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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.

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.

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

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

Nikola Jokic is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player

Nikola Jokic won MVP last season because somebody had to win it. Joel Embiid and Lebron James missed too many games to realistically claim the trophy; Stephen Curry won the scoring title, but his team crapped out in the play-in tournament and no MVP has ever missed the playoffs; everybody was sick of Giannis Antetokounmpo winning. Jokic was outstanding, but he won MVP as much through the atrophy of the other candidates as he did because of his own brilliance.

This year, though, Nikola Jokic repeated as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, beating out Embiid and Antetokounmpo simply because he was the best player in the world.

No matter how you slice it, Jokic is a singularly great player. Watch him sling no-look passes that seem to suddenly apparate into the hands of streaking teammates or slouch backwards into another goofily devastating post-up and he looks like an engorged Larry Bird. His profile of advanced metrics paint a picture of a player who’s in the midst of a historic run. His basic on-off numbers show that no player was as integral or responsible to their team’s success as his was to the Nuggets.  

Granted, most MVPs hail from title contenders while the Nuggets were the sixth-seed in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, the Warriors decisively bounced the Nuggets in five, untroubled games. Still, the very fact that the Nuggets made the playoffs is proof positive of Jokic’s impact. Without Jamal Murray (torn ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (severely janky spine and like three cases of COVID), the Nuggets were not an especially good roster. In fact, it was an almost-bad roster—outside of Jokic, no other Nugget averaged more than 15.1 points per game, 6 rebounds or 4.4 assists per game.

And yet, Jokic had the capacity to transform this kludge of blah role players into an occasional powerhouse—when Jokic was on the floor, the Nuggets had a +9 net rating per 100 possessions, compared to a -10.5 net rating without him. In the most elementary terms, the Nuggets were the equivalent of the best team in the NBA when he played and the worst team in the league when he sat. 

While this season’s MVP race was outwardly the most closely contested since at least 2017, Jokic ultimately distanced himself as the clear winner; he received 62 first-place votes in an ESPN strawpoll of 100 media members and he topped 37 of the 56 ballots that have been publicly revealed so far.

All year long, people have been resistant to recognize Jokic as the MVP because of his general weirdness. There’s never been a player with his lumpen, odd-ball cocktail of inventive playmaking, labored breathing and efficient scoring. He has no antecedent—even many years into the Reign of Jokic, giant Serb who passes like he can see the future is a hard archetype to wrap your head around. By winning MVP, Jokic represents a triumph of a more evolved way of thinking about basketball, one in which a player’s holistic impact takes precedence over any superficial aesthetic qualities. Jokic doesn’t look the part of an NBA superstar, but the beauty is that he doesn’t have to. 

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Sports Strength

Why Nikola Jokic Should Be the MVP

It’s inescapable, this NBA MVP stuff. Statlines across the NBA have become so incomprehensibly good that it’s driven everybody slightly insane; Lebron James—Lebron James—is having the best scoring season of his career and he’s somehow relegated to the outermost arrondissement of the MVP conversation, whatever that means. Log onto any corner of the broader basketball internet and you’ll find proxy wars waged with Statmuse graphics and galaxy-brained counterfactuals. Joel Embiid-ites claim that Nikola Jokic would have fewer assists if you didn’t count 22 percent of his assists; Jokic-stans counter that Embiid would average fewer points if players could foul him without consequence; a vocal contingent of Devin Booker supporters rail against an unspecified “they” who don’t want Booker to win because it doesn’t fit their narrative. With such a preponderance of great players having great seasons, any individual MVP take is essentially an expression of faith.

But this is all silly: Nikola Jokic is the MVP, clearly.

Understandably, Jokic’s passing is the subject of this kind of ekphrasis. He’s a good passer—one of the best, even. And while his imagination and accuracy are unparalleled, focusing on them obscures his larger, all-around brilliance. Namely, he’s a sneakily elite scorer—of the 38 players who are averaging more than 20 points per game, Jokic’s 65.8 percent True Shooting is the highest mark. In fact, Jokic is not just one of the most efficient scorers in the league right now, he’s one of the best volume scorers of all time: Jokic’s combination of volume (26.3 points per game) and efficiency have only ever been matched by five other players. At this point, Jokic has cobbled together a claim to be the greatest offensive big man since Wilt Chamberlain. 

