This week’s 10 things highlights Karl-Anthony Towns and the flailing Minnesota Timberwolves, a secret (bad) Nikola Jokic trick, a new confidence king in Brooklyn and … the Bane Train!
- Dean Wade and the Cavaliers’ perimeter guys are defending (so far)
Get to know Dean Wade. He doesn’t shoot much, or do any one thing at a super-high level. But good things happen when he’s on the floor — and have since the Cavaliers scooped him up on a two-way contract. He’s one of those jack-of-all-trades role players who fit any lineup.
That starts with shooting and defense. Wade has hit 38% of his career 3s, including a scorching 18-of-36 this season. He moves without the ball, and makes the next pass in the chain — fast.
He has been a plus defender across the middle of the positional spectrum. He can jostle with power forwards, and work as a stopgap against apex wings; Wade did not look out of his depth guarding Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for stretches of overtime wins against the Boston Celtics. The Cavs slotted him into the starting lineup when Darius Garland was out; that group is plus-22 in 54 minutes.
Even after consecutive losses, Cleveland is No. 3 in points allowed per possession. Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen barricade the rim. Opponents are shooting just 45% at the basket with Allen nearby, an elite mark for defenders. He’s rebounding at career-best levels; the Cavs are No. 1 in defensive rebounding rate by a mile.
Mobley is an all-court, all-position wrecker, perhaps Cleveland’s best antidote to Tatum and Brown types. (And, yes, it’s a disaster Isaac Okoro is an afterthought here.)
We knew what those guys would do. The perimeter guys would be the difference between Cleveland being good and great on defense. Garland, Donovan Mitchell, and Caris LeVert had earned reputations as below-average defenders before this season. All three are grinding now. Garland is slithery and smart. Mitchell and LeVert have amped the physicality way up.
Everyone is nailing the subtle things that drive winning:
That is the kind of good defense you don’t notice, because good defense often lies in the absence of noticeable mistakes. Wade and Kevin Love execute a textbook “X-out” there. Love ditches Troy Brown Jr. in the corner to clog the lane. Wade (guarding LeBron James!) reads that, and zips from James to Brown. Without missing a beat, Love diagonals out to James, forcing a well-contested triple.
Doing that stuff, over and over, is how you exceed expectations.
- Karl-Anthony Towns at the point of attack
The Minnesota Timberwolves are 5-7 against a so-so schedule; their players are taking veiled (and not-so-veiled) shots at one another in the media; one of them forgot to check in to Wednesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns as it was going on; and they are struggling to execute new schemes on both ends after reorienting their roster with the Rudy Gobert mega-trade.
The Wolves are so discombobulated. It’s jarring, sometimes amateurish. This will either stabilize, or sizzle into an NBA melodrama powderkeg. The worst thing Minnesota could do is make a panic move that aligns more of the roster around Gobert’s timeline instead of Anthony Edwards’.
The Wolves managed as well as could be expected last season with a blitzing defense designed to smoke-and-mirrors around Towns’ weakness as a rim protector. They are still using that scheme when Towns guards screen-setters, and when Gobert rests.
And somehow, Towns and some teammates look as if they have never practiced it. Cagey ball handlers are faking Towns out of his shoes before using screens (or rejecting them), leaving Towns behind the ball — and forcing crisis rotations everywhere:
Even more bizarre, Towns is lingering on the ball far longer than he has to — gifting opponents exploitable 4-on-3s behind him:
Kyle Anderson recovers fine up top, but Towns loiters there so long you’d think Alperen Sengun’s pick had knocked Anderson down. Sengun zips free to the rim. The rest of the defense doesn’t seem to know what to do. Towns and Edwards nearly collide in the paint as they debate who should rotate where (and maybe which fast-food places Towns — winner of zero playoff series — thinks Edwards should avoid.)
Minnesota is getting roasted when Towns plays without Gobert. Some of that is hot opponent 3-point shooting, but the defense has been bad in those minutes.
The Wolves have too much talent to flail around like this.
- Boston’s gang rebounding
The Celtics are 21st in points allowed per possession, but there’s no cause for alarm. They don’t have Robert Williams III, keystone to the unorthodox scheme that turned their 2021-22 season. They are allowing few 3s and shots at the rim; opponents are on fire from midrange, which will normalize.
