The NBA found zero positive cases of COVID-19 this week and teams are rounding into form. For the Lakers and Sixers, it was largely a week of proof that they can compete for a championship in 2021, while others have merely been lucky to tread water. Still, the trade deadline is nearly two months away, and preseason darlings like the Mavericks dug themselves a hole during the first couple months of the season due to health and safety protocol absences and injuries.
With the NFL season wrapping up, all attention shifts to basketball and who comes away with a championship in a season that feels very wide-open, especially in the Eastern Conference. Here’s who’s up and who’s down this week in the NBA.
Stock Up: The Lakers’ offense, led by LeBron James’ scoring
This week, for the first time, the Lakers truly came into their own and were tested. Aside from the drama surrounding Courtside Karen or Anthony Davis’ so-called struggles, the Lakers went 5-2 on their East coast road trip, beating the Bucks, Cavs, and Celtics in the process, in addition to a near-comeback in Philadelphia.
Doing it with Davis’ scoring down has meant getting more out of James. He averaged nearly 26 points per game in January with a 32.1 percent usage rate and a 60.5 true shooting percentage. After operating as the Lakers’ starting point guard in 2020, James is getting his points off the ball more often now.
Per Synergy Sports, more than eight percent of James’ scoring possessions are coming off cuts this season compared with just 3.3 percent last year. That’s helped increase in his efficiency at the rim as well. And as Jonathan Tjarks noted at The Ringer, James is also trading in many of his drives for deep threes this season, plus he’s knocking down a career-best 40.9 percent of his triples overall.
It’s no wonder James was feeling himself when Courtside Karen started to heckle him in Atlanta. His game continues to evolve, but he’s as great as ever, and the Lakers are hitting their stride.
Stock Down: Kristaps Porzingis as a championship-caliber costar
Dallas is finally fully healthy, with Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, and Kristaps Porzingis all back and filling out the starting lineup around Luka Doncic. That means it’s our first chance to really evaluate the 9-14 Mavs, and early returns have not been great, leaving questions about how the team’s two stars fit together.
So far this season, per Cleaning the Glass, the Mavs are 1.9 points worse per 100 possessions when both Doncic and Porzingis are on the floor together, a good but not great number heavily weighed by last night’s loss to Golden State. But really, unless the pick and pop game is working, Porzingis is unlikely to make a major impact on the game. For a team that struggles so badly in crunch time, there’s not much Porzingis does consistently that manipulates the defense or makes his teammates better, aside from the obvious floor-spacing he provides with his incredible range.
What the Mavs need is more plays like this, with Porzingis using his size as a cutter to really take advantage of that spacing and make Dallas’ offense less predictable:
The play invigorated Porzingis and the whole Mavs bench, with Porzingis knocking down a three the next time down the floor that effectively iced the game. Healthy, shooting a career-high 55 percent from two-point range, and starting at center now, Porzingis has no reason not to make an impact inside. Early on with the Knicks, Porzingis’ best plays almost always came off putback dunks or insane blocks. The Mavs can’t afford for him to be relegated to a spot-up shooter, even if he gets back to being elite at that.
And right now, Porzingis isn’t even shooting like usual, in part causing a trickle-down that has left the Mavs at the bottom of the league in three-point shooting, even when open.
Here's a chart showing every NBA team's net difference in Wide Open 3-pt% from this year compared to last year.
20 teams have gotten better…the average team by about 1-1.5%.
PHX is shooting 1.1% WORSE on these shots, ranking 24th. pic.twitter.com/kwdtOwcm3R
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) February 4, 2021
The reason this is a stock down is that Porzingis has rarely been able to string games like this together, and advanced metrics have always shown him to be a poor defender. The Mavs’ defense right now is better when guys like Willie Cauley-Stein or Dwight Powell play in place of Porzingis. Not to pile on after an ugly loss to the Warriors, but Porzingis is also too easy a target in pick and roll, as illustrated here by Anthony Slater of The Athletic.
