B/R NBA Digest: How to Feel About Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love's Suitors and More
Another week of NBA action is in the books. As always, the league delivered plenty to digest (as if the holiday season doesn't give us enough to consume).
Kawhi Leonard had his first game back in front of the Toronto Raptors' faithful. Trae Young struggled first with teammates and then opposing fans. And Kevin Love's trade availability was reported.
Elsewhere around the league, we'll look at some dark-horse Rookie of the Year candidates, early All-Star indicators and the trend making a handful of defenses look historically bad this season.
Weekly staples like "Fun with Numbers," "Lines of the Week" and "Matchups to Watch" can also be found inside.
So, pour that egg nog, light a fire and curl up with your favorite screen. It's time for Bleacher Report's NBA Weekly Digest.
Kawhi Leonard 'Fulfilled His Promise'
If there are any boo-birds in Toronto, they must've migrated south for the winter. Or maybe, just maybe, in this era of constant player movement, Kawhi Leonard delivering a championship before leaving is all it took to guarantee a warm reception.
After hearing a chorus of praise from the fans and receiving his 2019 championship ring from Raptors great Kyle Lowry, Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers cruised to a 112-92 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the team he helped guide to a title just six months ago.
Arranging this series of events is easier said than done, of course. "I don't want to play here. But I'm also not real excited about getting booed when I come back. I'll just win an NBA championship first." Not how it works. Few (if any) are wired for postseason success like the NBA's Terminator.
Leonard and his career are unique. He didn't ask to go to Toronto. He wanted out of San Antonio, sure, but the Raptors weren't a preferred destination. He more than honored his contract there.
"He fulfilled his promise," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters before the game. "I don't know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception."
It was. And success is the reason it was.
He has two Finals MVPs and no regular-season MVPs. He's played 92.5 percent of all the postseason games his team has been in. He's played in 71.3 percent of his teams' regular-season games.
Kawhi is a machine. And he's built for the playoffs. He operated at maximum capacity throughout the 2019 postseason. Raptors fans had the prevailing team's view of the entire run. Regardless of where he is now, booing him after that almost feels impossible.
The Impatient Confidence of Trae Young
First of all, second-year Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young is already one of the best offensive players in the NBA.
He's averaging 27.9 point and 8.6 assists while shooting 37.6 percent from three. No one has ever hit all three of those marks for an entire season, regardless of experience level. He trails only LeBron James and James Harden in offensive real plus-minus this season.
But it's been a rough week and change for the potential heir to both Steve Nash and Stephen Curry's crowns.
First, there was an "emotional locker room scene" involving Young after a 130-118 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. Shortly thereafter, "one high-ranking team official was seen telling Young that the team would be getting him some help on the roster soon."
Then, after mixing in a 30-point performance in a win over the Charlotte Hornets, Young went viral toward the end of a 135-121 loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday.
With 59.9 seconds left, Young dimed Alex Len for a dunk that put the Hawks up by six. The confident Young then yelled "It's over!" to the Miami crowd.
It wasn't. Miami dropped 22 straight on Atlanta on the way to the overtime win.
Then, finally, Young went 4-of-14 in a 34-point loss to the now 9-17 Chicago Bulls.
Phew. That's a loaded week. But honestly, the games themselves shouldn't be that surprising for a team as young as the Hawks, especially with John Collins out.
His own defensive issues aside, Young is ahead of the rest of his team's schedule. This season (and maybe even the next couple) will be an exercise in patience. Lessons like the one Jimmy Butler and the Heat gave him will help. A self-deprecating "....Welp" on Twitter suggests he may have already learned from that one.
But the results described here won't be the only sources of frustration this season. It's fine that Young wants more. It's also too early to tell if players like Collins, De'Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter aren't the ones who can give him more.
Who Will Pony Up for Kevin Love?
Over the weekend, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers were "ready to listen to trade offers for Kevin Love."
Despite some earlier posturing that suggested Love was a long-term piece for Cleveland, this development always felt inevitable.
When LeBron left, the Cavs were thrust into a rebuild. Love is now entering his post-prime. The next few seasons may also be the last in which he can be a big contributor to a contender. And Cleveland is a ways away from being a contender.
The difficulty here is about as obvious as the fact that the Cavs eventually shop Love, though.
Over the three seasons after this one, Love is owed $91.5 million. That contract takes him through his age-34 season. And this is a player who already has some concerns in his injury history.
Is a player who has appeared in 59.6 percent of his team's games over the last three-plus seasons and who is averaging 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds with a 58.8 true shooting percentage during that span worth that much time and money?
There's a decent level of risk in acquiring Love, but there are also a few teams that might be able to justify it.
Would the Portland Trail Blazers be OK with an all-offense, little-defense trio of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Love? With the rapid development of its young core, would Miami still be interested in another scorer alongside Butler? Could the Sacramento Kings unload one of the bad contracts they signed this summer for Love? How about a Ricky Rubio reunion in Phoenix?
A handful of teams are almost certainly doing their due diligence on Love right now. They also have to be wary of everything that comes with him, including the likely forfeiture of cap space through 2023.
Luka Doncic Is Appointment Viewing
The Dallas Mavericks took the Luka Doncic show on the international road this week, beating the Detroit Pistons 122-111 in the NBA's Mexico City Games.
Turns out, Luka's absurd game travels well.
41 points. 12 rebounds. 11 assists.
Russell Westbrook desensitized us to triple-doubles. But Luka seems to be popularizing them again. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why. Maybe it's the fact that he's significantly more efficient. Maybe it's because Luka's production seems to lift others, while Westbrook was thought to literally be taking rebounds away from Steven Adams. Maybe it's just the narratives we choose.
Whatever the reason, Luka's performances have become must-see basketball. Tune into any Mavericks game, and you're going to see a wide variety of step-back threes, behind-the-back passes, reverse-between-the-legs dribbles, finger rolls, floaters, scoop shots, lobs, one-handed crosscourt lasers...and on and on.
Luka's skill level is absurd. And I don't know if you've heard, but the guy is 20 years old. He just notched his second 40-point triple-double. LeBron James is the only other player who had two before turning 21. And there are only nine players in NBA history who had more in their careers, regardless of age.
Check out this list: Oscar Robertson, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Pete Maravich.
Luka is 20. And he's already in this kind of company.
No career has ever started like this. And it's not like he's getting cheap numbers on a bad team.
After Thursday's win, the Mavericks are 17-7 and scoring more points per 100 possessions than any NBA team ever has.
If you haven't watched yet, it's time to get on board. Don't worry, they're on national TV three times next week.
Dark-Horse Rookie of the Year Candidates
Ja Morant practically has his hands on the 2020 Rookie of the Year trophy already.
He leads the class in scoring at 18.7 points per game (Donovan Mitchell is the only class leader in scoring who missed out on Rookie of the Year in the last 10 years). Morant's assists per game almost double second-place Kendrick Nunn's.
And with Zion Williamson out until some time in 2020, it's getting more difficult by the game to imagine anyone catching Morant in this race.
Still, box plus/minus (which is not a great indicator of who will win Rookie of the Year) has six players ahead of Morant, two of whom may be able to make a late charge for the award, assuming their teams commit some more time to them.
The minutes will be a problem for the Philadelphia 76ers' Matisse Thybulle, who leads 2019-20 rookies in box plus/minus. He's on a title contender. Playing time on those teams is hard to come by for rookies. But Thybulle is forcing Brett Brown to play him.
After struggling out of the gate offensively, Thybulle has been on fire for about a month now. He shot 28.6 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three in his first 10 games. In the 14 since, he's shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 59.4 percent from three.
That's bonkers. And in concert with his defense, the biggest reason he was a first-round pick, it makes Thybulle arguably the NBA's most impactful rookie.
No one in NBA history matched or exceeded Thybulle's current steal percentage and block percentage for an entire season. If we relax the qualifiers a bit, single seasons from Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Wallace are the only ones added to the list. Neither of those players were close to Thybulle's current three-point percentage of 46.3.
The other dark horse is Morant's teammate, Brandon Clarke. And on the rebuilding Grizzlies, his minutes should go up.
Right now, Clarke is averaging 12.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.0 blocks with a whopping 69.4 true shooting percentage. But that's in just 21.2 minutes per game.
His per-75-possession averages are 19.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He's 30-of-42 on shots in the paint but outside the restricted area. The second-best field-goal percentage there is nearly 14 points behind his.
Like Thybulle, he's already impacting the game on the defensive end like a veteran. That touch in the paint is something most veterans can't even claim.
Again, Morant has this award all but locked up. Points rule all in the minds of plenty in NBA-themed debates. But if there are a couple players who can keep a foot in the door, it's Thybulle and Clarke.
Early All-Star Picks
This is far from a perfect science, but if we aggregate various catch-all metrics (those stats that endeavor to combine all or most of a player's contributions into one tidy number), we can get what feels like a fairly accurate predictor for this year's All-Stars.
The methodology is summed up as follows: Sort every player in the NBA by the average of his ranks in 10 catch-alls (real plus-minus, RAPTOR rating, box plus/minus, win shares per minute and game score per minute, as well as the cumulative variants of each). Then, break down the resulting list into the All-Star format.
For the Eastern Conference, that gives us Kemba Walker, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo as starters. The reserves would be Malcolm Brogdon, Evan Fournier, Jarrett Allen, Al Horford, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam.
In the Western Conference, the starters would be James Harden, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. The reserves would be Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Montrezl Harrell, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Will Barton.
Again, this is far from perfect and only one way to look at how individual players are performing. And there's still over a month before the All-Star teams are decided.
The easy outliers to spot are Allen and Fournier from the East as well as Barton from the West. The rest aren't tough to talk yourself into.
Some potential omissions (and some of these were plenty close with the above criteria) are Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokic, Trae Young, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Devonte' Graham, Donovan Mitchell, Fred VanVleet and Gordon Hayward, just to name a few.
What this exercise may prove more than anything is that choosing All-Stars this year is going to be a nightmare. The NBA is practically overflowing with talent. It might be time to increase the number of All-Stars per year.
Lighting Up Lottery Teams
Check out the bottom 100 defensive ratings (points allowed per 100 possessions) of all time.
There are 10 2019-20 teams there. Expand to the bottom 200, and you add three more squads from this season.
Take a deep breath before reading this:
- The Wizards are allowing 117.2 points per 100 possessions (second-most all time)
- Hawks (114.9, fourth-most)
- Cavaliers (114.6, eighth-most)
- Hornets (114.4, 10th-most)
- Pelicans(114.2, 12th-most)
- Knicks (113.3, 20th-most)
- Warriors (113.2, 23rd-most)
- Spurs (113.1, 24th-most)
- Timberwolves (112.5, 40th-most)
- Grizzlies (111.5, 91st-most)
Now, it's still early. There's time for some of these numbers to stabilize. And this is also, in part, a reflection of the increase in threes and general efficiency. Five 2018-19 seasons are in the bottom 20, as well. And if we sort instead by net rating (net points per 100 possessions), four 2019-20 teams are in the bottom 100 and seven in the bottom 120.
But even with the built-in excuse of increased three-point volume, it's fair to say this year's crop of lottery-bound teams are regularly getting the doors blown off. The gap between Milwaukee's first-place net rating and New York's last-place net rating is 23.4. It's only been bigger in three previous seasons, two of which included Michael Jordan-era Bulls teams.
Fun with Numbers
James Harden is using 13.9 possessions per game out of isolation (which is actually down a decent amount from last season). The average number of isolations used per game by the other 29 teams is 6.8.
That's right. Harden, as an individual player, is isolating more than twice as often per game as the average NBA team.
And while that's led to plenty of griping about Houston's style of play on Twitter and other forums for NBA discussion, it's hard to fault the Rockets for leaning this heavily into the strategy.
Harden is averaging 1.15 points per iso, which trails only Damian Lillard's 1.18 among players with at least 50 possessions.
The Dallas Mavericks' top-ranked offense is generating 1.17 points per possession. Second-place Milwaukee is at 1.14.
Statistically, Nikola Jokic is nowhere near the standard he set for himself in the years leading up to 2019-20.
His 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and comfortably positive net rating swing would be a stellar line for most players, but it's not quite up to snuff for the reigning first-team All-NBA center who averaged 25.1, 13.0 and 8.4 in the 2019 postseason.
Still, despite his slow start, Jokic's 18 field goals in clutch time (defined by the NBA as possessions played in the final five minutes of games that are within five points) lead the NBA. And his clutch field-goal percentage of 56.3 is second among players with at least 20 attempts.
Box Plus/Minus Leaderboard
- Luka Doncic (13.2)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.6)
- James Harden (10.1)
- LeBron James (9.3)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (8.8)
Real Plus-Minus Leaderboard
- LeBron James (10.18)
- James Harden (7.17)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.67)
- Kawhi Leonard (6.07)
- Jayson Tatum (5.90)
RAPTOR Rating Leaderboard
- James Harden (11.8)
- Jimmy Butler (9.4)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (9.3)
- Luka Doncic (9.0)
- Will Barton/LeBron James (8.9)
Lines of the Week
Luka's second 40-point triple-double would've gotten the "Lines of the Week" treatment, if not for the earlier slide dedicated to him. And this week, it was already tough to limit the selection here to five games. Just try to pick a favorite from this bunch.
As pointed out by the No Dunks podcast, Anthony Davis notched his 50 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves without hitting a three. It's the third time in his career that he's pulled off that feat.
And just 10 other players have done it in the last 20 years.
"Rick Barry is the only player in NBA history to score more points while attempting 5 or fewer free throws, per [Basketball Reference]," ESPN's Tim MacMahon tweeted on Wednesday.
This, of course, will be a fun stat for Rockets fans to throw at Harden's "haters" when they complain about his abundance of trips to the line.
Kemba Walker told reporters his big night "didn't really matter" because the Celtics lost, but he can take solace in earning a "Lines of the Week" shoutout.
On a more serious note, the monster performance bumped Kemba's season-long offensive box plus/minus up to 6.1. His net rating swing is 3.9. Last season, Kyrie Irving had a 6.0 offensive box plus/minus and a 2.8 net rating swing for the Celtics.
The Devonte' Graham All-Star campaign is understandably picking up steam. He's a strong contender for Most Improved Player, as well.
After averaging just 4.7 points in 46 games last season, he's putting up 20.0 points, 7.6 assists and 3.8 threes with an above-average true shooting percentage.
Charlotte is minus-1.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court and minus-19.0 points per 100 possessions when he's off.
Ben Simmons had this week's highest game score per minute at 1.32 (the AD game noted above was 1.24).
For 26 minutes, he simply annihilated the Cleveland Cavaliers. Philly was plus-32 in the brief time he was on the floor.
The performance was the highlight of a recent uptick in Simmons' production. In his last six games, he's averaging 17.2 points, 9.2 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 2.2 steals.
He's also the spearhead of a defense that's worked its way up to third in the league.
This is the version of Simmons people expected coming into this season. And this is who he'll need to be for the 76ers to be legitimate title threats.
Matchups to Watch
Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks, Dec. 18, at 9:30 p.m. ET
Never mind that the Mavericks might be the most watchable team in the NBA, this particular matchup offers a look at two fringe contenders in opposing conferences.
Both squads have exciting young wings (Luka Doncic for the Mavericks and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for the Celtics) and high-powered offenses (Dallas is No. 1, while Boston is No. 7).
This may not quite be a Finals preview yet, but it could be a preview of a Finals preview. With this level of coaching and young talent, Dallas and Boston figure to be legitimate contenders in the next few years.
Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee Bucks, Dec. 19, at 8:00 p.m. ET
And then there's the real Finals preview.
The Lakers and Bucks are each 22-3, tied for the best record in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, is flying toward the crown LeBron wore for over a decade as the game's best player.
Seeing them head-to-head (though they may not spend a ton of time actually defending each other) is going to be one of the highlights of the week.
The game itself may come down to which supporting cast can bring more. The Lakers, of course, have Anthony Davis, the sixth-leading scorer in the NBA. But the Bucks are deeper.
Milwaukee has 12 players who've already logged 200 minutes this season. All 12 are above replacement level, according to box plus/minus. Ten of the 12 are above average. The Celtics and Raptors each have nine such players. No other team has more than six.
And that depth was on display Wednesday. In a game Giannis missed with quad soreness, the Bucks routed the Pelicans 127-112.
So, while L.A. might have the better top two in this matchup, depth and home-court advantage should be enough for Milwaukee to prevail.