Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
Stephen Curry can carry a playoff team alone
We were robbed last season of seeing what two-time MVP Stephen Curry was capable of in a ball-dominant role on an underwhelming roster. Kevin Durant had already fled for the Brooklyn Nets, and Klay Thompson was rehabbing his torn ACL when Curry broke his hand four games into last season. Unfortunately, Thompson’s Achilles tear has given us a second chance to see if Curry can go it alone.
The brief preview we did see last season was not pretty, and the first two games of this season were not encouraging, either. If not for a Damion Lee buzzer beater, the Golden State Warriors would have been 1-4 following a 25-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. They were reeling, and then Curry caught fire. His 62 points salvaged a second game against the Blazers, and they blew out the Sacramento Kings a night later.
The Warriors had seemingly found a recipe for success. Coach Steve Kerr was putting the ball in Curry’s hands more and increasingly running pick and roll through him, rather than allowing Andrew Wiggins or Kelly Oubre to make decisions in an egalitarian motion offense once entrusted to more capable veterans Thompson and Andre Iguodala. The return of Draymond Green improved an otherwise atrocious defense.
But Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was a harsh reminder of the reality Golden State faces. The Clips did not play well, and they did not need to. The talent gap between the two teams was so stark that only a few minutes of effort in the fourth quarter turned a close game into a comfortable win. Green committed an ill-advised flagrant foul, and Curry left the game with a sprained ankle in the final minutes.
The Warriors were cooked, and this was who they are. There is too fine a line to walk the tightrope necessary to navigate a playoff path in the West, and the schedule does not stop. Golden State’s next six games come against playoff teams, four of which are on national TV, and this could turn ugly in a hurry.
The Warriors are being outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor and Green on the bench, twice as bad as when Curry sits for any stretch of time. A limited sample size suggests they can get by with both Curry and Green on the court together, but passable will not cut it, especially when the offense is entirely reliant on one over-30 star and the defense is held up by another, neither of whom have stayed healthy for years. It is too great a burden to bear, even for one of the game’s transcendent talents.
Tom Thibodeau is working magic in New York
Rookie Immanuel Quickley has been a revelation, but the New York Knicks are largely the same team that won 21 games last season and ranked in the bottom third of the league on both offense and defense. Through eight games this season — no small sample in a 72-game season — they own a top-10 defense that has carried them to a 5-3 record, just decent enough to consider them as a potential playoff long shot.
What gives? Incoming coach Tom Thibodeau, apparently. What Thibodeau teams have lacked in defensive talent, they have gained through effort. Outside of Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks are not blessed with many known defenders in the rotation, and yet they are seven points per 100 possessions better on that end this season. This is the result of a gritty coach in a gritty city getting his players to buy into a proven scheme.
The Knicks have been an embarrassment for far too long, and it is high time they at least try. Thibodeau may well grind his players to dust, but he will make magic in the meantime. In his first season with the Chicago Bulls, Thibs turned an 11th-ranked defense into the NBA’s top outfit, a five-point improvement per 100 possessions. He failed to get similar results with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but New York’s early returns might be a further indictment of the defensive effort of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Opponents are shooting a league-worst 26.5% on open three-pointers against the Knicks, which is reason to believe their defensive rating could slip from eighth. Better familiarity with Thibodeau’s system could offset that slippage. Likewise, the development of New York’s young players should lead to improved offense, even if Julius Randle falls back to earth from his 23.1 points, 12 rebounds and 7.4 assists a game.
The longer the Knicks can sustain a record and a net rating close to even, the more confident they will grow, and it is a wonder what belief and effort can accomplish, especially in a shortened NBA season.
The Wizards should part ways with Scott Brooks
There is evidence that Scott Brooks can be an effective coach. He led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the 2012 NBA Finals, even if he had three future MVPs on the roster, and he came within a Kelly Olynyk career night of steering the Washington Wizards to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals — their deepest playoff run in almost 40 years. Cajoling flawed star partnerships is no easy task, and he has twice traversed that path.
There is also evidence that Brooks is an ineffective coach, and it is mounting. Washington has missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons, largely because of injuries to departed All-Star point guard John Wall. A bona fide excuse, but last year’s 29th-ranked defense was inexcusable. And it is worse right now.
Brooks’ defenses are going on three straight years in the bottom four and have ranked in the NBA’s lower third four of the past five years. There is a disconnect between coach and players on commitment to team basketball. It is one thing to have a subpar roster; it is another to have two of the seven worst defenses in NBA history on your record. The offense is not the problem. It is a top-six unit, one-tenth of a point out of the top four. Below average defense is enough to win, and failure to extract even that falls on the coach.
The Wizards are not without talent. They boast the NBA’s leading scorer in Bradley Beal (34.3 points per game), a walking triple-double in Russell Westbrook (20.5 points, 11.8 assists and 10.7 rebounds per game) and a handful of floor spacers around them, including two recent top-10 picks. Two All-NBA talents alone is enough to win in the East. There is no excuse for Washington not to make the playoffs, and yet they are 2-6 — looking more listless than any team but the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have been an abomination.
So, what are the Wizards waiting for? Brooks is in the final season of a five-year contract. He is a carryover from a previous regime known for making horrendous decisions. General manager Tommy Sheppard offered a tepid endorsement of Brooks in August, but even Brooks concedes the team’s poor start is “on me.” There is no question Washington needs an influx of motivation, and a new coach should be a priority, unless the Wizards want to squander another year of Beal’s prime as he inches closer to his free agency.
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