- The NBA is off to a wild start in 2017. The Crossover takes stock of the NBA's biggest risers (Giannis, Zaza, I.T.) and fallers (Knicks, Rondo) around the league.
We have officially made it through the first week of 2017. It's time to look back at notes from the past few days to see who's rising and who's falling around the NBA. Stock watch. Let's do it.
Up: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is a tough one. It would be redundant to write too much about Giannis Antetokuonmpo after Lee Jenkins's excellent 3,500-word feature, but it's also becoming increasingly difficult to talk about anyone else. This quote is his whole season: "That kid—the kid with the smoothies—I’m not really that kid anymore." He's arriving in a way that no one thought possible even two months ago, and it's the biggest story in the NBA right now. So in the interest of accuracy, yes, no one's stock is higher. And after what Giannis did to the Knicks this week, everyone needs to take 90 seconds to watch this video about the first start of his career:
Up: LeBron's Powers
The Hawks could have sent Kyle Korver to 28 other teams, and it would've been met with a shoulder shrug. Korver has lost a step over the past two years, and he can only do so much. Put him on the Celtics or Pacers, and it changes almost nothing. But catching no-look skip passes, wide-open in the corner for the next six months? Spreading the floor with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye? This could be evil.
The Cavs will reportedly give up a 2019 first-round pick and the rights to Mike Dunleavy, Jr., but that's a small price to pay for some much-needed J.R. Smith insurance. Mostly though, the reaction to this deal is a credit to LeBron James. He's spent the past few years reviving the careers of role players—Frye, Smith, Iman Shumpert, James Jones—and Korver is another opportunity for him to pull a weapon out of thin air. It also makes the title race that much more fascinating. The Warriors will have four superstars in the middle of their prime, and the Cavs have two All-Stars, plus a Hall of Famer who can raise role players from the dead. Who you got?
Down: LeBron's Competition In The East
It's not that teams like the Raptors and Celtics were serious competition before the Korver deal, but this makes their task that much more impossible. Ben Golliver outlines the challenge here—it's an arms race, and both Toronto and Boston will have work to do. Another way to look at the deal: the Hawks were part of this arms race as recently as nine months ago, but after two straight playoffs sweeps from the Cavs, now they are broken down and selling off their playoff weapons to LeBron himself. Good luck, Toronto.
Up: Isaiah Thomas
He's always been one of the most entertaining players on earth, but he's cranked up his production to baffling levels this season. He had 52 points against the Heat last weekend, and followed that with 29 points and 15 assists against the Jazz. Over the past 30 days he's averaging 31 points and 7 assists on 51% shooting.
As far as cult heroes who irritate the Dads of America, Russell Westbrook is the closest thing this generation has to Allen Iverson. But purely from a basketball standpoint, Thomas is closer. He creates space out of nowhere against guys twice his size, launches floaters that arc 18 feet in the air, and he's every bit as fearless as A.I. Jazz coach Quin Snyder captured the experience as well as anyone this week (via Jay King at MassLive):
"I marvel at him. I've watched him a long time, longer than he knows, because I'm from Seattle and a lot of my friends said, 'Hey, you've got to see this guy play.' And it's hard to game plan. The things to me is he plays with a level of confidence and toughness that is unique. That separates him. And then he plays with an urgency and a force. So when he's in the half-court, you're constantly having to react to him. The minute you let up for a second, 'Bam!' He's like a fighter. If you drop your hands, he's hitting you in the face. That's how I feel when I watch him play."
IT2 stock has never been higher. I have no idea if he can keep this going for a full season, but it'll be fun to watch him try.
Down: The Nuggets
Ten days ago, the Nuggets had won five of their last seven games, and they looked like they were on the cusp of making an unlikely playoff push. Since then, they've lost four straight. Losses to the Spurs and Warriors were fine and understandable. The losses to the Sixers and Kings, not so much. The Kings are also one of the teams Denver will be fighting for the No. 8 seed. Here is Mike Malone having a conniption after they gave up 120 points to his former team:
"We have the worst defense in the NBA. That’s the bottom line. It’s embarrassing how we go out there and attempt to defend every night ... it’s at an all-time low right now, and that is a huge concern of mine. It’s a joke. It’s a joke. Right now, we have no leadership. We have no veteran leadership on this team stepping up; don’t hear anyone speaking, taking the lead. We have two young guys trying to speak up on the team’s behalf, which you applaud them, but we need some leadership to shine and step up when we are struggling, which we are. ... Offense sells tickets and defense wins championships, and right now our defense is the worst in the NBA."
"It’s difficult to have this performance, period. I mean, c’mon, they’re a half-game ahead of us going into tonight’s game, and that’s the kind of effort we put forth, so it must not matter as much as I hoped it would for our guys to go out there and play."
This is the dark horse in the Millsap sweepstakes. Would it make sense for a team that's been hoarding assets for three years to go all in for a 32 year-old, soon-to-be free agent, all in an effort to steal the No. 8 seed? I'm not sure at all. We can cross that bridge if the Nuggets get there.
