NBA: Ten things we learned this week

We start this week with a trade. Eric Bledsoe, whose hair looks especially bouncy and shiny at the moment, was shipped to Milwaukee, signifying the end of the salon saga in the desert. The Suns picked up Greg Monroe and a first and second round protected pick in the deal, or as I like to call it, a bag of crisps.

It’s an important time for Jason Kidd’s band of merry men, who have lost four straight while sitting one from bottom in defensive rating. Bledsoe adds speed and defence to a position that’s staggered minutes between Malcolm Brogdon – a solid and capable player – and Matthew Dellavedova, the man who actually managed to secure a shoe deal. For a team that can field Giannis Antetokounmpo every night – I hope everyone saw that 40-point show he put on in Cleveland the other night – they have to be all in, and Bledsoe is a good step.

An important note: Bledsoe will have to get used to more off-the-ball play because Antetokounmpo has the ball 80 per cent of the time.

Here are the positives. Bledsoe is out of Phoenix, the Bucks got him for someone they wouldn’t even have signed next year, the Greek marvel can finally play with a top-tier point guard and, did I mention, Bledsoe is out of Phoenix.

The sad part? Well, Twitter fans will have to wait several years before Bledsoe starts live tweeting from hairdressers in Wisconsin, and on a serious note: The Suns have given up Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic and now Bledsoe in the last few years for a first rounder and some dust. They remain young. Perennially young.

James Harden, edging the early MVP ballot

Houston’s 117-110 victory over Cleveland on Thursday night provided us with a showcase of the two MVP frontrunners so far in James Harden and LeBron James.

Starting with Harden, he has never played better. His triple double against the Cavs was only the second that included 35 points and five steals in the last three decades, the other coming from Michael Jordan. This was after a career-best 56 against Utah.

Harden throws accurate alley-oop lobs, can bounce pass to practically any part of the court and defenders are struggling to contain his shot because of that expanding skillset. Remember, Chris Paul hasn’t played since Opening Night and will absolutely be the guard who runs more off the ball between the two, a question we seriously posed in the preseason.

LeBron James, on the other hand, might need a little help soon.

After notching 33 points in 40 minutes, he’s top two in the league in minutes per game at nearly 38, a lot of which have been spent in the low post. That’s exciting for us; pivoting on the block will be a big part of his final five to six years in the league. Thank you, Hakeem Olajuwon.

But at 32, James has to wonder why he’s still having to do so much to lead his team. One more MVP for The King would tie him with Michael Jordan at five. His adversary over in Houston absolutely wants to win the MVP award. Harden has been oh-so-close the last two years and has the edge after three weeks.

Lonzo Ball, not leading the Lakers

Lonzo Ball is shooting less than 25% from three-point range and has failed to score 10 or more points in nine of his first 12 games. He’s flirting with triple doubles as much as he is putting goose eggs on the scoreboard, and his father LaVar has chimed in yet again.

“Let Lonzo play the whole fourth quarter and bet you’ll always win”, Ball Snr said of his son.

First of all, he is guaranteeing something that’s not possible. Second, Luke Walton is the head coach.

For a guy playing more minutes than any rookie not called Ben Simmons (33.5), all I want to see is more effort. Mr. Ball, take a look at how De’Aaron Fox runs the court in Sacramento. That guy loves to play basketball and compete. Ball struts around, jogging in key moments and ignoring opponents on help defence. There’s no question that shot needs work, and defenders will continue to go underneath screens as long as he’s flinging that left-to-right monstrosity somewhere toward the hoop. But one thing Ball can control? Effort.

OKC, offensively challenged

How about this? The Oklahoma City Thunder are 0-6 against Western Conference opponents after their defeat in Denver. That’s staggering.

They’ve put three stars who are used to being ‘the man’ together, and at this point are only performing well on the defensive end. If you haven’t watched the Thunder this season, I can almost hear your cries of, ‘Say that again?!’

But it’s true. The Thunder lead the league in steals and forced turnovers through sheer length and timely double teams, and any lead they’ve had has grown out of defensive execution, not offensive mastery. In a way that’s a good sign and it’s natural to think it will only be a matter of time before the offence catches up.

Here’s the problem. Carmelo Anthony still sucks the life out of his teammates. He takes one-dribble pull-ups, fadeaway threes and holds the ball far too long in the post. He should take a leaf out of Jimmy Butler’s book, published in Minnesota; do what your new team needs you to do in order to win. People can talk about the lack of ball movement, and yes there isn’t a whole lot of it, but unless there is a structure in place to force it, players are going to fall back in their comfort zone.

For three of the Thunder roster, that comfort is isolation.

Philadelphia, a no-rookie zone

Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons and now Markelle Fultz.

Oh those poor ruddy Sixers. They are racking up a terrible track record when it comes to inheriting and dealing with injured rookies.

Here’s the timeline for Fultz, a player they traded up to select number one overall last summer.

A few weeks ago, head coach Brett Brown said Fultz had changed his shooting form to improve his shot. Fultz responded by saying a shoulder injury instigated that change. In the opening four games of the season, Fultz was passing up a tonne of shots. His agent, Raymond Brothers, then announced his client had had fluid drained from his shoulder, leaving Fultz at a point where he couldn’t lift his arms to shoot. A u-turn followed, Brothers explaining that it was a cortisone shot and nothing to do with drained fluid.

Where did all that come from? Doctors have revealed there’s nothing structurally wrong with Fultz’s shoulder.

President of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo needs to be clear with the Sixers fanbase. The locals have dealt with enough mystery regarding injuries to their so-called franchise cornerstones. Fultz could be back in a week, but don’t be surprised if it’s next season. Only in Philadelphia.

2020, the year of Chicago

Chicago will host the 2020 All Star Game, however unimportant that news may be to you. This will be the first time since 1988 that the Bulls have hosted the mid-season event, a year that saw Michael Jordan win both the All Star Game MVP and a classic dunk contest against Dominique Wilkins.

This is a sure sign that in three years time Lauri Markkanen will win most valuable honours and teammate Zach LaVine, who still hasn’t appeared this season, will win the slamathon. Probably.

Damian Lillard, doing it all

Lillard’s step-back three pointers at the buzzer are ever-present and he continues to amaze when it comes to balancing a music career with the small task of being the starting point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. Take me lightly, internet.

What Lillard has truly improved upon is his passing portfolio, which doesn’t totally show up in the box score (6.5 assists per game this year as opposed to 5.9 last). Lillard has introduced those LeBron-type cross-court missiles, executed with two hands when the defender has barely zoned in on his dribble. Some people think Lillard would be better off in a bigger market, but I love the fit in Portland. It just works.

Lock up your families (to the TV set), the Warriors are coming

We’ve reached that three-week period in the season where the early losses Golden State endured have faded away and we’ve realised they are as advertised. The billboard said they were the best team, by a mile.

That sloppy home loss to Detroit has been extinguished by five straight wins, a batch they’ve won by almost 22 points a game. On the list of foes were the Heat, Clippers, Spurs, Nuggets and Timberwolves, all of whom should be in the playoffs this season.

You might not be into numbers but Steve Kerr’s team are scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would surpass their own record as the ‘greatest team in NBA history’. To put that into context, Houston haven’t clocked in above 110 and are in second. The Warriors defence is rising through the charts too; Draymond Green is always in the right spot and Kevin Durant has been blocking shots in what seems every possession back down the floor.

Notice an improving Denver on that list above? Here’s what the Warriors did to them after they held a five-point lead at half-time: in six-and-a-half minutes to begin the third quarter, Golden State scored 27 points through a barrage of three-pointers and flashy assists. When the best team in the NBA play like this, their opponents look like lower division fodder of the English league (and I love me some EBL).

The suspense and intrigue was nice, but it looks to have faded.

Boston, damaged but dangerous

Boston have won 10 straight games behind the artistry of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford’s general importance to that system. Having already lost Gordon Hayward for the season, Horford is currently out with a concussion, an issue that led him to missing nine games last year. Importantly, we hope this doesn’t become a problem long-term.

Jayson Tatum is day-to-day with an ankle injury and is, along with Jaylen Brown, a young buck impacting everything. That raw enthusiasm has been seen throughout the entire roster and Irving’s development has been staggering to watch under Brad Stevens. He may have taken a shot at former coach Tyronn Lue by saying he’s finally being taught basketball things, but it truly shows. Irving is passing when you’d expect him to shoot, carrying the rookies on his back and building such chemistry with Horford that the two need only a hint of eye contact to know what the other is about to do.

Basketball God(s). We’ve lost Hayward. Can we please have Horford and Tatum back so we can see how far this team can go? Thank you.

Sneaky good game, sneaky early

Toronto @ Boston, 8:30P.M. UK time Sunday.

Fascinating to see which direction the Raptors and Bucks go after the Bledsoe trade as the scrap for the Eastern second tier begins. It felt like the beginning of the end for Toronto a few weeks ago, but they’re sat eight spots above the Bucks in the standings. Tune in.

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