LeBron James' usage, Rockets' reclamation projects among NBA's 10 most interesting subplots for 2018-19
We also look at OKC's offense, Embiid's evolution, Mitchell's shooting and more
The preseason is almost over and we are just one week from real games. If you haven't really started thinking about the NBA again yet, that's OK, but we are here to get you ready for the next nine months. Brad Botkin has already provided ; I am here to look at the smaller (i.e. nerdier) stuff.
Here are the 10 most interesting subplots to keep an eye on:
1. LeBron's usage with Lakers
LeBron James has a usage rate of 31.5 percent over the course of his career, and that percentage hasn't dipped below 30 since his second season. (As a rookie, he had a 28.2 percent usage rate; it climbed to 29.7 percent as a sophomore.) This is logical: He is arguably the best player to ever play the sport and, more specifically, the player most equipped to pick apart defenses and generate high-quality shots. If you want an extremely efficient offense, giving the ball to the most dominant playmaker the league has ever seen and spacing the floor for him is as sure a bet as there is.
The Los Angeles Lakers, however, seem intent on doing things differently. "We won't just rely on LeBron making all the shots for people in terms of creating the shots for people," team president Magic Johnson said at a press conference before training camp, and their (unconventional) free-agent signings reflect that. All summer, the Lakers' critics have pointed to the roster's abundance of ballhandlers and relative lack of shooting, especially compared to James' teams in Cleveland and Miami.
There is a method to this madness: Building an offense around James dominating the ball is effective, but exhausting. At 33 years old, perhaps James doesn't want the burden of creating everything all the time. (Remember his "We need a f---ing playmaker" tirade a couple of seasons ago?) The regular season is long, and decreasing his workload is probably smart, especially if it allows him to be more consistent on defense. There is an argument that playing "LeBron ball" marginalizes other players, like Jae Crowder and Rodney Hood last season. If Los Angeles is serious about developing Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and its other young players, having them stand around and watch James probably isn't ideal.
James, however, tends to take over when it's winning time. In clutch situations and playoff situations, he is accustomed to running the show. Can Los Angeles strike a balance where he relinquishes some control and everybody benefits? What happens if this team's growing pains are more difficult than James anticipates? It would be one thing to ask James to play off the ball more if he had another proven star alongside him, but that's not the case here.
2. Houston's reclamation projects
This isn't just about Carmelo Anthony, but let's focus on him. The much-maligned, minimum-contract bucket getter apologized for taking a long 2 in a preseason game, and this moment of levity made me want to believe everything's going to work out. So much is communicated there: Anthony knows the Houston Rockets' guiding principles as well as anybody, and he understands that he's going to have to make compromises in order to fit. He also knows some habits are hard to break, and there is a world of difference between understanding principles and applying them.
Houston hopes Anthony will do better next to James Harden and Chris Paul than he did next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The perception, however, of Anthony's one-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder might not be in line with the reality. It is not true that Anthony stubbornly refused to change his game at all: his usage rate dropped from 29.1 percent to 23.1 percent, by far the lowest mark of his career, per Basketball-Reference. He exclusively played power forward, attempted more 3-pointers per 36 minutes (6.8) than ever before and 55.5 percent of his field goals were assisted, the highest that number had been in a decade, per NBA.com.
Anthony didn't want to come off the bench, but he was definitely a complementary player. And he wasn't some kind of toxic force during the regular season: OKC outscored opponents by four points per 100 possessions with him on the court and one point per 100 possessions with him on the bench. In the 1,975 minutes in which he shared the floor with Westbrook and George, the Thunder did not crumble as a result of their egos: they scored 111.1 points per 100 possessions.
The issue is that, against a suffocating Utah Jazz defense in the playoffs, that rate plummeted to 103.9 points per 100 possessions in 168 minutes. , it was clear that Anthony's playing time needed to be diminished. Even if his effort was there, and it was there more often than he's usually given credit for, Oklahoma City could not make up for his defensive shortcomings. On offense, he didn't produce like the kind of third or fourth banana you need to win big -- he had the least efficient shooting season of his career, and he almost never got to the line because was trying to be a stretch 4 (and he's not the athlete he used to be). It surprised nobody that the organization didn't want to bring him back on a $27.9 million salary.
Judging by what we've seen in the preseason, it looks like Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni will bring Anthony off the bench and try to maximize his time alongside versatile, athletic forward James Ennis. Anthony is saying all the right things about his role, and it's not hard to find players who have succeeded with D'Antoni and struggled elsewhere (or players who have thrived after leaving the Thunder). That's no guarantee that Anthony will be comfortable immediately, though -- Houston's job is to figure out how to take advantage of his talent in a playoff series. (If you'd like to feel warm and fuzzy about this experiment, watch that clip of him apologizing for the long 2, then watch him sidestep into a corner 3 the way he's supposed to after a mind-bending pass from Paul.)
