Everything’s coming up Eastern Conference lately in the NBA, as the Bucks reinforced their small ball bona fides, Brooklyn is rolling with MVP candidate James Harden, and the Sixers are staying afloat while getting some good news with Joel Embiid’s knee. On the opposite coast, the top four seeds in the West are all sputtering a bit as attention turns toward the trade deadline.
Without a clear favorite and uncertainty on every team, the stretch run of this NBA season is shaping up to be a blast.
Here’s who’s up and who’s down this week in the league:
Stock Up: Anthony Edwards Jr.
On Thursday night against the Suns, Edwards set a career high with 42 points, and he’s scored 19 or more in nine straight. The No. 1 overall pick is a blast to watch. But he’s also getting better in real time.
In the tilt with Phoenix, the game plan against Edwards was to have Suns forward Mikal Bridges go over every screen, forcing Edwards to drive. That’s because going into the game, he was shooting just 53 percent at the rim, putting him among the bottom 20 percent of NBA guards, per Cleaning the Glass. The decision backfired because Edwards adjusted in-game, accepting the Suns’ dare and going right at the rim.
THIS KID IS FREAKING FUN pic.twitter.com/WsPMLUiR4I
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 19, 2021
More impressively, Edwards got his off the ball as well. The remarkable part of this game was that despite Edwards’ reputation for chucking (well-earned, to be fair), he had a nice rhythm with Karl-Anthony Towns in crunch time. Minnesota put the ball in Towns’ hands late, and Edwards still found a way to score. The rookie timed his cuts well and finished plays smoothly.
When it was all said and done, Edwards had nine points in the final period on 3-for-5 shooting from the field, plus two assists of his own.
This wasn’t just a kid getting hot. He displayed the poise and improving IQ that could make him a truly special player, and a better perimeter partner than Towns has had since Jimmy Butler.
Stock Down: The Clippers’ late-game offense
News broke this week via Marc Stein of the New York Times that the Clippers, who have long wanted a point guard to stabilize their offense, are targeting Lonzo Ball. While it’s an open question whether Ball, who is more of a secondary play-maker and shooter than a traditional table-setter, will be a good fit in Los Angeles, they sure need something.
Take a look at how the end of the second game between the Clippers and Dallas played out this week. In the fourth quarter, Luka Doncic was at his absolute best, using the threat of his suddenly wet pull-up jumper to open up the offense and create for his teammates.
With the game winding down and the Mavs up 13, Dallas ran a high screen and roll between Doncic and Tim Hardaway Jr., with Hardaway slipping the screen and Kristaps Porzingis spacing the floor at the top of the arc. Doncic got around his defender, drew four defenders (!) and found a cutting Maxi Kleber for a pretty alley-oop. In response, the Clippers ran… this:
Maybe the best thing about a possible Ball acquisition is that it would help the Clippers not have to rely on Williams late in games, but that’s not the whole issue. The game is still within reach here, and the Clippers are lethargic, walking the ball up the court, running a lazy pick and roll for Williams and Kawhi Leonard, then tossing up a fadeaway mid-range jumper with 10 seconds on the shot clock.
Squeezing one play out of a game is somewhat unfair, and while the Clippers did beat Dallas in part one of their back to back, they are 13-12 since winning 13 of their first 17 games. Their offense is middle of the pack over the past two weeks. Something needs to be fixed.
Stock Up: Milwaukee’s small ball upside
The Bucks made the first move in the NBA arms race this week when they traded for P.J. Tucker. The big question here is whether Tucker, going on 36 years old, can rediscover his peak 3-and-D form on a Bucks team where he will get to play a clearly defined role and play off superstars again.
Predicting where Tucker is physically or mentally would be impossible, but the reason for optimism here is because of the way Milwaukee has changed its team this season. They are finally playing small with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, switching more on defense, and putting the ball in the hands of perimeter creators Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday more often. All that means Tucker’s skill set should shine.
As a key role player for Harden’s the past several seasons, Tucker was money from the corner and among the toughest inside bullies in the NBA:
Over the past 5+ seasons, PJ Tucker has made 100 more corner 3s than anyone else in the NBA
Most Corner 3s Last 5+ Seasons
1. P.J. Tucker ……………502
2. Danny Green ………..402
3. Klay Thompson …….396
4. Trevor Ariza ………….382
5. Bojan Bogdanovic …379 pic.twitter.com/F6FHOGcDzl
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) March 18, 2021
With a pterodactyl like Giannis protecting the rim and elite creators setting him up for threes, there’s no reason Tucker shouldn’t have a bounce-back second half. His game is predicated upon strength, reading the floor at a high level, and being a high-level competitor and communicator. When he’s on the floor with Giannis and Holiday instead of Mason Jones and Eric Gordon, life should be easier.
If it pans out, the Tucker addition and the versatility it provides Milwaukee could be a real difference in the title picture. They can now match Brooklyn with Jeff Green at the 5 or the Lakers with Anthony Davis at the 5. And because they still have Brook Lopez, they manufactured more flexibility without giving up the ability to match Joel Embiid’s size down low.
Stock Down: Highly-paid NBA veterans
As LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Drummond, and Blake Griffin hit the chopping block and players like Al Horford and Kevin Love are expected to stay in place at the trade deadline, the NBA’s salary structure is making headlines once again. Players who took either advantage of the extra money they could make by staying with their team (Griffin, Drummond and Love), cashed in after a long, successful career (Horford), or avoided the controversy of a trade demand (Aldridge) are being punished because of how much money they make.
In their own ways, each of these players basically did things “right,” never asking out of a situation. Each took a long-term contract with their team rather than maxing out their earnings and leverage with shorter deals. Now, with each in their 30s, they are NBA undesirables.
There’s not an easy fix, but this is a byproduct of NBA rules that incentivize incumbent teams signing players to the highest possible salaries. Does Horford stay in Philadelphia if the Sixers don’t have to overpay Tobias Harris? Does Love sacrifice some cash if the Cavaliers are honest with their intention to rebuild? Every veteran is expected to go to a winning situation and not make noise, but the NBA is showing us that teams rarely if ever reward players who do so.
The positive side of this is that we will see Griffin in a winning situation with the Nets and Aldridge and Drummond should find one, too. In the not too distant future, the same could happen with Love and Horford as they got closer to being expiring contracts. But in the meantime, these five and others are wasting their days with franchises who’ve proven they’re not loyal to players, in a league that is making it hard for them to make money and win at the same time.