The fireworks display from NBA Christmas is over and we are quickly approaching the halfway mark of the season. The trade deadline is approaching and we are starting to see trends develop that can affect how this season ends. Here are five storylines that I will be monitoring as we head towards the trade deadline and All-Star break.
Can Anyone stop the Milwaukee Bucks’ offense?
The Milwaukee Bucks are leading the league in offensive efficiency for the first time since Ray Allen was suited up for the franchise. Mike Budenholzer has found a working formula through improved spacing around Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Good luck trying to guard Giannis…
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) November 2, 2018
Brook Lopez is proving to be one of the best acquisitions of the summer. Unwanted in Los Angeles, he has been critical in Milwaukee as a floor-stretching center that forces primary rim protectors to stand farther away from the basket. The result has been more chances for Giannis at the rim. No spoiler-risks necessary here. It’s working.
The Bucks have shaved their time of possession down by almost a full second since last season and have increased their three-point frequency by over 12 percent in the same span. Milwaukee now has a LeBron-like roster plan of their walking-mismatch surrounded by high-efficiency shooters. Teams that have tried double-teaming Giannis on the drive have been burned by open 3’s from his teammates lead by Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. Eric Bledsoe is more efficient than ever and has abused defenders routinely in isolation.
Milwaukee is 23-10 and currently looks like the team best equipped to challenge the surging Toronto Raptors in the East. The Bucks have a 2-0 edge against Toronto this year and are one of the few teams with the athleticism and length to compete against the Raptors roster. I will be interested to see if opposing coaches will just settle with staying home on the shooters and taking their chances on Giannis versus their best perimeter defender. If so, look for the Greek Freak to continue to build his MVP campaign into the playoffs.
The Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings have been one of the pleasant surprises of this season. They were expected to get marginally better but few would have predicted that they would be over .500 and have a shot to be right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
Sheeeeesh De’Aaron Fox really ain’t playin pic.twitter.com/7XScQpyoeU
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) December 20, 2018
The Kings are the highest scoring 4th quarter team in the NBA. Grabbing Iman Shumpert and Yogi Ferrell has paid dividends for their depth. Shumpert has been especially reliable for Sacramento offensively posting a 38% mark from beyond the arc. Beyond their shrewd off-season moves the Kings are no doubt ecstatic about the growth in their back-court.
De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have both improved statistically in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, from last season. Fox has shown a steep improvement in his efficiency and looks headed towards stardom early in his promising career. The Kings’ increase in the pace of their offense has catered perfectly to his blazing speed and finishing ability at the rim. He has the length, speed, and desire to make an impact on the defensive end as well. The Kings knew they were getting a player with John Wall-esque speed. What they didn’t know was that they might have ended up with the best two-way player in the draft.
Fox has not been alone. He knows that his running mate Buddy Hield belongs in the Most Improved Player conversation this season.
“He’s one of the best scorers in the league, regardless of who you want to compare him to,” Fox said after a recent win vs the Pelicans. “I think the way that we are playing, we’re getting open shots and he’s making tough shots, but we’re still getting a lot of looks that we want and we’re just knocking them down. We both improved as far percentages basically almost all across the board, and just the way that we’re playing – we’re getting up a lot of possessions, getting up and down, just trying to wear teams out. I think we’re doing a much better job than we did last year on both ends of the court.”
Hield is averaging 20.4 ppg on 47.9% shooting while leading the Kings in scoring. We already know what to expect from three-point range where he is amongst the league’s best at 44%. The stories about his relentless work ethic appear to be true. Every season he adds another wrinkle or improvement to his game and the results are really starting to show. He is also a vastly improved defender since he first stepped foot in Sacramento.
The Kings aren’t going to win the Finals this season but they now have an identity. Something special is brewing in Sacramento.
Donovan Mitchell’s Sophomore Slump
Donovan Mitchell was one of the best players in the playoffs last year. He came into this season with sky-high expectations after being in the middle of one of the most exciting Rookie of the Year races in recent memory and propelling the Utah Jazz to the second round of the playoffs.
He is averaging 20 points per game but his percentages are down across the board. Mitchell has shown improvement on defense and is a solid provider across the box score, but his lack of efficiency will hurt the Jazz down the stretch as things get tight.
Some of his struggles have to do with being a young primary option. Mitchell is shooting just 29% from beyond the arc on nearly seven attempts per game. A lot of his looks have been tough pull-ups or oddly timed contested threes. He shot 34% last year which isn’t elite, but it would open his game up if he got back to that neighborhood.
Mitchell obviously has plenty of time to figure things out and it won’t surprise anyone if his shots start to fall at a higher rate. He battles hard every night and with some improved decision making, we could see his percentages return to normal. The learning curve for the NBA is steep and can affect players at different times in their professional infancy. It will be interesting to see how Mitchell trends going towards the all-star break.
The MVP Conversation
This is gearing up to be one of the most heated MVP races in recent memory. Giannis Antetokounmpo jumped out to an early lead but has since seen the gap close between him and the rest of the field. Here are my top 3 candidates currently.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo – 26.4 points 12.8 rebounds 5.9 assists 58 FG%
As long as the Bucks remain near the top of the Eastern Conference, Giannis should be firmly in the discussion. He has a solid chance to join Oscar Robinson and become only the second player in NBA history to average 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists over a single season. He leads the NBA in dunks and contributes on the defensive end with above average totals for steals and blocks.
2. Stephen Curry – 28.6 points 5 rebounds 5.2 assists 48.7 FG% 45.8 3PT%
Just by looking at the bucket Steph can get defenders off their feet and create a lane. Unfair.
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) December 26, 2018
Curry’s injury will likely prevent him from winning the award but he has the unquestioned title of being the most important player on the league’s best team which has to count for something. The Warriors took a visible dip in offensive creativity and efficiency during his absence this year and struggled as a result. Curry is the most impactful player in the NBA and affects entire defensive game-plans just by being on the floor. His importance to the Warriors and their formula is hard to understate.
3. LeBron James – 27.3 points 8.3 rebounds 7.1 assists
We know that as long as you have LeBron, you have an opportunity to compete. The Lakers have overachieved after many speculated about whether they would make the playoffs at all during the summer. LeBron has been spectacular and a catalyst for the growth of his young teammates. Though he left with a groin strain last night, the Christmas victory over the Golden State Warriors showed the world a team that may be ready to push for true contention sooner rather than later. Even at this stage in his career, LeBron continues to improve and is startlingly accurate from three this year. To be the best in the world and continuously improve his game later in his career shows why he’s one of the GOATs.
Others to watch: James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
Anthony Davis (36 pts, 19 rebs, 8 asts) was ABSURD against the Hornets last night. pic.twitter.com/Frcon6BfU7
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) December 3, 2018
Kevin Garnett straight up told Anthony Davis that he needs to go join LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite all of the excitement, we will not get an answer anytime soon about Anthony Davis’s future with the New Orleans Pelicans. He is under contract for another year and a half and can only be acquired via trade.
The Pelicans have zero incentive to trade Davis before giving this season a strong run and offering their franchise cornerstone a super-max extension in the summertime. Each win or loss will come under close scrutiny of GMs around the league.
“I’d take legacy over money,” Davis told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview. “I want to have a legacy.
“All my people that look up to me, the younger kids, I want them to know about AD’s legacy. Championships, the things I do in the community, being a good teammate, playing hard. All that stuff matters the most to me. Don’t get me wrong, money is amazing. But I think in that sense, money or legacy, I think my legacy will win that battle every time.”
Translation? Winning matters. Magic Johnson will be salivating with each Pelicans defeat and will be eager to deliver a co-star of Davis’s caliber alongside LeBron James. Since Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have both previously distanced themselves from the idea of playing alongside the 34-year-old star, Davis might be the Lakers best chance to make the most out of what will likely be the remainder of LeBron’s prime.
The Pelicans have struggled but are only four games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West. They were one of the surprise teams of last season’s playoffs and put down the Portland Trail Blazers in convincing fashion. Jrue Holiday is quietly having another stellar season and the Pelicans have lost a ton of close games. They are 5-12 in games where the score is within five points in the final five minutes. If some of these games begin to go their way, don’t be surprised if the Pelicans climb the standings.