There are 18 days until the NBA
All-Star break, which was supposed to be a break with no All-Star
festivities. But then that plan changed, much to the dismay of many
of the league’s top superstars.
The Utah Jazz look unstoppable,
sort of like the Milwaukee Bucks did at this time a year ago, and
there is not a whole lot of defense being played as teams slog
their way through the mid-winter schedule and make adjustments on
the fly (whether because of coronavirus issues or injuries or
Every night brings major
surprises, some of them positive – as fans of the Detroit Pistons
could tell you. Until recently, they were the worst team in the
East; now, they are making us NBA hardcores take notice of the
likes of Saddiq Bey and Mason Plumlee.
The week begins with news that
Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis will both be back on the shelf;
Durant with a hamstring issue and Davis with an Achilles. Neither
injury is particularly serious, and let’s all remember that what
happens in February often has very little impact in May and June
when things ramp up.
So with 18 days remaining until
the All-Star break, here are 18 observations (aside from the ones
listed above) that will be at the forefront of NBA conversations
between now and the All-Star break.
1. What on earth is
wrong with the Boston Celtics? They got toasted by the
Washington Wizards, the worst team in the East, on Sunday afternoon
to make it four losses in their past five games. Prior to that,
they lost to the Detroit Pistons and they are now 13-13. It looks
like they miss Gordon Hayward more than we anticipated, and there
is no underestimating how important Marcus Smart is to that team.
Payton Pritchard has earned Brad Stevens’ trust, but what about
rookie Aaron Nesmith, the No. 14 overall pick in the draft? He did
log 29 minutes of garbage time on Sunday, which is a step in the
right direction... or he was being showcased.
2. Why are so many
superstars speaking out about having to play in an All-Star
game? Well, they were told at the outset of the season
that they were going to have a one-week break, and then that
promise was broken. NBA contracts include language that obligates
players to participate in All-Star activities if invited, so three
Saturdays from now a bunch of players will be flying into Atlanta,
locking themselves in their hotel rooms and getting ready for the
annual Sunday night show. Let’s just hope the fourth quarter is
competitive, like it normally is.
3. When can we expect
the Utah Jazz to lose a game? On Thursday, we were
wondering whether it would come in a span of the next eight days,
because the schedule was getting tough for them. But they beat the
Milwaukee Bucks by 14 and the Miami Heat by 18. Tonight, it is Joel
Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers trying to end the Jazz’s hot
streak, and then Utah plays back-to-back games against the Clippers
at the Staples Center on Wednesday and Friday. If Paul George
(right foot) and Kawhi Leonard (left leg contusion) are both
healthy by then, we will have a litmus test.
4. Will the New York
Knicks or Brooklyn Nets trade for a big man? Brooklyn has
had a donut problem (a hole in the middle) since Jarrett Allen was
traded in the James Harden deal, and Noah Vonleh and Norvel Pelle
do not look like long-term solutions. The Cleveland Cavaliers are
sitting Andre Drummond until they can find a trade partner, and
JaVale McGee is expendable as well. The same goes for Hassan
Whiteside in Sacramento. The Nets may not have the assets to trade
for any of them unless they surrender Joe Harris, so they’ll likely
wait to see who is bought out. Meanwhile, Knicks coach Tom
Thibodeau told reporters that he is OK with moving Julius Randle
over to center while Mitchell Robinson recovers from a broken hand
(and they also have Nerlens Noel). The Knicks have won four of
their last six games, but will have to contend with Clint Capela
and Nikola Vucevic in their next two games, after which Leon Rose,
Thibs and Worldwide Wes may need to come up with a plan to find a
5. What is wrong with
the Milwaukee Bucks? They lost to the Oklahoma City
Thunder last night and have been surrendering more than 123 points
a night in their current three-game losing streak. A year ago, on
Feb. 15, they were 46-8 and Giannis Antetokounmpo had pretty much
wrapped up the MVP award. But this season, they have been running
hot and cold like a leaky faucet (the three recent losses were
preceded by five-straight wins, which followed consecutive losses,
which followed consecutive wins). They’ll need better, more
consistent production from Brook Lopez, who scored 6 points last
night against Al Horford. His scoring has dropped from 12.0 points
per game to 10.8, and his assists are down from 1.5 to 0.6. His
next double-figure rebounding game will be just his third of the
season. It is worth noting that Milwaukee is trying to get their
new pieces acclimated, which hasn’t helped.
6. Which teams figure to
be active at the trade deadline? I would say the New
Orleans Pelicans are the team to watch. If the supporting cast
around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram continue to underperform,
they will look for hungrier players along with extra draft picks to
add to the ones they got from Milwaukee in the Jrue Holiday-Eric
Bledsoe deal. New Orleans has lost its last three games -- not
playing a lick of defense against Chicago, Dallas and Detroit --
and 11-15 is not where they wanted to be, especially with Zion
shooting an unfathomable 65.5 percent from the field this month (he
was 14-for-15 against the Mavs on Friday). Boston, New York and
Brooklyn have already been mentioned, and major underachievers
(Miami, Dallas, Toronto) are always looking to tinker in order to
bolster their roster for a playoff push.