A chunk of the Warriors' small-ball success last night was targeting Kristaps Porzingis. He just has so little chance in space guarding wings like Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins. pic.twitter.com/l1CGADtIhK
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 5, 2021
In order to lift the Mavs to title contention (and in the short-term, get them out of their current rut), Porzingis needs to use his size and athleticism to play like one of the most physically imposing guys in the NBA. The Mavs intentionally subtracted some shooting from the roster in the name of defense, so until Porzingis adds occasional regular big man stuff on both ends to his impressive shooting displays, Dallas is likely to have problems.
Stock Up: Tobias Harris as a go-to scorer
No team has benefited more from getting off to a strong start than the Sixers. Even with many players missing time due to health and safety protocols and the team having to integrate a new coach in Doc Rivers, the Sixers are leading the Eastern Conference with a 16-7 record to go with the fourth-best defense in the NBA. While the offense is still middle of the pack and a work in progress now that Seth Curry is back in the lineup, the biggest perimeter threat on the team has been Tobias Harris, finding his way back into an effective leading role for the first time as a Sixer.
While Joel Embiid is a front-runner for MVP in large part because of how he’s added to his offensive game, Harris announced himself this week with a huge game-winning fallaway jumper over Alex Caruso:
— NBA (@NBA) January 28, 2021
The journeyman is shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from deep to put him at a career-best 20.2 points per game. Whatever promise the 2018 trade for Harris held for the Sixers is being realized now, and breathes a fresh dose of optimism into the team’s future.
Harris is running far more pick-and-roll this year — more even than Ben Simmons — and is giving enough as a shooter to pull defenses apart. The Lakers game last week was a nice indicator for how the Sixers’ offense can work in a playoff atmosphere. When Simmons’ transition attacks didn’t work, Philly worked quickly to alternate into a halfcourt set. Mostly that meant running things through Embiid, but when he was double-teamed or the Sixers tried to mix things up, Harris was a capable ball-handler and shooter. Considering Curry and Danny Green are also out there spacing the floor, it’s a rhythm that’s working for the Sixers right now.
It’s Embiid who so far has handled the vast majority of Philly’s crunch-time offense, with a 34.7 percent usage rate in those moments. Harris ranks in the 40s among field goal attempts per game in the clutch. If that balance can shift further toward Harris, it would help Philly’s offense be less predictable in those moments and also allow Embiid to save his energy. All too often, Embiid has been exhausted by the end of the Sixers’ biggest games.
In the past, Harris hasn’t come through in big spots. He shot 38 percent from the field in last year’s playoff sweep at the hands of the Celtics, and wasn’t much better in the Sixers’ second-round run against Brooklyn and Toronto the year prior. But Rivers was brought in to diversify the offense, and Harris isn’t being asked to do anything he’s not capable of. At age 28, he’s having the best season of his career so far and affecting the game in a way that should be replicable.
Stock Up: The NBA’s COVID-19 protocols
Since the NBA cracked down on some of the clearly risky activities like off-court activities, road trip guests, and contact between players, case numbers have gone down.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 3, 2021
The league is also making sensible changes like requiring KN95 masks rather than cloth ones, which are shown to be more effective at filtering air, as well as “parking” teams (like Washington or Memphis) that have a case of COVID rather than pressing on and risking further spread within a team, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski explained here.
All this stacks up to help explain why cases are dropping. At the same time, the NBA has effectively recreated the Bubble for any travel, making sleeping at home during homestands effectively the only difference. And in some ways, the Bubble was even more lax, as players were free to mingle and connect because the league was confident the virus would not penetrate the Wide World of Sport complex in Orlando. This is the only way to play the season virus-free, but it’s not much of a life.
The NBA recently extended the stricter protocols another two weeks, but as cases in the league drop, so too do numbers around the country. And after the Suns recently became the 10th team to announce plans to host fans for games, NBA players are in many cases living more constricted lives than the general public where they live and work. It’s worth wondering whether the league can continue to ask for such harsh regulations on players while outside a Bubble without creating tension with them.