To say we are in the doldrums of the NBA regular season is an aggressive understatement. The players want it over, the fans want it over, the tanking and non-tanking teams alike want it over. It’s enough to make a person feel a bit nihilistic about the whole endeavor, so rather than take too deep a dive into anything, let’s hop around the league for some quick hits on topics I’m still finding interesting.
Speaking of the season dragging on, let’s start out with a grisly reminder…
The Jusuf Nurkic injury is further proof the regular season is too damn long. Look, I know I’m treading on well-worn ground here. The argument has been made and proven a thousand different ways by now about how shortening the regular season would optimize player performance and competitive balance while lowering injury risk, but comes with the intractable problem of revenue loss. It is known. These competing motivations make it no less frustrating when a team in the midst of clinching a playoff spot, already down one of its stars, loses another one to a gruesome broken leg in double overtime of Game No. 73, especially when we already know who the eight best teams in the West are. I get it — freak injuries happen. But was this all that freaky, or just devastatingly unnecessary?
The Bosnian Bear has missed only one game all year until now, but the team has done a good job “managing his load” (ugh), with Nurkic averaging a mere 27.4 minutes per game. I highly recommend you DO NOT watch the video of the injury, but if you do, you’ll notice it looks just like fifteen other plays you’ll see in any other NBA game throughout the year. The injury occurred in Nurkic’s 1,974th minute this season. Again, not an insane amount, but still a lot for a 7-foot, 270-pound behemoth of a human being, and in his 34th minute of playing time in a 2OT game. Does his giant leg still snap like a twig if the same play takes place during, say, his 1,400th minute of the year? Who knows. But one thing is clear: for Portland, the upside of having nine more games to improve their playoff seeding is orders of magnitude less than the downside of having the upcoming playoff run — as well as a great deal of next season, most likely — crippled by the loss of one of their key players. [On the plus side, perhaps Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter can be re-Christened as Enes “Have Absolutely No Choice Because of the NBA’s Stupid Fucking Scheduling But to Play” Kanter. It’s a working title. We’ll have four-ish playoff games to nail it down.]
The scourge of “load management” has become equal parts tired joke and source of frustration among fans (especially for Kawhi Leonard fantasy owners, as I can tell you from experience), but what are the teams supposed to do? It seems as though Kawhi is about the only star heading into the playoffs fresh and healthy, and it’s purely because the Raptors have purposefully kept him in (probably boring) street clothes for almost a third of the season. How much more evidence do we need?
The no. 5 seed in the West is now a thing. Staying with the Blazers for a moment, the Nurkic injury does serve to give some structure to the otherwise amorphous jumble of playoff teams out West. Just a week or so ago, there was a lot less certainty among the top half of the playoff race, and for teams hoping to make a deep playoff run, a definite appeal to staying out of the 4/5 side of the bracket and thus avoiding a likely Semifinals matchup with Golden State. The sands have shifted beneath our feet again. The Warriors are tied with Denver for the top seed, and no disrespect to the Nuggets — more on them to come — but anyone who says he wouldn’t rather face a young, untested Denver team over one of the NBA’s great dynasties (in either of the first two rounds) is lying. In addition, Portland has built a two-game cushion for the no. 4 seed, which despite their injury woes and how unfortunately Kanter-centric they are about to become, would be a tough lead to cough up over the last nine games of the year.
The Blazers immediately become a far more attractive first-round foe, and if the finally healthy Nuggets can overtake the occasionally indifferent Warriors, the path through that side of the bracket becomes a much smoother one. I’ve said it before, but there is no gaming the system in the brutal West. That said, teams will likely now be gunning for, and perhaps NOT managing loads with an eye towards, the no. 5 seed in ways they may not have been prior to Nurkic’s gnarly injury.
