Saturday Starting 5: Revel in the Great Point Guard Era

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? The era of point guards we live in.

Chris Paul Runs The Game… Right?

Chris Paul’s the best point guard in the league. You’re going to be hearing that out of about a hundred thousand pundits, columnists, bloggers, and fans this season, once more. Regardless of stats, nationally televised games, or highlight reels, Paul has “it.” His play has of course been the biggest part of the Hornets’ early season success. The floater is his offensive weapon of choice, but that pull-up jumper is nothing to sneeze at. Now, most people will want to tell you Chris Paul is undoubtedly, 100%, no questions asked the best point guard in the league. Hold up on that. But saying that has nothing to do with Chris Paul and everything to do with the incredible quality of point guards we get to watch every single night. Chris Paul is barely human, he’s so good. But that doesn’t make the other guys any less the last sons of Krypton. Oh, yeah, and there is one area Paul isn’t well-rounded. Drop him the post on defense and watch him slump. But given the fact that he could throw a ball fast enough to knock the dust off a twelve foot high bookshelf and not ruffle a page, we’ll let it slide. Paul leads among point guards playing at least 20 minutes a game in PER. Paul also needs to improve his free throw shooting by 2% to hit the 40-50-90 mark.

Jazz Hands

You know what happens if you attempt to roll a boulder into a mountain? It just kind of bumps against it and then stops. That’s your average point guard trying to roll down Deron Williams in the post. Oh, and when the Jazz need that shot? That one big shot? Deron Williams is the guy. He works the pick and roll as well as any point guard outside of Steve Nash and with Al Jefferson now on board, odds are his proficiency in the set will only improve. Williams has tremendous leadership and while he doesn’t have the soft touch that Paul has on his float-passes, he can jet with the best of them. Williams leapt to the top dog spot last season with Paul on the shelf and all he’s done this season is lead his team to wins over the Heat, Magic, and Hawks. You know, not bad.

Rondo-A-Go-Go

I get it. He has more talent around him than anyone else. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, even Glen Davis the Drunken Seal, that’s a wealth of options for Rondo to dish to. But let’s face it, if you need proof of how a loaded team of offensive weapons can go down the tubes without a maestro to make the strings sing, look no further than the current unfolding disappointment in Miami. So while teams with phenomenal talent cry out for a savior, the Celtics employ the league leader in the following categories: assists, weighted assists, and assists-at-rim. He’s second in Assist Ratio (percentage of all possessions he dishes dimes on) behind Jason Kidd, and that’s on a team with some pretty good passers (Nate Robinson not withstanding). Rondo’s a defensive leader, a steal whiz, blocks shots, can post up, can guard elite guys like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and has the sickest ball-fake in the business. Oh, yeah, and he’s a championship point guard that was 12 minutes away from a second ring. That sound like the best point guard in the NBA to you? His jumper is a nightmare, always has been, always will be. But when you look at his poise, leadership and God-given speed and vision, you can let that slide. It’s not just that Rondo’s been the most dominant point guard on the floor this year, and he has, it’s that he’s done it against some pretty stiff competition in key games. If Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league, Rondo has arguably been the Most Valuable Point Guard so far.

Speed Kills. Well, Mostly Just Russell Westbrook Kills

Russell Westbrook is second among point guards playing 20 minutes a game in PER. Which is interesting, so I thought I’d take a look as to why. He’s the leading rebounder among that group snaring nearly 10% of all available boards from that position. He hasn’t been a great passer this season, nor is he shooting at a ridiculous clip. What he is doing is getting a ton of rebounds and getting to the line. There may be no more fearless point guard than Westbrook, who always seems to be a step faster than his opponents, even when they’re ready to clobber him. Westbrook explodes like nearly no other point guard and has established himself as Alpha 1B to Durant’s 1A. And when the opponent doubles Durant, as the Blazers chose to last night on a key possession, Westbrook takes advantage, getting to the rim with ease and drawing fouls.

The Calipari Trifecta

This should actually be the Saturday Starting 8, because to me, the next level here is the trifecta  of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. Rose is the best pure scorer among all of these players, averaging 25 points per 40 minutes on 46% shooting. He hits some of the most daring, amazing shots you’ll see. That mid-range jumper? It’s actually taken as step back this season at 36%. But he’s still attacking, finding angles you shouldn’t be able to. Tyreke Evans? No big deal, just doing what he does. Less than a point (.6) off of his average of 20-5-5 last year, with a hobbled ankle, and still one of the most dangerous players in the game. He may not be considered a point guard by some at this point, but with as much as he handles the ball, it’s hard to argue he’s not the point of the offense. And Wall? Well consider that he’s 8th among point guards playing 25 minutes a game in assist ratio. He also leads that group in steals per 40 minutes. Don’t look now, but while you’re fawning over Blake Griffin, Wall’s putting together a spectacular rookie season so far.

The point of all this? We are blessed. This is an era of unparalleled talent at the point guard position. Oh, yeah, and that Steve Nash guy? He’s pretty good too.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
Adam Hunger/Getty Images
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.