7. What makes this
season very different from last year’s campaign? Aside
from the coronavirus disruptions, the rule change that will allow
for 20 of the 30 teams to qualify for the playoffs (including the
play-in tournament) has disincentivized players from competing at
their highest level during the regular season. One Eastern
Conference coach (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) said it
has been one of the worst rules changes ever enacted. We’ll see if
he feels the same way if his team finishes ninth or 10th and has a
chance to play meaningful postseason games rather than beginning
preparations for the draft extra early.
8. Why are the Phoenix
Suns sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference?
The addition of Chris Paul is the biggest reason, and they are 6-0
thus far on a seven-game homestand that ends Tuesday night against
a Brooklyn team that will be without Kevin Durant. They’ve won nine
of 10, and at a certain point, Mikal Bridges
has to enter the Most Improved Player conversation
is 100-1 at DraftKingsSportsbook, where
Chris Paul is 500-1 to be
9. Who is the Coach of
the Year? One would assume that Quin Snyder (Jazz) and Doc
Rivers (Sixers) would be the frontrunners, but get this: None of
the major sportsbooks operating in the legalized U.S. sports
gambling market have Coach of the Year odds listed. This award
typically goes to the coach whose team has overachieved the most,
and everyone expected the Sixers and Jazz to be good. So Monty
Williams in Phoenix, Thibodeau in New York, Terry Stotts in
Portland (he lost C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic) and James Borrego
in Charlotte may be in the mix.
10. Who will be the No.
1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft? Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma
State is the flavor of the moment, followed by Jalen Green of the
G-League Ignite, a team that just began playing bubbleball last
week. Scouts are being hampered by their inability to get inside
gyms, watch prospects closely and observe things such as body
language, pre-game habits, interactions with teammates, etc.
Because of that, this summer’s draft is going to be more of a
crapshoot than usual, and the team with the most first-round picks
is Oklahoma City with three. Houston and New York have two
11. What is the best
game to watch over the remainder of the first half of the
season? Many teams are starting to allow fans back into
the arenas, but we will probably not see a full house until next
season, which removes the crowd factor for the most part (shout out
to Courtside Karen), which would normally make certain matchups
more enticing. If Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis are back by
Thursday, Nets-Lakers on TNT is a candidate. We have Jazz-Clippers
on Wednesday and Friday, followed by a Heat-Lakers NBA Finals
rematch on Saturday (ABC) and Nets-Clippers the following night.
Fans will be allowed at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 23 when Steph
Curry faces the Knicks, but the winner in this category is Lakers
at Jazz on Friday, Feb. 24.
12. Who will win the
Rasheed Wallace Award (a.k.a. Hothead of the Year)? Dwight
Howard of the Sixers and Russell Westbrook of the Wizards are tied
for the league lead in technical fouls with eight apiece. Among
coaches, Nick Nurse of Toronto leads with five.
13. What record might
fall? Jose Calderon holds the record for the highest
free-throw percentage (98.1 percent in 2008-09 for Toronto).
Entering Monday’s games, Suns guard Chris Paul is 68-for-70 (97.1
percent) and Nets guard Kyrie Irving is 77-for-81 (95.1 percent).
If either has a few games of perfection from 15 feet away, perhaps
Calderon’s record will be in jeopardy.
14. Anzejs Pasecniks of
the Washington Wizards was released a month ago after
appearing in one game. In five minutes of playing time, he
committed six turnovers to go along with two personal fouls, one
assist and one offensive rebound. Ish Smith converted the bucket
off the Latvian kid’s assist. That’s a rough outing.
15. Monte Morris of the
Denver Nuggets leads the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio at
5.5 (among qualified players) and Pat Connaughton of the
Milwaukee Bucks is at 5.7. Among players who log major minutes,
DeMar DeRozan of San Antonio is at 4.20. In the steals-to-turnover
ratio category, Matisse Thybulle is head and shoulders above
everyone at 5.0. Among players who log major minutes, the league
leader in steals is Jrue Holiday of Milwaukee with 1.91 per
16. In the “hustle stats”
categories, Ben Simmons leads the NBA with 4.1 deflections
per game, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the league
in loose balls recovered (38), Domantas Sabonis
leads the league in screen assists (6.7), and
Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Lowry are tied for the league
lead in charges drawn (12).
17. The league’s oldest player,
Udonis Haslem of Miami, wears uniform No. 40… matching his
age. The youngest player, Oklahoma City’s
Aleksej Pokusevski, the No.
17 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is 19 years old
and has 19 blocked shots.
18. What’s the
season-low for offensive rebounds in a game? One. The
Philadelphia 76ers were the team to grab a single offensive rebound
against Washington on Jan. 6, when the Sixers scored 141 points.
Danny Green grabbed the lone offensive board.