Four-Point Play

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YEAR 7 A.D.

Anthony Davis is the early leader in the 2018-19 NBA MVP race, and not just because he is averaging 30 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 2 assists and a partridge in a pear tree.

It is because he also is making Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton and the entire New Orleans squad better than anybody anticipated thus far.

A year ago, none of these players were wearing Pelicans uniforms (Mirotic was acquired in February, while Randle and Payton were signed in July) and all of them were either awkward fits  or disappointing parts with their previous teams.

Now they are all having career years, as is Davis, as are the Pelicans who are now 3-0 and averaging 132 points per game, which is even more than the NBA-record-holder, the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets, who averaged 126.5 points per game.

For Davis, who finished third in the 2017-18 NBA MVP balloting behind winner James Harden and runner-up LeBron James, this is the culmination of five All-Star seasons and three All-NBA years in his seventh Pelicans campaign.

Now, at age 25, Davis is fulfilling the vast expectations we all have had of him since being tabbed No. 1 in 2012, taking his game from the star level to superstar to current status as MVP frontrunner.

By going into, what he calls, “Westbrook mode,” AD remains the 30-10 stat-stuffing machine, but one who is more than willing to put a franchise on his back, which in turns opens up the game for space forward Mirotic, strongman Randle and journeyman guard Payton.

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Each is playing like never before.

Mirotic, whose career-best .577 true shooting percentage opened the floor for Davis last season, is now topping out at .645, while still averaging 28 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes per game.

Meanwhile, Randle is assuming a dominating role off the bench, averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds in 23 minutes per game.

Yes, you read that right. Davis’ and Mirotic’s backup is a 19-10 man in limited minutes in three games.

And if that were not enough, Payton is going off too, with Elfrid looking like Gary, posting 14 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists in 32 minutes per game.

No wonder valuable starters like Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore can coast off these Pelicans history makers.

It is indeed a memorable start for current and former starters alike who are just now coming into their own.

That is a reason why, in a week where the former NBA Commissioner David Stern criticized the Pelicans GM and also said Davis would leave the franchise, those quotes never picked up traction.

Because these Pelicans are just playing too darn good for anyone to mess with their mojo now.


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HOW GOOD/BAD ARE THE LAKERS?

LeBron James says he knew what he got himself into when he signed with a team fielding a roster of mostly 23-and-under prospects.

Trouble is, most mainstream media did not recognize the growing pains to come, with many forecasting deep playoff finishes and a potential 50-plus win seasons for these Los Angeles Lakers.

Our unbiased metrics forecast low expectations for the Lakers, saying they’d win 35 games because they lacked experience, chemistry, outside shooting and size.

Nobody actually would deny the Lakers were lacking in all four departments, but quite naturally, the excitement of a four-time NBA MVP in town led most to throw aside all rational thought about how much impact one man could have on a team of college kids.

Granted, these young Lakers could be special in time, in the way that the 2011-12 Warriors were special with 23-year-old prospect Stephen Curry and 21-year-old prospect Klay Thompson.

Sure, Golden State only won 23 games that season, but that did not stop head coach Mark Jackson from calling The Splash Brothers the best set of shooters he had seen, licking his chops further after management had already traded for Andrew Bogut and also drafted Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli.

The Warriors would win 47 games in 2012-13 and forming the basis of a three-time NBA championship empire from there.

These 2018-19 Lakers also remind me of the 2008-09 Thunder who also won only 23 games with 20-year-olds Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but would go on to draft James Harden and then win 50 games in the following 2009-10 season.

I honestly believe these Los Angeles Lakers have the same potential as aforementioned Golden State and Oklahoma City, who both reached the Finals after humble beginnings together.

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On the low side, both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have yet to show they are as good as Curry/Thompson or Westbrook/Durant.

But on the high side, Ingram’s Player Efficiency Rating metrics at age 20 compares favorably with perennial All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George at similar age, while Lonzo Ball’s PER and stat lines rate alongside Rajon Rondo and Baron Davis at a similar time.

Consider this: all four of those League comps did not become top 50 NBA players until they turned 22 or 23 years old, which tells me Ingram and Ball are at least a year or two away from helping LeBron in L.A. the way Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love did in Cleveland.

That is not Laker-hating, Laker fans. That is simply managing expectations properly.

Already out the gates we saw the Lakers lose their first three games and win the following two.

They can run (third in NBA in pace at 107.07 possessions per game), score (fourth in offensive efficiency at 114.08 points per 100 possessions) and pass (fifth in assist ratio at 19.0 percent).

They cannot makes three-pointers (29 percent ranks 28thin NBA), defend (113.9 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 25th) or rebound (49.1 rebound percentage ranks 21st).

Nothing we should be surprised at.

Nothing we did not see coming.

Nothing that cannot be fixed in time.

Lots of time.


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PACE JAM

In the NBA’s modern era—1980 through present (since the League’s induction of the three-point shot)—basketball has never been played at a faster pace than this 2018-19 season, with the Atlanta Hawks, L.A. Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards all playing at a pace that ranks top 40 historically in the modern era.

