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What Have We Learned From NBA Free Agency So Far?

As fireworks continue lighting up across the United States in honor of Independence Day, the NBA has witnessed its share of them. Since last Thursday, the 2022 NBA free agency has kept fans, media, and even players glued to their phones in great anticipation of what could be next.

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Sparked by the evolving nature of player movement, the known and unknown worked together in creating the madness we experienced during free agency’s opening stretch. While fans knew of the likelihood that Jalen Brunson would sign with the New York Knicks, we were thrown a curveball upon the news of Rudy Gobert getting traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even the broad daylight robbery of a trade done by the Boston Celtics with the Indiana Pacers threw us in for a loop.

As free agency’s opening week concludes in two days and the shift turns to the second wave of signings– while we’ll also wonder who gets traded first: Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant?– now is the perfect time to examine what has happened so far.

Here are our five biggest takeaways from the opening weekend of NBA free agency.

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Why leave home when there’s a super-max deal?

Even with the combined desire by fans and media to see players leave their home teams, it’s becoming less of a reality given the introduction of super-max contracts. Fueled by incentives including All-Star and All-NBA selections, players are quickly putting pen to sheets near the end of their rookie or latest deal.

Within the first 48 hours of free agency, six super-max contracts were signed that totaled over one-point-two billion dollars (Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant, Darius Garland, and Zion Williamson).

Put some respect on Brian Windhorst’s name

The long-time ESPN Insider was arguably the MVP this past weekend, given his memorable explanation behind the Utah Jazz’s way of thinking before they moved All-Star center Rudy Gobert.

All meme-worthy moments aside, Windhorst’s connecting of the dots between the Jazz suddenly moving Royce O’Neale and current team CEO Danny Ainge’s willingness to start from scratch painted a great picture of what would happen in Salt Lake City.

Productive veterans will always be paid
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Even for a league that is getting younger, they will always pay productive veterans– even if it’s expensive. The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, two legitimate Eastern Conference competitors, both signed or resigned productive veterans, PJ Tucker and Bobby Portis, at a combined cost and commitment of $79 million over seven years.

You never know when the trade market will be active

Minus an on and off busy night from the Draft, there wasn’t much happening in the trade market before Kevin Durant’s sudden trade request last Thursday. But you still have to remember this: Even with a busy rumor mill, it doesn’t mean trades will happen right now.

In the case of KD, the Nets can let his situation play out longer due to four years remaining on his contract. Regarding a potential Kyrie Irving for Russell Westbrook trade, the hold-up can be over one thing. And if you’re the Jazz, you must be 100% certain you want to let go of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.

Who you got: Woj or Shams?

I’m more of a Woj guy but Shams is nice too *shrugs.

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Sports Strength

How Far Can Donovan Mitchell Take the Jazz?

The Utah Jazz are off to a red hot start, jockeying for the top spot in the Western Conference alongside the other heavyweights in Phoenix and Golden State. Despite their considerable early success and league-leading offense, they’re regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism; if you’ve listened to an NBA-centric podcast or TNT broadcast at some point this season, you’ve probably heard Utah praise qualified with some iteration of “lets see it in the playoffs.” That’s fair! Utah has notably struggled in the playoffs, but this is a new year, with new circumstances. 

Each season in the league is a unique subset with carryover from prior years, but not a direct continuation. The Jazz are again the best offense in the NBA, en route to break records, akin to last season. The underlying defensive concerns are still there and air themselves out during primetime play.

As I wrote about recently, the Jazz have actively tweaked their system this year. New personnel have unlocked intriguing lineups and styles of play. Much like the Bucks last season, the Jazz are using this regular season to test-run new tactics and schematic wrinkles for the postseason. 

However, the most intriguing development has been the growth of Donovan Mitchell this season. Check the box score and the changes are negligible at best, partially due to a slow start. Dive deeper, and combined with glimpses in-game, Mitchell has taken a step that may be the most significant shift for the franchise in his tenure with the Jazz.

What step might that be? Well, every step, quite literally!

Pound for pound, Mitchell is one of the most overwhelming athletes in the NBA (he’s frequently compared to Dwyane Wade for a reason), which has provided the framework for him to function as a lead guard. Mitchell has found more ways this year to meaningfully harness his speed and power. He establishes his pace; he sets his own rhythm. In prior years, Mitchell played like Peter Parker still coming to terms with being Spiderman—it was obvious that he had special gifts and powers, but he hadn’t quite figured out how to deploy them effectively. Whereas Mitchell’s drives used to be somewhat halting as he haphazardly shifted between hitting the NOS button and fully putting on the brakes, he’s now learned to calibrate his transmission. This year, Mitchell changes direction and speed more fluidly, excising the profligate herk-y jerky, start/stop activity in favor of more continuous motion.

Keeping a handle on the ignition keeps defenders at bay, forcing constant attention and reaction to his own movements. Defenders have always had to pay attention to his top-end quickness and rapid deceleration, but now they must also account for the full spectrum of speeds that he can access in between those two extremes.

In essence, operating more slowly opens access to more windows than previously attainable.

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Mitchell has straddled the league-average line of efficiency for the entirety of his young career, but now sits comfortably above it for the first time (his 57.1 percent True Shooting is 3 percent better than league average). Zooming into his last 15 games and he’s been even better, putting up 28.5 points per game on 61 percent True Shooting across that span.

Career-best shooting inside the arc—a byproduct of his aforementioned control of pace— has propelled Mitchell to new heights as a scorer. Mitchell is hitting 55 percent of his twos, his highest clip since his rookie season (50.2 percent), shooting 71.2 percent at the rim (previous high of 63.8 percent), and 48.6 percent from 3-10 feet (38.6 percent for his career). This growth is especially remarkable considering that he’s upped his accuracy without sacrificing any volume. 

Mitchell’s evolution has catalyzed his transition from an above-average pick-and-roll operator to one of the best in basketball; his 1.06 points per possession as a pick and roll ball-handler is the most of any NBA player who averages more than three such possessions per game. He tackles ball-screens with guile and patience, taking full advantage of what the defense offers. 

Go under the screen to stop a drive: He’ll cash the jumper.

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Wiggle over the screen to contest a potential pull-up: he’ll flash to the rim.

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Fall back into drop coverage : here comes a pull-up two, which he’s hitting at a 50.5% clip.

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While Mitchell has had these options and modes of attack at his disposal for much of his time in the league, he now displays the tact and craftsmanship to take full advantage of his natural toolsiness. Empowered by the knowledge that he has an answer for whatever problem the defense poses, Mitchell is nearly unguardable operating a pick-and-roll.

Beyond merely finishing pick-and-roll chances, Mitchell is exceptional at initiating advantages from the get-go thanks to his timing and footwork. One of the great joys of the season has been watching Mitchell use his screeners to remove his defender from the play, knock trailers off-course, and open up shooting pockets.

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Watch the craft in these two possessions.

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First, he freezes Facundo Campazzo with a hesitation, which allows him to jet around the screen without much resistance. Now, with Campazzo out of the play, he attacks a backpedaling Nikola Jokic, decelerating into a floater before the reigning MVP can react fast enough to mount a contest. Rather than a direct drive right into a seven-footer, Mitchell collapses the defense, threatens to batter the paint, and times a relatively effortless look while Jokic steels himself for the expected paint-battering.

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Next, Whiteside rolls and is open for a split second, but Marquese Chriss lies in wait to tag the roll, so Mitchell continues his drive into the paint. Once there, he gradually slows, keeping Dwight Powell in limbo. By the time Powell’s teammate Theo Pinson reconnects to Whiteside on a late switch,  Mitchell has already exploited Powell’s indecision, hitting him with the quick up-fake and stepping through to the now vacant lane that Whiteside just carved for him on the roll.

No individual component of what Mitchell does on these plays is particularly noteworthy at first, the sheer amount of information that Mitchell processes on these patient drives is astounding. Rather than popping for a 19-foot pull-up on his first read, he’s progressing through, feeling out the defense, and finding better ways to score.

While this alone won’t carry the Jazz to an NBA Finals, Mitchell’s growth strengthens the backbone of an already formidable team. Playoff games are determined by minor advantages that gradually accumulate over time, so Mitchell’s improvement on his already impressive offensive repertoire makes you question whether he can tilt the margins just enough in the Jazz’s favor to compensate for some of their shortcomings. So yes, let’s wait and see in the playoffs, but be sure to take note of the strides being made in the meantime.

Categories
Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 29th-December 5th

As everyone’s focus is to either improve or build upon what happened during the first quarter of this NBA season, the quote “iron sharpens iron” becomes a living reality. Whether it’s conference-leading teams going toe to toe or young stars taking on their idols, the season’s second quarter becomes a proving ground before the All-Star break. Below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

The league’s past, present and future are having memorable battles
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It’s normal for the league to have its first heavy slate of important matchups when the calendar turns to December, but it doesn’t make it less exciting. Now on a nightly basis, there’s a matchup that pits any cominbation of the league’s past, present, and future stars against each other. Accordingly, on Sunday night, we watched an incredible duel between guards Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell.

Garland, the third-year Cleveland Cavalier who’s having a breakout year, had 31 points and five assists, and Mitchell, the Utah Jazz’s soon-to-be superstar, finished with 35 points and six assists in a 109-108 thrilling Jazz victory. As the game inched closer to its conclusion, both players weren’t shy to score and guard each other in the clutch while already being the two best players on the court.

The NY Knicks are struggling to build upon last season’s success
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After being one of the league’s biggest surprise stories last season, the Knicks have struggled to regain that spark as they’re currently 11-12 and sitting outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race due to their ongoing three-game losing streak. And while this season’s Knicks team is more talented, they certainly don’t have the determination and focus that powered last season’s team to a surprise playoff appearance.

“We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want the season to be,” Julius Randle said after the team’s 113-99 loss against the Denver Nuggets last Saturday. “I know what I want it to be. I know what the guys want it to be. But we have to commit to it, and that’s just really what it is.”

CanWill Damian Lillard find his swagger before it’s too late?
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To say it’s been a crazy handful of months for Lillard is an understatement. In between readjusting to a new head coach, daily rumors surrounding his unhappiness with the Portland Trail Blazers, and him and the team’s constant struggles, Lillard now has one more problem: injuries.

The multi-time All-Star will be out of action for at least ten days due to an abdominal injury, and it couldn’t have happened at the worst time. Despite averaging his lowest points per game average since his third NBA season (2014-’15), Lillard was beginning to regain his previous form, as witnessed by his 39 and 32-point performances against the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings between November 20th-24th.

The Thunder are simply bad and there isn’t much to say about that
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While it’s already unfathomable that the Oklahoma City Thunder lost by 73 points last Friday, it’s crazier when you realize they lost by 57 points less than six months ago. And even though the NBA can’t do anything about the Thunder and their rare, historic losses, some say an eye should be kept on their performance moving forward.

In the spirit of competitiveness and further eliminating the thought of tanking, which at one point plagued the mind of sports fans, the Thunder must turn the corner in that department, even if it doesn’t produce a more wins.