In honor of Kobe Bryant‘s untimely passing, this month’s NBA 5×5 will be a 2×4 – two players and four teams – an homage to Bryant’s #24.
Apparently, Aldridge made a New Year’s resolution to shoot more of the outside shots behind the arched line. And not only he is attempting more, but he’s making them at an elite clip. Per Cleaning the Glass, Aldridge had taken only 200 3-point attempts as a Spur prior to the 2019-20 season. Through 41 games this season, Aldridge has attempted 126 3-pointers and made 42.1% of them.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that Head Coach Gregg Popovich approached Aldridge over the summer, and again in late December, imploring him to take more 3-pointers. In the month of January alone, Aldridge has attempted 59 three-pointers. And during that same stretch, the Spurs’ offensive rating has jumped to 114.9. Were the Spurs to sustain this level through the remainder of the season, they would boast the league’s second-best offense behind the historically-great Dallas Mavericks.
If the Spurs are to lock in their twenty-third consecutive NBA postseason berth, Aldridge will need to be the catalyst. His outside shooting is a large reason the Spurs have the league’s ninth-best offense heading into February. The Spurs – also tenth in the Western Conference standings – are just three games ahead of the fourteenth-place Kings in the loss column. FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Spurs just a 4% chance of making the playoffs. Watch to see how Popovich’s offense, and Aldridge’s outside shot, work to keep San Antonio’s playoff streak alive over the next month.
Rather than tuning in to see how Kuzma performs on the court, follow to see what team he plays for in February. The 2020 NBA trade deadline is on February 6th, and there is speculation that the Lakers could make a move that would include Kuzma.
The Lakers have remarkably overachieved expectations heading into the season. Through 49 games they’ve compiled just 11 losses, putting them comfortably in first place in the West. So why would L.A. want to risk a good thing? A lot of the potential issues with Kuzma’s pairing with the Lakers roster, particularly heading into the postseason, revolve around his optimal position in the lineup. Kuzma works best as a “stretch four” option, even though his accuracy from beyond the arc has deteriorated this season. He’s shooting 33.7% on 3-pointers – below league average – and just 28% on non-corner attempts, per Cleaning the Glass
With Kuzma’s shot struggling, he isn’t an optimal paring in a LeBron James-centered offense. In the playoffs, the Lakers will certainly enhance minutes for James and Anthony Davis at the four and five, relegating any opportunity for Kuzma heavy minutes at his preferred position. Kuzma, LeBron, Davis lineups would require Kuzma to play on the wing, and guard opposing wings; typically the most difficult position to survive at. Through 49 games, the Laker’s fourth-best defense – allowing just 106.5 points per 100 possessions – is three points per 100 possessions worse with Kuzma on the floor. However, that’s less a comment on Kuzma than the players in the lineup he replaces. But it still does not bode well for featuring Kuzma in the lineup during important stretches of the NBA postseason.
Kuzma makes sense as a potential trade target because of his team-friendly contract – $2 million in 2019-20, $3.6 million in 2020-21, with a team option for $10.7 million in 2021-22. The Lakers have enjoyed success so far this season on the back of stellar play from James and Davis, and stout interior defense. But there are still holes in the lineup that will need to be filled if the Lakers aspire to win a championship. A back-up point guard and perimeter defense are the franchise’s most glaring weaknesses. Darren Collison’s desire to unretire and join a Los Angeles team solves the first. A Kuzma trade for a wing option like Memphis’ Jae Crowder or Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdonavic would solve the second.
It will be worth monitoring Kuzma’s minutes, shooting, and the newswire as the trade deadline approaches.
The Jazz had a stretch where they went a remarkable 14-1 over fifteen games. Utah has catapulted to fourth place in the West after their near two-month winning streak. They’re one of six teams (the wild card of the bunch being the Indiana Pacers) with both a top-ten offense and defense. Improbably, the Jazz had the league’s best offense in the NBA over that winning streak, averaging nearly 123 points per 100 possessions. During their near-perfect winning streak, they compiled a net rating of +15.
So what changed over the last month? The Jazz started the year with difficulty trying to integrate Mike Conley into the lineup, and then he got hurt right as the Jazz began their incredible winning streak. Midway through January, Conley made his return to the lineup as a reserve and the Jazz continued to win. Ingles has filled in nicely in place of Conley as Utah’s fifth starter and is shooting 52% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc.
Even if the Jazz streak continues, does this confirm Ingles’ place in the starting lineup? Conley hasn’t performed well in a Jazz uniform (an understatement at best) but Utah will need him in the postseason if they want to compete for the Western Conference championship crown.
Conley’s defensive capabilities haven’t left him, and opposing elite guard play is a near certainty as you venture deeper into the postseason. But his offense has cratered. Conley’s shooting just 39% on two-point attempts, a career-low. Exacerbating this deficiency, Conley is still taking 62% of his shots from inside the arc, even while shooting 34.8% on 3-pointers.
Even Royce O’Neale has been outperforming Conley offensively and, halfway through the season, he’s become the Jazz’s nominal defensive assignment for the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. If Utah’s best outfit does not feature Conley in the most important minutes, can they still win a championship? Or, does Conley become the juice off the bench that transforms the Jazz into the conference’s best team? February will be a testament to Utah’s ability to integrate Conley into a winning outfit and the first glimpse of the Jazz’s true championship prospects.
The Suns’ offense has fallen off dramatically after a hot start, in which Phoenix was near the top of the Western Conference standings. Since the glory days of November, the Suns’ eFG% has fallen to 52.2% as a team, 20th in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. And, the Suns’ already poor defense has remained at below league average. As a result, the Suns currently find themselves slotted eleventh in the West, three games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies in the loss column.
