The first two and a half months of the season have given us the celebrated return of Carmelo Anthony, the continued brilliance of James Harden, the fall of the Golden State Warriors‘ dynasty, the rise of young superstars and the birth of a true rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers.
But what’s real and what’s just noise as we enter a new decade in the NBA?
As the calendar flips to 2020, our experts examine 11 trends we’ve seen — and whether they’re poised to continue.
The success of Portland’s Carmelo Anthony experiment
But it’s real with important context: The Blazers were desperate, and Anthony has helped stem the considerable issues Portland has, largely due to a flurry of injuries. Before signing Anthony, the Blazers’ offensive rating was 108.0. Since, it’s 111.2. Their defense is about the same and most lineups with Anthony in them are overall a positive.
He’s playing hard, communicating and making heady plays. But in contrast to his last full season (2017-18 with the Thunder), Anthony has reverted to some older, New York Knicks-era habits. He’s taking far fewer catch-and-shoot attempts, isolating more, holding the ball more and taking more midrange jumpers and fewer 3s. He’s averaging 0.2 points per game less, in almost the same minutes on almost the same number of attempts. His effective field goal percentage is 47.1, which is well below league average.
Overall, Anthony has been about the same player he was in Oklahoma City and Houston, the one that essentially got dumped from the league for a year. But the Blazers need him badly, flaws and all, because they are fighting attrition.
The question is, if the Blazers can stay in the playoff race and get some injured players healthy, where does Anthony fit once the games start mattering even more? Opposing teams will target and attack him in pick-and-rolls; can he provide enough resistance to stay on the floor and justify the trade-off by lifting the offense?
— Royce Young
No one will confuse Antetokounmpo with Ray Allen or Stephen Curry. But Giannis has become a willing 3-point shooter and a threat from deep — as evident against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 19, when he dropped a career-best five 3s — and that’s all he needs to be. The thought of Antetokounmpo launching from behind the line tends to keep defenses honest and open up the floor for the rest of his MVP game.
And adding a reliable jumper to the Greek Freak’s arsenal is flat-out scary.
Khris Middleton passes to Giannis Antetokounmpo for the deep 3-pointer.
Antetokounmpo’s jumper won’t always be there for him, as indicated by his 0-for-7 performance from deep against the Philadelphia 76ers on Christmas Day, but he has smoothed out his mechanics and gained confidence. At 5.1 attempts per game, Antetokounmpo has nearly doubled his 3-point frequency this season and is up to 32.7% from beyond the arc after last season’s 25.6% clip.
The evolution of Giannis’ game shows a drive reminiscent of players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, who continuously expanded their talents despite being at the top of the league. If you see his pregame routine before games, you notice he’s drenched in sweat from the hard work. That’s what you love to see in a superstar.
— Eric Woodyard
James Harden’s chances at matching Wilt’s 40 PPG mark
For this to happen, it would probably have to be a priority for Harden. He is adamant that it isn’t. “I don’t care about that,” he said earlier this season, not waiting until the full question was asked before dismissing the subject.
There was a sense of relief within the Rockets last season when Harden’s historic streak of 30-point performances ended at 32 games. The attention on the nightly milestone — as well as the effort required to sustain the streak — became a burden.
Harden has established himself as the best scorer of this generation. You can argue, as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey did over the summer, that Harden has surpassed Michael Jordan as the best scorer the league has seen since Wilt Chamberlain. Harden’s 38.1 points per game ranks as the highest scoring average in a season by anyone other than Chamberlain. But Harden probably has to win an NBA title to be recognized in the upper echelon of all-time great players.
That is the goal, not averaging a nice, round number. Ideally, the Rockets can trim Harden’s minutes for the rest of the regular season. He has played in all but one game and is averaging 37.6 minutes, the most of any player who hasn’t missed extended time. Harden’s workload has been as heavy as ever due in part to Eric Gordon missing six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Gordon’s return should allow Harden to get a little more rest, which wouldn’t help him chase a historical 40-point-per-game average but would be better to prepare him for a potential deep playoff run.
— Tim MacMahon
The momentum behind Adam Silver’s pitch for an in-season tournament
No matter what your snap judgment might be, there are two things to remember when considering the commissioner’s desire to have an in-season tournament and why there is momentum behind it.
One is that Silver believes he needs to give franchises something to win other than the NBA title. He thinks it could energize fan bases — and more specifically grow revenues — to be able to play for more trophies. He’s talked about European soccer, where teams routinely play in multiple competitions concurrently.