The reason the Rockets are so interesting: I could have spent the above paragraphs going on and on about journeyman Michael Carter-Williams, the injured-again Brandon Knight, the enigmatic Marquese Chriss and the even-more-enigmatic Bruno Caboclo. If those guys had wound up somewhere else, I likely wouldn't be writing about them, but Houston has such a strong foundation that it makes you think almost anybody could realize his potential there. It's way too early to know who -- if anyone -- will stand out.
3. Searching for a silver lining in OKC
I have a somewhat hot take: The news that Andre Roberson had surgery and will miss at least two months might be good for the Thunder in the long run. It's obviously awful, maybe even devastating for Roberson, and it's probably , but, in the big picture, perhaps it could help the Thunder do what they've needed to do for years: liven up their offense.
I am not talking strictly from a points per possession perspective here, though ranking 10th in offense last season wasn't what Oklahoma City optimists projected. This is about being as prepared as possible to score against elite defensive teams in the postseason, and it is about a fundamental shift in the way the team has approached offense under both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan. Wouldn't it be awesome to live in a world where no one called the Thunder's system "simple" or "predictable?" How long have we been talking about their assist rate, their 3-point shooting and their offensive rating with Russell Westbrook on the bench? Isn't it a credit to Westbrook's obviously out-of-this-world talent that analysts keep challenging him to further refine his game? (My answers: oh god yes; a million years; absolutely.)
Westbrook has proven he can carry an offense. He has not proven he can carry an efficient offense. No one expects OKC to turn into the Warriors, but it's not unreasonable to ask the Thunder to tilt their system in a less Westbrook-centric direction. The roster isn't perfect for beautiful, free-flowing basketball, but perhaps the absence of Roberson -- a limited offensive player who shrinks the court and doesn't create for others -- will help Donovan put lineups on the court that will move the ball, space the floor and keep defenders guessing.
To be clear: Losing Roberson is a big blow. It will hurt the Thunder's defense and make them less comfortable than they thought they'd be for a significant portion of the season. But maybe, if they want to compete with the best of the best, they need to get a bit uncomfortable.
4. Imagine there's more Process
Joel Embiid didn't make it on anybody's . He was an elite two-way player for the Philadelphia 76ers, and he is a top-10 player right now. Unlike most players of his caliber, though, there are several areas in which he can improve, and it seems foolish to bet against him addressing them.
Embiid doesn't have a giant hole in his game, like the jump shot for fellow superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and teammate Ben Simmons. Instead, he has a bunch of smaller flaws he can fix. Until now, we have never truly seen Embiid in peak physical condition -- this was the first offseason in which he could he say he was healthy and able to train as much as he wanted. It is possible that his 3-point percentage (30.8 percent last season) could creep up to the high 30s. He keeps talking about reducing his turnover rate, which has been his biggest bugaboo.
It isn't that hard to envision a famously quick learner like Embiid putting it all together. It looks like he'll be more athletic and more capable of handling heavy minutes, too. If you're like me, you've had conversations about how incredible Karl-Anthony Towns would be if he ever became a dominant defender. Embiid already is one, and he's not that far away from becoming as polished as Towns on offense. Philadelphia's ceiling will not just be determined by how much Markelle Fultz can give them or whether or not Simmons makes significant progress -- there is a world in which Embiid has an Anthony Davis-like effect on the team, lifting everybody up and becoming MVP-worthy.
5. Mitchell's shooting and a potential powerhouse
Donovan Mitchell defied even his biggest fans' most optimistic expectations as a rookie, so you don't hear much about his flaws. It's no big deal that he only shot 36 percent (and 25 percent from 3-point range) against the Houston Rockets in the second round, and it's not fair to dwell on the fact that he could stand to be a bit more judicious with his shot selection. Based on how he grabbed the reins as the Jazz's No. 1 option over the course of his first season, we should see him as a franchise cornerstone, a potential superstar and one of the future faces of the league.
The question is how quickly he will get there. He turned 22 a month ago, and there was a massive difference between the Mitchell we saw in the first few weeks of his career and the Mitchell we saw later on. Since we saw him get so much better at finishing in Year One, does it follow that he will now get way better at long-range shooting in Year Two? Not automatically, but, just like with Embiid, it doesn't seem like a wise idea to get in the business of doubting him.
Utah is a trendy pick to finish near the top of the West, not just because of its dominant defense but because it could become a powerhouse on the other end, too. This team has plenty of playmaking and shooting, and Quin Snyder's system makes (smart) players look better. If Mitchell takes even greater command of that system -- and consistently hits off-the-dribble 3s -- the whole league will have to, uh, take note.
DeMar DeRozan was traded to a team that lost Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson. The team also signed Marco Belinelli and Dejounte Murray . If the San Antonio Spurs are going to remain formidable on defense, they need DeRozan to be at least adequate on that end. DeRozan has has never been known as a lockdown defender, and that's a shame when you think about his attributes. Beyond his obvious strength and agility, he has earned a reputation for being absolutely obsessed with improvement. He studies his peers and his heroes on film. He describes his work ethic as "sickening." He has some of the best footwork in the league on offense. His handle, shooting and passing have come a long, long way, to the point where his doubters have . Why, then, did DeRozan never become an above-average defender during his nine years in Toronto?
The answer has to be effort, focus or a combination of the two. DeRozan has continually said he wants to make progress in this area, and in training camp he called it "the next step in my game." The problem is that he has never shown it, at least not for sustained stretches. Perhaps joining the Spurs and playing for Gregg Popovich will change this, but for all of the positive things I could say here about their culture, it's not like Pop can make DeRozan more engaged on that end. DeRozan has to want it.
7. Stevens, Nurse and a world of possibilities
I'm going to try not to veer into "What if they're too talented?" territory here, but both teams at the top of the East have complex questions to answer with regard to their rotations. Last season, Celtics coach Brad Stevens sometimes elected to start Aron Baynes against bigger teams, but this seems unlikely with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy. Raptors coach Nick Nurse also seems unlikely to go with a two-big look; he has mostly separated Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas in the preseason.
This is not, however, just about who starts or even who finishes. Both teams boast a bench unit that believes it could beat some teams' starters. Robert Williams III, a rim-running rookie who brings vertical spacing that Stevens has never had at his disposal, will probably have to spent significant time in the G League. Norman Powell seems on the verge of a bounceback season, except for the fact that Nurse might not be able to find any minutes for him on the wing.
The obvious questions are about chemistry and whether or not these loaded teams can get everybody to buy into his role and share the wealth. The more fun stuff will be how these two coaching staffs Pascal Siakam playing point-center? Let's get super weird.in the regular season, trying to work out which combinations of players work under which circumstances, learning how to adapt to different styles of play and preparing themselves for the tests that await them in the playoffs. Don't you want to see Gordon Hayward at the 4 next to three smaller guards? How about
8. Give Kemba a break
The Charlotte Hornets performed like a playoff team when Kemba Walker was on the court last season, outscoring opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions in the 2,736 minutes he played. Their season fell apart in the other 1,220 minutes, in which they were outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions. This is heartbreakingly Westbrookian, and the Hornets desperately need the 36-year-old Tony Parker and the 20-year-old Malik Monk to help Walker out. A return to form from Nicolas Batum would be welcomed, too, and this seems possible given that he won't have to worry about Dwight Howard calling for the ball in the post and floating around in everybody's way.
New Hornets coach James Borrego spent all of training camp focused on pushing the pace, and he's going to play lots of lineups that feature four or five 3-point shooters -- Miles Bridges' versatility helps here. If you believe that Parker and Monk can take some pressure off of Walker in this new system, then you might want to .
(Charlotte, by the way, is not the only team dealing with this kind of thing. The Indiana Pacers went 0-7 without Victor Oladipo last season, and they were outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Tyreke Evans is a Pacer )
9. Unlucky lefties look to get careers back on track
No two players have fallen further in the past 12 months than Isaiah Thomas and Rodney Hood. Thomas, 29, signed with the Denver Nuggets for the veteran's minimum one season removed from averaging 28.9 points with ridiculous efficiency and leading his team to the conference finals. Hood, 25, signed the $3.4 million qualifying offer to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers one year after everybody hyped him up as the Jazz's new No. 1 option.
Hood actually wasn't bad last season in Utah -- he averaged 16.8 points and made 39 percent of his 3s before the trade deadline -- but he was deemed expendable and struggled to find any sort of comfort zone after being sent to Cleveland. Thomas also had a tough time with the Cavaliers, and while he was better in his short stint with the Lakers, he didn't prove he could finish over giants and carry an offense like he did before his hip injury. Thomas finally had surgery in March.
On paper, both of these players are in decent places now. The Cavs' roster means Tyronn Lue will be forced to play a more movement-oriented style and empower Hood to make plays. Thomas hasn't suited up for the Nuggets yet, but Michael Malone knows how to use him and the point guard has apparently already energized a quiet locker room. Let's see if these lefties can get their careers back on track.
10. The Booker referendum
I'll keep this last one short: Devin Booker is way too talented to be as polarizing as he is, and even if a bunch of is happening with the Phoenix Suns again, I'd love to see him compete harder on defense, use the attention he attracts to make his teammates better and put an end to the constant debate about him being overrated or underrated or whatever the next person wants to say about him. He hasn't even turned 22 and I'm already exhausted by how predictable Booker's supporters and detractors are.
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