Beyond his all-history offense, Jokic has emerged as a shockingly good defender. Although he outwardly looks like a slow-footed galoot who’s perpetually sandblasted on switches, he’s put together the most impressive defensive season of his career; it’s possible, if not plausible, that he warrants some down-ballot All-Defense team votes. Thanks to his quick hands and general ginormity, Jokic improves the Nuggets defense by 6.8 points per 100 possessions—in essence, he’s more integral to his team’s defensive success than Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid are to theirs. Similarly, advanced metrics like Estimated Plus-Minus and RAPTOR also grade Jokic as a top-shelf defender; EPM slots Jokic in the 85th percentile league-wide while RAPTOR pegs him as the second best defensive player in the entire NBA. 

After trailing Stephen Curry and then Joel Embiid in the court of public opinion for the bulk of the season, Jokic has edged into the lead to win MVP. This week, an ESPN strawpoll of 100 voters had him as the obvious frontrunner, with Jokic securing 62 first place votes. Similarly, Vegas sportsbooks installed him as a favorite this week for the first time all season. If Jokic won last year’s MVP somewhat by default, this year he’s left no doubt that he’s the best player in the world. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 20th-26th

Even though daily news of NBA players and coaches having to enter health protocols have become common, it was nice to go through a week where the focus was on the games. Alongside the league’s annual slate of Christmas Day matchups, there was plenty to watch and learn from an assortment of players and teams who made one last statement before this year ended. Down below are my four takeaways from the league’s latest week in action.

Harden and Westbrook represent the line between success and failure

Besides being teammates twice throughout their illustrious careers (First in Oklahoma City and then Houston), James Harden and Russell Westbrook have a lot in common as arguably two of social media’s most criticized yet accomplished superstars. But last Saturday, we discovered what makes the two players different and ultimately favors one of them to win their elusive first championship.

As the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers competed in a 122-115 thriller that was won by the Nets, Harden’s combination of efficient and timely playmaking and scoring (36 points, ten rebounds, and ten assists) outlasted Westbrook’s inconsistent and ugly performance (13 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists). Despite struggling for most of this season, Harden has found ways to ultize his strengths to benefit his team; an action Westbrook has not discovered yet in LA.

When will help arrive for the Joker?

As much as NBA Twitter loves to proclaim their favorite player should be “freed” or given additional help, no one is more deserving of either claim than Nikola Jokic. “The Joker” is having an all-time season (he’s on pace to break the record for highest player efficiency rating at 33.33) and could win league MVP again if reinforcements arrive by his side in Denver.

With dynamic guard Jamal Murray’s return from his torn ACL injury still unknown and forward Michael Porter Jr being out because of his back injury, one has to wonder if the Nuggets could make a trade or two for additional scoring and playmaking that lessens Jokic’s load.

Keldon Johnson is worthy of your attention

Regardless of how you’re watching the NBA on a nightly basis, there’s one player who is worthy of your time: Keldon Johnson. The third-year San Antonio Spur, who you may remember as a late-minute addition to the US Men’s gold-medal-winning basketball team last summer, is quickly becoming one of the team’s best players, and rightfully so.

Johnson is averaging a career-high in points and rebounds per game (15 and 6.6) while also shooting a remarkable 47% from the three-point line. The Kentucky product’s development is a more than welcomed sign for the Spurs, who already have a promising talent in Dejounte Murray.

Houston is balancing Jalen Green’s development and their desire to compete

While some teams love to have dynamic, young talent and still collect high lottery picks, others are fine with having young talent who could help them win right away (Think Evan Mobley and Cleveland). Even though the Houston Rockets, and their 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, aren’t in a position to compete for the playoffs, they’re happy with being competitive and making each other better.

