NBA Shootaround: Trending Up, Trending DownBill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
With only a few more games in the regular season, the Shootaround crew is here to take a look at which players, teams, and personalities are trending up and which are trending down.
Trending Up: Dark Giannis
Jason Concepcion: Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks were in the midst of a playoff seeding battle involving seemingly half the teams in the Eastern Conference. They were playing the Cavaliers at home, and Jason Kidd DNP-CD’d his basketball destroyer from the future, Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo. Kidd, no stranger to intra-franchise power struggles, was typically cagey regarding his reasoning. “Change is always healthy,” Kidd said. “I thought the guys who played yesterday (Wednesday) played at a very high level, had a chance to win. This time of the year all the games count.”
The benching created a disturbance in the force, felt by Wisconsin sports fans and hoops addicts the world over. “What is the reason for this?” they cried in somewhat unison, this being the Internet age.
I’ll tell you the reason.
Gone is that sunny, precocious youngster who marveled at the taste of smoothies. Gone is the 19-year-old with the aw-shucks grin, just happy to be here. In his place, raging against the constraints of his squeaky-clean Balki Bartokomous image, is Dark Giannis. And Dark Giannis wants more than just a berry smoothie.
It was Dark Giannis out there against the Nets on Sunday, hitting jumpers up against the shot clock and turning upcourt to mean-mug. It was Dark Giannis out there throwing alley-oops to John Henson, blocking Thad Young at the summit, and dropping 13 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists as the Bucks clinched the 6-seed.
And it’s Dark Giannis that Kidd is attempting to control.
Trending Down: Goran Dragic
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Andrew Sharp: Remember when the basketball world was convinced that Miami had lucked into Steve Nash 2.0, just in time for a late-season push? The trade deadline was a strange time. Maybe we went a little bit overboard.
Goran Dragic should be grateful that Rajon Rondo has been such a disaster in Dallas, because he’s done a nice job distracting everyone from how underwhelming Dragic has been in Miami. It’s not that his numbers are bad — 16.8 ppg, 51 percent shooting, 5.2 apg — but he also hasn’t looked that good. And he hasn’t changed Miami’s season. If he deserves a max contract this summer, shouldn’t he be good enough to carry the Heat to at least the eighth seed in a horrible East? Between Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, who’s made a bigger impact on the Eastern Conference the past six weeks? And this is the 28-year-old guard who’s supposed to make $100 million this offseason?
Trending Down: Charlotte Hornets
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Danny Chau: I’m afraid the Hornets organization might have made a terrible deal with the devil. The past two seasons have felt like a slightly gussied-up version of purgatory that would be appealing only to a team that knows what a seven-win season looks like. The Hornets may have absorbed their old franchise history, but the past 10 years of Charlotte basketball has presented a very apparent ceiling to how good the team is allowed to be. At its best, the Hornets/Bobcats are elite defensively. They were the league’s best defense in 2010, and for most of 2015, before their meltdown, they held that honor again. But in those last 10 years, Charlotte has hardly ever come close to being remotely acceptable on offense.
For the past two seasons, I’ve delighted in their status as an underdog — the cheap light beer to temporarily deal with your March Madness hangover. The Hornets were charming this season, but they were also very, very bad. Charlotte has become respectable enough that we’re no longer using them as the litmus test for Kentucky’s talent level. It’s kind of fitting though. The Hornets might be the perfect avatar for what a very talented and very well-coached college team might look like playing in the NBA: defensively sound, offensively hopeless. It’s a defect in team construction that is rapidly becoming a legacy.
Trending Up: Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton
Sharp: There’s a good chance that even the Magic don’t have any idea what the Magic are doing. The roster is a mess of mismatched talent and potential that may never be fulfilled. While the best teams in the league are building rosters full of great jump-shooters to space the floor, the Magic have gone the opposite direction. That may not be a great long-term strategy.
On the other hand, Victor Oladipo has come into his own the past few months, and Elfrid Payton has turned into a triple-double threat every night. If you think of Jacque Vaughn as the Bad Coach Restrictor Plate that was keeping this team from hitting top speed, the Magic quietly turning into a fun League Pass team starts to make sense. I still don’t know how this will end for the rest of the roster, but watching Payton and Oladipo will be fun for the next few years.
Trending Down: Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Ryan: They went out just like the Wild Bunch, by which I mean shooting a lot and playing bad defense.