Of the four teams in the lower half of the playoff standings, Utah and San Antonio have the clear schedule advantage over the final stretch. The Spurs, winners of ten out of their last thirteen contests, somehow still have the easiest path, with only one game remaining against a .500 or better team (at Denver on April 3rd, a sneaky-important game). Utah has only two such games, but they are both legs of a back-to-back on the final two nights of the season, with a home game against Denver on April 9th, followed by a flight to L.A. and a potentially cataclysmic road game against the Clippers on April 10th. Despite the potential for a “schedule loss” in Game 82 — though they get the “benefit” of a late flight into town, meaning L.A. nightlife can’t possibly defeat them — Utah has been killing it of late. The Jazz have the no. 1 net rating in the league over the last fifteen games (albeit amid an easy stretch of schedule), so they are a prime candidate to overtake the Clippers for the no. 5 spot. Utah split the season series with Portland, though on average they outscored the Blazers by 4.7 points in those games. The presence of Nurkic provided them a workable matchup for Rudy Gobert, and his absence only exacerbates Utah’s advantage.
OKC’s brutal schedule — along with Paul George still fighting through a semi-mysterious shoulder injury — has taken a toll (7-11 since the All-Star Break), and it doesn’t get much easier over the final push, with tilts against Milwaukee, Houston, and Denver still remaining. The surprising Clippers, winners of 11 out of their last 12 and currently occupying the 5-spot, face a similarly difficult anchor leg, with games against Milwaukee, Golden State, Houston, and the aforementioned finale vs. Utah.
Much like last season, the West standings were always going to come down to the season’s final moments. But with the untimely felling of Nurkic, the urgency has been ratcheted up even further, despite how, as previously mentioned, everyone probably could have done without these games entirely.
There is one big, fat reason not to trust Denver in the playoffs. I recently sat in the third row for the Nuggets’ surprisingly exciting 113-108 road win over the Washington Wizards, and well, I have thoughts. Mason Plumlee is a remarkably effortless leaper. Malik Beasley is bigger than you realize, and I suspect he’s going to swing a playoff game somewhere along the way. The Wizards’ season is a bust and Wall’s contract is a hellish nightmare, but they do have a couple nice pieces. This year’s first-round pick, Troy Brown, Jr., is finally getting real minutes and looks like he belongs at the NBA level. He has plus size and length on the wing, solid shooting mechanics, makes good decisions with the ball, and seems to know what the hell he’s doing. Point guard Tomas Satoransky, originally drafted to be the Robin to Jan Vesely’s Batman — yeah, let that one simmer for a moment — has developed into a high-end complementary player. His effort level and court vision stand out in-person. He delivers passes with timing and accuracy using both hands and from any angle. My hope is someday he ends up as an elite bench unit orchestrator for a contender. Kinda like Monte Morris, actually.
But naturally, the draw of a live game is the stars, so for me this one was about Nikola Jokic. It wasn’t a signature performance for His Groundness by any means, but he did show off all the aspects of his game which make him special. Jokic notched 11 assists, with an array of interior, cross-court, and outlet passes spurring Denver’s creative offense over the game-but-undermanned Wizards. One thing which stood out in person was his hands. He always seems to be moving at half speed, but somehow his hands just end up in the right spot, every time. He has an entire extra level of craft and anticipation the other players, no matter how much more athletic, simply do not possess. It’s the physical manifestation of what we mean when we use the term “basketball genius.”
The contest came down to the final moments, and I only mention it because it relates to the most important stat Jokic put up: 35 minutes. During timeouts in crunch time, Jokic was standing off to the side in the huddle, hunched over, hands on knees. He was utterly gassed. Coming off two full days of rest, it took everything in his tank to out-duel the esteemed duo of Thomas Bryant and Bobby Portis. When the playoffs roll around, the team is going to need him for 35+ minutes every other night. If the guy staring him down is Clint Capela, or Rudy Gobert, or LaMarcus Aldridge, or Steven Adams, or Draymond Green, is Jokic going to be able to summon up the energy to carry his team across the finish line? Obviously, he is never going to look like Karl Malone; we’ll probably never refer to him as “Yoke-ic,” except perhaps in jest. But for all his size, strength, skill, and craft, he will not reach his true ceiling as a player unless he transforms his body into something resembling real, professional basketball shape. And until such time, Denver’s corresponding ceiling as a contender will likewise be capped.
