Getty Images

Luka Doncic is playing chess and NBA defenders are stuck on a checkers board

10 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Luka Doncic’s second NBA season has been a revelation.

It’s not a surprise, everyone knew Doncic was good, he did just win Rookie of the Year last season (and was EuroLeague MVP before that). It’s how good — MVP-level good — and how fast that has been the revelation to fans (as well as a few NBA front offices that passed him up in the draft for “safer” choices).

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his revelation much earlier.

“The first day he showed up in September [2018] and played pickup,” Carlisle said. “He dominated the pickup games with passing and vision, he wasn’t scoring that much. His size, strength, vision, power, stuff like that, it’s great for a young player.”

That young player was good, but the one filling up the stat sheet this season — and filling up NBA arenas to watch him play — is up another level. Or three. Doncic has been elite, averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists a game this season, leading a Dallas offense that is the best in the league while putting himself in the middle of the MVP conversation.

And this is not even his ceiling — Doncic is just 20 years old and still improving. Fast.

What led to this season’s leap for Doncic is not one simple thing, but a combination of many elements that led him to be arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game. Already. Before he can legally buy a drink.

The story of his leap starts in Europe at Real Madrid — Doncic played more than 120 games over a couple of seasons at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Which means he may be just 20 but he’s seen defenses try everything on him to throw him off his game: Blitz, switch, ice, drop, hedge-and-recover, zones, whatever NBA teams try it’s not the first time he’s seen it. Doncic learned how to read and react, how to set his defender up, how to feign he was driving left just to draw a help defender one step to open a passing lane to the right.

“For me, playing basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of how teams defend him. “You got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”

Doncic shoots off the pick-and-roll 12.2 times a game and the Mavericks score an incredibly efficient 1.12 points per possession on those plays (for comparison, James Harden scores at a 1.02 rate). Doncic has an eFG% of 60.2 as the ball handler.

Doncic has amassed a Swiss Army Knife of moves he can break out, depending on the situation, and he put in the work in the gym to make those moves — those decoys or step-back jumpers — look smooth and effortless. He shortened the stride on his first step this season, making it both more explosive and easier to switch directions quickly. He can do any of this in games without hesitation, and this season added a floater (and, if he’s driving more from the wing, a bank-floater off the window).

“He really put in a great summer of work, in all areas of his game, from conditioning to all the skill areas,” Carlisle said. “In today’s pick-and-roll game, teams play it a lot of ways. We’ll see trapping, you see drop coverage where the big guys keep dropping, keep dropping and force you to make floaters, which are difficult two-point shots — analytically they are the shots you want to force opponents to take — but he’s got better at executing those at the basket. Some of it is just experience, having gone through it a year, but most of it is just hard work.”

Having gone through it a year matters a lot, too. Last season when the Mavericks came to Staples Center and played the Lakers, it was the first time Doncic went up against his idol LeBron James. The 19-year-old asked for a jersey after the game in the hallway.

“Normally, I was never nervous before a game. That game, I was nervous, for sure,” Doncic said after his team snapped LeBron and the Lakers’ 10-game win streak last Sunday. “It was something special for me. Just growing up, I used to watch him a lot…. I still admire him very much.”

Don’t confuse that with Doncic holding back — he dropped a 27-foot stepback on LeBron last Sunday to help seal Dallas’ win.

The teams that give Doncic trouble have multiple long defenders who can be aggressive. Minnesota, with Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, were able to do that Wednesday night and Doncic shot 8-of-22 (but Dallas still won the game). A week ago, the Clippers with their length and quality defenders did the same thing, overloading Doncic’s side of the floor and forcing him into a 4-of-14 shooting night with seven turnovers.

The Lakers tried the same thing with their length, but Doncic and the Mavs adjusted.

“[Doncic] made a really good adjustment in the second quarter, he started moving the ball quickly then getting the ball back, and that put him in some positions that were a little harder to predict for the defense,” Carlisle said. “The second half was more of the same…

“He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a handful of people in the world can hit,” Carlisle added. Dallas pulled away to beat the Lakers comfortably.

Dallas has become dependant on Doncic and a few of those hellacious shots a game.

Doncic leads the league in touches at 97.7 per game, and he holds the ball an average of 5.59 seconds per touch (to be fair, him bringing the ball up the court skews that time number). Dallas has become dependant upon him to create, and Carlisle adjusted the starting lineup, rounding it out with shooters and finishers who can work off the ball, such as Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That group gives Doncic options: a roll man in Powell, a pick-and-pop guy in Porzingis, plus shooters and size everywhere (the shortest starter for Dallas is Hardaway at 6’5”).

Doncic was playing chess against Minnesota — they had taken away what works for him, but it opened up the opportunity for Jalen Brunson to come in off the bench and have room to operate. Brunson had 14 points in the fourth quarter, Doncic seven, and Dallas got the win.

Looking back to June 2018 now it seems laughable: The reason teams passed on Doncic in the draft were questions about how high his ceiling really went. With two seasons of high-level basketball in Europe to watch, teams picked his game apart and decided he wasn’t athletic enough, or that he had come close to maxing out what he could do in the pick-and-roll. Teams became enamored with American players such as Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley Jr. who were seen to have higher ceilings. It’s also always safer for a GM to miss on a high draft pick with American prospect than a European one, there’s less stigma. So Doncic slid down the board a little.

Doncic knows what any good chess player knows: Fortune often favors the bold. Mark Cuban’s Mavericks understood that and made the bold move, trading for Doncic.

The revelation that comes with that boldness is Dallas is going to be a force in the West for years to come. Because they have one of the top five players in the game and put the ball in his hands.

Mavericks reportedly reach out to Joakim Noah to help at center

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dallas’ starting center Dwight Powell is lost for the season due to a torn Achilles suffered Tuesday night.

The Mavs have other centers on the roster, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, but they want more depth behind those guys. That has led to them touching base with Joakim Noah, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

The Lakers worked Noah out before the season but decided to go with Dwight Howard.

Noah had a solid second half of last season with Memphis, coming off the bench and providing good defense and 7.1 points per game. He was moving well and fit in as a role player at giving them 16.5 minutes a night.

That’s all Dallas would need, someone to grab rebounds and do the dirty work inside that lets Kristaps Prozingis play his pick-and-pop game. We’ll see if Dallas goes this direction, or another one.

Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr. reportedly agrees to return to dunk contest

Leave a comment

Derrick Jones Jr. didn’t win the underwhelming 2017 NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but he did have the best dunk of the night.

Three years later, the Miami wing is headed back to the dunk contest, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

That means we have two Dunk Contest veterans who are in: Dwight Howard and Jones Jr. We also know rookie Ja Morant is out (which is a little disappointing).

Jones is fully capable of winning this thing — he’s had plenty of huge in-game dunks since he was last in this contest. It’s just that dunk contests and in-game dunks are different things, we’ll see how he adapts.

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee on top, Jazz pass Lakers for second

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Milwaukee, on a seven-game winning streak, continues to hold on to the top slot, but the Lakers recent troubles — combined with the Jazz being on a hot streak — has Utah moving up to the second slot (with the two Los Angeles teams right on their tail).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-6, Last Week No. 1). One does not hear the words “load management” and “Giannis Antetokounmpo” in the same sentence often, but that’s because the Bucks have been able to keep his minutes in check by blowing teams out. Antetokounmpo has played in 41 of the Bucks 45 games but is 48th in the NBA in total minutes played — Cedi Osman and Tomas Satoransky have played more total minutes. That’s because the Bucks are destroying teams and letting the Greek Freak have large parts of the fourth quarter off. He’s averaging just 30.6 minutes a night. The last time coach Mike Budenholzer had Antetokounmpo on the court for more than 35 minutes in a game was Nov. 27th.

 
Jazz small icon 2. Jazz (30-13, LW 3). Mike Conley returned on Saturday and has fit in well off the bench in a couple of blowout wins. That leads to the question: Should Conley become Utah’s sixth man? On paper that works because the current starting five — Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale (who just got a contract extension), Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert — has been dominant, with a +22.5 net rating this season, and defensively that group gives up less than a point per possession. However, will Conley willingly accept that role? Could everything change during the playoffs? And who will close games?

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (34-9, LW No. 2). It would be a mistake to overreact to one ugly loss to the Celtics, in the middle of January, during a long road trip. It happens. However, if you’re looking for a thread that ties together the Lakers’ losses to Boston and Orlando last week it is transition defense — both teams had success running on L.A. The Lakers are third best in the NBA in half court defense but middle of the pack in transition defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is a regular season concern, but maybe less of a postseason concern (because the games tend to slow down). The Lakers play the Clippers next Wednesday and a win helps make their “Best in LA” case.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (31-13, LW 7). In his last six games, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 36 points per contest on 55.8% shooting overall, plus 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game. He’s looked like the all-world player from last postseason. Lou Williams was asked over the weekend what has changed with Leonard in recent games: “I think he just got his legs. He won a championship, I think he took a break, and basketball is a rhythm game. He’s just playing consistently now, getting his legs under him, and he’s more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with now.”

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (30-13, LW 6). Jamal Murray is going to miss some time with a sprained ankle, and don’t be surprised if we’re talking weeks according to the buzz around the league. That’s a blow to Denver, which is +9.6 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (using Cleaning the Glass stats, which filter out garbage time). The timing of Murray’s injury is rough for Denver as it struggles to hold on to a high seed in the tight West and has 7 of its next 10 games on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (28-14, LW 5). The utter destruction of the rival Lakers on MLK day ended a three-game losing streak (and 6-of-8), and it also was the first game in a week where the normally solid Boston defense looked like itself. Defense and slow starts — even the Lakers opened on an 8-0 run before falling apart — have been issues Brad Stevens has been focused on in recent weeks. With the Celtics healthy again the inconsistent bench shooting should be less of an issue.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (30-13, LW 8). Jimmy Butler is a lock for the All-Star Game — he might even start, if the media/players vote him in — and he should be joined by Bam Adebayo (who the coaches will need to vote in as a reserve). With an efficient 16 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, plus strong defense, Adebayo deserves a spot on the ASG roster. Miami went 2-3 in a recent run of road games, but came home where they are 19-1 on the season for five games. Good tests coming up with the Clippers on Friday and the Celtics next Tuesday.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (29-14, LW 9). The Raptors are finally healthy — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all back in the lineup — and not coincidentally the Raptors have won four in a row. After Philly on Wednesday night the Raptors have six games in a row against teams below .500, expect them to rack up wins as Masai Ujiri decides whether to be a seller at the trade deadline or to stick with the roster he has and see how much noise they can make in the postseason.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (29-16, LW 13). Winners of four in a row despite continued offensive issues — the Sixers are bottom 10 in offensive rating during that time (and over the past 10 games). After looking at the roster for half a season Elton Brand is checking out the trade market looking for shooting and playmakers, eyeing Derrick Rose for the point and wings Robert Covington and Malik Beasley. If the goal is winning the East this season and having a real shot in the Finals the Sixers may be one player away still.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (27-16, LW 12). Dallas has lost Dwight Powell for the season with a ruptured Achilles and he is going to be difficult to replace. It’s not just the 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game Powell gave them, but also he brought grit and a willingness to do the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic will get more run but it’s not the same.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-16, LW 10). This ranking is too low for this team, but it sadly kind of fits the trend of media overlooking the Pacers and coach Nate McMillan. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both on the bubble for making the All-Star Game, but expect one of them to get a nod from the coaches for a reserve spot. Sabonis is battling a bruised knee but got his first career triple-double anyway, and in general the Pacers are getting healthy and look like a team that could make a run up the East standings (and these rankings).

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (26-16, LW 4). Losers of four in a row and 5-of-6, just as Russell Westbrook is taking on a larger role and seeming more comfortable in the offense. Coincidence? The problem for the Rockets over the past six games has been the offense, just 19th in the league over that stretch, not good enough to cover up for a defense that has struggled all season. Houston takes on Denver on Wednesday night then takes off for four on the road, including a difficult Denver/Utah back-to-back.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (25-19, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up a 20-20 triple-double last week — he continues to be a great get from the Paul George trade, someone who OKC can build around. Expect the trade rumors to fly around this team in the coming weeks, but also expect the big names — Chris Paul and Steven Adams — to stay put, mostly because their contracts are so large and hard to match. Danilo Gallinari remains a name that comes up in a lot of trade discussions, he’s the guy that could be on the move. If anyone will be.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (20-23, LW 14). Over the past 10 games, the Grizzlies have the third best offense in the NBA, which is overwhelming opponents and has he Grizzlies in the playoffs if they started today. Ja Morant continues to lead the team on that end of the floor, running away with the Rookie of the Year race (no way Zion can catch him) and putting up ridiculous highlights every time he steps on the court.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (21-23, LW 15). Orlando got its signature win of the season so far beating the Lakers (ending L.A.’s nine-game win streak) behind a Markelle Fultz triple-double, but consistency has not been Fultz’s or this team’s strength. That’s especially troubling with backup point guard D.J. Augustin likely to miss three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee, he was a stabilizing influence on this roster (and a potential trade chip that just got harder to move). Evan Fournier is still drawing a lot of trade interest from other teams, but the Magic are a playoff team right now (5 game cushion) and are not having a fire sale, it’s going to take a quality offer to get a deal done.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (19-23, LW 17). San Antonio has settled into its identity this season: A top-10 offensive team led by efficient shooting from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but a bottom five defense that continues to put their playoff streak in jeopardy. DeRozan has a good case to get an All-Star game invite, however the West is so stacked at the guard position that it seems a longshot he (or Aldridge) make the final cut. It will be in the hands of the coaches, who vote on the reserves.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (19-26, LW 19). This week’s trade — which sent out Kent Bazemore and brought back Trevor Ariza — was mostly about reducing Portland’s league-largest tax bill (now down to $6.2 million). Can’t blame ownership for not wanting to pay the tax for this team, which means expect another trade — Hassan Whiteside? — or two as the deadline nears to get all the way under the tax. Also, did you see Lillard’s ridiculous 61?

 
Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (17-27, LW 20). Zion Williamson finally makes his debut for the Pelicans Wednesday night, and that means a few things. One is dunks — highlight dunks nightly. But it also means a playoff push from a team that is not out of the mix (3.5 games back) and has gone 11-5 in its last 16 before Zion’s arrival. The Pelicans have stepped back from the edge of trading away their best veterans, for now, to see how well this team can perform together and if they can make a legitimate push for the postseason.

 
Suns small icon 19. Suns (18-25, LW 21). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting, plus pulling down 12.4 rebounds a game — those are All-Star level numbers if he had played enough games (and wasn’t in the West, which is deep with good centers). Devin Booker will make his first All-Star appearance this season because the coaches will vote him in as a reserve (unlike the fan vote, Alex Caruso is not getting a spot). Phoenix has won 4-of-6 and remains within striking distance of the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (18-24, LW 16). Kyrie Irving returned right as Brooklyn hit a tough part of the schedule, so it’s not on him the team has dropped four in a row. It was on him that Irving gave an ill-timed “state of the franchise” statement that led to days of news cycle, with each story talking about his 6-of-21 shooting against Philly. The good news for the Nets is that after the Lakers on Thursday the schedule softens up for a couple of weeks.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (16-29, LW 23). Zach LaVine is a player on the bubble for making the All-Star team in the East, but the game being in Chicago this season may give him a boost with coaches. I thought Lauri Markkanen would evolve into an All-Star level player but he’s been pretty average this season, averaging 14.9 points per game but not excelling in any one area. Markkanen has spent most of his season at the four, but is seeing more time at center with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (16-28, LW 25). Andre Drummond is available via trade, but the market for him — especially at $27.1 million this season, has been limited. That should inform Drummond about what awaits him if he opts out of the last season of his contract ($28.8 million) and tests the free agent waters, but it sounds like he is headed to playing the field this July.

 
Kings small icon 23. Kings (15-28, LW 18). De’Aaron Fox is back healthy and the Kings are playing fast again. After being the slowest paced team in the league through November and December, the Kings are top 10 in pace in their last 10 games. Fox is averaging 22.7 points and 8.3 assists per game in January, but the Kings have lost six in a row and need to turn things around to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA.

 
24. Timberwolves (15-28, LW 22). The “Andrew Wiggins has figured it out” narrative got flowing in November when he averaged 27.1 points per game on a 56.6 true shooting percentage, plus he made some clutch plays. But in December that TS% fell to 51.7 (the league average is around 56), and in January Wiggins is scoring 15.4 points per game with a 48 TS%. Wiggins is back to being what he has always been, a nice rotational player who has night that remind you of that potential, but mostly is an average starter. Just one on a max contract owed $93.9 million over the three seasons after this one (fully guaranteed).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (14-28, LW 24). Bradley Beal may well be frustrated, but he took the big checks and now he is going to be with the Wizards for a while, the only place he is going is to Chicago for the All-Star Game (as a reserve). There’s no real trade buzz there. However, there is a lot of trade buzz around Davis Bertans, numerous teams are interested in the big shooting 43.3% from three, and that leaves the Pelicans with a choice: He’d fit great next to John Wall and Beal next season and the Wizards have talked about re-signing him, but Bertans is a free agent. If Washington isn’t sure they can re-sign him, they will have to consider those deadline trade offers.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (12-32, LW 26). RJ Barrett is out for a week with a sprained ankle, reducing the reasons to watch this team play — unless you’re scouting Marcus Morris for a trade. Which a lot of teams are doing. Morris is a hot name because a lot of teams could use his combination of shooting and defense inside. But can the Knicks get a protected first or enough else in return to get a trade worth it?

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (10-34, LW 29). It’s just been two games, but so far the “Jeff Teague is here to help the second unit wile Trae Young sits” experiment has had mixed results. Teague has come off the bench and for two games and shot 7-of-12 for 17 points, but is still -19 in those games (because one man cannot save that bench unit). The Hawks lost both games. Atlanta did pick up a quality win in San Antonio Friday night on a Kevin Huerter game winner.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-32, LW 27). Bright spots are hard to find for a team with this record in a five-game losing streak (and 10-of-12), but here is one: In January Collin Sexton is shooting 46.3% from three on nearly five attempts per game. If the second-year guard can start to hit that consistently — and continues his overall improved play this month — he becomes much more valuable to Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (10-35 LW 30). Stephen Curry is targeting March 1 for a return to the court, although at this point expect him to be on a minutes limit and for him still to get plenty of nights off this season. The Warriors are thinking about next season, not this one. They snapped their 10-game losing streak thanks to catching Orlando on the last night of a West Coast road swing, but the win still counts. Then MLK day it took a ridiculous 61 from Damian Lillard to hold the Warriors off.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (15-30, LW 28). Charlotte was booked to play in an NBA game in Paris (this Friday, against Milwaukee) because Tony Parker was on this roster last season. Except, then Parker retired. Still, Charlotte gets a nice mid-season trip. My word of advice: If the Hornets are going to the Louvre, “Winged Victory” and “Liberty Leading the People” are more inspiring than the “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo.”

Kobe Bryant: There are women who could play in NBA right now

Kobe Bryant
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kobe Bryant admitted to having sex with a woman who, per Bryant’s own later statement, didn’t view the encounter as consensual.

Ever since, Bryant has tried to repair his image.

Part of that is visibly championing women’s basketball. In attendance and commercials, Bryant has lent his considerable star power to both the WNBA and women’s college basketball.

He was asked: Could a woman ever play in the NBA?

Bryant, via Calum Trenaman of CNN:

“I think there are a couple of players who could play in the NBA right now honestly.

“There’s a lot of players with a lot of skill that could do it.”

“Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Elena Della Donne. There’s a lot of great players out there so they could certainly keep up with them,” he said.

This is inaccurate, and I bet Bryant knows it’s inaccurate. No WNBA player has the size and athleticism to compete in the NBA.

Bryant’s attempt at flattery is actually disrespectful to Taurasi, Moore and Della Donne. They are great players. Instead of leaving it at that, the conversation shifts to a comparison to the NBA, where those three just can’t hold up.

But Bryant gets to show how woke he is by saying women can do anything.