The NBA remains as entertaining as ever.
We’re barely a week into the new season and Daryl “Pinocchio” Morey has already escaped a toxic relationship by sending his ex to the other side of the country, while Victor Wembanyama continues to do something otherworldly every game.
Before covering those topics, though, let’s first analyze the two favorites in the East. Milwaukee has struggled out of the gate and are playing like the oldest team in the league, but the Celtics look like the juggernaut we all expected.
So, what’s fueling their success? Unsurprisingly, it starts with their two new additions.
Porzingis and Jrue are perfect fits in Boston
One of the biggest knocks against the Celtics last year was that they were too reliant on threes — Boston was 31-1 when they shot over 40% from deep and 26-24 when they didn’t. Of course, saying that a team had a better record in games when they shot a higher percentage isn’t groundbreaking, and the Celtics are actually attempting almost the same number of threes this season (41.5) as they did last year (42.6).
The difference, though, is that Boston seems to be putting a greater emphasis on diversifying their offense and playing into the strengths of their players, especially newcomers Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. The two former All-Stars are both efficient post-scorers, and the Celtics have adjusted accordingly by increasing the team’s total post-ups per game from 3.1 to 8.8.
For instance, Boston’s shellacking against Indiana on Tuesday night started with a Jrue post-up, as he’s one of the strongest guards league-wide and is able to move any non-big around to get the shot he wants.
On the other hand, Porzingis can take advantage of his 7’3” frame to shoot over anyone, and if he’s double-teamed, he’s also capable of kicking out to an open shooter.
Last year, Porzingis was one of the best post-scorers league-wide by averaging 1.18 points per possession on such plays, which ranked in the 88th percentile. Historically, though, he’s been below average in that area, which is why many expected a drop-off in production this year. But given the number of weapons on the Celtics and the amount of space he can operate in, it wouldn’t be surprising for Porzingis to continue being a lethal threat in the post, even if his current 1.45 PPP is unsustainable.
Another trickle-down effect of Boston’s new additions is the number of touches that their top players are receiving. Jayson Tatum still leads the team by a wide margin at 68.8 per game, but Jaylen Brown’s touches have dipped dramatically from 64 last season to just 46 so far this year. In fact, Derrick White is actually second on Boston in touches with 47.5 per game, and both Jrue and Porzingis are right behind Brown at 45.8 and 42.5, respectively.
It’s still early, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Celtics elect to continue playing a more egalitarian style. Such a strategy could prove to be smart considering Brown's biggest weakness is playmaking and dribbling — as pointed out by Boston’s own social media team — so having the ball in the hands of White and Jrue should yield better offensive results.
Regardless, this is the most talented Celtics team of the Tatum-Brown era, as they seem to have mitigated their issues scoring in the half-court by diversifying their offense. They should rightfully be considered the favorites in the East, unless this next team starts firing on all cylinders.
Should we still fear the deer?
Remember when the entire basketball community was talking about how unstoppable a Dame-Giannis pick and roll would be? Well, they’ve run it a grand total of five times over four games.
Yep, you read that right. Five times. In four games.
On those five possessions, they’re averaging a decent 1.0 PPP, but the execution has been concerning: two possessions ended in a missed three from Dame, and another two resulted in made baskets from him off of drives without much involvement from Giannis. Interestingly, he only elected to pass to the Greek Freak once, which ended in a turnover.
Even when Dame did score, Giannis was so uninvolved that I hesitated to even count it as a possession. Just look at the soft “pick” Giannis sets here and how Dame doesn’t even consider a lob or pass.
With that said, two players as talented as them will figure things out eventually, and the bigger concern is their lack of P&R volume. In order for the Bucks to maximize their offensive potential, they must run more plays that involve both stars, which starts with Giannis’ willingness to set screens and play off-ball.
Last season, the Greek Freak averaged a meager 1.8 possessions per game as the pick-and-roll roll man while scoring 1.09 PPP, which ranked in the 46th percentile. So far this year, he’s been the roll man on nine possessions and is scoring just 0.78 points on those plays. For reference, Joel Embiid, who’s been among the leaders in rolls per game and PPP, consistently averages over six possessions per game as the roll man and scores over 1.2 points on such plays with and without James Harden as his partner.
With that in mind, there’s no reason why Giannis can’t commit to setting more screens and rolling like Embiid. He doesn’t need to replicate the latter’s numbers, but given the arrival of a heliocentric guard like Dame, Giannis should play more like a traditional big and at least double his volume as a roll man.
The more concerning issue for Milwaukee, though, lies in their own end. Again, they’ve only played four games, but even the biggest deer haters likely didn’t expect them to have a 121.7 defensive rating, which is only better than the Wiz-ARDS of Washington.
With Giannis and Brook Lopez forming one of the biggest backcourts in the league, the Bucks have consistently been among the best rim-protecting teams over the last five years. This season, though, they’re allowing opponents to shoot a comedic 80.9% within four feet of the basket, which is the worst mark in the league by over 3%.
