A Few (Early) Notes from the NBA Season

Courtesy+of+clutchpoints.com

Courtesy of clutchpoints.com

Graham Quigley, Sports Editor

The National Basketball Association (NBA) season has gotten into full swing in the past month, and even in the midst of outbreaks among teams and games being postponed, the season has been one of the most entertaining in recent memory. Here are a few of my early thoughts:

 

Bigs Are Taking Over the League

With the rise of the Golden State Warriors small ball lineup in the mid 2010s, there was a sense growing around the league that the big man position was slowly becoming a feature of a bygone era. Traditional centers like New Orleans’ Steven Adams, and Cleveland’s Andre Drummond have slowly been played off the court by teams featuring small ball lineups—most prominently the small-ball Warriors as well as the Rockets’ P.J. Tucker anchored-front court. Despite the general belief that bigs would soon be out of jobs across the league, the past few years have seen a resurgence for the position.

Although Bucks’ 6’11’’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is much less of a post-game threat than the dominant big men of previous eras like Shaquille O’Neal, his elite size and athleticism have led him to back-to-back MVP seasons and a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020. His struggles to lead a half-court offense in playoff losses to the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat have lessened the hype surrounding him; yet, the star has continued to get better and has once again been putting up MVP caliber stats this season averaging 28.1pts/11.2reb/5.6ast on an even higher effective field goal percentage than he had during his 2020 MVP season (59.4%). 

However, much of the buzz surrounding the position this year is due to the ascension to superstardom of two of the three front runners in this year’s MVP race: centers Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. Embiid is currently averaging 29.6pts/10.8reb/2.8ast to go along with 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The combination of an elite post up game, a newfound faceup talent, a smooth jumper for a player of his size (40% from 3pt), and being the anchor for one of the league’s top defenses has put him in contention for the MVP award and has given his team the best record in the Eastern Conference at 18-10, as of February 16. 

More than statistics though, Embiid looks the part. For much of his career, the Sixers star would have spurts, quarters even, showcasing an unbelievable natural talent; yet, he had never found a way to put it all together. Injuries, one of which prevented him from playing the first three seasons of his NBA career, and an inability to get in shape, prevented him from achieving the levels we have seen this season. Losses to the Boston Celtics in two of the past three playoff campaigns saw the same Embiid who could score 20 points in a single quarter, but all too often shrank back into mediocrity when the game was on the line.

Much of the success of Jokic, Antetokounmpo, and Embiid still hinges on proving their capabilities in the playoffs.”

Alongside Embiid at the top of nearly every single advanced statistical ranking this year is Nikola Jokic. After a heroic run in last year’s playoffs, one in which the Jokic-Jamal Murray duo managed to come back from two 3-1 deficits—a feat that had never been accomplished before in league history—the ‘Joker’ has only continued his dominance. Jokic’s splits are already incredible; he is averaging 26.7pts/11.3reb/8.6ast, alongside 1.6 steals per game. Yet as great as those numbers are, they don’t manage to demonstrate the true impact of the Joker’s game. Jokic’s 2.9 league-leading VORP (a statistic measuring a player’s value compared to their replacement) is nearly a full point higher than the player in second—an outrageous number. Similarly, Jokic leads the league in Offensive Win Shares (OWS), Total Win Shares (TWS), and Win Shares per 48 (WS/48) all by hefty margins, and is second in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to Joel Embiid.

However, much of the success of Jokic, Antetokounmpo, and Embiid still hinges on proving their capabilities in the playoffs. Giannis will never be seen as one of the greats unless he can bring the Bucks to a championship, and the same goes for nearly every single one of the big men talked about above. Joel Embiid has yet to bring the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals, and despite the Jokic-led Nuggets deep run in the bubble last year, the team has struggled early in the 2021 season.

The talent is not limited to these two though. Bigs like the Heat’s Bam Adebayo and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis proved their reliability and individual greatness in leading their respective teams to the NBA Finals in the bubble last season.

 

Payton Pritchard Is Fun

As much fun as it is to compare Celtics rookie guard Payton Pritchard’s looks to those of Eminem in Eight Mile, it might be even more fun to watch the four-year Oregon guard maneuver around NBA defenses. Despite growing to be fond of Pritchard during his playing days at Oregon during his several deep March Madness runs, I was not impressed by the Celtics drafting him in November’s draft. Drafting a 6-2 unathletic guard with low college efficiency numbers and limited upside as a four year college athlete seemed too safe for a team that needed an infusion of high-upside talent and three point shooting. I tore into the decision, especially with Stanford sharp-shooter Tyrell Terry still on the board when they picked.

Most important is the grit [Pritchard] brings to the game and the calming presence he lends to the Celtics.”

I could not have been any more wrong. The athlete who has been undervalued for most of his life has been one of the lone bright spots of an otherwise sporadic, if not downright disappointing season for the Celtics (omitting Jaylen Brown’s breakout year of course). Despite a glut at the guard position, including star Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jeff Teague, Pritchard’s great play at the beginning of the season has prevented Brad Stevens from keeping him on the bench. The rookie is averaging 8.1pts/2.5reb/2.2 ast; yet, his efficiency is what is most apparent: the guard is shooting 44% from beyond the arc and is somehow already a part of the 50/40/90 club (50% from the field, 40% from the three-point line, and 90% from the free throw line), all while playing in over 20 minutes a game as a rookie. Perhaps most important is the grit he brings to the game and the calming presence he lends to the Celtics—a benefit of being a four year player that many—including myself—overlooked.