B/R NBA Digest: Can Anyone Stop LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the LA Lakers?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2019

B/R NBA Digest: Can Anyone Stop LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the LA Lakers?

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    As the 2019-20 NBA season reaches the quarter pole, the title chase still feels relatively wide-open. But the qualifying adverb there comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers.

    After dispatching Anthony Davis' former team on Thanksgiving eve, the Lakers are now a league-best 16-2. They're outscoring teams by 7.9 points per 100 possessions, good for the No. 3 net rating in the NBA. That number jumps to 11.2 when Davis and LeBron James share the floor.

    So much for this pairing needing an adjustment period.

    There seems to be little to no tension over who needs the most touches among the two stars. Both have a usage percentage over 30. LeBron is averaging a career-high and NBA-best 11.0 assists. The 55 dimes (3.1 per game) LeBron has handed AD are the highest of any player combo this season.

    Perhaps, when it comes to team building, two is better than three.

    With one fewer superstar ego to deal with, things fell into place quickly for the Lakers. It feels, somehow, like it happened quicker with this squad than it did with James' Big Threes in Miami and Cleveland. He won titles there, of course.

    The difference now is that the league has plenty of other comparable star collections. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George across the hall in Staples Center, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia. A handful of other teams have a "superstar and solid supporting cast" construction.

    LeBron and AD may well be the best duo, but getting through the rest won't be easy.


    Former New York Knick and Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the era of the multi-sport athlete, the effect of the NBA on youth basketball, the New York Knicks, and Kevin Durant.

AD Spites New Orleans Again

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    A spirited New Orleans Pelicans squad welcomed AD back to the Bayou by outscoring the juggernaut Lakers by 13 points in the first quarter Wednesday. They still held the lead by the end of the third quarter.

    But their longtime big man kept L.A. within striking distance by scoring 27 of his 41 points in the first half. Just enough for LeBron to take over in the fourth and finish off the comeback with 15 points of his own in the frame.

    Jrue Holiday is a great, probably underrated, player. There was some chemistry between AD and Tyreke Evans. The pairing with DeMarcus Cousins appeared to be gaining traction before the injury bug struck.

    But (understatement incoming) the Pelicans were never able to find anyone close to LeBron's level to play with Davis. The top 10 in wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7, according to Basketball Reference) over the course of Davis' tenure in New Orleans is, in a word, underwhelming:

    1. Anthony Davis (74.5)
    2. Jrue Holiday (32.1)
    3. Tyreke Evans (13.5)
    4. DeMarcus Cousins (11.3)
    5. Ryan Anderson (8.4)
    6. Al-Farouq Aminu (5.7)
    7. Julius Randle (5.1)
    8. Robin Lopez (4.6)
    9. Eric Gordon (4.1)
    10. E'Twaun Moore (3.8)

    Now, he shares the floor with another bona fide superstar and doesn't have to deal with outsized defensive attention, something that seems to have energized his own defense.

    Davis is averaging a league-leading 2.8 blocks per game. He's top 10 in FiveThirtyEight's new defensive RAPTOR rating. Opponents are shooting 13.1 percent below average on twos when defended by AD, tops among players who defend at least five twos per game and have appeared in 10 games.

    This version of Davis is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. And on a team where he actually has some help on the other end, that puts him firmly in the title hunt, something he couldn't even sniff with the Pelicans.

The Underappreciated Greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    We may have grown sort of numb to absurd individual stat lines over the last few seasons.

    For over a decade, LeBron getting 25, seven and seven in a game seemed like a given. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double in each of three consecutive seasons. James Harden's scoring numbers are approaching the per-game levels (and obliterating the per-possession levels) of the '60s and '70s.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has helped to open the floodgates. And even after winning MVP last season, there's a chance his production is now being taken for granted.

    "Antetokounmpo is on pace to produce one of the greatest individual seasons we've ever seen by some pretty uncomplicated and widely understood metrics," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "He's improving on an MVP pace."

    Even the standard Giannis set last season was better than the average MVP. And now he's posting more points (27.7 to 31.1), rebounds (12.5 to 13.7) and assists (5.9 to 6.2) per game.

    These are basically prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar numbers if he was also his team's point man. And this is all happening before Giannis has even hit the quarter-century mark. The guy is 24 years old (for a few more days).

    This week alone, he added two more 30-point, 10-rebound performances. In one, he went for 50, 14 and six assists (more on that later).

    That brought his total for 30-point, 10-rebound, five-assist games to a whopping 40. Only Oscar Robertson (88) and LeBron (47) had more before their 25th birthdays.

    This is a player on track for all-time-great status. Hopefully, basketball fans around the world are aware.

The Fully Formed Clippers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    L.A.'s other star duo, Kawhi and PG, has now logged close to 100 total minutes (94, to be exact). The Clippers are a solid plus-16 in those minutes (plus-8.2 per 48 minutes).