Without Williams — and the scheme that hinges on him — the Celtics have committed some uncharacteristic mistakes, but the talent and fundamentals are all there. They know who they are.
They’ve flashed renewed commitment to gang rebounding. Almost every member of the rotation is at or above career-high levels in defensive rebounding rate. When their wings crash back, it is really hard to generate second chances against Boston:
There’s nothing remarkable about what Brown and Tatum do there. They spot Al Horford leaping out to challenge that jumper, and realize it falls on them to clean the glass. Tatum occupies both Nikola Vucevic and Patrick Williams. That frees Brown to catapult into the fray and tip the ball.
Horford and Luke Kornet are 2-on-2 with the Cavs under the rim, but Tatum swoops in to make sure Boston snags the rebound.
Nothing special, right? That should be expected of perimeter players. But it doesn’t happen enough. Boston is nailing it. It’s 11th in defensive rebounding rate, up from 16th last season — tidy work considering Boston is playing smaller with Williams hurt.
- Deni Avdija’s vanishing 3-point shot
It’s getting uncomfortable with Avdija, the Washington Wizards No. 9 pick in the 2020 draft — two spots ahead of Devin Vassell, three above Tyrese Haliburton. Avdija is averaging 5.2 points and (until Bradley Beal’s recent absence) lost his starting job to Anthony Gill. Not great.
He’s 6-of-27 on 3s, and has lost all confidence in that shot. Defenses are straying a half-step farther from Avdija every game. He’s launching only when the shot clock dwindles, or the defense abandons him to the point of embarrassment. Avdija turns down open 3s to meander into contested 2s:
On the same possession, he’ll demur on a juicy catch-and-shoot triple only to launch a worse pull-up bomb because the shot clock requires it:
Avdija is a good defender. He’s a smart driver and ball mover, but those skills evaporate if he won’t shoot. Defenses will stop rotating to him, leaving Avdija to drive into walls waiting in the paint.
The Wizards’ past four top-15 picks — Avdija, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert, Johnny Davis — are providing very little. In fairness, all four came late in the lottery (or in Kispert’s case, one spot outside of it) — crapshoot range. Kispert missed Washington’s first seven games. Hachimura has been OK. Davis doesn’t play.
If all four turn into misses of varying degrees, the Wizards have a murky path forward — unless they sink into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
- Desmond Bane’s playmaking
A few duos would protest, but it’s hard to argue against Bane and Ja Morant as the NBA’s best backcourt of the first dozen games. Do people outside Memphis realize Bane is averaging 24.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game? Holy god. He’s shouldering more offense at zero cost to his shooting efficiency. Is this another giant leap atop last season’s giant leap?
Bane is running 16 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, up from 12 last season and five as a rookie, per Second Spectrum. Bane’s production on those plays has been about league average — mostly due to a high turnover rate; he has coughed it up on 17.6% of his pick-and-rolls, a mark that would have been the worst among rotation ball handlers last season.
Such growing pains are worth it. Bane has decent vision on drop-offs and slingshots to corner shooters:
He’s learning to slow down — not easy for the Bane Train — and manipulate the defense. He’s even dabbling in a little floater:
You can’t go under screens against Bane. Even well-executed drop-back coverages are risky. Bane is taking more pull-up 3s than catch-and-shoot looks — a flip-flop from last season — and has drained an astounding 51% on off-the-bounce triples. He’ll unleash the occasional step-back.
The Grizzlies have scored 118 points per 100 possessions when Bane plays without Morant — equivalent to Boston’s league-leading offense, per Cleaning The Glass. A lot of those minutes have come alongside untested players. Imagine when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns?
Memphis was over-reliant on Morant to break down half-court defenses in the postseason. Adding variety is part of taking the next step.
- Clint Capela is still here
It was tempting before the season to anoint Onyeka Okongwu as Atlanta’s once and future starting center. Okongwu is already a good two-way player, and he’s showing signs he can create offense in a pinch. He’s even daring some jumpers! Capela never looked right last season while recovering from an Achilles injury.
The numbers don’t indicate it yet, but Capela appears to be regaining peak form. This monster two-way sequence helped the Hawks clinch a recent overtime win:
Capela snares an up-for-grabs lob, and heaves a pinpoint pass to the corner while falling out of bounds. He steadies himself, puts his head down, and churns baseline to baseline to snuff Brandon Ingram’s layup. That’s what winning effort looks like. I’m tired just watching that clip.
