Big Facts or Fake News? The race to All-Star break

NBA trade season

We’re slowly approaching the halfway mark of the season, and that means the All-Star break is right around the corner. By now, we have a decent sample size of games played to determine what the outlook for many teams could be in the second half of the season. While some teams have already been involved in trade rumors (Hawks and Pistons), others have had so much success that they can feel confident rolling into the playoffs with their current rosters as is. That includes the Nets, who the guys will debate about later regarding if the Nets are better without Kyrie. 

Justin Kirkland and Felix John-Baptiste are back at it again to separate the real from the fake, as they give their takes on some of the murmuring storylines around the Association.

1. The Pelicans should sit Zion Williamson for his entire rookie season.

Zion Williamson
Derick E. Hingle / USA Today Sports

Kirkland: Big Facts. All indications are that Zion Williamson will return to the court when he is healthy enough to play. It makes sense because you cannot bubble wrap these athletes forever and missing time will not make Williamson a better basketball player. It depends on what the Pelicans want to do long term. If they end up trading away Jrue Holiday and/or J.J. Redick this team will get definitively worse and may have a chance at the lottery if they give Zion a redshirt year. Unless for some reason New Orleans is thinking playoffs this season they’d be wise to position themselves for a better asset come draft time. 

John-Baptiste: Fake News. I’ve always supported the idea of playing rookies as long as they’re healthy and ready to play. There’s nothing better than in-game experience to see first hand the difference in IQ, speed, and athleticism from college to the NBA.

We’ve seen several examples of “second-year rookies” burst onto the scene, from Blake Griffin to Ben Simmons, and more recently Michael Porter Jr.

Although they’re double-digit games under .500, the Pelicans would do themselves justice by playing the number one overall pick. As farfetched as it sounds, they’re only 3 games back of the eighth playoff spot, and they’d get a peek into what their future can look like. Playing Zion this year will help jumpstart ideas on how to build their roster into a contender. Play him, Pelicans!

2. The firing of David Fizdale was positive for the Knicks.

David Fizdale with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle
Brad Penner / USA Today Sports

Kirkland: Fake News. We don’t know if David Fizdale was the correct coach for the New York Knicks because he was never given a roster where success was the expectation.

The Knicks’ coaching carousel will continue on with the same front office management that has been a deterrent to star free agents and a giant black mark on one of the NBA’s most historic franchises. 

If a team is bad over the course of a few seasons the head coach is the issue. If a team is bad over the course of two decades the people running the organization are responsible.

The Knicks’ best chance for long term success will need to come from a commitment to developing young talent. Frank Ntilikina was the last pick of the Phil Jackson era and has only made marginal improvements thus far in his NBA career. Kevin Knox has collected more than a few DNPs this season and is not a factor in the core of what the Knicks do at all. R.J. Barrett has promise but has struggled to hit shots (38.9% fg) all season. Star free-agents will not arrive until the organization shows an ability to field a roster with some upside.

David Fizdale has been relived from having to suffer through what may be the worst coaching job in professional sports. The Knicks will continue to be the Knicks until changes happen at the top.

John-Baptiste: Fake News. A temporarily reinvigorated team after the firing of a head coach won’t fool me this time, and it shouldn’t fool you either.

If you look up the word ‘unstable’ in the dictionary, don’t be surprised if you see a Knicks logo right behind it. Since Jeff Van Gundy left the franchise in 2001, the Knicks have had 13 head coaches in 19 years, with Mike D’Antoni having the longest tenure from 2008 to 2012. The pressure to win in NY is always immense, with the media ready to jump at a scapegoat during the first signs of adversity. However, the key to winning starts at the top, with a competent GM and a competitive roster.

Many players on the current roster are playing for their next contract, so it makes sense they tried to turn things around with a different voice at the helm. It looks good in the short term, but this isn’t the long term answer.

3. The Celtics need to make a trade for a serious run at The Finals.

Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau / Getty Images

Kirkland: Fake News. The Boston Celtics could use an upgrade at center, but they don’t NEED one especially if the cost would be too great. LeBron is not in the East anymore and the Golden State Warriors are no longer the Legion of Doom. So you don’t have to have a perfect team to get to the Finals and win it this season. You just have to be good enough at what your strengths are to get it done. This is a good thing because each Eastern Conference contender has significant weaknesses. 

