Denver @ Toronto, 7:30 pm, NBATV. Toronto has been a power forward short of truly contending for this entire run, and risk phasing out of the Kyle Lowry/Dwane Casey era without reaching their ceiling because of it. Andrea Bargnani was the last Raptors power forward to start at least half the team’s games and average even 11 points – in 2011, the year before Lowry arrived in Canada (for Gary Forbes and a first-rounder that got funneled to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade and became Steven Adams).
Working backwards from tonight, here is every player to start at four since Chris Bosh left the Drakes: Pascal Siakam, Luis Scola, James Johnson, Jason Thompson, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Patrick Patterson, Steve Novak, Ed Davis, Linas Kleiza, and Joey Dorsey. That is, uh, not a winning basketball strategy. Failure to shore up such a glaring weakness is the primary blemish on team president Masai Ujiri’s otherwise-sterling record. Each of the four summers since taking the job, he’s signed an average free agent to an average contract, and been surprised when he saw an average return. Tyler Hansbrough for $6.5 million is the same as Patrick Patterson for $18 million is the same as Luis Scola for $3 million is the same as Jared Sullinger for $6 million.
Chicago @ Brooklyn, 7:30 pm. Yesterday, Robin Lopez told Bulls beat reporter Mike McGraw, “everybody knows that I’m the prettier twin and I’m the more charismatic twin.” Whatever Brook or the rest of the Lopez Family has to say about that, Robin also has the slight head-to-head advantage against his twin brother, victorious seven of the thirteen times they’ve faced off. Since the Nets no longer have a mascot for Robin to fight, he’ll have to settle to adding another win over Brook in a matchup between two (very) early-season surprises. Raise your hand if you thought that Chicago and Brooklyn would both be in the top-five in scoring, even this early in the season. No, you didn’t – put your hand back down.
Chicago’s hot start seems a bit more “real,” though they obviously won’t keep THIS pace for much longer. As noted before Saturday’s impressive win over Indiana, the Bulls all get after every rebound, from point guard to center – even as the shooting percentage drops, their league-leading offensive rebounding will give them extra chances at those points, while they rank second in securing opponents’ misses. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade have also significantly cut their turnovers through two games, as well; with lessened offensive responsibility, Wade sports the lowest turnover ratio of his career, while the normally sure-handed Butler has yet to cough the ball up. Though shooting comes and goes, teams that rebound and take care of the ball tend to avoid prolonged losing streaks.
Sacramento @ Atlanta, 7:30 pm. Ty Lawson is playing only marginally-better-at-best basketball than he did last year, when he seemed on the precipice of washing out of the league altogether. Yet he’s starting until Darren Collison returns from his domestic violence suspension on Election Night, and through three games, Lawson has been on the floor more than any other King. Meanwhile, Demarcus Cousins may have just taken the next step in his development into the league’s premier big man: efficiency. He’s hit his three-pointers at a 37.5 percent clip, even hitting 3-of-5 from downtown in a monster performance against the Spurs last week. He’s initiating contact, attempting an NBA-high 15+ free throws a game, and knocking them down at a career-high 80.4 percent. Taking better and smarter shots has allowed him to excise many of the lazy, bad jumpers from his game, as he’s shaved four two-point attempts off his game from last year, while increasing his shooting on those shots from 47.3 percent to 55 percent.
First in the league in defense, second in shooting percentage, and coming off of two straight blowouts to open the season, are the deep-as-ever Atlanta Hawks. Mike Budenholzer has nine guys playing 20 minutes a night, and five of them have made at least half of their shots. This is a team that loves playing together: seven guys have scored in double-figures in at least one game (and Dwight Howard isn’t even one of them!), while five average at least three assists. The Hawks know that performing against these bottom-feeder teams has never been the problem, but with Dennis Schroder now running things, this Atlanta unit just might have a different swagger.
Phoenix @ LA Clippers, 10:30 pm. With all of the rule changes, dynamic performers, and quarterback-like hagiography, is it possible that point guard just isn’t that important for teams with title aspirations? Using the postseason failures of Chris Paul as the framework, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine discovered that since Magic’s final Lakers title in 1988, only two championship-winning teams have had a point guard as their best player (by Paine’s Value Above Replacement metric): the 2004 Pistons with Chauncey Billups, and Stephen Curry’s 2015 Warriors. Paul, just 31 but already one of the five best ever at the position, has quite famously never even sniffed the conference finals.
But little of that history is Paul’s fault, obviously, and Los Angeles is much better off with Chris Paul as their point guard than they would be with all but one or two other people on the planet. Neither he nor Blake Griffin was needed much in yesterday’s 13-point win over the Jazz, but in their tight opening night victory in Portland, the two combined for 54 points, 18 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals. The Clippers’ bench has scored over 40 points each game, and strong reserve offense will allow Griffin and Paul to get the rest they need and enter the playoffs healthy, as both have missed time in recent seasons.