Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: Blake Griffin’s career on the brink?
The game is unforgiving.
The game can be unfair.
The game can go against the tenets of everything we say matters and how we want players to evolve.
Look no further than Blake Griffin in Detroit.
Last year he was playing MVP-caliber ball for a Pistons team that desperately wanted to get back into the postseason. He improved as a 3-point shooter, initiated the offense and was one of the most efficient players in the league.
He exemplified maturity and evolution as his body began to deteriorate and was no longer reliant on the athleticism that made him one of the game’s most entertaining players during his days with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Developing an outside shot and being a hub on offense was supposed to make him more valuable as he aged. He went from a guy who couldn’t take 3-point shots — much less make them — to someone who shot 36.2 percent from three last year on seven attempts a night.
But as he dragged his body up and down the floor last year, it came at a hefty price, and he played his final two playoff games on a balky left knee against the Milwaukee Bucks as the Pistons got swept.
Maybe he should’ve sat, but he had put in so much into getting the Pistons into the postseason.
The bill on his body is coming due as he underwent left knee surgery for the second time in less than a year, and it seems unlikely he’ll play again this season.
He labored through this season as the Pistons were careful with his recovery, but physical attrition is undefeated. His game didn’t necessarily fall off a cliff — and neither did his dedication to his craft — but the body did what the body does. And to make matters worse, Griffin, 30, is due $36.6 million next season with a player option for $38.9 million in 2021-22 — an option common sense would dictate he exercise.
Of course, no contract is untradeable, but it’s conceivable he doesn’t play contending basketball again, especially if the Pistons are headed toward a rebuild.
Would load management have helped him early in his career? After the 2014 season, his high-water mark was 75 games (last year) and injuries have been a main character in the Blake Griffin story.
Perhaps he was bound to have these issues regardless and no amount of extra care would’ve prevented it.
But to see someone develop and grow yet not have a meaningful chance to put those hours of work to use on the highest stage, it feels empty in some way.
It shouldn’t be like this, but the game can be heartbreaking and we know it doesn’t discriminate.
Second Quarter: The return of Chris Paul
Maybe if the Houston Rockets knew Chris Paul would be this good, this healthy and this consistent, they wouldn’t have sent him to Oklahoma City — along with draft picks — for Russell Westbrook.
Past the point of early returns, one can easily make the assertion that Paul has been the better player this season, and he has helped the Thunder get a jump-start on the future with the draft assets.
The Rockets would probably still complete the deal, considering Paul’s clash with James Harden and Westbrook’s friendship with Harden, but even the most ardent Rockets supporter can’t dismiss Paul’s performance this year.
Well over the pace to play more than 58 games this season (he’s played in all 36 games so far), Paul is looking every bit the “Point God” nickname he was given some time ago. The Thunder are the surprise of the West, solidly in the playoff picture and they won’t be an easy out should this roster stay together.
It was a mistake to assume Paul was washed because he had to take such a supporting role to Harden. In Oklahoma City, Paul seems reborn, refreshed by the youth around him and returning to the midrange game that’s made him so dangerously effective throughout his career.
There’s very little precedent in modern NBA history for soon-to-be 35-year-old point guards staying healthy and playing reasonably close to their best selves. Jason Kidd made an All-Star game at age 36, and John Stockton accomplished the same feat, but neither were truly feared at that point in their basketball life cycles.
Isiah Thomas retired after his age-32 season, and Magic Johnson returned from retirement as a husky power forward at 36. Steve Nash was probably closest to his peak, leading the league in assists as a 35-year-old in 2010 for a Suns team that made the Western Conference finals.
But Paul is steadily evolving and that has included a return to his midrange game. From 10-19 feet, Paul is shooting 51 percent on the shots coaches are loathe to accept. He’s not athletic enough anymore to finish at the rim, but still can use most of the floor to his advantage — and he realizes he’s an anomaly.
“The league changed 4-5 years ago. Everybody gives up that [midrange] shot,” Paul said. “My coaches allow me to shoot that shot, so I try to get there as much as possible.”
Whether it’s taking over a game late, as Paul did on the second night of a back-to-back in a win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night, or playfully giving his teammates grief in the aftermath of his 28-point showing, Paul is showing he’s still the master.
“I love playing here in New York,” Paul said. “Here, Brooklyn, the energy here is unmatched. If you play the right way, the crowd here, they support you.”
He playfully ribs teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and asks rookie Darius Bazley to shimmy so the assorted media can see him, while giving big man Steven Adams the highest compliment for being “unselfish” when it comes to letting the smaller guards get rebounds.
Paul looks in his element, as a guide and teacher of sorts.
More than anything, he looks comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps that’s a function of no longer trying to mix oil and water. Perhaps it’s his own basketball mortality staring him in the face.
But he’s found a fit in Oklahoma City, where very few expected things to work to this degree and most believed he would angle for a move to a contender, even with his hefty salary. But that hasn’t appeared to be the case.
“It’s fun playing here,” Paul said.
Maybe he was talking about the bright lights of New York.
Or maybe he was talking about the understated Thunder franchise he’s keeping afloat in the meantime.
Third Quarter: All-Surprise Team
Scouting has become so advanced and expansive, it’s hard to figure out how guys slip between the cracks as often as they do. But even still, there are surprises across the board, players who’ve capitalized on opportunities via injury or circumstance.
Here are the five guys on the All-Surprise Team this season:
F Moritz Wagner, Washington Wizards: A late first-round pick for the Lakers who collected dust on the bench, he’s averaging 11.6 points and six rebounds, with 58/39/84 shooting splits in 21 games. He’s out for a few weeks with an ankle injury.
G Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets: A second-round pick in 2018, he’s making an All-Star bid, averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists.
G Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat: An undrafted rookie out of Oakland (Michigan) and a Chicago native, he’s unafraid to shoot and more than willing to challenge defenses. He’s averaging 15.4 points and 3.7 assists.
PF Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors: A threat to dunk on you at any time, he’s a bright spot on a depleted Warriors roster and putting up 14 a game.
PF Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons: Undrafted in 2015, he showed out so much in training camp the Pistons cut veteran Joe Johnson. Bouncy with a shooting touch, Wood is averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 37 percent from 3-point range.
Fourth Quarter: Marcus Morris Sr. staying put?
Knicks forward Marcus Morris Sr. is a hot name around league circles for so many reasons, but the Knicks have no plans on trading him, a source told Yahoo Sports.
He’s on an expiring contract that he’s outperforming, capable of playing both forward positions and is shooting 46.9 percent from three on nearly six attempts a game.
The notion that his numbers are inflated because he’s playing for the Knicks haven’t quelled interest, but the Knicks seem set on keeping Morris as a piece for the present and future.
He likes playing in New York and for the franchise, two things that aren’t a given with other players.
And the Knicks have six first-round picks in the next four years, so even the commodities they could get for him doesn’t necessarily fit a need.
The Knicks need talent, proven talent, to go with their young pieces. Morris is respected in the locker room, and a bright spot on the floor in a season that’s just starting to turn around after the early turmoil surrounding former coach David Fizdale.
Getting another late first-round pick — which is what quality teams would offer in a weak draft — doesn’t sound so appealing.
Staying pat, for once, seems like the prudent strategy.
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