NBA Monday Musings — Pascal Siakam Keeps Improving

The Monday musings are back, with certainly plenty of drama in the past week of the NBA season.

Truth be told, you can find plenty of conversations on Kyrie Irving, Josh Primo and other talking points in the NBA from the past week from people probably more qualified to talk about those issues. It stinks to see the league dealing with the ramifications, but basketball has been great this season on the court. We’ve seen scoring up across the league, surprise teams, disappointing teams and maybe a surprise player creep his way into the best players in basketball to start the early season.

Pascal Siakam has taken another leap forward

The Toronto Raptors were sort of the enigma of the Eastern Conference landscape heading into the season. The combination of teams around them getting better (hello, Cleveland) and the idea that the young Raptors exceeded expectations made it difficult to project where they’d end up. The consensus around the media, however, was that someone had to step up into an unequivocal first-option role for Toronto to be taken seriously among the Eastern giants.

Enter Siakam, who not only has exceeded our expectations nearly every season, he’s broken through his perceived ceiling. One year after earning his second-ever All-NBA nod, the 2019 champion wanted to be regarded as one of the best players in basketball. Not only has he talked the talk, but he’s also showing what he’s truly capable of on the court. Spicy P has taken his offensive game to another level as he enters the prime of his career. 

Currently, Siakam is 14th in the NBA in scoring, wedged nicely between Jaylen Brown and LeBron James for the season. If you look at his statistics, everything is at a career-high mark, including his unassisted scoring numbers and 3-point percentage. Toronto is giving Siakam more freedom to play with the ball in his hands on the court, and he’s thriving in the opportunity. 

Part of that trust is seeing a change in his shooting patterns. Through eight games this season, he’s taken more 3-point attempts per game than he has in three years and he’s converting at a career-high 36 percent clip. The majority of these shots are coming at the top of the key and off the dribble, something he wasn’t asked to do during the first few years of his career. So far, he’s taken about 81 percent of his outside shots from above the break, which is about five percent higher than last season and it’s working in his favor as he’s developed the ability to use his long arms and different tricks to create separation.

Even when guys sag off Siakam, as they did in the past when he struggled in the postseason, he’s developing more ways to attack defenders off the dribble and draw contact. He’s currently averaging a career-high 7.9 free throws per game this season and is shooting 64 percent from the field on shots inside five feet. Most of these looks, again, are unassisted as Siakam is developing his bag of tricks inside. My personal favorite is his post-spin, as he showed off multiple times against San Antonio.

Siakam’s 25.6 point per game mark is a nice touch to the Raptors rotation still short on elite shot creators. What’s best added about putting the ball in Siakam’s hands is what he’s added as a passer this season. He’s up to a career-high (shocking I know) 7.9 assists per game this season, 2.6 assists per game more than his previous career mark set last year. In eight games, Siakam has two triple-doubles this season compared to just three over the first six years of his career. 

Siakam is learning the attention he garners from the opposing defense as a driver. When they converge, he’s doing a remarkable job of hitting shooters in stride. It makes perfect sense on offense, as the Raptors have elite shooters in Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet around to complement that part of his game.

Many (myself included) thought a Scottie Barnes leap would be the reason for Toronto’s ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference. While it’s fair to question if they’re in the same tier as Boston, Milwaukee and Cleveland, Siakam’s production may make it a conversation. The Eastern Conference forward spots are as competitive as it gets in the league when it comes to all-star and all-NBA consideration, but at this rate, it’s hard to discount Siakam from accomplishing anything.

Right after finishing up this piece, Siakam hurt his groin against the Dallas Mavericks and is out for two weeks. Hopefully, he continues this pace when he comes back.

What has happened to the Golden State Warriors

The Warriors have a very glaring and obvious problem to solve: they currently cannot survive with only six helpful rotation players.

Golden State is currently 3-7 on the season near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Surprisingly, the issue isn’t one of their aging stars beginning to show signs of weakness to start the season. Klay Thompson is the only player showing signs of slippage and it’s pretty clear that he will never be the same level of defensive player he was at his peak. Still, through 10 games, the Warriors starting five is the third-best five-man lineup in basketball that’s played at least 50 minutes together, per’s lineup tool. The only groups currently ahead of the Dubs are Phoenix and Milwaukee’s starting fives.

Despite the normal standout play from the reigning champs, the bench has graded out as the worst in basketball. Literally, their -10.6 defensive rating is the worst in the league, and they currently have a league worst +/- of -375, -125 points worse than the next worst team (Detroit).

The Warriors had a difficult offseason of managing finances while keeping the core of the team that won the 2022 championship. They let Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica walk in the offseason, hoping promising draft picks James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody could step into their roles. Also filling in were incoming veteran players Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green, but so far nothing is working for that group. 

Wiseman has been the toughest pill to swallow this season. Besides a few splash plays, he hasn’t really fit into anything the Warriors want to do on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he loves to sit in drop coverage, but Golden State has never been that sort of team. They like to switch and challenge the ball handler to make the right read. Here are two pick-and-roll sequences, and while Draymond Green nearly makes a terrific play at first, Bojan Bogdanovic resets and catches Wiseman asleep in the paint.

Offensively, there are signs of room to grow. Golden State is trying to use more and more ball screens with Wiseman on the court to spark the bench, and he and Jordan Poole have shown signs of a brewing partnership. Poole – who is coming off signing a $140 million contract in the offseason – has been equally uninspiring to start the season. He’s been much less efficient than last season, but he can attack bigs on switches and is good enough to feed Wiseman when he does roll to the rim. 

Golden State isn’t typically a high-ball screen team, but Wiseman has been used as a pick-and-roll screener on 23.9 percent of his possessions to start the season. Clearly, it’s a point of emphasis to get that duo working. He’s also scoring 1.75 points per possession as a roll man, which is the third-best mark in the NBA. The problem is, however, that they need shooters around them. The Warriors’ secondary pieces, namely Green, DiVincenzo and Moody, haven’t hit shots at the level needed to play off those screens. 

Despite all of the issues, it’s hard to ever doubt the Warriors. Curry has been playing at an unreal level to start the season, averaging 31 points, seven rebounds and nearly seven assists per game to start the season. I trust the infrastructure to right the ship and Poole to figure things out on offense with the bench. If not, I trust Bob Myers to force their hand by making a move to improve things down the stretch.

John Collins Finding his Place on the New-Look Atlanta Hawks

When the Hawks introduced Dejounte Murray into the fold, the message was clear they did not want the world, and their offense, to revolve around Trae Young. Miami had punked them in the playoffs and it was clear the Hawks were a star away from where they wanted to be.

What was the question heading into the season, was how will things work with Young and Murray handling the ball. The Hawks had been filled with interesting role players, but waiting to see how it fit together.

Collins was one of those names. At different points throughout his career, he’s been viewed as the Hawk’s second or third option on a potential championship team. Through nine games, we’ve seen glimpses of what he can be, but also questions about how it’ll work going forward. 

In pick-and-rolls as the roll man, Collins is scoring 1.53 points per possession this season, the seventh-best mark in basketball. That’s a really good mark, but they don’t run that many actions for him getting to the basket. Why? The Hawks have two centers in their rotation, Clint Capela and the up-and-coming Onyeka Okongwu, and neither is much of a jump shooter. 

They’re used in most of the screen actions themselves, leaving at best an average shooter in Collins on the perimeter. He’s at a career-low 24 percent from beyond the arc and scoring just 0.71 points per possession on spot-up jump shots. Despite excelling in pick-and-roll and struggling as a jump shooter, Collins is only being used as a screener in about 15 percent of his possessions, compared to 28 percent spotting up. 

Atlanta needs to find more ways to get Collins involved in high ball screens. He’s simply just better at it than Okongwu and Capela, and can still pop out and keep defenses honest from deep. If not, the Hawks could look into moving him for a player that fits that role even better. There is a lot of good jump-shooting power forwards in the league today, but Collins isn’t one of them. 

Quick Hits

  1. I haven’t talked about the Milwaukee Bucks this season, but they’re off to a terrific start and have one of the best defenses in basketball. Surprisingly for Milwaukee, who’s had a defined identity on both ends of the court under Mike Budenholzer, they’re doing it by allowing just 32 3-point attempts per game, 22nd in the NBA. 

This team historically bleeds long-range attempts, including a league-high 40 attempts per game last season. After Grant Williams’ standout game seven last year, there seems to be a major shift in philosophy. 

  1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading a plucky Oklahoma City Thunder squad, averaging 30.5 points and six assists per game. He’s currently sixth in the league in scoring and leads the league in drives this season. With the ball in his hands, he’s creative at manipulating defenders and changing pace to score the basketball.
  1. Josh Green was nearly laughed off the court in the Dallas Mavericks’ second-round matchup with the Phoenix Suns. He was dared to make open shots and his confidence took a big hit down the stretch of the pivotal series the Mavericks ended up winning in seven games. 

With questions coming into the season about a potential trade, Green worked hard on his shooting mechanics in the offseason. So far this season, he leads the league with a 61.5 percent 3-point percentage and also leads the team in +/- for the year. He’s provided a spark defensively as well, simply just off of out-hustling opponents. Here is his best Jose Alvarado impersonation to get the steal.

Dallas ran out of gas in the Western Conference Finals, with the team desperately needing another wing behind Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock. If Green can be that guy, it helps the Mavericks’ chances down the stretch.

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