- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
As we approach the one-month mark since the night the NBA stopped, let’s look back on some of the good and bad of the 2019-20 season so far:
1. The state of the Spurs
I found it — the precise moment the Spurs’ defensive backslide hit its nadir:
The Gregg Popovich we know and love — the version coaching a team with a chance to do anything of consequence — calls an angry timeout and reams DeMar DeRozan. This Popovich, resigned to San Antonio’s uninteresting mediocrity, slumps his shoulders, points toward Joe Harris, and halfheartedly reminds DeRozan: Yeah, he’s a really good shooter. I didn’t think we needed to review that. Try to avoid leaving him wide open.
San Antonio finished the pre-suspension season 25th in points allowed per possession — an unthinkable low for a franchise that has built defense-first for 20-plus seasons. A little of that was bad luck. San Antonio’s opponents outperformed their expected effective field goal percentage — based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders — by one of the largest such differentials in the league, per Second Spectrum.
But that expected mark is higher than it used to be. The Spurs gave up more 3s and shots at the rim. They suffered more un-Spursy hiccups in communication:
They showed very little chemistry on defense. It’s tempting to chalk that up to the Spurs being a mishmash of young and old, but that was the case a year ago — when they won 48 games and ranked closer to league average on defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge lost a quarter-step patrolling the lane. Jakob Poeltl emerged as a legitimate rim deterrent, but Popovich decided — not without reason — the Spurs could not score enough with Aldridge and Poeltl on the floor together. That left few minutes for Poeltl. (Popovich also probably worried Aldridge could no longer defend opposing power forwards.)
Rudy Gay fell off a cliff. DeRozan had perhaps his worst defensive season since he was a rookie. He might as well have been holding a red cape.
San Antonio’s last game was a spirited win over Dallas, but for most of February and March the Spurs looked like a team that had let go of the rope. They went 5-10 in their last 15 games, falling into a three-way tie in the loss column with New Orleans and Sacramento for 10th in the West. The two games before that Mavs win — a close loss in Cleveland, and an embarrassment in Brooklyn — were hideous defensive performances.
Even so: The Spurs had an easy-ish remaining schedule, and three home games in hand. But nothing from the past two months indicated a team primed for some against-the-odds playoff surge.
None of this is to bury the Spurs over the next half-decade. Dejounte Murray is a dementor, and has a chance to be a two-way force. Derrick White had a frustrating two-steps-forward, two-steps-back season, but he’s going to be good. Lonnie Walker IV earned some of Popovich’s trust, and adds needed open-court dynamism. Keldon Johnson looks the part of rangy, multipositional wing.
Poeltl can grow into a starting center on a good team. He will have several suitors in free agency, but the Spurs can match any offer. I still trust San Antonio to draft well despite the well-documented front-office brain drain.
That group of young guys lacks a tentpole star. We all know who that was supposed to be before things went haywire.
How the Spurs transition out of this holding pattern looms as one of the league’s most fascinating and important storylines for the next few seasons.
2. Let’s say nice stuff about some random guys doing good things for teams in what was the West’s race for the eighth playoff spot
The NBA’s “weirdest season” award comes down to Sacramento and Utah on this (fake) ballot. A lot of folks will nominate Philadelphia, but weirdness was baked into the 2019-20 Sixers.
The Kings came into this season with mild playoff expectations after a surprisingly successful 2018-19 campaign — which the Kings, in true Kings fashion, capped off by firing their coach (Dave Joerger). They started this season 0-5, blamed it on the aftereffects of their preseason trip to India, and proceeded to free fall all the way to 15-29. At that low point, Luke Walton demoted Buddy Hield into a reserve role — three months after his bosses lavished Hield with a $94 million extension.
And … it somehow worked — even though the most common Hield-less starting five, featuring Harry Giles III as a stopgap center, gave up more points per possession (by a lot) than any other lineup leaguewide that logged at least 100 minutes. (Richaun Holmes’ return promised to help there.)
Sacramento went 13-7 over its final 20 games before the suspension, creeping into the crowded slap-fight for the No. 8 seed. The Kings had two home games in hand, and a manageable remaining schedule. They owned the tiebreaker over Memphis, and had two games left against New Orleans — including one the NBA nixed the night the season stopped. Wins in both would have given Sacramento that tiebreaker, too.
The Kings actually had a slight chance. One reason: Something got into Kent Bazemore after the team acquired him from Portland.
Bazemore has hit 39% from deep as a King, and averaged 16 points per 36 minutes — on par with his most productive seasons. More than that, he was flying around and playing with a level of force that was almost jarring. He blew away his career rebounding and free throw numbers in Sacramento.
Bazemore was so frisky, Walton actually started calling post-ups for him against smaller guards. Bazemore did pretty well!
That’s a slick little pivot move! Bazemore recorded 10 post touches in 21 games as a King, per Second Spectrum. That doesn’t sound like much — until you learn Bazemore caught the ball in the post only nine times combined from the start of the 2013-14 season through his trade to Sacramento. By prior standards, Bazemore basically transformed into prime Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Kings outscored opponents by almost three points per 100 possessions with Bazemore on the floor. He helped, and that was cool to see after two rough seasons.
The injury-riddled Blazers had to rely on Gary Trent Jr. more than they could have anticipated, and Trent held the fort. He hit a sturdy 39% from deep, and flashed a sneaky, old-school, one-on-one midrange game:
About one-third of Trent’s shots came from the midrange — that’s a lot for a wing in 2020 — and he hit almost 45% of them. He averaged nearly one point per isolation, about the same efficiency (in admittedly much lower volume) as a bunch of sexier names: Marcus Morris Sr., Kyle Kuzma, Russell Westbrook, Pascal Siakam, Paul Millsap, and others.
Most NBA discourse surrounds stars and their legacies. That makes sense. Stars drive winning in basketball more than in any other major U.S. sport. But so much of the NBA’s day-to-day — of navigating the 82-game slog — comes down to role players like Bazemore and Trent outperforming expectations. Good on them.
3. Eric Bledsoe’s double veer-backs
Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo — the NBA’s best rim-protection duo — get most of the credit for Milwaukee’s league-best defense, but the Bucks’ extreme dropback system collapses without a hellhound at the point of attack.
Bledsoe has been the perfect counterpart to Milwaukee’s big men. He is fast and lithe enough to skitter around picks, and stick to the hip of opposing point guards — preventing them from stepping into open 3s while Lopez hangs in the paint. If any screen chips Bledsoe, he busts through it like a linebacker and stays close enough that his man feels and hears him. His long arms help him close space fast and swat at jumpers from behind.
On bad, disjointed Phoenix teams, Bledsoe’s effort waxed and waned. He has dialed up the tenacity in Milwaukee. Combine that with underrated instincts and feel, and you get possessions like this:
That is a remarkable 10 seconds of point guard defense. Bledsoe chases Josh Richardson over Al Horford’s screen, and then switches out to Horford when Richardson passes there. Bledsoe understands Lopez is too deep in the paint to recover and challenge any Horford triple. He does not fear Horford driving him into the post.
That first switch is not unusual, though Bledsoe’s execution is pinpoint; it’s called a veer-back, and guards use it often to snuff pick-and-pops.
What follows is atypical — for most guards. Horford pings the ball back to Richardson, who can roast Lopez off the bounce. Lopez closes hard; Richardson dusts him. He can smell paydirt.
But then it happens: Bledsoe slides off Horford, chest facing the sideline, in perfect position to slip in front of Richardson and sidestep with him to the hoop. He reaches both arms to the sky, a perfect impression of big man verticality.
Lopez is a key part of that. It would have been easier for him to lay a little off Richardson, conceding a semi-open 3. He rushes at Richardson because he trusts Bledsoe has his back. Bledsoe darts into the paint because he trusts Lopez to read that, and toggle onto Horford.
Bledsoe took a lot of flak for his performance in last season’s playoffs. He deserved much of it. He shot just 8-of-44 from deep over Milwaukee’s last nine playoff games. (He also went 15-of-39 on 2s — 38% — against the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals.) Toronto stopped guarding him. Bledsoe lost faith in his jumper, and Mike Budenholzer seemed to lose a little faith in Bledsoe. He leaned more on Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill.
It is not a stretch to say the Bucks might have won the title had Bledsoe carried his regular-season level into the highest-stakes games.
That stood as one of the most intriguing wild cards of the 2020 postseason: Would Bledsoe rise to the occasion? If he didn’t, how would the Bucks — deeper overall now, but lacking a fifth starter/sixth man type quite as talented as Brogdon — adjust and cope? What a shame if we never get to see the answers.
4. Taurean Prince’s stagnant season
An underplayed factor in Brooklyn’s stagnant season: Prince took a step back almost across the board, to the point that Kenny Atkinson in one of his last moves benched Prince in favor of Wilson Chandler.
Prince’s main job is to hit catch-and-shoot 3s, and he fell to 34% from deep on mostly open looks. Prince underperformed his expected effective field goal percentage by one of largest margins among all players, per Second Spectrum. (The biggest overperformer: Duncan Robinson, giving us one of the greatest 3-point shooting seasons in history. Yeah, I said it.)
Long, random shooting slumps happen. Prince hit 39% on 3s combined over the two seasons before this one, so I’m inclined to believe he suffered a temporary downturn.
The lack of growth in the rest of his game is more worrisome. Prince’s other job is to catch-and-go when defenders run him off the arc, and keep the offense moving by making the correct next play. He can get lost in those moments when he is at the center of a game in motion.
He sometimes freezes, allowing the defense to seal cracks. He can look like a player without vision or confidence:
When passing lanes close, Prince often settles for awkward floaters:
He shoots about 30% on such shots, and hit a ghastly 52% at the rim this season — one of the worst marks among wing players, per Cleaning The Glass.
There are possessions, even entire halves, where Prince bounds with knifing decisiveness — and dishes slick interior passes. The Nets haven’t seen enough of that guy. Prince has 116 assists and 127 turnovers, his first negative dimes-to-cough-ups ratio since his rookie season.
Prince’s destiny in Brooklyn was already unclear. Kevin Durant’s return might have sent him to the bench. There are other scenarios — depending in part on Joe Harris’ free agency — in which they start together. Prince promised to be an interesting trade chip this summer should the Nets chase a third star, but it’s unclear what kind of value he has now.
(The Nets also have to decide if they conceive of Caris LeVert as a potential third star, and whether his game — often ball-dominant — fits with Kyrie Irving and Durant.)
5. The most relatable NBA moment
Hypothesis: What befalls Elfrid Payton here is the single most relatable “NBA players, they’re just like us!” in-game moment.
We’ve all suffered that backpedaling pratfall. We know that terrible sensation, and the rapid-fire sequence of emotions: the alarm of feeling your feet give way; the tinge of hope that you might regain your balance; the immediate resignation that, no, you don’t have the requisite athleticism to pull that off, and you are about to plop onto your butt as the game continues around you.
You then have two choices, and which way you go says a lot about your personality. You can pretend you don’t care, pop up, and hustle back into position with a steely look on your face; or you can own the embarrassment and laugh it off. I am Guy No. 2.
An accidental made bank shot presents a similar decision tree. Some guys maintain a stone face and trot back on defense. They are either pretending they meant to bank it in — a lie — or revealing they are so competitive, they care only about the end result and not how they achieved it. Other guys chuckle and shrug, conceding their good fortune. I like those guys.
Other candidates for the most relatable “NBA players, they’re just like us!” moment: when a rebound caroms downward off the rim, and the ball smacks a player in the face; and when a player mistakes a referee or coach on the sideline for a teammate, and passes that person the ball.
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