Following a career season, the 35-year-old Lopez just doesn’t look like the same player, as he’s only racked up two blocks in four games after averaging 2.5 blocks per game last year. Swapping one of the league’s best defensive guards (Jrue) for one of the worst (Dame) doesn’t help either, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Milwaukee’s defense.
For one, the Bucks are actually second in location-effective field goal% at 51.5%, which takes into account the location in which opponents are attempting their shots. In reality, opponents have shot 60.9% against Milwaukee, meaning that they’ve been overperforming their expected percentage by 9.4%. That’s definitely unsustainable, and given that the season’s barely a week old, it’s more encouraging to know that the Bucks’ defensive process is still good, even if the results aren’t there... yet.
Considering everything, Milwaukee should still be a top-flight contender after they’ve had some more time to gel. Lopez’s decline and Middleton’s nagging injuries are legitimate concerns, but given that the Bucks are still integrating Dame while maintaining a solid defensive process, the deer should still very much be feared.
The Xenomorph has arrived
“Alien” is too basic of a nickname, which is why I like “Xenomorph” better to describe Wemby. Those under 30 probably won’t get the reference, but if you were to watch the series now, please stop after Aliens — unless you have an inappropriate amount of time to kill and want a good laugh.
Pop culture references aside, Wemby has somehow not only met my expectations, but also exceeded them in many ways too. Offensively, his unparalleled length allows him to catch lobs that previously seemed impossible to reach, and his shot-creation abilities are much more advanced than I expected.
With that said, his shot is still very much theoretical and a work in progress. Wemby’s stroke looks pure and his decent free throw percentage (73% in the NBA, 83% last year in France) suggests that he can be a good outside shooter someday, but it will likely be some time before he starts making threes consistently.
Remember, for all the ridiculous highlights, Wemby still only shot 27.5% from deep in France and 32% so far in the NBA, where he’s only had 25 attempts total. To illustrate his inconsistency, Wemby has only made 2-14 of his threes when we take out his debut against Dallas and 38-point eruption Thursday night in Phoenix. Again, the shot should come around eventually, but I’d expect him to be a mid-30s three-point shooter on medium volume as opposed to a Dirk/Durant hybrid, which was always a ridiculous comparison considering the latter duo are two of the greatest shooters ever.
What I’m most interested in, though, is Wemby’s playmaking. He’s shown flashes of sneaky good vision and his height alone gives him the advantage of seeing openings that no one else can. Even without that factor, Wemby seems to have an innate sense of where his teammates are and the types of shots that would be best for the team, which was put on display during the second game against Phoenix.
Wemby had 20 PTS, 5 REB, 2 3PT and this touch pass in the first half— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 3, 2023
Spurs beating the Suns 75-55!
Wemby is also unselfish and understands that a potential layup will always be a better option than a jump shot, and even though the pass below didn’t connect, I still like his thought process.
Defensively, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’s already among the league’s best. Before the season, one of my bold predictions was that Wemby would make an All-Defensive team, and five games into the season, it’s now probably a hotter take to say that he won’t be in the running to do so.
Again, his ridiculous size warps the court both vertically and horizontally, and even if a defender manages to get by him, Wemby’s ability to recover is unlike anything this league has ever seen.
Spurs are having Victor Wembanyama defend the quicker, smaller Jalen Williams. Great recovery here for the block. Not easy to score on Wemby even when it feels like you have him beat. pic.twitter.com/Pr4uBeKVkr— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) October 10, 2023
The scariest part, though, is that Wemby still has lots of room to grow. He’s prone to being caught out of position and biting on pump fakes, as shown below.
However, the fact that he’s already an elite defender even without having the greatest instincts just shows how scary his ceiling truly is. Barring injuries, I simply can’t see how Wemby won’t be in the running for DPOY for over a decade, and even the most modest projections for his offensive development should see him become a decently efficient 20+ point scorer with some playmaking touch who also needs to be guarded from deep, even if his percentages are around league-average at best.
Those attributes alone would turn him into a mainstay on All-NBA teams and someone whom the Spurs can build their team around. At this point, I think an Anthony Davis level of player is Wemby’s floor, and regardless of what you think about AD, he’s still been one of the 10-15 best players in the league for most of his career.
And again, that’s a modest projection for the rookie. If Wemby comes anywhere close to his ceiling (what even is his ceiling at this point? LV-426?), he won’t just be one of the best players of his generation, but maybe one of the greatest ever.
Seems like people weren’t exaggerating when they called him one of the greatest prospects of all time.
This week, please check out my friend nikpatel’s article that analyzes the Spurs’ shooting to start the season! Nik does a great job of explaining stats in a digestible way and his articles are always worth checking out.
Thanks as always for reading and best of luck to your team this year!