In a new weekly column coming every Monday, we take a look at five players from across the NBA and how their performances are impacting their teams, for better or worse.
In this edition’s line-up: Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Davion Mitchell, Miles Bridges and James Harden.
Lakers need Davis at center full-time
Anthony Davis really needs to man the center position despite his inherent and seemingly infinite misgivings about banging down low at the five spot.
For whatever reason, this has been an ongoing theme of Davis’ career, which is apparently already good enough to warrant selection into the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team over Dwight Howard.
You know, the team-mate he wanted to fight or at the very least ‘nipple cripple’ on Friday during a timeout against the Phoenix Suns.
Related to a blown pick and roll scheme rather than bragging rights about the list itself, it did at least show that Davis still has fire in his belly amid a rocky 1-2 start to the season for the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are a number of problems to address for head coach Frank Vogel, but by far the easiest is giving AD more minutes at the pivot, whether he wants to play there or not. At this point in his career, DeAndre Jordan is sadly nowhere near an NBA-calibre center let alone a starter for the Lakers, even if he does average only 13 minutes per game.
Those are 13 minutes you could have Davis running amok and playing smaller and faster on both sides of the ball, which would then also bring the best out of Russell Westbrook, who has publicly admitted his preference for Davis at center line-ups.
“It puts teams in a bind because you’ve got shooters and you’ve got attackers on the floor to kind of do whatever it is that we need to do, and it’s just up to us to make the right play,” Westbrook said after a practice on Saturday.
According to Basketball Reference’s play-by-play position estimate, Davis has spent 57 per cent of his minutes at center and 43 per cent at power forward. To truly unleash the Lakers’ (and his own) potential on both ends this should be as close to 100 as possible.
There is no real benefit to the double-big units with Davis/Jordan or Davis/Howard as it completely clogs a floor already cramped due to Westbrook’s presence as a total non-shooting threat. It also leaves Davis further away from the basket and settling for mid-range jumpers and three-point shots he simply isn’t hitting at a good enough clip (26 per cent last season from deep, 22.2 per cent so far in 21/22).
Similarly, Howard is an excellent backup center but shouldn’t be expected to play anything beyond 15-20 minutes per night and Carmelo Anthony really only belongs on the court as a shot-making stretch four alongside Davis and James, who can cover for his liabilities as a defender.
Truthfully, Jordan should be out of the rotation – and possibly the league – altogether.
The key to making all this work is Davis manning the five for longer stretches, or ideally full-time. It means they can add another shooter such as Anthony to space the floor, crucial given Westbrook’s own deficiencies there, and gives the Lakers a dominant inside-scorer and shot-blocker with the complete freedom of the paint. Davis can take almost any other pure center in the league off the dribble for easy buckets.
The Lakers won the title in 2019/20 with either Javale McGee (now with the Suns) and Howard partnering Davis in the frontcourt. Last night against the Grizzlies they were -16 in the minutes Davis shared with another center and +19 in the rest.
Simply put, they won’t be able to get away with it this time round.
Morant the perfect leader for young Grizzlies
On Sunday night in Los Angeles Ja Morant scored 40 points, dished out 10 assists and stole the ball three times. Even so, he felt the need to apologise after missing a game-tying free throw with 1.9 seconds on the clock.
It says a lot about Morant that despite a blistering start to the new campaign averaging 35/4/8 and topping the league in both points and field goals, he still holds himself to a higher standard. Even better, he clearly relishes leading by example, not empty gesture.
The Grizzlies are 2-1 despite fielding one of the youngest starting fives in the league: all 23 or younger other than Steven Adams, the wily old veteran at 28. De’Anthony Melton and Desmond Bane have begun superbly. There is more to come from Jaren Jackson Jr. One of their best players, Dillon Brooks, hasn’t even hit the court yet.
Rest assured Morant is going to swish that free throw in future and take over in overtime. The rest of the league has officially been put on notice: he isn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The future in Memphis is as bright as it has ever been.
Davion Mitchell is already a problem
Talk about a baptism of fire. Through his first three NBA games Davion Mitchell, the number nine overall pick in the 2021 draft, has guarded, in order: Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Steph Curry.
They call him ‘Off Night’. Here’s why.
Damian Lillard shot 8-24 from the floor (33.3 per cent) and 0-9 from three. Donovan Mitchell shot 9-25 (36 per cent) on field goals – although he did make 6-14 (42.9 per cent) from beyond the arc. Steph Curry shot 9-23 (39.1 per cent) and 4-15 (26.7 per cent) from deep.
That’s three All-Star players shooting with terrible efficiency from the floor. You could call it an off night for each of them, but there seems to be a clear pattern emerging that began even during Summer League: Davion Mitchell already has the ability to put clamps on the NBA’s best scorers.
Donovan Mitchell has even described him “as advertised”, such was his reputation as a stopper at the guard position coming into the league. Now, as impressive as this is, let’s take a second to temper expectations slightly.
