NBA Monday Musings – the Juggernaut Boston Celtics

Turning the calendar into November means a few things for NBA fans. 

First, it’s no longer absurd to call someone an MVP candidate (though it should be). This week alone, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry and Devin Booker were all brought up for the league’s most prestigious award. Where they ranked by everyone else before, I have no idea. It’s not like they’re not the best players in the world or anything. It also creates a little more data for us to sift through the contenders and pretenders for the season, with plenty of action still left.

Here are the musings.

The Boston Celtics (and Jayson Tatum) cannot be stopped

A season after losing the NBA Finals in six games to the Golden State Warriors, some teams lose the finals and fall apart, while some get better from the experience. Through 13 games, the Celtics look better than ever under interim head coach Joe Mazzulla. Unlike last year, where Boston was led by a historic defensive stretch from January until the end of the season, it was the offense so far this season. 

Boston is currently first in the league in several statistical categories, including points per game (119.5), offensive rating (119.4) and true shooting percentage (61.7). They’ve started the season 10-3 by not only surviving but thriving without starting center and defensive player of the year candidate Robert Williams III. That hurt their numbers overall on defense, but it opened up opportunities for other players to flourish. 

Three of those guys, currently coming off the bench for the Celtics, are Grant Williams, Sam Hauser and Malcolm Brogdon. Williams became a key cog to Boston’s rotation last season, especially in the postseason, and was one of the best corner 3-point shooters in the league last year. He’s still lights out from beyond the arc, as he’s got a team-high 50 percent shooting from three at over three attempts per game, but there’s even more to his game this year. Defensive players now view Williams as a threat from the outside, and now he’s going by defenders and getting inside the arc.

It’s still not a major part of his arsenal, but it’s just another part of Williams’ offensive repertoire that he’s been able to add to each season. He’s due for free agency and should receive a generous payday at the end of the season.

Along with Williams, one of the biggest needs the Celtics addressed in the offseason was a backup guard. It was an apparent weakness ultimately against the Warriors last year and they grabbed Brogdon in a trade with the Indiana Pacers. He’s been a major part of helping the bench with a league-high 42.6 3-point shooting percentage and the second-best 49.4 shooting percentage. 

Brogdon’s best asset for the Celtics is that he can drive to the basket. The Celtics struggled last year when stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown didn’t have the ball in their hands, because the other players couldn’t initiate the offense. When Brogdon drives, he can finish around the basket and find open sharpshooters in Williams and Hauser.

All of this, of course, pails in comparison to the impact that Tatum’s rise into the upper echelons of the NBA has become. He’s currently third in the league in scoring and fourth in offensive rating (behind Hauser, who leads the league in offensive rating) and is one of the best three-level scorers in the league today. Currently, Tatum’s slash line is at 50/39/87, hovering near the vaunted 50/40/90 threshold. 

Part of the reason for Tatum’s rise is he’s become an elite finisher at the basket. He was already very good, but now he’s finishing shots within five feet at nearly 76 percent efficiency, about 10 percent better than last season’s totals. 

It was never a question of Boston being a contender this season. They just made the NBA Finals and despite a tumultuous offseason, still had the pieces in place to make it again. If Tatum is going to play at this level all season, Boston will be contenders as long as he’s wearing green.

Swipa the Fox and his new partner in crime

Many fans across the NBA were perplexed by the Sacramento Kings last season when they made the bold move of trading rising star Tyrese Haliburton (who’s been terrific this season) for Domantas Sabonis.

Sabonis is a terrific player, an all-star even, but for Haliburton? It seemed like the Kings were going to King again. While it remains to be seen if that will be chalked up as a win or a loss for Sac-Town, the clear answer right now is at least feels like a win-win move. Sabonis and Haliburton were awkward fits next to their teammates, with Haliburton sharing the court with De’Aaron Fox and Sabonis in the frontcourt with Myles Turner. Since the move, both players have shined, and Fox, who many thought should’ve been traded over Haliburton, has reached a level of play we haven’t seen from him before. 