Trae Young and Capela still have nimble pick-and-roll chemistry. Capela is holding opponents to a stingy 53% shooting at the rim, and the Hawks’ defensive rebounding craters when he rests. (Capela inhaled 19-plus rebounds in three of Atlanta’s last four games.) For all his talent and bounce, Okongwu is only 6-8 and has wobbled on the defensive glass.
- The irrepressible Edmond Sumner, the Brooklyn Nets’ new irrational confidence king
Some guys won’t shoot open 3s if they’ve missed one or two. Most players U-turn in transition if they see three waiting defenders.
Sumner is not one of those players. He has waited a long time for this chance after missing last season with an Achilles tear, and he’s grasping it without any fear. He does not care if he just air-balled a wide-open corner 3 by 2 feet — a thing that happened in the Nets’ ecstatic trouncing of the New York Knicks on Wednesday. He’ll jack the next one when Kevin Durant — probably surrounded by five defenders — kicks it to him. Sumner flings his body into thickets of defenders, and uncorks twisting, leaning layups that somehow sneak through all those arms.
The Nets are 3-1 since exiling Kyrie Irving. Their only loss was a nail-biter in Dallas. They are playing with such verve, you almost forget Irving was ever there — much less why he’s gone. Ben Simmons is coming off the bench — a way of severing him from Nicolas Claxton — and it has barely registered.
Durant looks like he’s having a blast. He is all-in on defense. He clapped his hands after he and Royce O’Neale executed a clean switch late in that Knicks game — with the Nets up 27. The “bang” reverberated through Barclays Center.
Joe Harris and Seth Curry look more like themselves. You can tell Durant loves Curry, because Curry will jack without hesitation.
The Nets’ new starting five — Durant, Harris, O’Neale, Sumner, Claxton — is plus-36 in 51 minutes. Sumner even took Irving’s place Wednesday in what everyone assumed would be Brooklyn’s closing small-ball lineup — alongside Durant, Harris, O’Neale, and Simmons.
This won’t last forever. Sumner is still at just 31% from deep. The burden on Durant is enormous. The schedule toughens; Brooklyn spends most of the next two weeks on the road. Irving will presumably return at some point, whatever that might mean. But man, what a relief to see some fast, joyous basketball in moribund Brooklyn.
- Nikola Jokic’s newest trick is bad
Is Jokic trying to put together his version of Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points — but for kicked ball violations?
Jokic has committed eight kicked balls in 11 games, per the NBA. That matches his total from last season. No one else has committed more than three. Nikola Vucevic led the league last year with 13. Jokic is on pace for almost 60.
He’s clearly doing it on purpose, starfishing his legs at bounce passes as an alternative to playing actual defense. It’s smart, honestly, if you sense you’re at a major disadvantage. Jokic is a so-so defender who hasn’t looked quite as engaged so far. He’s contesting more shots at the rim than anyone, per NBA.com, but some of those contests are meek waves; opponents have hit 65% at the basket with Jokic nearby, a mark that typically ranks toward the bottom among big men. (He looked livelier this week.) A kicked ball allows the Nuggets to reset their defense.
It can be hard for officials to discern intentional soccer kicks from incidents in which a bounce pass hits the foot of someone playing real defense. But some Jokic kicks are obvious non-basketball plays, and I don’t really get why the NBA allows martial arts maneuvers intended to interrupt game flow. (The penalty is a shot clock reset to 14 or 24.) Should a blatant kick merit a technical? How about one warning, and kick No. 2 — which would be rare — gets a technical?
The Nuggets are getting scary after an underwhelming first few games, even with Jokic stepping off the gas as a scorer and barely glancing at 3s. (He is cutting for more give-and-go baskets — a sign of chemistry.)
Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray are rounding into form. Porter has bought into his spot-up role; he’s hit 49% on nine 3s per 36 minutes, and it’s ridiculous how easy he makes it look.
Michael Malone is staggering minutes so Porter is on the floor when Jokic sits. That hasn’t stopped the bleeding in those non-Jokic minutes, but it’s a good step. The Nuggets have no coherent identity without Jokic. In playoff games, they might have to play both Murray and Porter when he rests.