Boston will face their biggest issues when they run into Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo during a potentially deep playoff run. The consensus has been that they will look to upgrade in the middle and get a bigger name big body to plug in the middle as a rebounder and rim protector. They’ve been mentioned in the same sentence as Andre Drummond. The problem is that acquiring Drummond will cost Boston some of their depth and versatility which is one of their greatest team strengths right now.

The big-man committee of Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Enes Kanter doesn’t blow you away individually, but each player brings a different feel to the game based on the matchup. Kanter is an effective scorer around the rim and a high-level rebounder. Theis stretches the floor, and Robert Williams has the athleticism and defensive chops to be a high impact player for them in the future. All three are on great contracts and I just don’t see a reason why the C’s can’t go forward with what they have and keep the gameplan centered around their talented wings and guards.

John-Baptiste: Big Facts. It truly feels like the Celtics are one move away from putting themselves over the top. As currently constructed, I’d still give Milwaukee the edge to make it out the East.

The guy I think can help plug their gap at Center is Tristan Thompson. Outside of all the logistics of what would make the trade work, he can be the defensive anchor they need to finish plays and grab the subsequent rebounds. He’s still playing at a competitive defensive level where he’s able to stay in front of guards when switched out in the pick-and-roll. Not to mention, his defensive skills would be a major upgrade over Enes Kanter.

If they’re serious about making a run and think this is another year with an open window, maybe they can throw in some future picks for him. Keep an eye out on the trade deadline.

4. James Harden is on pace for another MVP award.

James Harden
Erik Williams / USA TODAY Sports

Kirkland: Big Facts. It is not as if Harden is putting these numbers up and the Rockets are borderline playoff contenders. Houston is third in the Western Conference and are on a 56 win pace after an up-and-down start to the season. 

Russell Westbrook has seen his numbers drop but still adds an extra dimension to Houston’s offense that puts them on another level on both ends of the floor when he’s going well. His inconsistency is masked by Harden’s brilliance.

Harden is at his most efficient (46.3 % fg) since his Oklahoma City Thunder days and averaging the most points per game (38.4) since Wilt Chamberlain in the 60s. It is a historic season and should net Harden the award as long as the Rockets do not fall in the standings.

John-Baptiste: Big Facts. The Beard is averaging 38.4 points per game. Let me repeat, THIRTY-EIGHT POINT FOUR. Add 7.6 assists with six rebounds per game, and a 32.44 PER which is second in the league only to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and you have a pretty good MVP argument.

If the ‘best player on the best team’ standard withstood the test of time, Russell Westbrook wouldn’t have won the award in 2017.

Historic seasons deserve this type of recognition, and just when we think Harden can’t top his previous seasons’ achievements, he proves us all wrong. Where Houston ends up in the standings remains to be seen, but what Harden is doing is otherworldly.

5. The Brooklyn Nets are better without Kyrie Irving.

Kyrie Irving
Kathy Willens / AP Photo

Kirkland: Fake News. The Nets have better ball movement and look more comfortable than they did during the initial 11 games that Kyrie was able to suit up for them. That should be expected when you bring a talent of that magnitude and attempt to integrate it into your organization. New teams have a tendency to start slow and then gain momentum as the chemistry crystalizes during the season. Kyrie and the Nets have not had the luxury of full introductions yet. 

Kyrie will need to make sure the ball keeps moving when he returns, something I think will not be an issue especially when Kevin Durant makes his debut. The Nets are proving right now that without their two super talents they are a scrappy playoff team. Management brought in Irving and Durant because they want to be more than that. Irving and the Durant are the type of talents that turn scrappy playoff teams into title contenders. No matter how Brooklyn looks in the short term, they would be nothing but a turnstile for the elite teams in the playoffs. The best of the Brooklyn Nets over the next few seasons will come when Kyrie is on the floor. It just is not true that the Nets are better without Kyrie.

John-Baptiste: Fake News. That’s it. That’s the explanation.

You can’t really judge a player’s impact until about a quarter through the season. Unfortunately, Irving did not have that luxury as he’s only played 11 games this season. The Nets are 4-7 with Irving and 12-11 without him. They’ve simply gone back to their way of playing last season, without having to worry about his shot attempts.

With recent reports that Irving may require surgery as opposed to the aforementioned treatment, it would be devastating if he has the miss the remainder of the season. What was once thought of as a preliminary campaign to develop chemistry prior to Kevin Durant’s arrival, could turn into having to integrate both Irving and Durant simultaneously.


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