    The star duo off the bench—and yes, it is a star duo—of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell has been even better. The Clippers are plus-8.9 points per 48 minutes when those two share the floor.

    When all four are together? Whooo-weee...

    L.A.'s only played 33 minutes with those top four guys in the game. It's a ridiculous plus-27 in those minutes.

    The Williams/Harrell pick-and-roll is devastating. All four can create their own shots (Harrell via the offensive rebound). When you add Patrick Beverley to this mix, you have three of the game's best perimeter defenders. This roster checks about every box you can think of.

    These fully realized Clippers had their powers on stunning display this week, going 4-0 and upending two of the game's brightest individual stars. They beat the Houston Rockets 122-119 despite Harden's 37 points, showing they can win a shootout.

    Then, they held Luka Doncic to 22 points on 4-of-14 shooting. He entered that loss on a streak of four straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Dallas had the best offensive rating of all time, and L.A. held the Mavericks to 99 points. The Clippers can emerge victorious from basketball rock fights, too.

    This team is loaded. It can play various styles. It may have the most star power in the league. No wonder FiveThirtyEight has its championship chances as high as any team in the league.

Fun with Numbers

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    35

    This is LeBron's age-35 season. As mentioned before, he's averaging 11.0 assists. That might be even more wild than you realize.

    If he stays over 10 for the entire season, he'll have the fourth campaign in NBA history with double-digit assists per game in an age-35 or older season.

    The other three belong to Steve Nash.

    The fact that LeBron, who is already perhaps the most statistically accomplished player of all time, has found another hill to conquer, is unreal.

         

    315

    Karl-Anthony Towns is on pace for 315 threes this season. Prior to 2019-20, Stephen Curry and James Harden were the only players who hit more in a season.

    Needless to say, Towns is the biggest of the bunch. By a lot. And he's on pace to break the record for 6'11"-plus players. By a lot.

    Right now, that mark is held by Brook Lopez at 187.

    Functionally, the jump in volume has helped the already-hyper-efficient Towns. Towns is posting a career-high 66.1 true shooting percentage (wow). 

         

    Box Plus/Minus Leaderboard

    • Luka Doncic (13.7)
    • Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.5)
    • James Harden (10.1)
    • Karl-Anthony Towns (9.8)
    • LeBron James (9.2)
    • Anthony Davis (6.7)
    • Jimmy Butler/Kyrie Irving (6.4)
    • Aron Baynes/Kawhi Leonard/Mitchell Robinson (6.3)

Lines of the Week

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Joel Embiid, November 25: 32 minutes, 13 rebounds, five fouls, four turnovers, two assists, zero points (0-of-11 from the field, 0-of-4 from three, 0-of-3 from the line), minus-8.4 game score

    There was never any indication that the "Lines of the Week" had to be good lines. And this week, Joel Embiid had a historically bad performance against the Toronto Raptors.

    For the first time in his career, Embiid was held scoreless. And his minus-8.4 game score was the worst this season and 15th-worst of the last 20 seasons.

    "I can't have this type of production," Embiid told reporters after the game. "I would have never thought I would be here talking about zero points in an NBA game, but it is what it is. Some nights you make shots, some nights you don't. Some nights you're hot, some nights you're cold."

    This is just a blip on the radar for Embiid. He was once again hot in Philadelphia's very next game, scoring 33 points on 10-of-19 shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds in a win over the Sacramento Kings.

    This might be something to monitor for the postseason, though. If these two teams meet there, the Toronto Raptors potentially have the league's "Embiid Stoppers." In six head-to-head matchups, Marc Gasol is 4-2 and holding Embiid to 11.7 points on 29.2 percent shooting.

           

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, November 25: 38 minutes, 50 points (17-of-31 from the field, 3-of-8 from three, 13-of-19 from the line), 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals, zero turnovers, 45.1 game score

    Michael Jordan is the only other player in NBA history to record at least 50 points, 14 rebounds and six assists while committing zero turnovers in a single game.

    Antetokounmpo's performance almost single-handedly won a game in which the Jazz shot 21-of-45 (46.7 percent) from deep.

    Again, we may be taking what Giannis is doing for granted. Milwaukee hasn't slowed a bit since Khris Middleton left the rotation with a thigh contusion (he just returned Wednesday after missing seven games).

    Giannis' numbers during Middleton's absence? 33.1 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.7 threes.

Weekly Awards

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Social Media Revenge Game Award

    Kyrie Irving didn't suit up for his new team's first away game against his former team, the Boston Celtics, because of a shoulder injury.

    That didn't stop the Celtics faithful from booing him. And it didn't stop Kyrie from adding fuel to the revenge-game fire by posting a long and winding essay on the meaning of life and sports on Instagram.

    Marc Stein of the New York Times posted a screen grab of the post that read, in part:

    "It happens all the time and Tonight just shows how Sports/Entertainment will always be ignorant and obtrusive. It's one big SHOW that means Very VERY little in the real world that most people live in because there are Actually things that matter going on within it...Butttt, This Game of Sports entertainment matters more than someone's mental health and well being right? Or the real life things that happen to people everyday but they still have to Perform for the NBA and its fans? Right? It's all about doing it for the fans and organization that love you so much? Think again, It's a GAME, and it's promoted as a Fandom experience for ticket buyers and viewers at home, while defacing who people truly are as PEOPLE."

    And that's only about half of what Irving wrote. Feel free to read and attempt to digest the rest on your own.

    No one is suggesting that basketball is more important than Irving's individual life or his mental health. And no one is suggesting he can't speak out on those topics or his feeling that he may be subjected to some kind of soul-devouring ritual wherein he puts a ball in a hoop for the amusement of the millions of people who generate his exorbitant salary.

    He's entitled to all these opinions. And he's entitled to express them.

    But fans have opinions, too. And for decades (centuries, if we want to throw it back to the gladiator days), they have loudly voiced them during the heat of competition. They've fueled countless competitors, both friend and foe, in the NBA.

    And they were particularly rowdy because a star player who pledged to re-sign just over one year ago dipped out on them. That decision was his right, as well, but he had to know this was the natural consequence.

         

    Outperforming Expectations Award

    The Washington Wizards were supposed to be bad this season. And, in some ways, they are (see Washington's last-place defense, per Cleaning the Glass).

    But the Wizards are an entertaining bad. And the Dallas Mavericks are the only team scoring more points per 100 possessions than Washington's 113.4.

    Is this sustainable? Probably not.

    The Wizards are 16th in three-point-attempt rate, taking only 37.0 percent of their shots from deep. They're taking 10.7 percent of their shots in the long-two range, a number that trails only five teams. And Bradley Beal is the only player on the active roster who has a proven track record as an offensive player over the last couple of years.

    But that's enough rain for one parade. Let's just enjoy these funky Wizards. They're ninth in the East and getting double-digit scoring averages from Beal and *takes a deep breath* Thomas Bryant, Davis Bertans, Moritz Wagner, Rui Hachimura and Isaiah Thomas.

Trade Watch... Watch

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    There are some pretty good players on some pretty bad teams. That's a recipe for a potentially exciting trade season.

    Of course, "potentially" is necessary because deals are hard to get done. We've seen plenty of quiet deadline days. But the post-Golden State Warriors vacuum that made this summer so frenzied remains. A team or two may be looking to load up for a run. Several could be sellers.

    Consider the following sub-.500 squads with players who might be able to help playoff or title contenders:

    • Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green
    • New York Knicks: Marcus Morris, Wayne Ellington and Taj Gibson
    • Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson
    • San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge
    • Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond
    • Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams
    • Portland Trail Blazers: CJ McCollum
    • Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon

    Honestly, that list could probably be even longer.

    And, of course, that doesn't mean all or even most of those guys will get dealt. There's a chance none of them do. But there isn't a title contender in that bunch. And you can be sure teams looking for one player to put them over the top will place some phone calls to those squads.

Matchups to Watch

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers, Dec. 1 at 4 p.m. ET

    The last time these two teams met, LeBron James had 39 points, 16 assists, 12 rebounds and four steals in a 119-110 overtime win over the Dallas Mavericks. Luka Doncic went for 31 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds.

    The showdown between the two point men instantly sets up one of the league's best matchups. For over a decade, LeBron ruled the league. Luka looks like his heir apparent.

    Seeing them go toe-to-toe is a blast.

          

    Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. ET

    The Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers both entered this season with championship buzz. This game could've been pinpointed as a possible Finals preview had we broken it down before the season started.

    But both teams feel a bit off through a month and change of the 2019-20 season.

    Mike Conley has had a few good games spread out over the course of the season. But on balance, the numbers aren't pretty. He's shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three, and he's averaging just 4.7 assists.

    Utah has been a little better with him on the floor, though, which is an indication of how bad the bench has been. If it can't find one or two guys to pop from that second unit, Utah could be doomed to another early playoff exit.

    Philadelphia, meanwhile, is facing a similar problem. The bench gets a little dicey after James Ennis III, and the 76ers have the added headache of a fit among the starters that hasn't been seamless so far.

    The ball dominance of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still seems to clash, and Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford are shooting a combined 33.5 percent from deep (including a recent uptick from Richardson). In a lineup that features Simmons, that won't cut it.

    Perhaps this matchup between two underwhelming clubs could be a breakout performance for one.

          

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current heading into Friday's games and courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference.