Kawhi & The Clips

Kawhi Leonard entered the 2019-20 season as a first-round fantasy talent and one of the best two or three players in the NBA. He’s lived up to that billing and then some to start the season. Over the first four games, Kawhi is averaging 27 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks. He’s shooting 51.9 percent from the field, 36.8 percent from three, and 84 percent from the free-throw line. The 7.5 assists per game are particularly noteworthy since prior to this season, Kawhi had never averaged more than 3.5 assists a game, which he did in the 2016-17 season. Yes, the sample size is microscopic, but the evidence is hard to ignore. In the second game of the season against the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi matched his career high for assists in a game with nine. In game three against the Phoenix Suns, he set a new career high with 10 assists. This is no blip on the radar. Of the very few weaknesses in Leonard’s game, playmaking was the largest.

In last year’s NBA Finals, the fluidity of the Toronto Raptors offense often hinged on how quickly Kawhi made his decisions. The Warriors intermittently double-teamed Kawhi, to some success. A subtle non-analytic barometer emerged—quick, unselfish decisions usually lead to wide open shots for teammates and success for the Raptors offense. When Leonard failed to find the open man or simply elected to play in isolation, even against double-teams, things bogged down. So far this season, we’ve seen a brand-new Kawhi Leonard. He’s slipping pocket passes to the roll-man in both directions and patiently maneuvering into position for wrap-around and short shovel passes in the lane. Harrell and Zubac are feasting down low thanks to Leonard. If this early season trend turns into a new reality, the rest of the league might be in even more trouble than they had assumed.

If there was anything separating Kawhi from the top two small forwards in the league—LeBron and Kevin Durant by my estimation—it was his playmaking ability. LeBron has, on numerous occasions, dragged teams full of limited offensive players to the Finals on the back of his shot-creation ability. Kevin Durant, though nowhere near the passer LeBron is, has averaged five assists four separate times in his career. And if you think I’m cherry picking from the Dubs dynasty years, two of those five assists seasons came in Oklahoma City. Kawhi, for as great as he is, has never been tasked with true primary playmaking duties for a full season. There’s no doubt that’s exactly the role he’ll be asked to realize this season.

Lou Williams may be the best facsimile of a prototypical point-guard on the Clippers roster, but he comes off the bench, and likely won’t play in crunch time against the best teams due to his defensive shortcomings. Paul George isn’t as sturdy of a ball-handler and primary offensive engine as Leonard. As Zach Lowe has often said, George is maybe the best second option in the league due to his off-ball shooting and stellar defense. The Clippers need Kawhi to function as a versatile offensive-hub, not only with his scoring, but with his playmaking. His isolation mastery is a necessary skill for a superstar in the playoffs, but having a well-stocked bag of offensive skills is key to keeping defenses honest—every year the mid-range shot resurfaces with a vengeance in the playoffs. What does all this mean? That we should get used to Point Kawhi.

Like Kawhi, the Los Angeles Clippers have few weaknesses. If we were ranking them, I might start with interior size and defense, followed in descending order by playmaking and then shooting. It remains to be seen whether you can win the toughest playoff matchups with flawed defensive centers like Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. Harrell is mobile on offense, yet not particularly good switching onto guards on the perimeter on defense. He also stands only 6’ 9’’ making it tough for him to match-up against the biggest, most-skilled centers in the league, players like Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Zubac has the size, but fails to measure up in the mobility department. In last year’s playoffs, the Warriors ran Zubac off the floor, forcing Doc Rivers to rely on small-ball lineups with JaMychal Green playing center. Green at center is an option you’re happy to have, but not one you want to be forced to rely on for heavy minutes.

This season’s version of the Clippers, sans a trade to shore up the center spot, will be a test of the importance of interior defense in comparison and in relation to perimeter defense. The Clippers, in many ways, have what the Warriors once had—a not-so subtle monopoly on two-way wing players. The Clippers can play Patrick Beverly, Landry Shamet, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard at the same time—opposing teams are having nightmares already. But the Warriors also have Draymond Green, maybe the best small-ball center the game has ever seen. The Clippers on the other hand, have the lesser Green, Zubac, Harrell, Mfiondu Kabengele, and two power forwards in Maurice Harkless and Patrick Patterson to potentially play crunch time minutes at the five. None of these players have proven they can play championship level defense at center. The Clippers will likely make a trade to solve this issue, but if they don’t, they’ll enter the playoffs with a fun unknown.

 

LeBron in “Chill Mode”

I don’t know if you remember this post-game media scrum from 2015 where LeBron James talked about deactivating chill mode after Tobias Harris had some choice words for him in the third quarter. Fans and ex-players rightfully had an issue with LeBron’s comments, but when you’re the best player in the world you get to do what you want. To my eye, LeBron has reactivated chill mode to start the 2019-20 season. LeBron had 8 points and 5 assists in the first half of the Lakers October 29th game against the Memphis Grizzlies. This, after having only 9 points and 3 assists at the halfway mark in the Lakers October 25th game against the Utah Jazz. You may not have noticed LeBron’s chill mode activation because he finished the Jazz game with an impressive 32 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, and only 1 turnover. The Athletics’ Tony Jones had a theory about what woke LeBron up:

He finished the Grizzlies game with 23 points, 8 assists, 2 rebounds, and 6 turnovers. Against the Hornets, LeBron had 20 points, 4 rebounds, 12 assists, and 4 turnovers. In the season opener LeBron had 18 points, 8 assists, 10 rebounds, and 5 turnovers. LeBron’s high assist and relatively high turnover numbers hint at his passivity to start the season. He’s likely over passing and trying to fit passes into no-chance windows, but why?

LeBron entered the season talking about playing through AD and everyone rolled their eyes. We had already seen how LeBron dominated offenses (rightfully so) in Miami and during his second stint in Cleveland, relegating  Kevin Love and Chris Bosh to spot-up roles. That has not been the case so far this season with Anthony Davis. LeBron slow-playing his bucket-getting has been a boon for Davis and his fantasy owners (we’ll discuss this further shortly). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that LeBron James does not believes Anthony Davis is a better player than him (especially in the playoffs), even as he embarks on his age 35 season. Anthony Davis is the best play-finisher in the NBA, but like every other big who can’t bring the ball up or get their own shot without an entry pass, it’s hard for Davis to be a dominant player every night in the playoffs. It appears that LeBron plans to feed the big fella all season long. Leaning on AD in the regular season ideally keeps LeBron fresh and healthy. It should keep Anthony Davis happy and thoroughly praised by the media; and it might also allow LeBron to demand Davis to focus more intensely on the defensive end during the playoffs, when LeBron will inevitably have to do more scoring at Davis’ expense.

A fun subplot has emerged in the LeBron (chill mode), Anthony Davis (MVP mode), Frank Voegl love triangle—Alex Caruso. Caruso entered both the Jazz and Hornets game in the third quarter to almost immediate success. In these two games at least, Caruso’s presence on the floor meant that LeBron could play off-ball, no longer operating as the traditional bring-the-ball-up-every-possession point guard. LeBron then morphed into a more aggressive player operating on the block and out of the mid-post. This dynamic isn’t going to change. The Lakers will need a second reliable ball-handler and playmaker on the floor with LeBron to maximize his post-game. With Rajon Rondo sidelined due to injury, Caruso has played that role well. Also, in both the Jazz and Hornets game, Caruso’s presence on the floor coincided with the Lakers going “small” with Anthony Davis at center—a lineup that anyone with eyes can see will be the Lakers best option when it matters most. Caruso deserves respect on the merits of his own play—he’s an intelligent hardworking defender and he’s committed to being a star in his role—but the way in which his presence reshuffles the chess board for the Lakers might be more important for the teams’ ultimate goals.

Fantasy Insights: LeBron’s jumper hasn’t looked great to start the season. He’s shooting 29.4 percent from three on 4.3 attempts a game. I also can’t help but feel that age has finally taken its toll. LeBron looks a step slow. He’s not driving with the same force and frequency of years past. Rarely does he completely beat someone off the dribble and rise up for a dunk while his defender helplessly looks up at the rim to watch the show. Father Time comes for us all. Of course, how much of what I’m seeing is LeBron pacing himself until the playoffs as he is known to do? One way we might be able to tell is by watching how effective LeBron is at punishing switches. If he can no longer roast traditional power forwards off the dribble, there might be cause for concern.

The good news is he might lead the league in assists this year, which is great if you have LeBron and probably even better if you have Anthony Davis. He’s also shooting free-throws well at 83.3 percent so far this season. The sample size is obviously small, so expect some regression, but LeBron does have a methodical new routine at the charity stripe.

 

Anthony Davis & The Trickle-Down Effect of Chill Mode

Anthony Davis is a superstar. He is a top-ten player in the NBA at 26 years old with plenty of room to grow and expand his game. Barring injury, he will wind up in the Hall of Fame. Still, he’s yet to have any major success in the playoffs. I’m certain that painful truth factored into his desire to leave New Orleans and join the Los Angeles Lakers. Now that he’s arrived, Davis has been as advertised. With LeBron making it a priority to feed him early and often, Davis is putting up some gaudy numbers. Four games into the season, he is averaging 28.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks. League insiders came into this season preaching about a resurgence for the big man. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid were popular MVP picks, with Embiid even being talked about as a potential Defensive Player of the Year. It appears we all slept on Anthony Davis. He had a lost year last season after both the Pelicans and the Lakers folded under the weight of his trade request. Health is always a question with Davis and he’s already tweaked his shoulder this season, but he also just had a 40 point 20 rebound game against the Grizzlies with that bum shoulder. We all expected LeBron to be on a “Ghost Rider” revenge tour, but maybe we should have expected it more from Davis. Davis is younger and his reputation isn’t buoyed by multiple championships and an all-time great comeback. Anthony Davis is distinctly not in chill mode this season and that’s a lot of fun to watch.

Fantasy Insights: Davis didn’t shoot the ball well from the free-throw line in the season opener against the Clippers, but he just went 26-of-27 from the free-throw line against the Grizzlies and all should be right with your fantasy team again. Davis is a career 79.7 percent from the charity stripe. If he can manage to shoot 80 percent or higher this season, you should dominate in free throw percentage and blocks if your team is evenly decently constructed. Finally, Davis has a 34.6 percent usage rate this year, higher than LeBron’s 30.6 percent this season and highest of Davis’ career. As I always say, marrying efficiency and volume leads to dominance and Anthony Davis is out to dominate this season.