OKC suffered a huge blow to its playoff chances Sunday when it lost to the Pacers even though Russell Westbrook scored 54 points on 43 shots. Today the league rescinded Westbrook’s 16th technical foul — thus allowing him to play against Portland tonight — but it’s looking bleak for a Thunder team that fought through adversity all season, lost two of its best players, and tried to integrate half a new team on the fly. In some ways, as someone who has really fallen for this team, I’d rather they go out now, rather than have their crops circled by the alien warship that is Golden State. Either way, it’s probably out of their hands.
Commercial Break: Who Is the True MVP?
(Video by Jason Gallagher.)
Trending Up: New Orleans Pelicans
Sharp: No team in the NBA has been more absorbing than OKC this year. Whether the Thunder have been fighting through injuries, bringing Dion Waiters onboard, scaring the crap out of the West (when Kevin Durant was healthy), or taking on the world (when it was just Russ), this team was the most fascinating soap opera in basketball. A date with Golden State was only going to make it all crazier. It’s what we wanted.
Now … ARE YOU READY FOR THE BEGINNING OF THE BROW?
Forget OKC. It’s time to let the Pelicans fly. They have survived longer than anyone expected, and now they’re poised to win the eighth seed, which we all expected them to concede a month ago.
New Orleans still has all the trappings of an 8-seed — disorganized at the end of games, inconsistent from night to night — but there’s enough talent to make things interesting against anyone. Namely, as the Thunder sputter to the finish line, it’s become pretty clear that the best scenario would end with Anthony Davis terrifying Golden State in Round 1. We know how a Warriors-Thunder series would end. Russ would take 35 shots every game, OKC would put up a good fight, and the series would end in five games. But with Anthony Davis in the playoffs instead? Anything is possible.
Trending Up: Kevin Durant’s Relationship With Oklahoma City
Ryan: If Twitter is the new tea leaves, sip on this:
Don’t buy those Wiz season tickets just yet.
Trending Down: Memphis Grizzlies
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Sharp: It’s been a rough month in Memphis. After dominating teams for most of the year, everyone on the Grizzlies is looking suspiciously mortal. Mike Conley is nursing a foot injury that will sideline him until the playoffs and could linger as the first round gets started. Marc Gasol left Saturday’s Clippers game with an ankle sprain. Factor in Courtney Lee struggles and Jeff Green chemistry questions, and the team that beats people up has been beat up for a while now. The most serious casualties are coming at the worst possible time.
I’m not ready to give up on this team, and I’m currently convincing myself that this is all setting up for a grand resurrection in a few weeks. But it’s not looking great. Oh, and while the Grizzlies hobble toward the finish line? Their worst nemesis is looking better than ever.
It’s been a rough month.
Trending Up: San Antonio Spurs
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Chau: Let’s roll with an oft-used Spurs platitude: The team is surgical. At the core of the Spurs’ modern surgery, there has always been a powerful anesthetic, the agent that makes the procession of tiny cuts, night in and night out, possible. Tim Duncan, for 17 years, has been that guy. His dominance isn’t measured by individual moments, but by the staggering wholeness of all that he’s ever accomplished. It’s the most powerful numbing agent there is. But while the Spurs seem impervious to time, they still bow to the wonders of human progress. All of this is to say that Kawhi Leonard is the new anesthetic. He is the player who, health permitting, will butt into any MVP or defensive player of the year discussion for the foreseeable future simply by existing on the court.
When was the last time Duncan surprised you? Like, really surprised you. 2008? Probably. As remarkably Duncanesque as Leonard is already in his aloofness, in his irrepressibility, he’s surprising us every single night. He had seven steals while defending one of the three craftiest ball handlers in the league, and every single one felt inevitable. His latest Eurostep is less James Harden or Manu Ginobili, and more baby goat YouTube compilation.
He’s been the Spurs’ most important defender since his rookie season, and probably the best defender in the league, full stop — and he’s still in the process of discovering the outer limits of his game. It’s a surreal experience watching the Spurs on this run. Duncan made you believe the Spurs were analogous to death and taxes. With Leonard leading the charge, you wonder if a higher level of certainty is possible.
Filed Under: NBA, NBA Shootaround, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Danny Chau, Russell Westbrook, Chris Ryan, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Jason Concepcion, Memphis Grizzlies, Goran Dragic, Miami Heat, Andrew Sharp, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic