It only took 16 games into the season for the Boston Celtics to earn a victory lap.
Not that they’ll take it because the only cause for celebration the franchise is concerned with involves duck boats parading through the streets of Boston, but they’ve earned a small one nonetheless for batting practically 1.000 on decisions of significance over the past few years.
Even before Danny Ainge’s process began to bear fruits this season, the Celtics general manager had done about as well as imaginable in rebuilding the team in the post Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo era.
Built on Isaiah Thomas and a cast of dependable role players, Boston secured 53 wins and the top seed in the East last year before being ousted by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals. It was good, but not good enough for Ainge.
So he took a blowtorch to the team and reconstructed the roster, bucking conventional wisdom along the way.
The number one overall pick was traded, essentially swapping Markelle Fultz for Jayson Tatum while netting a potential future lottery pick in the process.
Fultz has been injured to start his career, but even basing the deal solely on how good Tatum looks, it’s shaping up as a home run.
Then there was the trade that sent fan favourite Thomas, along with Jae Crowder and the highly-coveted Brooklyn pick, for Kyrie Irving.
It was a gamble on Irving having not reached his full potential and so far, that gamble has been validated. While his counting stats are down, Irving’s defence has been at an all-time high and he’s almost seamlessly meshed himself within Brad Stevens’ offence.
Speaking of Stevens, perhaps Ainge’s biggest bet has been on one of the game’s brightest minds. Even with Gordon Hayward expected to be on the floor, this roster was always going to heavily rely on players still on their rookie contracts, meaning Stevens had his work cut out in assimilating the young guys.
A sampling of games vs. Boston's defense this season:— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) November 17, 2017
Carmelo 3/17 (18 FG%)
Steph Curry 3/14 (21 FG%)
K Porzingis 3/14 (21 FG%)
Joel Embiid 4/16 (25 FG%)
Kemba 5-19 (26 FG%)
Klay 5-18 (28 FG%)
RWestbrook 7/20 (35 FG%)
And yet, Boston have come together in record time to boast the league’s best record and defence, allowing a ridiculous 95.4 points per 100 possessions.
The crazy part isn’t that Ainge and the Celtics’ approach has been proven right – it’s how quickly it’s all worked out.
Boston may very well be the team of the future in the East, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, but they also may be arriving sooner than everyone thought.
Lonzo Ball will always be under the brightest of spotlights, and that spotlight is burning hot right now.
For obvious reasons, the Los Angeles Lakers rookie is facing the type of criticism just 12 games into his career that peers in his draft class may not experience for years.
That can come with the territory when you’re the number two overall pick and the face of the most glamourous franchise in the league.
But really, Lonzo has no-one to blame for the pressure on his shoulders other than his own father, the Big Baller Brand head honcho himself, LaVar Ball.
The greatest marketer in sports at the moment, LaVar has und-oubtedly turned his son into a household name, but the flip side has seen him – as Snoop Dogg brilliantly described it – put his son, “in the lion’s den with some meat chop drawers on”.
Have LaVar’s brash words motivated Lonzo’s opponents in head-to-head battles? Outside of Patrick Beverley in the season opener, it’s hard to quantify, but how much that’s affected Lonzo’s performances is probably marginal.
What isn’t negligible, however, is how LaVar’s bravado has unfairly raised expectations for his son. And yes, they are unfair because the only one dealing with the fallout is Lonzo, who has yet to express himself in any way other than humbly and respectfully.
So, lets strip away the outside noise and unreasonable hype and examine Lonzo through the lens of a rookie who is just 12 games into his career.
He can’t shoot… right now. Lonzo’s funky jump shot, which sees him, as a right-hander, launch the ball from the left side of his face, is delivering exactly the kind of results you would expect if any NBA player switched to that motion tomorrow – which is to stay, not good.
The numbers back up the eye test and they are not pretty.
His shooting percentage of 35.2 per cent in the paint and 23.3 per cent from everywhere else are both the worst rates in the league for players who’ve attempted a minimum of 50 shots. His overall mark of 29.2 per cent, meanwhile, is the second-worst for any player through their first 12 games in the shot clock era (since 1954-55).
Ball and the Lakers have been chalking up the struggles to his footwork and balance, which may well be the source of the problem and not his form, which didn’t hinder him from shooting 41.2 per cent on 3-pointers at UCLA.
Granted, the college arc and the NBA 3-point line are different beasts, but if you watched Ball at all as a freshman last year, you saw him hoisting and knocking down deep step-back 3s with regularity.
With the NBA featuring far better athletes and the margin for error diminished, Ball will have to adjust and that, naturally, will take some time.
While his level of aggression has confusingly fluctuated on brief occasions, Ball, for the most part, hasn’t let his shooting woes affect his confidence, which has so far been one of his most promising qualities.
And, of course, there’s everything else he can do on the court – from his trademark passing to rebounding to showing flashes on the defensive end.
To expect him to be a finished product already at the age of 20 is asking a lot. Too much, in fact.
The aforementioned spotlight may not go anywhere, but keep watching because the Lonzo Ball show is barely into its first act.
Full disclosure: this was pre-written and slated to run sometime before the All-Star break, but since the Cleveland Cavaliers have fallen into crisis mode several months earlier than usual, it has been updated to reflect their current state of free fall.
This Halloween, nothing has been scarier in the NBA – the general state of the world being another issue entirely – than the Cavaliers’ horrid play through seven games of the new season.
It’s admittedly early and the league’s overall start has been fraught with weirdness – injuries, head-scratching results and the Warriors looking mortal, to name a few – but it’s been difficult to downplay just how off Cleveland have looked.
It’s October, so no one should be expecting teams to be playing their best basketball, let alone ones that are favourites to reach the NBA Finals. That leeway is amplified even more when the side in question has suffered significant turnover, which certainly applies to the Cavaliers after they lost Kyrie Irving and brought in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green.
And guess what? They still have LeBron James, who even in his 15th season and at 32 is putting up a 25-7-7 stat line in his sleep.
When you have LeBron, you have the benefit of the doubt. The pieces around him have changed over the past seven years, sometimes significantly and at other times marginally, but each one of those seasons ended with James’ team playing in the Finals.
So why are these struggles and this year any different?
Well, primarily, the Cavaliers’ current issues can’t be boiled down to effort like they could have in the past when the team had the ability to flip the proverbial switch. There are real personnel and fit issues that have somehow been exacerbated instead of improved upon through the summer’s moves.
As it turns out, Wade and Rose are not good defenders and that’s putting it lightly. J.R. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t looked like feisty on defence for some time now and Crowder, who was supposed to be a crucial 3-and-D asset, has done neither of those things all that well. Add in a couple one-way players in Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, an out-of-sorts Tristan Thompson and LeBron, who won’t exert energy on defence until April, and you have a recipe for an imbalanced squad.
Cleveland’s defensive rating of 109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th in the league, doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
From lack of communication to complacency to lack of lateral quickness and everything in between, the Cavaliers’ defence has been bad in every sense of the word. And Thomas’ return, whenever that is, definitely won’t help.
Cleveland’s best hope is for Crowder and Smith to regain some of their old form on that end of the floor and be above-average wing defenders, affording the team a lineup with more two-way players than it features now.
But how many minutes they’ll be on the court is no given as coach Tyronn Lue continues to toy with lineups and rotations.
That’s the by-product of having depth that doesn’t exactly fit. It’s hard to maximise players and their value when they’re not logging consistent minutes.
Yet, despite the rough start, it’s fair to have faith in the Cavaliers turning it around, but it’s also fair to remember this isn’t the same team we’re used to.