Despite the team’s seven-game winning streak earlier this month without Green because of his injury, the Rockets would rather have him on the court. Out of 19 games played, Green has scored 20 points five times and proves to be a viable offensive threat with his athleticism and, at times-solid shooting. It’s just a matter of making him more effective while also eliminating their tendency for extensive losing streaks.

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Sports Strength

Don’t Mess with Nikola Jokic (Or Nikola Jokic’s Brothers)

Last year, Nikola Jokic won MVP almost by default. He’s unquestionably great, but his plaudits have always felt like they carried an implied qualifier—he was the MVP (but only because Joel Embiid got injured); he’s a star (but not, like, you know, a star); he’s one of the best passers ever (for a big man). While Lebron James or Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokoumnpo are described in hushed, reverent tones, Jokic is treated as some sort of oddity, seven feet of gelatin and puff whose success is tantamount to his obvious goofiness. He’s the hardwood Velvet Underground, a favorite of hoops hipsters who’s too weird and inaccessible for the mainstream.

He’s also, at the moment, the best basketball player in the world. 

Jokic is dominant in clear and readily apparent ways; he leads the Denver Nuggets in just about every major statistical category. His statistical profile has something for everybody—he placates capital-h Hoopers by getting buckets (25.4 points per game) and arm-chair statisticians by doing so efficiently (68.9 percent True Shooting); for the hardcore nerds, he’s highly rated across the whole alphabet soup of advanced metrics (first in RAPTOR and EPM, fifth in DARKO). 

It’s become passé to call players “unicorns,” but Jokic is truly without any antecedent. Whereas most great passers place a single opponent in conflict over their defensive responsibilities and then exploit that indecision, Jokic somehow reads the entire court at once; he turns basketball into cartography, continually mapping and remapping the placement of every player. 

Beyond just being able to see every pass, Jokic is able to actually make every pass too. Skip passes to the weak-side corner, sly bounce-passes to a cutter, twirling one-handed outlets, over-the-head backwards hurls—Jokic has the goods. In this sense, his highlights unfold like whodunnits as he manipulates the defense until he can rifle a pass through an opening that only he can see. 

Despite averaging the fewest assists since he became a full-time starter in 2017, Jokic is still a top-notch passer; it’s not his fault that all of his good teammates are hurt and that shooting across the league is down because the new ball sucks. Still, defending against Jokic requires total, unwavering focus—he unfailingly converts defenders’ brainfarts into open three-pointers and lay-ups.  

If Jokic’s passing is what makes him so singular, his scoring is what makes him potentially the greatest offensive center of the last 30 years. Having shed the meekness and deference that characterized his first few seasons, Jokic has evolved into a vicious, mean-spirited scorer. Although he’s blossomed into a sharpshooter (he shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc and 60 percent from midrange), on the block, he’s an amorphous blob of muscle, continuing the proud lineage of Zach Randolph and Shaq before him. Averaging 1.04 points per possession on post ups, Jokic unsteadies defenders with feints and body blows until he burrows out enough room to float a hook shot or fade-away over their head. 

Further bolstering Jokic’s Best Player Alive case is his development as a defender. For years, the kindest description of Jokic’s defense has been not that bad—he may never have been as permissive at the rim as his all-around pudginess would suggest, but he possessed limiting weaknesses all the same. But now, he’s a legitimately resolute defender. He’ll never be a one-man, Iron Dome around the paint like Rudy Gobert, but he ventures to the level of the screen to corral ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, spooking potential drivers with his quick hands and general gigantitude. This kind of prophylactic defense has borne fruit—per Cleaning the Glass, only four other centers are a bigger rim deterrent than Jokic and the Nuggets only surrender 94.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court, the equivalent of the best defense of any team since 2004.

More than anything, Jokic’s greatness is derived from his ability to manifest his own version of reality. He contorts defenses by standing in place, aware of how his any subtle movement can provoke a defensive response. He creates scoring opportunities that didn’t previously exist, tossing passes into open spaces for his teammates to explore. He compensates for his physical deficiencies by eliminating chances for offenses to take advantage of him. On the most basic level, he’s the best player in the world because he plays within a world almost entirely of his own creation. 

And if you disagree, his enormous brothers will beat the shit out of you.