Down: The Blazers' Summer
How bad did things get in Portland last month? ESPN's Chris Haynes reported this week that Festus Ezeli was giving post-game lectures about urgency, only to be cut off by C.J. McCollum, who refused to lectured about urgency by a player who has yet to put on a uniform this season. Also in that story, Haynes reports that as strange as the Evan Turner contract may have seemed, the Blazers' preferred option in free agency this summer was Chandler Parsons. And ... OK. On the one hand, maybe it's encouraging to know that things could have been worse. On the other hand, though, it's pretty concerning that as misguided as this off-season seemed, it was actually supposed to be much crazier.
Up: The Blazers Regular Season
That story has got to be rock bottom for Portland. Damian Lillard just came back, and Al-Farouq Aminu is finally healthy. The Blazers have won three of five, and they're a half-game out of the playoffs. They were 15-24 this time last year, and they are currently 16-23. It's time for a run, right? It can't get worse than Festus lectures.
Up: Tony Parker and Jeff Teague
For the first month of the season, Parker looked a step slower than even the older version of himself that we'd come to expect. It looked like he might be permanently supplanted by Patty Mills down the stretch. Meanwhile, Teague arrived in Indiana and shot 23% from the field in his first five games, and instead of sparking the offense, the Pacers sputtered away through most of his first two months. Now? It's a small sample, but Parker looks better than he has all year—in the past two weeks, he's averaging 16 points and 6 assists on 54% shooting—and the Spurs are as surgical as ever. Meanwhile, the Pacers have won four straight, with Teague hitting for 16 and 10 on 48% shooting over that stretch, and Nate McMillan crediting him for the offense's newfound competence.
Neither of these guards are elite at this point, but considering how bleak things looked in November, the resurgence is a nice surprise. The East is more interesting with a potentially competent Pacers The East is more interesting with a potentially competent Pacers team, and the NBA is more fun with Tony Parker still draining 18-footers and making floaters in the lane look way too easy.
Down: Rajon Rondo And The Three Alphas
Rondo is the flipside of the timeline above. In October it was: "Maybe the Bulls weren't so crazy??" By January:
Benched in the fourth quarter on Monday, benched the entire second half (so far) today . . . this Rondo thing could get interesting.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) December 30, 2016
It's healthy for the Bulls, but it calls for a moment of silence. For the alphas.
Wade: "We have three alphas, three strong personalities, three leaders...that's great for coach, great for the team."— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) July 29, 2016
Also, a moment of silence for Dwyane Wade's patellas.
Reporter: "When did your knee soreness start?"— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 4, 2017
Wade: "About 14 years ago."
Zaza Pachulia has 439K votes. More than Kawhi, Kristaps, Green, Davis, Butler, Boogie. This is why All-Star voting is a joke. Must end.— Chris Martin Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) January 5, 2017
OK, here is an honest, 100% serious case for Zaza Pachulia to make the All-Star Game:
Yes, the All-Star Game is an exhibition game that's obviously meaningless and not worth getting worked up over. But even so, fan voting is stupid. All-Star selections matters when considering things like All-NBA teams, Hall of Fame inductions, and other distinctions that have real bearing on contracts and how players are viewed. For example, basketball fans have spent weeks debating which guards should start in the backcourt—Kyrie, Lowry, Derozan, Jimmy Buter, Isaiah, Wall, Kemba—only to find out the Dwyane Wade is second in fan voting as of this week. Right now the NBA has a voting system that is difficult to explain and way more complicated than it needs to be. Just let the players, coaches, and media choose these teams and be done with it. And how do we force the NBA to reform?
With a revolution.
It doesn't matter what corner of the internet started the Zaza Pachulia voting, and it doesn't matter if you don't totally understand the joke. I'm not sure anyone does. What's important is that the NBA will eventually have to abandon internet voting for All-Star Games. And if it's going to happen, it might as well come in the wake of a historic anomaly that we can all laugh about for years to come. We gotta send Zaza to NOLA.
Down: The Knicks
Last week, in this article on the East, I wondered if the Knicks could keep it together. 10 days later:
In 4 of last 5, DRose has more FGA than pts.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 5, 2017
26p on 28 FGA
20p on 21 FGA
21p on 23 FGA
18p on 15 FGA
15p on 18 FGA
Isaiah has 1 in 31 games.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas sums things up well for the Knicks: "I still think we don't have that killer instinct."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 5, 2017
Just got a text from a person close to a new Knicks player. "He didn't come to New York for this" ...it's make or break time for this group.— Sports News (@JSports_ent) January 3, 2017
Jeff Hornacek: "I don't think our guys aren't trying (on defense), maybe we're just not capable of it. I don't know."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 3, 2017
Yes, Porzingis has been hurt for a few games and they should bounce back, but that's not the point. This week has been perfect. The annual Knicks meltdown is one of the best traditions the NBA has. It's the true north for an entire generation of NBA fans, and now we're back to the comfortable equilibrium of anonymous sniping, frustrated superstars, and an openly weary coach. Cherish this. The Knicks are fine when they're good, but they are so much more fun when they're bad.