In addition to the aforementioned five squads, the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz are all also playing at a pace that would have led the NBA last season, when the Pelicans posted 101.60 possessions per game.

THAT’S 19 TEAMS.

There are many explanations for the phenomena: 1. NBA referees have been instructed to call more fouls on defensive players who impede their opponents’ progress by illegal holds, bumps or similar tactics; 2. By shrinking the shot clock from 24 seconds to 14 seconds on offensive rebounds, more possessions are automatically created throughout the game, especially when you consider the average NBA game had 20 offensive rebounds in 2017-18; 3. The sheer nature of more teams fading out giants of the game also speeds up the transition games, causing an increase in pace.

Let’s look at the League-leading Hawks.

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When they reassembled their team in the image of the Warriors, they did more than rob Golden State of its roster (Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin and Dewayne Dedmond), coaches (new head coach Lloyd Pierce) and staff (GM Travis Schlenk, assistant GM Rod Higgins, consultant Larry Riley, trainer Chelsea Lane, among others), they also tried to duplicate its blueprint as a top 5 paced squad.

In order to orchestrate the makeover, the Hawks also traded down in the draft to nab No. 5 selection Trae Young, who would not only give them their Stephen Curry-like leader for the future, but also a shooter-playmaker that now plays the fastest pace in the League (no other guard who has played 100-plus minutes this season tops Young’s pace of 111.04 possessions per 48 minutes).

The 6-2, 180-pound point guard who just turned 20 last month faced plenty of criticism upon being drafted fifth that he was too small and light to withstand the rigors of the NBA.

What was not factored into the equation was that you cannot be physical with what you cannot catch.

Thus far, Young has proven to be elusive enough to lead the Hawks fast breaks in ways that has not caused this much excitement in Atlanta since Dominique Wilkins put on his highlight film back in the 1980s.

With Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Alex Len, DeAndre Bembry and at times Vince Carter at his side, Young’s Hawks are running off a League-leading 109.00 possessions per games in this season’s first four contests, and setting the tone of what 2020s basketball will be all about.

They are the fastest of the fast. And in this particular historic season, that is roadrunner-beep-beep fast.


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AYTON’S PLACE

Rarely do the top five picks in the NBA Draft have a season’s start like this year’s freshmen class, with rookies Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson and Trae Young all living up to—or exceeding—expectations.

You would have to go back to the 2003 NBA Draft featuring future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to find a comparable set of rookie contributors, but even that draft’s weak link (No. 2 pick Darko Milicic) falls short of this groups fifth piece, whoever that may be.

 Rookie  G  MPG  PPG  RPG  APG  SPG  BPG  TSP  PER
Deandre Ayton PHX  4  30.3  16.3  10.8  3.8  0.5  1.0  .667  24.3
Marvin Bagley SAC  5  24.6  14.2  7.0  1.4  0.8  1.2  .611  20.8
Luka Doncic DAL  4  34.5  19.0  6.5  3.8  1.0  0.5  .519  11.5
 Jaren Jackson MEM  4  27.8  14.8  6.5  1.5  1.5  1.3  .543  19.2
 Trae Young ATL  4  32.3  21.5  3.5  7.5  0.5  0.5  .558  17.2

Through October 25, 2018

KEY: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating.

SOURCE: Basketball-Reference.com

That said, Suns center Ayton has come out strong as the early leader for the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year race, with his ultra-efficient 16 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes per game. Combine that with a 24 PER and positive plus-minus numbers (+4) on a bottom-dweller team, and it is no wonder why Phoenix made the 7-1, 250-pounder the No. 1 choice in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, Andre Drummond, Andrew Bynum, Karl-Anthony Towns and Chris Webber are the only 20-year-old bigs who posted comparable metrics at a similar age.

But it is Ayton’s on-court presence that is truly stimulating.

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He never seems to demand the ball. The Spalding just finds him. At all the right times. On rebounds. On post-ups. On high-low entry passes.

Ayton always seems to tower above the competition.

Suns ownership saw the obvious, getting rid of the lottery bigs the Suns drafted the past few years (Alex Len left via free agency to Atlanta, Marquese Chriss was dealt to Houston and Dragan Bender went to, well, he’s still here for now), while also getting rid of the general manager who drafted them (Ryan McDonough).

After all, once the organization saw Ayton, they finally discovered what an elite center looked like.

That said, we are not ready to just hand Ayton the ROY trophy just yet.

We love too many rookies on this list way too much to do something like that.

But even the biggest Doncic cheerleader can see Phoenix made a great choice in Ayton, similar to when the Houston Rockets chose center Hakeem Olajuwon over guard Michael Jordan back in the 1984 NBA Draft.

Not that we are saying Doncic is Jordan.

Nor that Ayton is Olajuwon.

But we must admit, the new Suns center does look like a future Hall of Famer from where we sit.