Mitchell is already 23 years old thanks to spending the full four years in college, culminating in a NCAA title and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award with Baylor in 2021, his final year. He’s also only 6ft tall, which will likely hinder his full defensive potential in terms of switching onto the league’s much larger apex wings.
During those first two games guarding Lillard and his unrelated namesake, Mitchell was a complete non-factor on the offensive end as he went 2-14 on field goals and 0-6 from deep for a total of five points (although he did accumulate seven assists and four steals).
And sometimes it just doesn’t matter how good you are. Steph Curry is still going to do this.
Now we’ve got that pessimism out of the way, let’s get excited again. On Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors he poured in 22 points while harassing Curry, shooting 56.3 per cent from the floor and 37.5 per cent from deep.
Afterwards even Curry seemed impressed.
“All that hype about his defense? He was an offensive assassin. Just the confidence of the guy coming in, and it’s his third game in the league,” Curry said.
“He has a lot of room to grow but you can definitely tell he has all the tools in the kit to be a defensive stopper and just stay a pest out there in the best of ways.”
Expect to see plenty more off nights around the NBA now that this perpetual nuisance is here.
Miles Bridges taking a leap
Here’s something: the Charlotte Hornets are a perfect 3-0 for the first time in the franchise’s history and Miles Bridges is quietly proving himself to be much more than one of the most electrifying dunkers in the NBA. And those two things are very much related.
Bridges has put up two 30-point games back-to-back now and even went toe to toe with the scoring phenomenon that is Kevin Durant on Sunday night.
Across both he made 50 per cent of his 14 three-point attempts, hauled down 16 rebounds – seven of them on the offensive end – and stole the ball five times. Against the Nets he also hit 11 of his 12 free throws.
While it’s an admittedly small sample size, Bridges is quietly proving himself as a perfect modern all-round forward as equally adept at stretching the floor as he is rolling to the basket, or loitering in the paint for second-chance opportunities off the glass.
Alongside LaMelo Ball, he is undoubtedly the future of this Hornets team and a name to watch for the remainder of the season, not just for the ridiculous in-game 360s.
James Harden must adapt to new rule change
The championship-favourite Brooklyn Nets are 1-2 after three games despite Kevin Durant averaging 33/10/6. The defeats, by 23 to the Milwaukee Bucks and by 16 at home to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night, have been considerable. The version of Kyrie Irving that plays basketball is rapidly becoming a distant memory.
Which brings us neatly on to James Harden, the other superstar in town and a man having an absolutely horrid time of it through the first week of the season.
An optical illusion in terms of his physique at the best of times, Harden certainly doesn’t seem to have carried any proper conditioning or match sharpness into the new season and is averaging a lowly (for him) 18.3 points per game while shooting just 38.8 per cent.
He has also racked up 17 turnovers over the first three games, tied for the second-highest amount in the league alongside Russell Westbrook and behind only Houston’s Kevin Porter Jr: a young player taking on a new role of facilitating the offense due to the Rockets’ complete and total lack of an actual qualified point guard.
Harden, inevitably, will get up to speed but it is the amount of free throws he is earning that should come as a concern for the Nets.
One of Harden’s greatest strengths as a basketball player is his ability to lull defenders into a mesmeric dribble, drive into the lane, draw contact and generate trips to the foul line, gifting his team easy points time and time again.
He can also conjure them from beyond the arc, dramatically knocking his bearded chin back and falling after a triple, exaggerating any and all contact a closeout defender may or may not have had. The crucial thing for him was that it used to leave the refs convinced, if nobody watching at home.
Whether the purists like it or not, it’s highly effective. Harden has seven seasons with a double-digit average for free throws attempted per game and sits at number 23 all-time, the third highest active player behind James and Howard (guys hacked precisely because they can’t convert free throws particularly well).
He also led the league in 2019-20 with 11.8 trips to the stripe per contest. By comparison, the next highest player that season was Giannis Antetokounmpo with 10.
At the time of writing, he is attempting just three free throws per game. This is in large part due to the new rule change meaning referees are no longer calling fouls when the offensive player initiates contact with an unnatural shooting motion.
Harden was the master at this and is, rather understandably, now struggling to get to the line without these kind of easy calls.
I know it’s early, not even a week into the season, but the NBA rule changes are making a big difference. Fewer fouls called, players have to try to score rather than just draw fouls and better game flow, especially at the end of the game. It’s a better game to watch.
— Stan Van Gundy (@realStanVG) October 25, 2021
“It’s still basketball at the end of the day,” Harden explained after defeat to the Hornets on Sunday night.
“No matter how much of a big deal we try and make it a foul is a foul. I feel like we’re putting too much emphasis on certain individuals. You’ve just got to keep on going. No big deal.”
The Beard is quick enough, deceptive enough and strong enough to bulldoze through contact around the rim and finish regardless of what defenders are doing. He needs to get back to showing that.
While there is a point to be made that some genuine fouls are no longer being called, the NBA is a much better place with less flopping and Harden must now re-adapt as quickly as possible before he gets left behind as a scorer.