(Silver is also focused on a play-in tournament, where teams have a chance to play their way into the playoffs, much like conference tournaments in college basketball.)
You want to know why the league hasn’t abolished divisions? In part, it’s because six teams can claim a division title each year and, if they choose, raise a banner for it.
The second is the NBA is trying to connect with younger fans that love the league but are spending less time with regular-season games than their older siblings and parents. The league has done a lot of studying and surveying on this topic; it believes new products and more instant results could engage fans during a time on the calendar when they aren’t paying as close attention.
Should we be convinced this will work and, more specifically, that the teams and players can be persuaded to care about a midseason tournament? No.
However, the league is watching the trends and trying to be proactive. Because the commissioner is highly invested in this happening, it likely will. But will the market be ready for it?
— Brian Windhorst
The chances a trade will swing the NBA’s balance of power this season
First off, such title-swinging trades at midseason are few and far between. Before Marc Gasol for the Toronto Raptors, Nazr Mohammed of the 2005 San Antonio Spurs was the last player added via an in-season deal to average at least 20 minutes per game in the playoffs for the eventual champions.
Above and beyond that, the specific circumstances of the 2019-20 make it unlikely that a trade will determine the NBA Finals winner. The LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, the top two contenders in the Western Conference, both dipped heavily into their stock of future draft picks to acquire Paul George and Anthony Davis, respectively, over the summer.
While the Clippers can trade their 2020 first-round pick, the Lakers are unable to offer a team a certain first-rounder. (They could offer their 2026 first, but the other team would get that pick only if the New Orleans Pelicans elect not to defer the 2024 pick they have coming from the Lakers to 2025.)
Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe break down what the trade market could look like with two All-Star guards in Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday.
Even for the Milwaukee Bucks, who do have a first-round pick to offer after acquiring one from the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade deal with guard Malcolm Brogdon, it’s not clear there’s a title-swinging talent out there to be added by the deadline. Perhaps Andre Iguodala could have that kind of impact if the Clippers trade for him rather than taking their chances on landing Iguodala after a possible buyout. Or another contender like the Philadelphia 76ers might be able to boost their depth midseason.
Most likely, the championship will be decided by moves made last summer rather than those ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline.
— Kevin Pelton
The idea that only the Lakers and Clippers matter in the West race
Yes, an L.A. team should be in the NBA Finals. Both the Lakers and Clippers are deep with superstars and veteran role players, both defend and both are well coached.
But there are at least two potential obstacles that can derail these juggernauts.
The first is health. The Clippers have had a healthy and fully available roster just once this season entering 2020. Coach Doc Rivers has bemoaned the lack of practice time, especially with a hectic early schedule. Kawhi Leonard has been managing a knee issue. Paul George is still adjusting to playing with surgically repaired shoulders. On the Lakers’ side, Anthony Davis has had his share of minor issues to deal with while the 35-year-old LeBron James has been banged up toward the end of 2019.
Second are a few teams that have the firepower or continuity to potentially upset either L.A. team. Denver, working with the same core that nearly made the conference finals last season, appears to be getting over early-season difficulties in dealing with expectations, and Nikola Jokic will be a force again this postseason. James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets have shown the ability to be a pain for the Clippers and certainly could pose a threat to the Lakers with so much firepower.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
The Nets’ playoff chances, even if Kyrie Irving doesn’t play another game in 2019-20
A Nets team without Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert isn’t as sure a playoff bet as a full-strength Brooklyn team. Yet even without starters Irving and LeVert, the Nets end 2019 seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. LeVert’s return is expected imminently, while Irving’s injury timeline remains … unclear. Irving has missed the past 21 games with a right shoulder impingement and has yet to participate in any contact drills. The Nets also lost a crucial bench player, David Nwaba, when he tore his Achilles on Dec 19.
In Irving’s absence, Spencer Dinwiddie has stepped in as the Nets’ offensive anchor, averaging 26.0 points per game since Irving was sidelined and playing himself into the All-Star conversation.
The bottom of the East standings isn’t exactly full of juggernauts, so even with Irving missing further time — or even the rest of the season — Brooklyn should be able to lock down one of the final playoffs spots come April. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Brooklyn a 66% chance to make a postseason appearance, factoring in injuries, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is even more bullish.
— Malika Andrews
The Eastern Conference being as deep as the West
The days of the West being “light years ahead” of the East are over. This season, the East owns an 82-88 record against the West, a .482 winning percentage in contrast to a .397 clip over the previous three seasons combined.
It’s true the pillow fight for the eighth seed in the East isn’t going to excite anyone — maybe including the fans in Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte and Orlando, whose teams are competing for it. But the top six teams in the East are at least a match for the top six teams in the West — and the Brooklyn Nets, who are over .500 despite not having Irving for the past month, and Kevin Durant at all, are no slouches, either.
Those six East teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers — will be vying for positioning for the next several months, and the East playoffs are already shaping up to be the kind of slugfest the West circuit has grown accustomed to for the past two decades.
For years, pundits have called for a 1-16 playoff seeding system, regardless of conference. The league has hoped the problem would take care of itself, especially given that the 15 East teams were unlikely to vote against their own interests. Finally, things are starting to work out, it appears. Now, for the first time in a long time, the East can say it’s approaching even footing with its West counterpart — and it may even have the upper hand.
— Tim Bontemps
A consensus No. 1 pick for the 2020 NBA draft
NBA executives have been lamenting the lack of star power in the 2020 NBA draft’s freshman class, and their biggest fears have proven to be mostly accurate, as no player has emerged as the consensus choice for the No. 1 pick.
LaMelo Ball, after his ascension in Australia, and Anthony Edwards, with his occasional flashes of brilliance, give this draft its best chances for a franchise player. But both prospects come with no shortage of questions that make scouts nervous. And unfortunately, four of the top five prospects in our most recent mock draft — Ball, James Wiseman, Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton — are out of commission and may not play any competitive basketball until summer league in July.
Wiseman surprised many by leaving the Memphis Tigers after playing only three college games and shortly before his NCAA-mandated suspension was due to end. That’s not ideal considering the concerns about his competitiveness and willingness to rise to challenges. Those most familiar with Wiseman have long felt he’s best suited to play off of stars as opposed to being a go-to guy, which isn’t what you normally expect to find with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Scouts will be watching closely the collegiate prospects still in action — Edwards, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey and Washington’s Jaden McDaniels — to see if any deserve consideration at the top of the draft. And Ball, Hampton (New Zealand Breakers), Deni Avdija (Maccabi Tel Aviv) and French guards Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon will keep NBA scouts and executive busy around the world.
— Jonathan Givony
The problems of the Philadelphia 76ers
REAL and NOT REAL
There is something wrong in Philadelphia, but everyone — including the Sixers — knew they would have at least one big problem.
Specifically, their offense.
Philadelphia is built, when fully activated and engaged, to be perhaps the best defensive team in the NBA. Its combination of size, length and athleticism can wreak havoc on even the best competition.
At the same time, Philly’s lack of shooting causes issues at the other end. Joel Embiid has talked repeatedly about adjusting to having even less space than he’s used to. There is joy when Ben Simmons takes a 3-pointer — let alone when he makes one. Al Horford has looked out of sorts.
This has turned the 76ers into a Rorschach test.
If you focus on their defense, you can argue the Sixers have the NBA’s highest ceiling. If you see their offense as hopelessly outdated in today’s pace-and-space NBA, you can argue they’ll be vulnerable in the first round of what is shaping up to be a very competitive Eastern Conference playoffs.
The rise of zone defenses
NOT REAL … YET
Will NBA teams start playing zone defenses on a regular basis? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that zone schemes won’t be a significant defensive strategy during the playoffs, especially for opponents of the 76ers, a shooting-challenged contender who recently struggled against zones in losses to the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle employs zones more than any of his NBA counterparts, but he’ll tell you it’s tougher to execute a zone than traditional man-to-man. It requires more attention to detail, with better connectivity, and feels foreign for NBA players accustomed to man schemes. It takes significant practice time to play a zone well, which is one reason you rarely see it during the regular season.
“But any team that faces Philadelphia in the playoffs is going to work on zone,” a scout said.
It’s not a surprise that Erik Spoelstra’s Heat threw off the Sixers’ rhythm with a zone. Spoelstra has never shied away from junking up a game when it could help the Heat. Toronto’s Nick Nurse, whose Raptors are another potential roadblock for the Sixers after eliminating them last season, has also been known for a willingness to try anything. Heck, he used a trapping zone press to key the Raptors’ rally from a 30-point deficit to beat Dallas, a strategy that also worked in a comeback bid that fell short recently against the Sixers.
It isn’t college basketball, where some programs’ identities are tied to zone defenses. But a zone can be a valuable tool in the NBA, if used at the right time or against the right opponent.