…A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics
Take One: Collusion and collisions
Some people just get to break the rules. That’s what it seems like, at least, with LeBron James saying it would be “amazing” to play alongside Anthony Davis — barely skirting tampering rules — while agent Rich Paul, one of LeBron’s closest friends and business partners, was preparing to request a trade from the Pelicans on behalf of his client. James Harden, in the meantime, has scored 28.4 percent of his January 43.6-points-per-game average from the free-throw line, elbowing, cajoling, flopping and crashing his way to MVP candidacy.
Consider what got less notice: After a game at the Fiserv Forum, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo shook Davis’s hand and told him, “Come to the Bucks, man.” Three days ago, Patrick Beverley received a flopping warning for a Matrix-recalling backward dive. The truth is, some rules were made to be broken. And everybody breaks them. Only the very bad and the very effective draw notice, their advantage drawing the ire of their opponents.
That’s certainly the case with Harden. He leads the league in drives, at 19.7 per game, but he only gets 3.5 of his 13.5 driving points from the free-throw line. The rest are because of his uncanny strength and finishing ability, a feather’s touch and, recently, an ability to scare his defenders into submission with the threat of the whistle. (Remember when the Lakers defended him with their arms behind their backs?) He also leads the league in points from pull-up jumpers, one of the toughest shots in the game. The Ringer’s Zach Kram put it best: Eliminate free throws, and Harden would still lead the NBA in scoring. Harden’s ability to get to the line doesn’t make his game gimmicky. He utilizes the game’s most effective gimmick better than anyone else because he can still beat you every other way.
It may well be the case with the Lakers, too, the gravitational pull of LeBron James and Showtime combining and naturally drawing in the NBA’s most promising trade target.
Everybody flops. Everybody talks. James Harden will keep lighting defenses on fire, and the Lakers will keep drawing the eye of the league’s best players, less because of foul play, and more because that is simply what they do.
Take Two: Anthony Davis is already on LeBron’s level
Davis’ camp has made it clear what he wants: to no longer be a Pelican, to play for the Lakers alongside LeBron James, and to do it sooner rather than later. That’s illuminating, because up until this season, we haven’t learned a great deal about Davis since he and his unibrow showed up in Lexington, Kentucky, and blocked nearly every shot at Rupp Arena eight years ago. He’s mostly been a quiet guy playing in a quiet market.
It came as a slight surprise, then, that he would be the one to want to play with LeBron James — a prospect other stars reportedly shudder at — on basketball’s biggest stage. Then again, maybe it’s because Davis possesses the talent necessary to walk onto a court with LeBron and not feel immediately like a second wheel. He has been a superstar for years — a megastar-in-waiting — and there’s no reason to believe that as Davis inches toward his peak and LeBron descends, their abilities won’t meet.
In fact, they might already have. Davis is the league’s second-leading scorer at 29.3 points per game, and pulls down 13.3 rebounds and dishes a healthy four assists per game. He’s a defensive monster who hits his free throws, hardly ever fouls, and leads the league in player-efficiency rating. All he’s missing is a team that can turn his impact into a shot at a championship.
Take Three: Luka Doncic’s fearless creativity
Doncic invites trouble. He likes to do the hard thing, like split pick-and-roll traps, zip passes to open shooters crosscourt and throw Hail Mary passes across the court. With 30-foot range that gives him a shooter’s touch when he’s driving, generational vision and deceptive ball-handling skills, Doncic is a perpetual threat. His every move provokes a reaction. He knows this. He uses it like few before him. He’ll fake a pocket pass to get off a clean floater. He’ll look off opponents at the top of his jump, turning a mid-range shot into a corner triple assist.
And then there’s my personal favorite, the first in what I hope is a career full of intrepid reactions to difficult defenses: the falling, impossible floater turned into an alley-oop. (He’s done it a few times now, so you know it’s not a fluke.) Doncic should be at the end of his rope. He’s falling away on the baseline, trying to nail the hardest shot in basketball with defenders lunging at him. But that’s the beauty of Luka: He has more court awareness falling sideways than most players do standing upright.
Take Four: Shooting like Steph
Just less than two years ago, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive shipped DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans in a deal that included Buddy Hield and a first-round pick because he felt Hield had “Steph Curry potential.” It was a lot to put on a second-year player with a single-digit average, prompting a series of Kangz-related schadenfreude. There they go again, right? We might have been better off tapping the brakes. Hield certainly isn’t Curry, but he’s turned himself into a 20-point-per-game scorer and he’s scoring 7.7 of them — third-best in the league — from catch-and-shoot jumpers, which he’s sinking at a scorching 49.1 percent. The two guys ahead of him? The Splash Brothers.
Take Five: Danny Green … from the post?
On Dec. 12, the Kawhi Leonard-less Raptors narrowly inched by the Warriors and discovered the tiniest of weapons. With Steph Curry consistently switching onto Danny Green and busting the Raptors’ offense, head coach Nick Nurse opted to do something Green only did twice in his final year as a Spur: put him in the post. With a three-inch, 30-pound advantage, Green took Curry to task and discovered a new facet to his game. He’s posted up 20 times this year — twice more than he did in his last five seasons as a Spur. It’s still not a big part of Green’s game, but it’s the kind of wrinkle that can keep a 10-year vet engaged and could potentially pay dividends in key postseason moments.