B/R NBA Digest: What Nobody Saw Coming with Zion; 2020 NBA Draft Concerns
Zion and All-Stars and trades—oh my!
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you never know what adventures are in store as an NBA fan.
This week, we saw the debut of Zion Williamson, the announcement of this year's All-Star starters, plenty more monster stat lines and the ratcheting up of playoff races in both conferences.
As always, we'll explore all the league's biggest happenings in this week's B/R NBA Digest. And, of course, staples like Lines of the Week and Fun with Numbers will show up, too.
This week, we'll also take a quick look at the 2020 draft class, which some are describing as a down year. And with the Feb. 6 trade deadline looming, we'll take stock of a handful of rumors.
Onto the yellow brick road!
Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Raptors' current winning season, last year’s NBA Finals, superstar Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard’s departure, being an underdog and learning from Kyle Lowry.
Zion Williamson Debuts By... Raining Threes?
The first three quarters of Zion's debut were frustrating.
The four-minute bursts the New Orleans Pelicans allowed him to play threw off everyone's rhythm. It's just an unusual rotational quirk for someone who isn't a ceremonial starter (like the defensive aces over the years who've started and averaged 15-20 minutes per game).
Much of the broadcast's discussion of the player himself focused on his weight (285 pounds) and whether that would be a problem.
"My body is just built different," Williamson told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski after the game. Based on last night's reaction, that may take some getting used to.
He also just didn't seem to fit in right away. That should've been expected. The Pelicans have been better of late. Brandon Ingram has gotten used to his near-30 percent usage. So, Zion was deferential to a fault.
"At the start of the game, he was deferring, really," head coach Alvin Gentry told Wojnarowski. "And that doesn't surprise me. But when we put him in in the fourth, we said, 'Just be aggressive. Don't worry about the mistakes. Just be you and play the way you feel like you can play and be successful. And I thought he loosened up.'"
That's one way to put it. Zion loosened up to the tune of 17 straight points in the span of about three minutes. He finished with 22 on 8-of-11 shooting. His 16.3 game score was the second-highest all-time for a career debut in which the rookie played fewer than 20 minutes.
Going forward, New Orleans won't possibly be expecting the kind of outside shooting Zion showed Wednesday. He went 4-of-4 from downtown. If he's even average out there, that'll be gravy.
What he'll do more regularly is snag rebounds others can't. He'll be a nightmare to defend around the rim. He'll find cutting lanes. He'll physically dominate most matchups. He might even run some breaks. Zion showed good vision throughout the game.
As far as debuts go, this couldn't have gone much better despite the awkwardness of the first three quarters.
All-Star Starters Are In!
On Thursday, the league announced the 10 starters for the 2020 All-Star Game. There weren't many surprises.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (Captain)
- Pascal Siakam
- Joel Embiid
- Kemba Walker
- Trae Young
- LeBron James (Captain)
- Anthony Davis
- Kawhi Leonard
- Luka Doncic
- James Harden
If you're looking to nitpick, you could have a couple of targets in the Eastern Conference.
Trae Young's basic individual numbers are phenomenal, but his team is dead last in the East. ESPN's real plus-minus, FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR and Basketball Reference's box plus/minus all peg him as not just a bad defender but as one of the absolute worst in the NBA.
But the All-Star Game isn't about catch-all numbers and team records. It's about showcasing the league's talent. And other than Ben Simmons, there may not be many other guards with a strong argument over Trae. Again, this is a nitpick.
Believe it or not, there is an argument for Domantas Sabonis. He's averaging 17.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists for the fifth-place Indiana Pacers. The bigs who did get selected, Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid, have both missed over 10 games to injury.
Jimmy Butler is another frontcourt player who has a legitimate gripe. He trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo in RAPTOR rating among Eastern Conference players with 500-plus minutes. His Miami Heat are 31-13 and in second place in the East. And Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the only players in the league who match Butler's basic averages for points, rebounds and assists. Add true shooting percentage as a qualifier and the list narrows to Butler and Doncic.
The Western Conference selections were even more predictable.
Some may gripe over Kawhi Leonard's games played. And Nikola Jokic has arguably been better statistically than Anthony Davis. But ultimately, it may be tough to win many converts on either of those fronts.
Value of the 2020 NBA Draft
The 2018 draft class was loaded. Luka Doncic has blown the hype around him out of the water. We can probably say the same about Trae Young. A number of others, including Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and Donte DiVincenzo, look like they could have long and fruitful NBA careers.
The next year, the draft didn't carry quite as much excitement. But at least it included Ja Morant and Zion. Both have superstar potential.
In 2020, it could be tough to find franchise-altering talent.
"It's bleak, but at this point, you at least have to ask yourself: What if none of these guys are actually that good? " Jeremy Woo wrote for Sports Illustrated. "It's not crazy to think this could be the worst draft since 2013, when (gulp) Anthony Bennett went first overall."
LaMelo Ball has good size and vision for his position. He showed a willingness and ability to lift his teammates in Australia. Isaac Okoro has risen all the way up to No. 2 on the big board of Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman because of his athleticism and defense. Anthony Edwards, Onyeka Okongwu, Cole Anthony, Deni Avdija, James Wiseman and a handful of others are all at least mildly intriguing.
But again, it's tough to point to a single surefire star, and that could have consequences for both the trade market and the eventual tankathon. How will buyers and sellers value 2020 first-round picks in February? How many teams will blatantly shoot for the bottom of the standings in March and April?
The perceived lack of talent will likely lead to more conservative approaches on both fronts.
Fun with Numbers
The Utah Jazz went all-in on Mike Conley last summer, trading three players and two first-round picks (the 2019 pick used on Darius Bazley and a 2020 selection) to acquire the veteran point guard. But it was the starting lineup they went to after Conley left the rotation with a hamstring injury that pushed the team closer to the top of the Western Conference.
When Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neale, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert share the floor, Utah is plus-25.9 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that ranks in the 100th percentile leaguewide.
The size, versatility, playmaking and shooting of four generally positionless players around Gobert has worked brilliantly. And while it's fair to point out that the schedule softened up after Conley got hurt, that group still rocks a plus-17.2 net rating against opponents with a record above .500.
The tricky thing here is that Conley is now healthy again. He's come off the bench in his first three games back. Can the Jazz keep that up with their highest-paid player? How do you sell a 13-year veteran who cost you five assets on that?
O'Neale may be the easiest player to pinpoint for a return to the bench. He's spent most of his career in that role. But he's been a critical component of this dominant starting five.
This may be the tightest rope head coach Quin Snyder has had to walk in his six seasons with Utah.
Cleaning the Glass defines location effective field-goal percentage as follows: "If this team shot the league average FG% from each location, what would their effective FG% be? This gives us a sense of the efficiency of a team's shot profile."
Now, if you subtract that number from the team's actual effective field-goal percentage, you can see which squads are underperforming and overperforming relative to their shot profiles.
At plus-2.6, there's a three-way tie between the Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs as the teams overperforming most. A pair of squads from the Big Apple, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, are tied at minus-3.5 as the biggest underperformers.
Analytics can only take you so far. Brooklyn's expected effective field-goal percentage leads the NBA. But as the old adage goes, it's a make or miss league.
It helps to take the right shots. It's better to make them.
Lines of the Week
With apologies to Trae Young (42 points on Jan. 20), Zach LaVine (40 points on Jan. 18) and Karl-Anthony Towns (40 points on Jan. 22), this edition of Lines of the Week is reserved for the only two players who managed 40-plus game scores.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day against the Golden State Warriors, Damian Lillard broke past the 60-point threshold for the second time this season. In doing so, he became just the fifth player in NBA history to go for at least 60 more than once in a season.
The other four? Wilt Chamberlain (1961-62, 1962-63, 1964-65, 1965-66 and 1968-69), Kobe Bryant (2005-06 and 2006-07), Michael Jordan (1986-87) and James Harden (2018-19).
Now, the concerning thing here is that it took Lillard's 61 points and an overtime period for the Portland Trail Blazers to beat the shell of the Golden State Warriors. FiveThirtyEight's projection system gives Portland a 25 percent chance to make the postseason, and Jusuf Nurkic may be back soon. But needing Lillard to go supernova may not be the most reliable way to win games.
There are a couple of misconceptions floating around about Joel Embiid's absence: The Philadelphia 76ers actually play a bit faster when Embiid is on the floor, and the team's net rating is quite a bit better when both he and Ben Simmons play than it is when Simmons is alone.
But there could be some merit to the idea that Embiid's absence may benefit Simmons individually. The differences aren't huge, but Simmons' scoring, rebounding, assist, turnover and free-throw rates are all better when he's on the floor without the starting center.
And his 34-point triple-double on Martin Luther King Jr. Day may serve as the exclamation point for his current run without the All-Star big man.
Thanks in part to the line above, Simmons is averaging 20.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals over eight games since Embiid left the rotation.
Earlier this season, The Athletic's Ethan Strauss reported that the Warriors were "monitoring" Karl-Anthony Towns despite the fact that the big man is under contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves through 2024.
This week, Gersson Rosas, Minnesota's president of basketball operations, said the obvious and perhaps put any Towns rumors to rest (for now).
"Karl-Anthony Towns is as untouchable as they come," Rosas told ESPN's Eric Woodyard. "He's the best player on our team and he's the guy we're building around."
Towns isn't just Minnesota's best player. He may be on track to status as one of the best offensive bigs of all time.
David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Nikola Jokic and Shaquille O'Neal are the only 6'10"-plus players to total more wins over replacement player in their first five seasons. And Towns leads that bunch (overwhelmingly) in threes and three-point percentage. He also leads in true shooting percentage, though Jokic isn't far behind.
Sure, plenty of teams are "monitoring" Towns. There's just no reason for the Wolves to entertain the idea of trading him.
Another Timberwolf who might not be attainable next month is Robert Covington.
"Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Golden State have been rumored to be interested in acquiring him, either before the deadline or in the summer," The Athletic's Zach Harper wrote. "However, the asking price if a team wants him before the deadline is pretty high. Young assets and picks (first-round and second-rounders) are the starting point to get in on a Covington conversation, according to league sources."
Yikes. That may be posturing. And Covington is good. But young-players-and-picks good?
Over his last three seasons, Covington has a slightly above-average true shooting percentage and ranks just outside the top 50 in box plus/minus.
He can move the needle for a contender but maybe not far enough to warrant mortgaging the future.
"Andre Drummond and Steven Adams are the big-name bigs available, but among the most intriguing is Aron Baynes," the New York Times' Marc Stein tweeted. "The Suns are not shopping Baynes, league sources say, but they have also not ruled out moving him before the Feb. 6 deadline if a team meets their trade price."
Baynes was among Phoenix's hottest Suns to start the season, posting an average game score of 12.3 and shooting 44.2 percent from three through the first 12 games. He's been in and out of the lineup and rotation since then, posting a 6.2 average game score over 21 appearances.
With Deandre Ayton back, perhaps Phoenix may be in the market for some draft capital in exchange for Baynes. His three-point percentage has dipped below average, but he's shown enough to keep defenders honest out there. That and his rugged defense and screen-setting could make him the ideal backup 5 for a contender.
Alec Burks' late-career breakout has been a fun story to track during this tank-worthy campaign. After averaging 9.5 points over his first eight seasons in the league, he's at a career-high 16.0 in 2019-20.
In a less demanding offensive role, he might even be slightly more efficient. It's not hard to see him sparking an offense as a seventh or eighth man.
"Multiple teams have reached out to the Warriors in recent weeks to see what it would take to acquire Burks," Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. "But at this point, Golden State is still looking for better offers for him."
If no team meets Golden State's asking price by Feb. 6, it may well drop. Now is the time to drive a hard bargain. The pressure of deadline day almost always forces teams to soften up.
Matchups to Watch
Boston Celtics at Miami Heat, Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are both dinged up, but if they're healthy, this game is worth watching on TNT.
Both the Celtics and Heat deploy offenses that are heavy on ball and player movement. They both have well-balanced attacks. Both teams have versatile defenders.
The Milwaukee Bucks are an overwhelming favorite to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Either of these squads could be the last hurdle between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Finals.
Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 28 at 10:00 p.m. ET
This doesn't need much buildup. The Lakers are tops in the West, but they're 0-2 against the Clippers. And there's a decent chance these teams will meet in the conference finals.
Even up 2-0 in the season series, the Clippers are reportedly concerned about the potential playoff matchup.
"The Clippers are said to be concerned about their lack of muscle up front compared to the Lakers' length as well as the ongoing health issues Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are battling," Stein tweeted.
If the Lakers can make a statement Tuesday, perhaps it will increase the sense of urgency within the Clippers to get a deal done.
Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets, Jan. 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Much like Boston and Miami in the East, Utah and Denver are in that next tier of contenders in the West. Few might pick them to beat the Clippers or Lakers in a seven-game series right now, but these are two of the deepest teams in the league. And several players from both rosters are still developing.
The other thing that makes this matchup interesting are the opposing styles. Both squads are built around All-NBA centers. Rudy Gobert remains the game's most impactful defender, while Nikola Jokic is among the most unique offensive hubs we've ever seen.
So far, Gobert has the edge in their career head-to-head matchups. Who will prevail when they clash Thursday?