[FWIW, Jokic’s “Clutch” stats are excellent this year, but whether he can keep them up
in the hothouse of the playoffs, under heavy minutes and against elite competition, is another matter. As much as playoff experience can act as a narrative crutch in these scenarios, it does have some predictive value because it provides proof of concept, or lack thereof.]
What would be the best landing spot for Ja Morant? I suppose we have to talk a little bit of March Madness/NBA Draft, right? Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant shot up draft boards this year with his combination of speed, athleticism, scoring, and court vision. While draftniks have been keen to him all season, Morant no doubt opened some eyes among casual fans with his stat sheet-busting performances in a first-round “upset” of 5th-seeded Marquette and second-round defeat at the hands of ACC powerhouse Florida State. Over the two games, Ja played 77 out of a possible 80 minutes, averaging 22.5 pts, 8 reb, 10 ast, and 4.5 TOs while shooting 7-of-8 from three and 12-of-14 from the line.
Pro scouts had to be salivating, not just at the stats, but how he accumulated them. Morant did most of his damage as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, and he demonstrated an advanced feel for how to manipulate the screener’s man to create a path to the rim, as well the ability to finish through contact and find open shooters on-time/on-target once the defense collapsed on him. He already maps the floor at an NBA level. He struggled with turnovers against Marquette, and FSU’s pro-caliber length and athleticism was able to bother him a bit, but neither issue is anything additional seasoning and better teammates won’t fix.
A lithe 6’3″ with springy athleticism and an advanced feel, he cuts a similar profile to another young point guard I regard highly: De’Aaron Fox. Morant doesn’t have quite the flat-out speed of the Kings’ second-year man (this isn’t meant as a slight — Fox is almost certainly the fastest end-to-end player in the NBA), but he does appear to be ahead of where Fox was as a shooter at this stage of his development. Morant shot 36.3% from deep and 81.3% from the line this season, so there are reasons to be optimistic his stroke will both translate and improve. He hit a couple step-back threes in the aforementioned tourney games, and if he can make that shot a consistent part of his repertoire, his ceiling becomes the roof.
Morant probably wasn’t going to drop much in the draft anyway, but his performance in the tournament cemented his status as a top-3 pick at worst, and perhaps, the best prospect in the draft, non-Zion division. Which lottery team would be the ideal landing spot for his talents? Among the teams unlikely to jump high enough to land him, Boston (via Sacramento) is only a fit if Kyrie bolts (and/or they don’t trade the pick for AD), the Wizards are stuck with Wall for the foreseeable future, and the Lakers would almost certainly trade the pick rather than disastrously attempt to develop yet another young player under LeBron’s regime. Ja would form a nice duo with Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota, but the odds are long. He would also be a solid complement to (or replacement for) Jrue Holiday in New Orleans, though wish-casting another top player into the Pels’ current shitstorm just feels cruel and wasteful. Memphis appears content to stick it out with incumbent franchise tent-pole Mike Conley, though that could change. [Note: the Grizz owe their pick to Boston — thanks Jeff Green! — but keep it this season if it lands in the top-8.] Atlanta and Cleveland seem set with their own young, highly drafted point guards of the future, and would probably both prefer to add a wing in the draft. [Or Zion, obviously.]
We’re left with the Knicks, Bulls, Mavs, and Suns. It’s tough to know how any prospect fits with the Knicks because we have zero idea what their roster will look like after this summer, but at this point, they shouldn’t be turning up their noses at any infusion of talent. The Mavs (who owe their pick to Atlanta but it is top-5 protected) are intriguing, though they may be gun-shy after the struggles they experienced pairing an athletic, ball-dominant guard (Dennis Smith, Jr.) with Luka Doncic. The Bulls and Suns feel like the obvious candidates, as both have a glaring need at the point. In Chicago, Kris Dunn is already 25 years old, and it just doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen for him. Drafting Morant would allow for a clean break, and he fits better long-term with their core of Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Jr., Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter. This lineup wouldn’t be able to stop anyone, but it has the potential to become an explosive, multifaceted offensive attack.
Phoenix has been searching for an answer at point guard ever since they broke up the talented but ill-fitting troika of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas, but they face similar concerns to those of Dallas. Nominal shooting guard Devin Booker has developed into an explosive on-ball threat, and the Suns’ de facto point guard in their most potent lineups. Booker is an elite catch-and-shoot option as well, but taking the ball out of his hands presents potential diminishing returns, and much like in Chicago, the backcourt pairing would be a sieve on defense. Even so, a Ja Morant/DeAndre Ayton pick-and-roll flanked by shooters in Booker, Mikal Bridges, and T.J. Warren (who quietly shot 43% from outside this season before going down with an ankle injury) has the chance to be devastating, so it might be wise not to overthink it.
It’s strange to say a guy with Morant’s talent represents a difficult fit, but such is life in the Golden Age of NBA Point Guards. Even a prospect with his pedigree has to be really good in order to break through and become a team’s floor general, no matter how lousy the team in question. That being said, Chicago feels like the snuggest fit for Morant, which inevitably means the Bulls will fall out of the top-4 in the lottery because we can’t have nice things.
Are the Bucks’ injury woes a blessing in disguise? Any regular reader knows I have something of a basketball boner for this Milwaukee team. I’m not even trying to tuck it up into my gym shorts or anything. It’s becoming comical how overlooked they continue to be, despite being the league’s best team with a bullet by nearly any statistical measure, and putting the clamps on James Harden and the Rockets on national TV Tuesday night. What might be more amazing is how they keep rolling right along, despite being beat the hell up by injuries at the moment. Things can only get so bad as long as the Giannis/Middleton/Bledsoe/Lopez quartet is in the lineup, but the fact remains, FIVE ostensible rotation players are currently on the shelf, and the Bucks don’t seem much worse for wear.
Malcolm Brogdon is the guy they will obviously need back to get out of the East, and his current timeline ideally has him returning to the lineup sometime during the second round of the playoffs. His absence, however, along with that of one-dimensional role player Tony Snell, has presented opportunities for the previously slumping Pat Connaughton and newly healthy Sterling Brown to get more burn and find their respective rhythms. Likewise, killer deadline acquisition Nikola Mirotic is set to miss the next 1-3 weeks with a broken left thumb. Not ideal, but the injury (along with that of mostly-washed Pau Gasol) paves the way for versatile second-year big man D.J. Wilson to get more reps in advance of the playoffs. With veterans George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova rounding out the rotation, Coach Bud (a shoo-in for Coach of the Year, by the way) has the luxury of allowing his key players to get fresh and healthy before returning while still being able to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league in the interim. Perhaps there is a minutes crunch coming down the pike, but it’s a problem for another day, and one Bud is well-equipped to navigate. Every team faces injuries, but no team is as uniquely fortified to withstand them as this Bucks squad, with their depth, interchangeability, and the historic two-way versatility of Giannis. [As you may imagine, I’ll have more to say about him in the coming weeks.]
It feels like it’s going to take the sight of a drunken Giannis riding a duck boat, hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy over his head before most fans will properly appreciate just how good this Milwaukee team is, but I’ll keep pounding the table about it to anyone who will listen anyway. Golden State is not going to go gently into that good night, but if anyone can break up their dynasty, it’s a team with a transcendent superstar, waves of shooting, an elite coach, and a top-rated, versatile defense. Dismiss them as untested upstarts or some sort of fluky gimmick if you like. Just know you’re wrong.
Top Photo Credit: Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports