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Winners and Losers of the NBA Trade Deadline

The NBA trade deadline has become an unofficial holy day on basketball’s calendar, representing the ultimately establishment of a team’s identity. This is where months-long storylines come to a head and the drama-filled first half of the season gives way to the intensity and focus that defines the back-half. Amongst the chaos of this year’s especially chaotic edition, here are our winners and losers of the NBA’s trade deadline.

Winner: Complaining

For the umpteenth year in a row, complaining has continued to run up the score against silently enduring. Across the NBA, basketball’s squeakiest wheels were greased—Brooklyn and Philly swapped world-historic malcontents James Harden and Ben Simmons; Goran Dragic was liberated from Toronto. Trade demands are certainly not a new development, but never have they been so protracted and, ultimately, all-around beneficial. Harden, Simmons, Dragic and the teams that dealt them are all better off today than they were on Wednesday. “Player empowerment” is often unfairly sneered as an euphemism for “teams getting screwed over,” but Thursday presented a vision of how players and teams can mutually advance their seemingly conflicting interests. 

Loser: The Therapy Industrial Complex

Tired: months of grueling work with psychiatrists and therapy to resolve mental health issues. Wired: being cured because you no longer have to live in Philadelphia.

Winner: The Eastern Conference Playoffs

Long considered the NBA’s kids’ table compared to the perennially loaded Western Conference, the East is now home to the NBA’s most intriguing teams. Between the Nets, Sixers, Bulls, Cavs, Heat and Bucks, there are six teams who can credibly hope to win the conference. And, over the last few days, nearly all of them significantly and materially improved. April and May will be a bloodbath. 

The Cavs kicked off the week by trading for Caris Levert, crucially adding a second guy who can, like, dribble and shoot to their surprisingly potent gumbo. The Bucks acquired Serge Ibaka, giving them a drop-coverage friendly stretch-five who provides them with insurance for the injured Brook Lopez. 

Most significantly, the Sixers and Nets helped each other heal. In their abbreviated Big Three flop era, the Nets tried to live on buckets alone—Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were such transcendent offensive players that nothing else really mattered. This year, though, Durant’s injuries, Harden’s apathy and Irving’s terrible taste in Youtube videos revealed the precarity of the Nets’ success—heading into the deadline, the team had lost nine consecutive games and plummeted from the top of the conference down into play-in range. In Simmons, the Nets have seemingly acquired the tonic for their ails; on a team that’s been unable to scrounge up enough defense, playmaking, size or athleticism, Simmons provides all four in spades. 

Similarly, Harden legitimizes the Sixers’ championship aspirations. For the first half of the season, Philly’s relative success has been entirely tied to Joel Embiid’s greatness; his 37 percent usage rate is the highest mark that any center has ever posted. But beyond Embiid, the Sixers haven’t really had any other way to conjure productive offense. Tyrese Maxey is a spunky shot-maker, but is more of a sidekick than a co-star; Tobias Harris is the least inspiring efficient volume scorer in the NBA. With Harden, the Sixers have a perimeter counterweight to Embiid’s interior stylings, giving them two of the best isolation scorers in recent history. Even if there are questions of whether the team will able to accommodate two of the most profligate ball-stoppers in the league (will this be the least frequent passing team ever? Will Danny Green ever know the warmth of a basketball’s touch ever again?), the combined talent of Harden and Embiid could prove to be overwhelming. 

Losers: Dallas Mavericks

In perhaps the most shocking move of the deadline, the Mavs shipped Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards for, uh, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Porzingis may not be the All-NBA center that the Mavericks forecasted him to become when they traded for him back in 2019, but he’s still a very good—albeit overpaid—player when he’s available. Conversely, Bertans and Dinwiddie are both mired in the worst stretches of their career. Bertans is a reputed shooter who can no longer make shots. Dinwiddie has struggled to regain his explosiveness after tearing his ACL last year and is shooting 37.6 percent from the floor this year. Unless the two of them can recapture their form from two or three years ago, the value that they bring to the Mavs is dubious. 

