B/R NBA Digest: Luka Doncic's MVP Case Is Very Real

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2019

B/R NBA Digest: Luka Doncic's MVP Case Is Very Real

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    News all over the NBA took a backseat to scoring legend Carmelo Anthony on Thursday. After he spent just over 12 months out of the league, the Portland Trail Blazers pulled him back in, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Will the desperation play pan out for Portland? The numbers to come are foreboding, but considering the team's 4-8 start in the superior conference, the Hail Mary was in order.

    Elsewhere this week, Luka Doncic continued the establishment of his top-10 status, James Wiseman accepted an NCAA suspension (for now), and after a wild press conference in which the front office said they weren't where they wanted to be, the New York Knicks showed some spunk.

    This week's NBA Digest also has fun numbers, a budding rivalry, individual lines of the week, weekly awards and some subtle plays worth paying attention to.


    B/R contributor and podcast host for The Athletic, Mo Dakhil, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to partake in a game of Meaningful or Mirage that involves the Portland Trailblazers, Carmelo Anthony, the Phoenix Suns, Andrew Wiggins, Eastern Conference playoff teams, and the Raptors Pascal Siakam.

We've Never Seen Anything Like This

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Kristaps Porzingis' return to New York had the crowd at Madison Square Garden going wild for 48 minutes. And the Knicks fed off that energy, playing with more conviction than they have all season.

    New York beat the more talented Mavericks, 106-103.

    But, as has been the case in about every game Doncic has played this season, he was clearly the best individual player in action.

    After going for 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, Doncic's season averages are up to 28.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists. His true shooting percentage is 61.1, nearly six points above average.

    Following the game, NBC's Tommy Beer noted that Doncic (13) has more triple-doubles before his 21st birthday than Magic Johnson and LeBron James had combined (12) before turning 21. He also pointed out that no one else in NBA history had more than three at that age. 

    It's fair to wonder if we're operating during an era in which pace and the star-centric nature of the game inflate individual numbers. Last season, over a dozen players performed at an MVP level or better. Early returns on 2019-20 suggest we're in for another campaign with loads of eye-popping statistics.

    But a 20-year old doing what Luka is doing would be alarming in any era.

    Oscar Robertson (who did so three straight times from ages 22 to 24) and Russell Westbrook (age 28) are the only players in league history who put up at least 28, 10 and nine for a full season.

    Again, Luka is 20. And despite Thursday's loss, he is already No. 5 in Basketball Reference's statistical MVP projection. He might as well get comfortable in there.

Portland's Gamble

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    The Portland Trail Blazers let starting forwards Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu walk in free agency this summer. They've since replaced them with Mario Hezonja, Kent Bazemore and, as of Thursday, Carmelo Anthony.

    If you sort all five of those players by box plus/minus since 2017-18, the list reads: Harkless (2.0), Aminu (0.9), Bazemore (minus-0.9), Hezonja (minus-2.2) and Anthony (minus-4.0). Among the 210 players with at least as many minutes over that span, Anthony's minus-4.0 ranks 206th.

    In 2019, adding Melo is, in a word, bold.

    Part of what made Harkless and Aminu so valuable for Portland was their ability to defend and switch throughout possessions on that end. The Blazers didn't come close to replacing that with Hezonja and Bazemore. And now they're likely even worse defensively with Anthony in the mix.

    During his 16 NBA seasons, Anthony only has two with a positive defensive rating swing, meaning his teams have allowed more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in 14 of 16 campaigns, per Cleaning the Glass.

    At his advanced basketball age (35), that problem could be amplified. He'll have a hard time staying in front of other forwards on the perimeter. He often gets caught napping off the ball. That puts added pressure on a squad that's already below average on defense.

    It might even lose some extra games.

    In the 2018 playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder were plus-32 when Melo was off the floor. They were minus-58 with him on. OKC lost that first-round series to the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz, who sought his matchup virtually every possession he played.

    Teams will also do that this season if they face Melo.

    Offensively, his mid-range-heavy game is simply a detriment in today's NBA. His ball-stopping can hurt chemistry, too.

    In order for this to be a positive move for Portland, Anthony has to be a drastically different player than he's been in recent seasons. He may not have the physical tools necessary to be some kind of lockdown defender, but constant focus and effort on that end would help. A willingness to move the ball and defer to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be critical on the other end. He'll also have to rework his shot distribution.

    These are major adjustments, but they're not impossible. After a year away from the game, maybe Anthony finally knows what he must do to survive.

James Wiseman Doesn't Need the NCAA

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    On Thursday, Memphis Tigers big man and potential No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft James Wiseman dropped his lawsuit against the university. The move made Wiseman ineligible, pending the school's application for his reinstatement.

    ESPN's Jeff Borzello explained the events that led to Wiseman's ineligibility:

    "Memphis said last week the NCAA had initially declared Wiseman eligible in May, but further investigation found documentation of Memphis coach Anfernee Hardaway's payment to Wiseman's family in 2017. The school said Wiseman had no knowledge of the payment.

    The school acknowledged last week that Hardaway, before he became the Tigers' coach, provided $11,500 in moving expenses for Wiseman and his family to move from Nashville to Memphis in the summer of 2017. At the time, Hardaway was Wiseman's AAU coach and would then coach him at Memphis East High School. Hardaway, a Memphis alum, was considered a booster due to a $1 million donation he gave the school in 2008 to build a sports hall of fame."

    Regardless of how this plays out, Wiseman doesn't need to play for Memphis to reach any NBA goals he may have.

    The 2018 class' top two in wins over replacement player, Luka and Mitchell Robinson, both missed out on the college basketball experience. Darius Bazley chose a New Balance internship over the NCAA. Terrance Ferguson went to Australia. Anfernee Simons is another player who found an alternative route.

    Even in the one-and-done era, the top prospects don't need the NCAA and all of its rules to get to the league.

    Wiseman could join fellow 2020 class member LaMelo Ball in Australia's NBL. And, according to Forbes' Adam Zagoria, the league would have some interest in such a union. He could work on his game individually for a year, much like Bazley did before being drafted.

    Wiseman did plenty for his stock in high school. Individual workouts in the predraft process could show teams everything they need to see before committing to him. Even if missing out on his freshman season causes him to slip a bit, he can quickly re-establish his value in the NBA, as Robinson has with the New York Knicks.

Do the Knicks Have a Path to Winning Basketball?

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    For a team that's been the NBA's worst over the last 20 seasons (no, seriously, it has been), little victories are worth celebrating.

    So you'll have to forgive the jovial reactions of Knicks players following a November victory at home over a playoff hopeful. After a week of rampant speculation about head coach David Fizdale's job security, the front office's woes and ownership's role in it all, beating Kristaps Porzingis had to be satisfying.

    Lasting success depends on a trio of youngsters who weren't a huge part of Thursday's win, though.

    RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina all have varying levels of potential.

    Ntilikina can defend multiple positions and is shooting 37.5 percent from three this season. Knox looks significantly better than he did as a rookie, and his percentage from deep is all the way up to 44.7. And finally, Barrett, the No. 2 pick this summer, shows flashes of legitimate point forward ability.

    If those three develop, they can form a nice, versatile supporting cast around Mitchell Robinson (who's already quite good).

    Thursday was fun for Knicks fans, but that game may feel like a distant memory in just a few weeks. They're almost certainly going to lose more than they win.

    For now, it's all about relishing the good signs from those three.

Fun with Numbers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    11 and 11

    Just before the regular season tipped off, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was asked about new additions Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

    "Those guys have not understood A) how hard we play, B) our schemes, that [defense] is a priority for them, etc." Nurse told TSN's Josh Lewenberg. "We've got some work to do with that crew."

    Prior to this week, Hollis-Jefferson had logged a total of four minutes in just one appearance. Then, injuries forced Nurse to throw the forward into the fray.

    This week alone, Hollis-Jefferson recovered 11 loose balls and made 11 deflections in three games. His 5.7 loose balls recovered per 36 minutes ranks first among players with at least 30 minutes this week. The 5.7 deflections per 36 minutes ranks third.

    It seems like he now understands how hard the Raptors play.

                   

    9.4

    Over the course of NBA history, plenty of players have found themselves inextricably connected to their contemporaries for various reasons: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and now, Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

    The two point men were traded for each other on draft night. From here on out, comparisons are inevitable.

    That both have been so good so fast may be a little surprising, but it's also fitting. These two could one day compete for face-of-the-league status. And they're already first and second in time of possession.

    Luka has the ball for 9.4 minutes per game, while Trae has it for 9.1.

             

    Box Plus/Minus Leaderboard

    • Giannis Antetokounmpo (13.7)
    • Luka Doncic (11.6)
    • Karl-Anthony Towns (9.8)
    • LeBron James (9.5)
    • James Harden (8.7)
    • Kawhi Leonard (7.9)
    • Aron Baynes/Damian Lillard (7.8)
    • Jimmy Butler/Anthony Davis (7.0)

Budding Rivalry

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The Houston Rockets have two former MVPs on their roster in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They were perhaps the stiffest competition for the Golden State Warriors' half-decade dynasty.

    And yet, their 2019-20 title prospects seemed less heralded than those of the Los Angeles Clippers, who acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this summer.

    This week, the two squads faced each other in a heated battle Houston won 102-93. The Rockets leapfrogged L.A. in the standings, and things may have been even more intense after the game.

    "Pat Bev trick y'all, man, like he playing defense," Westbrook told reporters. "He don't guard nobody, man. He just running around, doing nothing."

    The two guards have a history that dates back to 2013, when Westbrook tore a meniscus after his knee was clipped by a lunging Beverley.

    This week's comments could reignite that flame, though Beverley did say, "Don't start that, don't start that. I don't care about that," when asked about Westbrook's barb.

    On the floor, Beverley has been as successful as anyone at slowing Harden down. According to ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry, no one has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions when defending him. And the 11.1 he's giving up is even more impressive when compared to Harden's career average of 35.7 points per 100 possessions.

    Having a potential Harden-stopper on the roster should be a boon to the Clippers' title chances, but unless they can keep Beverley on him for the entire game, it may not be enough.

    Not only did the Rockets win the head-to-head this week, but Harden dropped 47 points and boosted his average to 38.2.

    L.A. may have three premier perimeter defenders and the 2019 Finals MVP, but the game's best scorer isn't ready to get out of the way.

Lines of the Week

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard, November 8: 60 points (19-of-33), five assists, four rebounds, two turnovers, 46.8 game score

    Lillard dropping 60 in a loss is pretty fitting for this Portland Trail Blazers season. Losing Jusuf Nurkic to injury and letting both starting forwards, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, walk has left Lillard with significantly less help.

    He may well have the season many expected from Stephen Curry. The individual numbers will be wild, but the losses are probably going to pile up along with them.

    As for this particular performance, of the 70 60-point games in league history, only seven came on fewer attempts from the field.

                

    D'Angelo Russell, November 8: 52 points (19-of-37), nine rebounds, five assists, three steals, two blocks, 40.9 game score

    Speaking of seasons Curry was supposed to have, Russell is actually on the same team and playing the same position Curry has occupied for a decade. In his injury-induced absence, Russell has been phenomenal.

    He'll likely never approach the level of efficiency Curry has maintained throughout his career, but the raw numbers from Russell are impressive: 25.7 points and 6.7 assists in 32.2 minutes.

    And with Curry and Klay Thompson out, and Kevin Durant gone, there's seemingly no end in sight for this hot streak. Someone has to score for these Warriors, and he's the only consistent scorer on the roster.

Weekly Awards

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Reclaimed Potential Award: Andrew Wiggins

    Through his first five NBA campaigns, Andrew Wiggins totaled minus-4.9 wins over replacement player (defined by Basketball Reference as value over replacement times 2.7).

    Among a 3,052-player sample from the three-point era, that number ranks 2,916th.

    There was plenty of reason to be out on Wiggins' potential. After five years, inefficient scoring, inattentive defense and a lack of wide-ranging contributions seemed to simply be his game.

    But in 2019-20, Wiggins is kindling the hope with which he entered the NBA.

    Career bests in points (25.9), rebounds (5.1), assists (3.6), blocks (1.1), turnovers (1.5), field-goal percentage (47.8), three-point percentage (36.1) and box plus/minus (1.9) suggest he's turned a corner.

    The mid-range clanks have mostly been eliminated. The three-point-attempt rate is up, while the mid-range-attempt rate is down. And he's passing the ball more.

    There's still reason to wonder about his defensive impact (Minnesota is surrendering a whopping 13.1 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor), but Wiggins has shown enough for believers to come out of the woodwork this season.

    And if Wiggins can remain the kind of efficient, playmaking wing he's been to start this season, the Timberwolves have a real shot at a postseason return.

    As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight's projection system had Minnesota finishing tied for sixth in the West.

                   

    Cult Following Award: Aron Baynes

    My last 10 tweets that do not contain the name "Baynes" have an average of 200.2 total engagements. It's true. I really figured that out.

    My last 10 tweets that do contain the name "Baynes" have an average of, wait for it, 1,126.7 total engagements.

    No, this isn't a perfect science or the kind of analysis you were expecting here, but it's time we acknowledge the bizarre and frankly impressive loyalty Aron Baynes inspires in fans.

    Perhaps it's his beyond-the-wall aesthetic, his literal-wall screens, Australian fandom or Twitter's Baynes Fan Club that have caused this phenomenon. Or, perhaps it's the fact that he's legitimately one of the game's most impactful players right now.

    As you saw above, he's top 10 in box plus/minus. And his plus-7.9 net rating swing ranks in the 72nd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Baynes has been so good that it's now fair to wonder what happens when Deandre Ayton returns from suspension. He doesn't stretch the floor like Baynes. He doesn't communicate and position himself as well on defense. He doesn't set the same legendary picks.

    Maybe we now know why there was some talk of Ayton moving to power forward before the season started.

    And playing with another center-sized player wouldn't be new for Baynes. In his two seasons with the Boston Celtics, he spent over 1,000 minutes on the floor with Al Horford. Boston was plus-14.5 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

In Case You Missed It

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard's Baseline Pull-Ups

    Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid anxiously awaiting the result of the former's rim-rattling buzzer-beater that ended the Philadelphia 76ers playoff run is one of the lasting images of the 2019 postseason.

    The shot that preceded it might be Kawhi's go-to, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook or Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway.

    Tune in to about any Clippers game and you're likely to see Leonard dribble with his right hand toward the baseline before pulling up for a mid-range shot.

    Of his 35 pull-up jumpers this season, the majority are on the right side of the floor and inside the three-point line.

                

    Anthony Davis Passing Out of the Post

    AD's fit with the Los Angeles Lakers has been almost seamless. They're 9-2 with the league's top defense. They're surrendering fewer points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the floor. And perhaps most intriguing, Davis has never facilitated this much out of the post.

    In 2017-18, he averaged 0.3 assists per game from there. That number crept up to 0.5 in 2018-19. This season, Davis is at an NBA-leading 1.1 assists per game out of the post.

    Check out his 14 dimes from this past week to see a few examples.

    Right now, the Lakers are scoring more points per 100 possessions when Davis is off the floor. But this trend is still encouraging. Davis will command loads of double-teams this season. And doubling off LeBron seems like it'll be a bad decision forever. That'll leave Lakers like Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and others wide-open.

    And Davis is showing he can find them.