Weekly NBA Digest: LeBron's Lakers, Giannis' Bucks Proving Mortal

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2019

Weekly NBA Digest: LeBron's Lakers, Giannis' Bucks Proving Mortal

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Now that the NBA's slate of Christmas Day games has come and gone, it feels like we're all the way in on the 2019-20 season.

    There isn't as much need for the "small sample size" alerts on statistics. Most of the league's players are now eligible to be traded. Playoff pictures (or at least the top six in each conference) are starting to take shape.

    And on Christmas, we saw potential previews of the conference finals for both the East and West.

    The Philadelphia 76ers stomped the Milwaukee Bucks. The Los Angeles Clippers overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half to knock off the Los Angeles Lakers.

    With both current No. 1 seeds toppled, each conference feels wide open. The NBA is giving us a level of regular-season parity we haven't seen in over a decade.

    But of course, those weren't the only games and storylines featured in the last week. A look around the league follows in Bleacher Report's weekly NBA Digest.

    It's Commish For A Day on "The Full 48 with Howard Beck!" Hear the changes the following would make to the league if they were given power for 24 hours – Metta World Peace, Channing Fry, KC Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson, Shawn Marion, Harvey Araton, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, and actor Kelly AuCoin.

What Happens If LeBron or AD Miss Time?

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    By the time the playoffs roll around, Wednesday's tilt between the Clippers and Lakers may go down as another random regular-season game. If that's the case, LeBron James aggravating a groin injury could be a bigger story than the final score.

    "I felt healthy going into the game," James told reporters after the final buzzer. "I got kneed in the groin taking a charge from [Patrick Beverley], and it kind of set me right back to where I was five days ago."

    According to ESPN's Dave McMenamin, the injury could force LeBron to miss time, as "overuse" may prove problematic. And if it's something that lingers, the Lakers might be in trouble.

    So far this season, L.A. is plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions with James on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. It's minus-4.1 when LeBron is out, giving him a plus-14.5 net rating swing that ranks in the 95th percentile.

    When Anthony Davis is on the floor without LeBron, the Lakers are minus-2.8 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that ranks in the 39th percentile. And he's dealing with a sore knee of his own.

    When L.A. almost completely wiped its roster to make room for the AD trade, this is exactly what many worried about. What happens if LeBron (in his age-35 season) or Davis (who's dealt with plenty of nagging injuries throughout his career) misses time?

    The salaries of those two take up nearly 60 percent of the cap. Add Danny Green and the trio is up over 70 percent. This is often the reality of team-building for plenty of organizations, but front offices have to nail the signings throughout the rest of the roster.

    If LeBron misses a few games with this injury, we'll see how close the Lakers came to nailing those deals. How inspired are you by LeBron-less lineups featuring Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

Utah Goes All-In...Again

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    In FiveThirtyEight's final set of preseason projections, the Utah Jazz were forecasted to go 51-31 and finish fourth in the stacked Western Conference. By last week, the projection had tailed off a bit to 49-33 (sixth place).

    That doesn't sound like a big slide, but the reasons behind it were concerning enough for the front office to shake things up again. After trading for Mike Conley, sending Derrick Favors to New Orleans and signing Bojan Bogdanovic in the summer, Utah made another flurry of moves on Dec. 23.

    Dante Exum and two second-round picks were sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson. Jeff Green was waived. Rayjon Tucker was signed from the G League's Wisconsin Herd.

    "Of the 17 Jazz players," Salt City Hoops' David J. Smith tweeted, "only Gobert, Ingles, Mitchell, Bradley, O'Neale and Niang were on the roster at the end of 2018-19."

    This is a far cry from Utah's strategy in the summers of 2017 and 2018 when the team went all-in on continuity. After back-to-back early exits from the playoffs, it has about-faced into an overhaul.

    The first series of moves worked, to an extent. Despite missed time from Conley, the Jazz's starting five has the third-highest total plus/minus of any five-man lineup in the NBA.

    The bench was a disaster, though. And that's exactly what the decision-makers just attempted to address.

    Exum was already out of the rotation. He hasn't been able to garner much favor from head coach Quin Snyder in the last four seasons. Sending him and two question marks for a middle-of-the-best-season-of-his-career Clarkson was a no-brainer. The incoming guard should provide a scoring pop for a bench that ranks 29th in points per game.

    Then there's Green, whose negative impact on the floor outweighed the veteran's leadership and chemistry additions.

    As pointed out by Nylon Calculus' Riley Gisseman, any five-man combination of Conley, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Royce O'Neale and Rudy Gobert yielded a plus-11.1 net rating. Any of those four with Green yielded a minus-14.9 net rating.