They’re No. 5 in points per possession, and they’re running more than ever. Their defense is creeping toward league average. They’ve allowed only 109 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, equivalent to the No. 7 defense overall. Jokic’s rebounding and steals compensate for his limitations.
Their two most important lineups — their starters, and the same group with Bruce Brown in place of Porter — have obliterated opponents. Brown has been everything Denver wanted; the Nuggets have closed games with that Brown-for-Porter quintet. (Why didn’t the Nets make more of an effort to re-sign Brown, again?)
Just stop kicking the ball!
- The Indiana Pacers, mixing up their screeners
PSA: The Pacers are really fun. They run like hell — they’re fourth in pace — and rank 8th in points per possession. They’re also 26th in points allowed per possession. Every Indiana game is turbo points galore. Your head shifts back and forth as if you’re watching a ping-pong match.
Bennedict Mathurin is averaging 20 points off the bench! He’s a perfect blend of finesse and violence — alternating buttery soft 3s and airborne assaults. Isaiah Jackson wants to dunk and block everything. Aaron Nesmith is built like a cinder block, out to inflict pain at the rim.
Conducting it all is the clever, unselfish Tyrese Haliburton — averaging 21 points and 10 dimes, just a few made free throws from 50/40/90 shooting territory. Rick Carlisle is playing lots of four-guard lineups, and that allows the Pacers to mix up Haliburton’s pick-and-roll partners in unconventional ways.
Indiana’s guards screen for Haliburton early in possessions, with defenses backpedaling. Any of them are free to do it. It makes Indiana unpredictable, and puts perimeter defenders on the opposite end of defending pick-and-rolls — guarding the screener — from what they are used to.
The tactic catches defenses off guard. One defender switches, but the other decides to trap Haliburton. Gaps open. Haliburton seizes on those cracks.
Another bonus of this gambit: Guards are more natural playmakers in open space. Andrew Nembhard, the 31st pick in the draft, is nifty in this role. Using a red-alert shooter like Buddy Hield as a screener is always smart.
Teams want to switch against Haliburton, and make him play one-on-one. That’s not his natural game. Toggling between several pick-and-roll combinations — sometimes at random — is a smart counter.
The Pacers are a mild surprise at 5-6, but they have time to play themselves down the standings. In the coldest sense, that’s probably what they should do; they aren’t a free agency destination, and they don’t have as many extra first-rounders as other rebuilding teams.
But they have something very real in the Haliburton-Mathurin backcourt.
- An old-school fast-break
I paused this game to revel in a vanishing act of simple basketball intellect:
At least seven times out of 10, the ball handler in Pascal Siakam’s position kicks to Gary Trent Jr. in the right corner. That’s not really a bad play. Trent hits 40% on corner 3s, but let’s assume this wide-open look would have been a 50-50 proposition — and therefore carry an expected value of 1.5 points.
That’s good! It’s way more efficient than the hideous pull-up 3s — often jacked with teammates running the wings — that ruin fast breaks.
But you know what’s better than 1.5 points? A damn near guaranteed 2. Siakam makes what is becoming a radical decision: Why don’t I keep dribbling and see if we can manufacture a dunk? I know! That’s borderline rebellious! Heresy!
And guess what happens? Two Atlanta defenders fail to impede Siakam until it’s too late — in part because one of them is worried about the potential pass to Trent — and Siakam dumps the ball to OG Anunoby for a dunk. Dunks are cool.
All summer, people around Siakam and the Raptors whispered Siakam was primed for a career season — one of those magical campaigns in which every element of someone’s game rises in a collective crescendo. That optimism appears to have been prophetic. Before straining his adductor, Siakam was averaging 25 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists — all career highs — on solid shooting. He was scoring more without hogging the offense. He was confident shooting 3s, and defending at close to peak levels. It was first- or second-team All-NBA stuff.
The Raptors have barely treaded water with Siakam on the bench overall, but they’ve blitzed opponents when Siakam rests and Nick Nurse keeps both Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes on the floor. Toronto is seventh in defensive efficiency, and pounding opponents on the boards.
With Otto Porter Jr. healthy, the Raptors should be able to grind out enough wins while Siakam and the now-slumping Precious Achiuwa recover.
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