeping assumptions, let's pencil him in for the scoring title, too.
Disclaimers still abound. Westbrook goes through stretches of destructive decision-making, and his effective field-goal percentage has dropped even though he's shooting a career-high 33.4 percent on threebies. He's also registering the highest usage rate in NBA history at 42.2—almost four points greater than the previous leader, 2005-06 Kobe Bryant.
What else is Westbrook supposed to do, though? Oklahoma City hasn't put a ton of offensive talent around him. His methods work. The proof is in what happens when he's on the bench:
|Thunder:||Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|With Westbrook||107.5 (No. 11)||104.4 (No. 7)||3.1 (No. 8)|
|Without Westbrook||96.8 (No. 30)||108.4 (No. 24)||-11.7 (No. 30)|
If you're downplaying Westbrook's efforts to prop up the MVP cases of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard or James, you're missing out. Westbrook has seized the reins of an imperfect Thunder team and saved it from entering the dark age that should accompany the departure of an actual MVP.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid will finish the season injured again, with only 31 games to his NBA resume. That's enough to pepper his outlook with question marks and anxiety.
It is not enough to detract from his transcendence, or even to exclude him from the Rookie of the Year race, as GQ.com's Nathaniel Friedman opined:
Realistically, Joel Embiid is the Rookie of the Year because no one else deserves it. The 2016 Draft could well go down as one of the weakest ever; the only other options are teammate Dario Saric, whose increased production is largely a function of Embiid’s absence, and Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who [sic] taken on an important role coming off the bench. Saric is coming on strong enough that, by virtue of sheer PT, he might end up unseating Embiid. Still, when you put them side-by-side, there’s no comparison. For 31 games, Joel Embiid was one of the best first-year players in recent memory.
Tim Duncan was the last newbie to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game. No first-year player has come close to matching Embiid's per-minute output while making more than three appearances. He shoots threes. He polices the rim with purpose. He looks comfortable switching onto smalls. He enlivens a crowd that's had little to cheer for these last few years—an infectious jolt that's survived his departure from the lineup.
Most importantly, Embiid makes the Sixers good. They outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with him, compared to being minus-9.7 without him—the difference between playing like the Los Angeles Clippers and ranking dead last in net rating by a lightyear.
Availability matters. Thirty-one games is barely one-third of the season, and it accounts for Embiid's entire career. But he has legitimized the Sixers' "Process," transforming into something to be renowned rather than reviled.
And in that sense, 31 games is enough.
Sacramento Kings: Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield didn't ask, or expect, to be the face of a rebuild. One second, he's an ancillary option with the New Orleans Pelicans. The next, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, he's hauling the hopes of an entire franchise:
He became "the guy the Kings got for Cousins." And even if Boogie's departure winds up being what matters most for Sacramento—the ultimate case of addition by subtraction—the rookie must still find a way to define himself apart from that.
For the Kings, he's not just a shooting guard with a marksman's reputation and a lottery pedigree. He's a symbol. He's a vessel for the new hope and clarity of purpose attached to the Kings' post-Cousins cultural overhaul. He's the figure a franchise long associated with turmoil and complacency needs.
Traces of Sacramento's commitment to Hield are already in effect. He leads the team in total points (125) and three-pointers attempted (22) and made (43) since his arrival. His usage rate (23.4) is third—more than three points higher than it was in New Orleans.
Other players see more court time, and the Kings can pivot from their infatuation with Hield on a draft-day or free-agency whim. But he's cracked the starting five less than 10 games into his stay, and owner Vivek Ranadive was obsessed with him months before Sacramento brought him aboard, per ABC 10's Sean Cunningham.
Maybe Hield's hold on a starring role is more tenuous or gradual than other first-time alphas. But the Kings seem intent on giving him an extensive shake. Right now, this rebuild is his to headline.
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert
Three players have a case to be inducted as the Utah Jazz's defining linchpin, a testament to the team's depth: George Hill, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert.
Hayward entered this season as the incumbent—an imitation LeBron James with Utah's most well-rounded skill set. Hill thrust himself into the conversation by virtue of statistical indispensability, even while missing more than one-third of the season.
Gobert won the argument with another individual leap.
Sure, there's his defense. He has saved more points within six feet of the basket than any other player and places third overall in total defensive value, according to NBA Math. Utah ranks third in points allowed per 100 possessions and gets stingier when he's in the lineup.
We knew this. Expected it. But he's improved on the offensive end, too. He's averaging a personal-best 13.1 points per game on a career-high 64.9 percent clip. He won't ever be someone the Jazz force-feed, but he's shooting 12-of-23 on post-ups (52.2 percent). Plus, his screens spell death for the defense; he is recording 1.42 points per possession as a pick-and-roll diver—the second-best mark among 88 players with at least 50 such touches.
Not surprisingly, Gobert has been a net plus on both ends of the floor, turning into someone the Jazz cannot afford to play without. They maintain a positive net rating no matter which one of their players is riding the sideline, including Hayward and Hill.