The NBA season is finally in full swing! So after five days of the regular season, here are the five things to keep an eye on:
Chicago Bulls Offense
The number one thing I have my eye on this season is the Chicago Bulls. There are many storylines to look out for with the Bulls: Derrick Rose, Coach Thibodeau’s management of Rose’s minutes, Doug McDermott’s role, Can they get to the Finals?, Is their window closing?; but what I am most intrigued by is the Bulls offense. The Bulls added Paul Gasol in the offseason in the hopes that it would catapult them to the NBA Finals. The addition has me hoping for some Sacramento Kings action circa 2002. By that I don’t mean Tim Donaghy’s crew fixing playoff games, I mean stellar big man passing. Last season, Joakim Noah averaged 5.4 assists per game (the only non-guard other than Lebron James and Kevin Durant to average over five). Even more impressive than that number, were the actual passes he was making. Noah orchestrated that offense all season from the high post making back door bounce passes, on time and on target passes to shooters, and lobs to his others bigs. Noah was incredible to watch last season. Now entering this season, Noah has another great big man passer to play with in Pau Gasol. The last time two bigs with this passing ability were on the same team was over a decade ago with the aforementioned Kings teams. Those teams ran their offense through Chris Webber and Vlade Divac’s passes from the block, the high post, and the elbow. When you combined those passes with playmaking from Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, and shooting from Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, and Hedo Turkoglu you had a lethally beautiful offense. The Bulls have this potential.
Allow me to nerd out for a minute. Rick Adelman coached those Kings teams and the offensive principles he used over a decade ago run rampant in the league today. Adelman’s philosophy is based on “Corner Sets”. Corner Sets feature a facilitating big man at the elbow (think Webber, Divac, Gasol, Noah), a shooter in the corner (think Stojakovic, Turkoglu, Dunleavy, McDermott), a playmaker at the wing prepared to come off of dribble handoffs (think Bibby, Rose), and the remaining guard-big combo on the weak side screening and cutting. This system relies heavily on the creativity and playmaking of the facilitating big and the guard to move the ball, create shots, and find shooters.
There is no reason why the Bulls couldn’t be a highly efficient offensive unit if they were running this system. Additionally, a possible unintended benefit would be the ability to use these Corner Sets to ease Derrick Rose back into the offense. Rather than having Rose dominate the ball with 1-4 sets and high pick and rolls, Gasol and Noah can alleviate some pressure, particularly when no one in Chicago can be completely certain that Rose will last an entire season especially if Coach Thibs goes back to the same usage rate that helped Rose earn the MVP in 2011.
Let’s see what Coach Thibs does. Either way you can probably pencil the Bulls into the Eastern Conference Finals, but an emphasis on those Adelman Corner Sets might have Shaq and Chris Webber catching flashbacks on the TNT set.
Giannis “The Greek Freak" Antetokounmpo
Have you ever met a girl who is absolutely perfect physically; she’s got some good personality traits; but she’ll burp at the dinner table, drop food and wine on her evening gown, and can’t use chopsticks? Right now, the NBA’s version of that girl is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He isn’t yet refined and he hasn’t put it all together, but if he ever does combine the physical tools with some seasoning and polish, look out world because we could have something Kevin Duranty brewing!
Analogies aside, Giannis is a freak. Plain and simple. His arms are longer than his name. He’s a human slinky. And he’s still growing (which is absurd). He isn’t polished yet and his body language is negative far too often (he does play for Milwaukee), but he is a freak and ‘freak’ is hard to find.
Coach Jason Kidd is going to put the ball in Giannis’ hands all over the court, let him play every position, and have him learn on the fly. You won’t see a lot of Bucks games on national television, but you won’t have to; just tune in to the end of SportsCenter to see “Top Ten Plays” because he’ll be there…often.
Phoenix Suns Guards
I can’t mention the Phoenix Suns without thinking about three things: 1.) BOGDAN BOGDANOVIC is my favorite name in sports to yell (which is important), 2.)TJ Warren is my dark horse of this draft class and I hope he gets the opportunity to shine, 3.) What are they going to do with all those point guards?!
I had the opportunity to speak to Phoenix Suns GM Sean McDonough over the summer. McDonough is a brilliant and strategic thinker. The man always has a plan. Unfortunately for me, we didn’t get to talk for long enough for me to find out what his plan is for all of the point guards on his roster. The Suns finished last season with two very good point guards on their roster: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, who played very effectively with each other. Uncertainty over their ability to re-sign Bledsoe in the offseason, the Suns drafted Tyler Ennis from Syracuse. Then, for reasons known only by McDonough, the Suns acquired a fourth small point guard, Isaiah Thomas.
Previously, I referenced Jay Wright’s three small guard offenses that worked so effectively at Villanova with Mike Nardi, Randy Foye, and Allan Ray. While that worked in the college ranks, there’s no way you can trot out Thomas, Bledsoe, and Dragic and expect to be able to defend positions one through three in the NBA.
Regardless of McDonough’s thoughts about his point guards, there is one thing that makes perfect sense. His name is Zoran Dragic. Goran and Zoran on the same team!!! Good work, McDonough.
The La La Saga
What will be higher, Kobe’s points per game or the Lakers win total? It’s got to be Kobe’s points, right?
There is no way the Lakers can compete in the Western Conference with their roster as currently constructed. Beyond the glaring dearth of talent on the roster, Coach Byron Scott is employing a strategy that doesn’t typically yield success in today’s NBA. Scott wants the Lakers to take 15 or fewer three-point attempts in each game. In Scott’s words, “I don’t believe it [three-pointers] wins championships. It gets you to the playoffs.” Okay…two things. One, it would be a miracle for the Lakers to make the playoffs, so do whatever it takes and fire up some threes! Two, threes do win championships! In fact, the team that has led the postseason in three-point shots and makes has won seven of the past eight NBA championships.
Despite the facts, the Lakers have been carrying out Coach Scott’s plan in the first four winless games of this 2014-2015 campaign. This is what the Lakers have done from the three-point line in each of their first four games: 3 for 10, 90 points scored; 4 for 13, 99 points scored; 7 for 20, 111 points scored; and 4 for 14, 104 points scored. Obviously this is a small sample size, but let’s recap. The game in which the Lakers attempted the fewest threes (10), they produced their lowest point total (90). In the game in which the Lakers attempted the most threes (20), they produced their highest point total (111). This pattern has held true in every game the Lakers have played this season: the more threes they shoot, the more points they score. Through four games the Lakers are in Scott’s sweet spot, with an average of 14.25 three-point attempts per game which has yielded exactly 4.5 makes and 1.0 loses per game.
It’s going to be a long season in La La Land, but it will be even longer for Kobe and Coach Scott if the Lakers don’t correct their philosophy about long range jumpers.
Transcendence of The Brow
Anthony Davis is stupid good, but you already knew that. You didn’t need Davis’ opening night performance of 26, 17, 9, 3, and 2 to confirm that. Davis being one of the consensus top three players to build a franchise around is already the worst kept secret in basketball.
What makes "The Brow" so special is not what’s between his eyes, but rather what’s between his ears. As has been reported throughout Davis’ college and professional career, Davis was only 6 foot 3 inches tall as a junior in high school. Then, inch by inch Davis transformed into a dominant 6’8’’ high schooler, a special 6’9’’ college national champion, and now a transcendent 6’10’’ franchise building block. Obviously the height is crucial in Davis’ development, but what truly puts Davis into another stratosphere is his basketball IQ and instincts.
What seems to get overlooked when people bring up Davis’ growth spurt is the fact that he spent nearly his whole life learning the game from a guard’s perspective. That’s why Davis’ basketball IQ is off the charts, that’s why Davis is so fluid, that’s why Davis has such a pure shooting stroke, that’s why Davis has a command for the game and instincts far beyond his years. Davis has the best of both worlds: the mind of a guard with the frame of a big.
The scariest thing for the rest of the NBA is that Davis is still growing, not only into his frame but into his game. Davis has added elements to his overall game every year. When I got to watch Davis in person against the Florida Gators in 2012 he dominated in every way imaginable: running the floor, handling the ball, blocking shots, attacking off the dribble, and stretching the defense. He accumulated 22 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocks while facing off against two future NBAers, Patric Young and Erik Murphy. Davis has progressed seemingly every game since then. Today Davis is a more complete team and individual defender, a better screener, a more diverse player from the low block, and an absolute terror for all of his opponents. There will be no defender, scheme, or wax kit that will be able to remove The Brow from the league’s elite for the next decade.