NBA Takeaways of the Week: Feb. 15-21

Kevin Reyes
NBA Analyst

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. 


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With another week of NBA action in the books, let’s talk about some of the things that happened during the past week. Once a week, I’ll be releasing an article on some takeaways I had from the previous week of NBA basketball. Today, I bring you my NBA Takeaways of the Week, from Feb. 15 to Feb. 21.

Deandre Ayton’s play has been very confusing

When I predicted the Phoenix Suns to be a top four team in the loaded Western Conference, I was banking on Ayton having a career-year. What wasn’t there to think that he couldn’t? The front office did a great job surrounding him and Devin Booker with shooters, veterans, and Chris Paul. Especially coming off their 8-0 run at the Orlando Bubble, in which Ayton put up a solid 15pts/9.5reb/1.9ast/0.9blk on 53 percent shooting from the field, one would’ve expected Deandre to continue being a good post player, an improved jump shooter, and for his value as a roll man to improve with Paul serving as another playmaker. But, to my surprise, Ayton is currently having the worst year of his three-year NBA career so far, averaging just 13.8pts/12.1reb/1.8ast/1blk, making 58.6 percent of his 10 field goal attempts per game. He went from being the second best player on an up-and-coming young team in the West taking 15 shots per game and getting legitimate post touches, to being relegated to a role-playing big that is strictly there to grab rebounds. While there’s nothing wrong with that (I certainly love those types), a man of Ayton’s talent should be tasked to do more.

For context: Ayton averages .2 more FGA than Mikal Bridges, 1.4 more than Jae Crowder, 1.6 more than Cameron Johnson, and 2.4 more than Dario Šarić. Furthermore, Deandre has a lower Usage Rate than Šarić, Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky, while only being one percentage point higher than Johnson and Cameron Payne.

The list above is seven players too long. There is no reason for those guys to be getting more touches and plays called for them than Ayton. Part of that is coaching, and the perimeter-centric system the Suns are currently running. Most of the time with the starters revolves around Paul and Booker creating, with the other looks going to shooters off help defense, while the bench revolves around Payne’s creation with E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway serving as other scorers. Very rarely do plays run through Ayton.

Having said that, some of that is on Deandre Ayton himself. There are games where he’s running the floor, sealing his defender and generally getting good looks in the paint throughout, where he looks like the Deandre Ayton that averaged 19.6pts/12reb/2ast/0.8stl/1.7blk on 55 percent from the field (15 FGA) during the last 27 games of the COVID-free part of the 2019-20 season. Games like his 26pts/17reb/3ast/5blk against the Rockets and 24/8 against the Clippers, for example, show signs that he can be that third option next to the All-Star backcourt.

However, there are also games where he falls back to a role player, or just flat-out disappears. Games like his 4pts (2-8 from the field), 5pts (2-7 from the field) against the Thunder, 7pts (3-7 from the field) against the Grizzlies and 8pts (4-11 from the field) are far in between, but there are more examples of him being more tentative with the ball. Less aggressiveness towards the basket, settling for long jumpers and not getting in position where his teammates are forced to give him the ball are some of the constant traits in most of the games he’s played this season.

Granted, the perimeter guys (Johnson, Payne and Bridges, notably) have stepped up, so this isn’t meant to be a slander to them by any means. What I do mean to say is this: if the Suns wanna be a dark horse candidate to reach the Western Conference Finals, Ayton will have to be more of a focal point in the offense moving forward, which would make one of the best two-way big men in the league.

Relax on your Milwaukee Bucks slander

Many people are quick to jump to conclusions based on a few games, involving players and teams all the same. The issue isn’t any different than the Milwaukee Bucks, who just recently ended a five-game losing streak, and haven’t been playing their best basketball throughout this season. Even though their offense has been historically great so far, their defense has fallen off from the successful ones they’ve had for the past two seasons. You can find a better explanation to that than I could possibly give of their problems below:

Their problems on defense boil down to two factors: one being the bad scheme they run with their drop coverage on pick-and-rolls and the “limit shots at the rim” mentality illustrated above, but the other comes down to personnel. Brook Lopez has regressed on defense, they lost some of their better defenders from last season (Eric Bledsoe, Sterling Brown, George Hill, Wesley Matthews and Bobby Portis) and didn’t do a good job at offsetting those loses (Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and D.J. Augustin).

Nevertheless, there’s no need to overreact to this team’s struggles during the regular season. For the same reasons Giannis Antetokounmpo is judged by most for what he does in the playoffs (and what he “should” do this upcoming postseason), this team should only be criticized for what they do and don’t in this year’s playoffs. Even with their underwhelming 17-13 record, they’re still third in the Eastern Conference, and will make the playoffs with how bad the bottom of the East is (compared to the West). For the Bucks in particular, the regular season is a test lab for them to try out different ways of playing and rotations, in order to *hopefully* be prepared to make adjustments in the playoffs. Having one of the best players in the league (Giannis), two of the most underrated players in the league (Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday) and a good supporting cast will only get you so far. In order for the Bucks to reach their potential, Mike Budenholzer will have to be able to play outside of the box he’s in, and adjust on the fly during a playoff series.

Don’t get me wrong: the regular season is important, no doubt. But for this team specifically, trial and error will be what makes them a Finals team, or a disappointment that suffers a second round defeat. If they disappoint for a third straight year, and it’s because of inability to do something different when it matters the most, it might cost coach Bud his job. But only time will tell, so relax on your criticism on the Bucks.

The dilemma of choosing All-Star reserves this season

Which players are All-Stars is the hottest debate of every single season. All-Star starters are usually pretty easy, with three or four players separating themselves from the pack and being unanimous choices, with only one or two players being really debatable. This year, most of the picks were consensus, with only a couple of players being debatable (Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving). But, all in all, there’s a general agreement when it comes to choosing All-Star starters. Choosing All-Star reserves, on the other hand, is always a split. Like previous years, there are players that we would call “locks”, as in, players that are guaranteed players that will make it: James Harden, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in the East; Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Paul George, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert in the West. Outside of that, with two frontcourt spots and two wild cards left in the East and two wild card spots open in the West, I feel like this is the toughest year to ever choose reserves from.

The West isn’t that top heavy. The five sure-fire guys each have a legitimate argument to be starters, but fall short because of the five actual starters playing much better. That leaves two wild cards and one injury replacement for Davis involving a multitude of players. And while I won’t lay down the argument for every single one, a quick search of their numbers (both basic and advanced) can lead you to the same conclusions. Here are the names, ranged in order of their teams’ standing in the conference as of Monday, Feb. 22: Mike Conley (Jazz), Chris Paul (Suns), Devin Booker (Suns), DeMar DeRozan (Spurs), Jamal Murray (Nuggets), Brandon Ingram (Pelicans), Zion Williamson (Pelicans), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder) and De’Aaron Fox (Kings). More of an argument can be made for some more than others, but there isn’t room to go wrong.

In the East, that sentiment is amplified by a hundred. The East may have a couple of teams under .500, but it isn’t short on talent. All types of players in different stages of their careers are having career-years, and the presence of perennial All-Star candidates makes the selection process more difficult. Here are the names to consider, sorted in the same way as the West: Ben Simmons (76ers), Tobias Harris (76ers), James Harden (Nets), Khris Middleton (Bucks), Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers), Fred VanVleet (Raptors), Pascal Siakam (Raptors), Jaylen Brown (Celtics), Jayson Tatum (Celtics), Julius Randle (Knicks), Gordon Hayward (Hornets), Terry Rozier (Hornets), Zach LaVine (Bulls), Bam Adebayo (Heat), Trae Young (Hawks), Nikola Vučević (Magic), Andre Drummond (Cavaliers), Collin Sexton (Cavaliers) and Jerami Grant (Pistons). Damn, that was a mouthful, and it goes to show how many snubs there will be in this year’s selections.

Having said that, laying out all the candidates and how there’s no wrong picks, I’ll lay out my reserves:

East:

  • BC: James Harden
  • BC: Jaylen Brown
  • FC: Jayson Tatum
  • FC: Khris Middleton
  • FC: Julius Randle
  • WC: Zach LaVine
  • WC: Nikola Vučević
    • Toughest cuts: Tobias Harris, Jerami Grant, Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo, Trae Young

West:

  • BC: Damian Lillard
  • BC: Donovan Mitchell
  • FC: Paul George
  • FC: Anthony Davis*
  • FC: Rudy Gobert
  • WC: Zion Williamson
  • WC: Chris Paul
  • WC**: De’Aaron Fox
    • Toughest cuts: Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Conley

* = injured

WC** = injury replacement

What stood out to you in this past week of the NBA season? Tweet at me and let me know!