NBA

Revisiting the 2020 NBA offseason: Lakers deserved the praise they received; Heat have more moves to make

In some ways, it feels like it’s impossible to make sense of anything this season. Some teams were off for almost 10 months before training camp, some less than two. COVID-19 health and safety protocols have postponed games and forced teams to play severely shorthanded. Rookies didn’t have summer league, and, with practice time even more limited than normal, players have had relatively little time to build chemistry. The Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies are in the top five in defensive rating. 

In other ways, this hasn’t been that crazy or unpredictable. The Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers are the top three teams in the league by net rating. The Brooklyn Nets’ offense is scary, its defense less so. The Orlando Magic have gone 3-8 after their 4-0 start. The Toronto Raptors no longer have a negative point differential. A month into the season, it’s time to take a look back at the moves that preceded it. We definitely got a few things wrong at the time.

10 thoughts:

1. The Los Angeles Lakers deserved all of that praise: Steve Kerr is right that the defending champs are in the post-championship sweet spot, playing with extreme confidence but without the fatigue that sets in after repeating. They’re different than the 73-win Warriors, though, because they made major changes to their roster. Their new starting lineup, featuring newcomers Marc Gasol and Dennis Schroder, is scoring 111.8 points per 100 possession in the halfcourt, per Cleaning The Glass, an absolutely scorching number. 

LeBron James’s minutes are down, as are his assist rate and the percentage of his shots that are unassisted. This is by design. This Lakers team doesn’t need him to create everything. They even have a plus-1.7 net rating with him on the bench.

In terms of passing and shooting, this is a fundamentally different team. The best part is that the defense has improved, too. They’re not forcing as many turnovers, but they don’t foul and they don’t give up offensive rebounds. All skeptics and nitpickers can do is point to their relatively soft schedule and relatively diminished transition game. 

2. The Philadelphia 76ers’ additions are helping: Seth Curry is averaging 17 points in 30 minutes on 79.6 percent true shooting. He’s attempting 3.6 catch-and-shoot 3s a game and making 69 percent of them. He’s even making 61.1 percent of his 2-point shots. It is no surprise, then, that Philadelphia’s starting five, with Curry and Danny Green replacing Josh Richardson and Al Horford, is scoring 115.6 points per 100 possessions with a plus-13.6 net rating (and, per Cleaning The Glass, 102.7 per 100 in the halfcourt — not quite as ridiculous as the Lakers, but an elite number nonetheless, and more than 10 per 100 better than last season). 

Curry, however, has only played eight games. He tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago and is probable to return Friday against the Boston Celtics. In his absence, rookie Tyrese Maxey has started six games, including one against the Denver Nuggets in which the team was so shorthanded that he had to log 44 minutes and Green had to play some point guard. Maxey scored 39 points on 18-for-33 shooting, a performance made all the more encouraging by the fact he has shown to be a capable playmaker in a supporting role, too.

Green is holding lineups together in the ways you’d expect. Dwight Howard is the same guy he was last season, and Embiid loves him. Doc Rivers is staggering Embiid and Simmons less and giving the irrepressible Shake Milton room to be a playmaker. There is a case to be made that Isaiah Joe, a shooter selected No. 49 in the draft, should keep getting minutes with Curry back. Embiid has been playing like an MVP, in large part because there is better spacing around him. We haven’t seen Philadelphia at full strength or against elite competition enough to know much about its ceiling, but Daryl Morey’s offseason moves still seem sensible. 

3. The Portland Trail Blazers did not make themselves into contenders: The short version is the remade Blazers haven’t been nearly as good as they hoped. Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. were supposed to elevate them defensively, and they were expected to remain the elite offensive team they were last season, with more depth than ever before. Instead, the defense has been abysmal and their depth is already being tested. 

In fairness to Portland’s front office, much of this is a result of bad luck. Jusuf Nurkic missed the beginning of training camp because of a family issue and was in preseason form when the regular season started. Zach Collins hasn’t played a minute and had a second surgery on his injured left ankle in late December. Nurkic broke his wrist last week. CJ McCollum injured his foot two days later. 

Nurkic was starting to find his form before his injury. McCollum was playing the best basketball of his life before his. Collins’ presence would have made it even more difficult for coach Terry Stotts to keep everybody happy, but at least it would have made it easy to avoid playing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter at the same time. None of this, however, explains Covington shooting just 30 percent from deep and attempting fewer 3s than he has in years. None of it accounts for the inefficiency of the re-signed Rodney Hood, either. 

4. The Phoenix Suns have joined the party: The Suns wanted to take a few steps forward, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. They rank 10th on offense, 10th on defense and eighth in net rating, with an 8-5 record. 

The more you look at the way they’ve done this, though, the weirder it seems. Phoenix’s starting lineup hasn’t been able to stop anybody, and the team has been almost 20 points per 100 possessions better defensively with DeAndre Ayton off the court, per CTG. The Suns sandwiched a good win against the Indiana Pacers between awful losses to the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. Backup center Dario Saric has a significantly higher usage rate (24.8 percent) than Chris Paul (a career-low 20.1 percent) and a higher 3-point percentage (35.7 percent) than Paul (30.6 percent) and Jae Crowder (32.6 percent). Phoenix is fortunate that its bench has been the best in the league, even with Saric missing eight games because of a quad injury and COVID-19 protocols. 

Offseason addition Langston Galloway has been ridiculously efficient but has played a small, inconsistent role. E’Twaun Moore has barely played. Monty Williams moved Crowder to the second unit in favor of Cameron Johnson a couple of games ago. The best individual stories here are the development of Mikal Bridges and the continued excellence of bubble hero Cameron Payne, not the new guys. Ayton’s rim protection is a concern, but he’s also coming off perhaps the best game of his career. If the Suns’ core players find their rhythm together, watch out. 

5. The Los Angeles Clippers had a better offseason than we thought: Everybody knew that Serge Ibaka would be an awesome fit. Last season’s Clippers didn’t have anyone like him, a center who can stretch the floor, protect the rim and switch a little bit. Ibaka hasn’t even shot that well from deep, but they look like a different team when they’re playing 5-out.

Less obvious was the transformative effect of Nicolas Batum, who signed on a minimum contract after the Charlotte Hornets waived him. The 32-year-old forward has juiced up Los Angeles’ offense by moving the ball quickly, making open 3s and otherwise staying out of the way. Can we go back in time and put this version of Batum on the Lob City Clippers, too? They always needed a 3-and-D guy. 

Early returns on the Landry Shamet-for-Luke Kennard swap are also amazing. Kennard is shooting 51 percent on 3s, and while he is not in a featured role, his secondary playmaking has come in handy. 

6. Well, some of the Brooklyn Nets’ new guys just got a lot more important: Bruce Brown appeared to be a smart pickup, but it wasn’t immediately clear that he would become such a crucial part of the Nets’ roster.  The 24-year-old guard is easily their best perimeter defender, and he had a 15-point, 14-rebound game against the New York Knicks a few hours after Brooklyn traded for James Harden. Now the problem is finding room for him — he played only seven minutes in the Big 3’s debut on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to wonder if he might have been able to cool off Collin Sexton after regulation.

Jeff Green played the entire fourth quarter and both overtimes at center in that game, and four days earlier he was in the same position in crunch time against the Orlando Magic. This could become a regular thing, and it also appears that rookie big man Reggie Perry can expect double-digit minutes going forward, at least until Nicolas Claxton gets healthy or Brooklyn acquires another center. It is unclear if Perry, drafted No. 57 a couple of months ago, is ready for that, but Green has looked just as comfortable at smallball 5 as he did in Houston.

The Nets should feel fantastic about re-signing Joe Harris, who complements the stars brilliantly. I wonder how they feel, though, about declining Garrett Temple’s $5 million player option. Thin as they are now, it would be nice to be able to bring Temple off the bench. 

7. The Toronto Raptors lost a lot of corporate knowledge: The Raptors lost a top-five player in the 2019 offseason. Then they endured injury after injury. Nothing seemed to slow them down, at least in the regular season. When Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka walked, it was reasonable to think Toronto would find a way to emerge unscathed. Surely, Aron Baynes would fit right in, Alex Len would shoot 3s like he did two years ago and the small lineup Nick Nurse used in the playoffs would return in fine form … right? 

Not exactly. Len has already been waived, and Baynes has been perhaps the most disappointing signing of the entire offseason. The Raptors’ offense has improved after a dreadful start, and they’ve finally won a couple of close games, but they could sure use the version of Baynes that Phoenix had at the beginning of last season. 

The contract extension did not turn O.G. Anunoby into an offensive force. He is still an excellent 3-and-D guy, but his usage rate is 15.5 percent and he’s averaging slightly fewer drives than he did last season, despite playing five more minutes a game, per NBA.com. The good news is that the re-signed Fred VanVleet has again thrived with increased responsibility and the re-signed Chris Boucher has been something of a revelation, functioning as the team’s microwave scorer and energy guy at the same time.

8. The Grizzlies are really building something: Memphis has survived Ja Morant missing eight games because of its defense and its bench. Much of the credit must go to rookie wing Desmond Bane and rookie center Xavier Tillman, picked Nos. 30 and 35 in the draft, respectively. Both profiled as NBA-ready defenders. Both stood out with their physical strength and advanced feel. Both did exactly what they’re doing now when they were in college. 

Bane’s shooting has translated as well as the Grizzlies could have hoped. Tillman’s passing has translated, too, and the coaching staff has rightfully encouraged him to shoot 3s when he’s open. He’s not making many of them, but if that ever changes, Memphis will have a starting-caliber center on its hands. (Tillman’s hands, by the way, are enormous.)

The De’Anthony Melton and John Konchar contracts looked like bargains the day they were signed. Nothing has changed there. 

9. The Miami Heat have more moves to make: After signing his rookie contract extension, Bam Adebayo keeps getting better. He is shooting 18-for-32 on long 2s, per CTG, and his usage and assist rates are up. The re-signed Goran Dragic is showing no ill effects from his injury in the Finals. Rookie Precious Achiuwa has brought energy, switchability and vertical spacing. Avery Bradley gave the Heat a different look on the perimeter before he was sidelined due to health and safety protocols. They clearly miss Jae Crowder, though, and Moe Harkless has been completely out of the rotation for most of the season. 

Jimmy Butler has only played in six games and didn’t look like himself in most of those, so Miami’s 6-7 record and unimpressive numbers aren’t meaningful indicators of what kind of team it will be in a few months. Based on what we’ve seen, though, it’s anybody’s guess what the rotation will look like when the Heat are whole. And if they’re going to get back to the level they reached in the playoffs, they probably need to make a trade or two. 

10. The Houston Rockets’ rebuild is coming into focus: The Covington trade signaled that the Rockets wanted to recoup the draft picks they lost in the Chris Paul-for-Russell Westbrook trade and set themselves up for the post-James Harden era. Now that era is upon us, and they have an interesting future. It is unclear how good they are in the present, though. 

If John Wall stays healthy, there’s a decent chance they will have been compensated for getting the better player in a two-player trade, pulling off the same move the Oklahoma City Thunder used on them. Wall isn’t putting up All-Star numbers, but athletically he looks a lot more like the guy who made All-NBA in 2017 than the guy who tried to play on one leg after that. Christian Wood is putting up All-Star numbers, but his issues protecting the rim, the Rockets’ record and the West’s stiff competition might keep him off the team. Regardless, he should be seen as one of the best signings of free agency. 

The versatile Jae’Sean Tate might make that list, too, provided that his recent playmaking is for real. Sterling Brown’s 45.9 percent 3-point shooting is probably not completely real, but I still don’t understand how the Milwaukee Bucks let him go. DeMarcus Cousins is having a rough go of it. New coach Stephen Silas managed the Harden situation admirably, but the real work has only just begun. It remains to be seen what he can do with Wall and Victor Oladipo, and what general manager Rafael Stone will do with the roster before the deadline. 


Other notes on the 2020 offseason: I’ll revisit the Hawks’ signings when their new guys are actually playing … You don’t have to like the Gordon Hayward contract, but you must acknowledge that he and the Hornets have given each other exactly what they wanted … The Thunder killed it, and not just because of all of the picks — they gave Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley room to grow … It feels wrong to read much into the Mavericks’ early-season shooting numbers, but there were reasons to be concerned about exactly this … Apparently the Jordan Clarkson contract that every analyst hated was actually awesome … The Jakob Poeltl contract that every analyst loved was also awesome … Steven Adams has been wonderful, but the Pelicans’ spacing is rough and I wish they’d kept George Hill … By the numbers, the Bucks’ bench has been better than I anticipated … I am reserving judgment on the Celtics, but I’m glad they put Jaylen Brown in position to do this … Congrats to the Cavaliers for making their big move about a month after the season started  … The Nuggets lost a lot of defense, but JaMychal Green helps and they might be finally getting up to speed … The Bulls look pretty smart, don’t they? … Is it weird if I totally understand what Steve Kerr is trying to do and I still think the Warriors desperately need more shooting? … What Jerami Grant is doing is not normal.



 

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