    Replacing those minutes with Clarkson will make Utah smaller, but it should also make the second unit more dynamic.

    The concern here would be fit. Clarkson has never been known as a big ball-mover (his career-high assist percentage comes from his rookie season), and Snyder's offense is notoriously complex. Given the alternatives and how thoroughly Utah's backups were being beaten, though, these moves make plenty of sense.

Christmas Treats

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    The league's Christmas Day schedule was marred by injuries. The following players all missed games on one of the NBA calendar's biggest days:

    The remaining healthy players gave us plenty to enjoy, though.


    Boston Celtics (118) at Toronto Raptors (102)

    Jaylen Brown continued to make his All-Star case in Boston's 118-102 victory over Toronto, scoring 30 points on 13 field-goal attempts.

    "The Celtics are the 3rd best team in the NBA, and if that stays the same they would deserve two all-stars," SiriusXM NBA's Justin Termine wrote. "If Kemba is one, Brown should be the other."

    After Wednesday's big performance, Brown is up to 20.2 points per game while shooting 39.1 percent from deep.

    What We Learned: Jaylen might be an All-Star.

    Milwaukee Bucks (109) at Philadelphia 76ers (121)

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is still in front of the MVP race, but Joel Embiid dominated him on Christmas, reviving his own MVP case in the process.

    In just 28 minutes, Embiid had 31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He was plus-15 and held Giannis to 2-of-11 shooting when matched up against him, according to StatMuse.

    What We Learned: Embiid can still get to an MVP level.

    Houston Rockets (104) at Golden State Warriors (116)

    Golden State double-teamed James Harden on almost every possession, forcing Russell Westbrook into 30 points on 32 shots.

    It was the sixth time this season Westbrook had more attempts than points. Houston is 3-3 and minus-8.9 points per 48 minutes with the point guard on the floor in those outings.

    What We Learned: Westbrook can shoot the Rockets out of games.

    Los Angeles Clippers (111) at Los Angeles Lakers (106)

    LeBron was hampered by the groin injury, but Kawhi Leonard was dominant in this one. On top of his 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, Kawhi spent more time defending James than any other Clipper. 

    LeBron only managed to get two shots off against Leonard. He missed both.

    What We Learned: When it matters most, Kawhi might be the league's best small forward.

    New Orleans Pelicans (112) at Denver Nuggets (100)

    The Pelicans ended Denver's seven-game winning streak, neutralized a red-hot Nikola Jokic and continued their own mini-surge.

    What We Learned: New Orleans might not be done (more on that later).

Fun with Numbers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press


    Among players with at least 300 minutes played, Paul Millsap's plus-21.8 net rating swing (difference in the team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on and off the floor) ranks first.

    Here's the rest of the top 10:

    1. Millsap (21.8)
    2. Bojan Bogdanovic (21.2)
    3. Dennis Schroder (16.0)
    4. Davis Bertans (15.5)
    5. Patty Mills (15.5)
    6. Jimmy Butler (15.2)
    7. Jakob Poeltl (15.2)
    8. Devonte' Graham (15.2)
    9. Marc Gasol (15.1)
    10. Domantas Sabonis (14.9)

    For Millsap, specifically, defensive versatility and a 46.2 three-point percentage have made him indispensable for Denver.

    And that shooting is a little theme of the rest of the top 10. Among players posting a league-average-or-better three-point percentage, Bogdanovic, Bertans, Mills and Graham rank ninth, fourth, 30th and second, respectively, in threes made.

    It turns out good volume shooting can be pretty helpful.


    James Harden's 3.291 career MVP shares already rank 13th in NBA history. As of Thursday, he was first in NBA Math's MVP predictor.

    Even if he doesn't win the award, there's a decent chance he gets enough of a share to leapfrog Julius Erving in MVP shares and move into 12th place. And considering his average of 0.823 MVP shares per season since 2016-17, finishing his career in the top 10 all-time might be inevitable. He's only 0.911 shy of 10th-place Kobe Bryant.

Weekly Awards

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Not Dead Yet Award: New Orleans Pelicans

    Following their Christmas Day upset of the Nuggets, the Pelicans' chance at a playoff berth is up to 30 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight's forecast.

    That may seem shocking for a 9-23 team, but this isn't our usual Western Conference playoff race. Though the top six is still loaded, there's a chance the seventh and eighth seeds finish below .500. The current No. 7, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is just 15-14. And the eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers are only 5.5 games ahead of New Orleans.

    If Derrick Favors can stay healthy, Brandon Ingram continues to average 25-plus points on a 60-plus true shooting percentage, Zion Williamson comes back and Jrue Holiday doesn't get traded, it's not hard to see this team making a run.

    According to Basketball Reference's Playoff Probabilities Report, the Pelicans have the third-easiest remaining strength of schedule.

    Overly Ambitious Award: New York Knicks

    The New York Knicks have made something of a tradition out of chasing (and ultimately failing to secure) the talents of superstar NBA players. All the doomed pursuits can't squash this organization's blind ambition, though.

    On Wednesday, the New York Post's Marc Berman reported that the Knicks "envision being in good position to make a blockbuster trade for a star player who could grow 'disgruntled' with his current situation."

    The targets? Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday or...Karl-Anthony Towns?

    "The first pick of the 2015 draft, Towns hails from Metuchen, N.J., and grew up a diehard Knicks’ fan," Berman wrote. "If he sought a trade, his wish list figures to include the Knicks."

    KAT has the kind of ability that could instantly change a cellar-dweller's fortunes, and New York has the worst winning percentage in the NBA over the last 20 years. But we've been down this road before with the Knicks.

    Towns just turned 24 years old and might already be the best center in the NBA. What exactly could New York offer the Minnesota Timberwolves to entice them into such a deal?

    Even if Towns does eventually want out, surely some other team could beat a package of salary filler, any of the Knicks' youngsters not named Mitchell Robinson and picks.

    Right now, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. are combining to average 33.1 points while shooting 38.1 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three.

Lines of the Week

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Another week, another handful of 40-point games.

    As detailed in last week's Digest, the NBA is on pace for the third-most 40-point games in a single season in league history. And as detailed by Thinking Basketball's Ben Taylor, an offensive philosophy coined "heliocentrism" may be a cause of this eruption.

    In the past, multiple stars and an emphasis on ball and player movement were key. Now, stars like Luka Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James and others are essentially the suns around which the rest of the team revolves.

    This crop of lines of the week features two such heliocentric stars, as well as one throwback.


    LaMarcus Aldridge, Dec. 23: 32 minutes, 40 points (17-of-25 from the field, 3-of-5 from three, 3-of-4 from the line), nine rebounds, five assists, three blocks, 37.0 game score

    That 37.0 game score was the fourth-highest Aldridge has ever posted. His patented high-release jumper painted the mid-range green against the Memphis Grizzlies.

    But approach this performance with some caution. So far this season, the San Antonio Spurs' net rating is 15.1 points worse when he's on the floor, a net rating swing that ranks in the 5th percentile.


    James Harden, Dec. 21: 34 minutes, 47 points (15-of-27 from the field, 9-of-19 from three, 8-of-9 from the line), seven assists, six rebounds, one block, 35.5 game score

    This performance gave Harden 62 career games of at least 40 points, five rebounds and five assists (regular season and postseason combined). That ties him with Wilt Chamberlain for the fourth-most ever.

    Only Michael Jordan (79), LeBron James (73) and Oscar Robertson (72) have more.


    Trae Young, Dec. 21: 40 minutes, 47 points (14-of-30 from the field, 3-of-12 from three, 16-of-19 from the line), eight rebounds, six assists, one steal, 33.0 game score

    Trae Young already has 11 games with a 30-plus game score. Only Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, Charles Barkley and Tim Hardaway had more in their first two seasons.

    And, of course, Young still has plenty of his second season to play.

    It may also bear mentioning that the Atlanta Hawks are 5-6 (.454) in those 11 games, but that's a much better winning percentage than what they've produced when Young plays and is below that 30-game score threshold (.300).

Matchups to Watch

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    Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat, Dec. 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET

    So far this season, Jimmy Butler is 1-1 against his former team, and his individual numbers from those contests are pretty subdued.

    On the season, Butler is averaging 20.4 points, 6.6 assists and 6.5 rebounds. Against Philly, he's at 12.5 points, 4.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game.

    Will we get a more aggressive Jimmy in this battle of Eastern Conference powers?

    Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers, Dec. 29 at 9:30 p.m. ET

    Luka Doncic and LeBron James may both still be dealing with nagging injuries by the time this rolls around. But if they're playing, this is appointment viewing.

    Here's how both performed in their two previous meetings this season:

    • Luka: 29.0 points, 12.5 assists, 11.0 rebounds
    • LeBron: 32.0 points, 12.0 assists, 10.5 rebounds

    Every time these two face off, it feels like another part of some kind of torch-passing ritual. Giannis Antetokounmpo will obviously have something to say about this, but Luka could be on his way to assuming the point-forward throne LeBron has occupied for well over a decade.


    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Thursday.