Everything in Fox’s game has gone up a level this season, including a career-high in scoring on some of the best efficiency of his NBA career. Throughout his career, Fox has always been one of those athletes that could grade in the 99th percentile. His first step can be as quick as Ja Morant’s and he can blow past nearly every defender on the planet.

The only thing in his way was his shooting. Fox before this season was a career 32 percent 3-point shooter and now he’s up to 37 percent this season. Teams are still going to go under on him more than not, but he’s been able to make them pay. When teams leave him, he’s making 52 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point field goals, up from 35 percent last year and 39 percent the season before. Will it regress some? Probably. Is it a definite improvement? Absolutely.

With Sabonis and the addition of shooters like Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk surrounding him, Fox looks freer than ever to prance around the paint with a dizzying display of hesitation moves and quick bursts of action. Sabonis currently is fourth in the NBA in screen assists per game, with Fox’s ability to score making it easy for the Kings’ offense to abuse the pick-and-roll action.

One of the fun wrinkles in the Kings’ offense is when defenses start to cheat the Sabonis screen. Fox is too quick to cheat one way and stay in front of if he wants to change direction, and Sabonis is smart enough to fill the lane when the defense is caught scrambling. It’s a game of chess against Sabonis and Fox, and while his jersey says Kings, he moves a lot like the queen piece on the offensive end of the court and dominates the action.

If Fox’s shooting and work with Sabonis keep up, the play-in and possibly more is in play for Sacramento. A team desperate to end its playoff drought, Fox is finally showing the tools to get the franchise out.

Quick hits

  1. The Brooklyn Nets are currently 4-2 without Kyrie Irving, but the record is still painting a prettier picture than what the product has shown. Kevin Durant’s numbers continue to be among the best in the game (he’s Kevin Durant, after all), but the burden he’s being asked to take on might not be sustainable.

Durant at times this season has been asked to cover some of the best offensive players on the opposing team. Hell, he was covering Luka Doncic last weekend in a game that Ben Simmons was supposedly available for 20 minutes. He’s done well on defense, but he’s also sixth in the NBA in usage rate. For a guy who never has epitomized great health, especially in the last two seasons, I have no idea how Brooklyn can fix this situation and ease the pressure.

  1. Quietly (almost too quietly), Denver is rolling once again. They’re second in offensive rating this season, while still trying to reacclimate Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. into the starting lineup. 

In their 126-103 win over the Chicago Bulls Sunday night, Denver shot 60 percent from the field in the win, while back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic took just four shots. With the return of the injured players, the addition of Ketanvious Caldwell-Pope and an efficient approach from Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets seemed to have already figured a lot out in their lineup. Even Bruce Brown off the bench has been a valued piece of the rotation. 

Porter Jr. especially in the last few games has been lights out. He scored 31 against Chicago and is showing the shooting ability that made him one of the best prospects of his class and got him the long-term extension. With his length and shooting, he’s nearly a perfect tandem for Jokic.

Once Murray hits 100 percent and shakes off the rust, watch out for the Denver Nuggets. 

  1. New Orleans has been one of the more up-and-down teams to start the regular season. At 7-6, they’ve already dealt with guys in and out of the lineup, but unquestionably the ceiling might be as high as anyone else in the Western Conference.

The problem is the lows, even with everyone in the lineup, have been equally as bleak. In their loss last Thursday to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pels shot just 42 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 17 times. 

One simple solution is to get Zion Williamson more looks at the basket. Williamson is a runaway freight train when driving to the hoop and finishes at a 56 percent rate, first on the team among current rotation players. The Problem? Zion is 175th in field goal attempts this season, currently tied with Buddy Hield (who has only played one more game). Even on a per-game basis, he’s 41st in the league.

I think New Orleans has been hesitant to give Williamson the to keep Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum happy, as point Zion was not the best experience for some of his teammates at times. However, eventually, you’re going to have to back your horse, and it would be nice for the team to have that in their arsenal for the big games come playoff time. Williamson doesn’t need full control of the offense, but a little more wouldn’t hurt. 

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