Devin Booker has continued to be one of the best offensive guards in the NBA, shooting 56% on two-pointers and 37% from three. His production levels alone should have reserved him a spot in February’s All-Star Game. And while Booker has been an offensive sensation this season, once again the Suns are better defensively with him off the court.
What would give Suns fans hope for a potential push to the playoff finish line? Or at least optimism for the future beyond the 2019-20 season? The play of two young stand-outs: Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. Bridges came into the league pegged as a stout perimeter defender who needed help developing an offensive game. He’s far exceeded expectations in that aspect this season; with a 55.0% eFG percentage and 58.9% FG percentage on 2-pointers through 50 games. Though a small sample in terms of total shots, this bodes well for the next phase of Bridges’ progression.
Johnson came into the league as an offensive threat with limited physical tools. Many saw his lottery selection at eleventh overall as a reach for the Suns, but he has performed decently in his first three months as a professional. Aside from Booker, Johnson has been the Suns’ most consistent outside threat, shooting 39% on roughly four attempts per game. But like most rookies, Phoenix’s net rating plummets with Johnson in uniform. The Suns are -7 in his 730 minutes (not a small sample).
With Monty Williams at the helm, player development will be a tenant of Phoenix’s program for the foreseeable future. His biggest project will be integrating Deandre Ayton back into the lineup over the remainder of the season. Ayton has suited up in just 16 games this season after receiving a 25 game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Upon reinstatement to the team, Ayton was coming off the bench behind Aron Baynes. This decision seems incredibly unusual given that Ayton was drafted first overall just 18 months prior, even for a young player learning a new system from one of the league’s most respected coaches.
All this to say, Phoenix likely won’t make the playoffs this season. But February will be a time to watch Williams lay the foundation for the future of Suns basketball. Booker, Bridges, Johnson, and Ayton will have to learn to coexist if the Suns ever want to get out of the lottery.
Memphis is officially NBA League Pass’ most entertaining team to watch. Ja Morrant might hit you with the oopsie-doo wrap around fake:
Ja Morant is on one tonight ?pic.twitter.com/iBtJLvwc1e
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) January 15, 2020
Or he may try to dunk over your All-Star center à la Vince Carter:
Ja Morant really tried it ?pic.twitter.com/JDDbHzrQbi
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) December 21, 2019
Morant and teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. have been putting on a show, and the Grizzlies are currently eighth in the Western Conference standings. The same Grizzlies that can’t get Andre Iguodala in uniform are instead being led by a pair of 20-year olds.
But a lot of the Grizzlies success – at least on paper – appears to be the result of some fortunate bounces from the basketball gods. The Grizzlies’ offense has been particularly proficient in making shots from lower-value areas – across the mid-range, and particularly the short mid-range. Morant himself has been shooting above league average from the short mid-range and 54% at the rim, which is in the 98th percentile for point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke, each sharing between 16 – 20 minutes nightly off the bench, are also shooting in that stratosphere near the rim.
Memphis’ defense has also been the beneficiary of favorable shooting. Opponents are making 37% of their 3-pointers against the Grizzlies – 22nd overall – and just 43% on corner 3-point attempts, which is 28th overall. In general, the Grizzlies’ defense isn’t hemorrhaging points from any of the other high-value areas, partly a testament to the abilities of first-year Head Coach Taylor Jenkins.
Given their point differential through 50 games, the Grizzlies have been the fourth luckiest team in the NBA; winning three more games than expected, per Cleaning the Glass. The glass-half-full perspective of this: the young Grizzlies have found a way to win close games. Regardless, Memphis’ success through the first half of the 2019-20 season bodes well for their future prospects. But for now, it will be worth watching the uber fun Grizzlies fight to stay in contention for the postseason.
New Orleans Pelicans
Boy, is it fun to have Zion active or what?
Just a year ago, Anthony Davis went public with his (in the eyes of the public) contemptuous trade request. Then began months of drama. Remember the “That’s All Folks!” shirt?
Anthony Davis arrives for the Pelicans last game of the season wearing a ‘that’s all folks!’ shirt…… pic.twitter.com/Nu4SNCqq6I
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 9, 2019
You can bet that Louisiana basketball fans didn’t appreciate that.
It’s fun to reflect on a franchise’s seismic change in just 12 months. The Pelicans hired David Griffin to oversee the team; won the draft lottery; selected Williamson first overall; and made the Anthony Davis trade, in return netting a first-time NBA All-Star in Brandon Ingram.
The Pelicans started the season slowly. Injuries to both their young core and veterans derailed their plans for a postseason run. Partway through December, the Pelicans were on a thirteen-game losing streak and last place in the conference. But they showed resolve at the end of 2019, sweeping a four-game stretch against the Nuggets, Blazers, Rockets, and Pacers.
In the month of January, the Pelicans are 9-6. Even more importantly, Zion returned to the lineup just after the Martin Luther King holiday to gift New Orleans with the greatest NBA debut of the century. He’s already had a noticeable impact on the team’s demeanor (they’re 3-4 in games with Zion in the lineup) and on the Pelicans’ projected playoff odds. The Fivethirtyeight.com RAPTOR player-based model now gives New Orleans a 35% chance of making the playoffs, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs.
The next month will determine a lot about the accuracy of such a projection. Can Zion contribute to winning so early on in his career? Can the Pelicans’ defense – currently 24th – get to a league-average level? And maybe most importantly, can New Orleans stay healthy?
February is a month to take a glimpse of the player Zion will become, and see if New Orleans can separate from the rest of the contenders at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket.