Charlotte @ Cleveland, 3:30 pm. I was dead wrong about Kemba Walker. Confident in my belief that he was another in a long line of undersized scoring guards who light the college game on fire, I’ve happily watched Walker parlay that collegiate success into what should be an All-Star selection this year. Now in his sixth season, the Hornets’ longest-tenured player has really grown into his skin as a leader at the NBA level, encouraging his teammates’ love and acceptance of communal basketball. When you have all five guys looking to make the extra pass for the benefit of the team, that’s tough for any defense to stop:
None of that would be possible if Walker hadn’t made himself into one of the top offensive talents in the league. The 6-foot-1 jitterbug is raining in 46.6 percent of his more than 7 triples a game, but is also strong enough to finish at the rim at a 54 percent clip. Friday night, in a two-point loss to Toronto, Walker did everything to keep Buzz City alive. He scored 40 points, grabbed ten rebounds, dished out six assists, and hit 12 of his 19 shots (7-of-12 from three). Charlotte is 6-2, fourth in the East, and has the ascendant star to prove it.
Orlando @ Oklahoma City, 7 pm. While the Magic have picked up three wins (by a combined 12 points over bottom-feeding Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Washington), they may be the most talent-thin team in the NBA. Evan Fournier has seen his efficiency slip a bit as he’s bumped up his usage, and Nik Vucevic has cratered with newcomers Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo eating into his frontcourt space. Ibaka himself seems to have aged overnight, and despite just turning 27 in September, doesn’t have nearly the explosiveness that he once did. His block rate has declined each year from a league-leading 9.8 percent back in 2011-12 to the 2.9 percent of shots he’s currently blocking, good for 71st in the NBA.
Even ignoring the true prize of the Ibaka trade, guard Victor Oladipo, the Thunder’s direct replacement hasn’t missed a beat either. 20-year-old Domantas Sabonis - yes, Arvydas’ son - was selected 11th overall by Orlando in July’s draft, and thrust immediately into Oklahoma City’s starting lineup. The Gonzaga product has added a stretchier dimension to the Thunder offense, canning 52 percent of his threes at 6-foot-11, and has drained four from deep in two of his last three games.
LA Lakers @ Minnesota, 7 pm. Currently, the Lakers’ bench is the best lineup in the NBA, thumping opponents by 28.1 points per 100 possessions. The reserves scored 73 last night, and lead the league in bench scoring with 48.8 points per game - but they’ll also strangle the hell out of an offense. Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black have a defensive rating of 81.7 when they share the floor, allowing a full 13 fewer points per 100 possessions than the Clippers’ league-leading defense. Nance and Ingram, in particular, have stifled opposing forwards with their length: sporting wingspans of 7’2” and 7’3”, respectively, the youngsters are able to disrupt shots, patrol passing lanes, and secure rebounds out of area or over a box-out.
Across the floor, the Baby Wolves are starting to coalesce offensively, but negotiating Tom Thibodeau’s overload-heavy, corner-protecting defensive system is taking a little bit longer to stick. Minnesota sports the NBA’s seventh-ranked attack, and have barely missed a beat since Ricky Rubio was felled by injury: with rookie Kris Dunn helming the attack, youngsters Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all averaging 20-plus points per 36 minutes. LaVine, bouncy yet impossibly raw when he left UCLA, is firmly entrenched as the starting shooting guard after experimenting at the point his first two seasons, and his comfort level and confidence are sky high. The 21-year-old is making fewer plays for others, sure, but he’s cut his turnover rate in half, to a downright thrifty 6.4 percent, and is hitting 46 percent of his threes, after improving from 34.1 percent as a rookie to 38.9 last year.
Phoenix @ Golden State, 8 pm. Ok, so we really need to talk about Stephen Curry. On one hand, yes. He’s amazing, he’s single-handedly changing the game, he can quite often be a true joy to watch. But sometimes, it’s just too much. Like, what the fuck, dude? You’re really gonna take this shot, 17 seconds left on the shot clock, without getting set, through a double-team, with two of the ten best players in the entire sport each WIDE OPEN next to you? This is a “what not to do” video, not a highlight.
I know I sound like one of those old, cranky idiots who’d rather see Charles Oakley punch someone in the face than watch skilled basketball players, and I hate myself for even broaching this issue. The quality of play in the NBA is unquestionably greater than it’s ever been. This guy, though. His shot chart from Monday looks like me when I feel fat and lazy and just jog around the perimeter during pick-up games. I mean, this isn’t basketball!
It’s a shame that Brandon Knight has been so bad coming off the bench this season, because the starter version of Knight would make a perfect sixth man. More of an undersized two than the point man he was miscast as in Detroit and Milwaukee, he’s not better at either position than Phoenix starters Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker; the soon-to-be-25-year-old should find success as the shot-creator on a bench unit alongside sweet-shooting, defensively-solid wings PJ Tucker and Jared Dudley - both veterans with substantial starting experience, like Knight. But coming back from a sports hernia that sidelined him for much of last year, and finding himself in a new, uncomfortable role, Knight has struggled to find his stroke: he is shooting just 33.9 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from three, and scoring just 11.2 points per game — all would be career lows, if they hold.
Portland @ Denver, 9 pm. Portland has had the displeasure of facing the clear-cut elite of the Western Conference, the Clippers and Warriors, three times in their first ten games, yet have emerged from a tough stretch with a solid 6-4 record. One benefit to being blown out early in the season is that Terry Stotts gets to go down the bench and see who belongs in an NBA rotation: he just might have found one in second-round pick Jake Layman. Layman has not yet played a first-half minute, or seen the court with a single-digit scoring margin, but he’s shown the ability to get his jumper off as a 6-foot-9 wing, and even attack defenses a little off the bounce:
After last night’s loss to the Pistons, Denver coach Mike Malone announced that his supersized starting frontcourt experiment was over, and that second-year big man Nikola Jokic had offered to move to the bench for the team’s benefit. As a duo, lineups featuring ‘Jurkic’ were outscored by 34 points in 103 minutes together; Jusuf Nurkic, the 22-year-old Bosnian brute, will remain the pivot with the first team, where he averages 11 points and 8 rebounds a game on 52.6 percent shooting. Letting Jokic spend most of his minutes at his natural position of center, even as a reserve, will hopefully allow him to regain so much of the versatility that made him an out-of-nowhere sensation as a rookie (incidentally, after a solid first season of his own, Nurkic missed the majority of last year to injury, opening the door for his Serbian counterpart). Last year, at just 20 years old, Jokic looked like a slimmer Marc Gasol - scoring, defending, passing, and making plays at a rate higher than damn near anyone. He was the first rookie in league history to average 20 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals per 100 possessions, finishing in the top 20 in field goal percentage, rebound rate, Win Shares/48, Offensive Rating, and Box Plus-Minus.