Defense is still optional for most teams in the NBA right now, but that makes for some outrageous scoring nights, and has also allowed the more balanced two-way teams to make a run around the midway point in the season. And while All-Star teams are dominating discussion, our focus this week is on which teams can make the most of a bizarre season and continue to build toward a championship.
Here’s who’s up and who’s down this week in the NBA:
Stock Up: Damian Lillard and Portland’s moxie
There’s been a lot of MVP talk lately for Lillard, and rightly so. Every year, it basically seems preordained that Lillard won’t be considered, which in turn creates this conversation cycle at some point during the season where Lillard’s outstanding play forces us to reconsider.
I think we can put an end to the “Dame deserves to be in the MVP” chatter. You’re not talking about the league’s most valuable players if you aren’t mentioning him.
— Mike Richman (@mikegrich) February 18, 2021
The Trail Blazers are 14.6 points per 100 possessions better when Lillard is on the floor versus when he’s on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass, and the team has gone 9-5 since C.J. McCollum’s injury. As our own Robby Kalland broke down, it’s been Dame Time for nearly all of February. It continued on Wednesday with a gigantic 43-point, 16-assist game against the Pelicans:
Highlights for your viewing pleasure pic.twitter.com/agIqbm9Kdo
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 18, 2021
Much of what Lillard is doing now is the same as it’s been the past few seasons. There is effectively no way to guard him using any traditional scheme in the pick and roll, and Portland has finally stockpiled enough shooting talent to give him some release valves that work. And though you wouldn’t expect it from the fact that the team is starting Enes Kanter, they are hovering in the top half of the NBA in defensive efficiency over the past two weeks. The infrastructure here remains sound.
The makeup of the team is also a reason for optimism. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks highlighted recently, Lillard has consistently run into flexible big men in the playoffs who break him down, but prior to his injury, McCollum had been on the best scoring run of his career, upping his three-point frequency and thus his overall efficiency. Newly acquired forward Robert Covington has been immensely valuable and is shooting better of late, as well as playing some backup center to give Portland more versatility. Role players like Gary Trent Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. give this team a more modern look than it’s had in a while, and the coaching staff remains among the best regular season floor-raisers in the league. This has a chance to be the best Portland team in the Lillard era.
Everything is going right, and Portland could even nab a top-four seed if they keep playing well. They are a team for whom everything gets judged in the context of playoff success and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes take a step back and appreciate the development of its two stars, the smart team-building, and the way they keep getting better.
Stock Down: The way we talk about the Celtics
Staying on the topic of how we talk about good teams, let’s head to the northeast. General manager Danny Ainge made news this week when he stated he did not think these Celtics were a championship team and that the roster was “not good.” To his credit, Ainge took the blame upon himself.
It brought up a larger conversation around Boston and how it has operated in the decade or so. We all laugh (and justifiably so) at leaks to the media about their involvement in trade talks on nearly every big star during that stretch, and how close they allegedly came on nearly all of them. But the bigger picture is that despite not landing Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, or even Jimmy Butler, the Celtics ended up with the best wing tandem in the NBA this side of the Clippers and a roster that, when healthy, should be able to compete for a Finals berth every season.
That’s really good! Screenshots fly around the internet from time to time of Boston’s recent Draft history, as if missing on a pick or two every year is an indictment of their plan. It’s not. Remember that even Sam Hinkie drafted Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Michael Carter-Williams. You accumulate draft picks so that those misses hurt less, and so that you maximize the number of times you can try.
Ending a rebuild with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both still early in their primes or not yet there, under long-term contracts is an epic success, especially considering the incredible bad luck Boston had with injuries to Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, and now Kemba Walker. Plus, it’s not as if the cupboard is bare elsewhere. The Celtics hit on more than just Tatum and Brown. Having young role players like Payton Pritchard, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams is a pretty nice luxury.
The Celtics are likely too far back to make a serious run at the 2021 title, but framing what Ainge and this team have done since they traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as a failure is pretty reductive and unfair.
Stock Up: Clint Capela
Few players in the NBA had their stories put on pause due to last year’s COVID stoppage like Capela’s was. The big man, who is still just 26, was traded to Atlanta (while injured) at the trade deadline, just a few weeks before the league shut down. That meant he didn’t make his debut for the Hawks until this season, nearly a year since he had last been on the court.
Since returning and starting anew with Trae Young and Co., Capela has been better than ever, averaging a career high in both rebounds and blocks and giving Young a much-needed vertical threat. Capela is having his most efficient and voluminous season (per Synergy Sports) as a pick-and-roll finisher since his 2017-18 campaign with the Rockets, who nearly won the championship that year.
We just haven’t seen Capela empowered to try stuff, since he’s been a role player on a championship team since the moment we first saw him, barred from making any mistakes. Now, he’s looking really comfortable and making a big impact:
His defense has been even better. The Hawks go from a 106.8 defensive rating when Capela is on the floor, equivalent to the third-best defense in the NBA, to a 115 mark when he hits the bench that would rank as the fifth-worst in the league. Opponents shoot six percent worse at the rim when Capela is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and Capela effectively extinguishes any putback opportunities for the other team.
Overall, Capela is more involved in Atlanta than he was as a bystander to James Harden’s Rockets, and he’s really helping the Hawks in a multitude of areas that were desperately needed. Atlanta had a showy offseason, but the biggest addition in 2021 may be the guy they quietly traded for a year ago.
Stock Up: Steve Nash
We’re coming off a nice Brooklyn win over the hapless Lakers on Thursday night, but Nash’s big moment actually came Tuesday, when he outdueled Monty Williams and the Suns without two of his stars. In that game, Nash smartly downsized in the second half, going nearly full-time to Jeff Green at center even with Kevin Durant out. What that really meant was was that the Nets, absent Kyrie Irving as well, just became Moreyball Houston 2.0, with the same small-ball 5 in Green that we saw the Rockets roll with in the Bubble.
Phoenix responded poorly, as switching defenses have challenged them all year. They couldn’t effectively get the ball into Deandre Ayton’s hands or beat Brooklyn’s bigger players off the bounce, and the offense fell apart. The Nets got on a run, made some big shots in transition, and came back from 24 down.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 17, 2021
The deciding play came with just over a minute to go, when Nash rightly called a quick-trigger timeout to challenge a poor foul call on Harden that was actually a turnover by Devin Booker. The Nets won the call as well as the subsequent jump-ball, and stole an extra possession late in the game. Nash went to Harden repeatedly in crunch time in the pick and roll, and the 2018 MVP put the game away.
Maybe the more simple nature of the game plan actually worked in Nash’s favor. Maybe having Mike D’Antoni on the sideline allowed Nash to give the game up to Houstonology. No matter the reason, Nash in that comeback responded to many of the criticisms of his decision-making late in games with a couple smart calls that helped his team win.