B/R NBA Digest: Never Change, KD + Should the Sixers Trade Ben Simmons?
In a lot of ways, it still feels like the 2019-20 NBA season is in its infancy. But in the coming week, a handful of teams will hit the halfway point of their schedules.
It's around this time of the year that trade rumors heat up, standings start to crystallize, contenders emerge and we can stop giving small-sample-size alerts to everything.
But even with all that surfacing, it can take a backseat to the wild ride that is NBA Twitter. That's what happened Thursday during Russell Westbrook's return to Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant got into a back-and-forth with a former teammate.
Oh, and on that return? Westbrook got blasted by his old team, which might be better than it was last season.
We'll dive into all that and more in this week's NBA Digest.
KD Traded Jumpers for Darts
Even when he's absent from actual games and not hitting unguardable jumpers, Kevin Durant has a knack for seizing headlines. Whether in interviews, during his own shows or on Twitter, the man is never afraid to speak his mind.
Thursday, the forum of choice was Twitter, where he dealt blow after blow to his old center, Kendrick Perkins.
Perk was in the middle of a conversation with Boston Celtics reporter Marc D'Amico, trying to explain in sub-280-character snippets why Westbrook was the best player in Thunder history when KD came flying in off the top rope.
"KD lost in the second round without Russ when I was there. So what that mean?" Perkins tweeted.
"Yea and our starting center [Kendrick Perkins] averaged a whopping 2 and 3 during that series," Durant replied. "U played hard tho champ lol."
Here we go. Apparently, KD's coldbloodedness isn't confined to basketball games. Of course, that didn't end the kerfuffle. Perk doubled down.
"Boy stop you did the weakest move in NBA History!!!" he tweeted while hammering that shift-plus-one. "Up on a team 3-1 in the western conference finals and then go join them the following season?! Heart of Champion right there."
That was about as effective as a prime Perk hook shot, as evidenced by the response it drew.
"Weak is starting at center, playing real minutes with no production," KD said, swatting said hook shot into the stands. "Should've worked on your skills as much as I did."
There's never a dull moment in the NBA. Whether it's regular-season action, the playoffs, player movement during the summer or the running commentary NBA Twitter provides for all of it, there's always something to talk about.
Some wonder why Durant spends time responding to people on Twitter and getting into these little spats. Tweet on, I say. Modern fandom gives us an opportunity to see professional athletes in a way previous generations simply couldn't. Sometimes, they even engage.
OKC and Russell Westbrook May Be Headed in Opposite Directions
There were plenty of warm feelings for Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City Thunder fans during the pregame tribute video. And all of them were earned.
Russ won an MVP in OKC. He averaged a triple-double in each of three straight seasons. He made eight All-Star teams. He helped take a team of up-and-comers to the Finals, where he ultimately lost to LeBron James' Miami Heat. It was only that ultimate prize that alluded him in Oklahoma.
He was traded as the team approached a rebuild, presumably hoping he'd have a better shot at a title alongside James Harden on the Houston Rockets.
In his first game back in OKC, his Rockets got shellacked, losing 113-92.
This particular loss probably isn't on Westbrook. He scored 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting and had a comfortably better plus/minus (minus-13) than Harden (minus-25). But it underscored an increasingly undeniable truth: The Rockets may not have won this trade.
Chris Paul is on a shorter contract than Westbrook. There's no statistical argument that Russ has been better than CP3 individually this season. Houston is better when Harden is on the floor without Westbrook and a disaster when Westbrook is on the floor without Harden. And after Thursday, OKC, the team that's supposed to be rebuilding, is just 3.5 games back of the Rockets.
General manager Sam Presti's summer may be unassailable. Faced with a trade demand from Paul George, he masterfully pivoted to a two-track rebuild that netted him one of the greatest point guards of all time (who still had something left in the tank), a thoroughly modern pace-and-space weapon in Danilo Gallinari, one of the game's most enticing young guards in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a mountain of future draft picks.
The Thunder are good. Assuming they don't become sellers at the trade deadline, they're going to make life difficult on someone in the first round. They've already annihilated this season's expectations.
Westbrook's Rockets? They're still one of a handful of teams we can probably argue have a legitimate shot at the championship. We can't do that for the Thunder. But at this point, even after his numbers have rebounded a bit, it feels like Houston might have to win in spite of Westbrook.
Westbrook did an awful lot for the Thunder organization over the course of his 11 seasons there. His final gift may have been asking for that trade.
Star Guards Set to Return
The Eastern Conference is set to get a talent boost in January.
"Pacers star Victor Oladipo tells Stadium he plans to make season debut on Jan. 29 against Chicago," Shams Charania tweeted this week.
It may take him some time to get back to full speed, but adding Oladipo's All-Star-level talent to an Indiana Pacers squad within striking distance of home-court advantage in the playoffs is a major development.
Indiana has gotten strong, team-first play from Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and the rest of the supporting cast, but it just seems to be lacking that star punch to get to the next tier. Oladipo can provide that.
"I'm way stronger now than I was before, especially mentally," he told Charania. "I just feel like nothing can phase me. I've been through the worst."
And what's more, he fits. Brogdon and Oladipo can more or less share positionless combo-guard duties. And Oladipo is not the kind of possession-dominating star who will throw off the rhythm the rest of the team is in.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, will take plenty of shots from his teammates. But after a frisky few games in his absence, the Brooklyn Nets have shown recently they desperately need their star.
In the midst of a seven-game losing streak, the Nets have fallen to eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are keeping hope alive for teams like the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.
So, news of a sooner-than-expected return for Kyrie should surely excite Brooklyn fans.
"Irving was able to fully participate in practice for the first time on Thursday morning, including working through 5-on-5 contact drills," ESPN's Malika Andrews wrote. "Head coach Kenny Atkinson said Irving played with both the starting group and the second unit."
Irving game himself a one-week deadline, though the team didn't say whether it was on board with that timeline. Regardless, this is far more encouraging than the complete lack of a timeframe we were working with before Thursday.
Should the 76ers Trade Ben Simmons?
The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II caused a stir this week, casting the idea of a possible D'Angelo Russell-for-Ben Simmons swap out into the ether:
"One of the interesting possibilities I've heard being kicked around is Russell for Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The 76ers could use a point guard who can score and run the show — and shoot. Some believe the pairing of Simmons and big man Joel Embiid isn't viable in their pursuit of a championship. Simmons, as one source told me, is probably the best player the Warriors could possibly get for Russell, just considering the needs of the Warriors and their potential trade partners."
There may be some legitimate questions about the fit between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It would be nice if either or both could hit threes more consistently (or, in the case of Simmons, at all).
But Embiid is 25 years old. Simmons is 23. They're among the most talented young players in the league, and they're both under contract for a while: Embiid through 2023 and Simmons through 2025.
Over the course of their time together, the Sixers are plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor, compared to minus-2.1 when both are off, minus-2.8 when Simmons is on without Embiid and plus-7.7 when Embiid is on without Simmons, per PBPStats.com.
It's probably too early to think about breaking this pair up. And certainly not for Russell.
Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign (Simmons' first), Philadelphia's point man is 10th in the NBA in wins over replacement player. Russell is 60th. Simmons' true shooting percentage is 4.1 points higher. He has the edge in rebounds and assists. He's a significantly bigger, better and more versatile defender.
The idea of Russell/Embiid pick-and-rolls is intriguing, but not at the expense of one of the game's most talented and unique players.
And oh, for the Warriors, this is a no-brainer. This is like getting a rewind on Draymond Green's prime. Only this time, he's taller, faster and generally more athletic.
Fun with Numbers
Our first not-so-fun number this week comes courtesy of ESPN's Tim MacMahon:
"Mavs' overall offensive rating: 115.3 points per 100 possessions (1st in NBA)
"Clutch (last 5 minutes, score within 5): 91.0 (28th)
"Super clutch (last 3 minutes, score within 3): 77.2 (28th)"
Much has been made of the Dallas Mavericks' historically great offense, but they've certainly struggled in their tensest moments.
This should probably be expected, though. In so many ways, Luka Doncic is way ahead of schedule. Let's not forget he's still just 20. Late-game management, particularly understanding the value of each and every possession, is something that generally takes time.
Luka has plenty of that.
Basketball Reference tracks per-possession numbers back to the 1973-74 campaign. James Harden's 35.5 points per 75 possessions are the second-highest on record.
Who's ahead of him? Well, believe it or not, 2018-19 Harden at 36.2.
Context matters when looking at these numbers, especially if you're thinking of comparing today's monster lines to those of the past. Most previous eras played at a much faster pace than the current game.
Immense Potential Award: Sekou Doumbouya
Detroit Pistons forward Sekou Doumbouya turned 19 in December.
After spending much of the early portion of this season in the G League, where he averaged 16.7 points and shot 38.3 percent from three, the teenager is now getting his chance to posterize on the big stage.
Over a four-game stretch from Jan. 2-7, Doumbouya averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 threes for the Detroit Pistons. He punctuated that run with a social media-rocking jam all over Tristan Thompson.
When you're as young as Doumbouya, those flashes of special talent can mean even more than the numbers.
He's producing on little more than raw talent right now. There will be plenty of growing pains. On Thursday, foul trouble severely limited his minutes.
But as the Pistons edge closer to the precipice of a full rebuild, Doumbouya gives them a loaded-with-potential youngster to mold into a positionless phenom.
Blind Determination Award: Collin Sexton
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton is not afraid to go to the rack. And get denied. Over. And over.
Heading into Thursday's games, Sexton had been blocked an NBA-leading 72 times. That's almost twice per game and not far behind his 86 assists.
The Cavs have a bunch of problems right now, from the John Beilein situation to the Kevin Love mess. Sexton's "put your head down and don't ever think about passing" style probably shouldn't be too high up the list, but it should at least be mildly concerning.
The silver lining here may be the confidence it takes to keep attacking after being rebuffed that many times. If Cleveland can convince him to pass out of a few of those drives, and Sexton figures out some of the crafty finishes that help better guards finish inside, that confidence may be a plus in a couple of years.
Lines of the Week
Another week, another run of 40-point games. And this time, the sources were pretty varied.
It's probably safe to assume the Nikola Jokic slump is over. Since the start of December, Jokic is averaging 22.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists while shooting 40.7 percent from three.
His 47-point masterpiece was made even more special by the fact that he didn't commit a single turnover. It was just the 14th time in NBA history that a player went for at least 47 points and five dimes without a single giveaway.
Much of the talk surrounding Anthony Davis' stellar first campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers has related to his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. Games like this serve as reminders of how dominant he can be on the other end.
This season, L.A. is scoring 3.7 more points per 100 possessions when AD is on the floor. Now, of course, that has a lot to do with all the minutes he shares with LeBron James, but Davis' scoring prowess is also a big part of why LeBron is leading the league in assists for the first time in his career.
Not only does Davis serve as LeBron's favorite assist target, but he's also the receiver in the league's most prolific assist combo.
James Harden has appeared in seven of the last six editions of Lines of the Week. That's right, he appeared twice one week.
In the past, performances like these were generally reserved for video games. Harden has made this commonplace—perhaps to the point that we're taking it for granted.
His 15 career 40-point triple-doubles trail only Oscar Robertson's 24.
Speaking of 40-point triple-doubles, Trae Young notched his first this week, making him the 29th player in this club.
Unfortunately, the performance came in a loss. But don't use that as an excuse to minimize what Young is doing offensively. Atlanta is 4-6 when Young posts a 30-plus game score. It's 4-24 in all other games.
Young has to be borderline superhuman for the Hawks to sniff an average level of play.
Simmons and Russell aren't the only players floating through the rumor mill this week. After the most active offseason in NBA history in terms of player movement, rumblings suggest a few more players could wind up on new teams before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
As ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on The Jump:
"The Cavs have communicated this to [Love]: 'Help us help you. Do you want to get traded? You do? Well, then come and have a good attitude every day and put up numbers.' And there have been periods—weeks, sometimes two weeks, sometimes even longer—where Kevin has done that. But there have been several times this season ... where he's lost his cool a little bit, and we're all watching for it."
On the nights Love looks happy and engaged, you can see how Cleveland might be able to unload that monster contract. He can still rebound. He can still stretch the floor as a forward. He has decent passing vision for a big.
But the length of Love's contract and his injury history are daunting. Being a good citizen on the floor almost feels like a requirement to make that deal movable.
John Henson and Brandon Knight
Love isn't the only veteran in Cleveland who may finish the season elsewhere.
According to The Athletic's Joe Vardon, the Cavs are "showcasing" both John Henson and Brandon Knight in hopes of moving them prior to the deadline. It'll take a heck of a turnaround for Knight to have any value, but some team might be able to talk itself into Henson as a backup 5.
His $9.7 million salary is manageable, and his 4.0 box plus/minus is 26th among players with at least as many minutes. In 10-15 minutes off the bench, his rim protection and rebounding could be useful.
"Burks remains the most likely to be dealt," Thompson wrote in his article on Simmons and Russell. "He has been one of the Warriors’ best players and his value might increase near the deadline. The Warriors are all ears if a playoff team comes looking for a veteran bench piece who can score."
Burks can absolutely help a contender. He's averaging 15.9 points and shooting an above-average percentage from three (37.2). And he's only making $2.3 million this season.
Marcus Morris Sr.
"Opposing scouts and executives believe the Knicks might be able to get a late first-round pick for Morris if they decide to trade him—though it's far from a consensus—or they could net a young player, maybe with second-round picks attached," The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov wrote.
At 6'8", Morris can bring the kind of defensive switchability so many teams covet these days.
But the biggest selling point is probably his 46.9 three-point percentage. His career mark (36.9) suggests a regression may be coming, but he has shown more than enough to draw multiple suitors on the trade market.
Matchups to Watch
Los Angeles Lakers at Dallas Mavericks, Jan. 10 at 9:45 p.m. ET
LeBron James vs. Luka Doncic kind of sells itself at this point. Through three head-to-head matchups this season, LeBron is averaging 25.7 points, 12.3 assists and 9.0 rebounds. Luka is at 25.7 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds per game against the Lakers.
L.A. leads the series 2-1. During what will be our last chance to watch these two face off in the regular season, will Luka and the Mavs even the score?
Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets, Jan. 12 at 8:00 p.m. ET
The Denver Nuggets offense has seemingly come alive right along with Jokic. If they can combine their early-season defense with what their superstar is doing of late, they should be considered legitimate title contenders.
Beating teams already in that tier can serve as evidence that Denver is on the same level. Given that it isn't the second night of a back-to-back, the Clippers' oft-load-managed Kawhi Leonard should be available for this potential Western Conference Finals preview.
Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets, Jan. 15 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Is it a revenge game if the returning player only made 10 appearances for his former team? Let's say this one qualifies.
Last season, Carmelo Anthony played 10 games with the Houston Rockets before he was let go. It was a move that made plenty of sense for Houston. The Rockets' net rating was 15.0 points per 100 possessions worse with Melo on the floor.
It took him a year to get back onto an NBA floor, and he's been much better for the Portland Trail Blazers. That net rating swing has flipped all the way to a plus-5.4. He's shooting 41.1 percent from three. And his presence isn't robbing Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum of much usage.
Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks, Jan. 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Now, for a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview.
The Boston Celtics have had some success slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo in previous playoff runs, but Al Horford had a lot to do with that. Of course, he's gone now.
Can the positionless trio of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make life difficult on the reigning MVP?