Winner: Sacramento Kings

Although the Kings don’t necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt on account of their Kings-iness, their early trade deadline returns don’t seem unpromising. The decision to move on from Tyrese Haliburton was widely pilloried, but the newly-acquired Domantas Sabonis has already shown an intriguing chemistry with star point guard De’Aaron Fox; in their first game together, Sacramento’s star duo demonstrated a nascent, zippy chemistry as a pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff battery that should serve as the foundation of the team’s offense. In a smaller move, the Kings also added Donte Divencenzo from the Milwaukee Bucks, giving them a gritty defensive wing who, theoretically, could help space the floor. Even if the team’s ceiling isn’t necessarily high, this is just about the first time in nearly two decades that their floor has ever crept above ground-level. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 27th-January 2nd

The last week of 2021 gave NBA teams a unique opportunity to finish strong before aiming for a strong start in the New Year of 2022. As we approach the halfway point of this regular season in a matter of weeks, the action will intensify amongst teams determined to build their momentum further or drastically improve their situation. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

DeMar DeRozan should be on your MVP ballot

Even with fans and media members quick to name the usual candidates for this year’s MVP award (I.E., Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry, to name a couple), their dialogue lacks something if DeRozan isn’t mentioned. The multi-time All-Star has not only led the Chicago Bulls to the first seed in the Eastern Conference, but he’s easily the NBA’s most clutch player right now.

During the same week, DeRozan became the first player in league history to make game-winners on consecutive days; he averaged 28 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game during the Bulls’ ongoing seven-game winning streak.

Ja Morant’s leap into superstardom is happening

While some may have expected this to happen, it doesn’t make it less exciting than it is. In Morant’s third NBA season, he is taking that leap into superstardom which consists of a career-best production, team success, and signature moments that could make him a dark-horse MVP candidate this season.

To conclude 2021, we watched the former second overall pick outduel LeBron James two days after making a game-winning shot against the 28-8 Phoenix Suns on the road.

To say Jalen Smith has potential is an understatement

Even though the Phoenix Suns found a successful big man in Deandre Ayton (Selected first in the 2018 Draft), it was a rare bit of success for a team who has failed multiple times when looking for high-quality big men. But that could change again with the pending emergence of Jalen Smith.

The second-year power forward, who is thriving as a center at the moment, gives the Suns another very athletic and flexible big man to play regardless of Ayton’s availability. Over his past four games, Smith has averaged 16 points and ten rebounds per game while playing less than 30 minutes each game.

Kevin Love is turning back the hands of time

After months of hearing about a potential breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers and having a slow start to this season, Love is back to playing at the level one would expect from a multi-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist. Throughout December, Love averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds per game, but he’s entering the new year amid his best stretch in a long time.

Over his last five games, Love averaged 25 points and eight rebounds per game, including his 35-point and 11 rebounds performance against the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve. Love’s reemergence is a welcomed sight for a Cavs team that needs all contributions as they compete for a playoff berth.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 13th-19th

While the NBA’s latest week in action got disrupted because of rising COVID cases, the on-court action managed to stand out in the end. Between history being made for the game’s greatest shooter and a team no one expected becoming the hottest across the league, the stakes continue to rise as Christmas approaches. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Steph makes history in Steph-like fashion

On Tuesday night, all eyes were on Stephen Curry as he was two made three-pointers away from becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in that category. And besides Madison Square Garden being the perfect place for the long-time Golden State Warrior to make history, the way he did it was genuinely fitting.

While the Warriors were trailing the New York Knicks, 10-9, Curry ran to his spot on the right-wing, and splashed a three within a matter of seconds—a sequence we’ve seen thousands of times throughout his illustrated career—and made The Garden erupt with loud cheers.

The Cavs (yes, the Cavs!) might be the hottest team in the league

Even during an 82-game regular season, there are certain developments you didn’t expect to witness. If you were to ask anybody before this season about the Cleveland Cavaliers, their answers would have likely involved them being near the top of the NBA Draft Lottery. But the Cavaliers holding the league’s active longest-winning steak? And being the third seed in the Eastern Conference? No way.

The 19-12 Cavaliers are proving to be viable playoff contenders who could make much noise next spring. Their combination of a dynamic youth movement and impactful play by their veterans will cause further speculation of what’s next for the Central Division competitor.

Various teams are middle of the pack and can’t get out

Through the league’s first 30 games of every season, we witness teams adjust to sudden changes, discover their identity, and experience the ups and downs of life on in the middle. But when that second part of the season begins and specific trends haven’t changed, it leads to questions about whether or not a team actually has the potential to improve.

Several teams, including playoff contenders such as the Celtics, Hawks, and Trail Blazers, are mired in a vast pack of average teams across the league and are likely to go through the rest of this season as a fringe-playoff contender or worse, a low-end Draft Lottery participant.

The league battles postponements of games and troubling test results

Despite daily news of various players entering the league’s health and safety protocols becoming standard, so is the reality of games getting postponed. Since the start of this past weekend, the NBA has postponed five games, and it’s not a reach to believe only more games will receive the same fate.

With a growing number of players entering protocols and missing extensive action and teams struggling to field a roster of enough players, questions have come to rise about the NBA either changing its testing methods or ultimately pausing the season in the coming weeks.

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Sports Strength

Is Evan Mobley the NBA’s Next Great Defensive Player?

It’s the third quarter, with a little under one minute left. The short-handed Chicago Bulls trail the Cleveland Cavaliers 80-64. A desperate Zach Lavine, eager to close the gap, makes a mad dash to the rim. For a 69% finisher in that area, such a decision normally proves to be a fruitful one, but this time the cupboard is bare. He’s overlooked a confounding variable in the equation. He’s entered Evan Mobley’s territory. 

Lavine goes airborne, and almost instantaneously, KABOOM!

Mobley rips the ball from Lavine in midair, and with it, the collective soul of the Chicago Bulls roster.

“Wrong guy! Wrong guy!” A mic’d up Jarrett Allen shouts from the sideline.

And he’s right. Mobley is a damn good defender. The kind of defender who goes on to get selected to All-Defensive Teams. The kind that contends for DPOYs. And maybe, just maybe, the kind that inserts himself in the pantheon of all-time great defensive anchors. 

To determine the likelihood of the final scenario of that triplet, I studied the game’s most venerable guardians to identify some of their common characteristics. I then asked: Is Mobley already here? And if not, does he have the means of arriving in the near future?

Strength

The first commonality among great defensive anchors that I will touch on is strength. In basketball, being strong isn’t so much about being able to haul around massive amounts of weight. Rather, it’s about being able to absorb or distribute contact to gain an advantage on your man, something few players did better than Big Ben Wallace.

During his reign of defensive terror, Wallace proved that his bowling ball biceps were useful for far more than just being fodder for Sports Illustrated covers. He regularly exercised his chiseled frame to stonewall other bruisers’ post-up attempts. Poor Jermaine O’Neal didn’t stand a chance.

Unfortunately, Mobley hasn’t displayed the same level of immovability. He is overpowered by heavier big men (first clip) or knocked off his feet by smaller players with a head of steam going towards the rim (second clip).

His lack of functional strength also shows up in his rebounding, where he struggles to position himself under the rim and hold his ground on box-outs, often allowing second chances because of it.

The numbers paint a similar picture. The Cavaliers are in just the 11th percentile in opponent offensive rebounding percentage when Mobley is on the floor (per Cleaning the Glass). Moving forward, Mobley will need to add more size to his frame to make him better equipped to take and dish out contact in the paint.

Hands

Even with Herculean strength, there will always be an opponent with a little more power in their punch (you know, unless you’re Shaq). Instead of being neutralized by such bullies, the great ones can counter by using their paws to pressure the ball and frustrate their opponent.

Here, Tim Duncan thinks he’s got Wallace on the ropes as he’s backing him down. But with a perfectly timed swipe at the ball from Wallace, it’s Duncan who is down for the count:

From afar, it appears Mobley has that parlor trick in his routine as well. In this clip, he’s able to time his strike at the ball right before it leaves Naz Reid’s hands, causing a turnover as a result:

Great hands are also helpful when contesting shots in the air. The best defenders don’t lose focus when they take flight; they are fully aware of the ball’s trajectory and their position in relation to it. And the moment it becomes vulnerable, they pounce.

Watch how Draymond Green avoids entangling himself with Ja Morant (and a potential foul call) by waiting until the ball is unprotected to swat it out of his hands:

While Mobley is good at avoiding unnecessary collisions with offensive players (92nd in foul rate among big men), he also has a habit of outright missing the basketball on some of his contests. 

Here, Mobley is in the proper position to make a play, but for some reason, he can’t seem to locate the ball and gives up two unnecessary points:

The current gap that exists between Mobley and all-timers like Ben Wallace and Draymond Green is evident when comparing their respective steal rates, a strong indicator of “handsy-ness” on defense. For their careers, Wallace and Green both average a steal percentage right around the 2.5 mark. This season, Evan Mobley’s current rate is a measly 1.4 percent.

Closing that deficit will come in handy in the playoffs when teams employ more Boogie Cousins-type big men to target Mobley

Positional Versatility

In today’s game, big men who can switch seamlessly are all the rage, but this is hardly a recent development; throughout league history, the titans who could guard multiple positions have been of great value to their teams. Arguably no big was more renowned during his prime for this type of versatility than Kevin Garnett, who could legitimately guard all five positions on the floor. 

Watch this sequence as he picks up speed demon Mike Bibby on his drive to the rim, uses his tentacles to disrupt the pass (he had great hands too!) and ignite the fastbreak:

Today, Draymond Green is the gold standard of this practice:

Early on, it appears Mobley’s greatest strength as a defender is his ability to stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter. This season, he sits at third among “Anchor Bigs” in Positional Versatility (per BBall Index). 

Stats like Positional Versatility (which rely on tracking data) can be a bit finicky at times, yet the same phenomenon is noticeable on tape too. As my buddy Bryce Simon says the “Film Don’t Lie:”

At just 19 years old, Mobley is already one of the best switching big men in the league, which has been the key to unlocking Bickerstaff’s three big men lineups this season. But to truly reach the holy grail as a defender, he will have to make some improvements in one final category of defensive brilliance.

Rim Protection

Rim protection on defense is what family is to Don Corleone: everything. All other aspects of defense become easier when you have a reliable force protecting the paint. On a micro-level, a sturdy rim enforcer can completely take away the highest percentage shot in basketball; on a macro-level, their presence allows perimeter players to play their man tighter because they know they are covered if they get blown past.

Now, to be an all-time great rim protector, you generally need to possess either great jump speed, reaction time, or positional soundness.

David Robinson provides a perfect example of supersonic leaping ability in action. As Ben Taylor pointed out, it only took Robinson six- or seven-tenths of a second to get from his gather to the apex of his jump.

Pay close attention to this clip. If you blink, you just might miss it:

Mobley isn’t nearly as fast of a hopper and, accordingly, is a split-second too late on some of his contests:

If you compare the two’s techniques side-by-side, you’ll see that Mobley requires more bend in his knees to transfer the energy necessary to fuel his jumps. This movement adds another half-second or so to his overall process, which means he needs to be in proper position earlier than Robinson would in order to make timely contests.

To compensate, he could learn to cover ground more quickly and materialize at the rim at a moment’s notice, like Hakeem Olajuwon does against Scottie Pippen right here:

Right now, though, Mobley is a little late to react to events as they occur on the floor. In the next clip, he’s slow to recognize that Rudy Gobert is streaking down the floor with an empty road in front of him, and because of this, he’s late on his attempt to break up the lob.

Of course, as Mobley gets older and gains more repetitions under his belt, this facet of the game will slow down for him and he’ll be able to blow up plays like that one with more regularity. But even if such maturation doesn’t occur, Mobley can lean into being more of the Tim Duncan “right place, right time” type to help fortify a team’s last line of defense. 

Duncan wasn’t incredibly adept at quickly reacting to events on the court, and he couldn’t rely on swift leaping abilities to compensate for his flaws, so he prided himself on always being in the right spot to make a play.

Duncan would often hover around the paint to ensure that he was always only a few steps away from the ball, much to the chagrin of Kerry Kittles.

I’ve noticed a similar tactic being deployed by Bickerstaff and the Cavs this season. Mobley is regularly instructed to sag off his man on the perimeter and roam closer to the paint, which puts him in primetime position to make plays around the rim.

His positioning still isn’t perfect: he can be out of place or late to rotations at times, and it’s also possible to counter Bickerstaff’s scheme by going five-out and forcing Mobley out on the perimeter. Still, Mobley appears to be the kind of player who is smart enough and athletic enough to consistently put himself in position to prevent easy shots at the rim, which is a promising sign moving forward.

Conclusion
Mat Issa

So, is Evan Mobley the next great defensive anchor?

Right now, probably not. He still needs to add more muscle. He needs to sharpen his ability to locate the ball. And he needs to figure out which skill(s) he’s going to hone in on to make his bones as a consistent rim-protecting force.

But notice how I said right now and probably not? The beauty about basketball is that growth doesn’t normally plateau at age-19; on the contrary, in most cases, it is only just the beginning. Evan Mobley is a flawed defender, but he’s got a ton of upside. And that upside gives him a chance to join the storied lineage of all-time great defensive anchors.

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Sports Strength

Evan Mobley Is the Future

For the last four seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have slogged through 219 totally unmemorable games, only temporarily popping into the zeitgeist as some sort of oddity to gawk at. Food fights in the locker room! Temper tantrums on the court! Andre Drummond! Ever since Lebron James decided that it’d be cooler to live in Los Angeles than Cleveland, the Cavs have collected losses like baseball cards, existing in a weird half space, almost more part of NBA Twitter than the actual NBA. 

But now, the Cavs are good—or at least good-adjacent. Although Vegas has pegged the Cavs as the underdog in every game they’ve played this season, the Cavs are 7-4 and have won their last four games, relying on a discombobulating weirdness to steal wins against putatively more talented opponents. Whereas most teams adhere to the Tao of the Big Wing, the Cavs have constructed a practically wing-less lineup, relying mainly on small guards (Darius Garland, Ricky Rubio, and the now-injured Colin Sexton) and seven-footers (Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen). By doing so, they’ve found themselves on basketball’s vanguard, brewing a plus-sized response to a small-ball world.

Every draft cycle, there’s a new round of tortured discourse about what it means to be a Modern Big Man; Evan Mobley is the answer—he’s the Modern Big Man. In just his rookie year, Mobley has already established himself as the Cavs’ most important player, alchemizing lineups and tactics with his all-purpose skillset. On offense, Mobley maintains equilibrium and offers relief when his ball-handlers overheat—he slides into open spaces on the short-roll and along the baseline; he facilitates offense from the elbows and ranks sixth in the NBA in points per elbow touch (.735) on the eighth most elbow touches (4.5 per game); he spaces the floor and attacks closeouts with startling coordination. Despite having a willowy frame that renders him largely ineffective as a screener, he’s developed chemistry with Darius Garland, a jittery, pull-up shooting point guard who’s a budding star in his own right; the two of them are the ninth-most prolific assist combo in the league

Defensively, it’s hard to describe Mobley without seeming unmoored from reality. Don’t be ridiculous: he’s not the best defensive big man prospect since Anthony Davis—unless he maybe actually is. Mobley covers ground so quickly it seems like the court is rapidly contracting under his feet; he switches with a rare menace, relishing in the opportunity to embarrass guards by enveloping their drives. Beyond his remarkable nimbleness, he’s proven his rim-protector bona fides—his 1.3 blocks per game belie his true impact; within six feet of the rim, Mobley contests 8.5 shots per game and holds opponents nearly 10 percentage points below their normal finishing rate. 

Paired with Jarrett Allen, Mobley allows the Cavs to stock the rest of their lineup with offense-first scoring types; since the Cavs are guaranteed to almost permanently have a fearsome rim protector securing the paint, they’re able to weather Sexland’s smallness and Markannen’s slowness. Accordingly, the Cavs have had an elite defense in the 235 minutes that Mobley and Allen have played together; when their center duo share the court, the Cavs hold opponents to a 103.4 offensive rating. 

Even if the Cavs cool from their torrid-for-them start to the season (Colin Sexton’s absence is a real downer), Mobley provides the foundation for sustained success going forward. The future is now. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 1st-7th

If there’s any lesson to learn as an NBA fan, the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint! Things can change quickly across this league, so you have to accept that. Who would have thought the Cavaliers found their best answer to life post-LeBron so soon? Why does Luka Doncic have a thing for breaking the Celtics’ hearts? Can the 76ers continue their hot streak despite the outside noise? Down are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

Evan Mobley is the Cavs’ answer to surviving life without LeBron

Among the many storylines that have lived in the NBA over the past three years, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles without once, long-time superstar LeBron James. Outside of their 11 years together with James, which included multiple Finals appearances and one title, the Cavaliers have not made the playoffs and are also an annual participant in the league’s draft lottery. But things may have changed this season.

Evan Mobley, the team’s third-overall pick from this year’s draft, appears to be the answer the Cavaliers needed to succeed in life without James finally. Besides being a key component in the team’s surprising 7-4 start, Mobley’s versatile skill-set and potential are recognized across the NBA as the traits needed for a prospect who has the keys to the franchise. And only 11 games into his career, the USC product has produced a pair of signature performances, including his career-best 26-points in a 126-109 road win against the NY Knicks on Sunday.

Luka breaking the Celtics’ heart is now common

Sometimes it doesn’t take much for anything to become a trend, and we’ve reached that point with Luka Doncic and the Boston Celtics. For the second time in two seasons, the Mavericks’ superstar has broken the Celtics’ heart by making another step-back three to win the game, 107-104, last Saturday night.

What makes Doncic’s latest game-winner insane to think about is he not only made it but attempted it from nearly the same spot he made his first game-winner against the Celtics. But the biggest difference? Doncic now made it with three defenders over him, including stellar defense by former teammate Josh Richardson.

The 76ers have quieted the noise so far!

While Philadelphia’s off-court drama has hogged most of the spotlight, fans and media should pay just as much attention to the Sixers’ on-court dominance. Despite the Simmons drama, the 76ers have locked in and played good basketball to start this season, storming out to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 8-2.

Even though center Joel Embiid hasn’t yet matched his production from last season (his 21.4 points per game are down more than seven points from last year), the East’s No. 1 seed has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach. Seven players are averaging double-digit points per game, and six players are shooting over 50% from the field while also producing player efficiency ratings over 20.

Cole Anthony’s sophomore season is going to be spectacular

There were a lot of crazy, and at times egregious, events that transpired last NBA season, and one of them involved Cole Anthony. The then-rookie point guard of the Orlando Magic didn’t make either of the league’s All-Rookie teams, despite being more productive than the likes of Issac Okoro and Isaiah Stewart. But Anthony isn’t one to cry over spilled milk.

Fast forward 11 games into his second season in the league and Anthony is proving his doubters wrong. Not only has the UNC product averaged more than 20 points per game (up from 12.9 last year), but he’s built on that same confidence and swagger that he exhibited towards the end of last year. 

On Sunday night, Anthony sparked the Magic’s rallying 24-11 run by scoring 10 of those points en route to a 107-100 comeback victory over the heavy-Western Conference favorite, Utah Jazz.